Feast of St Luke Pentecost 20 Luke 10:1-9
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This last week Auckland’s attention has been focused on the fate of a little two-year-old girl, Aisling Symes. There by her mother’s side one minute, and gone the next. As the search widened so did the speculation. We imagined the worst – snatched, abused, tortured, killed… Yet we hoped for the best – found unharmed and returned to her parents. As you know neither of these was the outcome. Instead she was found drowned in a drain.
The parents were churchgoers, and their pastor was impressive. He and the Ranui Baptist community, as well as numerous others in the neighbourhood, surrounded this family with significant support and prayer. It was great to see and feel the caring connections between people. It made me feel like joining – for I too wanted to belong, to care, and to be connected.
I imagine some of the pastor’s prayers would have been directed to that saving God who lives somewhere above ready to intervene in human affairs when the right people cry out loud and long enough. You can certainly find that God in the Bible, and in most religions. It’s a comforting God, and one that many of us when in dire circumstances, regardless of our beliefs, hope might come and save the day.
Well as neo-atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens would point out that God didn’t save the day. Aisling wasn’t miraculously found alive and well. Sure, maybe the outcome was better than the torture scenario or the never-finding-out scenario, but it still wasn’t what was being prayed for. God didn’t intervene and rescue her.
Were the prayers therefore pointless? I would empathetically say ‘No’. Although many might have been ineffectually petitioning the interventionist God, the prayers were also having another more potent effect. They were weaving connections between all who cared and who grieved and who worried. From those who put flowers at the gate, to the police who worked tirelessly, to the communities far and wide who sent messages of support, bonds of compassion were being woven. These connections or bonds can be the source of grace. Indeed I would argue that the connections or bonds of grace-filled mutuality and affection, whether in trouble or in joy, are the very substance of God.
The love of the community that surrounded the Symes family revealed the love of God. The aroha and goodwill that was extended to the family will be the balm to aid their healing in the years ahead. Like a deep cut the memory and scar of Aisling’s death won’t go away, but with the love and support of many hopefully the wound will heal.
Today we remember St Luke, commonly thought of as a physician. It is timely to think about health and healing. Usually healing is thought as a miraculous cure wrought by a divine source. Such thinking is too narrow for me. Similarly the limitation of healing to the insights and application of Western medicine is too narrow for me. There is a tremendous, largely unheralded power in the bonds between people, in the gentle touch we can offer each other, and in the hospitable presence of the grace we can extend to friend and enemy alike.
I’m reminded of a story recalled by Malcolm Gladwell[i] of a working class town, Roseto, in Pennsylvania, populated from its inception in the 1890s right through until the 1950s with Italian immigrants from a town by the same name in Italy.
Roseto might have remained largely unknown save for a professor at the Oklahoma medical school called Stewart Wolf. As chance would have it in the mid-1950s he was in Pennsylvania when a GP from the Roseto area told him, “You know, I’ve been practicing for 17 years. I get patients from all over, and I rarely find anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease.”
Wolf was taken aback. This was the 1950s and heart attacks were epidemic in the United States. It was the leading cause of death in men under 65.
Wolf decided to investigate. Colleagues and students from his medical school were enlisted. They analyzed doctor’s records. They took medical histories and constructed family genealogies. The mayor of Roseto and the townsfolk were very cooperative. The entire population was tested.
The results were astonishing. No one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. Indeed the death rate from all causes in Roseto was 30-35% lower than the country’s average.
Wolf’s team broadened their research and brought in sociologists and members of other academic disciplines. They found there were no suicides, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. What was going on in this town?
So they checked the diets. But the locals were cooking with lard not oil. They were eating plenty of sausage and salami. The researchers found that a whopping 41% of their calories came from fat.
Nor was this a town where everyone was out running or doing yoga. Indeed many Rosetans smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.
Next they checked genetics. They tracked down relatives living in other parts of the U.S. to see if they shared the same remarkable good health. They didn’t.
What about the region in Pennsylvania where Roseto was? Was there something there in the climate and soil? But the two closest towns, just a few miles apart, didn’t share the same good health.
Eventually the researchers realized that there was something in the way the people of Roseto related to one another. How they visited one another. How they stopped to chat. They saw how 3 generations lived under the one roof. They saw the calming and unifying effect of the local church. They counted 22 separate civic organizations in a town of just 22,000 people. They picked up on the egalitarian ethos that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.
How people relate to each other and the bonds between people are wellsprings of health and healing.
When I read the Bible this week about seventy people going out into the community, travelling lightly offering peace and goodwill, communing, and healing I thought of Ranui and Roseto. Rather than understanding the seventy as a bunch of delegated miracle workers delivering doorstep salvation I understand them as normal people building bonds of affection with those they visit. The grace, the substance of God, is in the two-way connection.
Sure I understand what biblical scholars say about the text – the 70 being reminiscent of Moses and the elders, the going out being an allusion to the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles, etcetera.
But today, this week, I just hear connection, bonds of affection, and their possibilities for healing and wholeness.
[i] Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers: The Story of Success Australia : Penguin, 2008 p.3ff.