1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations. (Psalm 67)
On Thursday, I heard for the first time the achingly honest story of Chris Herren. Our Grace Church brought Chris to the Berkshires to talk to students at Mt. Everett Regional School Thursday morning and later to a large crowd at the Mahaiwe Theatre. We did this because we believe as church that we have a role to play in calling attention to the scourge of the illness of addiction in our community, in our state, and in our country. It is our first Community Grant where our church will provide some resources each year to support the good work being done for those in need.
Chris Herren’s story is a too common one of someone who seems to the outside world to have it all and have it all together, and yet is heartbreakingly vulnerable to seemingly innocent choices that become significant only in hindsight. In the morning, I listened as he told middle and high school students at Mt. Everett Regional School of his rise as an enormously gifted basketball player–moving from an all-time high-scorer for his team at Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, to being recruited by Duke University and the University of Kentucky. But because he wanted to stay close to home, he accepted a full basketball scholarship to play at Boston College. He was then invited to play at Fresno State University by the legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian where he had a sensational sophomore year, starring in a nationally televised game against the University of Massachusetts. He was drafted in the second round to play as a professional by the Denver Nuggets and then his contract was acquired by his childhood dream team, the Boston Celtics.
But his talk was not about his basketball excellence. It was to set in context the rest of his life. His story was about how a young man with an athletic gift anyone would covet, turned down a path of the nightmare of alcohol and drug addiction. He told the young people that it started in high school with what he assumed was innocently drinking and smoking with friends on weekends. And then in his first weeks of his freshman year at Boston College, he was introduced by his roommate to cocaine which lead to the unraveling of his life. But his descent was not complete, because while visiting his family home during a break in his NBA career with the Nuggets, his best friend as a child sold him one pill of OxyContin for $20 and from the moment he placed that pill in his mouth, his life would never be simply his own. From that moment he was bound head, body, and spirit by the chains of a small yellow pill.
He told the young people and adults present that we have misrepresented the reality of addiction because all we have focused on is the “worst moment” in a person’s life with the illness of addiction. And so too often those who suffer, too often suffer alone, out of sight, tucked in church basements. The reality is people with the illness of addiction are everywhere amongst us. Most of us are only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from someone with the illness of addiction. People who struggle with the illness of addiction are judges, doctors, students, teachers, coaches, business people, nurses, moms, dads, our friends, and athletes who can perform at the top of their game. People walk by us and are in our lives everyday who struggle with the illness of addiction either by finding the drugs or alcohol that will allow them to appear and feel “normal,” or by living every day with the hard work and determined hope of sobriety.
Chris Herren’s talk touched me deeply because of its raw pain and because it was offered to a room full of strangers in such a generous way. It is a story that is not often heard in all its complexity and humanity because it is too often hidden in the shadows of shame. It is a story that was offered as a gift and I believe that in its telling time after time is healing for the one who tells it and can be healing for those who receive it. It is a story where I felt that I needed to take off my shoes because I was standing on holy ground.
In our reading this morning from the Gospel of John, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to participate in a Jewish festival. We are not told which festival. It serves only as the backdrop to the story. On the Sabbath, Jesus does what Jesus often does, he goes to a place where people are in need of healing. But the place he chooses is an interesting choice. Through archaeological research, the pool called in Hebrew Beth-zatha was used as an Asclepieion, a place where healing was supposed to take place by the power of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. So Jesus is crossing religious boundaries to offer healing. There Jesus approaches a man we are told who has been ill for 38 years. To this man, Jesus poses the question, “Do you want to be made well?”
The question Jesus poses can sound harsh. Could Jesus be asking this man with a crippling condition who has laid alone achingly close to a source of healing for 38 years if he wants to remain ill? No!
The entirety of Jesus’s story is one of deep compassion for persons who are sick or who suffer. Not once in Scripture does Jesus refuse to heal or respond to pain or illness with contempt, or mockery, or condescension. Never does Jesus tell a person in distress that her illness is her own fault. In fact, he corrects that cultural misunderstanding about disease and suffering at every opportunity.
No, Jesus does not imply that the man desires or deserves his suffering. But when Jesus sees the man who has been suffering by the pool for 38 years, he sees more than illness. He sees a man who has given up hope. He sees a man who is facing his hardship alone. He sees a man accepting defeat. He sees someone who has become resigned to his condition and his situation. He sees a man who cannot see another way.
How can we know this? Notice that when Jesus asks him “Do you want to be made well?” the man who has waited for 38 years to be healed, does not emphatically say, “YES!” He begins to offer reasons he has remained paralyzed beside the pool for 38 years. He says he has tried to get into the healing pool, but he has no one to help him. He says someone is always getting in his way preventing him from accessing the healing properties that are within sight. But he does not answer the question. Jesus is not asking him a question about his circumstances. Jesus knows the way of suffering. Jesus is asking him about his heart, his identity, and his desires: “What do you want?”
God who is always looking into our heart; God who knows our needs before we ask; God who waits to enter into our life that is promised to be one of abundance; cares deeply about what we want! God cares deeply about our desire to be well, our desire to be whole. As William Paul Young says, “the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to reveal to us the truth of our being so that the way of our being can match it.”And as Gregory Boyle says, “God is a nudge. Not in the annoying, nagging sense, but in a gentle, leaning into sense. It is indeed a challenge to abandon the long-held belief that God yearns to blame and punish us, ask us to measure up or express disappointment and disapproval at every turn. It is a part of our hardwiring. But we can feel, nonetheless, God nudging us beyond our tired, atrophied complacence toward something more oceanic and spacious. We feel God’s desire for fullness to dwell in us.”
Jesus’ question to the man shows that Jesus wants for the man to be well. But before we begin to think that this invitation to wellness is only offered to those who suffer from the illness of addiction or the challenge of physical limitations. Jesus sees our hearts and knows that each one of us need healing as well. And Jesus knows that being made well is a life long journey. Healing is seldom a one and done experience. If you need any convincing look at the profits of the diet industry. Being made well is more often a lifetime of choosing wholeness over and over, seeking the support of loved ones and professionals who can help us protect our wellness, confessing that we cannot remain well alone, that we need community and the faithful presence of God who loves us and is the source of all healing.
And it is important to recognize that there is a difference between healing and curing. Some of the illnesses that capture us will never be cured. Chris Herren’s illness of addiction will never be cured. Grief over the loss of someone we love will never be cured. Some cancers and chronic illnesses will never be cured. But with God’s help, and a community of people who love and support us, we can be made well. We can be healed by when we wake up each morning, giving thanks for the gift of life. And then setting our lives toward the hope that is within us, we can look for joy, ask for help, give ourselves to life in ways that bring life. We can become a source of generosity so that abundance is our step by step, day by day path.
Chris Herren did not sugar coat the immense challenges of coming to sobriety. After 14 years of suffering from the illness of addiction, he credits the moment of surrendering his idea that he could manage it alone to his overwhelming love of his wife and family. He told the crowd that he would not be able to be with them without the support of compassionate counselors, an environment dedicated to helping him regain his health, and a community of people walking with him the long road, the forever road, to being sober. In telling his hard story, he confronts the misinformation and the shame that for too long has kept people languishing in a system designed primarily to punish rather than to help heal those who are trapped in the illness of addiction. He encouraged the students, the adults, the families, those in recovery and those who want to be made well, to “come up out of the basement”, to say “Yes,” to ask for the help they need to stand up, to pick up their mat, and to walk. And he invited those who listened to stand with those who say yes and accompany them on their long walk to healing.
In our story from John’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus is always and everywhere in the business of making things new and making people whole. Jesus desires to heal—it is central to his character. “Do you want to be made well?” is a question Jesus will never stop asking because his heart’s desire is for our wholeness, our healing, our thriving, our living fully into the possibility for which we were created. And in response to this call, we must first answer, “Yes” and then lean in trust into the One who can make us whole and whose peace goes far beyond anything we could ask or imagine.
Wm. Paul Young, Trinity: The Soul of Creation, session 7 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2017)
Gregory Boyle. Barking to the Choir: the power of radical kinship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017, p.14.