Feeling Your Pain

Reference: Mark 6:7-13

Combat veterans often tell us that it isn’t possible to know how that feels unless you have the experience yourself. And there are many people who would never go to a celibate priest for marriage counselling, on the premise he doesn’t know what it is like to be in a marriage. And someone diagnosed with cancer may feel those who never had cancer will never have understanding of it.

“I feel your pain,” as former President Bill Clinton once said to someone with whom he had little in common, is therefore a problematic statement. Some folks, more than others, have a “kind heart,” a sympathetic attention, be it for a distressed animal or a suffering fellow human. Some shed a tear easily for the various plights of their fellow creatures, and it is greatly appreciated that they care. But it is still hard to know how a particular condition actually feels unless you yourself have been there. It is the premise of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, which posits that an alcoholic will only feel understood by another alcoholic. Various support groups operate with the same thought.

Thus, if you want to get across a message that you really care about people, you can state it clearly in words of great eloquence. But it isn’t until someone can say, “I know how it feels, bro. I was there, too,” that the message seems real.

The Lord has consistently stated the message that he loves us, unconditionally, over a large number of centuries and millennia. But a gulf of awe, fear, mistrust and alienation yawns between us and the Almighty. We are very clear that he is not like us. Yet it is the Lord’s design to love us. The challenge is how to communicate that. Think what it is like to communicate to a small wild animal or bird not previously acquainted with you, that you wish it well. The creature is unlikely to trust your intentions, normally choosing to keep a distance instead. As with Adam hiding from God in the Garden, our instinct is to stay away from those, like God, who are very powerful and have good cause to be upset with us.

Going with the thought that a message is best communicated by your peer, someone who has had a set of experiences, pains, and griefs like yours, the best way to reach human beings is through other human beings. Despite obvious difficulties in the plan, God decided to use humans to communicate his love.

Shortly after he had gathered them, Jesus therefore sent the disciples out to the villages, two by two. It was, and still is, the best methodology to reach people with the care and concern of the Lord. It is not a recruitment campaign. There is no mandate to “go and make disciples” as he directed at his Ascension. Instead, it was a mission to bring spiritual, mental, and physical health to the village. They urged people to repent, they drove out evil spirits, and they brought sacramental unction, anointing the sick with oil. While doing so, they likely explained why they were doing this and surely noted they were acting under Jesus’ authority. The messianic implications would have been clear to the villagers once this was clarified. But no catechesis or enrolling is mentioned.

In our free enterprise environment, little is done unless there is some benefit to the instigator. We are conditioned that the Church may well use healing ministries, but as a “hook” to market the religious product. Our churches have “program strategies” to provide incentives for people to sign up once they are healed, or have their wedding in church, or send the kids to a church school, or attend the free concert, or whatever it might be. Unfortunately for these strategies (“ploys?”), people in the free enterprise environment have become wary of such enticements. “There is no free lunch” is our view.

Such suspicion is warranted. Churches are full or humans with mixed motives. Grateful healed villagers recruited for our parish can perhaps help raise a faltering budget, make us shine statistically on our annual report, enhance our pastor’s professional reputation, or give us the aura of “success” so treasured among us.

We’ve come a long way from those dusty villages electrified by the sudden messianic presence of those who preached repentance and healed all manner of infirmities in the name of Jesus, asking nothing in return but food and shelter while they stayed. It may well be a long and painful way back, through downsizing, and institutional decline.

But God still chooses you and I as the messengers (not the marketers) of the Gospel, the good news, as beggars telling other beggars where to find bread, as Luther put it. The days of professional, affluent priests and evangelists selling their product to passive consumers in the pews may be waning. When they are gone, God will still be present. He will still love us. The deeds of the Cross and Resurrection, done once for all, will still be as powerful and effective as ever. And God will still choose you and I and our descendants in thousands of faithful communities all over the earth to go tell the world’s villagers that the healing sacramental grace of God is theirs, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23