God's "No Leper Left Behind" Program
a message for this COVID19 time
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A special reading from Leviticus, especially for COVID19 season.
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." he shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Recently I had the chills and my neck ached and I mistakenly thought I was coming down with the plague. And as soon as I thought I may be sick I immediately wondered what I had done wrong. Like, it was clearly a spiritual failing.
The Levitical codes were, in a way, a public health manual that was developed so that the Hebrew people would not only be safe but also remain distinguishable from the other nations. Our world has always contained contaminates that pose real health risks, and it wasn't uncommon for societies to deem these same elements religiously “unclean”.
And one way to protect the community is to have the sick and unclean live outside the camp. I can see this from a public health standpoint. Quarantine protocols make sense in terms of protecting folks.
But I wonder if there is also more to it than just that. I wonder if there can also be something metaphorical about wanting lepers to live outside the camp so to speak, maybe it serves another purpose as well, an unspoken, less noble purpose.
I mean, maybe folks in Jesus’ day didn't really want lepers around, not just because of public health but also because lepers make human frailty and brokenness so disturbingly visible; their bodies a reminder of what could happen to any of us.
Unlike so many other ways of being un-well, you can’t pretend not to have leprosy.
Of course if someone has an illness that is contagious we want to keep our distance. Totally reasonable. But, maybe it is also true that we prefer to not be in close proximity to those who remind us too much of things we don’t want to think about.
I was at an event recently in which someone referred to a girlfriend of theirs who, at the age of 50 is pregnant with their first child. 50. I had such a strong reaction to this. I literally couldn’t hear anything they said after that, I even started to back away.
I do not want to be reminded that I could still get pregnant at my age. I do not want to be reminded that I could be a day away from a cancer diagnosis and a cancer diagnosis away from being homeless. I am more comfortable believing that I am following a formula that is working. I want to believe that the reason I don’t have leprosy (or Coronavirus) and someone else does, is because I lead a moral life, or the reason I don’t have cancer and my friend Kate does is because I don't eat processed foods. There’s plenty of religion and spirituality out there that will happily sell you the formula for how to control life, how to release miracles – books and seminars from both New Age and Christian Sources that will tell you The Secret (so to speak) to “manifesting” health, wealth, and happiness. But it just doesn't work like that.
10 years ago I wrote a profoundly unimportant book about bad Christian television which required me to watch 24 consecutive hours of so-called prosperity gospel preachers on Trinity Broadcasting network. There was an ad that came on while I was watching - complete with images of televangelist John Hagee laying hands on the heads of various folks: While a voice over said Miracles happen everyday for those who know how to release the healing power of God. Pastor Hagee wants you to meet God's conditions for a miracle and he has prepared a special healing package. Package includes a Book and CD for$25.
I realized off the top of my head I could think of the following conditions for healing in the New Testament: 1. You have faith (like the woman with hemorrhages who touched Jesus' garment), 2. You may or may not have faith but your friendsdo (like the guy who was lowered through the roof to Jesus) and 3. you not only have no faith, but you don't even know the name of Jesus (like the lame man at the Bethesda pool who, when asked who healed him, was like, "I don't know, some guy.") So when it comes down to it, the only condition for healing is that… you are sick.
A $25 book and CD will never teach you how to release miracles…the power of positive thinking is great and yet it cannot keep your kid from having a drug problem. A few years ago my friend had a head cold and like a moron I asked what she thought her body was trying to tell her – and she answered that it was trying to tell her that it had encountered a cold virus.
But I do highly suggest reading my friend Kate Bowler’s book about being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in her early 30s soon after giving birth to her baby boy and both the book and the title of the book are amazing. It’s called Everything Happens For A Reason; And Other Lies I’ve Loved.
There are a lot of lies I love. Like if something bad happens to someone they must have done something wrong. And if something good happens to me I must have done something right. Deep down I know these are lies but these lies let me maintain the illusion of control.
Don't mistake me, we can take steps toward healthy living, we can strive for mastery in our professions, we can live as decent people. We can for sure wash our hands. But what we can never do is control things in the ways we like to believe we can. Which is why grace is ultimately more reliable than virtue. Grace is the healing hand of God, the source of life, the strategic reserve of mercy that no one earns and everyone gets.
It’s not depressing to me to say that I have a need for God’s grace, that I have a need for healing…what’s depressing to me is believing that I can make myself worthy or I can make myself entirely well, but that I just haven’t managed to do it yet.
The good news is not that there is an inside group who have done the right things to release health and happiness in God’s favor and there is an outside group that doesn’t meet the requirements for a good life and that yay! - the church can make sure you are in the inside group. The good news is that there is no longer an outside group. The kingdom of God means that no one is left alone outside of the camp. None of your story is outside the camp. There is no "outside the camp" because since the moment of the incarnation God has jerrymandered the whole thing. God entered our profane places of uncleanness and shame, pride and sickness and reached out to touch it all. This is the kind of stuff that got Jesus in so much trouble. Because we tend to prefer that the unclean remain alone outside the camp – whether those be the homeless or the homosexuals; Steve Bannon or Tanahasi Coates; the immigrant or the Enron Executive. It makes everyone uncomfortable when Jesus messes with our purity systems.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Kingdom of God is like a "no leper left behind" program. And in this program Jesus touches all that we place outside the camp – outside our desires for how we wish to be perceived – outside our plans for how we hoped our lives would look – and he says "I do choose".
The good news isn’t a plan for living - it’s just grace. This is the gospel. Which my friend Kate says is simply this: that “God is here. We are loved. And it is enough.”
Take care of yourselves, good people.
Hey friends, I had a friend mention that this post might be a good one to lift the paywall for. I'll try and make sure there's regular content just for subscribers, but in this case I may just make this one public in case it's helpful for folks.
Amen "It's all about dat grace, bout that grace!"