john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Healing Places

    A subject for retreat at Bishop's House, Iona
    16-21 April 2005

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    RETURN TO 4. The possessors at the frontiers

    5. Healing at the frontiers - part 1


    For the past few days we have been thinking in these sessions about places - our own special places, frontier places where people are at the edge of possibility or change or loss. We have spent some time with scripture and hearing other people's stories about being dispossessed in frontier places; and about the equal challenge of being possessors, which can so easily lead us into a form of slavery. And through all of this we have heard hints of healing, suggestions about how God's grace may meet us in these places. We have wondered if the church might be itself a healing place.

    In our time this morning I hope to offer some stories and reflections, and some ideas, which might help bring some of these strands together. I hope it will be a lighter sort of session than the previous couple, less theology, more applied thinking. And as I drew largely in those sessions on the work of Walter Brueggemann, today I shall be drawing on the work of Russ Parker, in particular his book Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001), which seems to me to offer us a lot in this direction.

    I want to divide this session into four parts: healing places, healing people, healing powers, and healing church.
    And to each of them I want to suggest that healing can come in four different ways: by listening, by walking, by words of healing, and by symbolic acts. This is because I find these in scripture, four ways in which healing comes to people on various frontiers.

    Scripture shows how healing comes to the dispossessed when God listens to their cries; and when they listen to God: "If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will for give their sin, and will heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7.14.And the gospels present us with numerous stories of Jesus, bringing various sorts of healing to various sorts of people by listening to them in particular places: the woman at the well in John 4.4-42, a centurion at the entrance to Capernaum in Matthew 8.5-13.

    Scripture shows how healing comes to the dispossessed when God walks with them; with those escaping slavery in the great Egyptian exodus, where "the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and a pillar of fire by night to give them light." Exodus 13.21. And the gospels present us with numerous stories of Jesus, bringing various sorts of healing to various sorts of people by walking with them in particular places: with the outcast Zacchaeus to his house in Jericho in Luke 19.1-10, with the downcast disciples on the Emmaus road in Luke 24.13-32.

    Scripture is full of words of healing for the dispossessed, the wanderer, the exile: "Indeed, the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness he will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord." Isaiah 51.3. And the gospels are full of stories of Jesus, speaking words of healing to various sorts of people: a man with leprosy in the crowds at the foot of the mountain in Matthew 8.1-4 to whom he said, "I am willing to make you clean; be cleansed;" a blind man outside Jericho in Luke 18.35-43 to whom he said, "Your faith has made you well."

    Scripture is also full of examples of symbolic actions which have brought healing to the people in many vulnerable places: the rainbow at the end of the flood (Genesis 9.13), the parting of the sea for the Israelites in Exodus 14. And Jesus himself brought healing through symbolic actions of various kinds: washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper (John 13.5); entering Jerusalem on a donkey to herald a new way of healing the world in Matthew 21.1-11.

    I have chosen these four ways of healing - listening, walking, speaking healing words and symbolic actions because I feel they relate particularly well to the theme of healing places. But they are by no means exclusive. There are many other ways which healing comes in scripture and in life. But I hope these illustrations help you see how rich is our tradition with resources for healing; they barely scratch the surface. And now I would like to take them as starting-points for suggesting how we as individual Christians and the church as a body - and a physical place - can help bring healing to the frontiers.

    Healing Places

    After a week on Iona and the sorts of conversations we've had about special places I suggest that the notion that places have spirits may not be that difficult to relate to. Places have characters, you get feelings about places - different feelings about different places. And this may be because of something physical about that place - its beauty, or its ugliness, its warmth or its coolness. Or it may also be about what has happened there - its history deeply attached to the human events and natural occurrences which have taken place - taken place - on that particular piece of ground.

    You will recall the story of Russ Parker hearing the cries coming up from the city of Derry. You could perhaps imagine similar cries coming from the formerly-inhabited wildernesses broken by the recent tsunami in Asia, the cries of the soil carrying the blood of lost loved ones in battlegrounds across the world. All these suggest that places, somehow carry the pain in their very soil. The earth cries out for healing. An odd concept, maybe - or close to scripture, close to many psalms, or to Paul's picture of the earth groaning, waiting for the ultimate healing in Christ?

    Healing Places through listening

    Are there places which cry out for healing close to home? We might begin to discern them first of all by listening to what people say about the places we know well - or thought we did. Russ Parker once led a day conference in Ireland on healing a nation's wounds and asked a Protestant representative what he thought Gerry Adams thought of the Orange marches.

    The man in question thought it was a needless question because the answer was obvious: Adams was against them. However, Adams is on record as recognising that Orange marches are a shared part of the story of Northern Ireland. Although he objected that they were focused (for him) on largely Catholic housing areas, he would nevertheless fight for the Orangemen's right to have them. When I asked the representative why he had got it wrong, he said that he had been listening to his prejudices rather than to the person. [1]

    If we are concerned to be healers in our community then we must first be good listeners - to put aside our assumptions and learn to listen well, closely, to the stories people tell about their place. It is a challenge to us - and may be a joy - to find ways of listening to the stories people in our community are telling about their place.

    Healing Places through walking

    Walking can be like listening too. If we embark on a programme of active walking; mentally engaged walking, with the intention of really noticing, perhaps for the first time, the details of our place, the relationship of the people and the place. Then we might begin to see our place very differently. Who do we see on our walk? What is happening in the familiar places? And what is happening on the edges? We might try to identify something about the spirit of our place by choosing to walk from the most beautiful part of our area to the ugliest, from the oldest to the newest, or to walk with a child, their chosen route, or with a homeless person, their familiar ways.

    These latter ideas may carry an aspect of healing in themselves for us as much as for the child or the homeless person - but this whole idea of walking your area, I suggest can help to build a picture which may begin shape ideas about what is good in an area, to be celebrated, and what in an area may need healing.

    Beyond this, walking has a good place in Christian tradition - pilgrimage, beating the bounds, Good Friday processions, prayer-walking. When I was in Toxteth we used to quite regularly go out prayer-walking, spending perhaps an hour together stopping at different points in the parish which invited particular sorts of prayer - at the struggling industrial park, praying for good employment, on the arterial road which separated our very deprived area from the luxury dockland developments which were all part of our parish, praying for equality and fellow-feeling between those on both sides.

    Eric Pike, Bishop of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, made a pilgrimage walk through his diocese visiting places where violent crimes took place, to meet with the bereaved and local communities and to pray for and cleanse those sites so that they would not go on being the focus for more violence. And the Reconciliation Prayer-Walk ministry have walked down the whole route of the First World War battle-front in Europe, stopping at various places to apologise for the senseless killing of millions of young people. [2]

    Healing Places through words of healing

    So listening and walking might help in healing; but are there words which can heal a place? Scripture says so. When a land is sick and broken through overfarming for profit, and a section of the community dispossessed there are words of jubilee, words which combine a deep sense of God's gift of land, with a deep sense of God's justice for all, words which restore the dispossessed to their former places, restore balance in the land. And when a people are sick and broken through overwork and a section of the community is enslaved, there are words of Sabbath command, words which demand rest, God's way of restoring a people in their workplace.

    There are words which can heal places in today's world broken by war or other distress. Words of apology, for instance. As well as the European battle-front I just mentioned, Russ Parker cites a number of places where apologies have been spoken in recent times: for instance in Liverpool where a service of apology and reconciliation was held in November 2000 for Liverpool's part in the slave trade. In other places prayers have been made: prayers on battle-sites such as Culloden near inverness in Scotland, the Boyne and Aughrim in the Republic of Ireland. Prayers at sites of massacres - Auschwitz, Wounded Knee in South Dakota and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. [3]

    And words of concern or intercession can also help to bring a sense of healing to a place. It may be that in our area there are places which would benefit from simple acts of prayer, on-site. Such as where flowers have been left to remember victims of traffic accidents, or where violent or racial attacks have taken place.

    Healing Places through symbolic acts

    And we might consider healing places through symbolic acts. Once I ended a Toxteth prayer-walk on the wasteland outside our church and remembering what you do at Columba's Bay, I invited everyone to take a brick from the rubble and throw it away, and with it that which you wanted to ask God to remove from the area. This backfired as some local children had joined us at this point, and as they started throwing bricks we had to chase them... but it didn't stop me believing in the power of symbolic acts to help heal a place.

    I can't help believe in this, being a Liverpudlian. We get criticised in some quarters for the way we respond to tragedies which affect our communities - the flow ers which covered the pitch at Anfield after Hillsborough, the impromptu vigil in the city centre the day John Lennon died, thousands singing Imagine together - but these symbolic acts are so good at expressing the pain of the people - and the place. And to those taking part being there becomes therapeutic. Rather these symbolic acts which help bring healing than other darker acts like the mobbing of the killers of James Bulger outside the magistrate's court, which only brought more shame on the community at that difficult time.

    You don't have to be religious to understand the power of symbolism. In a city once riven by sectarian violence words are unnecessary to explain the meaning of a walk between the Catholic cathedral and the Anglican Cathedral along a route called Hope Street. Places are healed through such actions - in that case, not only were memories of past hurts healed but the possibility of future friendship was opened up. It may be that in your places, similar actions could be arranged to speak of repentance, forgiveness, newness, good change.

    Healing People

    Let us now consider healing people in the ways I have suggested. You will perhaps have been thinking already that healing a place is very closely linked to healing the people in that place - and this is right because people and place are inseparable; and that is true in many expressions of our faith tradition whether St Paul speaking of the whole creation waiting for God's revelation, or the covenant promise of God to Noah that while the earth lasts seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease, or Jesus the word made flesh, all these speak of this deep connection we share with the earth and its creatures. So all we have already considered about healing places will also involve healing people. But here are some more specific thoughts.

    Healing People through listening

    If you've ever felt that someone has really listened to you, spent time hearing you out, tell your whole story, then you know what healing value there is in that. In a world where we seem to busy to have anything but a passing conversation, being really listened to is a great gift for a person to receive. Those who have experienced the listening ear of a spiritual director will understand what potential there is in our Christian tradition to offer good listening to people.

    And if we feel that we want to give ourselves to listen to others, to help them towards healing, here are some categories which you might have in mind to investigate as they talk - categories which will be familiar from our work this week - as they tell their stories, are they in the situation of wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles? are they possessors or are they dispossessed? are they settled or enslaved? Scripture has words of healing for each of these, which we might be able to offer.

    Listening to a person can be tremendously healing for them. And it can be rewarding for the listener too. But of course to really listen you have to be prepared to give some time.

    Some American missionaries were asked by a group of Inuit people if they were willing to hear their story and need for healing. The missionaries said 'Of course!' they sat down to listen and five days later the story had been told! [4]

    Healing People through walking

    Healing people through walking with them ... just before I touched on how there may be healing on getting alongside a person and physically going their way ... particularly a person who would not usually have you for company. Two-way healing, in walking through the evening with a homeless person, or through the benefit system with an asylum-seeker. Consider how many of these sorts of people Jesus journeyed with - physically going the way of lepers, beggars, diseased and crippled people, Matthew the money-gatherers in his booth on the edge of town, two downcast religious outcasts on the road to Emmaus ...

    Healing People through words of healing

    ... but of course Jesus had a gift of words which he would use to heal those he walked alongside. We have far fewer words, or we stumble over them, it is sometimes hard to think of what to say in response to what people share with us, what people show us about the place they are in.

    Fortunately Jesus' words are still with us and we needn't be shy about sharing them. Words which seem to speak often and especially to the wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles, the dispossessed, or those settled ones who have found themselves enslaved: words of promise like those we call the beatitudes, and other people's words around Jesus which were formed in frontier places, like those words of Mary which we call the Magnificat, words which show how Jesus can, and does, and will, turn things around for those who come to him repentant and believing.

    Healing People through symbolic acts

    What symbolic acts might bring healing to people? I suspect these might more often be the corporate ones like those I discussed before, and will discuss soon in relation to healing powers and healing church. But there are always small symbolic acts - we might more truly call them acts of kindness - which help to heal. So, having a meal with that homeless person, allowing them to buy you a cup of tea. Sending that card on which you have found the words someone else wrote which you didn't have when you wanted to say them. That bunch of flowers.

    The church may help to heal people through symbolic acts, in one way simply by opening its doors to them - particularly to the wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles, the dispossessed, or those settled ones who have found themselves enslaved; in other ways by finding or creating liturgies of healing which they might use... I say 'they', but really I should say 'we', for we are all, already, at different times and in different ways, at frontier places. I shall come back to this at the end, in talking about healing church.

    talk continues at part 2....

    RETURN TO 4. The possessors at the frontiers
    READ ON TO 5. Healing at the frontiers - part 2
    RETURN TO Healing Places index

    [1] Russ Parker: Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places, p.52
    [2] Parker, p.106
    [3] Parker, p.106
    [4] Parker, p.52