, Newburyport, MA

May 11, 2013

Spine and spirit

In the Spirit
The Rev. Richard G. Parker

---- — It is the Sabbath. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. A strange scene unfolds. There is a woman there who, for 18 years, has been “bent double,” her spine so curved or so weak that she hasn’t been able to lift her head and torso above her waist. For 18 years, her face has always pointed toward the ground. The tasks others take for granted — getting dressed each morning, drawing water at the well, preparing and eating meals — have been “missions impossible” for her. Her affliction defines her and sets her cruelly apart from the rest of humanity — until this day, in Galilee, when this proud young woman will be healed.

Jesus of Nazareth reaches into her life with the very power of God, and her spine (bent for years) is suddenly straightened into a normal upright human shape! A miracle! And perhaps, a parable, about our day and age. Scripture says a “spirit of infirmity” had crippled this woman. But what has this to do with us? Most of us try to stand straight and tall; we really don’t suffer from the affliction of this story, not outwardly at least. But what about “inwardly”? Perhaps our spines are straight and intact, but often our spirits are bent almost double under the daily weight of the world’s terror, its hurt or its cynicism — the daily weight of worry that moves toward panic or the daily despair that coaxes and pulls our faces toward the ground.

But here we are, so many of us, in various faith communities, we who have been given promises of eternal worth and power and can stretch our spirits to the sky whenever we choose — yet we often turn on the TV and see that death and evil were again triumphant yesterday. Many of us in faith communities, who have been promised that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains, add our own voices to other expressions of hopelessness, as we recite this generation’s spirit-killing mantra, “There was nothing I could do!” Our spirits are sadly bent. And we see some of this reflected in our congressional representatives, several Republicans and Democrats, and we wonder, “Are they like us? Or are we like them?”

Now, if the foremost mission of faith communities in this generation is in fact to “heal and straighten” the spirit, how shall this be accomplished? In revisiting Scripture, we find that Jesus did three things when He healed this bent-over woman: He “saw” her, He called her to Him and then He laid His gentle hands upon her (Luke 13:10-17).

First then, we are to “see” other people in new ways and to really “see” ourselves too, not bent but straight, trying to envision their, and our own, promise and potential beneath the obvious problems. Is it possible for us, and especially today members of Congress, to learn to “see” in that new way? Can we, and especially members of Congress, somehow unlearn the crippling cynicism and the denial-of-possibility in our day and age and begin again sincerely to “see” hope and compromise and opportunity in one another? But “seeing” the possibilities and promises in ourselves and in others is only the first step.

Secondly, there is then a need to “call out” the hidden gifts — that oft-unused but very rich potential. When Jesus called that woman to Him, that in itself didn’t heal her. But it got her moving in a direction that ultimately led toward healing. That is surely something that we in our faith communities and our peers in Congress looking across the aisle, can do — “call out” the gifts that may be submerged or latent, in order to help each other to begin moving somewhere. So how can we best be “calling out” those hidden gifts in one another?

And then in Scripture we see the third thing Jesus was able to do. First He “saw” her, then He called her to Him, and then He said to her, “Woman, you are rid of your infirmity.” And then He laid His hands upon her. “And at once she straightened up and glorified God!” Now what did this laying-on of hands involve? Was Christ’s touch gentle and soothing, or was there perhaps a firmness and a pressure connected with it? Scripture doesn’t really say, but I suspect His grip was gentle AND firm, that there was an immediate, gentle and yet unmistakably insistent pressure — almost a “pulling toward straightness.” I believe we in our faith communities, and those folks in Congress right now especially, are called to offer that loving, compassionate, gentle but firm, “straightening touch” to one another — as well as to others in the wider community — not simply to offer comforting pats and warm fuzzy strokes, but to “pull one another” to a greater height. In that sense then, we also need critics of a sort as well as lovers. We need people who not only “call out” our gifts, but also “call us to account” whenever we misuse or squander them.

I believe we need that honest exchange and interaction that calls us to be the best that God intended — full-grown, strong and straight inside — able to stand erect in the midst of an often despairing and regularly cynical world to give hope and strength and esteem and self-assurance and confidence to others. Only then will their spirits and ours be “straightened.” Only then will we and they hear His words: “Woman, Man, Child, you are rid of your infirmity — your troubles are over!”


The Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist and a United Methodist minister who lives in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen. He may be reached at