Hurt

In 2002, the aging country legend, Johnny Cash, turned his attention to a series of rather introspective albums like “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”  In that collection, Mr. Cash covered a song originally released in 1994 by the popular alternative band, Nine Inch Nails, titled simply, “Hurt.” The first stanza says,

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything”

For years, that song has haunted me.  I have seen drug abuse in it.  I have seen despair.  I have been in awe of how authentic he made these words sound as he tentatively breathed them into his catalog.

But the words came back to me quite powerfully this morning as I thought about a conversation I took part in yesterday about the pain and problems that many of the students face at the university where I teach.  I am part of a team that works to identify students who are at risk of harming themselves or others. Our goal is to help them find help, so that they can turn their lives around and finish their educations and become contributing members of society.  If truth be told, these are the problems of young people everywhere, but they often go unspoken, owing to the “ostrich principle” so aptly embodied in our glib expression, “Out of sight [or hearing] out of mind.”

The issue that brought this song to my mind was the revelation that we have a significant number of “cutters” among our student body.  These young people take knives or razor blades and cut themselves.  According to sources, they do this for various reasons: attention, distraction, or, as the song says, to see if they still feel.  Their physical scars are visible to the world, but they may only be faint echoes of the inner pain they wrestle with daily.    

I thought about that and I just got sad.  How sad to be young, with a life ahead of you and to be so broken inside that you have to inflict physical pain on your own body just to feel something.  I cannot imagine how it must feel to be so emotionally and physically numb that you wonder if you can actually feel.  Having spent so much of my life as a rather emotional sort, often wearing my heart on my sleeve, being accused (and perhaps rightly so) of volatility at times, I can’t understand not “feeling.”  But I am not these people.  I have not walked in their shoes, and I don’t know what they feel or don’t feel.

The chorus continues the desperation of the verses, each time closing with,

“I will let you down
I will make you hurt”

Someone may see this inexorable despondency as merely a commercial ploy, playing to the ever-present adolescent angst.  But not from Johnny Cash.  Few of the NIN fans would have been listening to this country icon in his waning years.  No, this song voices a broader fear of inadequacy, embodied in the self-fulfilling declaration that “I will let you down.” Since the young people I was thinking about have likely felt betrayed by friends, family, society, or life, they know the end result will be pain.  There is no way to listen to the song and not be affected.

It is interesting that I should start making these connections at the same time that I have been struggling with a number of spiritual questions, examining and exploring the legacy of my faith tradition, and trying to justify our practices, doctrines, and attitudes with our directly commanded responsibility to love our neighbors.  I understand the position that there is personal responsibility emphasized from our reading of Galatians 6.10 and James 2.  But more troubling to me is a comment that I recently heard that our people have made against a corporate responsibility to see to the needs of the hungry, homeless, hurting people we encounter.  Some have raised the paper tiger of an objection that Jesus didn’t heal everyone.

Huh.  That’s not what I read.

“23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.  24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” Matthew 4.23,24

“16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.”  Matthew 8.16

“35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.”  Matthew 9.35

“15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all…” Matthew 12.15

And those are just a few passages from Matthew.  Anyone who came to Jesus with a need was healed.  Even some who had representatives go to Jesus were healed. 

The argument has also been made that Jesus healed the sick primarily to demonstrate his power, citing John 20.30, 31: “30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  This is a misreading of the text.  The book was written, the accounts were related so that the reader may believe.  To use this to say this was Jesus’ sole motivation puts words in Jesus’ mouth and motives in his heart.  Jesus healed the sick because he had compassion on them.  They were hurting, he was able to relieve them, and he did.

If, as the hymn reminds us, “he the great example is, and pattern for me,” there is much to be done.  No, I cannot heal a single person. But I can help them.  Sometimes, what a person needs more than anything is to have someone to talk to.  It’s hard to really listen, especially when we are uncomfortable dealing with some sort of personal issue.  But Jesus would have.  And if we can’t help directly, we should help them to get help.  We can, and should, do that for anyone who has need.  Jesus taught that with one of his most famous parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In Luke 10, Jesus responds to the question of a lawyer regarding what was necessary to inherit eternal life.  Jesus answered him with a question, “26…What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  That second question is so telling.  How did the lawyer interpret the law?  He could have reeled off dozens of commands.  He could have begun with the Ten Commandments.  But instead, he recited what Jesus identified elsewhere as the two great commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  When he asked Jesus to explain just who his neighbor was, Jesus presented the parable, describing the inaction of those who should have been the most concerned— the Jewish priest and the Levite—and the selfless action of the unlikely hero, the despised, mixed blood Samaritan.  Jesus did not force the conclusion.  In typical fashion for this master teacher, Jesus closed the teaching with a question:  “36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.””

I remember an occasion where someone actually questioned whether the command originally found in Leviticus 19.18 to love our neighbors as ourselves was still in force!  I was shocked.  How could something so fundamental ever be rescinded?  How could anyone, no matter how profoundly sincere and zealous they may be to follow the letter of the scripture ever doubt the very words of Jesus, who confirmed that love is the foundation of all human and divine interaction?  This is a failing of the accepted doctrine that only those things after Pentecost are binding on a Christian.  (Of course, that command is repeated in Romans 13.9, and in James 2.8, but who’s counting?)       

There are instances in the Bible where a person was in need, but the answer to the petition for relief was “No.”  Paul was discussing his experiences with revelation from God in I Corinthians 12.  He wrote,

“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

Whatever Paul’s affliction, the nature of which has been variously speculated to be a club foot, a speech impediment, poor vision, or any of a number of other physical defects or conditions, Jesus told him that his grace was sufficient for him, that the weakness incurred as a result of the affliction would remain.  It is significant that even though Paul could heal others, he could not heal himself.  By referring Paul to the continuing application of his grace, Jesus kept Paul in a state of humility, and in a sense, dependent on his goodness.  That may seem cruel, but Paul’s position was a precarious one.  He was highly regarded among so many. He might have become convinced of his own greatness and, like Moses before him, become proud in his work for God.  The constant reminder of his imperfection kept him grounded.

I will be the first to admit that I have not been as observant of the needs of people around me as I should have been.  There are times when I am ashamed that I have not been of greater help to others, choosing to shrink away from a difficult situation when I could have been an instrument for good.  I fearfully chose to ask, “What can I do?” rather than, “How can I help?”  What I said was an admission of defeat.  What I should have asked was an open door, an opportunity to channel God’s love and grace to someone who was hurting or needed comfort or needed help.

It is possible that I may have been acting stand-offishly because I was conflicted over what I should do in order to meet the demands of the accepted doctrine.  But on further reflection the idea that we have no responsibility to anyone outside of our own brand of Christian is ludicrous.  It defies the exhortation of Galatians 6.10 by editing the broader clause, and violates the example of the Samaritan in Luke 10, who was definitely not a brother in the sense of being a fellow Jew to the injured man.  No, we are to be like that selfless Samaritan, and as Jesus described him, show compassion and mercy to anyone in need. Similarly, to say that Jesus did not heal everyone is an affront to his compassion, whether human or divine.

In the summer of 1969, Paul Simon, a folk-pop legend in his own right, penned some simple words that became a timeless classic, titled “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  In the second of three short verses, he wrote,

“When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down”

No, those words are not scripture, but their compassionate message of selfless love capture the very heart of Jesus, and what every child of God should be willing to do for someone in need.  Cain’s question of being his brother’s keeper was perhaps echoed in the lawyer’s question regarding just who his neighbor might be.  But Jesus’ response of undiluted love for one’s fellow man has never been improved upon.  In my mind’s eye, when I read his final directive to this lawyer, I’m sure Jesus was smiling because the lawyer got the message.   That closing instruction still rings true through the intervening ages: “Go and do likewise.”

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One Response to Hurt

  1. Darrell Ray says:

    Since publishing this article, some commenters have taken exception with my assessment of Jesus’ healings, citing, for example, that the healing at the pool of Bethesda recorded in John 5 only involved one person among the many invalids who waited there for the “stirring of the waters.” Some variant manuscripts mention the healing of the first person to enter the pool after an angel stirred the waters. If that explains the reason for such an assembly of the disabled, then Jesus was extending mercy to one who had been waiting for healing for a long time (v 6) and had no one there to help him receive the expected healing (v 7). In v 17, Jesus tells the Jews who were opposing him for working on the Sabbath that the Father was working [on the Sabbath] (perhaps referring to the anticipated healing at the pool), and he continued that work [by healing this one man who had no help to receive it]. In v 19, Jesus says, “…the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” God healed on the Sabbath, and so did his son. In our vernacular, we might even say, “like father, like son.”

    I did not mean to leave the impression that there was a global healing of all illness and disability during Jesus’ ministry. I meant to point out that by saying that Jesus didn’t heal everyone (who asked for healing), he became a “respecter of persons,” failed to model his own teaching (“ask and it will be given to you”), failed to extend mercy, and failed to follow the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    It is unfortunate that some may try and limit the power of Jesus’ love and mercy in an attempt to justify our own unwillingness to do what Jesus did. Perhaps someone might say, “No one comes asking for my help, so it would be wrong to offer where it is not solicited.” That is playing the “silence” card. Maybe no one asks because they have never seen the quality of mercy being exercised in our lives.

    I still reflect on the comment I heard from an experienced and respected preacher regarding Galatians 6.10, that we have no responsibility to anyone outside members of the church. That attitude was far removed from the teaching of that verse, and completely alien to Jesus’ example. (See the healing of the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter in Mark 7, and the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8.)

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