My family has experienced many health crises, over the years. As a teenager, I learned to clean massive amounts of blood out of white shag carpet and to dress wounds; to stay calm in an emergency and to tend to those in need. In my family, we know life, for better or worse. We know hospitals and doctors, emergency rooms and even funeral homes all too well. We also know that if you have good healthcare, you live and, when you don’t, you die. And when that happens, there is unimaginable pain and the ramifications last for decades. And for generations.
It’s interesting, growing up in a house where illness is the demon that is lurking in the corner. Sometimes quiet, almost forgotten, purposely ignored, but ever present, always pervasive in its threat, ready to creep or crash into the frightened family’s existence, its surprises both expected and not.
My stepdad was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 40. To this day, we do not know what caused it. Having served as a corpsman in the Navy in both WWII and the Korean War, he’d been exposed to Hepatitis and it could have been that which damaged his liver. Doctors also guessed it may have been prolonged exposure to the pesticides which were used on his family’s farm, during his younger years.
Whatever the cause, the effects were devastating, leaving his body ravaged and our family shaken. We watched this resilient, strong, faithful, funny man battle on for ten years. Rebounding again and again, surgery after surgery, determined to survive, he was a fighter.
Part of my Daddy Joe’s recover was monitored by our next door neighbor, a surgical nurse, Pat Franks. One of my mom’s dearest friends, she checked in frequently, guiding us in Daddy’s care and telling him what he could and could not do. (It was lovely to see this extremely traditional, patriarchal man having the younger woman from next door telling him what’s what!)
One day, when Pat was over at our house, she, my mom, and I got into a conversation about Pat’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” album. It was a favorite of mine and I frequently listened to it when I was in their home, babysitting their kids.
As we talked, we discussed the music, the movie, and my love of it all. I remember being intrigued at the societal view of the whole Superstar phenomenon. Beloved by so many, others were horrified.
How could Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have been so bold, so disrespectful? Turning God’s holy scriptures into a rock opera. God’s own son into a long haired hippie freak. And that relationship with Mary of Magdala. Simply scandalous!
One line, in particular, received some scathing criticism and this is where my mother joined in. She didn’t mind the rock opera or the hippies or the Jesus and Mary bit. But it was the one line that threw her and many other people.
In the scene, Jesus is walking through the crowd of lepers who are ill and hurting. As they are grasping, grabbing at him; as he is overcome by the seemingly endless demands of all those surrounding him; as his own exhaustion weighs him down, Jesus looks at the crowd in frustration and shouts, “Heal yourselves!” The concept of him even entertaining such a thought seemed sacrilegious.
And yet, as I contemplate it, even now, it helps me understand Jesus a little bit more, to see him as he may truly have been. I would surmise that anyone in a caring profession can understand exactly how Jesus felt. Any parent can identify. We know how it feels to reach that beyond tired, beyond over-extended point where you can’t take another step without feeling as if you might tip over. If you take a moment to sit down, you’ll only fall asleep. If just one more person asks you to do just one more thing, you’re pretty certain your head will explode. But you smile and nod and cheerfully agree to do it. Because that’s what you’re there for. That’s what you’re made for.
But you’re oh, so very tired.
Still, that line in that song, “Heal yourselves.” It takes us aback. It makes us rethink Jesus. It was especially difficult for my mom, who was raising four children and caring for a husband who was suffering for ten years. Robust one minute and critically ill the next, fighting so hard for his own health, fighting to care for his family, before he finally left this earth at the grand old age of 50. Leaving my mom with three kids still in the home and me racking up college bills.
Heal yourselves. When people are frightened and in pain and desperate, how could a saviour scream such harsh words in their direction?
I can understand my mom’s discomfort with that scene, those words. I can understand why it may grate against us. Because we, as people of faith, know that God would never turn against us. We know that we, as people of faith, should never turn our backs to people in need. We know that no matter how tired, how drained we are, either physically or financially, God has called us to do justice and love mercy. As followers of Jesus, we know we must care for the least of these. We know we must bind up the wounded and bring wholeness to the broken.
And so, once again, I am pondering. How could so many of the people who would be repelled by a “heal yourselves” philosophy take away the healthcare of millions of people? How could they turn their backs on the poor, the wounded, the broken?
I still listen to my JC, Superstar album. Although I now listen to a digital version, I treasure the old LP, long ago handed down to me by my neighbor. I still ponder the interesting ways in which faith and life’s perspectives are formed. I still wonder how so many of us were formed with the firm foundation of caring for others, while so many others were formed with the firm foundation of caring for themselves. Yet, we all profess the same faith.
I ponder, because even in his moments of deepest despair and exhaustion, Jesus, who may or may not have been a long-haired hippie freak who could sing rock opera, but who was most definitely a radical worker for God, kept trudging along, making things better for the poor, wounded, and broken.
I’m doing my best to sing along with Ted Neeley.
But, even when I can’t, I’m choosing Jesus’ path.