Spring is a season for change. Leaves are changing bare branches into green. Birds are awake at dawn, singing their hearts out. The brown earth is alive with waves of green. Spring is a time of change for Christians as well, who recall that Lent is an invitation to grow at the inner level of soul. Christians all over the world hear this old, familiar call: change and believe the good news! It has echoed down the years to the twenty-first century.
Experiences in life also bring change in our lives and they may come in many disguises. My own experience was that of pain, back pain. I would like to think back on all this by recalling a story in the gospel that I tried to hang onto at this time. It tells how four men brought a friend on a stretcher to have him healed by the Lord. I like to think of each one of them as corresponding to different sides of my experience of pain. I see the first man of the four as hopeful and positive; the second is the opposite of the first and so on.
These four carried their friend on a stretcher to have him healed by Jesus but found the door of the house jammed with people trying to see Him. The four men have their hopes dashed at the sight. One of the four has a bright idea - we will bring the stretcher up on the roof, take off the tiles and lower our paralysed friend down right in front of the Man from Galilee.
This first man can see outside the box, is full of imagination and a problem solver. Who else would think of taking the tiles off the roof as a way in to the room where the crowds were? Today, we would call him a positive thinker and, indeed, he persuades the other three men to follow his plan. This man reminded me of the times I would let hope into my mind and heart.
But there is another man in the group of four who pours cold water on the idea of bringing a stretcher onto a roof: he'll fall off - you'll kill him, not heal him, he says. This man deals cards of negativity. He pulls down people and seldom builds up or encourages anybody.
He reminds me of the dark side of myself when hope had grey clothes on, when the next day would be seen as bad as today, when pain would appear to be endless. But this voice inside my head never leads me to recovery or peace. It was not speaking about what was true or the real state of affairs. This voice loves to exaggerate things out of all proportion and we are suckers to believe it, even if we do at times.
I am talking about the mind games that circle around pain. Such negative thoughts tell us that we will never get healed; they rob us of any smile, suggest that we are isolated, alone, cut off from family, friends and even God. Its calling card is anxiety, discouragement and hopelessness.
These first two men reflected my struggle with pain: times of encouragement and the opposite. But, I must not forget the other two men carrying the stretcher: they represent the caring people that came into my life. The third man carrying his friend on the stretcher is someone we would call a full-time or part-time carer today.
He mirrors all the people who support the man who is paralysed. Perhaps they send a card, pay a visit, and bring some grapes as gestures of support. Like all people who care, this man, carrying the stretcher, has a secret gift and it is to break into the isolation that pain brings about in people. Pain isolates, cut us off from our sense of belonging, from our family and community. The prayers and care of so many help us too. Those who help open out that sense of isolation and restore a sense of belonging with others to those who suffer. It's no accident that this third man in the gospel is part of the group bringing his friend to The Lord.
I like to think of the fourth person who brings up the rear as representing the nurses, the doctors, the surgeons. Nurses are the unsung heroes and are mostly invisible to all but the sick. They accompany people in need of personal care, change them, nurse them. They are seldom thanked and mostly taken for granted. They are truly themselves when they put on the two garments of efficiency and compassion.
This fourth person in our quartet of stretcher bearers has the quality of being able to spot what is causing the person pain, send us further for tests to modern hospitals, to doctors and surgeons whose expertise and dedication will care for us. This fourth person represents another side of experience, a side of me. After many weeks of back problems I had been sent to a lady physiotherapist who had that very gift of diagnosis plus a remarkable finesse so that from that moment, I was, at last on the path to healing.
Of course, while I identify with the first two men in the story, I am also the person on the stretcher. He is being swayed around and these movements are a mirror of his mood changes: his hopes, his fears, his anxieties.
In the gospel story, the tricky moment comes as the four slowly let down the stretcher to the feet of the Galilean. The crowd are looking up at the four men on the roof letting go the ropes through their hands, trying to land their friend on the floor. They land right at Jesus’ feet. All five men are totally still. They are asking themselves if their journey was worthwhile. Will this Man from Galilee work a wonder?
They strain to hear. They dare to glance. Their friend is walking and carrying the stretcher. He is looking over at the four friends, who are just delighted for him. The crowd are full of wonder and look in awe at this Man from Galilee.
The four who carried their friend reflect the different situations that I experienced and I suspect others have as well. Our times of hope can be undermined by anxieties and hopelessness. The experience of encountering a person who cares and understands your pain is vital to us. The doubts that assail us facing surgery and the expertise of the healer who reassures us is part of the scenario. The experience of all of these factors conspires to heal and restore our true self. It leads us to a wave of gratitude for all who touched our body and often times our soul.