Your sins are forgiven...stand up, take your mat and walk.
There was drama on Volmoed two weeks ago. A large Pittosporum, whose roots were cracking Old Farm House, had to be cut down. Professional tree cutters did the job, but near the end a gust of wind snapped a branch which fell across the veranda smashing its roof. By that time Anton and I had already left the scene with the bakkie loaded up with large chunks of wood which we planned to turn into bowls on my lathe. We had no idea whether Pittosporum, otherwise known as Cheesewood, was any good for turning. But it is one of the most attractive of all indigenous garden trees, its bark is good for stomach ailments and malaria, and its roots are used to treat chest complaints. So why not give it a new life by turning it into a beautiful bowl? That was the challenge as we looked at two large pieces on our work bench.
But first of all we had to cut the chunks with a chain saw and shape them with a power plane to get them more or less round and balanced. You cannot turn wood on a lathe if it is not well balanced before you start. Otherwise as it turns and gathers speed your whole bench, even if securely fixed to the floor, will begin to shake making it is impossible to work the wood. Balance is vital in woodturning. And that also requires making sure it is centred on the lathe. The wood can be balanced, but if it is not centred, it will still wobble. Getting it balanced and centred is vital.
Many years ago as a student in Chicago I took a course on ministry to the mentally ill. This required that I spend one day a week for a semester in a psychiatric hospital interviewing patients, then discussing these in a seminar with the professor and other students. The patients were graded according to the types of mental illness diagnosed. We had to go through a series of locked doors to visit them. So those through the third door were badly disturbed, prone to violence and almost incapable of communicating, and labelled accordingly. We did not often go through that door. But even so I came away after each day totally drained by the experience.
At that time I read one of the latest books on psychiatry entitled The Vital Balance written by a leading psychiatrist, Karl Menninger. Menninger was against labelling mentally ill patients because that led to treating them according to a label rather than as unique individuals, and also led people to think that they were incurable. Diagnosis was necessary for medication, but labelling could impede healing. The truth is, Menninger argued, just as we all suffer from some physical ailment, to some extent we are all mentally ill or unbalanced. For Menninger the aim of psychiatry was using the illness as a starting point to help his patients to become more centred and therefore more ba;anced, and therefore, as he put it, "weller than well."
As we grow older we begin to understand the importance of balance. My balance is not what it used to be. I am not talking about my mental balance, though some might think that is in need of help, but physical balance. I can no longer stand on one foot for any length of time without some kind of support -- as I regularly discover when I go to gym! But balance is vital, and the ability to recover balance is essential to prevent one from falling and hurting oneself. It is precisely what infants learn when they begin to walk, or when we begin to ride a bicycle. In the same way, learning to balance is fundamental to coping with life, just as a chunk of wood needs to be balanced before it can be turned. But balance is also vital for our spiritual journey, for "turning the soul" if you like, and that requires establishing a firm centre around which the rest can revolve. In fact this is critical for our physical and mental well-being as a whole. For if there is no centre, or the centre does not hold, the rest becomes unstable. This is equally true for society. A major reason for the world's ailments is the loss of an integrating moral centre that holds things together, and without which things fall apart. So the rich get richer and the poor, poorer; people become dysfunctional through bad social conditions and parenting, and turn to drugs, crime and violence, and nations go to war.
Jesus' ministry of healing, of making us whole, is all about helping us recover our vital balance in which the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of our lives are integrated around a centre or core that holds everything together. That is the message of the gospel story for today. "Your sins are forgiven...take up your mat and walk!" Healing the body and mind, and forgiving sins are part of the same process of healing. Inner healing, the healing of memories, dealing with guilt and the past, restoring relationships through forgiving and accepting forgiveness, learning to trust and to love, discovering hope, even becoming a child again in order to get fresh perspective and learn to walk again are the keys to the way in which Jesus wants to make us whole. And we can recover this vital balance even if we are not physically as well as we would like, or our mental faculties are beginning to weaken.
What is fundamental for a balanced life according to Christian faith is that our lives are centred in Christ. That is why we are here today sharing in this Eucharist. That is why we read the gospel day by day. That is why we pray. That is why we have AHA moments when we share with those in need. And in doing so, each day we regain our balance and become whole. You can't become a balanced person without becoming centred day by day, just as you can't learn to ride a bicycle unless you keep trying.
Lent is a good time to work at restoring balance to our lives because it draws our attention to the spiritual disciplines that are so fundamental for doing so. how to meditate on the gospel, get centred in our prayers, practice the presence of God, and live lives of compassion and caring. Lent is not meant to make us pious ascetics through much fasting in order to prove how spiritual we are. Its purpose is not to batter our bodies, though some of us might need the equivalent of a chainsaw in order to get balanced. But as we journey with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem and the cross we are once again helped to find the centre around which everything else turns -- God's love and grace towards us in Christ through which we find forgiveness and wholeness again. In this way we might even be turned into something beautiful for God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 March 2015