Healing Places 5 - Healing at the frontiers

John@johndavies.org By John@johndavies.org, 22nd Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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My Healing Places retreat material concludes with Session 5, Healing at the frontiers.


We have been thinking in these sessions about places - our own special places, frontier places where people are at the edge of possibility or change or loss. We have spent some time with scripture and hearing other people's stories about being dispossessed in frontier places; and about the equal challenge of being possessors, which can so easily lead us into a form of slavery. And through all of this we have heard hints of healing, suggestions about how God's grace may meet us in these places. We have wondered if the church might be itself a healing place.

In this session I hope to offer some stories and reflections, and some ideas, which might help bring some of these strands together. I hope it will be a lighter sort of session than the previous couple, less theology, more applied thinking. And as I drew largely in those sessions on the work of Walter Brueggemann, today I shall be drawing on the work of Russ Parker, in particular his book Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places (London: Darton…, Longman and Todd, 2001), which seems to me to offer us a lot in this direction.

I want to divide this session into four parts: healing places, healing people, healing powers, and healing church.
And to each of them I want to suggest that healing can come in four different ways: by listening, by walking, by words of healing, and by symbolic acts. This is because I find these in scripture, four ways in which healing comes to people on various frontiers.

Scripture shows how healing comes to the dispossessed when God listens to their cries; and when they listen to God: "If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will for give their sin, and will heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7.14.And the gospels present us with numerous stories of Jesus, bringing various sorts of healing to various sorts of people by listening to them in particular places: the woman at the well in John 4.4-42, a centurion at the entrance to Capernaum in Matthew 8.5-13.

Scripture shows how healing comes to the dispossessed when God walks with them; with those escaping slavery in the great Egyptian exodus, where "the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and a pillar of fire by night to give them light." Exodus 13.21. And the gospels present us with numerous stories of Jesus, bringing various sorts of healing to various sorts of people by walking with them in particular places: with the outcast Zacchaeus to his house in Jericho in Luke 19.1-10, with the downcast disciples on the Emmaus road in Luke 24.13-32.

Scripture is full of words of healing for the dispossessed, the wanderer, the exile: "Indeed, the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness he will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord." Isaiah 51.3. And the gospels are full of stories of Jesus, speaking words of healing to various sorts of people: a man with leprosy in the crowds at the foot of the mountain in Matthew 8.1-4 to whom he said, "I am willing to make you clean; be cleansed;" a blind man outside Jericho in Luke 18.35-43 to whom he said, "Your faith has made you well."

Scripture is also full of examples of symbolic actions which have brought healing to the people in many vulnerable places: the rainbow at the end of the flood (Genesis 9.13), the parting of the sea for the Israelites in Exodus 14. And Jesus himself brought healing through symbolic actions of various kinds: washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper (John 13.5); entering Jerusalem on a donkey to herald a new way of healing the world in Matthew 21.1-11.

I have chosen these four ways of healing - listening, walking, speaking healing words and symbolic actions because I feel they relate particularly well to the theme of healing places. But they are by no means exclusive. There are many other ways which healing comes in scripture and in life. But I hope these illustrations help you see how rich is our tradition with resources for healing; they barely scratch the surface. And now I would like to take them as starting-points for suggesting how we as individual Christians and the church as a body - and a physical place - can help bring healing to the frontiers.

Healing Places

After following this material to its conclusion I suggest that the notion that places have spirits may not be that difficult to relate to. Places have characters, you get feelings about places - different feelings about different places. And this may be because of something physical about that place - its beauty, or its ugliness, its warmth or its coolness. Or it may also be about what has happened there - its history deeply attached to the human events and natural occurrences which have taken place - taken place - on that particular piece of ground.

You will recall the story of Russ Parker hearing the cries coming up from the city of Derry. You could perhaps imagine similar cries coming from the formerly-inhabited wildernesses broken by the recent tsunami in Asia, the cries of the soil carrying the blood of lost loved ones in battlegrounds across the world. All these suggest that places, somehow carry the pain in their very soil. The earth cries out for healing. An odd concept, maybe - or close to scripture, close to many psalms, or to Paul's picture of the earth groaning, waiting for the ultimate healing in Christ?

Healing Places through listening

Are there places which cry out for healing close to home? We might begin to discern them first of all by listening to what people say about the places we know well - or thought we did. Russ Parker once led a day conference in Ireland on healing a nation's wounds and asked a Protestant representative what he thought Gerry Adams thought of the Orange marches.

The man in question thought it was a needless question because the answer was obvious: Adams was against them. However, Adams is on record as recognising that Orange marches are a shared part of the story of Northern Ireland. Although he objected that they were focused (for him) on largely Catholic housing areas, he would nevertheless fight for the Orangemen's right to have them. When I asked the representative why he had got it wrong, he said that he had been listening to his prejudices rather than to the person.

If we are concerned to be healers in our community then we must first be good listeners - to put aside our assumptions and learn to listen well, closely, to the stories people tell about their place. It is a challenge to us - and may be a joy - to find ways of listening to the stories people in our community are telling about their place.

Healing Places through walking

Walking can be like listening too. If we embark on a programme of active walking; mentally engaged walking, with the intention of really noticing, perhaps for the first time, the details of our place, the relationship of the people and the place. Then we might begin to see our place very differently. Who do we see on our walk? What is happening in the familiar places? And what is happening on the edges? We might try to identify something about the spirit of our place by choosing to walk from the most beautiful part of our area to the ugliest, from the oldest to the newest, or to walk with a child, their chosen route, or with a homeless person, their familiar ways.

These latter ideas may carry an aspect of healing in themselves for us as much as for the child or the homeless person - but this whole idea of walking your area, I suggest can help to build a picture which may begin shape ideas about what is good in an area, to be celebrated, and what in an area may need healing.

Beyond this, walking has a good place in Christian tradition - pilgrimage, beating the bounds, Good Friday processions, prayer-walking. When I was in Toxteth we used to quite regularly go out prayer-walking, spending perhaps an hour together stopping at different points in the parish which invited particular sorts of prayer - at the struggling industrial park, praying for good employment, on the arterial road which separated our very deprived area from the luxury dockland developments which were all part of our parish, praying for equality and fellow-feeling between those on both sides.

Eric Pike, Bishop of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, made a pilgrimage walk through his diocese visiting places where violent crimes took place, to meet with the bereaved and local communities and to pray for and cleanse those sites so that they would not go on being the focus for more violence. And the Reconciliation Prayer-Walk ministry have walked down the whole route of the First World War battle-front in Europe, stopping at various places to apologise for the senseless killing of millions of young people.

Healing Places through words of healing

So listening and walking might help in healing; but are there words which can heal a place? Scripture says so. When a land is sick and broken through overfarming for profit, and a section of the community dispossessed there are words of jubilee, words which combine a deep sense of God's gift of land, with a deep sense of God's justice for all, words which restore the dispossessed to their former places, restore balance in the land. And when a people are sick and broken through overwork and a section of the community is enslaved, there are words of Sabbath command, words which demand rest, God's way of restoring a people in their workplace.

There are words which can heal places in today's world broken by war or other distress. Words of apology, for instance. As well as the European battle-front I just mentioned, Russ Parker cites a number of places where apologies have been spoken in recent times: for instance in Liverpool where a service of apology and reconciliation was held in November 2000 for Liverpool's part in the slave trade. In other places prayers have been made: prayers on battle-sites such as Culloden near inverness in Scotland, the Boyne and Aughrim in the Republic of Ireland. Prayers at sites of massacres - Auschwitz, Wounded Knee in South Dakota and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

And words of concern or intercession can also help to bring a sense of healing to a place. It may be that in our area there are places which would benefit from simple acts of prayer, on-site. Such as where flowers have been left to remember victims of traffic accidents, or where violent or racial attacks have taken place.

Healing Places through symbolic acts

And we might consider healing places through symbolic acts. Once I ended a Toxteth prayer-walk on the wasteland outside our church and remembering what you do at Columba's Bay, I invited everyone to take a brick from the rubble and throw it away, and with it that which you wanted to ask God to remove from the area. This backfired as some local children had joined us at this point, and as they started throwing bricks we had to chase them... but it didn't stop me believing in the power of symbolic acts to help heal a place.

I can't help believe in this, being a Liverpudlian. We get criticised in some quarters for the way we respond to tragedies which affect our communities - the flow ers which covered the pitch at Anfield after Hillsborough, the impromptu vigil in the city centre the day John Lennon died, thousands singing Imagine together - but these symbolic acts are so good at expressing the pain of the people - and the place. And to those taking part being there becomes therapeutic. Rather these symbolic acts which help bring healing than other darker acts like the mobbing of the killers of James Bulger outside the magistrate's court, which only brought more shame on the community at that difficult time.

You don't have to be religious to understand the power of symbolism. In a city once riven by sectarian violence words are unnecessary to explain the meaning of a walk between the Catholic cathedral and the Anglican Cathedral along a route called Hope Street. Places are healed through such actions - in that case, not only were memories of past hurts healed but the possibility of future friendship was opened up. It may be that in your places, similar actions could be arranged to speak of repentance, forgiveness, newness, good change.

Healing People

Let us now consider healing people in the ways I have suggested. You will perhaps have been thinking already that healing a place is very closely linked to healing the people in that place - and this is right because people and place are inseparable; and that is true in many expressions of our faith tradition whether St Paul speaking of the whole creation waiting for God's revelation, or the covenant promise of God to Noah that while the earth lasts seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease, or Jesus the word made flesh, all these speak of this deep connection we share with the earth and its creatures. So all we have already considered about healing places will also involve healing people. But here are some more specific thoughts.

Healing People through listening

If you've ever felt that someone has really listened to you, spent time hearing you out, tell your whole story, then you know what healing value there is in that. In a world where we seem to busy to have anything but a passing conversation, being really listened to is a great gift for a person to receive. Those who have experienced the listening ear of a spiritual director will understand what potential there is in our Christian tradition to offer good listening to people.

And if we feel that we want to give ourselves to listen to others, to help them towards healing, here are some categories which you might have in mind to investigate as they talk - categories which will be familiar from our work this week - as they tell their stories, are they in the situation of wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles? are they possessors or are they dispossessed? are they settled or enslaved? Scripture has words of healing for each of these, which we might be able to offer.

Listening to a person can be tremendously healing for them. And it can be rewarding for the listener too. But of course to really listen you have to be prepared to give some time.

Some American missionaries were asked by a group of Inuit people if they were willing to hear their story and need for healing. The missionaries said 'Of course!' they sat down to listen and five days later the story had been told!

Healing People through walking

Healing people through walking with them ... just before I touched on how there may be healing on getting alongside a person and physically going their way ... particularly a person who would not usually have you for company. Two-way healing, in walking through the evening with a homeless person, or through the benefit system with an asylum-seeker. Consider how many of these sorts of people Jesus journeyed with - physically going the way of lepers, beggars, diseased and crippled people, Matthew the money-gatherers in his booth on the edge of town, two downcast religious outcasts on the road to Emmaus ...

Healing People through words of healing

... but of course Jesus had a gift of words which he would use to heal those he walked alongside. We have far fewer words, or we stumble over them, it is sometimes hard to think of what to say in response to what people share with us, what people show us about the place they are in.

Fortunately Jesus' words are still with us and we needn't be shy about sharing them. Words which seem to speak often and especially to the wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles, the dispossessed, or those settled ones who have found themselves enslaved: words of promise like those we call the beatitudes, and other people's words around Jesus which were formed in frontier places, like those words of Mary which we call the Magnificat, words which show how Jesus can, and does, and will, turn things around for those who come to him repentant and believing.

Healing People through symbolic acts

What symbolic acts might bring healing to people? I suspect these might more often be the corporate ones like those I discussed before, and will discuss soon in relation to healing powers and healing church. But there are always small symbolic acts - we might more truly call them acts of kindness - which help to heal. So, having a meal with that homeless person, allowing them to buy you a cup of tea. Sending that card on which you have found the words someone else wrote which you didn't have when you wanted to say them. That bunch of flowers.

The church may help to heal people through symbolic acts, in one way simply by opening its doors to them - particularly to the wanderers, or sojourners, or exiles, the dispossessed, or those settled ones who have found themselves enslaved; in other ways by finding or creating liturgies of healing which they might use... I say 'they', but really I should say 'we', for we are all, already, at different times and in different ways, at frontier places. I shall come back to this at the end, in talking about healing church.

Healing Powers

Let us move on to healing powers. Or better, healing the powers. We haven't been too explicit about the powers this week, though they have always been there in our reflections. The powers that be - the principalities and powers. The kings who have their way in the land. The corporations, the local and international business people and politicians. Those who do the dispossessing; those who can turn settlers into slaves.

How such great powers can be healed is an enormous question, which scripture speaks about very often. Though in terms of corporate sin - the sins of whole cities and nations. Jesus calls for Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum to repent, and weeps over the sins of Jerusalem. He is in the tradition of the prophets who similarly called whole peoples to repent of what they had done - together, as powers. It would seem that healing the powers in our day and age brings us close to protest; interesting to ask ourselves whether we think protest and healing go together.

Healing Powers through listening

But the powers must be listened to - if we are being critical of the powers then we must not repeat the mistake of the minister who thought he knew what Gerry Adams would think about the Orange marches ... what the powers say must be heard properly, for only then can we understand what is at their heart.

Healing Powers through walking

The powers must be walked with. Physically as well as symbolically. How better to understand what a corporation is about than to spend some time inside it; in its manufacturing plants, alongside its office staff, in its shareholders meetings, listening, learning, observing.

And the powers can be walked against - there is a long tradition of marches and rallies, in which people of faith have been instrumental, which have helped the powers to see other points of view. Perhaps rallies such as the Make Poverty History campaign in Edinburgh, can be historic occasions where walking brings healing.

Healing Powers through words of healing

And we must understand that there are words of healing for the powers. It does happen in today's world that when people of faith and goodwill raise issues with the powers, and persist, sometimes the powers relent, repent. President F.W. de Klerk was asked whether it was international sanctions which had brought about the end of apartheid. He replied, 'It was not the sanctions, but a deep self-analysis on our knees before God.'

And when the powers repent perhaps the role of the church can be to help them find words to express this. Sometimes the church has to do it first to help the powers acknowledge their need to - such as the Anglican Church of Japan apologising for the behaviour of the Japanese nation during the second world War, at a time when the Japanese leaders would not acknowledge or admit to any atrocities being committed.

Healing Powers through symbolic acts

And sometimes in the healing of the powers the church can help with more than just words, but by helping to create symbolic actions - the most notable recent example being South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has enabled over 20,000 people to tell their stories about their part in injustices under apartheid, has enabled the nation to establish patterns of restorative justice rather than retribution, and has helped the nation to experience forgiveness and reconciliation which might have been impossible without the vision of the churches helping to make it work.

Smaller, perhaps more confrontational symbolic acts may also help bring the powers towards healing. The peace movement uses these a lot - vigils at the gates of arms manufacturers, where law enforcement officers are offered friendly snacks and drinks and where songs of peace are sung; cyclists and children reclaiming the streets in traffic protests; people singing hymns outside the embassies of errant nations. Again, many Christians involve themselves in helping to heal the powers in these sorts of ways.

Healing Church

And finally, we come to how these sorts of approaches may be employed in bringing healing to our church. As I suggested earlier on, the church is already full of wanderers and sojourners, the exiled and dispossessed, or those settled ones who have found themselves enslaved; no wonder our churches are often uncomfortable places, where our behaviour towards each other seems to fall very short of the great words of reconciliation in our liturgies, of our Lord.

I shan't be prescriptive about how we may go about this; I'd rather be suggestive and free you to go away to work out what all this might mean for you where you are, in your place. And much that needs saying has already been said.

Healing Church through listening

On healing our church through listening, I would say that this would best be an individual commitment - and a corporate one. Each of us might commit to listen better and more, to become trusted listeners by consciously ditch our preconceptions about others, to be truthful in speaking and to be genuinely open to hear their truthful story. And the group might explore how to share its common story together. Russ Parker is good on this. He says each church has a group story. Just like those churches Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, so too, our churches have a unique and distinctive story. Sitting down - perhaps with some material such as the workbook Russ Parker and Michael Mitton have produced - might be the start of a very interesting process of listening together, to the story of which we are part.

Healing Church through walking

Healing our church through walking, might be about rediscovering some of those wonderful traditions I mentioned earlier - pilgrimage, beating the bounds, Good Friday processions, prayer-walking. Pilgrimage, perhaps, you are doing this week here, many miles from your home church, but maybe there are places nearby to home, which used to be places of pilgrimage. Or perhaps you might identify other places in the area which could be walked to in a day, the process and the experience, the shared activity, the conversation, all being healing in some sense.

Beating the bounds can help a church better understand the area it serves, better relate to it, as well as being a very visible act of witness, similar to the Good Friday procession, showing local people that the church is in that place, helping those who take part in it explore and express their sense of mission to that place. And prayer-walking, done in perhaps a less demonstrative way, a small group of people almost invisibly taking prayer out of the building into the streets, helping to heal any division there may be between an insular church and its outside community, helping the participants to see the place as God sees it, to engage with the place as God engages.

Healing Church through words of healing and symbolic acts

And finally, how do we approach healing the church through words of healing and symbolic acts. this is a coals-to-Newcastle question. It seems to me that our church tradition is steeped in words of healing and symbolic acts. Our eucharists shine with words and acts of reconciliation. The confession, the absolution, God's healing word to us; the peace between brother and sister; the invitation to Jesus' table; the shared meal; the blessing. Thank God for the healing we can know in these services.

And our lectionaries are full of the names of wonderful saints who have shown us the way to care for our places and each other - Francis, Patrick, Wilberforce, Anselm, you think of your own favourites. Thank God for the healing we can know through their example. Perhaps we simply need to ask God to keep them fresh for us, to help us take them more and more into our hearts. Thank God that we are not short on words and symbols for healing in our places of worship.

This is not to say that there is no place for new words and new symbolic actions in our services and our mission work. If we follow the creator then we will be endlessly creative ourselves; if we are keen to respond to the ever-shifting story of our place and its people then we will have a rich seam of material from which to draw new energy in worship and witness.

Back home I have been deeply impressed by a city-centre Methodist minister Barbara Glasson who has developed a whole new congregation first by spending a year walking around the city listening to people, getting to know them, and then opening up a room above a bookshop for the simple activity of bread-making. People come in, help Barbara make bread, and of course, once baked, they help her eat it too. Her congregation has shifted a lot, and is a fascinating mixture of city-centre office staff and homeless people, folks from the city's fringe club culture and people from the suburbs commuting in. With them whole new words and whole new activities have been created to express their faith and thanksgiving in relevant ways.

... So it was, five years ago, that I took the train into Liverpool city centre convinced of only two things. Firstly that God had better be there ahead of me otherwise we were all sunk and secondly that we were called to make bread. You can make up your own mind which of those two seems the most ludicrous. Each day for a year I took the train to town and walked around.
As a woman within the church it has taken me too long to begin to give value to my own experience. Mostly I have tried to tailor what happened to me into some kind of acceptable norm. In this case I could not opt for that. I was in un-chartered territory and had no option but to let the experience of the city centre come towards me. Quite naturally, however I began to reflect on what that might mean and brought into play all my powers of reflection and analysis. This process, I have to say, was not simply an academic theological exercise but a survival technique. The nature of such an intense urban experience is that it can quickly become overwhelming. Sometimes arriving in the early morning I met the first tide of people approaching the common ground known as a city centre. Cleaners, road sweepers and a few drunks left over from the night before brought the city into life in readiness for the next wave of smartly dressed shop and office workers. The first cheap train of the day brought in the babies and pensioners. Big Issue guys appeared depending on what day of the week it was ­ never around on Thursdays because that is benefit day. I got talking with Mauricio who sold the Issue at the bottom of Bold Street ­ a Italian guy who spoke four different languages, and Tony from Glasgow soon started to look out for me. In Lewis¹ I discovered the remarkable ministry of the Œwomen in wigs¹ and visited the pensioners¹ tea party in BHS. At night there was a lull in proceedings at around 7o¹clock ­ as if it was a moment for the city to take breath before the influx of younger people that would dance and shout their way into the early hours. Contact with the police revealed that this was so well orchestrated that the city centre was, despite the occasional shooting, far safer than the suburbs at night. It was in this way that I discovered the city as an organic reality, it had a heart beat and a pulse, there was a rhythm to the day with high and low tides, it danced and washed and breathed its own breath. Similarly, what I had previously considered to be simply Œinstitutions¹ also began to have a human face. It was possible to talk about the scandal of the store credit card with the manager of BHS because we got to know each other. And I learned that being an asylum seeker wasn¹t just about an issue it was about Ben ­ a gay Iranian who had fled for his life from his home....

What Barbara has done is a radical example of what we all can do, perhaps in more modest ways, in getting out into our place, learning about it, learning from its people, allowing its shapes, forms and expressions to influence the things we say and sing, pray and ponder in church.

How might this translate iunto the place you'll be returning to this weekend? What new prayers might we create to say in that place, for that place and its people, what new symbolic, healing acts might we attempt?

In conclusion, let this be our prayer: Please God turn us around so that our places of worship can bring healing words and healing symbols to the places in which they stand. Please God turn us around so that we can let the places in which we stand bring healing words and healing symbols into our places of worship.


Russ Parker: Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places, p.52
Parker, p.106
Parker, p.106
Parker, p.52
Barbara Glasson: Approaching church - an ecclesiology of expectation and experience! - a paper for the Urban Theology Unit Institute for Urban and Contextual Theology, July 2004


Healing, Land, Place, Psychogeography, Urban Theology, Walking

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author avatar John@johndavies.org
An Anglican vicar originally from Liverpool, and now living and working in Somerset UK. Offering an open Christian angle on current affairs, arts, media etc.

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