Ashes, ashes / We all fall down!”
There are places in the world that breed disease. I have been excited that Lutheran World Relief and Human Care along with our partners have been able to help AIDS education and the malaria initiative. Not long ago the Kenyan church was able to announce that the number of new AIDS and HIV cases was declining. The problem is that AIDS among adolescents is climbing because the amount of medicine available is small and the cost is large.
There is something about dread diseases that lend themselves to poetry. The rhyme still recited by children today dates back to the London Plague of 1665. The “ring of roses” describes the red buboes around the neck of and groin of an infected person (swollen lymph nodes); ”posies” refers to the herbs or flowers that people carried in their pockets to sniff hoping it would protect them from the disease; “ashes” refers to the funeral rite, “ashes to ashes” and all fall down” describes the suddenness of death from what is Bubonic Plague.
Diseases lend themselves to poetry. Psalm 91 talks of a noisy pestilence and one that walks in darkness.”He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. 3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. 4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. 5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday”.
Then there is the poetic rendering of the suffering Servant who takes away the sins of the world = Isaiah 53 – Surely He has borne our grief’s And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Another way of translating part of that passage is that he has born “our diseases”. The great disease is sin and Christ bore it in His body to the Cross. There is also some indication that the expected Messiah of some of the Jews would be a leper precisely because He would carry the illnesses of God’s people around in His body.
I was thinking of my friends in Africa and in our conversations they worry about terrorists and civil unrest and HIV and malaria, and Ebola. They are all diseases and plagues and I wonder what poet will try and dedicate some lofty words to cure or at least ease them. Talk is easier that actually trying to eradicate them.
It is some of our theologians that bother me the most however. They don’t even try and wax poetic, they just bloviate. Money spent on mercy work they say could better be spent on preaching the Gospel. Why, waste money on feeding the body or caring for orphans when we could spend the money preaching these souls into eternal life. The simple answer is that if they are dead they won’t be around to hear the Gospel preached but simplicity has never been the strong point of these towers of intellectual sophistry. They may agree that the church is “an organism of rescuing love” as it moves out in mission, but the only rescue is from eternal damnation. The concept of the church being the embodied expression of Christ’s mercy in concrete action is completely lost to them.
Not wanting to break the 8th commandment, I try to explain in the kindest possible way what the detractors of mercy work who are theologians and preachers believe. Underlying their criticism of mercy, especially overseas, I have the sneaking suspicion that they believe that the only people who should receive the kind of mercy we are talking about here; medical care, food, clothing, housing and education etc, are the preaching class. After many a sanctimonious lecture by these types the verbiage gets boiled down to money that is “wasted” on these projects could be better spent on the Pastor and his projects. These are folks of limited horizons whose God is limited as well. They are also suffering from a disease and that is the limited pie syndrome. If I get a piece of pie and I want to share there may not be enough of the pie for them. They forget that we have a God who uses us and our gifts to multiply and expand the pie to infinite proportions. Christ’s infinite capacity for mercy can only be limited by our unreasonable refusal to be waiters handing out the bread and the fish.
What poetry is there for their disease? How about this –
A broken man in the wilderness, beaten and left for dead could have been saved by dogmaticians of righteous. They passed him by instead
These strained out gnats and swallowed camels and shown like whitewashed tombstones that covered up corruption and moldering dead men’s bones.
To make a convert fit for hell they would cross deserts and seas. They gobbled up widows houses and put them in the streets.
And they would not lift a finger to help the crippled or lame, but laid on heavy burdens and taught others to do the same.
And when righteousness incarnate was hung between earth and sky; when the bearer of sin was nailed to a cross to suffer and to cry; when the real and true good Samaritan died for a world that should have died; they didn’t ask for mercy, instead they passed Him by.