One of my favorite stories this month is playing out at my local CVS pharmacy. Here’s how it started.
One day, one of my kids got a new medication called in by their doctor. And it had been my job to go pick it up. Now there’s this thing with the pharmacy in a CVS that it usually closes before the actual store does. And this is always true, but I never remember it. I keep thinking- Oh, that CVS is really close and it’s open pretty late, so I can always go get what I need there whenever.
So I roll into the CVS at like 7:55 and go to pick up the meds.
And an assistant tells me that they’re not ready yet. And a couple of things happen instantly in my brain. One, I think, this was called in five or six hours ago, how can it not be ready yet? And so I ask the assistant: Are you sure? This was called in much earlier today, and she looks at me kind of peeved that I said that and just answers me by saying: We’ve been busy. So I ask: Is there any way this can be filled now? And she says: No, we’re closing, and starts to turn away from me to get her things and go home.
And I sort of sigh because the other thing that’s happening is I’m thinking: I need this medication.
See, the past couple of years have been really hard for a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings. I don’t fully understand it, but it has to do with losses and social isolation and coming of age amidst times of enormous fear and instability, and widespread rates of anxiety, and all kinds of other stuff. It’s a lot.
I just know that as a parent of three and as a pastor, I’m seeing this in a big way. And that day I was really feeling it, feeling like life has been too hard already for my kids and I really don’t want my showing up late to the pharmacy to set back their health by even one more day because that night, that felt like a straw that would just break this camel’s back or maybe break my kid’s back.
So I just said, please: Are there any CVS’s open later? Is there any way this can be transferred to another pharmacy? And the assistant says: I don’t know, she’s going to have to help you with that. And she looks behind her at the pharmacist on duty, the one in white coat, and she leaves the register and goes to clock out.
And at this point, I notice that the pharmacist has been busy wrapping up other prescriptions but has been looking our way and listening in on our little conversation. So I quickly turn to her and say: Ma’am, I really need this medication. Is there anything you can do?
And she pauses for a moment, and she must have seen something of the weariness or desperation in my eyes, but she took a breath and said: I can fill it for you. Just hold on a minute.
So I thank her and I sit down in the waiting chair behind me. And one, maybe two minutes later, the pharmacist comes forward with a little package in her hand, as the closing gate automatically closes, as it does every evening at 8:00. And she kind of ducks under that gate to the register and starts checking me out. And after I put my credit card into the machine, I’m welling up with relief or gratitude, I can’t tell which. But I’m feeling like maybe things are all going to be alright, so I pause and look this pharmacist in the eye and I say to her:
You’ve never met my child, but you really helped them just now, and I want you to know that means the world to me. Thank you so very much.
And she looked back at me, I think kind of disarmed by vulnerability, and I don’t even remember what she said. Something like: No problem, or don’t worry about it. I’m not sure. But I remember we looked into one another’s eyes for a moment, and there was a kind of authentic, human connection. A needy father and a helping healer, seeing one another, appreciating one another.
And then I went home, feeling more hopeful, feeling more connected, I guess a little more whole. And I had a sense that in her own way, after a crazy busy, thankless day, maybe the pharmacist felt some of the same.
The next few weeks, we’ve got a few sermons on the topic of “How to Heal the World.” It’s kind of a cheeky, overstated title, but it came out of a series of conversations and reflections I had this winter about how sick and tattered our world is, how that’s impacting us, and the opportunity for something redemptive in that for followers of Jesus.
Our world has become sick with so many things – sick with violence, sick with racism, sick with sickness, and fear, and mistrust, and division and more. And all that’s not just far off, it’s not just abstraction. It touches our lives and relationships as well. And I’ve been wondering:
What does it mean to worship and follow a loving, hopeful God who is always seeking to mend, to repair, to make things whole?
And how can we find our own good, our own healing, our own salvation through participating in the healing work of God in our times?
That’s what we think about, what we pray about, and I hope what we live into some in the weeks to come this spring.
Let me read you of the pivotal scriptures that inspires me in this.
It’s from the prophet Jeremiah, a public figure in ancient Israel in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Jeremiah is sometimes nicknamed the weeping prophet, because he lived and spoke and wrote during times of devastating pain and division in his culture. But Jeremiah was also a healer, a person who shared God’s best wisdom as he understood it for surviving and thriving through hard times.
Here’s one little excerpt.
Jeremiah 29:4-7 (Common English Bible)
4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.
6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away.
7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
So this is an excerpt from a letter Jeremiah sent to a group of exiles. Jeremiah himself was still in the ancient Hebrew capital of Jerusalem, but he was writing to a group of people who had been carted off into exile in Babylon, the colonial superpower to the East.
This would be something like a pastor in Kiev, writing to Ukranians who had been kidnapped during war and taken north to Russia. Or a 19th century Native American writing to friends and relatives who’ve been driven West onto a reservation.
And Jeremiah’s word in this letter is: Don’t take the suffering of your times as a sign that God has forgotten or abandoned you. God still sees, God still cares, and God still has hopes for you and your descendants. But, it’s going to be a while. Don’t pray for some big, magical miracle to happen tomorrow or the next day. You’re going to have to adjust your expectations and make life work in these new circumstances you didn’t choose.
And here’s how to do that:
Settle down. Make a home for yourself where you are. Raise children. Plant a garden. Get to your neighbors. And love them.
Here’s why. Your welfare is connected to their welfare. You may see them as other, as below you, as above you, as enemies, as threats, as disgusting. But you’re neighbors now. You’re in this together. This is now your land, these are your people, do some good. Make it work for you.
I don’t know if you caught the line of Jeremiah saying:
God sent you here.
But that’s bracing. After all, they’d been resettled here against their will. God didn’t send them here, enemies did this. Bad circumstances, bad luck did this.
But Jeremiah says:
Promote the welfare of this city where I have sent you.
I do not think he means this philosophically, like literally: God caused all this war and suffering and exile. That view is not worthy of a good and loving God.
No, I think he means it practically, as a mindset, like
How would I live if I could see God at work in these circumstances?
How would I live if I could hope that a creative, loving God can improvise a good plan with me here?
So he says promote the welfare of this city and pray for its blessing. For your future depends on its welfare.
This passage helps me understand some of what was going on with me at the CVS pharmacy that day and also why I didn’t want to let it go.
See, our culture tells me that me and that pharmacist are anonymous commodities in a giant marketplace. I am a consumer, and she is a provider.
My kids and me and our doctors and health insurance all produce these computerized messages in CVS’s giant system about these various chemical compounds they should mix up into pills and capsules and creams and about how much my insurance company will pay and how much I will pay and when. And the provider has this endless list of these things that come her way every day, and her job is to rush and hustle through all these orders as fast as possible while making zero mistakes and get these consumers on their way and collect her paycheck.
But in this moment, we weren’t commodities to each other any more. We weren’t just categories or cogs in a system, whether those categories be ancient ones from Jeremiah, like exile and enemy, colonized or conqueror, or modern ones like customer and provider. Instead we were two humans – a distressed father and a harried healer. And we could see that our welfare is connected to one another.
I do better in a world where instead of arguing with the pharmacist or giving up and getting pissed off and resentful, I can be my authentic, vulnerable self for a moment, and share my need and my gratitude. And that pharmacist does better in a world where customers aren’t just numbers but names and needs, people trying their best to get healthy and appreciating her part in making that happen.
I found this experience really compelling, so much so that I told Grace and the kids whose meds I brought home all about it, and I found myself wondering how I could live in this relationally connected, healing way more and more often.
Because in a small way, we each left that store more connected in a lonely world. In a world of commodities, we experienced being human together. And there was some repair in that. We made our lives a little more whole. And maybe, we made our anonymous, capitalist, consumer society a little more whole too.
I like to think of this small story on these grand terms because of a Jewish concept I’ve learned about called tikkun olam (tee-KOON, o-LAM), which is Hebrew for repair of the world.
This concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, dates back to really early Judaism, about the time of Christ. The idea is that our beautiful world is also broken and disordered, but that each time we follow God’s law, we say yes to God’s ways in the world, we participate in the world’s repair.
Over the centuries, this phrase has been embraced more and more alongside scriptures like Micah 6:8 that say:
Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
The thinking being when we strive for social justice, for the creation of a more just, verdant, and peaceful world as the saying goes, that we participate with God in the repair of a broken world.
Just before this pandemic hit, back in 2019, we had our last churchwide retreat. Side note here: we’re early in conversations with our staff about what to make of that. For a few years, we had these 150-200 person day and a half retreats each fall, almost always on a seaside location. And we’re trying to figure out if this is the fall we return to that or not. So if you have hopes or passions on that, you can always let one of us pastors know what you think and if you’d be up for helping us make this happen again.
Anyway, at the last retreat, our guest speaker was Laura Everett, the head of the Mass Council of Churches. She’s like a pastor to pastors, someone that helps churches connect and support one another across the various traditions and divisions within the body of Christ. And I’m grateful to count her as a friend.
And Laura likes to knit and sew, but not just casually. She’s studied the craft and culture of people who use their hands to repair old clothing and quilts, to take things that are old and worn and instead of throwing them out, to mend them and make them new. And Laura seeings in mending the deep but neglected wisdom of working class women, often women of color. And Laura sees in their work practices and metaphors of what the Chrisitan faith calls salvation.
Because salvation after all is not fundamentally about throwing something away and getting something new. God always works good from what is here, what God has made. God doesn’t throw away and start from scratch. And salvation is also not trying to rescue a couple of treasured possessions out of a burning building, while watching the rest go up in smoke.
Some Chrisitans have thought of salvation that way, like much of this world is on its way to hell, and what it means to be saved is to be snatched by God out of the flames and prepared for heaven.
But that’s a distortion of the Christian idea of salvation. Salvation has to do with taking something that is in disrepair and mending it. It has to do with a person who is not well healing and becoming whole and well again.
So menders save scraps of discarded fabric by knitting them into quilts. And they save holey sweaters and pants by knitting patches for them. And menders engage institutions that are out of date or dysfunctional and help them renew and work again.
People who mend and heal usually start small, and often end small too. When you mend a blanket, you don’t overhaul consumer capitalism’s obsession with cheap, throw away fabrics, and all the ways that are dehumanizing workers and polluting our world and harming our climate. Nope, you make a tiny difference in all that, and you get to keep your blanket.
And when you and your pharmacist change the nature of your interaction, you don’t end teenage suffering or all the dysfunction you both experience in America’s wasteful, impersonal medical system. Nope, you make that system better for you that day, and you walk away feeling more grateful and more alive.
So it’s small.
But what if small is mostly what we’ve got. And what if small, in the hands of an everlasting God, is the holy stuff of which big is made of.
When I talk about my heart and my troubles and my relationships with my therapist, she likes to encourage me with how much this work matters. Like when I get more curious or compassionate, or when I show up more courageous for a hard conversation, or more loving in a strained relationship, she’ll encourage me that this is how we save the world.
This is how things are made whole.
And when she does this, whether she realized this or not, she’s referencing some ancient wisdom in this tikkun olam tradition. There’s a line in the Mishnah, this collection of ancient rabbinic teachings in the Bible, that goes something like this. It says:
“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
And this line is repeated in the Quran, as the prophet Muhammad gives credit to Jews for the wisdom of their faith and cutlure.
“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
I love this. It goes beyond logic, to be sure, the idea that person-sized acts of gratitude and compassion and mending and repair really make a difference. Partly, I think, it’s daring to take a God-sized perspective on ourselves for a moment, a perspective of faith.
That from God’s vantage point, we are so beautiful and beloved, but also so small, so transitory. Our lives are really little and really short on the scope of things. And on this one tiny planet, there are billions of us, sharing space with all the other plants and animals, and matter.
So who are we to save the world? We can’t.
But who are we to not heal and mend either? Who are we not to do our part to increase our welfare by improving the welfare of the people and place we call home?
We’re fools if we don’t. Because one, it makes a difference. And two, it’s all we’ve got.
Small things matter. Jesus after all said to his students once:
Mark 9:40-41(Common English Bible)
40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us.
41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.
Don’t think of people as your allies or enemies.
I mean maybe sometimes, for protection, for tactical reasons, sure. But in general, people are not first a label, for you or against you. People are people. And people that give you a cup of water are doing something good, something God loves and is proud of, something God rewards, something that matters.
Everytime we heal and mend and repair, every time we take a relationship with land or place or people and make it more humane, more flourishing, more good, we do something that matters, we do something that makes God proud. We do something that increases our welfare. We participate in the saving of the world.
I’m finding this so compelling now, I can’t let it go.
With that pharmacist, for instance, I wrote her a letter, and I went back to CVS looking for her to give the letter to her, and hopefully to read it aloud to her. I learned this practice from my friends in Asha, the urban public health initiative in New Delhi, India, that our church supports.
My friend Kiran, the founder and leader, likes to promote contagious gratitude initiatives that send thanks and wellness out into communities. One of the ways she does this is by asking people to write a thank you letter to someone and then read it out loud to the recipient.
So this is what I did for that pharmacist. I don’t have time to tell you the whole story today. But I’ll just say that it didn’t go down according to script. I wasn’t able to read the letter out loud to her, for instance. It was way too busy there the next time I saw her. But I did get her the letter, and I did learn her name.
And I did have the chance later to hear her thank me for that letter, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on the face of someone working at CVS, and we did learn each other’s names. And now, I look forward to going to CVS, because I know she’ll treat me great, and I know I’ll be happy to see her and to thank her for her part in my family’s welfare, and I’m enjoying praying for this person by name now, praying for God’s blessing in her life, and that feels good to me too.
Something is happening there that is saving us, that is making us more whole.
Friends, we’re going to continue with this theme of How to Heal the World the next few weeks, from some different angles.
But let me close with two quick invitations.
I encourage you to try to treat particular people and parcels of land like they are the whole world, like they matter that much, because to God, I believe they do. Whoever saves one person saves the world entirely.
One way you can do this is through this practice of gratitude letters. Write a letter this week to someone you’re grateful for and send it to them. Or even better, if you are able, find a way to see that person and read them the letter, then give it to them.
And secondly, take up a practice that we haven’t talked about for a while at Reservoir, but has been important to the church over the years, ever since our founding 25 years ago. It’s called praying for your 6, and it refers to have six people who are local and whose names you know but who don’t share your church or your faith in God, and praying regularly for their blessings. It’s a way of spiritual generosity, of living out this Jeremiah passage of seeking the welfare of those around us, since we’re connected.
For now at least, this pharmacist is one of the people whose blessing I’m praying for, and I think God loves that and I think that makes a difference in making whole our broken world as well.
But the invitation here is to make this a delight more than a duty. See what kind of adventure we can find in seeing our welfare by being people of blessing and repair and kindness in the communities where we work and live, and see just what God does in that.