Today’s gospel (Luke 13:10-17) begins as a story about the healing of “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” (v. 11). It’s also a story about the need to look clearly at what’s happening in our lives, and about raising our vision so we might see something greater and live into it. Whatever afflicted the woman – and spirits in those days were blamed for many things that today we know as medical conditions – it left her “bent over and . . . quite unable to stand up straight” (v. 11). For quite possibly most of her life, she had lived bent over, eyes to the ground, seeing little more than the circle of ground beneath her feet, unable to meet others face-to-face or look anyone squarely in the eye. She lived in a perpetual posture of submission and subservience, unable to rise to her full stature and be fully the person she was created to be.
Have you lived like that, even a little? Have you failed, so far, to grow into the fullness of life God created you for and rise to your full stature? Is there any way in which your life and the free expression of your authentic self has been limited or fallen short of your potential? To what degree is your life bent in submission to habit or culture or circumstances or chance? If you can identify any of those things in yourself, you have a way of relating to the woman in the synagogue that day. And that’s where the message of that woman’s healing might find its mark.
Notice that the woman was healed, made whole, and finally “stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13), but there’s no hint she sought healing or even thought about the possibility of it when she came to the synagogue. In eighteen years, she might have grown so shaped by her affliction, it had become her normal way of life. She had developed ways of coping with her situation and may have grown comfortably dependent upon the help others provided. Maybe she had given up any dream of being anything but who she was, always less than who she might have been, or might still become. Being less than full in any way can become so familiar, it starts to seem normal, and it becomes hard to imagine anything else is possible.
So it was Jesus, or God in Jesus, who took the initiative that day. He saw something in her she might have forgotten was there – some potential, some unremembered hope, some neglected self-awareness, some deeply buried dream, some latent possibility – and he moved to make her whole, to complete what life began and had left incomplete. John Wesley called it “prevenient grace,” grace that comes before any conscious will or action on our part. Before we even think of asking, God is already moving to free us from what binds us.
Even though we may not imagine anything different from this ordinary, bent-over, limited existence we have come to believe is normal, God sees something better for us: abundant life, life in all its fullness, more and better life than we ever dreamed of (John 10:10). And God takes the initiative, intervenes in our routine, disrupts our “normal,” and says to us: “you are set free from your ailment” (v. 12). How has God’s prevenient grace been at work in your life in ways you might not have recognized? How might it be at work there now? How is your “normal” being disrupted with the beginnings of something more? “I am about to do a new thing,” God said; “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it” (Isa. 43:19)?
God does that not only with individuals but with whole congregations. The “normal” of the mainstream church in the Western world has been undergoing disruption since the 1950s or before, slowly and imperceptibly at first, and now with tremors that cannot be ignored. The old way of being church has been proving less effective year by year for decades, and last year, for the first time ever, church membership dropped below fifty percent nationally. One survey of over 15,000 churches conducted just before covid-19 hit shows that in just twenty years, from 2000 to 2020, median church attendance dropped more than half, from 137 people to sixty-five.
The church we have known seems to be disappearing, dying, and we don’t yet see clearly what will take its place. Like the woman in the synagogue, we may come to church expecting more of the same, even as bad as the same has become. We may not be able to imagine anything different from the church we have known, crippled and bent-over though it may be. We may not be able to see anything other than the ground beneath our feet, where we stand and have always stood. Maybe we’re stuck in a new parody of an old hymn, “Like a mighty turtle moves the church of God. / Brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.” The losses we’re experiencing may seem to be only that, losses.
Meanwhile, church councils and administrative boards and vestries and whole congregations remain bent over, never reaching their full stature, surveying the ground beneath their feet where they’ve always trod, conducting the same business in the same way but with more effort and more diligence – reminiscent of the definition of insanity: doing things in the same way and expecting different results – struggling to balance budgets and maintain buildings and attract new members, struggling to maintain the institution we have always known, while slipping further into the need for life support. The woman in the synagogue tells me those things may not be problems at all; they may be signs that God is intervening, disrupting our “normal” so that a new and more abundant life, more and better than we ever dreamed of, might be ours.
Polls that show church membership on the decline also show spirituality remains a potent force. A study two years ago found that eighty percent of Americans consider themselves spiritual and that spirituality is associated with greater social action and civic engagement, expressions of the gospel that are more public and more practical, and that result in greater involvement in the life of the church and the lives of our neighbors. What might happen if we reverse our priorities, making the maintenance of bricks-and-mortar institutions at best secondary, and putting our best energy into how to dance with the Holy Spirit in the midst of our daily lives?
I won’t pretend to know where God is leading us, but in this I have great confidence: God is not leading us into a reprocessed version of the past, and doing business as usual will not be enough if we want to dance with the God who makes all things new (Rev. 21:5). God knows our unrealized potential, our latent possibilities, and God is intruding into our lives, disrupting the status quo, so we might rise to our full stature and praise God with all God has given us to be.