On Sunday, January 6th, I had an epiphany. For me, this epiphany was significant because it occurred on the day that we Christians celebrate Epiphany in the liturgical sense. Bear with me as I explain what you probably already know. The Greek word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “revelation.” The season of Epiphany follows the season of Christmastide, and it commemorates the revelation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Western Christians, we remember this day as the time the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem and brought gifts to the Holy Child. We think of the star as giving light, and for this reason, some people think of an epiphany as a moment of enlightenment…or a so-called “aha” experience.
That’s what my epiphany was… a moment when the light dawned on me about the importance of making connections. The weather was mild that night and the new moon surrendered its light to the fading stars in a wintry sky. After attending a party for chaplains and counselors at the Harbor of Health in downtown Memphis, my husband and I walked to our car, satiated from the good food and fellowship. We left the lights of the Mississippi River Bridge behind us as we drove east toward our home in Cordova.
Along the way we chatted about the food and the music, and we filled in any gaps of conversations that we might have missed. That was about the time when my husband of many years blew me away with these words.
“You know that stuff about networking with pastors to help congregations?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, not expecting what he would say next.
“Well, we’re already doing it,” he said.
“Sure, I know…” and I launched into a overview about the existing congregational networks organized by the hospital.
“No,” he said. “What I mean is…I’m already doing it …in my classes with my students.”
What?” Now I was really confused, so I tried to clarify. “I know you teach students who want to be certified as substance abuse counselors.” Some background…my husband Jim is a licensed professional counselor who teaches substance abuse treatment methods and theory at a local community college. At one time, he was an EAP counselor like me, but now he has a part-time private practice and has been teaching at the college for about four years.
“Yes, but did you know that several of my students are bi-vocational ministers?” he reported. “They are taking these classes because there is such a need in their congregations for substance abuse treatment. They work in neighborhoods in Memphis where some of their members are addicted to drugs and alcohol, but because they have no health insurance coverage, they can’t afford treatment. Their members are seeking help from their first line of defense…their pastors. And the pastors are responding by forming free treatment programs in their churches.”
“Oh, my goodness,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just haven’t thought about it until tonight when we started talking about the importance of making connections in the community.”
“Well, one of the first connections we need to make is that we need to talk more about what really matters,” I observed. This was my first epiphany…that my husband and I need to talk more about what we do every day. But the second epiphany was even more significant. “Connection”, one of the “leading causes of life,” was happening right under our noses! What a revelation! We had just uncovered a way that connection heals communities. Here was another dot on the map of assets in our community.
Then another light turned on my head. Perhaps the most amazing part of the story was that connection was happening naturally and powerfully and incarnationally… without any formal intent to evangelize or recruit or even publicize. It was happening because God has called some bi-vocational ministers to bring healing to their congregations. And before that… God called people like Jim to teach what he knows with compassion and humor and purpose. Is it any real surprise that Jim served ten years as a local United Methodist pastor and twenty years as an addictions treatment counselor before he became a professor? If God is the One who calls and connects people and agencies and communities, then healing will inevitably come from it.
One more epiphany…there are more healing works to be done. What would happen if we were more intentional about connecting our assets? Now that we know what God can do, what will we do? The National Council of Churches USA recently publicized the Congregational Health Ministry Survey. The good news is that churches are involved in health ministries. The data shows that congregations care about the health of their members and the communities they live in. But the disparity between the total number of health education programs (24,072) and direct service programs (13,033) is glaring. Apparently congregations are better at educating people about problems than doing something about them.
Direct service programs are, according to the survey, “understood to mean provision of medical care provided directly to individuals, usually by someone specifically trained to do so”(p.6 of the report). A good example of a direct service program is a free substance abuse program led by a trained pastor of his/her congregation. We have to do more than just educate congregations about problems that already exist. We have to engage congregations in making commitments to provide or sponsor training for interested pastors and lay health ministers, especially in the areas of mental wellness and substance abuse. Direct service programs are not intended to take the place of hospitals or formal treatment programs, but they are intended in fill in the gaps of service where hurting people are seeking help from the healing connections in their lives.
We need more epiphanies. We need people turned on by the revelation of what God is already doing in our communities, and by how much more we could do if we could get better connected.