Whitney Houston, the Leper, and Us

Two news stories caught my eye this week: The death of Whitney Houston and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s visit to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. The New Testament Gospel text for this morning was the story of Jesus and the leper (Mark 1:40-45). The title of the Sermon was simply “THE LEPER” preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska Minnesota, February 12, 2012. Here’s the text of the sermon:

Just another leper,

the better left unseen.

“Surely it is their own fault

for not keeping clean.”

Just another AIDS case

now hidden well away,

“They must have brought it on themselves

promiscuous or gay.”

 Just another boat person

sponging on me and you,

“They’ve only got themselves to blame

by trying to jump the queue.”

Just another drug addict

shooting up behind the shed,

“Don’t waste your pity on such trash

they’re better off dead.”

Just one determined Jesus

coming through our lands,

welcoming all the unclean mob

with warm, saving hands.

–      Copyright B D Prewer 2002, “Lepers, Jesus and Us”

Who is the leper?  Could he be me? Could he be you?

I’ve spent a lot of time with the leper.  I live inside his body. The sense of nausea with my own sorry self, and I’ve met him a thousand times in the same sense of leprosy I’ve experienced in the lives of others.

This disease is part of the human condition itself. The sense that there’s something wrong with us, something that doesn’t belong, isn’t worthy, needs to stay hidden, closed off from the rest of the world, a leper kept at arms length from full participation in the fullness of life.

Sometimes the disease is so clear it slaps you in the face.  We see it clearly in others.

Whitney Houston, that beautiful soul – the god-daughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dione Warwick – is found dead somewhere in Beverly Hills. “Cause of death unknown.” But what we do know is that she struggled for years with the horrors of addiction, this sense of isolation and self-accusation that was the lot of the leper who came to Jesus that day.

Some of the lepers are people of fame and apparent success, like Whitney.

Others are people of infamy. Like the psychotic mother who took the life of her nine-year-old son when the voices told her to kill him. As we did at The Legal Rights Center, we took her case not because she was innocent, but because she was a human being – the most obvious of lepers, a decrepit sinner who had stabbed her son more than a hundred times. She had gone off her medication, and the “voices of the Devil” had taken over. After rhe State had committed her to the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a sorry place, if ever there was one, I visited her. I listened to her sobs. I watched the tears streaming down her face, looking through the glass of the prison visitation room tha t stood between us. The walls of her inner prison were thicker and higher than the walls of the hospital that housed her. Back on the medication that put her back in her right mind, she was inconsolable, a leper who could never undo what the voices had told her to do.

But it’s not just the likes of Whitney,whose sense of leprosy was hidden by success, or the likes of Mary, the pitiful victim of criminally insanity, who is the leper.

We all are.

Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great heroes of the Christian faith, in words of Voices in the Night, preserved from his prison cell where he was imprisoned for his participation in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is alone in the middle of the night, restless, ill at ease, in dis-ease, you might say, with the dis-ease of spiritual leprosy, lying there, listening in the night for the sounds inside and beyond the prison.

         Night and silence.

Only footsteps and shouts of the guards.

Do you not hear it in this silenced house,

Shaking, breaking and collapsing,

As hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts?

Their songs they hide,

My ears are open wide.

“We who are old, and we who are young,

We children of every tongue,

We who are strong, and we who find it hard,

We who sleep, and we who guard,

We who are poor, and we who have all,

         Together into failure fall, (italics mine)

We who are good and we who are unclean,

Whatever we have been,

We…with scars we cannot hide,

We witnesses of those who died,

We who are defiant and we who are bemused,

By long isolation, sorely abused.

            Brother, we seek and call for thee!

            Brother, do you hear me?”

Who was the man who broke the rules to force his way through the clean crowd, shouting “Unclean! Unclean!”  while he coveed his face until he got to Jesus?

Could he be me? Could he be you?

“If you will it,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean!”

And stretching out his hand with great compassion, he touches the untouchable, and says, “I will!  Be clean!”

“Just one determined Jesus coming through our lands, welcoming all the unclean mob with warm, saving hands.” And the cleansed man ran and told everyone what Jesus had done for him.

How about you?

10 thoughts on “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and Us

    • Fletcher, Glad you found Views from the Edge and took the time to comment. The layout is one from WordPress.com. Writing some days comes easy. Most days it comes hard. Some days it doesn’t come at all. As I grow in years the thing I know most is that I know nothing at all. Maybe that’s worth writing about? I’m not sure. Thanks so much for coming by.

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  1. I loved this particular post. I just finished watching several little online videos of her performances and key interviews and came back here to comment. The truth is that her innocence, vivacity, and charm shown through until almost the end. It must be very hard to face the temptations, the pressures, and the power of public opinion, especially if you have that child-like light still left inside you as she seemed to have. It must have taken great strength for you to see the things you saw in your work when just hearing about it makes me deeply disturbed – as did the story of the lady who killed her own son which has been haunting me. It is true that we all have a leper inside, and your post illustrates that so beautifully. Thank you for sharing.

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    • I remember the first time I saw her. I was blown away by the purity and loveliness of her voice. Last night, while Kay was at Yoga, I asked the bartender at Ruby Tuesday’s what he was hearing about the Whitney Houston story. “Not much,” said Mike, “except in the AA groups. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’ve risen to the top or sunk to the bottom, it can happen to any of us. One day at a time. Day by day. One day at a time.” As the “great strength” comment, it didn’t. It’s in those moments when a pastor (or a defense attorney, for that matter, or a psychiatrist) wades with people in the deep waters and the darkness that we are most in touch with reality itself – the perseverance of the light that the darkness cannot overcome. It’s the days when I am isolated or living in separation from human suffering that leave me weak and feeling weak, lonely, and helpless.

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  2. A very sweet post…forgiving ourselves of our imperfections can be so much harder to attain than God’s forgiveness. Us humans can be quite merciless with ourselves and others…

    It’s fascinating, though, because we’re all lepers in some form or fashion. If we aren’t dealing with addiction to pills, there’s alcohol, or sex, or voyeurism, or food…or work, socializing, materialism and the inexhaustible list goes on…

    I argue that it all comes back to all of us playing out the pain that goes back for generations. Unhealed “cycles of violence” playing out from parents to children from wars that have existed, etc. and ultimately a lack of unconditional love that His Holiness Christ exhorted us all to extend to each other…and ourselves…

    A lot of healing to be done…thanks for this post!

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    • Thoughtful reply that reminds me again of multgenerational trauma. As you know, it’s the historical trauma of communities of people (e.g. America’s First People, the Maori of New Zealand, and Africans captured like animals by slave traders) that continues to wash over successive generations. The power of this chain of violence, this cycle of violence, can only be broken one link at a time by repeated acts of love that free the traumatized individual or community to break free of the shackles into the full light of their innate dignity. We are meant for each other. My life, in one way or another, has been in the places where hatred and self-hatred have stolen people away. I’m always buoyed up whenever a brother or sister shares a perspective like yours. ‘His Holiness Christ” is with you! Grace and Peace, Gordon.

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  3. Thanks for the footnote 🙂 Most people reading this won’t know what a lectionary is. So…what’s called The Revised Common Lectionary is a schedule of Scripture readings for each week of the Christian year. Yesterday’s Gospel was Mark 1:40-45, the story of the leper. You should also know that Steve and I enjoy a special kind of repartee as old and getting older classmates.

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  4. I’m gonna slip an extra week in the Lectionary schedule so I can preach YOUR sermon a week later. (I’ll give ya a footnote…)

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