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Music for Lepers

March 14, 2007

I have been listening to this band called the Psalters for a while now, they make their own version of worship, which sounds a lot like mid-eastern world music. I always knew they had some interesting ideals and philosophies, so I checked out their website and found this in the Mission section. I think this is beautifully written, and it really spoke to me today:

This is the philosophy/situation from which the psalters, as we know them through the Bible, created their worship music. There is a great deal we as American Christians can learn from psalters and their approach to Glorifying God through music. Indeed, their approach seems a good elixir for the diseases of humanity in general; but nowhere in history or geography does their music seem a more appropriate vaccine than for the plague that affects myself and my culture/generation. There is a plague of leprosy in my country and it seems that not only are the devices of our culture impotent to stop it; the culture itself appears unable to so much as acknowledge the presence of this debilitating disease that is ravaging the land.

For many sacrificial years physician Dr. Paul Brand had been working with Leprosy patients in India , seeking to at least discover ways of reducing the effects of the disease if not finding a cure for them. What he discovered was almost as revolutionary as a cure: One of the oldest known and perhaps most notorious diseases in history has been misunderstood for thousands of years.

Until Dr. Brand’s work (the most ground breaking fruits of which occurred in the fifties) physicians had thought that the deformed limbs, blindness, gangrene, etc. of Lepers were all directly caused by the disease. Dr. Brand discovered, however, that the disease attacks only the millions of pain receptors in our body, while leaving the rest of our tissue undamaged. Because they do not feel any pain, the leper will regularly place their hands on hot stoves, or allow a paper cut to become infected until gangrene sets in and the foot or hand must be amputated.

One of the many typically powerful examples of the effects of life without pain is recorded by Dr. Brand in his book The Gift of Pain. He records an incident involving a patient in a leprosy community in India :

“An eager young patient caught my eye as he struggled across the edge of the courtyard on crutches, holding his bandaged left leg clear of the ground. Although he did his awkward best to hurry, the nimbler patients soon overtook him. As I watched, this man tucked his crutches under his arm and began to run on both feet with a very lopsided gait, waving wildly to get our attention. He ended up near the head of the line, where he stood panting, leaning on his crutches, wearing a smile of triumph. I could tell from the man’s gait, though, that something was badly wrong. Walking toward him, I saw that the bandages were wet with blood and his left foot flopped freely from side to side. By running on an already dislocated ankle, he had put far too much force on the end of his leg bone, and the skin had broken under the stress. He was walking on the end of his tibia, and with every step that naked bone dug into the ground. Nurses had scolded him sharply, but he seemed quite proud of himself for having run so fast. I knelt beside him and found that small stones and twigs had jammed through the end of the bone into the marrow cavity. I had no choice but to amputate the leg below the knee. (Brand p. 7)”

Leprosy strips the victim of the gift of pain that acts as an alarm system blaring incessantly until it is heard. When a healthy person catches the flu or gets a cut, their pain receptors force them to drop everything else that they are doing and deal with the situation until the pain goes away and the body returns to health. Conversely, Lepers have no insistent alarm system, and will therefore allow minor infections to develop into horrifically debilitating catastrophes even though they may be aware of the problem. Yet because it does not hurt they allow the infection to continue. They may see the problem but they do not feel it.

We too are lepers. We live in the “cushiest”, “comfiest”, richest country in history. We have our wealth, our philosophies, our drugs, and the media to protect us not only from truly feeling the pain of the oppressed, but also from feeling our own oppression and need to be healed.

“So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich , and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire,…” (Rev. 3:16-18)

The oppression of the rich, powerful, comfortable, and drugged is that it is a separation from Christ. It all oppresses by layering blanket upon blanket of materialism and worldliness until we are pinned down under a mountain of cushy fabric that separates us from the Light, and suffocates us from the cool biting air of His Breath.

On the other hand, oppression as traditionally defined (poverty, slavery, violence, cultural ostracism) generally affects us in a different way. It cuts and tears and rips away from an individual—leaving them exposed and vulnerable. I grant that the response to this oppression is not often positive. Many times when people experience these forms of suffering they seek to flee it through drugs, bitterness, and a perpetuation of violence. It is up to the individual how to respond to suffering. But it is suffering that helps us to deeply feel our NEED for Christ and to more deeply identify with Him and the cross He bore.

It is also true the rich powerful oppressor often suffers as much or even more than those he oppresses. But it is a suffering of numbness; alienation from Christ the suffering servant; a spiritual deadness born out of a fleeing from suffering–and therefore this form of oppression actually serves to perpetuate our problem. That is why I feel we need to identify with those who do not have the layers of blankets; but are rather out in the biting cold, naked and torn.

Yet instead of identifying with the suffering Body of Christ we use the Body as if it were merely a tool, like the young leprosy patient who used his broken leg to get to the front of the dinner line. Because we are only told about the pain in Sudan , but do not ourselves feel it, we are perfectly content to allow Pepsi and Coca-Cola to buy gum arabic from the oppressive regime that has murdered 2 million people (most of whom are Christians) since 1989. Because we do not directly suffer from the severe poverty and oppression that occurs every day in Latin America, we raise no great fuss over our government training and arming thousands at the “School of the Americas ” in Atlanta , Georgia to conduct guerrilla warfare on unarmed peasants south of the border. It does not cause us to flinch when we find out that this is done in order to install the type of puppet government best suited to meeting the capitalistic needs of the American economic machine.(Brown pp. 1-5) We do not bleed when we find out that thousands of Iraqi children are dying every month from NATO enforced sanctions that ultimately are in place in order that our black gold may flow freely, or at least more cheaply, from our automobiles.

Only when 15 middle-class, suburban, predominantly white youth are killed in “our own backyard” do we as a culture and generation even care to reflect on the disease that is enslaving us. That is because when we look intently upon the faces of these victims in our city paper (perhaps situated on the front page above the small article mentioning the ‘Crisis in Kosovo’) we see our own friends, neighbors; perhaps even ourselves. They are people who go to the same sort of school we go to. They live in the same type of neighborhood, wear the same kinds of clothes; listen to the same kinds of music, etc. etc. In a word we identify with them. We feel their pain because they are a part of us; and from that feeling we realize that there is a need for change and healing, or else that part of us will continue to suffer and hurt.

If we do not feel that hurt then that part of us has lost its identity with us. We no longer perceive that part as a member of ourselves. That is why we are so readily capable of using our neighbors like tools. We do not, in our heart of hearts, feel that they are a part of the Body of Christ. We do not identify with them. We do not suffer with them. They are available to us to be used as tools.

This is what happened to Dr. Brand’s leprosy patients. Now that he had discovered what was causing all the tissue damage of his patients Dr. Brand focused his attention on training the patients to protect their hands and feet and other parts of the body that regularly came in contact with potentially harmful objects and situations. He assumed that once the leprosy patients were properly educated about the importance of protecting their hands and feet, the patients would be able to keep themselves healthy and free of injury. He soon realized, however, that irresponsibility and carelessness were not the only obstacles keeping the leprosy patients from maintaining the health of their bodies. They had also lost a sense of identity with the parts of the body they could not feel pain from. The lack of pain signals had actually served to psychologically amputate the arms and feet from the boundary of self. One of Dr. Brand’s patients said to him, “’My hands and feet don’t feel part of me. They are like tools I can use, but they aren’t really me. I can see them, but in my mind they are dead.’” (Brand, p. 126)

Middle-Class Americans (like myself) suffer from leprosy. Jesus was constantly healing lepers. He does not flee from them. Nor does He flee the rich and “comfy”. The rich young ruler and the Pharisees suffered from our form of leprosy and Jesus was constantly dealing with them too. Yeshua says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline” (Rev. 3:19)

He sought to heal them by making them uncomfortable; challenging their beliefs; challenging them to give up all they had and take up the Cross; serving and identifying with the traditionally defined oppressed—just as He did. Jesus called them to this form of repentance not only for the sake of the poor; but so that they could learn from the poor how to feel, and struggle, and be healed of their leprosy with the gift of pain. So too we are called to identify with the suffering servant so that we can be healed of our leprosy.

We identify with the traditionally defined oppressed by living with them and serving them. We also identify with them by studying their interpretations of life as they have lived it. Their interpretations are to be found in their books, poetry, dance, art,…and music. We lepers need to immerse ourselves in their heritage as well as their lives. Christ is found everywhere; but this is where He is felt.

Christ speaks to us as we immerse ourselves in the musical heritage of the suffering servant; just as He speaks to us when we immerse ourselves in the literary heritage of the suffering servant (i.e. the Bible, the great Church fathers and mothers both past and present). As we soak ourselves in this heritage we will begin to learn how to make music for the lepers. Music that will help to heal our leprosy, not perpetuate it. Music that will help us to not merely think of Christ, but to feel Him, and stand with Him, praising Him, the suffering servant, our Lord, and Healer.

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