Inoculation of Hope

What is the first image that comes to your mind when I say the word “alter”?


Could someone please define that word for me? 

Two words pronounced alike but with different spellings, & meanings.

Alter: to change, to make different.  Other synonyms? 

Modify. Transform.  Turn. And spell it?

Altar: an elevated place (like a table) before which things that are considered sacred or divine are acknowledged (Scripture, Sacraments (communion bread & wine), wedding vows, our offering).  Altar: To lift up.

Alter: To transform, or turn & Altar: To lift up


So, now let’s paraphrase the Scripture reading, 1st from Isaiah 2:4

God will wield authority over the nations

And will arbitrate between many peoples.

They will alter  their swords into plowshares

And alter  their spears into pruning hooks

Nation shall not make war upon nation

Nor shall they study war any longer.             

And now the verse from Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world or by this age

But be altered by the renewing of your minds

So that you may know the will of God,

What is good and what is beautiful.


My very first childhood memory – ever - is of my mother singing to me as she was tucking me into bed at night.  Though she was probably tired and would have many more chores to do before she could go to sleep herself, she lingered, sat at my side, & gently stroked my hair as she sang.  And sometimes her passion seemed so strong & her love so deep that her eyes even welled with tears.  “Sleep Kentucky Babe” is the lullaby I remember best.  It concluded in an almost whispered line:  “Close your eyes and sleep”. 


Then as I was drifting off to sleep, she would kiss me & quietly slip out the door still wearing a loving smile.  I didn’t realize till later how her love was tinged with pain from a tragic loss that preceded my birth.


You see, a few months before I was born, my oldest sister Peggy (who was 15 years old at the time) suddenly became sick.  After a very short illness - she died.  Her illness had been caused by polio.


Our remaining family consisted of two grief-stricken parents, who surely would have been fearful for the safety of their other three young children.  And soon I would become their 4th surviving child.  It must have been a strange simultaneous mixture of tragedy & hope, of death & new life - especially in the context of an extremely important event in the history of medicine:  the polio vaccine was just being developed at that time (in the early 1950’s) & within another 2 years it would be given to most children in the US.  With access to the new vaccine the rest of us would soon be well protected from polio.  If my sister Peggy could only have received it earlier, her life would have been spared.

When I analyze my family’s history & relate it to my career development & my interest in both music & science, I see these two factors - my sister’s death from polio, & how Mom used to sing so lovingly to me -  even in the midst of her grief - as having a huge impact on who I would become.  I don’t know how intentional or conscious it was, but when I look back now the connections seem much more obvious to me.


You know by now that I sing & write songs. I also retired last summer after having been a Registered Nurse for 37 years, & the past 23 of those years I was also a FNP & a research clinician.  And for most of these years I was involved in – guess what: immunization programs & vaccine research at UW & HMC.


Let me describe how effective vaccines often work.  By breaking down a disease-causing virus (or bacteria) & figuring out ways to alter it just enough to inactivate it, we can sometimes introduce these transformed, broken pieces into a person’s body.  Then the vaccine essentially fools the person’s immune system into producing antibodies which remain to protect them if or when they are exposed to the actual disease.


Of course, having had the disease itself can often provide one with natural immunity, but unfortunately a certain percentage of people don’t survive the disease unscathed - or even alive.  But if we can break down a disease-causing virus into less damaging pieces, & alter them so as to create a safe & effective vaccine, there is a remarkable potential for preventing enormous suffering, injury & death.  As we all know, prevention is ultimately much more effective, successful & less costly than attempts to cure a disease after someone already has it.  [So it’s very similar in this way to war, environmental catastrophes, & overwhelming social inequities):  Prevention is so much smarter & better - for everyone - than having to stop it once it’s started.]


Isn’t this an amazing concept?  That you take something harmful (like a disease-causing virus, or the causes of war), break it apart, and then - from those very broken pieces - alter them into something that is helpful, & which promotes health & healing, & peace.


Does this idea of introducing pieces of brokenness into the human body sound vaguely familiar to any of you?  It should:  This is my body broken for you. Take, eat, in remembrance of me.  This is my blood poured out for you. Take, drink in remembrance of me.


Consider - just for just a moment - the pieces of our own personal brokenness. You hardly need me to come here & remind you about that kind of brokenness.  Some of us have lost loved ones recently.  Perhaps we’ve endured illness or injury ourselves.  And all of us have said & done things for which we need forgiveness - & not just in years gone by - but perhaps as recently as this week (or even – already - today).


And on a national & global scale, all one needs to do is read a newspaper, or watch the evening news; or in many parts of the country (like here off 23rd) – just walk down the street to see evidence of brokenness. Daily - we see (or hear about) gun violence, sexism, racism, gay-bashing, & violence against women, children, people of color, & sexual minorities. We witness the effects of one seemingly endless war, & the world on the brink of yet another with (we have to admit) an egomaniac at the helm of our country’s armed forces, global warming that cannot be denied, & a government & power structure that either doesn’t care about or doesn’t have the fortitude to effect change for the better for the things that really matter. 


So how do we respond in the face of such brokenness? The hurt & the hate seem so big.  How can we find hope when the powers that be & events of our day seem so overwhelming? 


I’m going to prescribe something I call an inoculation of hope.  It involves finding creative new ways to break apart the very things that are most hurtful or hateful; & then altering them into something else, something of healing, of helping, of hope.  We can & must do so. We cannot put it off.  We cannot afford to be overcome by the paralysis & inertia of despair. If ever we’ll find heaven on earth, there’s no time just like this time.  


And as a community we must periodically lift up these broken & transformed substances – & acknowledge them as something that is sacred – an offering to God, which also helps prepare ourselves, our children & each other to overcome the hurt & hate we are facing now, & (unfortunately but true) will have to face again & again in the future.


My friends … this is Christ’s body – broken for us.  This is Christ’s blood – poured out for us. Take …, Eat …, Drink …, … remember. 


My mom sang to me in part to help cope with her grief over losing her first child.  But she couldn’t let that grief stop her from loving her other children just as deeply as she had loved before.  She had to reassemble the pieces of her broken heart and just keep on loving, living and hoping.  Sometimes her singing voice had a certain melancholy, but it was no less beautiful.  In fact, it probably made her singing more beautiful, rich, and wise than it otherwise might have sounded without that element of reassembled brokenness.  To sing - even through her pain - was as if she’d learned to dance with a limp.


At times the process of altering the broken pieces has to be very intentional and systematic like in science; dissecting the sources of these problems, analyzing and reconstituting them so that we can better understand them and prepare ourselves to respond or cope at a higher level of perspective.  At other times the inoculation might be as simple as an act of kindness, or a lullaby sung to a child.


If you hear or feel our creator God’s spirit today, my friends, do not turn your heads or harden your hearts.  The world needs an inoculation of hope & compassion, & it needs to start today, with us, & in this community


Benediction:  Let us go forth from this place standing in the way of oppression, standing up for Mother Earth, & for our sisters & brothers, and neighbors no matter where they be.  Let us go forth altering our swords into plowshares, & being altered by the renewing of our minds.  Go in peace.  Amen.

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