Saturday, August 28, 2010

Do You Care?

When I consider your heavens
the work of your fingers….

What is man that you are mindful of him…
that you care for him.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands..

from Psalm 8

The Lord formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being. Man is both of the earth and of heaven…filled with the breath of God. The Lord formed woman from the bone of man. He took the bone from man, formed the woman, then brought her back to him. The plan was a good one. “Lord, why do you care?”

I stood at the water’s edge trying to determine if the tide was coming in or going out. The pelicans gliding just above the water’s surface caught my attention. The air was still and I tried to allow my soul to become immersed in the rhythm of God’s creation. “What is man that You are mindful of him?” Why do you love us as you do when we wander so far from the plan? Why do you love us so much that You continue to pursue when we turn away and hide…rejecting your gift of life’s breath. Why do You care still, after all this time? Why did you delegate Your rule to us when You knew we would think it was our own? You wanted fellowship. We wanted autonomy. What is man that You would love him still when he can’t put down his need or his wants and instead, like the rich young ruler, turns and walks away, heavily burdened with sadness. 

Why? Why would You suffer for those who turn away and reject You? Why would you continue to love and suffer for those who are notoriously weak and unable to unclench their hands from their fears or who are so grievously self engrossed as to be unable to even see You standing in our midst. The gift You give is forgotten, lost in the busyness, put aside while we go on with the lives we create for ourselves. We have taken the authority you gave us and created our own little kingdoms where fear, selfishness, greed, anger, and bitterness shape our days. Yet, You do care. Your love never ends. The tides come in and the tides go out, washing away the words we speak…”I won’t” … ”I can’t”…”I don’t deserve it” … “I am unworthy”…Washing away the fear, the selfishness, the anger, the mistakes, the disappointments… Consistently, rhythmically, You bring us new life over and over.  Why?

When Dave and I reached our 23rd anniversary we took a canoeing trip to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. We paddled across Fontana Lake, up Hazel Creek to a beautiful camping area in a pine forest. Sometime during this trip, as we lay in our small tent, Dave suggested that for our 25th anniversary that we throw a big party and renew our vows. My silent thought was that I wasn’t sure we’d make it to our 25th. I thought it would be horribly dishonest to make vows to continue what I thought we had lost. At that time I felt all we had was a memory of our commitment. The revelation that the Lord gave me in 1974, as I drove my Volkswagen beetle home for spring break from UNC, was that Dave was the man with whom He would join me. That truth and the 3 children we were raising together were the ties that kept me from fleeing from what seemed long in the process of decay. Years of stressful circumstances had over time eroded the joy and playfulness of our marriage. Selfishness, weakness, inability, depression, family and work related anxieties piled up and smothered our peace. I was dreadfully tired and devoid of hope. The thought of the years dragging out with the past repeating itself made me cry out, “Lord, show us that You care. When I consider the heavens….what is man…? But, we are yours. You took the rib…you formed me…you took me to this man. You breathed life in our nostrils. We have not handled the responsibilities you honored us with. We don’t deserve your attention, much less your love that creates life out of death. But, please come.”

“What is man that you are mindful of him?” Man, to whom you gave so much freedom, took the gift and ran. Why did you go looking for him? Why did you call to him? Will you come this time? Do You love us with everlasting love? What does that love look like? Are You really mindful. Where are You in this mess? Have we screwed up beyond redemption?”

God is not a man. Man was formed by God from the dust. Love created and formed and shaped and then let go, allowing us the freedom to choose, to name, to rule. Did He know we would fail to live in His love? Did He know in 1976 that the man and woman He joined would find the life they had built together crumbling 20 years down the road? I believe He did, knowing that He would use it to continue His plan.

I hiked through the woods along the Eno River, pouring out my grief and my confusion, when I was stopped in my tracks before a decaying log. “Kick it”, the still small voice instructed. In doing so I realized that the death of the old would create a rich, loamy soil from which the new would grow. “Let it die.” Could I trust the Creator of the universe to grow a new life out of the old? Didn’t He need me? Why was I so afraid? Why did I feel so powerless, so hopeless? Why did life seem so meaningless?

To allow what was to die was a dreadful thought. To choose to trust in the Maker of this man and woman was to step onto the platform and let the noose settle around the neck of my self-rule. It was to take the authority to rule that was given to me and step under the umbrella of God’s rule, believing His rule is love. He asked me to choose without feeling, without seeing, without knowing what would come next. He asked me to return to basecamp and be reconciled to Him. He called to me to come out of my hiding place and confess my nakedness and my shame. He asked me to let Him love me. Why was this so hard? Why was I persistent in thinking I needed to make it right? Why did I think I needed to dress myself?

The fear that pounded in my chest took me far away from the love of the Creator. “I was naked and afraid.” I am tainted with shame. I have been wrong. I have failed. I have hurt You and another. I can’t do it. I fear punishment. I fear being found out. I am angry and bitter. I fear rejection. I fear seperation. And the list goes on. Reality was overwhelming. I wanted to hide. I retreated. I disappeared deep within myself. I wanted to succeed in dressing myself in love so I could come out into the light. But, I couldn’t.

When our daughter Rebekah was a preschooler she was fascinated with changing her clothes. Three or four times a day she would appear with a new outfit on. The combinations were creative and entertained us endlessly. She loved her pink “jellies” and her red, green, blue, and yellow striped skirt worn with her flowered top. Her brother Mark was equally in love with his outfit of cowboy boots, surfer shorts, and tank top worn days on end one summer. It was permissible to allow them the right to choose their own attire until it came time to dress for church. We couldn’t allow them to dress themselves, as they were not able. With great joy, I would dress my children in appropriate attire. I would fix Rebekah’s beautiful blonde curly hair and dress Mark up in sporty flannel pants and a red bow tie.

In this same way I had to present myself to my Father so that He might dress me in presentable clothing. Dave and I, in desperation, in all our shame, humbled ourselves before the representatives God sent to us. And they prayed on our behalf. They anointed us with oil. They walked alongside us. Slowly, the mystery of God’s love pealed back our layers of calluses. The challenge was to let go of what was, to lay down our agenda, to put aside our demands, and allow ourselves to be naked yet unashamed. Grace abounded through the love and patience of Christ’s ambassadors. I met weekly with friends God had anointed to bless me. They would wash me with prayers and dress me with love and acceptance. They would speak the truth of forgiveness and turn me toward God’s promised redemption.

And Dave and I made it to our 25th  anniversary. We threw the big party. We renewed our vows and stepped out of the ashes, dressed in grace and forgiveness. The work of making that which is good out of all things continues on a daily basis. The wonder of God being mindful of us is a constant reminder of our need to humble ourselves and press on through this place in between. We marked our 34th anniversary this year. The journey continues.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Important

My mind, my thoughts, my heart has been drawn again to the many that I know or have known who battle the painful paralysis that depression inflicts. I attended a memorial service for a young man whose life was ended by suicide. I have watched another young man as he struggles with the dark cloud that stirs anger and drives a wedge between himself and those he loves. I have talked with my son who seeks to find a new means of relief from the body of death that he has carried for years. I have felt tears come to my eyes as my husband and I talk about the surety that his brother's cancer will take his life. I ask my husband, "Who are you talking to about this?" I ask who is pastoring him. And I remember the times when I too felt the blinding pain of depression.

As I have found myself dancing a slow dance with anxiousness, wanting to experience a healing miracle for all, I remember what God has taught me through the life of his Son.

In this lesson that follows, that I wrote for a group of middle schoolers, I see myself and my husband as the friends. We are desperate for these we love to be healed. We work hard to find solutions and we pray even harder for miracles. It is appropriate and acceptable that we do so. But, I remember that there is that which is even more important. Though it seems that Jesus is not focused on our greatest need, I am reminded that His ways are not mine and and so, I consciously practice yielding to His loving, compassionate forgiveness. I choose to believe it is what is more important.

from Luke 5:17-26

There was a paralyzed man who was being carried on a stretcher by his devoted friends through town. They were determined to get to see the man named Jesus. Jesus was in Capernaum, a city on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was early in Jesus’ ministry, but already he was famous. The crowds would come from every town and village to hear him preach but more so to watch Him heal and to be healed. He was the most popular and unpopular public figure in the country. He was the rock star of the first century. He preached with authority. He stirred up the crowd with his new way of looking at the world. People would follow him for miles and for days. He was the healer of every kind of disease, the one who cast out demons, and the one who raised the dead. On this day the crowd that gathered was so large that the house where Jesus was teaching was jam-packed. There was standing room only, a true fire hazard.

There was tension in the room. The Pharisees and the Scribes had traveled from far and wide and were there in full force. These men were strong in their allegiance to the study of the Word. They were sure they knew what was right and were ready to catch Jesus in the errors of His teaching. For them, it was all about getting it right at all cost. Their defense of what them deemed right was often more important than people. But, Jesus had a way of taking the ancient teachings and turning them inside out and upside down. He was a threat to established religion. He never seemed to answer your questions the way you wanted. He had a way of turning them back on you. He was really hard to pin down. He was like no man they’d ever confronted and he was stirring the common folks. These men felt pressed to get things under control.

Into this setting came these men carrying their friend on the stretcher. They were on a mission. They were determined to get their friend to the feet of Jesus, believing that if they could that Jesus would heal him. Getting this friend on his feet was their goal. They were a force to be reckoned with. Their focused passion would not be satisfied by standing on the outside looking in. They didn’t give up when they arrived to find the crowd impenetrable. The house had a flat roof with an outside staircase. They quickly took that route. They were driven by the vision of their friend walking out of that house. They thought they knew what was best. They thought they knew what would make their friend whole. What came next was not what they expected.

They dug away at the roof’s structure. They lowered the whole stretcher, with the man on it, through the hole (now talk about stopping the flow of a lecture). With the man at Jesus’ feet, they waited expectantly for the Healer to reach out and touch their friend and empower him to stand and walk. How shocked…maybe even angered they were when they heard these words “Your sins are forgiven.”

Try to imagine this. The men had risked their status in the community to get for their friend what they thought was the best thing…a whole, healthy body. What an amazing act of devotion. But, what do they hear from the man they believed could and should heal. Imagine the disappointed thoughts and words perhaps spoken by the man on the stretcher: “Ah, Jesus, sir, maybe you don’t understand…With all due respect, I’m sure you are not blind…but, maybe you didn’t notice, maybe you are distracted…ah, I'm not able to walk, you see…I came to be healed. What’s this about my sins? I don’t understand. I’m a good person. I’m a family man. I’m faithful. I didn’t do anything wrong. What he didn’t understand was that sin in its most basic definition is not about what we do but is about who we are. Sin is what must be addressed first and foremost.

Jesus never let’s us settle for what is less than His best. He always wants to take us to the most basic level…to the very origin of the problem. He won’t leave us satisfied to remain on the surface. Here, it is not the man’s body that was most important. It was not the goal of healing his body that was most important…though He would get to that. No, Jesus was going to show them all what was really important. They all needed to understand what was most important. Forgiveness of our sins is our most basic need.

Like all stories we find multiple layers under this primary theme. Jesus always spoke pointedly regarding his primary focus, but always took advantage of a given situation to impact the lives of everyone on stage.

In this story, we see a multifaceted drama of fellowship taking place:
  •       the fellowship of the men who desperately loved their friend. Jesus was not oblivious to the loving efforts of the friends….no; he recognized the value of loving one another. In fact, much of the His teaching was on this very topic.
  •       the paralyzed man, dependent on his friends and who desperately wanted to be whole. Jesus did care deeply about the man’s paralyzed body…in fact if we continue in the story we see that Jesus does heal the man, who picks up his mat and walks away.
  •       the fellowship of teachers of the law who desperately loved their religion. It is not that Jesus was unaware of his conflict with the teachers of the law or the need to teach them the truth, in fact throughout the gospels we hear him teaching in the synagogues
  •       Jesus, who desperately loved them all enough, set up HIS kingdom where the forgiveness of sins is the foundation on which all the wants and      perceived needs of men find their realization…though maybe in a different way than man might think.

The reality is that Jesus knew that everyone in this crowd needed to hear: “Your sins are forgiven.” Without the forgiveness of sin there can be no fellowship in His Kingdom.This is what sets the fellowship of Christians apart from the fellowship of friends, the fellowship of the religious community, or the fellowship of the members of a society, a company, a team, a class, or  a club. The friends of this man forgiven by Jesus were devoted. No doubt they loved him as family. The teachers of the law were devoted. They thought they knew what the best was. They were passionate and zealous. All of them hoped that Jesus would be the answer they perceived was needed and therefore they were seeking. What they didn’t know was that He was THE answer and offered more than they could understand. What none of them could understand was that their need went beyond the healing of the body or discovering the “right” teaching. More than anything else, they all needed their sins to be forgiven. And Jesus had the authority to do just that and in fact did just that, even before we knew to ask.

It is the work of Christ in His authority to forgive sins that this or any crowd of opposing and diverse people can be united in fellowship.

Jesus knew that the man needed forgiveness more than he needed his body healed and gave forgiveness freely before the man understood.

God so loved the world that He gave his son. God had a plan and put it in motion. His plan was to send Jesus. Jesus would pay the price and set us free from our paralysis due to sin even when we weren’t aware that we needed him.