I love today’s gospel of John (5:-5-6), “Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”
REALLY!? Come on. Why would he ask that? Jesus could end thirty-eight years of misery for this guy! Is there any possibility that he would say, “no”? Well, yes there is. I know that for a fact, because I have said “no” to God longer than that! I turned my back on him and suffered a life of emptiness for years. Truth be told, I still suffer the consequences every time I close my heart to God and choose to go my own way.
Most of my life, I was angry and self-indulgent (I often still am). My faith was shallow and lifeless (it, maybe not so often, still is). I continually picked at the scabs of the wounds inflicted by others, refusing to forgive, and at the same time denying my own sinfulness (yeah, you guessed it – still doing that).
As I began to really listen to God’s word, and began to meet and know some faithful Christians, I became aware of an unexplainable longing in my heart. That was God, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found myself getting bolder at reaching out to God and to others, and proclaiming my faith. Though I still considered myself unworthy of anyone’s love, especially God’s love, and I could not allow anyone to minister to me.
I was also learning, belatedly, to become a better parent. God had a plan that parenting skills would be passed down from generation to generation, but some of us have to look elsewhere for guidance. As much as I resented my mother for abusing me, and as determined as I was not to be like her…I was. Her way was the only way I knew. But then God showed up, initially in the ministry of Dr. James Dobson (author of several excellent parenting books), and I’m forever grateful for that.
As I poured more and more of myself into my children, however, a new reality was setting in. My husband and I were headed for disaster. I begged him to look honestly at our relationship, all the while refusing to do it myself. I prayed that we could work harder to mend our hurts and strengthen our marriage. But my pleading fell on deaf ears and my fears were becoming a reality.
One by one, our children were leaving home and Tom and I became lost in the deafening silence of our empty nest. So, after much thought, counseling, and prayer, I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave. Each of our children reacted differently to the news of our separation, but all of them were devastated. It was probably the most difficult decision of my life! And, even though I truly felt God was okay with my leaving, I had no idea what the outcome would be as a result of that decision. I will say this in hindsight though: I know I did not sense that God was approving of my decision or that he was telling me to leave. But, I am certain that he was going to use my decision “for his good”. (Genesis 50:20)
So, off I went. I decided to go to Kentucky to volunteer for an organization that worked with the poor in Appalachia. Before I left home, I prayed a prayer that I had never prayed before: that God would change me, not every other person in my life, ME! God was just giddy with excitement! And, oh, the lessons I was about to learn!
How can I describe to you the soul-cleansing that I endured during that time; what those eight months were like for me? Every single day seemed to bring to light another of Linda’s issues to deal with. I didn’t enjoy confronting my pride, anger, and resentfulness. As a matter of fact, it was, in essence, like being in hard labor – for eight months. Non-stop. With no anesthetic!
“Come on, breathe for me,” says the doctor. “Breathe for me? Breathe for me? I’ll give you breathe for me! How about if you try to breathe for me while my hands are around your neck, choking you? How about that?” (Oh, sorry, I must have been having a flashback.)
Anyway, for the first time in my life, my longings, my brokenness, and my hope that maybe I was worthy of love, were laid bare. God was beginning to change my heart, though I hardly knew all the implications of that at the time. It was a beautiful example of how he can work in our lives when we “allow” him to do what only he can. All of my past attempts to change had failed because I tried to do things my own faulty way; by my own strength. I refused to yield my will to his, and I had failed time and again.
The fulfillment we seek can seem elusive. It can be confused with something as insignificant as a new outfit or something as unattainable as somebody else’s life. When I’m removed from my groundings, and feeling overpowered by my struggles, God reminds me that I’m right where he wants me – in the fray is where I’ll learn to be most like him. That’s where I’ll learn that my joy cannot be stolen unless I allow people or circumstances, rather than God, to define me. Coming to grips with that truth will open me to the fullness of life.
John 10:10 says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Sheer desperation began leading me to accept whatever God deemed necessary to change my life. No strings attached that would allow me to yank control back if things became too hard, or too painful. I would resist the impulse to switch to an easier route, though that was my normal reaction when I was afraid. And what did I receive in return? Oh, not much…just a new relationship with God; with my family; with my husband of forty-three years; a purpose that fulfills me; and the joyful hope that endures, even during the most difficult of times. In short – an abundant life I could never have imagined on that fateful day I left home.
Henri Nouwen, in his most beautiful book, The Return of the Prodical Son, enfleshes all that I have experienced; all that I have been so afraid to admit or even look at honestly. His vulnerability and openness about his own struggles gives others the courage to trust that when Jesus comes to us and asks, “Do you want to be made well”? Our “yes” can be the beginning of more than we could ever imagine or hope for. (Ephesians 3:20)
Nouwen talks about his own “coming home”; about being in his Father’s embrace where:
I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being….It is the place where I have to let go of all I most want to hold on to….It is the place that confronts me with the fact that truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.
And, I believe Father Nouwen would agree that it is the place where Jesus’ call and our self-emptying “yes” meet in the fullness of God’s grace.
All these years later, I’m still being challenged daily, and I don’t always respond as I should. My sinfulness is constantly a force to be reckoned with. After all, I’m still a messy human being. But I know that God longs for us to claim the gift of his extravagant love in the very midst of all our messiness. If we’ll only look within ourselves, we can see what is already there. We can become who we already are. God offers that joy to all of us. All we have to do is claim it. When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well”? – and your answer is finally “yes”…strap yourself in for the ride of your life!