Do You Want to be Made Well – or What?

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?’”

do you want to be healed

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 my husband 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 it. 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 intended 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 Henri 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!

roller coaster2

Leave me Alone – I LOVE Being Miserable!

Who aggravates every fiber of your being? Come on, you know there’s someone in your  life – past or present – you have, in one of your most aggravated moments, wanted to throw from a moving train!

Throw mama from the train

Perhaps it isn’t your mother (like Danny Devito in Throw Mama from the Train); you love your mother. How about Uncle Bill? Uncle Bill makes you dread holidays! Every. Single. Blessed. One. He hates holidays, and in short order, makes you hate them too. He also hates your new living room set, your cheesecake; thinks you’ve put on too much weight, and wants to borrow another $200.

How about that annoying and relentless neighbor who causes you to lock your doors and pull your shades when you see her coming? Sometimes she catches you off-guard and holds you hostage in your own yard as she rants incessantly about absolutely nothing! Oh yeah, and she thinks your new birdbath is tacky (she might be right though).

birdbath

Anyway, you walk away dazed and confused. Ewwww, she got you again! She makes you want to smoke more, or drink more, or kick the dog. (Don’t do that. It’s not the dog’s fault.)

It’s really not the dog’s fault, or Uncle Bill’s fault, or your neighbor’s fault. It’s your fault because you choose to allow others to control you. Don’t think they’re doing that? When you allow another person to upset you, for whatever reason, they are controlling you. How do you like being controlled? If you’re like me, you pride yourself on being the one in control and refuse to believe anyone could have that kind of power over you.

NEWS FLASH: When we cling tenuously to control or give it up to another that is the prescription for misery.

Mark 7:14-23, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within the man, from his heart, come evil….”

My dear mother-in-law recently passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Before her health took a decided turn for the worse, she was happy and content and loved being with her family, especially the grandkids. She was always very giving of herself and generous to a fault. But, the last few years of her life she was miserable. Daily she expressed that misery to us, “Why won’t God take me?!” She felt like a burden; that her life no longer had purpose. She was angry, frustrated and confused. Throw in hip pain, a bad back, possible strokes and dementia and of course she was miserable!

But, what’s my excuse? What’s your excuse? I believe we have forgotten. We have forgotten who we are. Life presents a series of blows to our fragile ego and the joy God intended for us is over-shadowed by misery; misery that we inflict on ourselves, all the while blaming others.

“Wounded by sin, clouded by temptation, we are our own worst enemy. Everything we say and do arises from within our own hearts. If our hearts change, it stands to reason that our actions will follow.” Terry Modica (http://gnm.org/good-news-reflections/ )

We see misery played out in a powerful way in the lives of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. He not only came to show us by His own life how we are to live, He used the Pharasees as a prime example of how we are not to live. They were pious and arrogant! They were mean, vengeful, and always trying to trip up Jesus. Their hatred for Him was palatable because He was always exposing their sinfulness. No one wants to be exposed. If they could just get rid of him! Mark 8:11 tells us that Jesus “sighed from the depth of his spirit” because of their actions.

He could have retaliated, but he didn’t. We would have liked him to so we could justify our own reaction to the hurt we feel from others. But, he humbly walked away and in the end, he humbly received the torturous beatings and crucifixion.

Misery can be a stern mother. But, Psalm 119 tells us that being afflicted is a good thing, “It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” Also, sometimes, we can learn from other’s afflictions. Take my mother-in-law for instance. I believe I learned more from her at the end of her journey, when she laid dying and unresponsive. I learned more about compassion that cannot be measured; love that cannot be returned, and inexplicable joy in the midst of it all.

When I would sit vigil in the evening with her, I could sense God’s presence, as in Genesis 28:16, …surely the Lord is in this place.” The joy I felt during that time was unmistakable; the joy of knowing that Catherine would soon be in God’s presence. Truth be told, I was a bit jealous. I recall saying to her several times even though she could not respond, “Aren’t you excited?! You will soon see all of your family and friends that have gone before you. They’re waiting for you. God is waiting for you. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to put in a good word for me – I need it!” I thought I heard her say, “Yes, you do!” one time, but it was probably my imagination.

In all the training and experiences I have had as a Hospice volunteer you just know that God is present. You can’t explain it or quantify it. You just know. For me, the most intense times of joy are these experiences and the Lenten journey we are now on. Joy that comes in knowing God never forsakes us; never abandons us. These are times when He asks me to return to Him. Joel 2:12 says, “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart…”

Listen to this beautiful song by John Michael Talbot.

Every Lent I read Henri Nouwen’s, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I am enthralled by this book and Nouwen’s honesty about his own life and struggles. It is a beautiful and powerfully written account of a story most of us know, yet few of us delve so deeply into. Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s portrait of the Prodigal Son to tell the story:

prodigal son

The son made a choice. He chose to leave his father and go his own way; to take his inheritance and “set off for a distant country and there he squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Soon he was broke and in the midst of a famine. He was hungry, but no one offered him anything to eat.

This is a very telling example of what happens when we turn to the world to meet our needs but all we meet there is misery. We want the world to fill us with all we ever thought we wanted, but what we want is never enough. The world can’t/won’t satisfy. The world only takes and leaves desolation in the empty places of our souls.

Notice though that the son finally, instinctively, knew where to turn when he was starving – his father. Though he felt he wasn’t worthy of his father’s love because of the shameful way he acted, he also hoped his father would at least feed him as the servants were fed (15:17-20). That was all the son hoped for. Imagine his surprise when he didn’t even get his well-rehearsed words out of his mouth…

HOLY FATTED CALF BATMAN!

Being willing to receive crumbs, the son got the surprise of his life when “the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (15:20) There’s no way my father would have done that and my mother would likely have changed the locks on the doors when I left.

The father had compassion for his son because he knew he was a miserable lost soul – but, now he was found. It was a time to celebrate; it was a time of joy and thanksgiving.

Well, okay, the oldest son was not so joyful and was not willing to offer his brother the least bit of sympathy or support. He was also angry with the father because it all seemed so UNFAIR! Here’s that “misery gremlin” again! Sucking the fullness of life and joy from anyone too self-absorbed to notice.

Nouwen says, “It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out – even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them.” And of the son he says, “He realized he had lost his dignity as his father’s son, but at the same time he is aware that he is indeed the son who had dignity to lose.” He says, “I am loved so much I am free to leave home.”

Think about that.

What brings the joy we so long for? It’s a choice we make in how we respond to our circumstances. You can be the younger son who learns from the misery he inflicted on himself, or the older, bitter, son who doesn’t seem to “get it”. It is a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute choice.

Nouwen says:

And this concerning the attitude of the elder son: “Am I so ensnared in my own self-righteousness complaints that I am doomed, against my own desire, to remain outside of the house wallowing in my anger and resentment? God says to the elder son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”

The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

God always has more for us. We are always only at the beginning of love (you must understand) Jesus is pleased with you right now. He sees how much you’ve already done. He wants to see you overcome the next hurdle and get that much closer to the finish line. He is committed to taking you there.

“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Often, my prayer is that God will not give up on me and that I will daily surrender to this love that is beyond my understanding; that I will let go of all those hurts and sorrows that steal my peace and joy.