Sisters: We Few, We Not-Always-Happy Few, We Band of Sufferers

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Gentle Reader,

Apologies to the Bard, to King Henry V, and to St. Crispin.

While He was going, the crowds were nearly crushing Him. A woman suffering from bleeding for twelve years, who had spent all she had on doctors and yet could not be healed by any, approached from behind and touched the end of His robe. Instantly her bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds are hemming You in and pressing against You.”

“Someone did touch Me,” said Jesus. “I know that power has gone out from Me.” When the woman saw that she was discovered, she came trembling and fell down before Him. In the presence of all the people, she declared the reason she had touched Him and how she was instantly healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

– Luke 8:42b-48 (CSB, emphasis mine)

What is it like to be sick?, you wonder. I know you wonder, because some of you are brave enough to ask. The asking is not offensive. I’d rather an honest query than the silence of judgment or speculation. After all, the words “liver disease” automatically conjure up images of bottles, needles and pills (never mind that equal damage can be caused through poor diet). Surely I must have some awfully scandalous activity in my past.

Not that kind of scandalous. Plenty of rebellion, but no drugs. Plenty of late nights, but no drunkenness. (The few times I did set out to get hammered, I just got sick after a few drinks. And that, I recognize as Jesus, protecting me from my own stupidity, maybe shaking His head or rolling His eyes as He did so. Lovingly, of course). The breakdown of my body is, simply, the result of losing the genetic lottery in a world gone haywire. I am a walking, talking testimony to the truth of Genesis 3.

It sucks.

Yeah, I know. I’m supposed to suffer well. To be an example of courage, endurance, faith, and resilience.

I want to be courageous. I want to endure. I want to have faith. I want to be resilient.

But as I look at my arm, bruise growing darker because the good phlebotomist was off his game today but I had to get the tests done anyway, I want to throw a glass across the room. Watch it explode into pieces too small and jagged to reassemble. Then I want to throw another. And another. I want to hear the satisfying clangs and pings of destruction, a destruction that I cause, as a destruction that I do not cause, and have no control over, rages within.

What is it like to be sick? 

It’s tension. All the time, always. Wanting to take a deep breath unencumbered by the constant pain my side, the pain that trails up to my collar bone and down to my hip, the pain centered beneath my ribs. I hate my liver, if it’s possible to hate an organ. It’s piece of crap. I want a new one.

Except, I don’t. Even though I’ll probably have to get a new one someday. And that means more slicing and dicing, more long scars across my abdomen, and whole lot of pharmaceuticals.

It’s being old before my time. Sort of, because I will throw myself into whatever activities I can with as much energy as I possess until that’s no longer an option. But the white streak in my hair, the one that started with the shock of surgery, grows. Spreads. I don’t mind it, on an aesthetic level, because I can’t be bothered to stress out that much about my hair, which always does whatever it wants to do anyway, but on another level, it’s a reminder.

Along with the aching joints. And the constantly itching skin. And the eyes that betray my weariness, every time.

It’s that woman, so tired, so scared, sneaking up behind Jesus and brushing His robe with her fingers. In that action, it’s as if she says, “Don’t look at me. Don’t notice me. Nothing else has worked. I’m desperate. Maybe this will help. Maybe it won’t. I’ve heard about this Jesus guy. I don’t know what else to do. God, please let this work.”

I get her.

Separated by centuries and cultures, we are nevertheless sisters.

This passage is not a promise. It does not contain a magic formula. Faith in Christ does not equal an absence of trouble. I’ve told you this before, but I’ll keep telling you as long as I have breath, because, even those who intentionally battle against prosperity non-gospel ideas are influenced by them. We can’t make it compute in our minds that salvation of the soul, restoration of the mind, and renewal of the heart often, maybe even always, makes no change in our physical state.

Because the end is the same for us all.

What is this passage then? What is the point?

Sit with those questions for now.

Settle in with the discomfort of life and death joining hands.

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Small, but Never Alone

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Gentle Reader,

Look up and see!
Who created these?
He brings out the stars by number;
He calls all of them by name.
Because of His great power and strength,
not one of them is missing.

– Isaiah 40:26 (CSB)

I grew up on three-and-a-half acres of rented land, close enough to town that a trip to the store was no big deal but far enough away from everything that I could hear the crickets chirp during the twilight hours. The soft neighing of horses floated across the dirt road, changing to excited whinnies as they began to run and play. Sky-high, skinny pine trees bent and waved in the wind, never breaking but coming perilously close to it in my eyes. A bullfrog lived near the water spigot, competing with the owls for noisiest nocturnal creature. The neighbors’ big black-and-white dog would lay in the middle of the road, always confident that cars would go around him.

We didn’t have air conditioning, so summers were brutal. If we weren’t at the beach or the library, my brother and I would sprawl across the living room floor, on a sheet my mother misted with water, underneath the ceiling fan buzzing at full blast. Fudgecicles melting quickly, we watched episodes of “I Love Lucy,” cracking up at the antics of the goofy redhead. Our dog was always close by, ready to catch any chocolately goodness we missed, but mostly just looking to find a cool spot.

Dinner, after my father got home from work, was usually something cold – salad, sandwiches, occasionally cereal. Sometimes, after eating, we would run through the sprinkler, giggling and competing to see who could do the best jumps through the streams of water. As the oldest, I of course always won, though my brother probably thinks otherwise.

On the hottest nights, when nobody could sleep, we would lay on an old quilt in the front yard and look up at the stars. Nobody said much. Just gazed at black velvet, decorated with sparkling diamonds. The wind in the trees, the frogs and owls and crickets singing, the horses playing, the stars slowly moving, as they do, across the sky. I felt very small, and oddly alone, in the midst of that.

I still feel that way when I stand out on my back porch of an evening, only now I know the proper label to attach to the emotion: awe. The stars remind me that He is interested in every detail, no matter how small. He creates only beautiful, good things. He is continually active and present in every aspect of life.

I think of the uncounted prayers that have been whispered, under the cover of darkness, with moon and stars as only witness. Of the animals who know it’s time to sleep, without anyone telling them, when the sky shifts from blue to black. Of the God who has ears to hear every cry and hands large enough to hold all His creatures close.

And I am small in the midst of that, very small. But nowhere near alone.

Who am I, that the God who breathes fire into the stars above, should notice me? Love me? Save me?

What an incredible God!

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(Yet Again) Five Minute Monday: Touch

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Gentle Reader,

I was so on top of things last week. Back to a regular posting schedule. Back to a regular life schedule. Except for the headache that wouldn’t go away, I felt pretty good.

As The Beatles sing, “I shoulda known better.”

My beloved youths shared their germs with me again, and I’m on day three of being stuck in my bed with a nasty cold. All I’ve done is sleep, drink orange juice, and watch movies. Try to read, by my eyes swim and I can’t focus.

Go.

I’ve never regained feeling along the left side of the scar that bisects my abdomen. Too many nerves sliced up. Between the white line and my belly button is a field of nothingness. Except that it itches, practically all the time. But when I scratch the itch, I can’t feel the scratching.

Don’t ask me to explain this.

Skin is an amazing thing. So many different shades and textures. Senses the slightest movement of air. Responds to the tiniest pinprick. Blushing cheeks. Freckles bursting across shoulders in the summer sun.

Our church culture is not touchy-feely. The world around us has given way to the oversexualization of every person and interaction, and, rather than being a people who redeem and restore, we succumb to paranoia. “Noli mi tangere,” Jesus said to Mary Magdalene in the garden that day (John 20:17); we take up “touch me not” as our mantra. So our hands never feel a squeeze in a moment of celebration. Our backs never feel encircling arms during times of grief.

Our bodies are not evil. We can give and receive appropriate, healthy, loving touch. In fact, this giving and receiving should be a natural, normal marker of our communities.

We embrace.

Stop.

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Love Them, Love Them, Say That You Love Them

Gentle Reader,

The Apostle John fascinates me.

…on the way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make preparations for Him. But they did not welcome Him, because He determined to journey to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”

But He turned and rebuked them…

– Luke 9:52b-55a (CSB)

Like a gangster’s lackeys in a Depression-era movie, they ask, “Hey, Jesus? You want we should whack them?”

I wonder if Jesus paused before turning around. I wonder if His head dropped to His chest the way a father’s does when he’s exasperated with his children. I wonder if He rubbed his temples. I wonder if His words came out clipped or if they were measured. I know that He surely looked both of them in the eyes and, from the deep well of patient love within His heart, the Savior spoke, telling James and John to knock it off.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Him and said, “Teacher, we want You to do whatever we ask You.”

“What do you want Me to do for you?” He asked them.

They answered Him, “Allow us to sit at Your right and at Your left in Your glory.”

– Mark 10:35-37 (CSB)

They want the places of honor. The top spots. Of course this makes the other disciples mad. I wonder if Jesus sighed heavily. I wonder if He cast His eyes to Heaven. I wonder if He shook His head, marveling at how little they understood.

Then, Gethsemane. The betrayal. The arrest. Everyone flees. At some point, John circles back around, following the proceedings from a safe distance. He is there, at the foot of the Cross, with the women. Jesus tells him to take care of His mother (John 19:26-27; church tradition maintains that he did so for the rest of her life). Dark, quiet hours as the Light of the World lay in the tomb.

Ah, but as the song says: Bursting forth, in glorious day, up from the grave He rose again. Fifty days to wrap their minds around resurrection, salvation. His feet lifted off of the Mount of Olives. They watched, blinking at the brightness. Confusion, waiting.

Pentecost. Tongues of fire. Preaching and teaching as they’d never preached before.

About that time King Herod violently attacked some who belonged to the church, and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword. 

– Acts 12:1-2 (CSB)

No mention of how John reacted. No doubt he mourned. As the eldest is usually listed first in ancient documents, including the Bible, James was probably his big brother. If John was like other little brothers throughout the ages, he wanted to be just like James. Followed him around. Tried to act and think like James did.

Suddenly, he is left alone. The community of faith, the family of God, remains, but there’s something about losing a sibling. Your first friend. The one who knows you the best.

Something shifts in John as he grows and continues to walk with God. The narrative in Acts slides over to Paul beginning in Chapter 13, and we lose track of the man who begins, at some point, to think of himself as the Beloved Disciple. No more does he want to call down fire on people’s heads. No more does he seek a place of glory.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.

– 1 John 4:7-10 (CSB)

Brimstone and rage, power and position…to love.

Another church tradition tells us that, toward the end of his life, John settled on one sentence to sum up the life and teachings of Jesus, a sentence that he repeated over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch to think that John would be shocked by our practices in the church today, for this Apostle was not only the preacher of love but the great enemy of Gnosticism, a philosophy that downplays the importance of the physical and elevates mystical experiences in the pursuit of secret or special knowledge. Gnostics were either ascetics, denying bodily needs, or libertines, engaging in whatever activities they liked because it didn’t matter. In essence, “thou shalt not” or “do what thou wilt.”

These competing ideas influence us greatly. For some of us, there is fear of the body, and so we come up with long lists of rules. A man must not really be friends with a woman to whom he is not married, and he definitely shouldn’t hug women, because he will of course be aroused and there’s no way he can control himself. (I am not sure if this is more insulting to women or to men). For others, there is shunning of Scriptural ethics. That passage tells me not to do this, but that can’t be what the writer actually meant; they had no concept of this and so I can ignore what’s being said and indulge because God is basically a cosmic hippie who cares only about my happiness.

Neither is healthy. Neither is loving.

In the youth ministry context in which I currently sit, I listen as teens ask, “Do you really love me? Do I really belong?” They don’t always use words, but the question is ever-present. Of course, we tell them, “Yes! Yes!” But they are smarter than we give them credit for, despite the lack of fully developed brains. They watch how we interact with each other. They see our unease, our inability to avoid the extremes. They notice our fear.

Our answers don’t line up with our actions.

When John said, “Little children, love one another,” he meant it. As in, actually love one another. Recognizing that we who have been brought from death to life by the power of Christ are really family, we don’t have to be paranoid around each other. You can give someone a hug if he looks like he needs it. You can say “I love you” to her without having to rush to the marriage altar. At the same time, we also don’t get to cast off good sense and wisdom; we don’t get to make our own rules and demand that God and Scripture submit to them. Instead, we see the goodness and kindness in what God commands, and we ask Him to reshape our hearts into those that beat to the time of obedience.

We have to love one another. Love is listening. Love is responding in grace and truth. Love is playing, eating, serving, sitting in silence. Love is squeezing hands and shoulders. Love is hugs. Love is looking others in the eye. Love is creating space for God-given differences of abilities, gifts and perspectives.

Love is relationship.

The messy, up-in-your-business, no-room-for-hiding relationship.

Not this fakeness we’re used to.

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