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Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Healing Virtues of the Soul: Discipline

“Spanking lowers your IQ.”   When I recently read that news headline, I thought to myself: “Gee, If it hadn’t been for my mother I could have been a genius!”  How many “could have been” geniuses do we have attending church here today?

Seriously, according to the LA Times, this is what a new study from the University of New Hampshire declared in a conference on violence in San Diego.   According to the study, American children in their study declined in IQ from 2.8 to 5 points when they were spanked.  (

I thought it was most interesting, however, that right after this study was discussed by experts on the Today Show, one of them made this rejoinder: Spanking is not the best discipline, but what this study does not address is what happens when there is no discipline at all”   I guess you might think that having a little lower IQ could be better than having no sense at all.

No matter what you decide about spanking, there is a truth here that we need to grasp.  One of the proven worse things a parent can do is let a child run free, unchecked, without limits or boundaries.   We all need to  reaffirm that discipline can be a very important healing virtue in our lives, as both children or as adults.   Without developing reasonable limits, boundaries and without developing self-discipline, our lives can become sick, unhealthy, out of control and of course, detrimental not only to ourselves, but to others. 

Today’s message gets right to the heart the healing virtue of discipline.  The book of Hebrews is a sermon preached to people who were dealing with great hardship and hurt.   Because of this, some Christians where drifting back to into Judaism.  Others were neglecting their faith.  Still others considered leaving the faith altogether.   To them, it seemed much easier to surrender to the pressures around them and to give in to the weakness, rather than continue to endure and suffer for their new found faith in Jesus.  

Maybe their thinking went something like this: “Why put my life through the additional pain, hurt and challenge of being Christian, when life hurts enough already.”   I put it this way, because I think a lot of people consciously and unconsciously think that way today.  I believe part of the decline in our churches today is not simply because people are denying Jesus or losing their faith, but I believe people are neglecting their faith, neglecting their salvation, neglecting assembling together because so many are preoccupied with their hurts and brokenness and can’t get through them. 

If you are hurting today or you know someone who is dealing with great pain and hurt in their life, our Bible text teaches today teaches about the healing power that is found in the discipline it takes to keep going, to hang in there, to endure to the end, and to stick to it, no matter what comes to us.   In fact, the very power we need to help us get through our pain and to heal from our hurts can be found at the very heart of the spiritual disciplines of our faith.

When we stop to consider our text in Hebrews 12, the first thing that surfaces is that this is a call for endurance and perseverance.    Jesus is understood, as the both the “pioneer and prefector” of the faith because of what he disciplined himself to endure.   In verse 2, the church is being encouraged to look to Jesus (as) the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of1 the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”   

You can’t miss the meaning of this verse.  It sounds like it is textbook “delayed gratification” right out of a psychology class.  Instead of living just for himself and instead of for the life of ease most people seek, Jesus took a different route.  He delayed the joy so that he could do a great work---the greatest work of all—for our salvation.   
Already before us, even before we start digging into this passage is the paradoxical suggestion of pain, even great pain being put in a very positive light.  Right before our eyes, we can already see that there was “healing” in the pain that Jesus suffered and endured.  By accepting his pain, he achieved healing for all our hurts. And because Jesus continued to run his race with perseverance, Christians are being challenged to run with the same kind of mental and emotional discipline.  

But not so fast.  There are a couple of words in this challenge that do more than speak of some nice regimen of positive thinking and self-discipline.  We dare not take them lightly.  These words, “cross” and “shame” speak of deliberate, disgraceful and even despicable pain.  Something that borders on insanity rather than simple discipline.  In fact, as you continue to read this passage, you’ll see words that sound even strange to our own lives that have been burdened down with brokenness and pain.   Look at these words in verse 5 which seem down-right threatening to us:  “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him.” 

God punishing us?  Is that the kind of God we would want to follow?  One who goes to the cross to die for us, and sits down in his joy in heaven, while we still suffer hardships?  The image gets even worse: Jesus not only gets to his joy in heaven and sits down on is throne, but now he’s become judge over us, standing ready to punish us when we mess up and fail to take his path.   Interpreting the Bible image this way, as some do, can make Jesus look cruel and crude, ready to zap us with some kind of pain and punishment; either a sickness, a death, a burden, or a curse---when we mess up.  In fact, when I was researching this sermon, not a few people named their sermon on this text: God’s Woodshed!”   (That title sounds like a sermon to try to control children and wayward people, rather than train them in the truth. Convenient, right?)

Figuring out how to interpret this text on discipline reminds me of something a counselor once taught me in school.  He said, the approach to how we understand and accept discipline in our lives, how we relate to others, and even how we practice our faith might go all the way back to our potty training.  He said that if our potty training was harsh, forced, and we were shamed a lot, then we could become rigid, legalistic and reactive in our own lives.   We tend to become obsessed with the "negative" and see life through the half-empty glass.  Then he said, if our potty training was respectful, patient, with lots of love, encouragement and praise, then we would become more understanding, compassionate, and much less reactive in our lives---focusing on the positive and seeing life through the glass half-full.  Which way do you see your life?

Before I let you know how my potty training turned out, let’s affirm a simple truth that is understood within and behind this passage we are reading.  Put very succinctly: This passage affirms a basic truth about life we one day will come to know well: Life hurts.  We can’t miss that.   Right is the center of everything in this passage is some very real pain.   Jesus hurts---suffers shame and dies on a cross.  Christians also hurt---and have to endure not only the hardship of life, but the extra hardship of trying to live right in a world gone wrong. 

When I think about the pain of the cross, I can’t help but have Mel Gibson’s image the suffering Jesus in my mind.  His movie contains unforgettable images of excruciating physical pain---perhaps to a fault.  And the major objection many have had to Mel Gibson’s depiction of Jesus’ pain is not just that it was overdone physically (maybe reflecting his own pain), but Gibson’s movie can separate us too far from Jesus' other pain.  What made the slapping, flogging, and crucifixion so cruel was Jesus' innocence and rejection by his own people, not the merely the force of the violence.   Scripture points to the greatest pain Jesus endured when it says in John's gospel, that: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not….”    

When the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers  “not to lose heart” (vs. 3) the kind of pain and hurt is he talking about is not physical: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.   In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”   Can you see that the kind of hurt and struggle against sin he means is the struggle against the world akin to something like the Helen Reedy song written about a single mother and a child which says: “It’s you and me against the world.”  These Hebrew Christians are suffering emotionally, mentally, spiritually, but not yet physically, for their faith, their belief, and for their trust in Jesus.   Hebrews is speaking directly about the hurt they have because the world that is against them.   They are suffering in the same way Peter speaks of in his great letter, as a suffering for the "sake of righteousness.”

C.S. Lewis, in his classic work on “The Problem of Pain”, says that “mental pain” (emotional) is less dramatic (that’s why it gets less press in Gibson’s movie), but it is more common, and it is harder to bear.”  What makes mental and emotional pain worse is that we can hide it.  If you have a tooth ache, people see the pain written on your face and ask, what’s wrong, and then you answer, “My tooth aches.” But when you have a mental, or an emotional pain, like a “broken  heart”, people can’t easily see that deeply, and you are more likely to hold it in and that make it hurt even more.  

Most importantly, Lewis also contends that even though mental pain can be deep and hurt greatly, if even these, our deepest pains, are faced head on and if they are both accepted and shared, the conflict can strengthen us, even purify our character, and in most cases the pain will pass.   He says, that sometimes the pains and hurts we face can produce a dreary state soul we can’t overcome, but some do overcome, and even in the presence of pain they still produce brilliant work and the pain has sharpened their character like tempered steel.”   (C.S. Lewis, paraphrased from the book: “A Strange Freedom” its sermon on Suffering by Howard Thurman).

Some people are able to live with their hurts and pains, and are even able to become better people, while others get lost in their pain and become bitter. The difference is made not on the kind or amount of pain a person faces, but the difference is based on the kind of person we are or we become, when we learn to deal with the hurts of our lives.

Interestingly, the word “discipline” comes from the same root as disciple and the most basic form of both words means “to learn.”   When Hebrews calls upon his readers to “endure trials for the sake of discipline”, he means for the sake of learning something very important.  He means that, if we are willing, if we are alert, if we are hopeful and have faith, and if we will hang in there---we can all learn something in and through our pain that we could never learn in our lives without it.   He calls this learning the “discipline of the Lord” and we can rightly translate this the “learning from the Lord”. 

We all know that pain can cause us to question life.  When we hurt, the first thing we want is some kind of explanation, purpose or meaning.   “Why me?"  "Why is God doing this to me?" “Do I deserve this?” "Why?"  We all ask these kinds of questions because our pain raises them up out of our soul.   This is not all bad either.  We might not even stop our busy lives to reflect and think at all---unless something happens that stops us in our tracks.   When we stop we raise questions and when we raise questions, we start seeking answers and we also learn.   We don't alway learn how to answer our questions, but we might learn something else even more important: How to learn to live with the questions we can't answer.   

I remember right after I had my car wreck when I was 17, I was “favoring” my left leg and my good leg was taking on a lot of extra pressure.  The way it started showing up was a ingrown toe nail.   I went to the doctor at Baptist for an ingrown toenail.  That was a mistake.  Baptist Hospital doctors have a lot bigger fish to fry.  They don’t
have much patience for ingrown toenails.  But I was just a kid, I didn’t realize this.  So, I go in to have my toenail looked at and the Doctor, looks and quickly says, “we can take care of that.”  He turns, grabs his sterilized pliers and with one quick pull, off comes my toenail. 

Still in shock and in excruciating pain, I’m grab my toe and shouted at him, “You could have warned me first!”   After I started taking control of myself, I then asked him, “How can I keep you from ever doing that again!”  His prescription was simple and sure.  He said, “When you feel like it’s getting ingrown, don’t ignore it, but take a little piece of cotton and push is under your nail and it will heal.” If you don’t want the bigger pain again, don’t ignore the little pain, learn from it, and deal with it early before it gets worse.”

There was a lot of pain in that moment, but there was also a great lesson that has enabled me to self-cure all my ingrown toenails and I’ve even helped a few other people with theirs.  Interestingly, I've learned the great lesson in pain is not just about curing toenails.  The lesson from the toenail taught me to deal with the little pains and hurts now and I can prevent or learn to deal with the bigger pains latter.”

Hebrews teaches us about pain by giving an incredible answer to the "why" of our pain, if we ready for it.  But let me warn you.  This is not a simple answer.  It can be a very complex one.  And it can be also be easily misunderstood.  What is most often misunderstood is that Hebrew’s answer is to the specific emotional hurt of suffering for Jesus in this world and it is not an answer to all our pains and hurts.   It is an answer to those who are willing to dare stay with Jesus and to suffer for righteousness’ sake in a world that can be very unrighteousness and cruel.   

For example: When you speak of “enduring trials as the “Lord’s” discipline” this is so easily used by others as a scare tactic to imply that our God is some kind of controlling God who automatically whips up on his people when they sin.  The truth is that God set the world up in a way that sin can eventually do its own whipping (ask David Letterman or Bernie Maddoff) with or without God’s help.  As a matter of face, in this text God's people are already being whipped around by the sins and pains of the world and the writer Hebrews is looking for God in the midst of the pain.   The point is not how God spanks us when we are sinful, but the point of the text is how God's love has not abandoned us even when we have to deal with the hurts and pains of being faithful to Jesus.  It is not the "bad" they have done, which brought the Hebrews great pain, but it is the "good" they need to continuing doing by not neglecting their faith and their salvation.  If you miss this truth behind the text, you will miss the whole point of the text.

Hebrews wants these Christians "not to lose heart" when life hurts, because they can be sure that God's love is still present in our pain.   Listen to him in verse 6 when he says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and chastise every child he accepts.”  When we interpret these words, we need to move beyond our own potty training, or our own personal interpretations and we need to see this very gentle picture of a parent disciplining their child because they love them.  We need to see is that it is not God who inflicts the great pain, but it is life and sin.  These Christians are facing the same struggles we all face---against sin---the world, the flesh, and the devil.  What the writer wants his readers to also know is that there is something else in the mix besides the hurt and pain.   Right in the greatest hurt, God is there, like a loving parent,  when we remain his faithful children, will use the pain, not to hurt us, but to teach us, to strengthen us and to heal us.  Hebrews wants his readers in pain because of their faith not to run from the pain, but to keep walking through it, because of a loving, calculating, and caring God is standing there behind it.   They are alone up against this sinful, cold and cruel world.  

The intent of this text is not to scare us into submission by a God who spanks, but it a God who loves us, teaches us, and trains us, even through the hardest, most difficult moments of life we can ever face.   Look how this “training of love’ now what comes out of this parental picture of discipline in the remainder of the text: Consider what he says in verse 9: Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.  11 Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I can’t say enough how hard it is for some people to read this text.  Some of us can’t read anything about pain being used for good because we are still dealing some deep hurts in our lives that are still unresolved.  Some can only imagine a God who whips up on us in cruel ways.  What we need to see, rather than a whipping post God, is a God who is working in the pain---working in and behind the pain to bring something good out of it.   
I especially like the final words of this text in Hebrews 12: 12-13 because it speaks directly to those of us who might think it better to go another way, or even take the easy way, and avoid the pain, the hurt, or to resist the discipline we need, and run from the pain instead of resolving to face it and to look for the love behind it.   

So here is the final lesson from Hebrews.  Here is what we must be learn:  In our struggle against the evil and hurt of this world and you feel as if life itself is giving you a whipping, especially when you've tried to do what is right---when this happens to you, also picture this: Know that love has not abandoned you.  Know that behind all the pain you feel, God is there like a loving Father, who has taken the rod of hurt away from dark powers of this world and he has turned the worse you can feel into a tool of love, healing and grace.   Because God is this loving Father who is right there with you---making sure you when you hurt, you don’t hurt alone---making sure that when you hurt for nothing, you still have a reason to carry on—and making sure, like a good Father does, that you don’t have more on you than you can bear----and of course, making sure that when it hurts you the most, you know it’s hurting him too.  God is like a Father who stands with us and when you look at him, you don’t look into the devil’s eyes anymore, but you look straight into the eyes of a loving Father’s eyes, which are filled with tears of love, because he is weeping for you and with you, both when the world tumbles in or even when you have brought this upon yourself.  “Therefore”… since we  know that even in the worst pain, that love is there, our loving Father, “therefore”, he says…. are you ready? “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,  and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

The image is clear.  If you give into your hurt and pain and stop moving,  your life can shut down.   Just like a body shuts down, so can your soul shut down.  I don’t think any of could keep going very long, if love wasn’t behind it all.   This is what the gospel says.  Love is behind it… God’s love.    Hebrews says because God’s love is even there in the hurts, we don’t have to walk through the pains of life with lame souls.  Just as the physically lame can learn not to have their life put out of joint because of their physical ailments,  so to can we learn to face the mental and emotional stress we are under.   We can find the strength, and the discipline which can bring healing to deepest hurts, if we will discover for ourselves, the love that is behind it. Amen.

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Healing Virtues of the Soul: Love

Years ago, while I was serving a church in Shelby, the deacons and myself developed a jail ministry to the county jail.   On one particular Sunday afternoon visit, the jailer invited me to come in a cell with a 12 year old boy, awaiting juvenile court with a charge stealing a car.  When I sat down with the boy and started to talk, I asked him how he came to stealing at such a young age.  

I’ll never forget his answer: “When nobody loves you, you don’t care what you do.”

Have you ever thought about how much the health of our lives depends upon our ability to give and to receive love? 

We should never underestimate the power of love.  What would be the value or health of our lives without the giving and the receiving of true love? 
I want you to put your attention on a man in the Bible we taught our children to sing about: Zacchaeaus.  As children, we loved to sing about Zacchaeus as a "wee-little man”, and he was a “wee little man was he…”.   He was small, we were small.  It was a perfect match.  We loved to sing about Zacchaeus, but strangely enough, even though we liked Zacchaeus, he wasn’t liked by anyone.  He was a "small fry" with a large bunch of hate stacked against him. 

Zacchaeus was a not loved because he was a “tax collector”.  And it wasn’t just because a tax collector collected taxes, but because the governor would give them a carte blanc … a blank check, so that the tax collector could tax a person whatever amount they could get.  There were no hard fast laws or limits.  The more a tax collector could get out of people for the state, the more could be keep for themselves.   We are not sure that Zacchaeus was this kind of selfish, abusive tax collector, but we can be sure most everyone thought of him this way. 

This brings us to the second problem and reason Zacchaeus wasn’t loved.  He was rich.  Money is another thing that can steal love from people.  Zacchaeus was rich when most all the people around him were poor.   Have you ever read one of those reports about people who win the lottery?  In many, many situations, the people who win millions seldom can handle it.  And it is not only because they can’t manage the money itself, but it’s because of what it does to their relationships.  The problem with having lots of money, is that you don’t know who loves you anymore.  The big question in becomes, “Do you love me for my money, or do you really love me?”  Remember as a young married couple how broke you were when you first got married?  You had nothing but your love for each other--no house, no furniture, no assets, but think about how much you had when you had nothing but love?  Money is necessary, of course, and we all need some of it, but as a preoccupation it sure can hurt your chances for true love.

How much had the lack of love hurt Zacchaeus?   Well,  we can see in our text that it had knocked him down, but he wasn’t yet out.  When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to town, he rushed down to see him.   While we can’t be completely sure all that Zacchaeus was feeling, we know who he was looking for.  He had heard about this different kind of prophet called "Yeshua".  He was the kind of prophet Luke's gospel has described as the one "who forgives sins," "who came to seek and to save the lost," and who preaches for the oppressed to be released from their bondage.   Jesus is known for having great compassion on all kinds of people; both rich and poor, sinners and religious, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Zacchaeus wants to see if this kind of prophet is for real.

See Jesus.  Sounds simple.  But here's problem.  You don’t have to buy a ticket to see Jesus,  but you just have either be the first in line and able to hold your ground when the crowd presses in.  The problem with Zacchaeus is that the crowd is big, very big, and he is small, very small.  

I remember several years ago in the late 70’s, when then President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to speak at Wait Chapel.  I had a dentist appointment that afternoon, and they had open seating in the chapel for anyone who could get there to come and hear the president.  I got to Wake Forest early; at the crack of dawn.  But guess what?  They told me at the door, that the chapel was already full.  I would have to stand outside.  Guess what?  Already all kinds of people there already standing outside too.  I would have to stand about five rows back in the yard and hear the speech on speakers that had been placed around the quad. 

After the speech was over, the President came out shaking hands.  I was already five rows back and people were pulling in tighter and tighter, hoping to get to speak to the president.   When I realize I was close, but not close enough to have a chance to shake his hand, I looked over to the left, the opposite direction from where the president was walking, and saw several secret service men in waiting.   Then, it hit me.  He’s going to turn around and come back this way.  So,  I walk right up to the sidewalk, where no one was standing at that moment, and sure enough the president did turn around and was headed my way.  As he approached, the crowed thickened.  If had not been a big guy, I could have been knocked out of the way.  But I stood my ground and sure enough, and after pushing three college students to the ground, (just kidding), he came my way, reached out and shook my hand.   

I can imagine the same kind almost mobbing situation with Zacchaeus.  But Zacchaeus wasn't just determined, but seems desperate.   How delighted Zacchaeus must have been, when he looked down from his vantage point in the sycamore tree and his eyes met the master of love.  Instantly their eyes connected: This one named Zacchaeus, who had already experienced the deep pain of rejection and hate, looked into the eyes of the prophet who was about to feel the same kind hate and rejection on the cross. 

We don’t just have to wonder about the pain and hurt people have because of the lack of love in their lives?  The entire entertainment industry of music, movies, and media makes millions and even billions of dollars on the human need to give and to receive love.  The problem is that most of "love" in the music, movies, and the media are based the "hope" of finding love, not the true expressions of it.   Too often people settle for imitations of the real thing and seldom is love displayed where it is truly to be be found: in commitment, sacrifice, hard work, and stable relationships, and shared experiences with another.   In our fallen world, true love does not sell as well as all the fantasy and lies about love and as a result, too many people become lost and lonely in life without the very love which can give life so much meaning and fullness.

Recently in the news, we've heard about the wonderful discovery of the kidnapped, California girl-now-woman, Jaycee Duggard,  whose been found alive, along with her daughters.   It’s a wonderful story, but their will be challenges.  Jaycee is back with her family, but has all kinds of emotional scares to deal with.  One of the greatest challenges is to work to heal the lack of love in her life.   It's the kind of emotional and mental scars only true love can heal.

How many of us take for granted the love we've received in our lives?  Most of us grew up, not realizing the gift of love we're given.  I've told some of you about the strange little habit I had as a child when I used to “bump” my head at night to go to sleep.  Everyone one in my immediate family knew about it and everyone wondered when and if it would go away.   I did work myself out it, when I was about 9 or 10 years old.  But the question always haunted me: Why did I do this?  My enlightenment did not come until developmental psychology class in college.  I read about a controlled experiment with monkeys who were taken from their birth mothers.  Although they were stilled loved and cared for, this group of monkey's developed a strange habit of bumping their heads against the wall or the cage until they fell asleep.  As an adopted child, I too was taken from my birth mother and I too had developed this strange reaction.  Fortunately, for me, because I grew up in a loving home, I overcame the unconscious, but real loss of love that was deep in my soul.   

However you want to research it, all psychological research, all human medicine, and all true religious teachings, will underscore the absolute truth of what the apostle Paul once said in one of his letters to the church at Corinth: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  1 Corinthians 13:1-2.  I can’t help believe that in some way, Zacchaeus felt like nothing until he met this one who poured unconditional love and compassion into his hurting soul.

Now, from thinking how the lack of love can hurt us, let's move to focus on the positive difference love can makes in our earthly, human, very temporary and very tentative lives.  

After the immediate connection,  Jesus speaks beautiful music into Zach's ears:  “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." (Luke 19:5).   While most of us might think that God is fair, and that God’s love is equal for everybody, this text makes me "beg to differ."  Though God is "not a respecter of persons," it appears that God does choose to love some more, simply because they need to be loved.  God choose Israel out of all the other nations---not because she was better, but God chose to Israel for the glory of love.   God loves us too, based on our need to be loved.  I think Zacchaeus was this kind of needy person.  

After hearing words of invitation, Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree, to welcome Jesus to his house.  When people in the crowd start to complain about Jesus going home with this sinner, it just might be that Zacchaeus becomes immediately afriad that Jesus will not come, so he opens his heart to reveal to all how much love has transformed him: "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."  (Luke 19:8).  

Love does it healing work as it has begun to reshape Zacchaeus as a person, as a sinner and as a tax collector.  Love changes his view of money.  Love changes his view of people and love changes his view of what his own responsibility should be a a person who gives and receives love in his life.  In the same way, the presence of true love has the potential to change and give shape to our lives.  

Do you recall how that love transformed and flavored up the life of a couple that had a very funny accident and was in the news?  A guy was giving his girl a diamond engagement ring, placing it in a frosty.  In the moment, he hoped she would discover her ring in the bottom of the cup, she drank her ring.  Then, later they went to the doctor, got an x-ray, and he proposed to her when she saw the he really did give her a ring and it was in her stomach.

Love has a way of transforming all kinds of events in our lives, and interestingly it does its work from the inside out.  It’s not that love keeps us from pain or takes all pain away, but what love can do is “flavor” our pain.   As the apostle Paul said, in that great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.”   

In the final section of this great love chapter, Paul speaks of something else love does in the human heart and person, when he says, "when I was a child, I spoke and thought like a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things.”   In this context, Paul means that love helped him to grow and helped him focus his life on what really matters…things like hope, faith, and love.   And of course, the greatest is love.

But how does this giving and receiving of love heal hurts?  In regard to love's healing qualities, Paul says, love is…."patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way.  It doesn’t not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."  I find it interesting how love finds its focus.  Love heals because it is much more than a feeling, love is a virtue--a disposition or attitude that results in real action.

Zacchaeus recieved healing through love because of the love he gave back.  It’s not just what he feels from Jesus, or what he felt toward others, but it is also what he began to do for others that released loves great healing power in his life.   

Dr. E. V. hill, the great black pastor, was serving a church in the Watts area of Los Angeles way back there in the 60's when those horrible riots broke out. You remember them, the burnings and the lootings and the shootings. But Hill was a courageous man, and from his own pulpit he denounced his neighbors who were destroying the property and stealing from the merchants. And this brought all kinds of threats against him as a person.

"One night the telephone rang. It was late, and there was something about the way Hill held the receiver that told his wife that something was wrong. When he hung up, she wanted to know who had called and what they wanted, but Hill wouldn't let her know. She kept persisting and persisting, however, almost demanding that he tell her. And so finally he did. "I don't know who it was," he said, "but they've threatened to blow up my car with me in it." Well, throughout the night, Hill was very restless and uneasy. He couldn't get to sleep for the longest time, worrying about that threat to his life. But finally his drowsiness caught up with him and he did fall asleep.

"The next morning, when he awakened, he was terrified. He reached over to touch his wife and she was gone! He got up and went looking for her throughout the house, but she wasn't there! He then looked out the window to see if she had gone outside. And to his greater horror, she wasn't there either and the car was gone from the carport as well. And he was just beside himself and was ready to call the police. And then, wonderfully, he saw her turn in the driveeway and park the car in the carport. "Where have you been!" he almost shouted at her. And you know what she said? She said, "I just wanted to drive the car around the block to make sure it was safe for you this morning!" He said, "From that day on, I have never asked my wife if she loved me!" (Dr. Norman Neaves, "The Bonds of Belonging!", May 13, 1989).

So, now, let me ask you, what loving action, beyond your feelings, can you do today that might bring healing, not just to your soul, but to another hurting soul around you?   Will stop waiting for love to come to you, and will you go to love?  Will you bring love's full healing into to your own soul accepting this gift, that in order to receive it, you must first be willing to give it.   It is then, that love's greatest healing can come.  Amen.

© 2009 All rights reserved by Charles J. Tomlin

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Healing Virtues of the Soul: Humility

In one of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoons Lucy is playing her role as psychiatrist. She sits in her booth with the sign that reads: "Psychiatric Help - 5 cents."    The sign below says, "The Doctor Is In."   Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "Your life is like a house."    

In the next frame, she says reflectively, "You want your house to have a solid foundation, don't you?" Charlie Brown has a kind of blank look on his face. Lucy says, "Of course you do."

Charlie Brown is still silent - saying nothing. Then in the fourth frame, psychiatrist Lucy says, "So don't build your house on the sand, Charlie Brown." About that time, a huge wind comes up and blows the booth down. Lucy, sitting in the rubble says, "Or use cheap nails."

In these past weeks, I’ve been talking about some “good nails” that can help to hold our soul together when the contrary winds of life blow hard against us.   These Healing Virtues of the Soul: honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity and willingness are some of the “good nails” that help us stay strong and sound so we can withstand life’s storms.  They are virtues which work their healing both in preventative and curative ways, but the most important thing to remember is this:  Their healing powers work from the inside out. 

There is no better biblical picture of the inner soul connection to outward physical healing than the powerful miracle story of the healing of the Syrian general found in 2 Kings, chapter 5.  The drama going on here is a classic, in theology and also in psychology, as in life.  Before Naaman, who has leprosy, can receive the healing his body so desperately needs, there is a certain new path his soul must be willing to take.  Though the healing story is enacted through these “outward” things he must do, that is, the most obvious “hoops” he is required to jump though by the prophet Elisha, from the inside, in his heart.  But before we look closer into this ancient biblical story, let’s consider the need for this virtue of healing with an image much closer to us in our own times.

Harold Warlick, Dean of the Chapel at High Point University, tells two children walking opposite directions down a typical crowded hallway at school.  Neither of the two pay close attention to what they are doing.  They bump into each other with force.  One child reacts by pushing back against the other making a fist, crying out: “You bumped me.  You bumped me.”  He is ready to fight.  The other child realizes the incident was only an accident and simply wants to move on his way and get to class.  But the first child is still screaming threats: “You hit me!” and wanting to stay and fight.

What do you think is going on with the first child who over-reacts?  Is he ill-tempered, hyperactive (ADHD), and incorrigible?  Is this upset child bad and the other good?  Warlick suggests the first child does have an attention deficiency, while the second child does not.    The attention is deficient, not because the child can’t focus, but the attention is deficient because the child can’t focus beyond the moment.  The angry, upset child is only able to focus on the moment and stays and gets stuck with the pain saying: “You hit me! You hit me!” It is not that the child is still hurting on the outside, but the pain is on the inside.  With this deficiency within his soul, the child gets stuck having to defend his own ego.  He can’t get beyond himself because he can’t see beyond himself.   He can’t see beyond himself because he can’t see through some unresolved emotional pain.   (Incident from Harold C. Warlick’s sermon: “A Bad Temperament Can Kill You”, in Light in the Land of Shadows, CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 1996).

We adults can have similar deficiencies in our attention, can’t we?  Perhaps you know someone who reacts in a similar way to the pains and hurts in life.   They have bumped some a sudden discomfort or pain and their attention gets stuck on one thing they can’t let go of it, or get around it.   It may be yet undiscovered, but the real problem is not what just hit them, but it’s something else they haven’t gotten around.  It’s something they need to deal with and resolve on the inside of themselves, not on the outside.

Let me tell you a little story of some very normal “attention deficiency”, which any of us can bump up against when we encounter life’s challenges.  When Teresa and I first moved to Germany to live in a different culture and in a big city, it was an adventure in dealing with challenges.   One challenge came as we walked on the streets in Germany or went in the stores, and we discovered how much more crowded it was.  You could not walk very far until you bumped into someone or someone bumped into you.  As a person from a small town, the thing we did was, stop acknowledge the incident, and politely say, “Excuse me.”  It was one of the first German words we ever learned: “Entschuldigen.”

During the first couple of months, we used this all the time.  We almost wore it out, saying “Entschuldigen” to everyone we bump into or who bumped into us.  But after a while, we realize something.  Nobody was saying it back.  When we bumped into each other we were the only ones saying anything and it left you thinking that the German people must really be a bunch or rude, crude, impolite people.  All kinds of thoughts went through my head, like “these people really do need Jesus”, or worse, “no wonder we had to go to war against this land where all the barbarians” came from.  I was really hard on these people.   I was being polite and they seemed to be down-right ugly.

Then was reading a book entitled “These Strange German Ways” about the differences in the customs in Germany and America.   I read through all kinds of ways that people were supposed to be polite in Germany.  When you go visit someone, you take them a gift.  When you enter a room, you don’t set down until you personally shake hands with everyone.  As I kept on reading, then it hit me, there is indeed some etiquette here.  In fact, because I didn’t follow these customs I could have been perceived as being rude and crude.  Then I came upon the next words which hit be like a ton of bricks: It is not rude in German culture to bump into somebody.  You don’t have to say “excuse me”, unless you knock somebody down.  In fact, in German culture, people live close together in large cities and are not only used to pushing up against each other, it is normal, and to be expected.  People will look rather strangely at you if you say ‘excuse me’ every time to simply make contact.  To a German, if you did this, it would be like counting cracks in the sidewalk.  You don’t need to be excused from something you didn’t mean to do.  If you bump into somebody, it’s o.k.  Only use the word when you do something you could have helped or if you hurt someone.  

I almost laughed when I read that.  Here I was, walking around trying to be polite, but I must have real looked stupid and over sensitive.  But more than that, I had all these negative feelings growing in me about Germans that weren’t true at all.  It was not a personal issue, but a cultural one.  What was really going wrong was inside of me, not outside in them.  I was still stuck living in America, and I now had to get myself “unstuck” by learning to live in Germany.     

Sometimes we have to choose which “land” we are going to live in.    When life bumps into us, or we bump into it (and it will, sometimes really hard), we have work through our pain now, so we don’t have it taking control over us later.   To find the healing we need, we have to find a way to get unstuck and to keep moving ahead.    Because so many times,  the real obstacle in our way of healing, is not what is going on outside, but what is going on inside, in our own mind, heart, soul, or our ego---which ever you want to call it. 

This is why the Healing story of Naaman the leper is so perceptive, long before any physical or psychological science is developed.   Even Jesus used Naaman as an example.   Jesus said, “Many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, except Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4: 27).  Why was Naaman healed and others weren’t?  That is the question we want to answer and I can already tell you, the key to his healing was found within his own heart, which unlocked God’s healing power in his life.

What we see first about this story is that Naaman was a man who was used to getting things his own way.   He was a successful general in Syria’s army; and a favorite of the king.  He not only had a high social position, but he was held in the greatest esteem by his people, and feared by all of Israel.   He was a man who got results and because of this life and all its treasures seemed to have fallen into his lap.  But now, before our eyes, two great problems arise:  One is obvious and on the outside:  Naaman was afflicted by an incurable disease called leprosy, which was eating away at his body.   The other is on the inside and inconspicuous:  As the story unfolds, through the prophet’s very shrewd and revealing prescription, Naaman’s bad temper and hidden anger is also revealed.   What we see clearly is that Naaman wants healing and he wants his life back, but he wants it on his own terms.

I wonder what it would have been like to live in Naaman’s home?  He was a wealthy, powerful man, who was used to getting his way and getting whatever he wanted, when he wanted it.   Now, he’s a man who suddenly has a disease that he can’t control and can’t conquer.  That new reality for him must have been more painful than the leprosy itself.   Do you think Naaman was the kind of guy who kept all this pain inside?   He didn’t.  We will see it come out with a lot of anger.  Now, if add Naaman’s bad temper to his loss of health, you’ve got more hurt.   When people like Naaman, who seem to have everything are at risk of losing everything, well, you could say, they don’t normally choose to hurt alone or go quietly into the dark night. 

Sickness has a way of taking over and possessing one’s life.  Anyone who’s been sick will tell you that losing control of your life can just as painful as having the hurt itself.   That’s why a lot of people don’t want to go to the doctor or into the hospital when they get sick.   It’s not just all the stuff they have to go through---the examinations, the tests, the shots, the medicine and the loss of all kinds of privacy and pride, but it’s also the stuff you have to let others do for you because you can’t do it for yourself.   And just as it’s painful to be a sick person, it can be painful and hard to help and live with a person in pain.  This was especially true of Naaman, because as we are about to see, he wanted healing, but he wanted only on his own terms.   

With all that is going with Naaman, both in public and probably behind the scenes, is there any wonder that the hurt goes down to the wife, maybe one to the children, all the way down to the little Israelite servant girl.  She’s the one who made the suggestion that there is a “prophet in Israel” who could “cure his leprosy”. (vs. 3).   Now things are really going to get interesting.  Not only is Naaman debilitated by the disease, he now must be humiliated as he finds himself taking advice from his servant, and from a girl, and he must consider getting help from a lesser country and from a strange religion he knows nothing about nor does he even believe in.   Oh, yes, one other thing.  As far as we know, Elisha has never even healed anybody either, though he has been given permission to kill (1 Kings 19:17).  

And if all this isn’t enough to humble him, there’s one more thing.  Now the King, who usually seeks the advice of his generals is joining in to tell this sick man what he must do: “Go, then, and I will send along a letter…” (vs.).  Along with the letter of recommendation Naaman takes gold and silver with him.  You might say he takes it in the form of an ancient insurance check made out in the sum of about $125 thousand in today’s currency.  So, everything is ready for Naaman to get his healing, right?

Not so fast.  This is where it gets ugly.   What happens next puts Naaman into a complete rage and he just about walks away from everything.    First Naaman has to go through customs, so to speak and makes the King of Israel know of his presence in the country.   This literally puts the fear of God into the King, because he’s thinking that it’s nothing but a political trap: Naaman gets sick, comes to get help from one of Israel’s prophets, doesn’t get what he wants or doesn’t like what he gets, then goes on a killing rampage.  He’s seen this kind of trick before.   So the King of Israel nervously sends a message to Elisha asking him what to do next.   “Let him come to me so that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel,” Elisha recommends to which the King of Israel nervously obliges. 

When Naaman finally arrives at the prophet’s house, “with his chariots and horses” (v. 9), you’d think the prophet should have come out to greet him with the red carpet treatment---especially since this guy is a “mighty warrior”, making two kings very nervous, and is a very sick and desperate man.  But what Elisha does next is undoubtedly one of most daring feats ever attempted by a prophet in the Hebrew Bible.  Instead of going out to greet him, Elisha sends his messenger boy out to him with detailed instructions:  “Go wash in the Jordan, seven times and your flesh will be restored and you will be made clean” (vs. 10).

That’s it.  With this seemingly “cheap” medical prescription and impersonal approach Naaman loses it.   But let the text speak for itself.  Read verses 11 and 12:  “But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!   Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage.”  

What in the world is Elisha up to?   Everybody knows when somebody’s got the money you’ve got the time.  Even today’s fundraisers know the contributing ones  want to be met personally.  But Elisha didn’t do that.  And Naaman grew madder and madder.  “He didn’t even come to visit me.”  “He sent his associate, instead of coming himself”.  “He didn’t act like a preacher”.   He didn’t come out, wave his arms, call on God or nothing!   (I once heard of a church that fired its pastor because he didn’t wear a neck tie when he serviced his car.  Seriously).

Naaman was hot!  He had all these preconceived ideas in his mind how it was all supposed to happen, but it didn’t.  He got even hotter.  Then came the most humiliating thing of all.  The insult of insult is when you’re in a foreign country and strangers start cutting down your homeland.  “Go, take a dip in the Jordan! And you’ll be cured”.   That’s it?  Why aren’t our own rivers beautiful enough?  I mean the Jordan, if you’ve ever seen it, it can ‘t decide whether it’s a creek or a river and it’s muddy most of the time.  “You call this guy a preacher!  Man, I can stay home and do much better that this watching church on T.V.!

There you have it.  Naaman leaves in a rage.  If everything were left up to Naaman getting his way, the healing would have never taken place.   He would surrender a lot of things to be healed, but he would not surrender his heart.  If he could not have healing on his own terms, then he would not have it at all.  Better go home and rot with your pride in tack than be humbled and then completely humiliated.  Now, as Harold Warlick says, Naaman is so much like that boy in the school hallway.  He’s not only got a temper, he’s got a real deficiency in his attention.  He can’t see beyond his own stuff.   He’s like me having to learn a different set of rules in a new country, but instead of learning, he’s fighting mad.  And this bad disposition nearly killed him. He’d rather had been a non-insulted leper, than person humbled who got over the insult and found the healing and grace of God.

Namaan’s ego and pride would have killed him, if it hadn’t been for his servants.  They saw his short-sighted, ego-driven, emotionally charged, attention deficiency.
“Sir,” they said.  “If the prophet had demanded something more difficult wouldn’t you have done it (v. 13)?”  Didn’t Namaan take $125 thousand in gold and silver with him and was prepared to give it all.  What if he ask Namaan to crawl back home on his hands and knees, wouldn’t he have done it? 
This word of intervention brought Namaan back to his senses.  He was able to see the big picture.  He decided to go down to the Jordan, just as the prophet demanded. Can’t you just see him dipping a few times, thinking to himself: Embarrassing, crazy, humiliating, what a cruddy little river?  He looked at his hand and said: “I’ve still got leprosy.”   “Keep going.  Keep dipping,” the servants yelled.  Finally he came up the seventh time, taking the final plunge, and he stood unable to take his eyes off his hand.  It was just like the prophet said.   His flesh was as smooth as the flesh of a child.
What a great miracle story of healing, isn’t it?  But what can this ancient story about humility and healing say to us?

First of all ask yourself:  Who really wants to be a humbled?  Remember that old country song by Mac Davis, “O Lord It’s Hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”   It can seem easier to be a non-insulted, physically sick person than to be a humiliated soul?   Our response to hurt is to fight, become defensive, rather than working to get past the bump or the bruise in our lives.  As human beings, our attention deficiencies can get in the way. 
·         How many people do you know who bit the hand of the very person who was trying to help them?  
·         How many times been learning something new from a teacher, but walked out of class saying “that teacher is stupid?”  
·         How many have a doctor give them advice to what they need to start or stop doing, and walk out shaking their head or knowing better to go right back to doing the same destructive things. 
·         How many go through some shaky times in a relationship and throw their arms up in disgust and walk away too soon?  
·         How many were in a church going through growing pains, but instead of hanging in, rising above it and growing through it, walked out the door never to come back? 
·         How many have gone through some hard, very unfair, and unwelcomed event in life,  blamed God for everything, loss faith and would rather stay home and rot, nursing their bruised ego, letting it kill them day by day, rather than find a way hope and healing.  
·         Finally, how many times do we prefer to protect our prideful egos, when being humbled is the only way to come out of or come through our pain?

Since it should be rather clear to us now what kind of dangerous position our own egos can be to us, what about humility?  What healing good is there in it? 

Look again at the biblical narrative once again.  Consider the little slave girl who first told Naaman about Elisha (vs. 2-3).  It is clear in the text that she was a casualty of war.  The Syrians, we are told, on a raid had carried her away into a strange land.  They had probably killed her family.  Whatever happened, in one fell swoop, she had lost her mother, father, her home, all her possessions, and of course, her freedom.  The only thing left to lose was her life.  The man who was to blame for all her problems and her slavery was deathly ill.

What would you do in that situation?  Would you suggest to him a way he could be healed?  Or would you wish him every pain he was about to experience?  Would you be glad he is getting pay-back, thinking to yourself: “He hurt me, my family, my people, not let him hurt?  This is God’s vengeance on him, who am I to interfere or intervene?”   

That could have been her thinking and her rationale for not saying anything to Namaan, but it wasn’t.   In some way, this little servant girl, this woman with so much pain in her life, this woman had been robbed of everything, had something that this great general did not possess.  He had a heart.  She had a soul.  She still possessed the faith and the desire to be a “light to the nations”.  She reached out to help a person she had every reason to hate.

Why did she do it?  Why did she humble herself in this way?  We don’t know exactly, except that people who serve seem to have a perspective on life that people who rule have the most difficulty having.  What we know better than why she did what she did is what happened because she took the role of the servant, the cross.   When she took this role, when she took the pain upon herself and wished nothing but healing for the other, healing took place.   And my best guess is that not only did healing come to Namaan, but healing also came more fully in her heart.  Somehow, long before Christianity and long before Psychology, she knew how unhealthy it was to hold on to hate and selfish pride in her heart.  She knew that holding on to pains in your heart was a sickness even worse than leprosy.

But is still so hard to do, isn’t it?  It is so rare and so hard to see what we do to our hearts when we hold on to selfish pride, we refuse to be humbled, and we don’t work to resist a bad disposition in our soul.   When you have been wronged by someone, especially someone stronger than you, it is so easy to hold on to the pain.  It is so easy, for women, who have been wronged by men, to hold on to their anger and hurt.  It is so easy, for children who’ve been wronged by parents take the pain with them all their lives.  It is easier, when we’ve been betrayed, never to forget or to let it go in our hearts.  We tend to want to meet hate with hate and to let evil be returned for evil, and to try to help God work out his vengeance.   It can even better, at least for a while, to go through life focusing on something you won’t let go, even when it sounds a lot like “he hit me” or “she bumped me” or “they hurt me!”  It can be a hard decision to make, whether to be a non-humiliated and proud sick person, or a humiliated, humbled, surrendered, well person.   It would take more than seven dips in the Jordan to wash all that hurt away.

Yet, this little, Jewish, slave girl--and I can’t seem to get my mind of her, was able to move on.  What was it in her that caused her to come forward?  What was it in her that enabled her to let go of all the pain, and to wish that her enemy might find hope and healing?   I can’t help but believe part of her healing came from her position.  She took the role of a humble servant, just like Namaan also had to do if he wanted the healing grace of God in his life.  And if you think, this humble way was just a stupid move of ignorance, and even if you don’t think her humility brought healing to her soul, I wonder what it did for her status, her position and her future as Naaman returned.  Wonder what Namaan might have done for her, when he returned home with his health fully restored? 

What about us?  What can humility do for our own health and healing? 
The book of James in the New Testament suggests that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”   It goes on to call upon believers to “submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee”, and recommends, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you, cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you double-minded…”  All this ends with these even stranger, even more humbling words, “Lament and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into dejection. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:7-10) and then finally, we get these next words which remind us again what this Jewish servant girl did her own great jester of humility: “Do not speak evil of one another…” (4:11).

What can dipping yourself in the river of humbleness and humiliation do for healing the pains that persist in your life?  You’ll never know until you get in the humble water yourself and wash.  You can’t be made clean, whole or healed, until you bow down in the humble waters.  It’s not just Elisha, but also Yeshua, (Jesus) who magnified the humble waters as the way of healing.  When Jesus humbled himself on the cross, he invited us all to the river of healing that still flows to those who will come and wash.  

What about you?  What do you need to bring to wash in the humble waters?  What part of yourself, what pain, what obstacle of character, what defect, what disposition in your life needs to be dipped in the healing waters?  The river of healing still flows, but who is willing, like Namaan, to humbly step away from their pain, away from their hurt, away from the deficiency in their soul, toward the healing, toward cleansing, toward wholeness and toward hope?  The healing waters wait on your next move.  Amen.     

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Healing Virtues of the Soul: Willingness

Bungee jumping is not a difficult sport. In fact it may be the easiest sport there is. All one has to do is take the first step, and the rest comes easy. But that one step is a doozy.

We may be dressed to jump. We may have all the facts about the security of the bungee cord. We may even have complete confidence in the operators. But we won't jump until we are ready and willing, entirely ready and completely willing.

For the past 6 weeks we’ve been talking about the healing virtues of the soul.   Our major premise of has been that in order to find healing for life’s hurts in your soul, you’ve got to have or develop certain dispositions or virtues; honesty, hope, faith, courage, and integrity.  There are more to come than these,  but today, right in the middle of this ongoing discussion on healing, I’m about to ask what could appear to be the most stupid question.  Are you willing to do what it takes to receive God’s healing in your life?

I wouldn’t ask this question it raises at all (because I don’t like to look stupid), unless it wasn’t one of most important questions Jesus ever asked anybody. Let’s look straight into it from our text in John 5 and discover this obvious but necessary question of healing at the pool of Bethesda.

What we find at this legendary pool of healing is a man who has been sick for 38 years.   All this time, he’s been hanging out at a place people believed to have healing properties, which was something like a healing mineral springs that used to be in many areas of the world.  Our text says that when Jesus saw him and realized he had been waiting there for a long, long time, he asked him this very obvious question: “Do you want to be made well?”

Well, who wouldn’t want to get well?   Is there anybody in this world who likes being sick?

When I was doing clinical care studies at Baptist hospital, part of the hard part of the work was working as a chaplain with critically ill patients, many who would die right when you were getting to know them.  The other challenge of the work was being in a small group with other chaplains who all had different styles of care than you did and also came from different backgrounds.  In those small group meetings we would have to share our various discussions with patients, as we made reports and shared evaluations.  The hard part was having your peers not only take apart how you worked with others, but sometimes they would take you apart, piece by piece, analyzing, questioning or even being critical of your approach.  It was a humbling, but also a growing experience, which I cherish to this day.  

What I remember most however, was the final evaluation I received from my supervisor, who in making his final words of encouragement to me in my ministry, told me that one thing he appreciated about my reaction to the very difficult process of pastoral training was that he never saw me play the psychological game, “wooden-leg”.

When he first told me that, I didn’t fully know what he meant.   I knew I did have a leg injury which didn’t really limit me, but what he was talking about was more than simply dealing with a leg injury.  “Wooden leg” is a psychological game which some people learn to play as a way to deal with their hurts, pains, illnesses or limitations.   Instead of making recognition of their limits and accepting them, what people sometimes do is use their weaknesses, hurts or illnesses as excuses for all kinds of things they say they can’t do.  

When I realized what ‘wooden leg’ was, I knew exactly why I never played that game.  One of my mother’s sisters, who I loved very much, used to play “wooden leg” and sometimes it drove me crazy.  When, as a little boy, after my grandfather died and we visited her home every other Sunday, I sometimes dreaded it because her life was made mostly of what she couldn’t do, didn’t have, or the pains she did have.   In reality, I thought my aunt was very resourceful in many ways.  As an unmarried female, with my mother’s help, she had taken care of my bed-ridden grandfather after his stroke.  She also was very good at cooking, chopping wood, gardening and doing farm work.  She made the best stewed apples in the world.  There were many things she could do, but she seemed locked in the game of acting sickly, complaining, needing a doctor, staying at home, never getting out, having a social life, learning a job, even when you really couldn’t see much wrong with her.   What I learned later was that her “complaining” about this or that ailment and her excuses for what she didn’t know or couldn’t do was her way coping and dealing, that is, even “gaming” with some “hard” parts of her life that she believed she could not change.  Rather than try to change or accept the challenge of getting better, or taking steps to try to make things better, it had become easier for her to express the pain, expect sympathy and accept the pity.

I remember one time, hearing her talk about how lonely things were for her at Christmas—since she had no husband and no children.   Hearing this every year as far back as I could remember, I decided to invite her to come and stay with us over Christmas.  Of course she first refused to come.   It took me weeks and weeks of begging, until finally she was willing to come at least for one night and one day.  But no sooner did Christmas morning come, she was ready to go back home.  To me it seemed she loved her loneliness better than the company and attention we tried to give her.  Her being alone and not feeling well enough to go much of anywhere, except the grocery store or the doctor, was her “wooden leg”. 

Do you have a “wooden leg” or do you know somebody, like this poor fellow by the pool of Bethesda, who finds themselves in the same predictable situation, ending up the same predictable way over and over again---going nowhere in their life very fast?   Illness and debilitation can sometimes work on us this way.  It can make us feel as if we have no real choices or options left.  Grief can also make a person feel this way.  Poverty too can cause person to develop such a defeatist attitude; so can lack of a certain opportunity or lack of education.  An unresolved problem, a sense of failure, low self-esteem, guilt and some kinds of depression,  can give occasion to people living their lives in the same predictable way, as if they are frozen in time, fear, dread, defeat or sorrow.  

Someone has rightly described “sanity” as doing different things and expecting different results, but “insanity” is described at doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  This guy at the pool was one step worse than this; he didn’t do anything, didn’t expect any results, and had gotten used to it this way.   He sees no other possibilities.  He sees nothing but obstacles.  Instead of a person with hope with optimism, he has become a person filled with utter hopelessness and complete pessimism.  He answers Jesus’ question, “Do you want to get well” (which proves not to be so stupid after all) "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me"  (5.7).  What we also see in this man’s answer, is not only his total spirit of defeatism and pessimism, but we also see what we might call “the blame game” rising up in his complaint as he says he has “no one to put (him) into the poor” and that  there is always “someone else steps down ahead of (him).”  

Carl Rogers, one of the most innovative therapists in the past century, once said that he considered only one kind of counselee relatively hopeless: namely that person who blames other people for his or her problems. Writes Rogers: "If you take ownership of the mess you are in, help is available for you. But to the degree you continue to blame others, you will be a victim for the rest of your life."  For this man “the blame game” had gone on just about that long…38 years.

This “blame game”  people get locked  can sometimes get dirty, so the attempt is not just to get people to see into our own pain, but to make someone have and share the same pain so we don’t have to be accountable, responsible or so we don’t have to be in pain all alone.  This blame game goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam blamed the woman, the woman blamed the snake, and where the devil is the only one left who has no one to blame and he simply has to eat dirt.  Because the devil’s has been the easiest and most obvious to blame, comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “The Devil Made me Do it!”  

Today, people don’t blame the devil as much, but have gone further back, blaming Adam through their genes---or blaming their parents because of a fatal flaw in their upbringing.  Since parents can blame their parents, and we call can blame Adam, maybe it is, after all, ultimately God’s fault because he made Adam in the first place?   I’m convinced that the reason some negative people say they believe in God, though their sickly behavior points otherwise, is because as long as they’ve got God, the devil, and the evil world, they’ve still got someone to blame besides themselves. 

Whose fault is it ultimately, that we don’t get to live in paradise on this earth--- that your life or my life has to face challenges, troubles, weakness, illness, disease and eventually death?  It is not until Jesus appears on the scene that we find someone who doesn’t take part in the blame game, but takes the all the blame on himself, saying “Father Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Because Jesus doesn’t place blame, even as he dies unjustly, and even though he had every right to blame, you and I can be given a new power, just like this man at the pool of Bethesdia was given power to find healing.   We can start to heal, even from the worst hurts, because there is sense, that through Jesus Christ, God has said to the world: “Stop all this blaming: I’ll take all the blame and all the sin upon myself.   

So, now, the only question left, since there’s no one left to blame, do you want to be healed?   Are you willing to stop the blame game, and take up your cross and be responsible for your life?  Whether your life is fair or not, whether there is a reason or not, the most obvious question---in my pain---in your pain---in the world’s pain---is do you want to get well?   Do you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem?   Do you want to be on the side of the healer or on the side of the sick maker?   Are you willing to take up your cross of personal responsiblity, just like he took up his cross?  If you are willing, then you need to do, what I told one person, “you need to decide to stop standing by the river of pain and starting ‘building a bridge to get over it, rise above it, and get on with your life and do something with the life you’ve been given.   One thing for sure, there will be no health, no opportunity for healing, no overcoming any negative in our lives, until you and I, want to be better and rise above the ‘wooden leg’ and get beyond and move away from our own pool of brokenness and pain.   

While any of us can be shaken by illness, adversity or grief, the promise of the gospel is we can have be given power to move beyond the shame game, the lame game or the blame game.   What is most amazing, and even inspiring, is to see how some people do conquer what is going on around them to rise above their lives, their situations and difficulties from within the disposition of their own soul. 

Have you heard the popular story about parent who had a child who was an eternal optimist and a child who was an eternal pessimist and he wanted desperately to help become a little more balanced in their perspective?  At Christmas he got the pessimist a new bicycle, but when the boy saw it, he immediately thought of how easily he could get hurt.  To the optimist child he brought only a bag of horse manure.  When the boy opened it up, he started smiling and looking around, saying I know there’s got to be a horse around here somewhere.

One person who found a horse in his “manure pile” was Martha Mason.  According to the Shelby Star Newspaper, Martha Mason was Cleveland County’s most unusual world record setter.   When she was 11 years old, Martha contracted polio, and was told she wouldn't live to see her teen years.   On May 4th, 2009, she died at her home in the little town of Lattimore, one month shy of 72 years of age.  She had "lived above" her disease flat on her back for more than 61 years, and 60 of those years in an “iron lung” which did her breathing for her. 

Mason had always said that she would not let polio beat her. Martha wrote in 2002, "As a youngster, in pre-polio days, I enjoyed sports and considered myself an athlete .... proud of my physical strength ... unusually self-reliant. Suddenly, I was a 11-year-old quadriplegic, I was not strong and I was completely reliant on others .... I would not be a whiner, but what would I be? ..."  
What Martha Mason became, instead of a whiner, was a person who never met a stranger, someone who overcame any obstacle set in front of her, and she was the “kind of person you wanted everyone to meet."   This amazing woman and her iron lung completed high school and attended Gardner-Webb College. She came to Wake Forest University the same way.  She graduated first in her class and earned Phi Beta Kappa honors.  Most of her life she was a member of the Rotary Club, which has as its international goal to eradicate Polio in the world.  Using a voice-activated computer at home in Lattimore, she wrote her memoir, "Breath, Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung."
Just before her 71st birthday, about a year ago, Martha wrote: "My story's been one of joy, one of wonderful experiences. It has not been perfect. But that's what people need to understand - that I have had a good life."
Martha Mason was 12 and in an Asheville hospital when she was told, "You'll never walk again. You'll never bathe or feed yourself again. You're basically an excellent mind and an exuberant spirit locked in an inert body - a prison. Can you live with that?"  "No," came the answer, "but I can live above it." And she did.     (
What is the difference?  Does it have to do with how we are born, what resources we have, or what have to live with?  Does only what is on going on the outside determine our disposition?  Or can our inner disposition, even our soul, be strong enough to bring shape to how we experience and interpret our lives and our situation, even our pain and sadness?  Can we learn to live---not from the outside in, but from the inside out?   By the way, what kind of power do you think Jesus was pointing to when he asked the sick man, Do you want to get well?   Could he have been also asking us in our own situations we face: What do you really want?  Does your willingness to be part of solution also have part in the outcome?

Jesus believed that our “willinginess”, our desire, and our “want to” get better has much to do with the ability to heal, get better and even overcome our weaknesses, our hurts, and our pains in life.  That’s why, when Holman Hunt painted that famous picture of Jesus standing at the door knocking, depicted the Scripture Revelation 3: 20, “Behold I stand at the door and knock…”, he did not paint a door knob on the outside.  Jesus would only knock until the person was ready to open the door.  Nothing happens until we are willing.

In the end, Jesus gives this man at the pool the hope of a power to heal that he cannot find within himself.  But instead of picking him up and putting him in the water, Jesus heals him by telling him, to “stand up (on his own two feet) and “take up his mat and walk”  (5:8).  The Scripture then tells us that “at once the man was made well.”  Well, not so fast, there is one problem that still remained.   Do you see it in the text? 

 It was the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was called the day of rest, but Jesus never got to rest and Jewish leaders made sure he couldn’t rest.  Right after the man gets up and starts walking around those who oppose Jesus come to question him and tell him there is a problem, “It is the Sabbath, it’s not lawful for you to be carrying your mat.”  Being put on the point, what does this man do, but he immediately falls back to his old way of seeing and doing things, and probably without thinking, he returns to the real illness---his soul weakness---not his body weakness and starts making excuses and he places blame---(or gives credit, it all depends on you viewpoint) and he tells the Jewish leaders what he’s doing is somebody else’s fault.  He says it’s that guy over there who told me to “take up my mat and walk!”  

As they look to see who “that man” is, Jesus is already gone, having disappeared in the crowd.  But you are left seeing what still isn’t gone?  There’s a different kind of sickness in this man’s heart and mind left lingering in his soul that even Jesus hasn’t cured:  His unwillingness to take responsibility for himself.   Jesus has “left the building” so to speak, and has left final result of healing up to him, just like he leaves it up to us.

 The word “salvation” comes from the word “wholeness.”   This word “wholeness” basically means salvation works best from the inside out rather than from the outside in.  You might put the surprising, lingering issue, this way: Jesus can heal us.  He has healing power.  But his power doesn’t really help us fully, completely, unless we really want to be helped. 

Are you willing to give Jesus your heart as well as your body for his healing?  So, now the healing question doesn’t get smaller, but it gets larger.  Healing is never simply a matter of getting better in your body.  Sometimes we get better, but one day we won’t.  That’s why the greatest healing question is not what does your body need, but what does your soul want?   Amen.  

    © 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, BA; MDiv; DMin.