Thursday, March 26, 2009

king David, a candle, and me

I understood something new of the Psalms today. Those who have read them have probably noticed that these songs and prayers of desperation, especially those attributed to David, often seem to have a sort of...mood swing element to them. David cries out in anger or distress for line after line of emotive poetry, and then, click--he spits out a resounding affirmation of God's strength or a beautiful remembrance of God's faithfulness. Psalm 13 is one example that has always lingered in my mind. Most of it betrays David's feeling that God has abandoned him, that David has been left to his enemies without hope of rescue. Yet that same psalm ends with this: "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me" (5-6) At times such switches simply sound odd.

There isn't a really nice way to say it: I have been pretty depressed most of the time for the last few months. Life feels heavy and hard, and while God continually shows me of his goodness, I feel ignored by him in the deepest areas of struggle and suffering. Frustration, anger, and discouragement have been swirling around in my head, unvoiced to a large degree. Today, however, much of it came spilling out. In jaded and bitter words, I spoke of a God who doesn't rescue us when we call to him, who doesn't come to my aid. I spoke of hopelessness, and I attempted to voice an apathy that, of course, is no more than a cover up for caring so much that it nearly does me in. Hot tears welled up. And there it was: my pain, voiced and echoing in the air inside my car.

In that silence that followed, something in me stirred. Some deep part of me was not satisfied with the statements I had made, felt as if I had defiled the sacred. It was not so much a concern that I had said the wrong thing, or some need for a clean-cut religiosity; rather, it was the feeling that I had spoken untruth about One whom I love. And the feeling did not call me to set aside my emotions, only to acknowledge truth in the midst of them. The truth is that God does rescue his people and has so many times rescued me, even if he seems to have left me now. The truth is that there is no hope at all outside of him, because he is hope embodied, and that my pain at his seeming indifference simply underscores his preeminence in my life. That stirring, that moment of pause, was my own fifth verse--not forced, but rising up from the place in me where the Truth resides. There in that place, the Spirit who has made a home in me held a candle up against the dark feelings that threatened to overwhelm me.

Deep into my bones, I journey with David through the early part of Psalm 13 these days: "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and every day have sorrow in my heart?" Yet even as I voice my anguish, I see a flickering. There is a candle somewhere in that darkness, calling me to cling to the ankles of Hope for dear life. It calls me, no matter how weary my voice, to sing to the Lord: he has indeed been good to me.

Monday, March 02, 2009

what's 'want' got to do with it?

Any reader of the Gospels has likely noticed something about Jesus: he says some strange things. For all his oft-quoted eloquent maxims and parables, there are as many portions of his story that leave the reader scratching her head, wondering if Jesus has momentarily lost his marbles despite his divinity. He asks strange questions and gives even stranger responses to the questions others ask him.

One such moment appears in John 5, when Jesus comes upon a man who has been crippled for nearly 40 years, sitting on a mat near a pool famed for its healing properties. Deal was, the pool only healed folks when its waters were stirred by angels, and even then, only the first one in was in luck. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that the crippled man’s odds of being the first one in were not exactly good. There he sat, day after day for 38 years, hoping someone would help him be the first into the healing waters. When Jesus comes near the pool, he sees the man, and approaches him. He looks at the cripple and asks one question: “Do you want to get well?”

Hold the phone, Jesus. Are you nuts? This dude has been sitting on a dang mat for longer than you’ve been in a human body, and you wonder if he wants to get well? Is there a Greek word for “duh”?

It’s funny how life can shed light on things, though. My work with the homeless has given this story a whole new depth for me in the last couple months. As one of our own clients pointed out when we discussed this passage one Sunday, Jesus asks a legitimate question. As an alcoholic, my client knows that the issue isn’t whether or not he is able to get sober, but ultimately whether or not he wants to be sober. You see, despite the complaints we give, most of us have grown to be rather comfortable in our dysfunctions. It’s how we do life, right or wrong. And if we are honest, we hesitate when confronted with the difficulty of changing our habits, learning new coping mechanisms, and facing the challenges of reinventing ourselves. The crippled man, in many ways, faced the same things. A healthy body meant learning to take care of himself, having to work for a living rather than surviving on alms, and generally having responsibilities from which his health had previously excused him. That’s a big adjustment. Perhaps that is why Jesus asks the question: “Do you really want to be well?” [Of course, in this case the guy's answer reads something like, “C’mon, man. It’s not like I’m not motivated. I just can’t get down there on my own. Someone always beats me to it. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I’m crippled.” And Jesus, sensing the sincerity of his answer, heals him and sends him away walking on a brand new set of feet.]

The question I wrestle with again and again at work right now is this: What would Jesus have done if the guy had said no? “No thanks, Jesus, but I’m pretty used to this gig. Thanks anyway.” What then? Would Jesus have healed him? Rebuked him? Just walked away?

Doing case management with a population who consistently befuddles me by turning down the help that could get them out of their homelessness and addiction, I often think about Jesus’ question. In essence, I feel like it is what I am asking my clients: “Look, we are here to help you. But do you want to get well?” They may not say it outright (though on occasion, it’s pretty close), but their reply is often “no.” They don’t want wholeness badly enough to leave the familiarity of their dysfunction behind. Just this week, we offered an intensely alcoholic man who was being released from the hospital a warm place to stay for a couple weeks, if only he will commit to staying sober during that time. His drinking, of course it what landed him in the hospital in the first place, as he lay drunk in a tent for days and let his feet freeze and rot. His dad has given him much the same offer we have—fly him home, take care of him—if he’ll give rehab a shot. But it’s a no go. This particular client does not want to get well. So what do we do with him? It is a land of grays we walk through in situations like this.

Now I know that rehab is a lot more work than the miraculous healing the crippled man received. But all the same, the question is a fair one for all of us: Do we want to get well? When we call out to Jesus to change us, heal us, save us, are we really ready for the responsibility of living out that changed life? It calls me to pause, this notion. It calls me to dig inside to see what dysfunctions I may be asking for freedom from—to picture myself laying on that mat—and to be prepared to answer the willing but searching question of my Savior: “Katie, do you want to get well?”