Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Defined As God Sees Us

Sometimes a person isn't sure whether he or she is ready to be on the prayer list. Of course, lots of people with short-term challenged don't want the attention, but I mean the kind of person who knows that eventually she or he will crave the prayers of the congregation because they have a debilitating condition or a terminal illness, but that person isn't sure when it's time to be added to the official list. Others are ready to have their names read aloud in church from the very beginning, but some aren't so sure. For some who anticipate a precipitous decline, the thought of being put on the prayer list is a sign that the end is near.

I spent a good bit of time with one person who couldn't make up his mind. He is a person of prayer and believes in the power of prayer, but there was something about being added to the list that felt like an irrevocable admission of weakness. We talked about it for a while. He had asked many people in the parish to pray for him--enough that people would come up to me and ask why his name wasn't on the parish prayer list. He was open about his condition, but he didn't want people to stop and ask him all the time, "How are you doing?" Those on the prayer list, in his opinion, were the kind of people who belonged at home or in the hospital, not out for a nice dinner with his spouse or going to the mountains for the weekend. In short, he did not want to be defined by his condition. He did not want to become in the eyes of his friends and family and congregation the diagnosis he had received from his doctors.

In John 5, Jesus walked beside the pool of Beth-zatha near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Many people who sought healing were gathered there--blind, lame, and paralyzed. They were there because the pool had magical healing properties. The legend was that an angel would come down and stir up the water with its wings and that whoever was the first into the pool after the water was stirred up would be healed. Among those who were lying there was a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. For nearly four decades, the man had been ill. Unable to get down into the pool by himself, he watched others immerse themselves in its healing waters, but he had lost hope. He had no way to get past his illness.

Jesus came and saw the man who had been there a long, long time and said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" But the man didn't know what that meant. He didn't know what "well" was anymore. He had been sick for so long, and he had lost all his hope, so when Jesus came and offered him the chance to be made well, the only thing the man could see what the problem in which he was stuck: "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and someone always gets there before I do."

As John describes the scene for us, we encounter a man who is defined by his condition. He is lame. He is sick. For a lifetime, he has been incapacitated. He's been in the same place for a long time--amidst the other "invalids." He only knows himself as the illness that plagues him. But Jesus sees something different. Normally, when Jesus comes and offers a healing miracle, it is to someone who has faith in his healing power--someone who has heard that he has the power to cast out demons or heal the sick or raise the dead. "Your faith has made you well," Jesus so often says to them, but not this time. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well, and the man simply recites his condition, but Jesus responds, "Stand up; take up your mat and walk." Jesus sees what the man cannot see--what we cannot see. Jesus sees a man who has life in front of him. Jesus sees a man who has the potential for healing. Jesus sees a man, not just an illness.

How do we define ourselves? In the various moments of life, how do we see ourselves? Are we defined by our work? By our family? By our economic status? Our income? Our bills? Our debt? Do we reach a point when the only thing that we know about ourselves is the challenge that is overwhelming us? A debilitating addiction? A lack of employment? A terminal diagnosis? Jesus sees something else in us. As the incarnate one, in whom God's divinity and our humanity are made completely one, Jesus sees our true selves. He looks at us from within--from beneath the condition that defines us to the world and sees who we really are. We are human beings created in the image of God. We are God's beloved daughters and sons. We are the redeemed, forgiven, restored beloveds of our God. And to find that again, we need to hear Jesus say to us, "Stand up."

Even when you cannot see past your predicament, God can. Even when you feel like you are defined by your illness, God sees something else. Sit and wait in that place where Jesus comes and finds you and make space to listen to his gentle voice. Hear him call out to you and invite you to stand up.

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