Haunted by a Seemingly Simple Question

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
John 5:6 (NRSV)

As I journey again and again through God’s Message, there are certain words, phrases, and stories that haunt me. Every time I encounter them they impact my spirit in a profound way. I can’t escape them. They come to mind at random times. And, despite the perpetual impact I always sense that the full truth of them continue to elude me.

In today’s chapter, it’s the simple question Jesus asks of a paralytic who, for 38 years, had lain on his mat next to a pool that was rumored to have healing powers.

“Do you want to get well?”

Really, Jesus? Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I make my family carry me here every day for 38 years hoping for a miracle. I sit here every day. This is my life. And, you want to know if I want to get well. What a silly question.

But it’s not silly at all. I have learned along life’s road, and from my own experience, that my true motives are often hidden beneath carefully crafted appearances. I say I want healing, but the truth is I am content in my sickness. I complain about our sicknesses, weaknesses, and shortcomings , but I’ve become so used to living with them that I’m secretly afraid of life without them. I complain about my paralysis, but if actually do learn to walk my family is going to expect me to actually get a job. Hm.

Being a victim comes with addictive perks that we don’t really talk about.

“Do you want to get well?”

There’s a lot more to that question than it seems. There are layers of questions in those six words. Many of them are uncomfortable questions I’m not sure I want asked. Today, I’m once again haunted by a seemingly simple question Jesus asked.

It’s Simple

So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them.
John 4:40a (NRSV)

Sometimes we make things way too complicated, when Jesus’ example was always to make things very simple.

Salvation is simply this: Hearing Jesus, and inviting Him to stay.

 

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Resuscitating a Worn Out Phrase

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
John 3:5 (NRSV)

I find it fascinating how some words or phrases take on unintended meanings. As I follow the media coverage of the presidential elections, I will on occasion hear those in the media labeling people, or groups of people, as “Born Again” Christians. The phrase became popular back in the 1970s when Chuck Colson, a convicted Watergate conspirator, wrote a book entitled Born Again to tell the story of his own spiritual rebirth. Now when the label is used by members of the media, I get the feeling that the intended image is that of a narrow-minded, widely ignorant, politically conservative, socially repressed minion blindly leading some televangelist. While there are definitely people who fit that description, I find it sad that they seem to have become synonymous with the term “born again” because it empties the phrase of its intensely powerful meaning.

The phrase “born again” did not originate with Chuck Colson or evangelical Christians. It comes directly from Jesus, and it’s found in today’s chapter. Jesus was having a conversation with a religious man name Nicodemus and he simply makes the statement that if you want to enter God’s kingdom you must experience a rebirth.

The idea of rebirth is not new and it wasn’t new when Jesus said it to Nicodemus. It’s a theme woven into the tapestry of time and creation, and even Jesus seemed a bit frustrated that Nic was perplexed by something so spiritually elementary. Every year lifeless seeds buried in the ground bear life from the ground in the spring, grow to maturity in the heat of the summer, bear fruit during autumn’s harvest, then die and decompose in the harshness of winter. Spring is an annual, seasonal rebirth. Each week we start on Monday and work towards Friday night when we can take a break, end the week and start a new one. Every night we go to bed in darkness, enter the oblivion of sleep then with the break of light and the dawn we start a new day.

“Wait ’til next year.”
“Tomorrow’s a new day.”
“This is only for a season.”
“I just have to get through this week.”

God layers the Great Story with this theme of rebirth. The final chapters speak of a new heaven and new earth, and God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (btw, the reference to that verse was embedded in the the crux of my first tat). So, it should not be a surprise that Jesus tells Nicodemus that one of the basic realities and necessities of God’s Kingdom is a rebirth of Spirit, a new start, a new season, a spiritual new beginning. It has nothing to do with political affiliation, demographics, denomination, or attending church. What Jesus was saying was simple and organic: those facing a dead end need a new start, anyone whose spirit is languishing in darkness needs a new day to dawn, those whose hearts are frozen need the thaw of Spring, everyone who is dead in their sin and shame need to experience the power of a spiritual resurrection.

Today, I’m feeling the desire to breath new life into the worn out phrase “born again.”

Caucuses, Circuses, and the Crowd

But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to [the crowd], because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
John 2:24-25 (NRSV)

I must admit that Wendy and I are enjoying the blissful serenity of our evenings now that the Iowa Caucuses are over. For the past few months we have been accosted nightly by political ads, surveys and invitations to town hall meetings.  The media circus combined with the daily candidate rallies get a little old after a while.

It is, I admit, fascinating to watch the side-show which is our presidential election process. Candidates mug for the press and try to create media buzz. Depending on the poll of the hour, the candidates might flip on this issue and flop on that latest trending topic. Every one of them is looking for an edge to swing the crowds to their camp on caucus night.

Perhaps the fresh memory of such things are what caused the verses above to leap of the page at me this morning. John relates two distinct stories from the vast reservoir of stories he could have drawn upon. In the first story, Jesus is reluctant to perform a miracle doing so only at the passive aggressive insistence of His mother. In the second story, Jesus creates a scene at the temple which was sure to make headlines and create buzz. John is careful to note two things about this noteworthy event. First, he makes clear that Jesus’ motivation was sincere zealousness, born out of the corruption and racketeering Jesus witnessed in what was supposed to be a place of holiness. Second, Jesus was not trying to start a political movement or swing the crowd to caucus for Him. He didn’t trust the crowd.

This morning I am reminded of a few specific moments along my life journey. I have felt surges of popularity (albeit relatively small) and I have felt the sting of others turning their backs on me. The experiences are enough to teach me that trying to consistently win the approval of the crowd is a maddening, and largely vain, pursuit. Though, one simply needs to follow the travails of our presidential candidates for a few weeks to see the truth of it. I’m glad that Jesus was more interested in doing what was right than in doing what was popular with the crowd. That’s the example I continuously endeavor to follow.

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Two Questions

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” John 1:38a (NRSV)

This morning I am struck by two questions.

First, John the Baptist was asked “Who are you?” Isn’t this what we’re all asking of ourselves? Isn’t what we are really asking of others? Aren’t we all fundamentally desiring to know and be known? I found it interesting that when asked if he was the prophet Elijah he answered, “no.” Yet, Jesus would later tell his disciples that John was, in fact, the Elijah of whom the prophets spoke (Matt 11:14). John, like all of us, was still seeking to know himself. He saw in part, and he knew in part.

As I approach my 50th birthday in a few months, I find myself stepping back and looking at the big picture of life. My mind evaluates where I’ve been, where I am, and where I am going. I believe I know myself better than I ever have, but the excavations of heart, mind, soul, and spirit are ongoing projects. “Who am I?” is still as valid a question as it ever has been. The answer is still a worthwhile pursuit.

The second question that struck me in today’s opening chapter of John’s biography are the first words of Jesus that John chooses to record: “What are you looking for?”

What an incredible question to pose to the reader. It is the pertinent question for any who read John’s Gospel. What are you looking for? What am I looking for? Savior? Teacher? Prophet? Con man? Jester? Lunatic? Liar? Lord?

John makes no bones about who he is presenting. The first 14 verses of today’s chapter, the prologue, are among the most beautifully crafted in all of God’s Message and present Jesus as Creator, Incarnate Word, Light, giver of Life, and Redeemer. Nevertheless, John seems to understand that no matter how skillfully he gives testimony to the person of Jesus he knew, saw, heard, and touched there remains for each reader two essential questions:

Who am I?
What am I looking for?

 

chapter a day banner 2015Featured image: detail from The St. John’s Bible

The Latest 01-31-2016

January was an unusually busy month for me. Along with two business trips there was a lot of extra-curricular activity that filled our evenings and weekends.

Rehearsals continue for Almost, Maine. Wendy and I have really been enjoying the 3-4 rehearsals each week. The fellow cast members are awesome to work with and we’ve loved the ensemble. Our friend, Kevin McQuade, is a blast to work with as a director. Wendy and I play three scenes together as three different couples. We’re loving the challenge of developing completely different characters and quickly moving from one to another. On Thursday night Kevin called an early halt to rehearsal and took the cast to Kaledra for drinks. He knows how to keep his cast happy! Almost, Maine will be performed here in Pella April 14-17.

Taylor will be moving out next weekend. She’s decided to move to Des Moines and live in the Catholic Worker community full-time. She’s working on a couple of different creative projects and has taken up gaining a more in-depth understanding of photography. She and I took a couple of hours this week to play around with light and lenses in my office studio.

Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.
Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.

My friend Matthew Burch and I have been doing a four-week series of Sunday morning messages in the Third Church auditorium on the subject of shame (audio here). The messages were a microcosm of our men’s workshop, More Than Conquerors which we then presented at Westview this past Friday evening and Saturday. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines on Friday. While Kevin Roose and I were at the workshop, she and Becky enjoyed some girl time and Wendy helped Becky organize their basement storage room.

The More Than Conquerors workshop uses Shakespeare’s trilogy about King Henry V as a backdrop to discussing issues of shame. We loved our time with the 24 guys who attended. It was a great journey. How did it go? I think the answer to that question is in the picture (above) I snapped of Matthew sitting at a table of guys who stayed well after the conference was over to ask more questions and continue learning. When men give up their weekend, sit for almost 12 hours listening to you, and then want to stay for more…I’ll take that as a good sign.

Wendy and I are looking forward to a quiet day today. Here comes February.

A Raving Fan of the Fairer Sex

I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people….
Romans 16:2a

This morning, I am pleasantly struck by the number of women Paul mentions in his final greetings to the followers of Jesus in Rome, as well as the honor he bestows on them:

  • Phoebe, a deacon and benefactor of believers
  • Priscilla – who risked her life for Paul and others, and opened her home to be a meeting place.
  • Mary, who worked hard for the Roman believers
  • Tryphena, who works hard in the Lord
  • Tryphosa, who works hard in the Lord
  • Persis, who works hard in the Lord
  • The mother of Rufus, who mothered Paul
  • Julia
  • The sister of Nereus

Paul’s ministry, like Jesus’ before him, was made largely possible by incredible, honored women who were providers, risk takers, and tireless co-workers.

Today, I’m thankful for the incredible, honored women with whom God has surrounded me. Intelligent, diligent, industrious, capable, passionate, priceless, tireless, (and gorgeous, btw). I am a raving fan of the fairer sex.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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