Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Black Out

                                                                Reflections on Luke 10:38

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home.
                                                                                                Luke 10:38

He’s gone?

What happened to him? One minute we’re there -- standing with Jesus. He’s telling the lawyer to go, do what the Samaritan did. Go live mercy! Go love God with all your heart so you can love your neighbor with all your heart.

The next minute – he’s gone?

But this is it! It’s the key moment of the conversation. We need to know how he responds to Jesus. Did he get it? Does he understand he’s not allowed to pick and choose his “neighbor”? We’re to love the stranger. We’re to love the Samaritans. We’re to love anybody and everybody no matter if we think they’re a nobody.

But we get nothing. No nod of the head. No sign he agrees.

The scene blacks out. Next scene pops up: our Lord is traveling toward the home of Martha with His disciples. The lawyer has vanished from the stage. Forever. We don’t know his name. We can’t trace him in other gospel accounts. We have no way of resolving the question of what happened to this man’s soul.

Are we to assume everything turned out well?

It did for the man beaten unjustly. The Samaritan brought him back to health. Are we to assume our Lord did the same for the brilliant lawyer?

If so, did he go back to his colleagues and align himself with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea? Did he stand in defense of Jesus at His trial? Or, maybe he left the conversation with Jesus and didn’t know how to process it all. Then, after the resurrection, he joined his colleagues as “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) Is that his story? Does it turn out well for him?

Or did he leave Jesus – his heart hardened all the more?

Is it possible he helped rally the political forces that seized Jesus and put Him to violent death? Was there was no Damascus Road conversion in his life?

Why don’t we know?

Mercy was extended. Was mercy received – was he changed by it? Or did he reject it? Why do we have to live in this uncomfortable world of uncertainty?

There are too many Bible stories like this. What happened to the prodigal son’s brother? Did the rich man who walked away from Jesus walk away forever? What about our Lord’s disciples who left Him? (John 6:66) Did some come back? And what about Demas? He’s there with Paul. And then he’s gone – having loved this present world more. (2 Tim 4:10) Was it a phase? Did he come back?

Why all these black outs?

What does it mean for us? Why can’t everything be neatly resolved? Why can’t all our questions find clear, simple answers? But that’s not the Lord’s design. Not here, in this life. We have to live with some mysteries and ambiguities.

But one thing is certain: Mercy is here. Mercy has come. It is ours to receive.

Before – way before -- the blackout comes.

*       *       *

I stayed with Sam until he finally got up and walked off. I didn’t follow him this time. Instead, I got out the little notebook in my back pocket and wrote down some of our conversation. He’d said some things I never wanted to forget.

“God doesn’t look down on anyone.”

“Jesus is my only friend. He’s all I’ve got.” 1

He was skittish the next few days, doing his best to stay away from everybody. His respiratory infection passed and, with it, the memory of his ward mates turning on him. Sam was Sam again – doing everything he could to make everyone around him feel loved and cared for.

On the day before the program ended, I had my final meeting with Leslie.

“I think your bishop is going to be pleased,” he assured me. “You worked hard this summer and I think achieved what he had in mind for you.”

“That is not fair!” I teased.

“Why not?”

“Because you helped me not care about the bishop’s reaction. You put my focus where it should’ve been when I first got here – with the people and staff on my ward. You tried to throw me out of this program! Remember?”

“Yes I did!” Leslie laughed.

“I can’t thank you enough for that. I was pretty angry when I got here.”

“So, you’re glad you stayed?”

“Yeah, and I want to ask a favor. I want to come back this fall, maybe a couple of Saturday’s during visiting hours, and check on Sam. Is that OK?”

“No,” he said firmly.

“There’s like a 1:00-3:00 window where family and friends come visit. I asked Sam’s doctor if it would be alright, and she seemed to think it’d be fine.”

“It’s not happening,” Leslie stated. “When you leave, you leave. It’s over.”

“What if I did it with you? Maybe came on a weekday. I could go to the ward for a little while, spend time with everybody, and then report back to you after it’s over. Maybe once a month. I really want to keep coming back.”

He didn’t respond this time.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Why are you doing this? For you or for Sam?”

I didn’t have an answer to that.

“Tomorrow you’ll go to the ward for the last time,” he instructed. “Afterwards, you’ll hand me the key to the ward and that’s it. Is that clear?”

I nodded, but tried again.

“Could I could call you once and a while and see how Sam is doing? The doctor said she doesn’t think he has a lot of time left. I’d like to know how he’s doing. Would you mind?”

He smiled gently and I thought for just a second he’d say yes. He didn’t. He told me again I had one more time with Sam and that would be it. As he explained his reasons, I realized the same was true with him. This was our last one-on-one time together and he, like Sam, had impacted my life. Both of them had a gift from God I could only dream of having.

They knew how to love others – Jesus’ way.

As he prayed for me, I felt a deep sadness seize my heart. I didn’t want to leave him, or Sam, or this hospital. But I had to.

It was time to say goodbye.

And so, the next day, I went on the ward for the last time. It didn’t surprise me to find Sam sitting next to the guy who’d attacked him the week before. For whatever reason, he was crying. Sam was there with a box of tissues in hand, sitting close, his hand resting on his back. Sam looked peaceful, not scared.

A little while later, he saw me.

“You’re leaving today,” he announced.

“Yeah,” I said back, amazed he remembered. I was never sure if Sam even knew my name. He quickly grabbed my hand and slowly paraded me through the ward. He wanted me to spend time with everybody. A proper good-bye. Not just a few – all of them. Without missing anyone. Did he know that was my summer job? I was supposed to love the thirty equally. Something Sam did every day of his life.

Truth be told, I didn’t. I loved Sam more.

Mid-afternoon, it came time to leave. Sam and I parted abruptly. He smiled and said what he said when he first met me, “You’re going to be alright!” He patted my hand and walked off – heading for the game room. He looked happy. Still coughing – loud and guttural. And I was left with no sense that tomorrow, a month from tomorrow, a year from tomorrow, he’d remember me.

But I’d remember him and always have.

Soon after, I left the ward and closed the door behind me. Like the ending of some movies, everything blacked out and Sam disappeared into time.

That was 28 years ago now. I often wonder what happened to him. And every time I do, I come to the same conclusion. I think about what he taught me. For he was, to me, like the Samaritan of old. He showed me – practical and real – how to live the second commandment.

So I’d understand what Jesus meant when He said: “GO AND DO LIKEWISE.”

Or, to say it as I saw Sam live it: “Show mercy. Then after that, show mercy – no matter how they react, no matter how it feels. And when you’re done showing mercy, do it again. And again. Till you reach always and forever.”

1 Excerpt from “Real Love”, devotion 34, published this coming August, 2014.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Thy Kingdom Come

                                                         Reflections on Luke 10:36-37

"Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?"  And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."
                                                                                                Luke 10:36-37

Of all the preachers who’ve ever lived, of all the sermons ever preached, no one ever explained the commandments like this.

And Jesus does it here, with him -- a gift to the brilliant lawyer.

With it, comes a simple question. It wasn’t designed to trick him, or embarrass him, or give even the slightest possible chance he might get it wrong. He won’t. Even a child can answer it.

But it’s the most important question of all. It’s not, “Do you believe this?” But rather, at its very core, “Will you live it with everything you’ve got?!”

Why? Because this man beaten senseless needs someone to obey the command to “love your neighbor.” If no one does, he dies. So which one did? Who let love explode through him to help the man? Who threw open the doors of the kingdom of God and let mercy triumph over evil? Who rescued this man who fell prey to robbers and, by so doing, proved himself neighbor by loving his neighbor?

Was it the priest -- did he do it?

How about the Levite – was it him?

Or, maybe the Samaritan? One of these three men was so filled with the first commandment that, as soon as he saw the man’s beaten body, he let the second commandment pour through him with all his heart, soul, strength and mind.

“Tell me, which one was it?” Jesus asked him.

The lawyer knows he doesn’t have to answer. He could stay quiet. Or, he could pick up his stuff and leave. Or, he could answer by not answering, by changing the subject, by arguing and debating in defense of the priest and Levite. He did none of these things. Instead, he answers Jesus the best he could.

“Of the three, it’s the one who showed mercy.”

Even now, he can’t say the word. Even after hearing the story of the Samaritan, he can’t say, “Samaritan.” He won’t even let it pass by his lips. For though the Samaritan may have been the real neighbor – the real hero -- in the story, he’s no neighbor to the lawyer. Never has been. It’s been that way since his youth.

So why doesn’t Jesus force the point? Why not make him say it?

But He doesn’t. He lets it go.

Instead, seeing he got the right answer, He presses in – hard, strong -- and urges him, “Go and do the same.” It’s like He said, “If you’d just let mercy reign in your heart, you’d know what the Samaritan knew. You’d do what the Samaritan did.

“And you’d be changed forever.

“Just don’t be like your colleagues. Be like the Samaritan and love your neighbor. Bring the kingdom of God to everyone you meet. No matter who they are. Can you do that? Will you do that?

“Go be like him…”

*       *       *

It was the perfect storm.

Some ten days before the program ended, Sam was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection. This served to exacerbate his coughing problem – which was louder that week, the spasms longer and more frequent.

As much as he tried to control it, he couldn’t.

It scared him even more. He’d cry for help but all he’d get in return was an even stronger reaction from his ward mates. They didn’t want him around. He tried to find privacy but there was nowhere to go. Not on this ward. Somebody was always somewhere. And everybody just kept pushing him away.

The next day, the day after, it only seemed to get worse. In between his coughing spells, Sam’s mood was downcast, withdrawn. He just wasn’t himself.

Then, finally, it all erupted.

He’d wandered into the game room. Over half the people were there. No aids, no nurses or doctors. The TV was blasting and Sam wasn’t even coughing. Just the sight of him, that’s all, and they rose up. Like it was all planned. And began yelling at him. Pushing him. Forcing him to the corner of the room where, when he hit the wall, he slumped down, covering his head with his hands.

That’s when I got there. They were kicking him. Slapping him. All of it triggered the coughing again. Louder than before. Frenzied and panicked. Within seconds, the aids and staff came rushing in, breaking it up. Sam got up from the floor and ran out of the room. Fast as he could. Crying and coughing hysterically. I followed him, knowing he’d head for the glassed-in porch.

Which is exactly what he did.

The few people there, the moment they saw Sam, left the room. He threw himself onto the couch, buried his head in his hands, and cried – and coughed – and cried more.

I pulled up a chair. It was my turn now.

I’d spent most of the summer watching Sam love his ward mates with a passion and freedom I’d never seen before. He didn’t care what others thought about him. He didn’t need them to love him back. It was always about them – not him. It was as if God had assigned a guardian angel to this ward with one simple assignment: “Sam, go love them. Each one. With all you’ve got!”

And he did. Sometimes with words. Sometimes not. Never with a plan or an agenda or some secret, ulterior motive. No tool belt to fix what’s broken. No care for how he was treated yesterday. Or last week. Or whenever.

Just today. With one very simple assignment.

But this day, of all days, was different. It was the first time a gang had risen up like that and yelled, beaten, and hurt him – physically, yes. But his heart.

It was my turn to be Sam to Sam.

And what would he do? First – he’d get tissues. And that’s what I did.

A nurse came in to check on Sam. She spent a few minutes examining him, seeing if anything was broken, any cuts or bleeding. She tried to calm him down. I think he tried to – but it was all too much for him. His breathing became rapid. He started hyperventilating.

The nurse then began to speak calmly to him. She did it well. It took a few minutes, but he slowly responded. His fears started subsiding. The spasms, too. The nurse stayed until Sam settled, but the moment she got up to leave, the coughing came back. She promised she’d be back in a little while.

Sam nodded but started crying again.

I pulled my chair closer.

No words. No tools.

As expected, no one from the ward came to see how he was doing – as he would have done with them. Not one person. I wondered if Sam knew. He did.

“Nobody’s here. Nobody loves me,” he said through his cries. He tells me he wants to see his brother. He wants to leave this God-forsaken place. He wants to go home and never come back.

I wonder if he has a home. I stay there. He taught me this. No need to fix.

For a while, he’s calm again. But the moment the coughing comes back, the fears do too. He looks at the door. He’s afraid all his ward mates are going to come rushing through it and attack him again. He buries his head into the side of the couch – hoping to muffle the sound. I put my hand on his arm.

Like I’d seen him do with others crying.

And I see him like I don’t want to see him. He is, for me, right now, the beaten man in the Gospel story – half dead – lying on the side of the road. But for him, there is no Samaritan. No one who will come, pick up his broken body, and take him to where he will be healed from this wretched disease.

And feel human again.

I think about the poor man, Lazarus, Jesus talked about. Sitting outside the rich man’s house. No food. No scraps. Dogs licking his wounds. Left alone to die with no Samaritan ever coming to his rescue.

Not until he breathes his last. Then – the angels come! 1

Will this be Sam’s story? Will he die here – in this room. On this patio. By himself? Coughing, crying, scared, alone?

“He was rejected too, you know,” he says, surprising me. “Nobody cared. Nobody came. Not for Him. Not for me. I just want to go home.”

And I sit there, wishing I could be here when it happens. When the angels come. When the kingdom doors open. And when Sam finally beholds the face of the Great Samaritan Himself.

1 Luke 16:20-22
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John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?