Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mercy at the Mat

                                                                          Reflections on Mark 2:1-3

And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men.   
                                                                                                Mark 2:3

There are stories upon stories hidden between words.

If we could ask: Who are these four men? Are they brothers? Are they old school chums? Are they four very different men, different ages, all who spend time with those tossed away by society? Is that how they met? While caring for others? All because they share a passion for God, and His one demand on our soul.

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
                                                                         Micah 6:8 (NIV)

            And how did they meet this man in particular?

Who is he? How did he become paralyzed? Does anybody else care for him? What is it about him that draws these four men together in a bond of affection? Is it as simple as they’ve spent time together? Lots of time, down through the years. They visit when they can. They take turns helping him when no one else does. They do what they can, when they can – pouring out mercy from hearts of love.

They are what he needs most – friends.

Real friends. So when a day like this comes, he is their first thought.

Jesus is back. All of Capernaum is buzzing. If they run, maybe they’d get a place in the house. Inside – good seats. Just to be there when He speaks. For He speaks the word of God with astonishing authority. And He heals the sick -- who does that? Weeks ago, at synagogue, he healed a man possessed by the devil. Later that day, at Simon and Andrew’s house, many more were healed. 1

And then He was gone. Traveling town to town.

But the second these men heard Jesus was back – they ran. Not to the house. Not to get a seat for themselves. But to their friend.

They needed to get him to Jesus.

Had they talked about it with him? Was there an agreement, “Next time He’s in town, here’s what we’ll do”? Did the crippled man even want to go? Was he as crippled in soul as he was in body – angry with God? Bitter for his lot in life? Did he object as his friends grabbed the four corners of his mat and lifted him up?

Or was it the exact opposite? Did he want to go? Was his heart tender towards God? Did he believe, like his friends believed, that he needed to see Jesus?

We don’t know. The story isn’t fully told to us.

But what we do know is these four men loved the man on the mat. Mercy and care, kindness and compassion had been there long before they knew of Jesus. They wouldn’t have been ready otherwise. How else could they have known what to do and where to go when a day like this comes? But they did.

They went to get their friend.

They saw something. They knew something. Mercy is more than passion to care for the temporal needs of others. More than restoring lost dignity and honor to our fallen and wounded. It is this. It is always this. But mercy leaps beyond here and now, and cares for the one thing in life that’s most important.

Mercy brings us to God.

*       *       *

I first met Walt and Carol Pittman after church on a Sunday morning. They were in their early fifties with two children in high school and one in college. They loved the church and told me they wanted to make it their home.

A few weeks later, Walt came to our men’s Bible study.

We met every Friday morning from 6:15-7:30. As the months passed, Walt slowly shared parts of his life with us. The most astonishing, the most impressive, was his passion for senior citizens. “They were there for us,” he’d explain. “Now it’s time for us to be there for them.”

Nearly every Friday, Walt had us pray for someone he’d met that week.

“Pray for Josephine,” he told us one day. As he shared her story, it sounded strangely familiar to all the other stories he told us. She was alone, forgotten by her family, and without an advocate to speak for her in the nursing home. Somehow, Walt had gotten her daughter’s phone number and left messages. “She lives ten miles away,” he marveled, “and never visits her own mother.”

We had four nursing homes in town. Walt visits each one.

“Is it your job?” we asked him.

Turns out, he was an administrator at one of the city hospitals. But, early on, he was trained as a social worker. He saw firsthand the neglect and abuse of seniors by families, health care professionals, and government agencies.

“Sometimes all that’s needed is someone who cares,” he taught us.

Within a few months, at Walt’s leading, our church hosted our first senior’s luncheon. He gave us a list of some thirty names both from nursing homes and local shut-ins. He got our men’s group to coordinate the event and rally the church behind it. It was a delightful time and the first of many to come.

Walt had lit a passion in our church to care for seniors.

At some point, he and I had lunch together.

As we shared our stories, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness about him. A hurt of some kind. He was a gentle, kind man, reserved, unassuming and easy to talk to. He wanted to know as much about me as I did about him.

“Tell me two things,” I said at one point during the lunch. “How did you come to faith in Christ and when did He give you a love for the elderly?”

The story of his conversion was simply spectacular. He had no Christian upbringing whatsoever. If anything, his family was antagonistic toward God and organized religion. In his early twenties, a friend invited him to hear evangelist Billy Graham at Three Rivers Stadium in downtown Pittsburgh.

“That’s all it took,” he smiled. “Jesus saved me that day. The man I was and the man I became were two very different people, believe you me! Then, shortly after, my friend took me to his church. That’s where I met Carol.”

“So what were you like before?” I inquired.

“Bitter and angry,” he said. “Resentful, I suppose. I had a tough childhood.”

He slowly unpacked the story of his father. “He worked twelve hours or more a day, six days a week. On Sundays, he golfed. We basically never saw him. And when we did, he was mean to us. Mean to my sister and me. Mean to our Mom. I have no good memories of him growing up. All I remember is him yelling at me and hitting me. Never, not once, did he tell me he loved me or was proud of me. Even my Mom. I have no memory of him being nice to her.”

“Is he still alive?”

Walt nodded, and I could see the sadness in his eyes.

“Which partly answers your other question,” he said. “For a few years, my grandfather – on my Dad’s side – came to live with us. He had the beginning stages of dementia. Eventually, he went into a nursing home. My Dad went to see him – I’m talking about his father! -- maybe once or twice in eight years. My Mom went nearly every day and, often, we’d go with her after school.”

He shook his head, still reeling in disgust.

“How’s your Mom now?”

As he talked about her, all I could picture was this dark, foreboding character lurking in the shadows. Always there – always tormenting them both.

“My Mom and sister eventually came to faith in Christ,” he shared. “My sister and I still do our best to get her more involved at church or in family events. But she rarely does. She can go out. She can do anything she wants. But it’s like my Dad has this hold on her somehow. Even now, after all these years.”

“So, do you ever see your Dad?”

“All the time. I made the decision years ago I was going to love him whether he wanted it or not, whether he loved me back or not. Of course, nothing has changed. He doesn’t care whether I’m alive or dead. But I figure, I don’t have to make the same choices he made.”

He looked at me with these despairing but courageous eyes.

And for a split second, I saw Walt as one of the four men in the gospel story. Always there at the side of the crippled man. Always showing kindness and relentless mercy.

Even to the man who still, to this day, cripples his own soul.

1 see Mark 1:21-34

+ + +

Monday, August 18, 2014

Our Cold Hearts

                                                                         Reflections on Luke 22:24-30

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.
                                                                                                Luke 22:24

It made no sense whatsoever.

Sometime after supper – were they still in the upper room? Had Judas already left? Was Jesus in earshot? It started again. They argued over which of them was the greatest – who did Jesus favor more -- who’d sit at His side in His kingdom?

It always dogged them.

After the Transfiguration, they got caught. As they neared Capernaum, it was the same conversation. Like always, they made sure Jesus couldn’t hear. But this time, somehow, He knew what they were talking about and confronted them.

“You want to be first? Be last. Be servant of all.”  1

Eventually, James and John got up the courage to ask Him directly, “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” It angered the others. It provoked Jesus to repeat the story: “The greatest serve.” Adding, “I am not here to be served but to serve and to give My life as a ransom for many.” 2

They didn’t get it.

Even now, after washing their feet, they didn’t get it.

In a few hours, the powers of darkness would descend on Him. The crown of thorns would be forced on His head and the nails of Calvary would pierce into His hands and feet. From heaven, the Father would lay on Him “the iniquity of us all.” And down He’d go into suffering and death – the perfect Lamb, the perfect offering “to take away the sin of the world.” Down – and down – and down. 3

If only they understood.

But they don’t. They’re arguing again – on this night of all nights. It’s still all they can talk about. Up – and up -- and up, which of them is greatest? Who will be recognized more than others? Whose will have power and fame and glory?

Their hearts are cold.

But not for long. He’d promised Peter, when He washed his feet, “You don’t get it now. But you will, later.” He’d have to do His work first. And on the third day, rise again, go to His disciples, and breathe His resurrected life into their bodies. That’s what they needed – new, born-again life. Their souls filled by the Holy Spirit. Only then would they understand the secret of the kingdom of God.

He has called us to serve. Always serve. Just as He served.

And that’s exactly what happened. On Easter night, our Lord breathed on His disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And with it came the charge: “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 4

These Christians! They’re different. They have a new heart. Not like the old one. They race to serve. They long for the lowest place – which is the highest place. All because He who is the highest took the lowest and made the lowest the highest. That’s why they serve. Always serve. Just as He served.

Their hearts – cold no more.

*       *       *

As the years passed, John and I grew more distant. Not because anything happened between us. Life got busy – that’s all.

Bishop John became more prominent in Rwanda, serving on committees locally, nationally, and travelling to all parts of the world to help his country recover. And, for me, I had more responsibility that I could handle.

We’d correspond. We’d call each other on the phone.

When we’d finally meet, it was usually to attend a meeting.

A movement had begun in our denomination to strengthen the bonds between the African and American church. We, on our part, needed the strength of their preaching and faith which was tested by war, poverty, and persecution. They, on their part, wanted us to build relationships with their pastors, churches, schools, orphans, widows, and seminaries.

Neither of us led the movement. But we were an integral part of it, coming alongside great church leaders who gave themselves to this work. For over a decade, we saw the Lord’s favor. What John and I had together – an African and an American bound together in Jesus Christ -- was now being shared by many in both our countries. It thrilled us beyond words.

But it didn’t last.

The coldness came.

Some of the principle leaders in the movement began to disagree with each other over matters of vision and strategy. Soon enough, it intensified. It became personal. People got hurt. Longtime relationships in Christ – among well-loved Christian leaders – strained and broke. A movement born for the glory of God was soon plagued by division and heartache.

John, and some of his African colleagues, did their best to bring the message of biblical forgiveness and reconciliation – the same message that was bringing life to a post-genocide Rwanda. At the same time, many of us in the U. S. did our part to beg for the same thing. We tried to mediate. We tried to stop it.

But it didn’t work.

Division came.

As always, division is shrouded in complexities. There are sides to each story. Both need to be heard. It’s how we assess who is right, who is wrong, so we can decide which side we’ll take. But, in truth, it’s not complicated at all.

We chose not to love each other.

Deep in my soul, I prized this foot washing story. If we are Christians, if the resurrected life of Jesus Christ fills our mortal bodies, He commands us to do as He did to us. We strip our garments, we robe as servants, we grab a basin and towel, get down on our knees and wash – and wash – and wash.

Until we love again.

We’re not allowed to divide. Not in Christ.  Not as Christians.

But we did. And soon enough, the coldness came to me. I, too, was on “one side” of the argument. And though I tried to speak well of those on “the other side”, it hurt too much. People I love were hurt. People I love did the hurting. And though in principle I tried to do what was right, I couldn’t stop it.

The rush of coldness filling my heart.

It was, in many ways, imperceptible. I was very busy as a clergyman. I could do my job, and do it well, all the while pretending this story never happened. I could easily make believe I had no part in the division whatsoever and pretend I was fully, completely unaffected by it all. Coldness is like that.

But I couldn’t sustain it.

I had too many friends like Bishop John. He’d call, we’d talk for an hour, and at the end of the call, he’d always remind me not to let unforgiveness grab my heart and shape my life in Christ. “It’s a choice, you know?” he’d warn.

“I know,” I’d say, and promise I’d choose it every day.

But, in truth, I didn’t know what that meant. Not really.

Not until my wife was diagnosed with a peculiar rheumatoid, auto-immune condition which resulted in open, non-healing wounds on her lower right leg. Near the ankles. With no known treatment for cure.

And so, we began. Every evening before dinner.

We have a basket. It is filled with everything we need to change her dressing. One of us, depending on the night, gets it ready. And then, it’s my turn. I get to go down on my knees, go to her feet, and begin the process.

I start by taking scissors and cutting off the old bandage. I then wash her foot and the two wounds with saline – drying it all with gauze. I apply the medicine the doctor gave us to care for the skin and prevent infection. And then I cover the wounds with a lubricated pad, followed by gauze, and then a bandage roll wrapping around her foot and held on by silk tape.

We get to do this every night.

Not for a month. Or a year. But, at this writing, it’s been nearly seven years.

For me, it has taught me the secret of the kingdom of God. It is the greatest weapon in the arsenal of spiritual warfare. And it’s real, physical, practical. As real as a basin of water, a towel girded around the waist, and the choice – always the choice – to go down to the feet of our brothers and sisters in Christ and wash them every day. No matter what “side” they have taken.

We are to love one another. As Jesus loved us.

No matter how complex our disagreements.

And I’m learning it, slowly. For I want that power of Christ’s resurrected, Easter life to fill me again, and not just me, but all who love the Lord.

So our hearts are cold no more.

1 Mark 9:33-37
2 Mark 10:35-45
3 Isaiah 53:6; John 1:29
4 John 20:21-23

+ + +

Monday, August 11, 2014

It’s Your Turn Now

                                                         Reflections on John 13:12-17; 34-35

You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
                                                                                                John 13:13-14, 17

When every foot had been washed, and our Lord had finished His work, He did what slaves never do.

He rose. He took back His garments and sat at table.

Up to now, His motion down had been the perfect picture of His story. He’d come down from His eternal glory to become man. Soon enough, He’d go down into the depths of unfathomable down as He endures the fires of Calvary.

But His story doesn’t stay down.

When He’d finished His work on the cross to the full, having taken captive and destroyed the powers of evil, sin and death – the Father exalted His Son “and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” 1

He rose. That’s His story.

This motion up is the motion of His eternal triumph!

And in rising, He’d soon ascend to His Father and take again His garments of glory which He had with Him “before the world was.” 2 But for now, in the upper room, the perfect picture was still only a perfect picture. The garments He took were still His earthly garments. The work, the real work, still had to be done.

But the picture says it all. If we are to rise with Him, we must go down with Him. The way up is never up. That’s the kingdom of this world. The devil has infused this fallen creation with the lust for up without telling anyone the real story: His up always comes down. No matter how high, how powerful, how rich and famous, how noble and rememberable, we all come crashing down.

Down into the dust of death.

But it’s different now. If we let Him wash us, if we’re made clean by Him, then His story becomes our story. If we want up, if we want to be “part” of His eternal triumph, we must go down. Like Him. Always down.

“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also…”

We are to do as He has done to us. Yes, in washing feet. But that too is only a picture. He’s talking more – much more. He’s talking about every aspect of how we treat each other. In the little things. In the big things. In all things.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

He said it at table that night but they didn’t get it. Not yet. But soon, the Helper would come and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said to them. He’d even fill them with His power to do it. But they’d have to have ears to hear.

A simple message. An eternal, unchanging message.

“It’s your turn now.”

*       *       *

A few years later, I met John in a hotel lobby in Pittsburgh on a rainy Sunday afternoon in April. We talked for hours, as old friends do. 3

By that time, peace had come to Rwanda’s northwest and John was doing everything he could to bring healing and reconciliation to his country. This included his recent election as chairman of Prison Fellowship in Rwanda.

“What’s that like for you?” I ask him.

“It isn’t easy.”

The frown between his eyes deepens. He looks at me like he’s trying to decide whether he wants to talk about it or not.

“There is sin in my heart,” he tells me.

I look at him in surprise. I don’t understand.

As John often does, he paints pictures with his words. He describes a field on a hillside overlooking one of the prisons of Rwanda. In the distance, there are volcanic mountains rising to meet the clouds in the air. Around him are lakes, lush green hills, and workers tilling the land for as far as the eye can see.

The prison below, with soldiers standing at the entrance, marks a sharp contrast to all the beauty around it. He tells me there are more than 110,000 prisoners filling the Rwandan jails since the genocide. He has been inside. He has listened to story after story.

“They still hear the screaming voices of those they killed,” he reports. “The scenes replay in their mind. It torments them in the day. It wakes them at night. The guilt is fresh, like an open wound still bleeding. They feel the presence of evil haunting them. The pain presses down on them. It’s too much for anyone to bear.”

I watch as tears fill his eyes.

He tells me his first time at the prison was the hardest. He went by invitation. He was asked to preach the gospel in front of a large gathering of prisoners.

“I knew they needed Jesus.”

He stops to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief.

“These murderers are guilty of a great sin. They will never be able to pay for what they did. Only Jesus can save them. They need to know that. They need to know what He did for them at the cross. So I tell them plainly, they must run to Jesus, repent of their sin, and beg for His mercy.”

I nod, trying to take it all in.

“And they start to do it,” he says, his face twists in dismay. He tells me he’s a son of the East African Revival. He knows when the Holy Spirit starts to convict people of sin and move them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. “When I saw that, I reacted. I stopped preaching. They didn’t want me to stop. But I couldn’t do it.”

He tells me he ran out of the prison and didn’t stop.

“Not until I got to the hillside. Tears were streaming down my face. Pain was gripping my heart. I couldn’t believe the depth of anger I felt against them. It shocked me. It overwhelmed me. But these people are the same kind of people who killed my family. They killed my niece, Madu. They tortured and raped her.”

He looks away, his fists clenched.

“What was I doing preaching to her killers? I tell you the pain was too great for me. I fell on my knees and wept. I thought I wanted those men to know Jesus but it’s not true. Why would He want to save those men? How could He forgive them for what they did to me, my family and my country?”

He looks at me like I’m supposed to answer.

“Can you see the sin in my heart?” he asks. “If anybody needed to run to Jesus and repent, it was me. The desire for revenge was choking me. I was no different than those prisoners. I was locked behind the bars of my own unforgiveness. So I prayed, Lord Jesus Christ, help me. I must forgive the killers of my family and I can’t do it. The pain is too great. The hurt is too deep.

He reaches over and grabs my hand. He’s still grieving.

“I couldn’t stop the crying,” he says. “But in my tears, the Lord reminded me of what He did on the cross. Did He turn away from His killers? No, He faced them. He looked them straight in the eyes and cried out from the midst of His pain, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’

“How could He do that? How could He forgive them while He was in pain?” he asks me.

I shake my head. I don’t know.

He lets go of my hand. His face is still wet from tears and marked by pain as he says, “When Jesus Christ was hanging on the tree, stripped, beaten, mocked, despised, nails tearing through His flesh, nails in His feet, and a crown of thorns on His head, from within that pain He cried, ‘Forgive! Forgive!’

“And I knew the Lord was telling me, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ If He didn’t wait until the pain was gone, we can’t wait. We must forgive while we’re in pain. This is what Christians do, and He gives us the power to do it.”

He leans back in his chair. He tells me he how he got up, went back down that hillside, back into the prison, back into the room filled with prisoners, and loved them with the love of Jesus.

“To this day, I go to the prison in tears. It isn’t easy for me.”

He reaches for my hand again and looks at me. He’s wondering if I understand, and if I do, if I realize the same is true for me – it’s true for all Christians.

It’s our turn now.

1 Philippians 2:9-11
2 John 17:5
3 Barnum, Never Silent. This story can be found on pages 257, 273-276

+ + +

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