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

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