Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Surprising Generosity

                                              Reflections on Mark 2:12; Luke 5:26

And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”
                                                                                                Luke 5:26 (ESV)

It’s what happened at the beginning of time. All God did was speak.

Now, in a house in Capernaum, Jesus -- the “Word made flesh”, “through whom all things were made” 1 – spoke twice to the paralytic. First, to heal his heart. Second, to heal his body. What did that feel like?

To feel forgiveness enter his paralyzed heart and soul?

To feel the power of God rush into his legs? Was it visible to his sight? Did he see muscle suddenly appear, his legs swell with strength? Or was there no change at all? It’s just, now, he could feel them. He could move them. Maybe for the first time ever? And with it, this impulse to get up on his feet and stand. Did he even know how to do it – on his own, with no one helping him?

And there he is – standing!

Were there gasps? Is that what “amazement” and “awe” sound like at first? Did everyone in the house get up on their feet too? Did they burst into applause? Were there shrieks of joy and shouts of praise? Was their singing, spontaneous and loud, as they began “glorifying God” with all their heart and might?

Did the same thing happen on the roof?

Did his friends shout for joy as they saw him healed? Could they even contain themselves? Did they dance? Did they lift their voice and announce the news to everybody outside watching? What did they say? How did they say it?

Did the crowd gasp in “amazement” and “awe” too?

Did the song of praise inside the house become the song of praise outside? It must have been infectious for it is said that everyone began “glorifying God.”

Everyone – it “seized them all.”

Which means the scribes and Pharisees too. Whether they wanted to or not, they’d seen the “extraordinary.” They’d witnessed the kindness and generosity of Almighty God to the paralyzed man. They were there, in the house, maybe sitting front row? There can be no question whatsoever: The Lord had “given such authority to men.” 2 And in particular, this man Jesus of Nazareth.

And more, they could feel it. This joy, this “everlasting joy” that would come, the prophets said, when the lame shall “leap like a deer.”  3

But would that joy change their hearts?

In the gospel record, these men – Pharisees and scribes – would continue to oppose Jesus to the end. But does that mean all of them? Is it possible that sitting in the house that day were men like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus – men who belonged to them but were different than them? Men who heard the word of Jesus and, at the same time, felt exactly what the paralyzed man felt?

That maybe, in the surprising generosity of God, as they sat in the house that day, when they least expected it, they were healed too.

*       *       *

The funeral mass for Edmund Walter Pittman was held at St. Catherine of Sienna. The church was nearly full on a Thursday morning in late August.

Father Carey presided.

The service began quietly as the casket was carried by his oldest friends to the front of the church. The priest walked behind, reading passages of hope and comfort from the Bible. After that, the music started. The sound of singing was robust and loud, feeling more like an Easter service than a mass for the dead.

More Scripture was read, this time by Ellie and Tom.

Father Carey then went to the pulpit. I did my best to record his words. After praying and welcoming family and friends, he started right in.

Well, look at this, will you? Ed Pittman finally came to church!

‘Course, some of you may be saying, “Bout the only way you’d get him here.”

I couldn’t agree more. After fifty plus years as a member of this church, he said he could count the number of times he’d been here on two hands.

So I didn’t expect much when Ellie called last week and said she wanted me to visit her father in the hospital. Generally, in my experience, in situations like this, the priest is there to comfort the family more than the dying. So, I went fully expecting the family wanted me there to administer Last Rites.

But I never did.

It wasn’t Ellie who wanted me there. It was Ed. Now some of you are going to have a hard time believing that. You know Ed. Some of you have known him since he married and started a shop here in town fifty–six years ago. You know he wanted nothing to do with God. He spent his Sundays on the golf course or in card games. He made fun of those who needed to lean on the crutch of religion.

Those are his words, not mine.

Now listen carefully. Ed Pittman wanted to ask me if it was possible to give his life to Jesus Christ on his death bed. Did you hear that? That was his question to me. He said he’d already prayed with his son, Walt, to become a Christian and, after that prayer, something happened that surprised him. It may surprise you.

Ed Pittman told me he believed in God.

At once, I assured him that God “being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He has loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…” 4 So, yes, I said. If the Lord extends mercy at our last hour, then the answer is yes.

“But this late in life?” he asked. “Is it really possible?”

My friends, it is possible. I rarely see it. Not like this. I stand here this morning to tell you that Ed Pittman was a changed man. God had mercy on him. Christ came into that crusty old heart of his and made him a new man. I saw it with my own eyes. I don’t have any other words for it – it was miraculous.

And Ed knew it.

I want you to know it

Father Carey then pointed to Walt and asked him to join him at the pulpit. Walt came up, nervously cleared his throat, and started.

I came to faith in Jesus Christ in my early twenties. Soon after, my wife, Carol, taught me to love my father as Christ loved me. She said if Jesus could do that for me, I could do that for my dad.

I didn’t want to.

Dad wanted nothing to do with me growing up. So I decided, after high school, I wanted nothing to do with him either.

But Christ made a difference in my life. He wanted me to choose a different path. And so, I’ve spent a lifetime loving my dad by doing simple things. Like helping him around the house, or taking care of Mom, or doing whatever he needed.

But deep down, I wanted to do more for Dad.

I tried telling him about Christ when our son Zane was sick in the hospital. But he wanted nothing to do with it. He said, and I’ll never forget it, “That’s not for me, son.” It broke my heart. I know God’s mercy is more than taking care of our earthly needs. It’s meant to bring us to God and open a door to heaven.

And I wanted Dad in heaven.

So this past week in the hospital, I tried to tell him about Jesus again. And I don’t know why it was different this time, but it was and I knew it. He knew it.

All I can tell you is that mercy came.

Walt’s voice broke. He tried to gather himself but couldn’t. Surprisingly, one of Ed’s old friends stood up in the front row and went to Walt. He put his arm around him and turned to speak to the congregation.

A week ago, I’d have told you what we’re hearing this morning is complete rubbish. It’s not Ed. It’s not the man we’ve known all these years. But last Friday, I got to see him in the hospital. And what these two men are saying – I got to see it for myself. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what to make of it. And I’ve never said this in my entire life. But, praise the Lord, everybody. Praise the Lord!

And suddenly, we were all on our feet. All of us. Father Carey moved toward the casket and, with a beautiful baritone voice, began singing John Newton’s old hymn, Amazing Grace. We all did. People sang. People cried. And for a brief moment – whether it changed anybody or not – “everlasting joy” came.

Filling the church. Filling us all.

1 John 1:14, 3
2 Matthew 9:8
3 Isaiah 35:6, 10
4 Ephesians 2:4-5

Monday, September 22, 2014

His Tender Mercy

                                                   Reflections on Mark 2:9-10

“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.”
                                                                                                Mark 2:9-10

The answer is simple: It’s easier to heal the body.

But they sit there -- refusing to answer. Odd, they should know. There have always been magicians, enchanters, and sorcerers who, engaging the dark powers of Satan, have been able to perform great signs and wonders. 1

No one can rescue the soul for God but God.

Why not say it? “It’s easier to heal the body than the soul.” But they don’t, even though they just saw it happen with their own eyes. Jesus, with a word, lifted the weight of sin from the paralytic’s soul and pronounced him forgiven and free.

But seeing, they didn’t see.

So He does, for the first time, what He’s hasn’t done before. He announces who He is. They know the Scriptures. They’ll understand it as He tells them He is the long-awaited “Son of Man.” The same One who will be “sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  2 The One foretold by Daniel:
            I saw in the night visions,
            And behold, with the clouds of heaven
            there came one like a son of man …
            And to Him was given dominion,
            Glory and a kingdom,
            That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
            Might serve Him.
            His dominion is an everlasting dominion
            Which will not pass away;
            And His kingdom is one
            Which will not be destroyed.
                                                                                                Daniel 7:13a, 14

Understand this and they will know why He has authority on earth to forgive sins. But they stare at Him – unresponsive. Why won’t they engage Him?

Jesus turns to His new friend on the mat. He has already given him the greatest gift of all – mercy that will last to the days of eternity. He has yet to do the easier work of caring for his physical needs – mercy meant only for the present time.

But still, a more seeable gift. Will that make a difference? If these men see the physical power of God heal the man on the mat, will they believe? Will their hearts long for the tender mercy of God? Will they let the Son of Man forgive their sin and heal their souls? Is that how it works?

See the easy to receive what’s not? It’s why He’s here – they should know that.

            Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
            once you had not received mercy,  but now you have received mercy.
                                                                                     Peter 2:10 (ESV) from Hosea 2:23

He makes His move. He’s not like the magicians and sorcerers with their rituals and incantations. He’s different, whether anyone understands it or not. He is the Son of Man. He has been granted all authority by His Father. All He has to do is speak. That’s all. Nothing more.

            “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.”

And let mercy come again.

*       *       *

The following week, Walt communicated mostly by email. “I’m keeping a diary and will send you installments,” he wrote. And that’s what he did.

Tuesday night – August 13, the day after my talk with Dad

I woke up discouraged this morning. A little while after we prayed together, Dad was taken down to radiology. He was there a couple of hours. Not sure why it took so long. Then they decided to transfer him from ICU to a private room. All of it was too much for him. Last night, he needed sleep, not visitors.

I started thinking he prayed that prayer for me. Not him.

Late this morning, I got to the hospital and found the exact opposite. Dad was sitting up in bed, color in his cheeks, the window blinds open with sun pouring into the room. One look at him and I knew God had done something.

The most obvious change? He’s talkative. He’s interested in us – in Mom. It’s like he’s been away for a long time. Now he’s home. And more than anything, he wants to spend time with us. Can you believe it?

The best gift ever.

Friday Morning – August 16

Our family is in celebration mode.

Two days ago, Dad asked if he could spend time with each of us alone. Including our spouses and children. He also had a list – a small list – of people he wants to see from the shop. We’re doing it, but taking it slow so it doesn’t exhaust him.

The doctors and nurses have all seen the change in Dad.

Yesterday, his cardiologist said there’s no reason to keep him in the hospital, “His heart function hasn’t changed. It’s still very weak.” He suggested Dad go to rehab for a couple of weeks to be monitored. Dad told him he’d rather go home. As of now, that should happen sometime on Monday.

Biggest surprise?

He’s spending a lot of time with Ellie and Mom. He’s got them reading the Bible to him! His suggestion – not theirs. What can I say? We’re all pretty stunned.

Saturday Night – August 17

A lot has happened in a short time. Dad had a long talk with Mom the other day and they decided to change their wills. Somehow, they got their lawyer to comply. He came to the hospital late yesterday afternoon with a notary.

Also, Dad asked Ellie to call their Catholic priest. He’s supposed to visit Dad sometime after church tomorrow.

Some of Dad’s friends have come by. Others we asked to wait till next week when he’s home and more rested. Dad was pretty insistent that family has to come first. By late today, I think he’s talked to each of us.

But no one shocked us more than Mom.

From what Ellie and I could gather, Dad apologized to her. She tried to brush it aside, but Dad wouldn’t let her. They talked a long time, making Mom cry – good tears, she said. But sad tears, deeply sad, for all the years they’ve missed.

Of all nights, tonight was the best.

There must’ve been fifteen of us packed in his room. I’m surprised they didn’t kick us out. Dad was in rare form. We’ve all known Zane was his favorite. But not tonight – we were all his favorite. It’s like we’re living in a dream. The Lord has done what we never thought possible. All I can do is praise Him tonight.

And ask – would You give us more time with him?

Sunday Afternoon – August 18

Down day. He’s tired.

He asked Mom to stay when Father Carey stopped by around 1:30. She said Dad asked for two things. Could he make his confession? And, is it possible to commit his life to Christ this late in life? Father Carey assured him it was and then spoke for a while on the tender mercy of God.

Afterwards, rather than customary giving of Last Rites, the priest anointed him with oil and prayed for his heart to be fully healed in Jesus’ name.

That’s my prayer too.

Got to see Dad for a few minutes. Didn’t stay long. He said he was tired and needed sleep. Told him I’d stop by later this evening.

Sunday Night Late

Carol and I got to the hospital around 7. Mom, Ellie and her husband, Tom, were there. Dad still looks tired but the glimmer in his eyes hasn’t left him. He’s excited about going home tomorrow. “Can’t come soon enough,” he said.

Before we left, Dad asked if we could pray together. We held hands around his bed and – surprise again. This time, Dad prayed a simple prayer of blessing over us and our families. When he was done, he looked straight at Mom and said what I’ve never heard him say before.

“I love you, sweetheart.”

Mom fell in his arms and sobbed.

I’ll leave work by noon tomorrow so I can help bring Dad home. My heart is full tonight. The Lord has been so kind to us.

Walt sent a text message in the early hours of Monday morning, “Call me.” I did. He told me his Mom had just called.

“The moment the phone rang, I knew. All she said was, ‘He’s home, Walt, he’s home. Quietly, while he was sleeping, Jesus took him home.”

1 The Old Testament often refers to these “wise men” who counseled Pharaoh in the days of Joseph and Moses; the King of Moab through Balaam; and to King Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Daniel.  The warning against them remains strong in the New Testament: Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9, etc.
2 Mark 14:62

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