Monday, June 06, 2005

help my unbelief

Imagine a large teaching hospital. The masses stream into it, they speak different languages, Spanish and Arabic and English, they are there, people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. A young boy is having a very difficult time, you can hear his teeth grinding, and you can see that the area around his mouth is infected, he is really sick, and then your eyes meet his mother, who obviously is also suffering, maybe from lack of sleep. They are knocking on the door of the professor’s office, the diagnostician, the one who really has the gift, his name is legendary in the building and outside it.

“Professor, can you take a moment and look at my boy?” Before he is even asked she goes into detail, every ailment, every affliction, every medication, every false hope. I’ve already seen your students”, the mother says, “and they were of no help”.

She is hoping, this parent is hoping, that she has found a real doctor. The boy is sick, as the story unfolds, only the mother is a father, and the doctor is a rabbi, and his name is Jesus, and the medical students are his disciples. When we place it in our context it seems to make so much sense, and yet when we read the healing miracles, sprinkled throughout the four gospels, they seem so strange to us. In MARK 9, a boy is afflicted with seizures, and has been for some time. The father brings the child to the rabbi. Jesus attends to the child. Bring him here”, he says.

But not before a comment about his students, his disciples, the “faithless generation”. So much invested in them, and they don’t get it, they can’t do it. How are they ever going to become doctors?” Everything I teach them, the rabbi laments, “it goes in one ear and out the other!”

And so he says, thinking of the boy again, “bring him here”. The father places the boy before Jesus, and here is the first lesson: we must put ourselves in a place where we are likely to meet Jesus. If you never get to that teaching hospital, you are never going to be in the presence of the professor. Sometimes healing is up to us. Some part of getting well has to do with our decision.

In that moment Jesus and the father meet, and there is some kind of battle, between Jesus and this spirit that has overtaken the boy. In the Old Testament lesson, Jacob wrestles with the angel. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus wrestles with the demon. It is all going the wrong way. How long has this been going on?”,. Jesus asks. Since he was little”, the father responds, “but if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us”.

If”, Jesus responds. “If…Everything is possible to the one who believes”.

Here is the second lesson for us: What seems impossible to us is possible with God. God is never confined by the parameters of our thinking, or the limitations of our imaginations. I love the line in the hymn that we just sang: For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind”.

Who are we to place limits on what God can do?

I created the heavens and the earth, God says.

I created light and darkness, God says.

I breathed life into humanity, and you became a living soul, God says.

I roll away the stone, and command you to rise up and walk, God says.

Everything is possible to the one who believes. What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

Who are we to place limits on what God can do?

Can HIV Aids be cured in this world?

Can Hunger be abolished in this world?

Can poverty be eliminated in this world?

Can warfare cease and swords be turned into plowshares in this world?

Everything is possible to the one who believes. What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

q If you are able to do something, have compassion…

q If…everything is possible to the one who believes…

The father responds, “I believe; help my unbelief”.

Here is a third lesson for us: All of us have a mixture of belief and unbelief. Now I know this goes against the grain of conventional American Christianity, but it is true, it is liberating, it is even biblical: all of us have a mixture of belief and unbelief.

Maybe you were listening to that litany of all that we struggle with on this planet, or perhaps even something closer to home: a family relationship, or a financial problem, or a work issue, or conflict with a neighbor.

Could it be different? Is there a solution?

Maybe you understand where the father is coming from:“I believe; help my unbelief”.

The man is honest with Jesus. He could have simply told him what he thought he wanted to hear. Sorry, Jesus, I wasn’t thinking, of course you can do it all. We think first of deferring to authority. We think doubt is the enemy of faith. But he is honest. I believe. Help my unbelief”.

If you are into memorizing scripture, try that one on: “I believe. Help my unbelief”. You see, the struggle of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt is built into the biblical story. Jacob, wrestling with this powerful force, this destructive force, and saying, “I will not let you go until you bless me”. Have you ever had an experience where you thought, “I have been through too much here not to get something good out of this!”

What happens next? Jesus heals the boy. The spirit comes out, the boy becomes very still, like a corpse, Mark says. Most of the students looking in misdiagnose it all, of course: looks like he’s dead”. Here Jesus must have been saying, you have already forgotten the second lesson.

What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

And then he takes the boy’s hand and lifts him up, and he stands, and it’s like a resurrection. This is the good news. Our God heals. Our God gives life. Sometime the healing comes in this life. And sometimes the healing comes in the resurrection.

But that’s not the end of the story. The students gather around the professor. They are shaking their heads. Why can’t we do that?”

You watch Tiger Woods hit a golf ball and you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

You listen to someone in the choir sing a solo and you say, “Why can’t I do that”?

You are in the presence of a master chef, and the plate arrives, and you taste it, and it is delicious, and you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

If this father is honest about his lack of faith, the disciples are honest about their limitations. Here is the fourth lesson: we can always learn from our failures.

The disciples ask: why can’t we do that? It is the human question. Have you ever failed at anything? I have. I saw Tiger Woods hit two balls straight into the woods here last month. I stood there thinking, “I can do that!”

Then I watched him get an eagle on a long par five hole. I wondered, “Why can’t I do that?”

The disciples had failed. They asked themselves, in the hearing of Jesus, “why can’t we do that?”

Jesus answers: This kind of thing only happens by prayer.

The fifth and final lesson: where our energies end, God’s power begins.

You’ve been trying to do all of this, without a prayer. Prayer, it turns out, is the key to it all. Our lack of faith has everything to do with our lack of prayer. Throughout the gospels, if you read them, there are these alternating rhythms of

action and prayer,

engagement and withdrawal,

ministry and retreat,

service and silence.

There are days filled with meeting people, someone touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and he senses the spirit flowing out of him, and other days begin early in the morning, while it is yet daylight, in a lonely place somewhere. Jesus heals, but make no mistake, Jesus also prays.

Maybe that is what he is saying to the disciples. We see the action, the external result, and we want to replicate it, but the teacher is reminding us that what happens in the silence, in the stillness, when no one is looking, has everything to do with the healing of the boy.

Why can’t we do this?

This kind of thing only happens by prayer.

I think about all of this, as a pastor. I was ordained twenty-two years ago, in 1983. Next weekend I will participate in the laying on of hands as our friend Ann Haywood, the pediatric chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, is ordained. I will also celebrate as Tara Ebner from our church begins her probationary journey toward being ordained. I have thought some about my own ordination service. Many folks from my family came up from Georgia to be there. We went out to Shoney’s in Waynesville afterward. I remember the Bishop laying hands on me, and the two elders who stood with me, James Bellamy and Jim Faggart.

A Bishop preached the ordination sermon---to be honest, I can’t remember his name, he was an old white guy, but most of them are! I don’t remember his name, in the same way that some of you graduating high school seniors will hear speeches this week, and a few years from now you won’t be able to recall who gave them.

I don’t remember who preached, but I do remember one sentence in the sermon. Here it is, the Bishop speaking to us. This was the sentence. If you don’t pray every day, if you don’t have some regular discipline of prayer, you will be out of the ministry in five years”.

The teacher was saying to us, the students, this kind of thing only happens by prayer.

So, let us go the place where the healing stream flows, to the place where Jesus is.

Let us remember that what is impossible for us is possible for God.

Let us be honest enough to say that we all carry around some mixture of faith and doubt.

Let us learn from our failures.

Let us remember that where our energies end, God power begins.

And in learning these lessons, let us be a part of healing the broken, repairing the world, redeeming the creation.

All things are possible to the one who believes.


Blogger John said...

What's with the odd formatting on this post?

7:57 AM  
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