I’ve always wanted more details in the Bible. I know that you have, too. Because you have asked me about whether Jesus meant this, or whether God was trying to teach that.
Most of the details I’ve wanted have to do with movements and motions and transitions. The kind of descriptions that we would call stage directions if we were talking about a play. There just aren’t enough details to accurately stage what happens.
Recently, two moments showed me there is more to see than I thought.
The first moment started with a sermon I heard about Jesus and the man with the paralyzed hand. Jesus called him to the front of the synagogue.
Where was Jesus? Likely sitting. Why? Because several paragraphs before this event, we read that Jesus, in another synagogue, had stood to read from Isaiah, and then sat to talk about the text. It’s likely that he did the same here.
I started reading chapters 4-6 of Luke and discovered that Luke regularly mentions the movements of people. Jesus stood to read. He sat down. When people got upset with him, they jumped up. They led him to the cliff, he walked through the crowd. He went to another synagogue and taught. A man started yelling because of an evil spirit in him. Jesus told the spirit to come out. The man fell down. The spirit came out. Jesus stood up and walked to Peter’s house. He stood over Peter’s mother-in-law. She waited on the people with Jesus, which implies sitting. He stood by the lake. He got into Peter’s boat and sat down.
I could keep going, but I’d rather invite you to do the work. If you’d like, in the comments, describe the stage directions Luke does give. And think about how it helps us to see the text and the unfolding story rather than simply skimming through the teaching.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you my other story.
Paul was writing to some friends in a church he knew. He was letting them know about some of his own pain and a moment when “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”
I’m not glad for Paul’s pain. But I am grateful for his honesty in describing the feelings. Because often I am in conversations with people in their most difficult moments and they apologize for their tears or their lack of strength or their bluntness. In those moments, they are feeling crushed by the accumulation of catastrophe. A diagnosis has just been given. The two RNs just confirmed that the heart stopped.
(I’d keep listing, but you can fill in your own experiences.)
What is remarkable in Paul’s account is that he does not offer details. He does not tell us what happened or what illness he was fighting. Because of his language, we don’t know whether he was facing a literal death sentence issued in a court of law, or a metaphorical death sentence issued by a doctor. All we know is that he sensed that he was about to die.
And he couldn’t find the strength to survive.
What happens next is God. God gives him strength. And, in Paul’s words, “He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
So why is he telling these friends about this? Because he attributes to their prayer God’s actions.
I don’t understand the math of this, how much prayer of what kind leads to what deliverance. I’m sure that it isn’t math. Instead, Paul is making it clear that pain isn’t always because of wrongdoing, and relief sometimes comes from requests being made to God.
Two truths that are worth noting to be more prepared when we despair of life itself.
I’m way behind on my letter writing, so I hope you don’t mind that I catch up here.
- I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for leaving a message so I could show up.
- You left before I could see you again. I hope your loved one is doing better, but I know that she won’t really understand.
- I think about you more often than you realize. The consistency of the message that you send is a regular reminder to me about the importance of that perspective.
- and that one.
- and that one.
- I’m sorry that I missed your birthday. I don’t like to just use Facebook, but that means I forget.
- I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your birthday greeting.
- I know. I’m completely behind. And I’m trying to figure out how to get caught up. I’ll be working on it tomorrow.
Many of you will recognize these comments. They are common statements from me, more common that I wish. And it’s possible that you are reading between the lines and taking them as if they were addressed to you.
But without specifics, without context, without eye contact and vocal inflection, they lack direction and intention and affection. On the other hand, Glenda and Becky and Dave and Gayle and Deb and Lowell, with just that much detail, are able to smile and hear my voice.
I think that this means something about prayer or about reading the letters of Paul and Peter. I think that it means that working a little bit on context is helpful. So is asking whether I’m actually talking about you, Joe. Because I am, David. I am, Cheryl. And Mike, I particularly am talking about you.
But I think it also means something about the shortcomings of open letters. Sometimes a closed letter is best.
In the readings for Sunday morning, the Old Testament reading was for Exodus 14:1-12. It starts just after the Israelites have left Egypt. It stop just as they are telling Moses that he should have left them in Egypt, just as they had said back in Egypt.
They said this because Pharaoh was behind them and water covered the horizon in front of them. And it was evident that Moses, allegedly (from their perspective) at the direction of God, had taken the wrong road to the promised land.
Their attitude changes after the waters in front of them separate and they can pass through on dry land. Then they are grateful and happy and encouraged.
But at the time in the text where we stopped reading, they were complaining.
I didn’t talk about that story on Sunday morning. I had two other stories to tell. But I thought it would be good for us to think about on a Monday morning. As the day starts, as the week starts (for those of you who haven’t been working all weekend), we may be in the exact spot where Israel was. Inescapable force behind us. Insurmountable obstacle in front of us. And no idea short of a miracle of how we will go on.
The thing is, at that moment for Israel, in this moment for some of us, there is no real pain happening. It’s not as if the attack is happening, as is true for many others. It’s not as if the tumor is growing, as is the case for many others. It’s not as if everything is already lost.
In this moment the only real thing is the words we are saying to God. Or about God.
So what if, rather than complaining about abandonment, we asked about the path?
Some books I’ve been reading.
The Pastor as Public Theologian by Vanhoozer and Strachan. I’m teaching a grad course in pastoral care right now. This is one of the text I chose. So I have to read it. But I’m finding helpful the challenge to think well about what it means to pastor not just preach, to shepherd not just lead.
At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider. I’m not a traveler. Apart from Nepal, I’ve not been overseas (I understand that’s a big exception.) But as I read this description of a family taking a year and living around the world, I was captured. Part of it was her descriptions of places I’ve had other friends visit (her description of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony was wonderful). She let me see those places with clarity. Part of it was her transparency in talking about wrestling with faith in the middle of living. And part of it was that I needed a good travel book.
Cause for Change by Saratovsky and Feldmann. In the course of a consulting project about millennials, I read this research report on how people born between 1982 and 2000 are engaged in the nonprofit world. Whether as supporters, staff (volunteer or paid), or leaders, there are amazing commitments to making a difference. I know that all generations have people who want to care. But I see in the millennials I know a significant challenge to my complacency.
James by God and James. We’re using this in the pastoral care course, too.
The Power of Moments by Heath and Heath. Chip and Dan shaped my thinking and teaching with Switch. This book, coming out in October, will be doing the same (I have an advance reader’s copy). They help us think about why some moments are incredibly memorable and how we can create memorable moments. How we can, for example, help people forget parts of the pain of a process and remember the transformation.