Friday, June 26, 2015

Penultimate Miracles

So, welcome to church.  The gospel story for today is one that is a staple of Sunday School teachers everywhere – as well it should be.  Here in this section of Mark, Jesus is going around the towns healing people, and we get a more detailed view into two of those miraculous healings. 

Jesus is now back on the other side of the lake, back from where we were last week, back among the Jewish people, who practiced religion and observed social custom as Jesus and his disciples were accustomed to.  Now in this culture, the synagogue leaders were pretty top notch in both the religious system and the culture at large.  They had power and prestige and in many ways ran the show in some of these smaller hinterland Jewish towns.  So for one of them to come up and thrown himself at Jesus’ feet and beg Jesus to heal his daughter…it’s a huge act of humility.  It’s those fervent prayers you all know of, because you have prayed them yourselves – “Jesus, I don’t know where else to turn, I need you – now!”

And as Jesus sets off to do as the man asked, to visit and heal this little girl, He is surrounded by hordes of followers, people pressing in on all sides.  Everyone wants a piece of this miracle man, the man who says such strange, intriguing, hopeful things, the man who casts out demons and heals people of their diseases.  So naturally, everyone wants in on the action…they want they and their loved ones to be healed, or at the very least, they want to see these miracles happen.  They want to front row seats to the biggest shows of the season! 
And in this crowd is a woman who has had a sickness for 12 years now.  She’s had some sort of bleeding problem – perhaps what we might diagnose as endometriosis today – that has kept her physically ill, to be sure, but which has also relegated her to the margins of society, unable to enter the religious holy places, cast out from interacting with friends and family, eeew, the kind of person you tell your small children to hold your hand and walk way on the other side of the street from.
She’s breaking all the rules by being here, but there’s something about this man, something that tells her if she can get close enough to touch Him, maybe even just touch the hem of his cloak, she might finally be healed…

But Jesus is no dummy.  This is no ordinary man who you might bump up against in a crowd and he doesn’t really notice because, as the disciples point out, there’s like a thousand people here, everyone’s bumping up against you.  No, this man is God…and when the power of God meets the humble faith of a hurting person, He can’t help but notice, and He can’t help but respond.  As she falls at his feet, confessing the whole thing – how she just wanted to get close to him, and then, when she finally did, well she’s sorry, she knows she’s made Him unclean now, but…she just felt something, and now…all of a sudden... “Yes, I know, go in peace,” Jesus says.  “Your faith has healed you, go and be free of your suffering.”

And he continues on toward Jairus’ house, the synagogue leader, to see about his daughter.  But before he can get his cloak restraightened and his entourage of disciples moving in the right direction, some of Jairus’ associates come up to say, “Don’t bother, it’s too late, she’s already died.”  But Jesus still wants to go.  “Don’t be afraid, Jairus.  Just believe.”  So they set out for the house, and when they get there, Jesus says, “It’s okay, she’s only sleeping.”  He takes the disciples and the girl’s parents, goes into her bedroom, takes her by the hand, and says, “C’mon little girl, get up!”  Immediately, miraculously, she wakes up, climbs out of bed, and begins to walk around the room.  Not like someone who has been gravely ill, but like someone who’s been taking a quick power nap and could really use a snack now.  And Jesus sends her on her way, giving strict orders to the adults there Not. To. Tell. Anyone. 

Now I think, for us, this is the part of the story where it got confusing in Sunday School, and it stays confusing today.  Why wouldn’t you tell people?  Why wouldn’t Jesus want this story to be told?  This “don’t tell anyone” is all over Mark, in fact, Bible scholars have even given it a “name” – it’s called “the Messianic secret.”

But…we look at stories like these, and at similar stories in our own lives, and think, we’d be telling anyone and everyone!  I mean, how often have you heard that as Christians, we’re supposed to be “telling people what God is doing in our life”?  This is Evangelism 101, right?  Open your mouth, and talk about God’s work!  Often we’re not very good at it, but at least we know we’re supposed to be doing it, right?  And it’s not like we don’t have stories to tell.  I mean, these are some very dramatic miracles that Jesus is performing here in the story today and we should tell about them, but you also all have your own stories from your own life of that time when you thought all hope was lost…when you really did need a miracle…and you got one.  The illness was healed, the relationship somehow managed to get put together, there was enough money in the bank account when basic arithmetic tried to tell you otherwise.  Whatever.  You know what it is in your life, for you and your family.  Yeah, we should tell those stories.

But what about when we don’t get the miracles?  What about when what’s broken can’t be fixed?  When your hopes for healing or reconciliation or resolution or just basic human decency are crushed over and over again?  What about when the story ends with the little girl, or the old woman, or the middle aged man, actually dying?  What about when the flow of blood doesn’t stop?  When throwing yourself at Jesus’ feet doesn’t seem like it’s having any impact?  What about when you feel like society is coming apart at the seams or the fog of depression never ever seems to lift or you just. can’t. catch. a. break.? 

Well even then, we still have a story to tell.  See, this episode of miracles that we read today comes, chronologically, well before the events of Good Friday and Easter.  Long before the cross and the death and the resurrection. 

And I think that part of the reason that Jesus didn’t want the recipients of those miracles to tell the story just yet is because they’re not the main point.  Miracles and healings and stopping the flow of blood and blind men receiving sight and that little girl getting up out of bed and all the others are good and wonderful things.  Praise God for them!  But they still stop short of the ultimate, underlying, full, complete work that Jesus does.  

What is yet to come, for each one of us who trusts in Christ to heal us – just as Jairus, and the woman with flow of blood did – what is yet to come is eternal salvation and the healing of your soul.  What is yet to come, is the place Jesus has prepared for you – so that where He is, you will be also.  What is yet to come, is being with the Lord forever. 

What is yet to come, is “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And…a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

What is yet to come is, “I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.  You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts.  Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.  Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron.  Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones.  I will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler.  No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.  The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.  Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever.  They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.  The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation.  I am the Lord.” 

Jairus’ daughter, even having been raised out of that bed by Jesus, and Jairus himself, and the woman with the blood – what they all have in common is that still, despite Jesus answering their prayers, and the powerful miracles He worked that day – they all still died, eventually.

But now, what is yet to come is that when you die, you will be raised to everlasting life, just like Christ, because you are connected to Christ in through the power of His own death and resurrection.  

When Jesus tells the people He healed not to tell anyone, the point is not to not spread the Good News.  It's to make sure that we first know what the Good News really, actually is.  It’s been a heck of a week here, hasn’t it?  But whether you are battling your own personal demons, celebrating a miracle, or losing hope in the system – however you feel about the Confederate flag, socialized medicine, or gay marriage – whether you are rich or poor, whether life is looking up or you think everything is falling apart, take this to heart: 

Jesus, in the setting of the gospel story, and in our culture and lives today, has work to do that goes far beyond the passing facts and fads and trends of this world.  So don’t be worried about them, but don’t be enticed by them, either.  Because God is the God of those, to be sure, but even more than that, He is the God of final, eternal, spiritual healing, and the restoration of our souls, and indeed, the whole entire world.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the Bright Morning Star, God incarnate, God-with-us.  Praise God for miracles, when they come your way.  But know that the only miracle that truly matters, in the final calculation, is the miracle of Easter morning.  So praise Him even more that even though in time all the grass withers and all the flowers fade, the Word of the Lord – Christ Jesus Himself – endures forever. 


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Racist Life

I was born and raised in the United States Army.  According to 2012 statistics, 40.1% of Active Duty personnel identify as racial or ethnic minorities (Black or African American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, multi-racial, or other/unknown).  My dad is a physical therapist, and so I spent a lot of time around other MEDDAC staff of a variety of races and ethnicities – officers and enlisted, those with high levels of education and those with less.  
My earliest memories are of living in Bremerhaven, Germany, where one of my closest preschool friends was a black boy named Teddy.  His dad was either a surgeon or an anesthesiologist (I can’t quite remember which), and he and my dad were friends.  Often, when Teddy’s dad had to be in the OR, he would invite my dad to come along to watch and learn.  At the time, the base housing complex we lived in had a lot of older kids, and far fewer younger ones.  I was about 4 years old, and Teddy must have been the same.  We stuck together on the playground, against those mean 5th graders who spun the merry-go-round too fast so we would fall off.  

Later, when my sister was born, our Hispanic Latino neighbors who lived across the hall would cheerfully send their small dog over after dinner each night to clean up under her high chair.
My dad played on various softball and volleyball teams growing up, filled with a variety of races and ethnicities – again, representing the broader culture of the U.S. military.  

This was the world I lived in.

At the end of 4th grade, I was diagnosed with bone cancer, and my dad was transferred to a post in Maryland, so that I could be treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  You meet a lot of people when you spend that much time in the hospital.  The first night we spent there (having been medevac’d in on a cargo plane), we met Jennifer – a six year old black girl who had the same diagnosis as me, and her mother, who was an Army cook.  

In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, I met, interacted with, and was cared for by people of a variety of races and ethnicities.  Black, Asian, Hispanic – doctors, nurses, nurses assistants, orderlies, cleaning staff, cafeteria cooks and cashiers, radiology techs, gift shop and bookmobile volunteers.  Fellow travelers at the hospital and local Ronald McDonald House.  

In 5th grade, I had my first real crush on a boy.  His name was Bryan, and he was an African American kid in my class.  I found him cute and kind, a little more thoughtful than the rest of our male classmates who were, age-appropriately, mostly rather obnoxious.  

As I grew, these sorts of interactions continued.  Even as I finished treatment and my family moved on, I found myself engaging with people of diverse racial backgrounds because of where we lived, where I went to school, and who my dad worked with.  When my parents hosted the occasional party, men and women of all ethnicities hung out at my house – some even spent time with us during the holidays, when they couldn’t take the leave to go home to their families.  

This was all perfectly normal to me.  The only reason that I can now recall these interactions as having any relation at all to race is because I’ve been culling my memories for months.  

All of this is not to suggest by virtue of personal anecdote that I am not racist because I “have black friends” or whatever.  

No.  The point I want to make is that, from early childhood, I interacted with and was comfortable around people of all races and ethnicities.  And now I'm not.

I will freely admit that I am no longer comfortable around blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other people of color.  Does this make me a racist?  Probably, but then, from what I’ve learned over the last few years in “anti-racism training” and “diversity awareness workshops”, I always was racist, and I always will be.  According to reigning social theory, it is impossible for white people to not be racist, and is impossible for any non-whites to be racist.  Ever.  Anywhere.  In any culture.  Or any location.  I’m not sure if there’s some sort of “racist gene” that is coded into my DNA, that individuals of color lack, but somehow or another, I’ve been educated to understand that I cannot not be a racist.  

Which is bad.  I mean, you’re not supposed to be a racist, right?  But if you’re white (like me), you can’t help it.  So naturally I feel guilty about this.  Now, the guilt is not the biggest issue.  I’ll deal with that, I guess. (Although, for the record, I have yet to hear anyone suggest that the sin of racism is in any way forgiveable by a Holy God. So maybe I won’t deal with it.)

What I can’t avoid is the discomfort, the self-consciousness, the self-focus, the incurvatus se - oh look, there's another sin - that now hallmarks all my interactions with people of color.  

If I see someone on the street or in a store, do I look at them (or is that staring? Judging?  Wondering why they are here – in this store, on this planet?)  Do I not look at them (or is that avoiding them? Rejecting? Dehumanizing?)

Do I say hello? If I say hello will it sound sincere?  Will it be interpreted as sincere? Will it look like I’m “trying to not be racist”?  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’m an introvert.  I really don’t say hello to random strangers on the street, ever.  But this person doesn’t know that.  If I don’t say hello, will they think it’s because they are [fill in race here]?  

What about something as complicated as counting the change I receive, rather than tossing it into my wallet?  Or checking over a restaurant bill twice?  If I do that to a clerk or waitress, will they think it’s because I don’t trust them, rather than because that’s just what I do?  God forgive I have to ask a person of color for help – in a classroom, in a store, on the side of the road if my car has broken down.  What if it looks like I think they are all “the help” and exist on this planet to serve me?  If I don’t ask, when I clearly am in need, does the person notice and assume that I don’t want their help? 
And when a person of color initiates a conversation with me – what happens if I, as an introvert, am annoyed by unnecessary small talk?  What if they ask for help that I’m simply unable or unqualified to give? Will they interpret that as animus?  

The list goes on. 

And it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that if I ran into my friend Teddy, who taught me to dip my French fries in mayo, I wouldn’t know how to interact with him.  It makes me sad that the gynecologist can’t send their dog over to vacuum up baby food in my house anymore – because isn’t that just an extension of the Hispanics-as-cleaners stereotype?  It makes me sad that Jennifer, who once displeased her mother and amused all the rest of us when she got so frustrated with her prosthesis that she threw it in a lake, sees me as an oppressor rather than a friend and fellow cancer survivor.  It makes me sad that all those doctors and nurses and other people who cared for me did it not because they enjoyed their careers, but because of some institutionalized power structure that requires people of color to serve whites.  It makes me sad that all those people my parents welcomed into their home over the years apparently viewed my family as patronizing rather than loving. 

It makes me sad that “anti-racism” efforts have made me more racist than I ever was.  

Congrats to those who feel better by this state of affairs.  

Count this unforgiven, unforgiveable racist out.