Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

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“Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.” (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon)

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“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20)

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When Blind Men See

We are all just beggars in a way, aren’t we? I mean, on the outside no one would know, because we look pretty much like everyone else. But on the inside, most of us are looking for something, holding up our cupped hands to those who pass by. Asking for love; asking for a listening ear; longing for security, for hope; begging for meaning and worth, for relationship, for belonging. Some days you feel more satisfied, depending on what you receive. Sometimes you just feel wrung out, impoverished, like the thin ribs of your spirit would be poking through your dirty rags if anyone actually had the eyes to see inside. And it shapes you, having to beg for a life. Pushes you into thinking and acting in ways you would rather not… but a woman has to survive in this world somehow.

And we look at the man-born-blind sitting along the road and feel sorry for him: marked by his disease, by his shame, cut off from others by his disability. They don’t even see him as a person any more. He is a fixture in the landscape, growing older and shabbier, and less noticed as the years go by. Maybe a warning to naughty children about the possible consequences of their behavior, and occasionally the subject of theological discussion as to whose guilt put him there– and somehow no one ever questions the assumption that he deserves his situation. But what about us? Were we also born to sit in the dirt and beg for our lives? Is that all we are?…all we deserve? Maybe the only difference between us and him is that the marks of his need were obvious and out in the open.  And maybe right there is the secret fear that fuels our desire to be pretty and polished, to win enough trophies to hide our neediness….we need to prove that we don’t deserve to be cast aside.

But when Jesus looks at the blind beggar, He doesn’t see hopeless or helpless. He doesn’t measure the man’s worth by his condition at all. Jesus tells his followers plainly, “This happened so that  the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Jesus looks at the forgotten man, and He sees past the unseeing eyes, right through to the core of who he is. Jesus sees a man created from the dust of this earth, formed by God’s creative power in his mother’s womb; Jesus sees potential, and opportunity for God to do something wonderful; Jesus touches those disease-damaged eyes with His own flesh, and tells the man simply to wash it all away, leave it behind and become someone new. He doesn’t need to beg any more.

Years later, a man named Paul experienced that power himself, how God can look at a man (who barely even knows he is a beggar on the inside), and open his eyes, give him a new life. Paul declared with confidence that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27) Because when Jesus opens your eyes to see His face, that shapes a person too. Turns a murderer into a preacher, and a scholar into a pioneer missionary. Takes a man who thought he was “God’s gift” to the world and renames him “small, humble”— the kind of guy who could say sincerely, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) When you have Jesus, you can stop living hungry on scraps, because He calls you friend and brother, calls you to follow Him.

So this particular beggar, who has never done a thing with his life except sit useless and beg for scraps of other people’s lives, finds unexpected reserves of confidence to stand up to the public controversy that swirls around his healing– can even shame a court of educated religious men with his eloquence: “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33) Ironic, isn’t it, that a man who never saw anything before can look at Jesus and see the Messiah, come to heal us all from our sin, while everyone else is so busy looking at what they can get on their own. Beggars, all of them.

And I wonder if that beggar-born-blind did have one thing going for him: at least he could admit what he did for a living– knew that he was damaged and needed a fix. We should all be so brave. That’s all he needed to have, really. Jesus took care of the rest.

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“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue….’ The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert; the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs.” (Isaiah 35:4-7)

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“The walls you’re building to keep the hurt out, are the same walls that keep the healing from getting in.” (Ann VosKamp)

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What Elephant?

There’s a fundamental truth in the center of everything. It’s amazing how we can build a whole life blatantly ignoring the bulk of it– and yet we will all run up against it like a brick wall, at some point. The simple fact is that there are a great many things on this earth that we cannot control.

And of course we know that in our heads, and right away we think of the things we wish we could fix in our lives, past and present.  We might even list any number of large disastrous events that we would  collectively entitle “acts of God.” Of course, the implication is that these things ought to have been prevented altogether (and we would certainly have done so if we were in charge)…but no one stepped up, and at least we know Who is to blame. So much hurt in this big world.

So we spend enormous amounts of energy on controlling everything we can, and a great many things we can’t, but wish we could. Because maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right cure, or the right balance, or the right person to help. We can call it hope and strength and courage and determination– all the things we admire in a human being– and surely one of these days, if we work hard enough together, we will succeed where others have failed. Being proactive in the Everyday makes me feel stronger, more confident, like I am making a difference in all the chaos; like I  am carving out a safe place for myself and my family;  As long as the people I care about are happy and things are running smoothly at home and work and school, it seems proof positive that what I am doing is working, right?

I wonder more and more if all our trying isn’t just a smokescreen of capability, tangling a nest of self-deception and self-distraction until we can forget about that fundamental monstrosity in our midst. Because controlling the world is a mighty big task, and just because you’ve managed to decorate it nicely, doesn’t mean the elephant in the room has disappeared…. nor does it mean you are free of it.  During the day maybe you can actually come to believe that you are holding it all together, but in the middle of the night, when it’s just you in the dark?….Well, we all know the issues that keep us heart-poundingly awake at night.

Sometimes the terrible things in life turn out to be unexpected gifts; they can become the lenses on that enormous reality of impotence, like opening your eyes to what has been there all along. When the things you dread come crashing in hard and fast, and all you can do is cry out for help, you are finally in a place to learn the most important truth of all.

Because the truth is, no matter how intensely I feel about things, it doesn’t give me any more actual ability to control them. There are certain things God has given me to do, and a great many He has not put within my circle of influence, and that is okay. Because the opposite of control isn’t chaos. The opposite of control is trust. And just because you feel like circumstances are out of control doesn’t mean they are. I really wish I could hear Jesus’ tone of voice when He says “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25) When I stop trying to fix everything, and start trusting the One whose job it is, it’s amazing how the impossible situations begin shrinking next to the infinite weight of glory that is His presence; how knots in relationships untangle in the light of His truth; how bent bodies and broken hearts find rest and healing in His touch.

It is remarkably freeing to name the elephant in the room…to see it there and admit that there are relatively few things in this world over which I have influence, and that is just fine with me. I have enough to keep me busy just managing my own internal affairs.

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“Why do you say…’My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:27-28)

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“There are always arms under you carrying you, there are always hands carved with your name holding yours, there is always a waiting embrace Who is your safe place. You will never be abandoned — because He will never abandon you, Love will never abandon you, Hope will never abandon you, Grace will never abandon you.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Filling up Our Hungry Hearts

Here in the Autumn weeks when the trees are dropping leaves and the days are growing shorter, we return to old Truths around the table. And we are carrying new stories to tell, as if that changes everything, but isn’t it odd how we need to keep learning the same lessons over and over again? Somehow, we feel the need to keep holding up our changing circumstances for examination. Maybe we need to know for sure that the light of God’s truth is still shining there, no matter how much the jagged pieces of this broken world shift and turn. Maybe these hearts are just wounded enough that we are looking to belong somewhere safe. Whatever the reason, it is clear that we need to keep setting God’s promises in the center of everything, keep our eyes focused on who He is and what He says about life, so that our changing seasons have an anchoring point around which to spin.

It’s not really a matter of testing God’s faithfulness, because we know “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Every one of us would echo the Musician-King’s song: “Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.” (Psalm 36:5) No, it’s our own hearts that need tested, need to ask continually, “Can I trust you in this?” like children wanting fresh assurance every night that there are no monsters under the bed and someone bigger will be within earshot.

But children grow up and forget the fear of monsters under the bed eventually, and there comes a time for hearts to grow up too. Worry doesn’t make us human, nor does it make us good. It just makes us tired and unhappy. I remember a song my grandma used to sing: “O soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see? There’s light for a look at the Savior, and life more abundant and free. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” (Helen Lemmel) And the more we look at Him with the innocent trust of a child, in every change of life, the more we are convinced of the deep truth that we are loved and we are safe in His care. In the wilderness season we are going through. In the great loss we are feeling. In the inadequacy that gnaws us for the hard things ahead. Jesus is right there, and He is patiently listening to our questions about life, and cries about today’s troubles. He keeps on reassuring us that the things we fear have no power over us any more, and He will remain by our side no matter what. And at some point we need to grasp onto the solid truth of that, leave fear and insecurity behind and grow up into Him who came to rescue us. For “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. ‘By His stripes you are healed.'” (1 Peter 2:24)

Lord, let our broken hearts be healed in Your clear unchanging Light, that we may grow up in all things and rest in Your great promises.

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“Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken..”(Psalm 62:5-6)

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“It is possible, I dare to say, for those who will indeed draw on their Lord’s power for deliverance and victory, to live a life in which His promises are taken as they stand, and found to be true. It is possible to cast every care on Him, daily, and to be at peace amidst the pressure. It is possible to see the will of God in everything, and to find it…no longer a sigh, but a song….” (Handley Moule)

 

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A Light in the Storm

I’ve sailed on the Sea of Galilee, in a big wooden boat. Only once, but it’s not the kind of thing you forget. I saw the boats on the shore and the thick heavy rope nets that the men still use in that deep blue water, heard the stories about how a storm gale can whip up and sweep down from the mountains suddenly, catching fishermen unawares. It brought the Bible stories to life, and I could easily imagine Peter and Andrew, James and John living and working in that sea basin, their lives intertwined with the natural forces around them. So when I read the story of the storm at night, I can fully sympathize with their fear and cries for help. And even their astonishment at Jesus’ power.

“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25) was no hysterical reaction or irrational worry. It was based on the facts of their situation, the creaking timbers that shuddered and pitched beneath them, the dark skies above them, water pouring into the boat as it rolled beneath them…every sense they had was on high alert in a dangerous situation. They all knew men and boats that had been lost to those storms. And I am sure they had already done everything they knew to do, every trick they had up a seasoned fisherman’s sleeve, to no avail against the forces of nature. All they had to hold onto was hope in the Rabbi, who lay there taking a nap while the water sloshed up around him. Sleeping? At a time like this? Of course, He must have been exhausted after a long day of healing the crowds that needed Him. But His reaction to the storm was so markedly different from the rest of the men, and at first I shrug it off, because it’s easy to be calm if you know you have the power to fix something, and the helpless fishermen just need to hang in there, and they will soon be out of danger.

And then I realize two things back-to-back, and it’s like spotlights turning on in my head: the men must know He can do something too, otherwise they would not be scolding Jesus for sleeping when they needed help….and Jesus suggested this trip knowing full well that a storm would catch them on the way. Suddenly I am not quite so comfortable with the familiar Sunday School story of how Jesus can command the wind and the waves.

Because I am like the fishermen, caught in the wind and waves of many different situations, and all I have is the evidence of my senses, the life skills I have learned, the perspectives I have gained from experience– these are the tools I have to navigate the seas of my life. Sometimes I can go to bed at night thinking it was a day’s good work, and some nights I can barely sleep for the gnawing of anxiety and wondering where to go from here. And pressing on to learn more, do better, surrounding myself with the support of family and friends gives me a sense of doing what I can, encourages me that it’s all going to work out and I can persevere. Adding faith into the mix helps keeps the deep and the dark at bay, at least in the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a relief to know the Maker of Heaven and Earth personally, to be able to ask Him for help…and still, like the disciples, it is peace that I so often lack, even with Jesus by my side.

But there’s Jesus in the story, with the same human senses and skills and brain at His disposal, and it’s like He doesn’t even see the storm as a threat (or at least considers it not worth an uproar). He is utterly at peace in that boat, and when He speaks to the fishermen, it is not to impart any new knowledge, but to question their faith: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40) We miss the point entirely if we write it off as Jesus’ knowing more than we do in the storm. The implication is glaring, that what you know should inform your reactions. If you know God’s power over your world, and believe that He is with you and for you, then circumstances lose their power over you and you can rest peacefully. His reaction calls to mind the words of Isaiah the prophet: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4) And suddenly this story isn’t just a nice encouragement about Jesus’ power to calm the storms of life– it’s commenting on my faith and how I react to storms.

Faith isn’t something to add into my skill set, as one more tool in my journey through life. Faith is a completely new perspective on the journey, a spiritual sense that sees past the evidence of my eyes and ears, and the data that informs my brain. Faith knows the presence and power of the Almighty One is more real than any storm, and therefore can rest in Him. It’s one of those huge truths that is maybe more sturdy and solid than I have been able to grasp before, a beam of light that urges me to leave behind shallow platitudes and plunge ahead into the depths of knowing Christ.

The Fishermen-turned-Disciples wonder to each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41) They are understandably terrified, but what is perhaps more disturbing to us is the realization that the trip through the night was Jesus’ idea in the first place, in full knowledge of the storm that was coming. I would much rather that His power protect me from storms, guide my boat through safe places and peaceful harbors. Because surely His control should prevent chaos in my life. And yet He urges the boat on into the storm, because it is more important that we see His power and glory than it is that we be comfortable and safe. Why not, since He is in perfect control of the circumstances we face? I wonder how many times I have looked at a situation and called it bad and stressful, and failed to even see Jesus standing over it in authority? The Musician-King’s songs testify over and over, “The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?….Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27:1,3) Worshiping Him brings His peace to our hearts, no matter how severe the storm is.

Lord, open our eyes to see Your power over our storms, and grant us the faith to rest patiently in Your care, knowing You will bring us safely to the other side.

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When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2)

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“You hear me when I call;
You are my morning song.
Though darkness fills the night,
It cannot hide the light;
Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet;
You are my sword and shield,
Though troubles linger still; 
Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me;
I know who stands behind;
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side.”
(Whom Shall I Fear, Chris Tomlin)

 

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