The Man in the Red Hat

          Yup, that’s me.  The man with the red hat sitting at the side of the Pool of Bethesda.  Right beside the man Jesus healed after he had been ill for 38 years.  I recently heard that my neighbor had told his story on this blog, and, well, I decided that I wanted to tell my story too.  Bloch, after all, did include me in his painting, and I do have a few things to say.  So please hear me out.  Here, by the way, is the full painting that shows Jesus lifting the filthy cloth that had covered my neighbor whose chronic illness kept him virtually “invisible” for 38 years.

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890

          Believe me, it was quite something to watch my neighbor walk away after all those years of his paralysis.  Quite something.  But I’m not sure just what that something was.  My neighbor mentions in his story that he heard some muttered curses as he walked away.  Let me assure you, there were many such curses, and I was among the loudest!  You can see the anger in my eyes.  I was sitting there, right beside him, for goodness sake.  Jesus could hardly have missed seeing me! 

          But, Jesus did not heal me.  Nor did he heal scores of others who watched this amazing sight.  Why?  I’ve screamed that question for years.  I still scream it from time to time.  It still hurts that I was overlooked.  It still feels so unfair. 

          At the same time, I find myself realizing that I wouldn’t have missed that day, that moment, for anything in the world.  “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  It was as though a voice from long before our world was created was speaking a new creation into being right in front of my eyes.  It was as though I was seeing the world—not just my neighbor, but the whole world—being re-born.  It was as though that voice was saying, “This is what I ultimately intend for all of you.  This is what I am constantly working at, even though my work is sometimes as invisible as was this man whom I just healed.”

          Those words, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” lit a spark within me.  A spark of hope, a spark of acknowledgement, a spark of recognition that there really may be Something, Someone Out There, Someone who really does care about us and who is at work in the midst of all the fallenness and hurt and evil in our lives and in our world.

          But don’t get me wrong.  A spark, I said.  I didn’t say I had a full-blown conversion experience and from then on lived with great peace and joy in my soul.  Far from it.  A spark.  A spark I keep tucked under my little red hat.  It’s there along with my anger.  Along with my questions.  Along with my jealousy of those who are well.  My little hat feels pretty tight on me at times, holding so many contrary feelings, but I will never take it off.  I cannot deny my feelings and my questions.  Nor can I deny that spark of hope.  So I cram them all together into my little red hat and continue on with my life.  I still curse sometimes.  I laugh sometimes.  I sigh a lot.  Sometimes I even breathe a prayer.

***

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  (John 5:1-9)

Invisible: the Man of Bethesda Speaks for the Chronically Ill

 

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  (John 5:1-9)

***

          Can you see me?  Carl Heinrich Bloch has captured so well the reality of my 38 years of illness, as he pictures me actually covered over by a graying, tattered piece of cloth.  I honestly can’t remember how or when that cloth got there.  I may have hung it myself, weary of prying eyes and probing questions that often suggested my illness was all my fault and that I just needed a more positive attitude.  Or it may be that others surrounded me with that cloth because my prolonged illness annoyed them.  It would simply be easier for them if I were invisible.  Sometimes I would overhear people say rude things about me.  “He’s probably just trying to get attention by lying there all the time.”  “It’s all in his head.”   “Maybe he really doesn’t want to be well, because he thinks too much would be expected of him.”  Other times I could feel the fear of some who saw me and then quickly turned away.  “What if something like this should happen to me?  Keep that cloth tucked around him, please.  It’s just too frightening to see him.” 

          At times I wanted to shout out to their rudeness and their fear.  I wanted to tell them how many times I had tried to get into the Pool.  In your modern day language, I wanted to tell them how many doctors I’d seen, some of whom dismisssed me or treated me with impatience because they didn’t have a solution to my problem.  How many psychotherapists and physical therapists I had worked with.  How many different diets I had tried.  How many miles I had traveled in search of a new practitioner who promised miracles.  How many medications I had tried, often feeling worse from miserable side effects.  “Thirty-eight years of this,” I wanted to shout.  “Life hasn’t been easy, but I am living it as best I can.  Please don’t make it more difficult with your unfair judgments and coy suggestions that ‘it’s all in his head’ and that I’d be fine if I really wanted to be.”

          And then that wondrous day of the sudden lifting of that soiled, frayed cloth.  Eyes looking straight into my eyes.  A quiet, but powerful voice, “Do you want to be made well?”  I have to confess that at first I assumed the voice came from yet another stranger who shared all the negative attitudes about me and my illness.  But this stranger did seem rather kind, so I thought maybe I should at least try to explain my problem to him.  “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  Of course, I expected the usual—the cloth dropping back down around me, the familiar words of disdain.  

          But instead, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”   Words filled with a love and a power that literally burst around me and flowed into every cell of my being.  I did stand up.  I did pick up my mat.  And I did walk.  I walked through the rest of my life.  I didn’t always get everything right, to be sure, but I walked with a heart filled with gratitude, and I tried as best I could to help others who were living as I had lived for so long, chronically sick and often invisible.

          I know there are many of you today who live a life so like my life before Christ lifted that tattered cloth.  Suffering with a chronic or prolonged illness.  Living with all the misunderstanding, avoidance, and loneliness that often comes with such illnesses, whether that illness be emotional, mental, or physical.  I so wish the Christ who walked the earth in my day could do for you all that he did for me.  But his ways are mysterious.  There were many others at the Pool the day I was healed, and they were not healed as I was.  Why?  I do not know.  I know that some of them were angry and jealous.  Why him and not me?  I heard some muttered curses as I walked away. 

          But even though the ways of the healing Christ are quite beyond my understanding—I’m not much good when it comes to unraveling the mysteries of God, I do believe that, during my 38 years of illness, even in my times of utter despair, the healing of Christ was somehow at work in me.  And even though I wasn’t able to “take up my bed and walk,” I was often—not always, but often—able to find the peace and strength I needed to live through yet another hour, through yet another day.  To know that I was not alone.  To know that I was affirmed by God, just as I was.  To know that I could live richly, even with my illness and its deficiencies.  Truly, the healing Christ was there, behind the tattered cloth, even in the darkest moments of those 38 long years.  

          So that’s my story.  I hope something of it will be of some help to those of you who suffer with a chronic illness, and to those of you who know others who are chronically ill.  I hope especially that Christ’s healing will be very real in all of your lives.  Whether you are able to “take up your beds and walk” or not.  God’s peace to all of you.

 

 

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Trees

 

I lift up my eyes to the trees—

from where will my help come?

 

I sit on my deck beneath their over-arching

limbs, green leaves carpeting my portion

of the vastness of our sky;

huge trees, these ancient-rooted souls,

giant mercies, their arms embrace

my tiny life.

 

My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth…

 

…and all the trees; my trees

that even as they comfort,

also startle me, evoke deep

fear, in fact, so overpowering

above, around my fragile self;

colossal trunks, massive branches,

how quickly they could crash

across my home, my life,

my everything;

 

He will not let your foot be moved;

He who keeps you will not slumber;

 

Deep mystery, these hallowed trees,

Spirit wakeful in their far-flung limbs,

flowing through their roots and veins,

encircling me and keeping me,

but always hidden, veiled

among the tangled leaves

and branches, cryptic runes inscribed

in every groove across the roughened bark,

ancient promise whispered

to the psalmist as he sang

beneath the trees, the hills of long ago…

 

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in

from this time on and for evermore.

***

(words in italics from Psalm 121, with the substitution of “trees” for “hills” in verse 1)

 

 

Letter from Judas to Tilman Riemenschneider

Altarpiece of the Holy Blood

Church of St. Jacob, Rothenburg, Germany

Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531)

 

Dear Mr. Riemenschneider,

          I am writing to thank you for the place you gave me in your beautiful wood-engraved altarpiece.  There I stand, front and center, holding my money bag and looking directly into the face of Jesus, who is also looking directly at me. 

          “Iscariot.”  A part of my name, but no one is sure just what it means.  I’m not even sure myself, after all these centuries.  It’s possible the gospel writers were referring to Kerioth, the town where I may have been born, but I rather suspect they were using a form of a Greek or Aramaic word to name me, to label me “assassin,” “traitor,” “false one,” “liar.”

          I know, even without the label “Iscariot” tacked on, my very name Judas has come to mean betrayal.  And what can I say?  I did a terrible thing when I betrayed the man I dearly loved, the man on whom I had placed all my hopes and dreams for myself and for my world.

          But your altarpiece reminds me that I was not, am not, just a label.  I had been a trusted member of Jesus’ twelve disciples.  So trusted, in fact, that I was named treasurer of our small group.  And in spite of accusations that I was a thief and didn’t care about the poor (see John 12:6), I really did have a deep concern for those less fortunate.  That was why I had been so happy to follow Jesus, as he, too, had such a concern for those who were poor and in need of help.  I really did have a heart, distorted and muddied though it was with all my questions, doubts, and treachery.

          I think you somehow realized what a complex person I was, and you’ve  expressed it so beautifully in the yearning you have carved into my face as I look at Jesus.  I see all my questions there.  Was he the real Messiah as we had hoped?  If so, why didn’t he show himself openly?  Was he just too politically naïve?  Should I force his hand and cause him to declare that God’s kingdom was about to begin on earth?  Or was he just another false messiah?  If so, shouldn’t he be silenced before all hell broke out with our Roman rulers?  There had been other so-called “messiahs,” and I confess I was beginning to wonder if Jesus wasn’t just another false promise.

          I know.  There are those 30 pieces of silver, and they do suggest a sinister motive for my betrayal, as that money was enough to buy some property.   Luke writes (in Acts) that that’s just what I did, and then he goes on to describe a rather gory death for me.  Matthew, however, writes that once I realized what I had done, I threw the money down on the temple floor and committed suicide by hanging myself. 

          However I might have died, my last memory was the look on Jesus’ face as he told me to “do quickly what you are going to do.”  You’ve captured it so well.  That look.  Such depth of sadness in Jesus’ eyes.  As though he were peering into the very depths of my soul, grieving for the betrayal I was about to commit, grieving for all my sin, grieving for what I might have become.  Yet at the same time piercing me with his love even as I went about my sorry business.

          “Iscariot.”  Over the centuries, Sir, I’ve come to be ever more aware of the problem with labels.  I’ve seen that they always obscure a real person and reduce that person to a one-dimensional “thing.”  I’ve been very saddened of late especially to observe that some in the 21st century seem obsessed with labels.  This seems to be especially true of the leader of one of the most important countries in the world.  A powerful man, but for some reason, he seems to need to “label” anyone who disagrees with him.  He “iscariots” them, as it were, always choosing epithets that demean.  I worry about this and about what he is teaching children around the world.  I fear that he doesn’t realize that labels not only reduce and confine those who are the “labeled,” but that they also reduce and confine those who label.

          Mr. Riemenschneider, you have sculpted a powerful truth in your altarpiece.  The truth that every person, even a person who did something as bad as what I did, is to be understood and treated as so much more than a mere label.  Even if that person may have some very undesirable characteristics that need to be addressed.  Even if that person may say or do some despicable things that need to be condemned.  You have reminded us that Jesus, even as he looks with reproach upon all our ungodly and unkind deeds and attitudes, also looks with compassion on even the ugliest of us.    

          So thank you, Mr. Riemenschneider, thank you for your thoughtful and beautiful altarpiece.  Thank you for truly seeing me, for portraying me as so much more than the mere label “Iscariot.”

Yours sincerely,

                                                                                                   Simply Judas

 

Where Is My Mommy?

(photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

His tiny fingers clutch

the wires of the cage,

crumbs of his world

scattered across the noisy

floor filled with other fingers,

toes, and sobs.  “Where is my Mommy?

I need to pee, and she will

tell me where to go.  I don’t

know these voices, these strange

arms that point this way and that. 

I dreamt last night that she came back

to me, but I awoke to noisy milk

and cereal, taste like bitter sand,

the kind my Mommy walked

me through, singing to me her songs

of north and hope. 

Mommy, where are you?

Mommy, is this north?

Mommy, will they hurt me if I cry?” 

*

“Where is my son?  I’ve never

felt so raw, so untethered to my life,

my world, my God.  We sank in the mud—

together, trudged the desert sands—

together, my one hand gripping his, pulling

him away from the gangs that banged

on our door each night, while we huddled—

together, in the trees behind our shack;

my other hand pointed always north;

but north has ripped us apart and will not

tell me where they’ve hidden my child.

‘Papers! Papers!’ harsh voices shout,

but all I can offer is my tattered

hope, my papers scorched in the

searing sun, drowned in the waters

through which we sloshed—

together. Where is my child?  

Will they hurt me if I cry?”

***

          July 26 was the deadline for reuniting families separated at the border under the “Zero Tolerance” program.  The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it has reunited 1,442 children with a parent or parents.  However, about 700 children are still not reunited with their parents.  Some because of a parent’s criminal record.  Some because of communicable disease issues. Some because the parent or parents have been deported or have left the country of their own accord.  The Administration says it is continuing to work on behalf of the remaining children.  I hope!  I hope!  I hope!

       

Still Life with Tiny Tomato and Coin

          This picture arrived on my cell phone a couple of days ago.  First fruit of my granddaughter’s spring planting.  It’s not a cherry tomato, she told me.  Just a tiny tomato, hardly bigger than a quarter.  But so vibrantly red-ripe and filled with a juicy richness.  A July prize, to be sure. 

          Prizes in our culture so often go to the Big.  The bigger the better.  Big personalities.  Big Macs.  Big McMansions.  Big shopping malls.  Big mega-churches.  We like big, and so often we overlook the small.

          But isn’t it often the little things in life that offer the greatest rewards?  That unexpected hug.  That tear that rolls down a friend’s cheek when we unwind our woes to her.  That stranger who stops to help a wounded cyclist by the side of the road.*  That lone voice that cries out truth in a world that’s been smothered with lies.  That first tiny crocus that peeks its head above the last of winter’s snow. 

          Little things.  Little things that shine.  Thank you, granddaughter dear, thank you for this little picture—a big reminder not to overlook the little things in our lives, little things that offer sweet nourishment to meet some of our deepest needs. 

***

*A cycling member of our family was the recipient of “that stranger’s” help this weekend.  A little thing?  Certainly a very big thing in our lives.  We are so grateful!

Trinity

 

 

I went to church.

I did not worship.

I didn’t hear God in the thundering drums,

the acoustic guitars, or even the amplified

voice of the preacher; couldn’t see her smile

in the multitude of screens pasted across the walls,

in the strobe lights hyping the crowd;

others found God, I hope, but I left

with only emptiness cramming my pockets.

And then I saw these little flowers, so eloquent

in their white-tongued silence, whispering

something of the mystery of life;

three outer petals, star-white strong,

three inner petals, gossamer soft

and white as the wings of a moth,

three tiny white posts centering

and grounding them all into one;

white flowing into white into white,

strength into softness, and softness

into strength; one in three and three in one,

community of heaven in a tiny garden of earth,

mirroring the vastness of the triune love

that called their shining into life.

*

I pause in reverence, take off my shoes,

held close in deep, unfathomed holiness,

a holiness encompassing not only white,

but also tiny smudges of earth,

tiny smudges of you and me, perhaps,

in all our dust-to-dustiness,

our mortal groans and sighs,

our muddied lives of work and joy, embraced

in strong, eternal, burning white.