Category Archives: Faith

Healed and Whole

Daughter, you took a risk trusting me, and now you are healed and whole.
No one sees me slip through the crowd. I am good at being unseen; it has been the key to my survival.

For twelve years I spent everything I had, poured every ounce of hope into healing. I paid and I prayed, losing every last thing. And still I bled. For twelve years I have been weak, cursed, exiled from my neighbors, unclean.

I had heard of this Jesus, rumors of His power, the miracles that seem to fall from the sky around Him, like manna. If I could get close enough to touch Him, certainly a brush of His robe would be enough. I had heard the blind gained their sight and the lame could walk again with just a word from this Jesus invoking the power of Heaven.

I am almost close enough to touch Him. I can hear the voices of His closest, most faithful followers, men and women who dropped everything to remain at His side. He can’t possibly be a fraud, not with this many people surging around Him.

Jarius, the local religious leader, has pushed through the crowd, pushed in front of me. I shrink away, take up smaller space. From where I crouch, I hear the grief and desperation in his voice, rising above the many circling Jesus, and there is something deeply familiar in his heartbreak it cracks me in two. I stay close to the ground, my head down, bent half in pain, half with the intense need to remain unseen. If I am seen I will be cast away, shouted down because of my illness; my uncleanliness demands it.

I hear Jarius speaking of his sick daughter, his plea twisting in the air, his brokenness so different from mine yet so intimately known. Jesus has turned His attention away from the crowd, standing still and focused on Jarius as he pleads for his daughter’s life. I will not interrupt; the Healer has much more important work to do.

But then Jarius leads Jesus away, toward his home, and a new well of anguish bubbles up and over. Quickly, feverishly, I crawl closer, and Jesus pauses in mid-step as if waiting for something. Quickly, feverishly, I reach out for the hem of His robe, stained, caked with the dirt of His travels. The fabric is rough in my hands, and for barely a breath, I hold on.

It is immediate. I know. It is a memory of the Galilean sea rushing over me, this healing that throws me, flattens me, overcomes me. A heartbeat and I want to shout my gratitude, but no, I cannot. I have stolen something divine and powerful, so I slip away, just as unnoticed but irrevocably altered.

“Who touched me?”

His voice carries over the crowd. They quiet. He asks again. I am almost to the edge of the sea of bodies, almost free to disappear. They point out the size of the crowd, the absurdity of His question, but there it hangs unanswered, tethering me back. Because I fear God more than my own body, I turn back; I cannot help the trembling in my bones. Jesus has been watching me, as if He knew all along who indeed had dared.

The people part a path back to Jesus, and I drop to the ground at His feet, weighted down by what I have done, what I have claimed. I confess it all to this God-Man and to the crowd. I am on my knees before Him, my face hidden in the sand, in a deep shame that shivers and shakes over me. My neighbors, fellow villagers who have for years now skirted around me, ignored me, cast their eyes away from me – I feel their stares openly now as my confession tumbles out, darkening the dirt at His feet.

I cannot look up from the pit of my despair. I do not hear Him so much as feel Him in every cell of my body, in my very marrow, answering a longing so buried I had not recognized it before.

“Daughter,” He says to me, His touch – His own this time, not a stolen brush against the threads of His robe – burning that word, that identity into my soul. “Your faith has made you healed and whole.” He has lifted His voice for the whole crowd to hear. My faith, He tells them, has healed me.

“Live well, live blessed.”

The extravagance of Jesus is staggering. He has given me wholeness, yes, a way forward in holy healing.

But more than that, intimately more than that, He has called out my shame, my illness and my suffering, and has transformed it into something worthy, a story redeemed and redefined. I owe Him everything. Faith in this Jesus is easy; the lightness in my gut tells me I’ve been waiting my whole life to follow Him.

* * *

This season of Lent, I am pulling out some of the questions Jesus asked with the intent of digging into (some of) what he might want us to know. I want to tell these stories as if I had been there myself, as if I was the one staring dumbly at Jesus on a crowding lakeshore when he asked, “Who touched me?” found in Luke 8:40-48.

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Where Can We Buy Bread?

Wild Barley

Jesus of Nazareth could draw a crowd. Even from small, scattered villages, people flocked to Him. This Jesus was a truth-teller and dealer of miracles, dynamic, charismatic, unabashed. People came for the show and stayed for the word.

There was enough truth or purpose in Jesus that I had dropped everything to follow Him as He traveled from village to village. His message never changed, but transformed into something new every time He spoke. There were the show-stopping sermons, the ones magnified over crowds of hundreds or even thousands. But there were also the stories shared with us, the twelve and His most devoted followers. There were the prayers He murmured to Abba Father, an intensely personal relationship. It felt like eavesdropping, those moments when Jesus sought solitude.

There was an energy to Jesus. A sense of urgency that hummed beneath His words and acts. The way He saw the crowds, not as a ceaseless current of strangers drawn in to Him like water on dry sand, but as if He saw every single face, heard every single heart beating. When He spoke it was as if Heaven pressed in a little closer, mysteries of our ancestors’ faith a little thinner, warmer and clearer. There was something ancient about Jesus, something timeless, the way He spoke of our God and of man and of the proximity of God to man. It was revolutionary, the attention of the Holy One toward someone like me, someone ordinary and bland, no special education or training or knowledge of this unknowable God. More still, the attention of God toward someone in the margins, otherwise forgotten, unseen, shunned.

Jesus brought God the Father closer, to the very table we sat.

Jesus’ message was so full of hope. That was a common thread of His message, no matter how many different ways He managed to tell it. And He seemed to empty Himself before the crowds, spilling truth and healing and every ounce of wisdom He could hold in His head and heart. He spoke often of the work to be done, as He gazed out across the crowds, parched and starved for His words.

* * *

On this day, He seems spent. He edges away from us, His followers, and we who have been with Him since the beginning know He sometimes seeks this seclusion, a way to replenish what He has poured out. But even as He walks away, another crowd gathers. They begin to form around Him, villagers calling out to one another to come closer, to hear this Jesus of Nazareth and all the things He has to say. The healing He performs, they tell each other, have you seen what He can do?

Some of us try to head off the crowd, to block them from getting to Jesus. Some of us try to press them back, ask them to come back later, like bodyguards of truth. But Jesus knows they are coming; He always knows. I’m sure He heard them gathering, but more than that. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus sees and hears everyone on a completely different plane, some other realm away from this dusty earth. As if He hears their need just as clearly as their feet and fidgeting coming closer.

Jesus turns back toward the crowd. The look on His face gives us permission to step back, to let them come. And they come. I watch Jesus as He watches everyone else, hundreds now, maybe even thousands, and there is something infinite and tender in His expression. I wonder how Jesus can have such compassion on people He has never seen before, but even as I wonder, I know the truth. Jesus has seen them before, every last one, in a way I will never understand but can only trust.

He speaks over the crowd, teaches them from the ancient texts, reaches out and touches them, heals them. In a sea of thousands, Jesus sees every single soul. Every single soul knows they are seen.

His message of hope and healing stretches on into evening. The sun begins to set, but no one seems eager to leave. We all know it deep in our souls; here we are standing on holy ground. Here we are closer to God in heaven, and no one wants the spell to break.

Jesus turns to His disciples, calls Philip close. “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?”

We exchange looks. We check the crowds. No one seems to want to break it to Jesus. “We should send everyone home,” we tell Jesus, “so they may eat.”

“Even if we worked for months we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!” Philip is the boldest of us tonight, saying what is on all of our minds. We were nothing but poor fishermen and farmers before giving it all up to follow Jesus; and now? After leaving behind our very livelihoods?

“Go out and see what food you can gather,” Jesus tells us, and so we weave through the crowd, a loaf of bread here, a small basket of fish there. As Jesus continues to teach, I am struck by the generosity of those around us. A boy hands me his own packed meal, a meager offering in the face of such an enormous crowd. No less than five thousand men, then the women and the children, reluctant to return home, not even for supper. The hunger in their guts nothing compared to the hunger in their hearts, a quenching of their very souls on this holy hill.

We make our way back to Jesus. Five loaves, two fish, boundless doubt.

Something about Jesus had at once compelled me to drop everything and follow Him. Something big and inarticulate, a weight settling on my shoulders impossible to ignore. But following Him seemed almost incidental, maybe even mutually exclusive, to the day-to-day believing Him.

We are all skeptical, watching Jesus raise the food and give thanks to the Holy One. He instructs us to hand out the broken loaves and divided fish among the groups seated and scattered along the hillside. He instructs us to give abundantly, as God the Father has given us, and even though we raise our eyebrows at His directive, we face the hungry crowd to feed them.

The people I approach are grateful, their physical hunger being met as sufficiently as their souls’ have. I try not to hesitate as I break off meal-sized pieces of bread and fish, try not to focus on how much I truly lack. These villagers help me forget, raising their eyes to the sky in blessing and thankfulness, and I move on. It isn’t until the third or so group of men, women, and children I feed that I notice my supply has not diminished. Not one bit.

I look up at the other disciples spread out among the crowds, gathered in small groups to eat, and we seem to all have come to the same conclusion at the same time. The loaves and fish in our hands are as full as when we started, though nearly half the people have been fed. Slow, slow understanding comes to me, and I am again amazed at my own short-sightedness. Jesus, all this time, bows in prayer while His audience replenishes.

I reach the edges of the crowds, the last to be fed, and I am hundreds of yards from where Jesus stands. I want to hurry back to His side, to know what just happened, to label this thing a miracle. But as soon as we return, He instructs us again to gather up whatever food is left, empty baskets in hand to collect what was beyond fulfilling to thousands.

We set at His feet the broken remains of five small barley loaves. Twelve filled baskets.

It is a miracle and a metaphor, the abundance with which the Holy One provides. A grace so sufficient, so extravagant, to carry us well beyond our need.

* * *

This season of Lent, I am pulling out some of the questions Jesus asked with the intent of digging into (some of) what he might want us to know. I want to tell these stories as if I had been there myself, as if I was the one staring dumbly at Jesus when he asked, “Where can we buy bread?” found in all four gospels, Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, and John 6.

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Jesus Asked

Recently, a core piece of my personal theology was shaken. Something I had grown up believing as uncompromising Truth-with-a-capital-T gave way to a lot more gray, and – I cannot exaggerate this – it floored me.

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Suddenly, a significant way I thought about and wrote about and consumed and even taught scripture was turned on its head. It felt like the bottom dropping out, and I wasn’t sure where I would (or even should) land.

For a few solid days, I read a lot of articles and commentary on theology (I went down so many wiki rabbit holes, you guys). I started (and then deleted) rambling, needy texts to seminary friends. I wrote angsty prayers to God in my prayer journal (He’s used to it) asking for insight.

Eventually, I revisited how exactly I had even come to this particular belief in the first place. (Probably should have led with that but, I mean, hindsight, you know?) I wondered how much of it was God-breathed truth, and how much was just a way for me to wrap my small mind around a big, puzzling, enigmatic God-in-Three.

After reading scripture and commentary and praying (uttering, really), “What have I missed all these years?” I came away with this actually uncompromising Truth: when it comes to God, we aren’t even scratching the surface.

And I think that’s what really drove my despondence. I have studied this God for over twenty years now. I have followed Him, more or less, for decades, and surely I was expert by now. People should listen to me; I know things. (Don’t worry, I’m currently in recovery of this.)

A deep sense of personal pride had been shaken; exposed, bleached clean, the dust beaten from the edges and cracks. I was long overdue for a Come-to-Jesus-ing.

And it all started with a question. Someone had asked me a pretty simple question, after I made some bold statement, my peacock feathers standing straight up, tall and solid. A question that forced me to look at this cornerstone of my theology at a different angle, and it threw me into a tailspin.

(I’m still spinning a little, but when I figure it ALL OUT I’ll let you know.)

Here’s the thing about Jesus. Jesus did a lot of things on earth, only a few of them recorded in our New Testament. In a biblical snapshot of a few-ish years, Jesus traveled and truth-told, laid holy healing hands, called simple or questionable men and women into his inner tribe. Despite his godhood, despite being the infinite and all-knowing incarnate, Jesus asked.

Jesus taught and healed and called…and asked.

So this season of Lent, I’ll be pulling out some of the questions Jesus asked with the intent of digging into (some of) what he might want us to know. I want to tell these stories as if I had been there myself, as if I was the one staring dumbly at Jesus when he asked, “Who?” and “What?” and “Where?”

On this side of history, with records of Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection in our back pockets, we at least have a fuller picture, a little deeper insight to his seemingly simple questions.

When Jesus asked, I figure we should lean a little closer to the answer.

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Ash Wednesday : Where Are You?

09_ash_crossOn this day, I will walk up to the altar of my home church. With ashes from last year’s triumphant palm branches and anointing oil pressed from olives, my pastor will trace a cross on my forehead and remind me of the dust from whence I came, and of the dust to which I will return. I will bow my head and close my eyes as the lights dim, aware and somber, reminded of the Garden and of creation and of the ache to return. I will remember, a muscle memory from my ancient past, the God-breathed Spirit in my soul awakening to the longing, the question: Where are you?

* * *

The breeze is cool, welcoming, perfect. It is Eden in the evening, the spoken-into-existence sun setting over the created horizon. My skin tingles raw; leaves and soil and the very breeze that whispered in the Garden is rough, prickling and shivering over me. I am naked, afraid, the nakedness nothing new, but the fear all at once awakened and alive, famished.

He calls for me: Where are you? 

God the Creator, knower of all things, asks a question for the first time in human history.

Where are you?

I am hidden in the Garden, a place of perfection created with beauty and completion in mind, a home to walk side-by-side with God-in-Three, the Holy of Holies Trinity, arms swinging wide to take it all in, the wonder and magnificence of an infinite God poured out into finite things, reaching trees and wild animals and expansive skies.

I am cowering beneath fig leaves, thorns in my bared side, as I hear His continuous call. I want to respond as I once was, eyes fixed only on the identity God gave me when He formed me, when He first breathed eternity into me.

But everything has changed.

Where are you? 

As if He doesn’t know, as if He truly cannot see me His image-bearer anymore, stained as I am with disobedience and disbelief in His goodness. I show myself, heavy as lead, admit my fear and my bareness, my reason for hiding.

His next words are more questions, more invitations to explain myself.

Who told me I was naked?

Did I eat from the tree?

What have I done?

Only God knows the depth of my betrayal, the permanence of my mistrust, the legacy of it all born in my belly and inherited by the cursed earth itself.

I am nothing more than clay breathed alive by Life and Love Himself, my Spirit-soul still eternal, trapped within a crumbling-back-to-dust body.

* * *

This evening I, descended from disobedience and exile from Eden, will sit in my pew with an ashen cross rubbed against my skin, and I will listen for the question stirring among the Garden breeze.

Where are you?

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Troubled Waters

Water is already rare and extraordinary in the desert. But these waters were even more so. These waters were said to be holy. These waters, they said, fed by unseen springs beneath the desert, were stirred every so often by God’s own angel. A messenger of Heaven sent to spread holy healing. Superstition or legend or miracle, it was all the same. It was sacred hope, the very last wisp of it for the many crowded around its edges.

It had been nearly forty years – almost his whole life – of total paralysis. We aren’t told how he got to the pools of Bethesda, only that he had made it there. Maybe his family brought him, his last resort, maybe out of pity or charity or even good riddance. Regardless, he made it as far as the pools’ edges, folded into the desperate crowds anxious for healing.

The air was thick with broken bodies, each pressing closer through pain to the water’s edge, relief, hope just a stirring away. How long this man waited is unclear, irrelevant. He was as close as he could get, close enough to see the water, to smell it, this promise of wholeness. But he was alone, no one to help him slide into the pools, not one person who knew his name, willing to bring him the last few precious feet to the healing waters. He was ill for so long. Cursed, he was taught, suffering from crippling sin, his unmoving body so close, so still, still broken. Unable to reach out on his own accord for the health he believed was inches from his grasp.

His heart must have broken a hundred different ways, hope and wholeness shimmering just a few staggered steps away. There was nothing – not one thing – he could do to cross those last few feet into the healing pools.

So he, with everyone else, would wait. Every last one of them holding breaths against the pain, waiting for the waters to stir; any other time it was just water. But when the waters stirred, something sacred was happening. Healing was happening.

This man, his whole life dependent on the charity of others, would wait for the unseen angel to trouble the waters. There wasn’t anything else he could do, anywhere else he could be. So he would wait, staring into the pools as if he, a mere man, could bend the will of angels, of God Himself.

And then the waters would stir. Maybe slowly at first, barely a ripple, hardly noticed. Or maybe all at once, the huge heavenly host churning the pools into waves. The man would see it – how could he miss it? His every last hope pinned on the moment the waters so much as sighed differently. Even the subtlest flicker across the waters he would catch. This man was here because he could not control his own body, this dead weight. But maybe, because he wanted it desperately enough, because his mind and heart and soul felt ready to burst with longing…maybe he could move himself just enough to fall into the bubbling waters.

Maybe some days he came close. Maybe he thought he felt a muscle twitch in response. Maybe he called out to those around him to take him with them as they slipped into the rolling waters. But then the waters would still. The healing hour had come and gone. Those who had made it would rise up whole somehow, their brokenness restored. No doubt this man witnessed hope and relief on the other side, breaking the surface of the now-calm waters, smooth as glass.

A hundred different heartbreaks, a hundred missed-out hopes.

Maybe this man held fast, clutching the far-off chance he’d one day reach into the waters. Maybe this man had long given up, yet remained by the pools because he had no choice. He might have been there days or weeks or months or even years. Who could know any one man’s story lost in the endless press of desperate people?

However long he waited on the outskirts of hope, we do know the day everything changed.

On that day, this man, his life consumed and defined by his brokenness, was approached by Jesus. Jesus, God in the flesh, divine authority wrapped in human skin with the holy power to heal with just a word or a touch or a slather of mud, approaches.

I try to imagine how Jesus must have felt, surrounded by such extravagant suffering, such tailspins of last resorts and final breaths.

Jesus, His good, good heart beating bold for every broken one gathered around the miracle pools, leans down to this man, overlooked by everyone else, forgotten, unseen, and Jesus knows. Jesus knows his story, his illness, his desperation, all forty years of it. This man, lying flat and unmoving mere inches from the healing waters, and Jesus, Lord of all, Son of God, sacred healer, asks, “Do you want to get well?”

What a question to ask this man, or anyone journeying to Bethesda, for that matter.

Do you want to get well?

I know this Jesus. I know the infinite tenderness He poured onto the suffering, the broken and weary. I can hear the exquisite gentleness in His question to this man, one man out of dozens or hundreds.

Maybe the man knew Jesus’ reputation. Maybe he had just hoped this stranger, in His kindness, would help him into the waters. This man encountered Jesus in the flesh, face to face, asking him, inviting him, to wholeness. Jesus asked a simple, loaded question, packed to bursting with life-changing, life-giving meaning. You and I know Jesus was offering this man so much more than the ability to walk again. You and I know the offer was for complete wellness, for restoration, a reconciled relationship with God Himself.

Every time I open my Bible, every time I pray, every time I speak to or focus on or serve my God, He leans down, leans close, and with soul-stunning tenderness asks me, “Beloved, do you want to get well?”

 

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, He asked him, “Do you want to get well?” -John 5.6

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Good Friday: The Darkness Gathering

I’ve heard the story a thousand times. It never gets old, even as it never changes. Every time I hear it, I know how the story ends. I know that third day miracle, the impossible making believers around the world and throughout the centuries.

I still hold my breath between John 18 and John 20, my heart skipping beats in my chest. Every year I settle deeper into Good Friday, into the bone-breaking, veil-tearing darkness gathering. I close my eyes and try to feel what those first disciples felt, their very lives, their every breaths staked on the man hoisted upon that cross.

I know so well my own darkness, my own bleeding need for saving. I know the twisted bitterness sitting cold and hard in my gut, the slash of the whip and the drive of the hammer my own doing. I let the darkness in me loose, clutching this part of the story because this is the part of greatest tragedy, of greatest recognition.

The created world, favored by a creative and attentive God, suddenly godless. Suddenly without the hope that lingered in the back of our minds, at the tug of our hearts. This dark Good Friday a hitch in our throats, every fear, every demon clawing to get out, to spread its ink over this godless world. My own darkness home here.

I settle in. I listen to the earth groaning for salvation, to the wailing of defeat. I cannot look to the end of the story, to the prophetic words and the hope-filled promises, not yet. I need to let my darkness do its deed; I need to know my part.

I need to know it is finished.

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Maundy Thursday: This is Our Cup

The words are familiar to me, to many of us who believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, poured out for you.

When I am most aware, I whisper those aching words with reverence, the weight of them pressed against the inside of my cheek and held there. I take the bread solemnly, the silence echoing louder than betrayal.

The words of Jesus at the Last Supper often hold heavy for the Church, whether Communion is a weekly ritual or reserved for the holiest of occasions. The Church sits quietly, stilled, as the bread is raised and broken, the wine poured and blessed.

We hear those words again, some of the very last words of Jesus, Son of Man, and we hold our breaths in remembrance of Him.

During this ritual, we feel the holiness. Somehow, a few words, a couple of poetic sentences that surely made little sense to the men who heard them first, spoken with a heavy, hopeful heart centuries ago still manage to capture us, steady our attention.

If we close our eyes and open our hearts, if we really focus, tilting an ear to Heaven, we can hear these words of Jesus. We can hear his hands breaking the loaf into pieces, hear the sound of wine splashing into an empty cup. We might even hear the desperation in Jesus’ voice.

His time is near. It must be done. He watches as bread and wine — his body and blood — are given out to the twelve he has chosen. Men who bicker, men who falter, men who just don’t get it, not yet.

I can picture Jesus watching, looking around the table at his closest friends. His last supper, his final feast with his most devoted followers. Unassuming men he chose, not because of power or influence, but because of their simple faith. He called; they came.

And his body and blood, broken and poured out, entrusted to these twelve men and for the whole world.

What an image, just as powerful yet more subtle than the image of the cross. Around this table, with bread crumbs in his palm, a wrenching reminder of what is in store, Jesus could still turn back. No doubt this last supper sounds like bones breaking, like blood and water pouring out. The bread tastes dry in his mouth, the wine bitter enough to bring tears. And only Jesus knows it, feels it, tastes it, gets it.

Now, today, on this side of the Crucifixion and impossible Resurrection, we get it, at least a little. As his Church that understands the meaning of that last supper, as his people who celebrate and remember Jesus’ words, we break the bread and we pour the wine and we invite those whose reverence still settles them in their pews and draws them to the altar. To come, to dip the bread in the wine, to partake in the holy feast, the New Covenant. To know and trust and remember his broken body, his blood poured out.

It is a ritual well-known and cherished by the Church, a pointed understanding of what Jesus was truly offering when he offered his disciples the broken bread and shared cup.

The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, poured out for you. For me. For the whole world still unaware, still wondering if there’s more.

What a beautiful, tragic night that was in our faith history.

And what a call for us the Church to follow Jesus, to share in his brokenness, to be the new body of Christ so willing to pour out and down and into the cracks of this hurting world.

We are the Church. And this is our cup.

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