No one has ever accused me of being handy. A couple of days before Asa’s birth, I hung a shelf—poorly. I eye balled the measurements, placing the dry walls screws where they looked level. I then nursed a fleeting hope that maybe Ginny liked a slightly tilted shelf, like avant guard or something. No, she decidedly did not! And in my embarrassment and haste, I removed a chunk of the dry wall along with ruining the uneven fixtures. Sam told me I was doing a good job. What faith. I remember a time when I watched my dad bench press and thought he was the strongest man in the world.
I just happened to find a couple of dry wall screws buried in the bottom of my tool bag. Actually, it is Ginny’s bag, purchased by her mother when we moved into our first apartment as a married couple—a residence where I did not have to hang any shelves because there was no room for anything and no money to purchase it anyway. Now we live in this wonderful manse, a nineteenth-century farmhouse that is measured just right for our family. Each son has his own room, not to mention a playroom solely devoted to their ever growing collection of puzzles, books, racecars, and John Deere tractors. Even that doggone shelf looks okay. It was just wide enough to conceal the hole in the dry wall. And a picture of our family sits on top. Focus on their beautiful smiles and I don’t actually notice that it’s not quite level.
To quote that rabbi of the first century: Do not be anxious. The Greek word in the New Testament for anxiety is comprised of the verb “to remember” and the prefix “in part.” To be anxious, then, is to remember only in part; to recall but a piece of the larger picture. Too often, rather than remembering the grace, I hang my anxiety upon the immediate and stressful situation looming directly before me. As a result, I am not level-headed and clear thinking.
I would venture to speculate that our chief leader of the synagogue had a perspective that was likewise skewed by anxiety. He is right to enforce the commandments and it reads in Deuteronomy 5 that there are six days for work. This is not one of the Ten Suggestions. We need unbreakable rules that are not subject to the whims of individuals. This leader was right according to a detail of the rule book . . .
But this is not a story about the definition of work. Technically speaking, this is not even a healing story! This is a freedom story. Jesus tells the woman who had been bound by Satan that she has been set free from her ailment. She is free—free at last! She can now straighten up because she has been liberated. That is the larger picture of grace. Thank God Almighty, I’m free! Free at last!
However, there is something darker lurking in this story, too.
I am reminded of the opening scene in the movie Being John Malkovich. A minaret puppet admires his reflection in the mirror. But then he happens to look up and see that someone is holding his strings. For the first time, he comprehends the true nature of his reality, not the illusion. What follows is a dance of despair—a cycle of chaos fluctuating madly between shock, violence, anguish, and self-loathing.
I believe that moment of seeing someone else holding the strings may be likened to diagnosis of disease. A few months ago, a faculty member at Duke Divinity named Kate Bowler got a call from her doctor’s assistant informing her that, actually the stomach cramps she was suffering from were not caused by a faulty gallbladder, but by a massive tumor. She has Stage 4 cancer. She is 35. She has a young son. It was her moment of looking up and seeing the strings. Healing stories are always uplifting. But what are we to say to those who are not set free of disease? Tragedy does not obey anyone’s rules. They are no guarantees. We are not in control.
John Calvin claimed every single color in the universe was given to proclaim God’s glory. The fabric of all existence is knit with a divine purpose. But, by implication, are not the tragic and destructive aspects of life as much a part of God’s plan as the beautiful colors? The answer is no! God’s original intention for good has been corrupted. Jesus does not flinch from acknowledging the reality of evil in the world. He does not try to explain it. He does not rationalize it. But Jesus clearly says the evil is real. This woman has been bound by Satan. This means that she has done nothing wrong. She does not deserve her suffering. It is neither her fault nor her lack of faith. She is not in control. Our life is but a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.
Kate Bowler wrote in the New York Times that one of the saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of her problem. I wonder if the woman bent over for eighteen years would have said the same. Instead of providing an answer, Kate Bowler claimed: The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die.
I remember a young mother whose teenage son was dying of cancer. I met her in the hospital hallway and introduced myself as a student chaplain and inquired if she would like for me to enter the room and pray for her child. “If you go in there,” she said fiercely, “you’ve got to give him something.”
This was not the time for haphazardly eye-balling measurements. This was not the time to allow anxiety to rule. But while I was still thinking of what in God’s name I was going to give her child, her youngest daughter marched into the room. She was probably eight and she raised her tiny frame up over the bed, reaching for her comatose brother’s forehead on her tiptoes. And laying her palm flat on his head, the little girl said in a cool, calm voice: “Feel my love.”
Faith is a trait easily overlooked in children, since it is bundled with other, less attractive characteristics, like stubbornness and an aptitude for saying No, No, No. Children don’t always follow the rules. They don’t have the same hang ups as we adults. That’s why they are an inspiration. That mother and I walked into the room, put our hands at the dying boy’s head, and repeated, “Feel my love. Feel my love.”
That boy died the very next day. But, my friends, I want you to hear this, not as a healing story, but as a freedom story. The fear that gripped us was loosened. We opened our hearts and love made us a part of a bigger picture—the Kingdom of God.
Jesus spoke about this Kingdom of God. Immediately after the rejoicing crowd died down, he told them that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed that was planted and grows into a large tree, and that the Kingdom of God was like a little yeast mixed with flour that leavens the entire batch of dough. Incredible endings from insignificant beginnings. Miraculous results from small acts. Like the faith of a child.
The Kingdom of God is not yet fully here. There will be all manner of mistakes, as insignificant as poorly hung selves, as tragic as the young dying from cancer. But for those with eyes to see, the Kingdom of God grows among us. There are suppers in fellowship halls and old hymns to sing. People get married and babies get born and church families get to love them all: young and old, sick and well. Kate Bowler wrote that, in the midst of her cancer, stumbling around in the debris of her dreams, she keeps thinking: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. The bigger picture is not always a healing story, but a freedom story. Thank God Almighty, we are free! Free at last—free to feel the love, no matter what. Yes, free to feel the love.
Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman