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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Do You Want to Be Healed? Conversating Down by the Pool of Bethesda

Scholars classify the sayings of Jesus in various ways:  parables, aphorisms, dialogues, etc.  Some who have studied them have focused on conversations or "interviews" Jesus has with various people.  Preachers in our individualistic age particularly love these sorts of sayings.  In such conversations, a sermon can leverage Jesus' compassion, wisdom, or straightforward (even harsh) truthfulness into an assumed conversation between the Lord and the person in the pew.  Probably most who read this have heard a sermon on this text.

Sometimes these Gospel stories portray Jesus asking a question of someone.  One favorite such question appears in the encounter between Jesus and a paralytic man by the Pool of Bethesda.  In this conversation, Jesus asks the man, "Do you want to be made well?"  The man had lay by the pool, reputed to have intermittent healing powers, for a very long time.  Read superficially, the question almost seems like small talk:  "Hi, there.  How's it going?  Are you hanging out here to be healed?  Good seeing you today!" 

But when we let the question soak in a bit, it becomes a kind of probing, even intense question.  It pushes past superficiality and goes to the heart.  Having been there so long, waiting ostensibly to be healed, was this man finally resigned to stay as he was, content with things as they are?  Certainly, even in hard situations, we often find some level of satisfaction, some reward even in our disappointment, some ease in having settled for things as they are.

It's a harsh question; perhaps, even rude.  The man answered defensively by saying that no one would help him get to the water when the healing powers were present.  One might imagine his answering in our age by saying, "You don't know me!  You can't judge me!  Who do you think you are?"   It was that kind of hard question, forcing the issue, pressing past the excuses.  If listened to carefully, it was a disorienting question.

I have thought a lot about this passage during the past month.  I have started meeting with a counselor for help in facing my life without Everly.  It is a reorienting process.  I am living in a season of uncertainty, trying to imagine a different life than continuing to serve God as Everly and I grow old together.  The rest of my growing old will be without her.  What will that be like? 

I probably "put too much of my business out in the street," but the writing itself is a very powerful process for my self-understanding.  So here I go again.

Even before Everly was diagnosed with cancer, I was dealing with some problems.  Relationships at work had gone sour in several cases.  Some colleagues were eager to see me gone from the faculty, and there was a corresponding trend of vocal disapproval by some students that was eating at me.  At my annual physical, my physician said I was showing signs of depression.  I found it hard to go to the office, and when there I found it hard to concentrate and get my work done. 

As most of us would, I came up with various plans by which I would get my life back on track.  I made regular commitments to myself to set up a schedule, to segregate my activities, to improve my habits.  Nothing that I was trying was making much difference.  Everly was concerned, but at a loss on how to help me.  Moreover, her own stressful job was enough for her to handle.  She could not carry my load, too. 

So for several years, I floundered, trying to recover the productivity of my earlier years.  I accomplished some big things during that time.  I helped lead some statewide organizing work among theologians and IAF groups dealing with the economy.  I became involved in the same work on a national basis, even chaired some major national meetings among PICO, IAF, and other local organizing groups.  I received honors for this work.  I wrote and delivered theological papers which received praise from many scholars.  I helped rebuild a robust faculty senate at the university. 

But in between the big events, I often found it nearly impossible to make progress on daily work.  It became my new mode of life.  I got used to it.  I was not sure things would ever be different.  I wondered why I was staying in my profession.

The first big question I needed to face in counseling was this:  "What are the rewards I get by avoiding my daily tasks and putting off work that I need to do?"  It was a surprising question, a way of looking at the problem from a different angle.  Anxiety, regret, guilt, disappointment in myself, little hope for change--these were the ways that I would have described my situation.  They are not what one would normally call rewards.  But it seemed a worthy question, and I mulled it over for days. 

What began to emerge was a sense of the way that occasional anxiety and guilt mixed with longer periods of ignoring and denying other things I needed to do was a kind of reward.  I could avoid the more intense anxieties that came up when I pressed into my work--the philosophical struggle with the validity of grades, the disappointment of occasional plagiarized work, the marginalization within the office politics.  These rewards had become the minimal compensation that came from not dealing with the harder matters in my life.

So it is no surprise that my life did not make a sudden upturn when we discovered Everly had cancer, and we struggled through those fifteen months of fear and hope and loss.  Our focus shifted toward supporting her through pain and treatments.  We had to think about the possibilities of her death and its effect on the children and me.  We had our ups and downs, and we had even begun to think that she might be able to live with the cancer for several more years.  But all of that gave me very justifiable reasons not to deal with my own problems at work. 

The grief of losing Everly has been immeasurable.  I have spent much of my energy working on grief, writing about grief and faith, telling the story of what Everly meant to us and to the world, and trying to keep taking one step after another.  Recently, however, a pastor friend told me, with some insistence, that it was time for me to seek some counseling help.  I had made good headway in dealing with grief, but the enormity of the loss and the complexity of my other problems would probably greatly benefit from someone who could help guide me through the process.  Since I had asked for his opinion, I thought it right that I would follow his suggestion.  And so far it has meant trying to unravel the knots in which I have gotten myself over many years. 

Having started working on that first question about what rewards I might find in continuing the way I have been living, we pretty quickly moved on to a second question:  "Can you imagine a situation in which you do your daily work without dread, without it causing you so much anxiety?"  And there again I was with another door to open, another knot to untie.  Knowing how things are and what gives me an overwhelming sense of dread, could I see a way to face those things with creativity and energy to see the possibilities for good, not just for more pain? 

Ultimately, I realized I was being asked the question Jesus asked the man at the Pool of Bethesda.  "Mike, do you want to be healed?"  Or was I satisfied that nothing I do would make things better, that the mess I was in was inescapable, that I was destined to be a diminished version of what I once was.  In recent months, I had been talking to close friends about a similar question I was posing to myself.  "Somewhere under the layers of disappointment and frustration, avoidance and waning hope, was the person still in there who once was known always to take initiative, to press through problems, to bear the load when needed, to lead when others faltered?" 

I remember being a different sort of person at home, at work, at church.  But the memory was fading.  I could not untie the knots that bound my energy.  I could not find and assemble the pieces that could that happen again.  I knew that Everly had admired that person.  I feared I had disappointed her as I shrank into a smaller person.  And I no longer had her beside me to hold me up and believe in me when it was hard to believe in myself.  Could those virtues I once displayed ever return?  Could new virtues take seed and grow?

So I don't think I am just parroting "positivity" or "visualizing a better life" when I say that I realized there can be a situation in which my work does not cause me pain and anxiety.  The joy has never left some parts of the work.  It has even grown and flourished as I taught this year, forced by my grief to be more publicly "real" as a person and not just a professorial persona.  Seeking out the comfort and guidance of friends has helped me feel less alone in the world.  Drawing near to my children has reminded me of much of my purpose for living and the fruit that my life already has borne.  Taking on myself the task of continuing a beautiful life that I lived with Everly has inspired me to get serious about how I spend the remainder of my years.

Yes.  I do want to be healed.  Even though the sociality of existence means that others have played a role in my frustrations, I can't continue to leave my destiny in the hands of people who have gone on to other things.  There is a door that has opened, and some strings hanging from the knots have been pulled loose and are longer than they used to be.  Small steps, small accomplishments, small satisfactions--this is the path I am on. 

Good people have agreed to support me with regular conversation and prayer.  I'm not walking alone.  Another crowd of witnesses, a communion of saints, encompasses me.  Loved ones and friends are pulling for me.  My students are a great well of refreshing as they also learn about holding their faith in struggle and about understanding the depths of pain and grief through my teaching.  I cannot help but be aware of the work of the Holy Spirit to guide my feet, order my steps, and make a way out of no way. 

Jesus asked the man a question that got to the heart of the matter.  In this season, I've once again taken up that inquiry. 


drrdeec said...

Mike, thanks for sharing this as you are walking through a painful time in life that I can only imagine (but could not understand) since I have not walked in your shoes. I hope you know how much respect I have for you as a person, a Christian, a theologian. And I can relate to those deep hurts you felt before all that you and Everly suffered together when you found out she had cancer. The disappointments in teaching, in productivity. I have those painful questions to ask myself at times. I hope you are coming to the gathering in Pennsylvania in late May. peace.

Anonymous said...

Mike, Thank you so much for sharing this. I feel like I'm going through a similar stretch right now - I went through a job loss scare 5 months ago and just can't get out of the funk it put me in. I do what I have to for big events, but am not being productive at the daily tasks. My prayers are with you as you search for your way.

MKF said...

Thanks for sharing!

I wonder sometimes if I truly want to be healed. My answer varies depending on the amount of pain I see myself going through.

May God bless you for continuing to share your story with others.


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