Walk On…

March16In ancient Jerusalem there was a pool of water called Bethesda. The location served as an impromptu hospital ward, a collection point for the sick, blind, and paralyzed. These infirmed went to Bethesda to receive a hoped for healing – not from a physician – but from the therapeutic waters themselves.

Back then it was a common belief that an angel came from heaven at certain times and “stirred up the water” of Bethesda’s pool, resulting in miraculous healing for anyone who could get in the water. They didn’t take this stirring as natural warm springs, percolating mineral water, or air escaping the limestone aquifer. They believed it was a divine intervention.

In the New Testament gospels, Jesus makes a visit to Bethesda and finds a lame man lying alongside Bethesda’s waters. Jesus doesn’t drag him over to the pool and dunk him. He simply heals him. Then, he gives the now-made-well man excruciatingly practical instructions: “Pick up your mat and walk.” This wasn’t to get the man’s bed out of the way. Jesus was saying, “Get it out of here so that you won’t come back to it!”

This former invalid, the best we can tell from the gospels, had been coming to Bethesda for the better part of four decades. That is a long time to waste lying alongside a bubbling brook. And now that he was empowered to live a better, healthier life, it would be easy for him to fall back into old habits. Jesus wanted this stretcher removed so that the man would not have the temptation to return to it.

This olden story of faith predates today’s advances in neuroscience by centuries, but Jesus already knew what researches have confirmed in recent decades: When habits are formed, the brain actually changes. Routines – good or bad – cause neurons in the brain to alter their patterns. So in the process of breaking a habit, the brain must also be “rewired” to not only change a person’s behavior, but to change the firing of synopses inside his head.

Recent studies also show, that if a person returns to their former habits, the brain returns to its former patterns as well. But every addict and Al-Anon participant already knows this. We will return to the things that hurt us, again and again, and again and again. Body and spirit will slide right back to where we once were.

If we want sustained change for our lives, if we want to be whole, redeemed, complete, reinvigorated people, then yes, we must admit our powerlessness to be well on our own, and at the end of ourselves collapse into grace. But as important as this first step is, here is another: If we are going to live out this transformation, there must be a grace-infused commitment, not to return to those ways, habits, persons, lifestyles, and behaviors that will only take us back to the unhealthy way of life we knew before.

The door to the past has to be slammed shut. Obstacles have to be put in the way to keep us from returning to old ways of thinking and old ways of acting. Spiritual reprogramming and rewiring has to take place. That is why Jesus told this man to get his mat and get out, because that was the only way he could remove himself from this dead-end, superstitious pool-sitting that would only enslave him, not heal him.

If we are going to remain well, we can’t go back. Life, redemption, wholeness, and healing: These are waiting for us only as we move forward. After the hard work of being brought back to life has been done, let us not lose our future by returning to the past.

So while we all will have to carry the burden of our yesterdays, our wasted days, and our years of regret – the mats and stretchers we used to rely upon – God’s grace and healing will lighten that burden. And that same grace will help us to walk on, never returning to who and what we once were.

“This’ll Get Your Goat”

goatMy southern grandmother had a saying she used most every day: “Get your goat.” It was one of those wonderful phrases that could be employed in any number of relevant situations. If I was misbehaving or otherwise being a pest, she might say to me, “Boy, I’m gonna get your goat.” That was code-speak, you see, for some heavy discipline coming my way.

Or if my brother or sister was irritating me (I never irritated them), she would gently counsel, saying, “Don’t let them get your goat,” meaning, “Find a way to relax. Let it go. Don’t be so sensitive, angry, or let them get to you.”

And on Sundays, if the preacher sermonized passionately and sharply at the congregation, Grandmother would comment afterwards at lunch, “He really got our goat, didn’t he?” This usually meant he was preaching on a touchy subject or was especially lively.

So, if you “get someone’s goat” you disturb or unsettled them in some significant way. The origin of the phrase, apparently, comes from the horse-racing world of all things. I am told that goats were sometimes put in a race horse’s stall as a calming, settling influence, especially if said horse was nervous or high strung.

If you had money on a different number, or if you wanted a particular horse to run badly, then on the night before his race, you would sneakily send someone to “get his goat” out of the stall. This sabotage would upset, distract, and otherwise disquiet the horse for the night, causing him to run a bad race the following morning.

I don’t know if my grandmother knew the etymology behind the expression “get your goat,” probably not. But she certainly knew how to use the phrase, and it remains a picturesque, appropriate slogan for many situations, one I continue to use. Let me tell you about one of those situations.

A friend called me the other day, a friend who lives in a big Southern city with big Southern churches, upholding big Southern reputations. One of these churches he relates to in his work was experiencing a decline in attendance. It happens to the best, but this is a prestigious church, one that cannot afford to communicate anything that resembles a set-back or a lack of momentum.

So to disguise the falling numbers on the church’s television and web broadcasts, my friend learned that the church has invested thousands of dollars in pricey, black seat covers to cover the empty seats in the back of the auditorium.

See, simply roping off the empty rows would show a less than full sanctuary. But black seat covers won’t show up on camera, giving the appearance of the usual hunky-dory packed house. And the appearance of the usual hunky-dory packed house is what is required when one’s image is at stake.

Jesus didn’t say much about seat covers, but he did speak about seats. Specifically, he said to the religious frauds of his day, “You make a big show for everyone to see. You love the best and front seats in the meeting places. This makes you like an unmarked grave that people walk on without knowing it.”

Some of the good church people in Jesus’ day were terribly concerned with appearances, wanting to be seen and praised. So with these words Jesus seized hold of this most common hypocrisy of religion; this obsession with the outward show; the image-is-everything lie, where we put forward a smiling but insincere face, hiding the way things really are.

Jesus makes its clear that religious showmanship, seat covers included, rather than being something attractive, is actually murderous to our souls. When we perform for the audience, or the cameras for that matter, rather than live out a significant and substantial faith, no amount of black cover-ups can hide the hypocrisy.

Overt image-management is beyond the pale when it is performed by people whose primary symbol is a poor, bloodied, naked, man on a cross. “I was naked,” Jesus said, “and you bought me expensive seat covers.” It’s just goat-getting awful.

A Journey To Paradise

March9Jesus never described the gospel as an escape hatch, whereby we can exchange his current world for a spiritual retreat far away. Never. Rather, his gospel was: “God’s kingdom is here! It is now! Heaven has come to earth!” So when Jesus invited his first disciples to “Follow me,” he was inviting them to get in on the world-redeeming, evil-conquering, status-reversing, life-transforming movement of God that had invaded planet Earth.

Jesus was inviting his followers to live out (not just pray) the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ invited us, not to abandon our world that needs restoration, but to become catalysts and conduits of the gracious movement of God in today’s world.

Lately I’ve been using an old Yiddish story from Peter Frost to illustrate this: There was a baker named Morris who had always lived in the same little village. He awoke one morning bored and disgusted with his life. He looked over at his sleeping wife and asked himself, “Why her?”

Rising from bed, he peeped into his children’s bedroom. “Why them?” he muttered and walked out of the house. Looking back at his old tumbledown house from the walkway he was overcome with gloom again. “Why that?” As Morris walked to the village his mood grew darker still: “I’ll never be able to fix up that old house. My wife never gives me a moment’s peace. My children are selfish and foolish. I barely make a living baking bread.”

Then Morris remembered something his rabbi said. “Someday we will all go to heaven,” the old man said, “and there everyone will be happy, content and no one will know trouble or pain again.”

“When will I get to go to heaven?” wondered Morris. Suddenly, he answered his own question: “Now! I will go now to find heaven!” So, instead of walking to the bakery, Morris started off in the opposite direction, the direction the old rabbi pointed whenever he talked about heaven. Off Morris went toward the horizon.

As night fell, Morris took off his boots and pointed them in the direction he was walking, so that when he awoke, he would know which direction to go. He then collapsed into a deep sleep. While Morris slept, an angel came along the same path. The angel stood over the sleeping baker, listening to him snore.

Then the angel noticed Morris’ boots pointing toward heaven and gave a quiet chuckle. He realized Morris’ intentions, and acting mischievously, turned Morris’ boots back toward home and then faded into the night. Morris awoke with the morning sun, put on his boots and started off in the direction they were pointing.

As Morris walked, he noticed that the path looked oddly familiar, especially when he came to an old wooden gate that seemed to be an entrance to heaven. He was surprised it wasn’t made of gold or expensive wood. Still, he lifted the latch and went into the yard. This heavenly yard looked so much like his yard back home. The door to the heavenly house also looked familiar.

He entered the house and sat down at the table, the smells of heavenly food making his mouth water and his stomach rumble. A woman, so very like his wife, served him a large steaming bowl of soup and a fat roll. He ate everything put before him.

Meanwhile, two young children danced into the kitchen and smiled up at him. These children in heaven were so nice, quiet and friendly that Morris had to sigh with happiness. “Yes,” he thought, “it is exactly as the rabbi said. I have found heaven, and it is simply wonderful.”

This old Yiddish tale is more than a quaint story. It is the truth of the gospel. For when we ask the question, “How far is heaven?” we never have to look beyond the world in which we live. Jesus, with a clever smile on his face, has pointed our boots back to the place we know best.