Posted on March 21, 2013
In January 1947, three shepherd boys found themselves scampering after a goat that had strayed too far into the hills. It was growing late in the day, and the boys’ fathers would be very angry if they did not get their flock home before sunset.
So, one of the boys climbed into the hills to retrieve the contrary goat. There, he came across a cave, one of thousands in the desert where he lived, that he had never explored. Thinking some treasure might be hidden deep within, he ventured inside. There he found a collection of old, clay pots, wasting away in the dark.
These pots contained some old, musty scrolls, and nothing else; a disappointment for the three impromptu treasure-hunters. The boys took the scrolls home any way. And for a while, they were kept on a pole inside the family’s tent, until finally an uncle encouraged the boys to take the papers to the market at Bethlehem and sell them for a few a dollars.
This they did. Those papers, pulled from the old clay jars, were sold by a shepherd boy for seven British pounds. And that is how the most important ancient manuscript discovery in the last thousand years, came to be.
Those documents, uncovered by a Bedouin and his goat, have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They include the oldest known surviving copies of the Old Testament, written down before the time of Jesus. They are one thousand years older than any other biblical manuscript in the world. It was an absolutely stunning discovery.
The Apostle Paul didn’t know about the Dead Sea scrolls, but he certainly would have been familiar with the method that preserved them. Precious materials, books, parchments, family treasures: In the first century the only way to store these things was to put them in a jar of clay, a delicate, ceramic pot, seal it as tight as you could and bury it in the ground – like our grandparents burying money in the backyard in an old coffee can.
It was an exercise in contradiction: Expensive, priceless treasure, crammed into breakable, so very, very fragile containers. And it is within that exact contradiction that Paul says we all live. Outwardly, we are cracked pots (and crackpots), but within us is the light, glory, and treasure of God – something that cannot have a price tag attached to it.
The flimsy clay jar that is our body is always under attack. We are pressed on every side by troubles. We are perplexed and confused by life. We are pursued and chased by difficult circumstances. These susceptible containers are fragile, at best.
“But, we are not destroyed,” Paul says. We have suffered, yes, but we still have hope; because in the tearing and in the breaking, the cracking and the vulnerability, the glory of God is revealing itself. It is shining out into the darkness like a priceless treasure.
Here, then, is the glorious but terrible news: Without the breaking, there is no glory. Without the crushing weight of difficulty, there is little chance of the God-stuff getting out. Without suffering there is no reward; without the trials of life, there would be little display of the greatness of God in our life.
We’ve been told, “no guts, no glory.” That’s not exactly right. Rather, it is “no grief, no glory.” For it is in the destructive forces around us, the very things that threaten to obliterate us, that actually release God’s grace and power.
Of course, not everyone accepts their troubles as the means to something great. We can look at what life has dealt us and be angry, bitter, mad-at-the-world, frustrated with ourselves, and bearing a grudge against everyone from God to the mailman.
In doing that, we waste our difficulties rather than learn, grow, and develop into a more Jesus-like person through them. As the appointed trustees of our lives, it would serve us well to be good stewards of our pain. It is the only way to achieve a glory that outweighs all of life’s troubles.
Posted on March 18, 2013
In 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.