In October of 2006, my dad’s dad, my grandpa, my Deda, passed away. It was a long and slow and painful process – with diabetes doing a number on his body and its ability to heal itself. I was living in Nashville at the time, attending seminary, and I happened to have a very strange schedule that fall – with classes only on Mondays, Tuesdays and a small group meeting on Wednesday. Because in the coming week, it was fall break, and I would have a few extra days off, I went home to see my family. I knew I would have nearly a week to spend there and I wanted to make the most of it.
During that week, I got to spend an entire day in the hospital with Deda. It was probably the best day that he had had in a long time. The Hawkeyes were playing that morning and he was aware of the game and what was happening. Five or six of us were gathered in the hospital room and he would try to talk, but his throat was sore and ravaged from the breathing tube that had been there. He grunted and moaned, tried to tell us things, but mostly we just held his hand and tried our best to understand. The next day wasn’t nearly so good and then Sunday evening he passed away.
I remember my grandmother sitting with me on Monday afternoon in her kitchen and being so sad because she thought I had to head back to school – that my break was over and I would have to leave, and I did have a plane ticket booked for Tuesday afternoon – but none of that mattered. We changed the flight, and I was able to be there for his funeral on Wednesday morning and stay farther into the week.
It felt so good to be home and surrounded by my family during that time, because I remember the hardest part of it was going back to Nashville. Going back to a place where no one knew my grandfather, or even that he had been that sick. Going back to a place where no one knew that he had died or what a gaping hole was left in my life.
You know, every now and then, we would get emails from the school telling us that so and so’s father had passed away, or that such and such had a new baby to welcome to the family. It was a way for us all to stay informed and to care for one another as a community.
But I hadn’t missed any classes because of my schedule that fall and how the break fell. I didn’t have to call any professors about making up a test or getting the notes from lecture. Nobody even noticed that I was gone.
And so I didn’t tell anyone. I kept my grief to myself. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself out there and be greeted by all of the condolences and “I’m sorry’s” right then. I just hid it all. I don’t think I really wanted to be left alone – but I was embarrassed by my grief, I was too shy to call up the dean’s office and say – “hi, my grandpa just died, can you pray for me.” I guess I thought that I could handle it on my own.
If I were to really and truly be honest with myself – from the time I was a little girl, I’ve always had this attitude that says, “I can do it myself!” Whether it’s navigating myself to a new destination or assembling a piece of furniture or playing a game, or as it turns out, grieving – I’ve always wanted to figure out my own way of doing something. Like I know better than how countless people have done it in the past or will continue to do it in the future.
Sometimes, I reach a point where I am confused, or where I can’t figure out the next step, and I will ask for help if I need it – but when I do so, I just want my one specific question answered, just a hint that will set me back on the right track. I don’t want someone to tell me everything, or to take over and do it for me. I want to be self-sufficient. I want to do it myself.
Our whole culture it seems has that do-it-yourself mentality. There are entire cable networks devoted to d-i-y projects. One of our favorite jokes about men is that they never stop to ask for directions – or ask for help. If you go into any bookstore these days, you will find one of the largest sections covering the walls is for “self-help” books. We are expected to be strong, resourceful, and even if we don’t have it all figured out – with the right tools, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.
But you see, the problem is, we were not made to do things ourselves. We read in the book of Genesis that it was not good for that first human – Adam – to be alone, and so a partner, a companion, a helper was created. From the very beginning we were created for community – we were created to share work and to share time and to share – well, everything! This was the very delicate and beautiful gift that God blessed us with: community and utter dependence upon God.
Until, of course, we tried to do things ourselves. You know, when Adam and Eve reached for that ripe and full fruit from the tree in the garden, they understood that if they ate it, they would suddenly be filled with knowledge. Knowledge about everything – why things were the way they were, how they could fix problems, they would know everything – and in many respects they wouldn’t need God, or even one another anymore. Knowledge is power after all, right?
But in reaching for that fruit and tasting its sweet flesh, something in us broke. There was suddenly division between us, and death, toil and suffering seem to be the unending result.
One of the most telling indicators of that brokenness for me is that Adam and Eve and all of us – no longer walk around naked, completely open to the whole world… but we hide ourselves, we hide the parts of us that we don’t want others to see, we cover up the parts we don’t like, we pretend like what’s on the outside is the only thing that matters. And in doing so, we wear masks. We hide our true selves from one another every day.
In many ways, we live as if that fall, that broken-ness is all there is, like it is the final chapter of the story. We live as if we are on our own and so I must do everything I can to do what is best for me. We live under the assumption that knowledge saves us – that we can do it ourselves and that if other people have problems it’s their own fault.
And we fail to remember, fail to live out the part of our scriptures that remind us over and over and over again that God intended something very different for our lives and that God has been working since then to restore creation to its wholeness.
God’s plan calls for a radically different way of living in this world… Don’t put your life in the hands of experts – our Psalmist implores us – for humans know nothing of life or what it takes… put your life in the hands of God – the God who “made sky and soil, sea and all the fish in it.” The God who “always does what he says… defends the wronged and feeds the hungry, “frees the prisoners” and gives sight to the blind… the God who “lifts up the fallen.” The God who loves good people, protects strangers, takes the side orphans and widows, but makes short work of the wicked.”
In short – put your life in the hands of the God who stands with those who have no one… who stands on their side, and heals them, loves them.
God doesn’t tell the hungry to find their own food – or tell the fallen to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. God doesn’t ask the stranger to fend for themselves in a foreign land. No, Christ tells us that it is precisely those places of vulnerability that we will find the promise of God being fulfilled.
Vulnerable. It’s almost a dreaded concept in our “do-it-yourself” world. Being vulnerable means you are weak, it means you can’t defend yourself, it means you need someone else to protect you. It means that on your own, you just can’t cut it… at least in the eyes of the world.
Being vulnerable really means that you are capable of being hurt. It is simply being human – and being open enough to one another that the hurts we have in our lives are not hidden. It is taking off the masks that tell the world everything is fine and being real about who we are and what we are dealing with.
Our gospel reading from Matthew has a lot to say about being vulnerable. About being open and out there… Hear again some those very familiar words of the Beatitudes, but through the Message translation of the bible:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.
That truth that is too close for comfort? It’s that we can’t do it on our own – that we need God and that we need one another… and that is precisely the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. It is the Kingdom that Christ has called us to proclaim as well – we are to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. Our lives and their lives are intertwined, because to be honest, we too are poor, we too are brokenhearted, we too are captive to the powers of this world and imprisoned by the forces of sin in our lives.
We need physical healing, we need emotional peace, and we need spiritual restoration. Not just you, not just me – we all do. And like the friends who carried their paralytic friend to Jesus – tore open the roof of the house and lowered that man in – we should so love each other, so lean on one another, so trust in God’s promises that we too can carry one another’s joys and burdens to God.
All we have to do is trust and believe in those promises… and if we are carrying the burdens of those who don’t yet trust God or don’t yet believe – then we should try to trust and believe in the promises for them.
Lovell has been sharing with me about her son-in-law, Mike’s, battle with leukemia. And you know what – when someone that you love and care about is battling with illness and when they are at a point where they just don’t know if God’s promises are enough, or if they never before really believed in God – it’s okay. We can’t make them believe, in fact, try as we might we just might make things worse… but we can believe in God’s power to work in their lives anyways.
Part of our job is to pray for one another – we carry one another’s joys and burdens to God through prayer… but another part of that is to do whatever we can in our lives to help God answer the prayers that we make. Rev. Richard Fairchild writes that “if we pray for bread for the poor,” then it is also a prayer “for us to share the bread on our table, if we pray for a healing for cancer,” then it is also a prayer “for us to tend to our way of living and to support the healers among us. Our part is to do what we can do – and to come in trust and in faith to God and to ask him to bring healing and wholeness – just as God chooses.”
But the other part of our job is to be real and honest about when there is something in our lives that we need prayer for. When there is something in our lives that demonstrates our humanity – our vulnerability – our need for God’s Kingdom. In the book of James, we find the exhortation:
Are you in trouble? Then you should pray. Are you happy? Then sing songs of joy. Are you sick? Then call the church together to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord… If you have sinned, you will be forgiven – so confess your sins to one another and pray that you might be healed.
When I tried to grieve on my own – and I wasn’t honest about the pain in my life, I just created a burden of stress that I never should have been carrying on my own. I couldn’t do it myself – and that was brought home to me when I backed my husband’s car into a pole after church one Sunday in Nashville. I was actually so anxious about getting away from the church where everyone seemed so happy and whose lives were together that I wasn’t paying attention and drove straight into a parking barrier. I remember putting the car back into the spot, getting out and walking inside. I collapsed on the couch in my friend’s office and I just cried. And I let him be there for me. And suddenly it wasn’t so bad.
The church – this body of Christ – should be a place where any and all of us can stand up at any time and freely share our lives with one another. It should be a place where each of us can trust that those joys and concerns and struggles will be heard faithfully and held onto sacredly – that they will be gently placed into God’s hands and that together we will weep, together we will laugh, together we will learn to forgive and live a new way.
I’ve heard this saying many times in my life and heard it again this week – when you share joy, you double it, when you share a burden, you cut it in half. That is what community is for, that is what the body of Christ is for – to help you to carry your burdens and your joys.