I’ve done a fair number of things in my life. Over time I’ve realized that the work I’ve done in various vocations usually gave me a sense of autonomy and some level of freedom to call my own shots (except when I was in the Navy. It’s okay to be autonomous in the military, as long as you are like everyone else). I’ve made decisions about raising my daughters, seeing to it that they were nurtured and educated. I feel that I’ve been fairly proactive about life.
I think that qualifies me to claim that I am fairly independent.
Now, as I prepare for a fairly common and non-life-threatening shoulder surgery, a bunch of people are telling me what to do, and I am obeying them. They’re telling me what tests to get done, what not to eat and when not to eat it, to get a driver for the trip home from the hospital, and so on. Most of the people calling me with these orders are woman younger than my own daughters. They are very nice, yet authoritative, and I do not question their demands. I hear, and I obey.
This reminds me that my independence is a big fat sham. I have become a jellyfish.
As I get older, I reluctantly accept the fact that my body is aging and requires the occasional repair. I haven’t had much need for physical repair in my life, so doing it now feels intrusive and inconvenient. I also suffer under the illusion that, once the repairs are done, I’ll enjoy the kind of vitality I had when I was younger. Not likely (I did ask one young nurse if I would be able to play the cello after my surgery. She said yes. I said that was great, since I didn’t know how to play it now. It was an old, stupid joke, and she totally fell for it. I love young people).
I have a dear friend, a few years older than me, who is in a nursing home recovering from a very serious illness. This condition has taken a heavy toll on her life, and I pray for her often. Her body and mind have suffered deeply, and a number of people—medical professionals, loved ones, friends, church folks—have gathered around her to help her in the recovery process.
She’s a strong, independent woman and now is resting in weakness and dependence. I suppose it’s a path we must all eventually take.
It’s interesting how we start our lives in the place where we end up. My hope is, when that time comes for me, to end things well.
In the meantime, I’m totally milking this surgery thing. I want to see if people will pour my coffee, volunteer to bring lunch to the office when I return, offer to do things for me that I can actually do, but they won’t know that because I’ll be faking that I feel too tender to do anything. It’s going to be awesome.
This morning I am continuing to read a new book by a pastor who I deeply respect. I am also reading Facebook comments by his colleagues, and several seem to believe that he should be “purged” from the denomination or at least harshly corrected for his views on a very difficult and controversial issue.
I applaud this pastor’s courage in writing this book. Like others who have stepped out and opened up a public conversation on challenging topics, he will undoubtedly feel the fire of opposition. And, in our culture, disagreement can be vitriolic and painful.
You see, we evangelical Christians no longer burn our perceived heretics at the stake. We just set out to ruin them.
But I continue to admire this pastor’s courage. Rather than cut himself off from those who might disagree with him, he has chosen to speak in the midst of his “friends,” making himself vulnerable to whatever might come next. He has, in effect, operated in the context of dependency by giving up his right to independently carve out his own way in ministry. He still plans, from what I can tell, to pursue a particular course of pastoral action, but seeks to do so as one dependent upon his relationships with others in a world of shared ministry.
In the end, he just might find himself excluded from his denominational family. I hope not, but it remains to be seen. He might not seek independence, but it might be thrust upon him. In the meantime, he has cast himself upon the possibilities that mutual dependence in pastoral ministry will allow for civil and reasonable discussion.
I wish I could be less cynical about the outcome. But I wish this pastor well.
I think I’m learning something here. I sometimes want to independently make my voice heard, letting the chips fall where they may. I’m learning that I live in a world of mutually dependent relationships, and speaking my mind in a context of shared vulnerability allows correction and maturity to take place, even when I don’t want it. When I run off independently, I start believing that I don’t require any form of accountability or correction, and that’s a mistake.
It’s a dangerous business, this recognition of dependence. One hopes for care and nurture, but sometimes pain and exclusion are the result. I suppose that the possibility of pain is embedded in vulnerability, just like the way that the possibility of martyrdom is embedded in the commitment to follow Jesus.
I finished up my teaching assignment on Saturday afternoon and hurried to the airport to catch my 4:40 flight home, only to find, upon my arrival, that the flight had been cancelled.
The next flight was at 6:35, so I had to hang around the airport and kill some time. It was a minor inconvenience for me—I was just heading home rather than racing for a connecting flight or trying to get to an important meeting on time. I had plenty of reading material and a computer to keep me occupied during my wait.
The man at the airline’s check-in counter was apologetic and kind. We explored a couple of options for me and agreed that waiting the extra couple of hours was the best choice. He gave me my new boarding pass and I went upstairs, passed successfully through security, and settled in.
That airline official, at the end of his shift, would climb into his car, drive home, eat dinner, chat with his family, catch up on past episodes of Breaking Bad, and go to bed. All the people who had to be redirected because of the cancelled flight, however, had evenings that were disrupted because of the delay. Each traveller—including me—had become dependent upon a man (and the airline he represented) who did not have to share the inconveniences that had been inflicted upon us. Perhaps he had to put up with some grouchy customers, but he still got to go home on time.
Given the circumstances, I am not holding a grudge against that man. He recognized my plight, helped me consider some options, and expressed his apologies on behalf of his employer. I didn’t come away feeling exploited or disparaged, even though I recognized my dependence on him and the airline to get me home at a reasonable time.
There have been times when people have been dependent upon me. How have I treated them? Did they come away with a sense that they were lesser humans than others because of their need for care? Did they feel that I had little or no concern for their pain or discomfort because it was not truly shared between us? Or did they experience me entering into their circumstance with them, helping to shoulder a burden they could not endure alone? Did they hear me express grief over a tragedy that was not mine to share, or did they just hear the clicking of my tongue as I stood away from them, glad that the sufferer was not me?
In speaking of Jesus, the writer of the book of Hebrews says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
We can confidently expect God’s mercy and grace in our time of need because we believe that, in Jesus, God has fully entered into all that it means to be human. When others become dependent upon us, may we cast our lots with the One who truly sympathizes with our weaknesses.
It is interesting to see how often Jesus responded to people who asked him to bring his divine power to bear in the lives of others. He once pronounced that a man was forgiven for sins and then healed his paralyzed body on the basis of the faith of the man’s friends. Jesus healed others and even raised a person or two from the dead because those who cared about those people brought their causes to Jesus.
I wonder how many people throughout history have experienced significant changes in their lives when others obeyed Jesus’ admonition to “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” In theory, if these words were taken seriously, Christians would be the best kinds of enemies to have.
I know I’ve had people who have prayed for me throughout my life. Sometimes that bothers me, because I don’t like the idea of another person seeing things in me that I don’t see for myself. Of course, in my twisted, dark mind I don’t imagine someone praying, “Give Mike the grace to grow in love and mercy.” I hear them asking God to make me stop being such a jackass. Just because I’m an extrovert doesn’t mean I’m not overly sensitive.
So, my thoughts on Lent today centers on my dependence upon others to bring my life before God and to pray on my behalf. In some very important ways, my life hangs on the faith of others. I am like that poor, paralyzed man that was lowered through the roof by his friends so that Jesus would heal him. As the story is relayed to us (Mark 2:4 and Luke 5:19), the man never speaks for himself (perhaps his mouth was paralyzed along with the rest of his body). In fact, no one speaks except Jesus. In both texts, Jesus’ observation is the same:
“When he saw their faith . . .”
It was the very actions and, possibly, even the looks of expectation on their faces, that caused Jesus to respond. The sick man was dependent upon his friends to transport him from his home to the roof over Jesus’ head. He had no choice but to allow them to lower him on his cot through the hole they had carved in the roof and down to Jesus’ feet. And then the man was dependent upon Jesus to act.
And Jesus did.
In my family, we sometimes talk about “lowering the ropes” in reference to someone for whom we are praying, a person who may be so broken that having faith seems impossible. It occurs to me that sometimes I am the person being lowered through the roof, the faith of my friends rushing like the wind past my spiritual paralysis and pouring over Jesus, inviting him into my broken life.
And sometimes you are that person as well.
I wonder if there are people out there who are languishing in independence, with no friends to lower them on ropes of faith to the feet of Jesus. Such independence would be like being stranded on the Moon. It would be a horrible freedom, one that would allow paralysis and death to have the last word.
The faith of the friends, however, prompts Jesus to have the last word. And his last words sound like this:
“Son, your sins are forgiven.” And, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
While I love the rhythms of the Church calendar, I’m not always good at engaging with them on a personal level. I’ve gotten better at my attentiveness to Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so on, but there are practices that I often avoid.
Like giving up something for Lent.
In the Catholic neighborhood where I grew up, my friends would talk about giving up certain things for Lent, like watching TV or eating candy or whatever. It never made a significant impact on me and, since I didn’t come from a family that cared about such things, it never had a place to land.
But now I do care about such things, but I continue to be hesitant to scrub things out of my life for a few weeks and call such self-denial a spiritual practice. So, a couple of years ago I decided to add a discipline into my life during Lent rather than subtract something out. I soon discovered that the very act of addition required other apparently less important things to be automatically subtracted. Funny how that works.
So, in this Lenten season, I’ve come upon a unique addition to my life as a result of partial incapacitation. Soon I’ll have shoulder surgery and will be required to keep my right arm in a sling for about six weeks. There are certain things that I won’t be able to do during that recovery period, the most significant being the ability to drive a car. That means I will have to embrace a certain level of dependence as I look to others to get me where I need to go. In doing so, some independence will be subtracted from my life
My wife, of course, is thrilled beyond belief at the prospect of driving me the 17 miles to my office in the mornings. My co-workers are drawing straws to see who has to run me to the train station at the end of the day. I offered, in martyr-style, to ease everyone’s burdens by walking the distance, hitchhiking, or just sleeping in my office. They all thought those were creative and wonderful ideas. I think they were mocking me.
I am already coming to realize that complete independence is, for the most part, an illusion. As I sit in my chair at home writing these words, I am dependent upon my computer to work properly, the light next to me to burn brightly, the city’s electrical grid to supply power to both, and so on. I’m seeing that everything I do is dependent on something else.
I believe, in principle, in my dependence upon God. But mostly I believe in my dependence upon my perceived independence. I have a difficult time praying, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” because I’m not concerned about running out of bread. I have enough food in my pantry and enough money to buy more. I don’t even have to think about God when it comes to food. I can feed myself, thanks.
And I understand that this is a problem.
Hence, my Lenten discipline of adding physical dependence into my life. The timing is pretty good, really. The sling is scheduled to go away just after Easter, so I’m conforming to the Church calendar pretty well.
I’m hoping to soak myself in what the apostle Paul said to his Athenian conversation partners in Acts chapter 17: “In him we live and move and have our being.” I think that will be a helpful addition. I’ll wait and see how the subtraction plays out.