A Turn on the Mat: The Gift of Weakness in the Community of Faith

A Turn on the Mat: The Gift of Weakness in the Community of Faith May 17, 2019
Photo by Eduard Militaru on Unsplash

 

Happy Friday, friends! Although I’ve not yet read my friend, Courtney Ellis‘s new book, Almost Holy Mama, I’ve come to love her wisdom, writing, and the way she sees God. I’m so pleased to welcome her to this space with a taste of her new book, which is available for pre-order!  Please give her a warm welcome!

I’m an introvert. In my lowest seasons of fatigue, fear, and spiritual wandering I curl up in my shell like a hermit crab and wait for the noise outside to die down. For everyone and everything to just go away. My best friends are those who continually reach out to me, who load me on that mat and drop me at Jesus’ feet when I’m paralyzed by anxiety or stress or the return of acne in my 30s (I mean, really?!) or the pressures of keeping my kids alive when all they want to do is run out into the street in front of the UPS truck.

One of the toughest and best lessons of walking with Jesus is that we can’t go it alone.  That even our faith takes a village.

In the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel we meet a man. We don’t know his name or who his parents were. We don’t know where he is from. What we do know is that he was paralyzed. Imagine what it was to be paralyzed in 1st century Israel. No wheelchairs. Social security hadn’t been dreamed up yet. Buildings were far from handicap accessible.

On top of the practical burdens, physical infirmity was often seen as a punishment from God, something that happened because of your sins or the sins of your family. This paralyzed man had likely suffered more than we can imagine. But he is not alone.

One day four of his friends hear that Jesus is back in town. Rumor has it that he is able to heal people—blind, crippled, feverish, leprous. The paralyzed man’s friends conspire; they will take their suffering friend to see Jesus. Surely Jesus will have compassion on him and heal him. Surely he will not turn them away.

They convince their friend to let them carry him on a mat to the place where Jesus is. Did the paralyzed man have hope in his heart, after years of hopelessness? Did he sigh as he rolled onto the mat, feeling the loss of dignity one more time? Did the man watch his friends’ faces as they carried him—their brows sweating in the hot sun, their arms straining, their lips never speaking a word of complaint?

They arrive at the house where Jesus is speaking. They can hear the murmuring of the crowds, and even as they approach they feel the draw of this incredible man. But there’s a problem. The house where Jesus speaks is filled to overflowing, and no one has the good sense or the manners to make way for the paralyzed man and his friends. His situation seems hopeless again.

Lucky for him, he has resourceful friends. My friend Anna is like this. If she is in town and I have to work late, she’ll text me, “Ok if make dinner? Mind if I look in the cabinets?” I’ll send a “Sure!” and by the time I pull into the driveway the most amazing smells will be pouring from the windows of my home.

“You didn’t have to go to the store!” I’ll exclaim, feeling all the guilty working-mom-bad-hostess feels.

“I didn’t,” she’ll reply, and then explain how she is making sweet potato curry out of two past-their-prime yams she found in the back of a cabinet oh, and almond scones, too, because she found some almost-but-not-yet-expired almond paste while she was rummaging in there. Friends who are resourceful are like gold. Friends who are resourceful but respectful enough to ask first if they may look in your messy cabinets while you’re away, well, those are even farther up the chain of precious metals. Platinum? Titanium? Yeah. That.

If the crowd won’t part for the paralyzed man’s friends, the friends will part the crowd. Without a word, they head up to the roof of the house and begin to dig. They didn’t bring shovels, so they make use of whatever they can find. Sticks. Stones. Perhaps a broom handle or two. Below them, the house falls silent. Jesus looks up to find the source of the chiseling noise, and slowly, carefully, down comes a mat carrying the paralyzed man. His friends lower it until it comes to a rest right in front of Jesus.

In Western Christianity, we’ve often made our faith an all too solitary pursuit. Yet Jesus-and-me Christianity won’t get any of us very far. We were designed to develop and grow in the company of others. Plus we have terrible home blindness when it comes to our own foibles, mistakes, rough edges, and besetting sins. Following Jesus is a team sport. A communal practice. A group effort. We flourish in community because we are created in God’s image and God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is himself a community.

When my friends become paralyzed by doubt or financial pressure or toxic relationships, I am part of the team that loads them onto a mat and carries them to Jesus. When I’m sick or wandering, frantic with worry or filled with sadness, they do the same for me. We will all need a turn on the mat.

Jesus looks at this paralyzed man, dusty from his trip down through the roof, years of suffering written on his face and in his twisted limbs. Then he looks up to what used to be the ceiling, where there now is a gaping hole, blue sky, and four earnest faces. He does not ask what they need. It is all too clear.

“My child,” Jesus says tenderly, looking the man straight in the eye, in contrast to all those who passed him by on the street day after day, who looked away because of his injury, because of his shame. “My child, your sins are forgiven.”

The paralyzed man is confused. This forgiveness of sins is a good thing, surely. But it is not why he is here in front of Jesus. Or is it? In this odd moment, the paralyzed man caught between heaven and earth, between his heart’s desire for healing and that which he truly needs—forgiveness of sins—attention suddenly shifts.

The man on the mat is still there—prone and helpless, but forgiven. Jesus’ focus changes, for the moment, to the religious bigwigs in the room. As NT Wright notes, “Only priests could declare forgiveness, speaking in the name of God,” so Jesus proclaiming forgiveness to this man was practically an act of war in their eyes. It begs for an explanation, and Jesus offers one. He addresses their anger, their rigidity, their disbelief, yet all the while the paralyzed man lies there, surrounded, pressed in upon by the crowd that had gathered to see Jesus—the rock star rabbi. What did he think about in those few moments, lying absolutely exposed in front of a hostile, mobbed, packed out room?

Any of us would have gone first for the physical healing, because, duh, this guy can’t walk. But Jesus is interested in the whole person—body and mind, emotions and soul, memories and fears. Jesus’ turn to forgiveness first rather than healing is disorienting. It’s comforting. It’s odd.

Yet this is almost always what Jesus does. He doesn’t go with the obvious. He digs below the surface. The man had hoped for physical healing. Jesus does him one better.

I trained as a hospital chaplain during seminary, back when I wasn’t sure yet that I should go into pastoral ministry, and I was blessed with this incredibly thoughtful supervisor named Eileen. She had an unsettling amount of gravitas for someone who wore girlish flared skirts and flowery cardigans. During our weekly meetings, I would inevitably start crying due to the grief and stress of interning in the hospital’s ICU and watching patients and their families suffer absolutely insane amounts of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.

During one of our meetings, she asked me how it made me feel that one of the patients I’d been working with for several weeks had been given a bleak prognosis and would likely die in the next day or two.

“It makes me feel sad,” I said, dashing away more tears with the back of my hand. I didn’t say, “Duh,” though I kind of wanted to because, hello, tears.

“Are you sure?” Eileen asked gently.

“Um, yes?” I responded.

“I think you may have another feeling in there that you need to pay attention to in order to find God in the midst of this.” She paused and folded her hands in her lap, waiting for me to invite her to continue. I sniffled, wiped the mascara from under my eyes, and nodded. “Are you, perhaps, feeling angry?”

I rolled my eyes. “No,” I said. “I’m not. People are dying and it is sad.

“Oh,” she said. “I see.” It took me another month before I was willing to acknowledge that yes, I was angry. That death and suffering was rotten and horrible and unjust and totally freaking NOT OKAY.

In those four weeks, I watched a twenty-year-old die from a brain tumor. I witnessed a beloved family patriarch expire suddenly in his fifties. I stood by, spellbound, as a man’s girlfriend refused to go into the ICU to comfort him in his last moments, but happily followed a social worker only minutes later, a copy of the man’s will and life insurance policy clutched in her hand. I visited an Alzheimer’s patient so ravaged by the disease that she lived in constant terror of her doctor, who she believed snuck into her room nightly to bite her on her shoulders. I gathered to pray with a family that, through tears, proclaimed the loved one with terminal cancer in the bed to be “getting better,” though when his eyes met mine we both silently acknowledged that just wasn’t true.

And one day I just lost it. I was the ICU’s chaplain, the one tasked with bringing the presence and love of God into these impossible situations. And I just couldn’t. God wasn’t there, or if he was, he was hiding so well I certainly couldn’t find him. It all seemed so futile. So hubristic. So stupid.

I stormed into Eileen’s office. It wasn’t time for my weekly supervision, but I was way past caring about decorum and all the anger I’d stuffed down during my chaplaincy training, during my seminary years, during college and high school and my whole freaking life came pouring out.

“Yeah, okay,” I said, slamming the door open and catching Eileen with a forkful of lunch halfway to her mouth. “So it turns out that I am angry. Because this is awful and death is awful and people are awful and God is nowhere to be found. And life is awful and pointless and meaningless and I’m just done with it. All of it.”

She listened, silently, her fork resting back on her bowl of pasta.

“So now what?” I demanded. “You were right. So now what?”

“Now we can start making some progress,” she said, simply, and sent me up to the seventh floor to look at the fat, healthy babies in the maternity ward for an hour while I decompressed. And those pink and brown and tan babies, blissed out on milk and mommy and bright lights didn’t solve my existential crisis. But it’s nearly impossible to stay focused on death and despair in the presence of new life. And it’s impossible to be truly, deeply irate with someone who has waited patiently for you to lower your shields and open your heart and admit what you truly need.

The paralyzed man needed forgiveness, which Jesus gave. But meanwhile, Jesus’ attention shifted to the crowd for the moment, while the paralyzed man was still lying there at his feet. He was forgiven, but not physically healed. He was cleansed, but not physically capable of doing that which he has longed to do—to get up and walk. He thought he was just crippled, but Jesus knew he was crippled and stuck in sin, and that for him to move forward as a whole person, not just a walking person, forgiveness was necessary.

Does the paralyzed man find trust in these numinous, in-between moments? Scripture doesn’t tell us. But the potential is there for him, as it is for all of us. Will we believe that God is who he says he is—a good and gracious God, abounding in steadfast love? Or will we believe the most ancient of lies, that God is holding out on us?

“Stand up,” Jesus says to the man, jarring him from his own thoughts. “Pick up your mat, and go home.” And just like that, the healing power of God flows through the man’s limbs and restores them to full function. Where there once was shame, now there is exhilaration as the man rises to his feet.

He doesn’t just stand, Scripture tells us, he jumps. He pushes through the crowd, now eye to eye with Jesus’ accusers, with the crowd, with the gawkers who came from all over town to see Jesus do a magic trick or two and instead found themselves witnessing a double-edged miracle. Forgiveness and healing. New life inside and out.

NT Wright calls this story “a picture of prayer,” a reminder not to “stay on the edge of the crowd.”

But even more than that, I think it’s encouragement for us when we are at our lowest, our weakest, our ugliest, our most shameful, to let people carry us to Jesus if we cannot get there on our own. To trust that Jesus won’t be repulsed by our physical or our spiritual state, but that he will see—and give—exactly what we need and maybe even what we want, too.

With the honesty of a close friend, the hilarity of a late-night comic, and the humility of a mom up to her eyeballs in diapers and dishes, Courtney Ellis invites us on a journey to draw closer God amidst the joyful, mundane, exhausting days of young parenthood. Probing ancient Christian practices for renewal, Almost Holy Mama chronicles one mom’s quest to discover an answer to her most pressing question: can God use the crucible of parenthood to grow us in virtue?

Instead of adding more tasks, Almost Holy Mama will help you integrate your spiritual practices into your daily life. From studying Scripture in the shower to listening in prayer at the foot of Laundry Mountain to being forced into the discipline of stillness by a rough pregnancy, Ellis finds that meeting God in sacred disciplines can breathe new life into one of life s most joy-filled and trying seasons.

 

 

 

 

About Courtney Ellis
Courtney Ellis serves as associate pastor for Spiritual Formation and Mission at Presbyterian Church of the Master. She holds degrees from Wheaton College, Loyola University of Chicago, and Princeton Theological Seminary, and has been published in Marriage/Partnership, Rock & Ice Magazine, and Christianity Today Women. She s a contributor at The Glorious Table and The Mighty. Courtney is a sought-after speaker for leadership and women s retreats, MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), and young adult ministries. She s a gifted storyteller with strengths in bringing parents, marrieds, singles, and millennials together. Courtney lives in southern California with her husband (and co-pastor) Daryl and their children. You can read more about the author here.

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