Grace for the Wounded

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Sometimes, it seems like there are hurting people everywhere we look. This week, I prayed with Bob B. just before his death, and visited with his family following his death. In spare moments, I noticed and paid attention to several news stories of wounded people and places.

One such story involved the events surrounding the death of Beau Biden, our Vice President Joe Biden’s son. Regardless of our particular political allegiances, it is easy to be touched by what the Biden family is going through. At age three, Beau survived a car crash that killed his mother and sister. Later in life, he served in the Army, as a National Guard major in Iraq, and as attorney general for the state of Delaware. Of his son, the vice president once said, “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and know that they turned out better than he did. I’m a success …. Beau, I love you …. I’m so proud of the son you’ve become; I’m so proud of the father you are.”[1] If we dare enter into compassion, then we can imagine at least some of the pain of this father who is grieving for his son.

If you have felt similar pain, or are willing to imagine it, then you’ll have a glimpse into the heart of Samuel, the last of the judges of Israel.

From the time of Moses forward, the nation of Israel had been governed by a series of judges, mostly men, with a few women among them, wise, courageous, strong in battle. As we enter into the story told in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, we hear conversations that reflect a changing mood. The elders feel insecurity about the threats arising outside their borders, and observe corruption inside their ranks. The elders believe a change is called for; they ask for the system of judges to be replaced by a monarchy, like the other nations around them. The shift from political leadership by judges to leadership by a king will mark a major turning point in Israel’s history.

The request for a king displeased Samuel, says the text, and I believe he feels displeasure on two levels.

On the surface level, what you might call the plain meaning of the text, Samuel’s response to the elders carefully details the unforeseen but likely consequences. Ultimately, a king will be more a burden than a blessing. A king will divert your resources to the maintenance of his kingdom. A king will take your sons to war, and your daughters to work for his household. In the end, you will cry out in anger and frustration, but the Lord will not answer you. We can imagine the attention that our Reformed and Scottish Presbyterian ancestors must have devoted to this text, given their own experience with negative consequences of kings.

On a deep, personal level, I imagine that Samuel also is coping with feelings of profound grief. It’s the behavior of Samuel’s sons that drives the movement away from the judges. As verse two says, “… his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”

Both Samuel and the elders are wounded. The elders are wounded as victims of corruption and fear. Samuel is wounded by the loss of his sons’ integrity, the loss of their future, and the loss of his legacy. His grief is profound, their anxiety is high. Pain and fear drive the people from cooperation to competition.

The third chapter of Mark’s gospel reminds us that Jesus, too, lived among anxious people with whom he competed for authority. Jesus’ ministry had begun with fruitful expressions of teaching, preaching, and healing. Now, he faces opposition from the Scribes, who suggest he is possessed by demons; and interruption from his family, who wonder if he has gone crazy. New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson notices the character of Jesus’ interaction. He redirects their attention by telling stories; he invites them to think more deeply by asking questions. He allows his hearers then and now to make their judgment, not in an instant, but rather in several moments over time. Williamson says, “His stance of awaiting our response is, paradoxically, one of lowliness. He subjects himself to the possibility of being misunderstood …. At the … end of the passage, (he) shifts the question from who Jesus is to that of who we may become.”[2] In other words, Jesus doesn’t force acceptance of authority on those who are comfortable about their own intelligence, righteousness, and healthiness. Rather, the people who are motivated to learn about what Jesus calls “God’s will,” and do it, are those who have found their own resources insufficient.

When you examine the gospels, you see that the people who come to Jesus and stick around often are wounded in some way: they know that they are not smart enough, they see they are not good enough, they feel they are not strong enough.[3] There’s the man in the synagogue with the unclean Spirit. There’s the paralytic who comes through the roof with a little help from his friends. There is a socially well-connected centurion, whose servant is in need of healing. There’s a wealthy royal official of Capernaum whose son Jesus cures. What seems to unite these people is the fact that they are each wounded in some way, physically, mentally, emotionally. These are people who approach Jesus not by way of worthiness, but by way of their woundedness. Their awareness of how deeply they are wounded makes them hungry for grace, thirsty for grace, open to grace when it appears.

Perhaps you read Wednesday’s post by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. She was marking the end of “Sheloshim,” the traditional Jewish 30-day mourning period, following the sudden death of her husband. In an emotionally revealing account, she talks about her children’s screams, and her own mother holding her while she cries herself to sleep at night. She writes, in part, “A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was ‘It is going to be okay.’ That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? …. I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”[4]

Craig Barnes, Presbyterian pastor and still relatively new president at Princeton Seminary, has said something similar. He writes, “… (Not) every interruption in life is from God. When friends are struck by tragedy, do not tell them that it is God’s will. We do not know that.” Then, because Barnes is a wise theologian-pastor, he goes on, “But we do know that no interruption, be it tragic or delightful, is greater than our God.”[5] Elsewhere he writes, “Our experiences with abandonment and unwanted change are crisis moments when we must decide whether or not to leave behind the life that is gone forever. We can do that only if we believe in the ongoing creativity of God, who brings light and beauty to the dark chaos of our losses ….”[6]

The wisdom of our spiritual mothers and fathers says that there is no completely effective human remedy to heal such deep heartache. If there is to come a day when the wounded are to experience beauty in the world, and celebrate the gifts of life with gratitude, then it will happen only through the power of God’s grace. For those who hurt among us, we pray for that day to come.

[1] Allie Malloy, “In his own words: Joe Biden on his son, Beau,”, 1 June 2015.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 83.

[3] The connection between woundedness and grace is made by Lonnie Lee in his sermon “Believing in Grace,” Westminster Presbyterian Church, Springfield, IL, 8 June 1997.

[4] Sheryl Sandberg’s public Facebook note, 3 June 2015.

[5] M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts, Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996, p. 42.

[6] Barnes, p. 14.


~ by JohnH1962 on June 7, 2015.

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