As the weather beckons us outdoors, it is not lost on me that many are fueled in their connection to the divine by being outside. It is crucial that we maintain a relationship with Creation, remembering that we, after all, are the stewards of this fragile earth. Amidst storms, tornadoes, and raging waters, we realize our fragility, too, our vulnerability with forces greater than ourselves. We do the best we can at any given moment, and truly only God knows what the effects will be generations down the road. But like the brand Seventh Generation, who attributes their guiding principle to the ancient philosophy of the Iriquois, we need to think about the actions we take now and how they will affect the sustainability of the future even to seven generations (that’s our great5-grandchildren).
This line of thought about decision-making comes to mind when I hear Jesus asking the ill man at the waters near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and after taking the last of the family systems classes I’ve been taking this past year. The man at the pool was asked a question about his personal well-being, and in family systems thinking, we think about ourselves as individuals but also in the context of a larger whole, the collective, a family (however big or small).
Every moment we’re making decisions like how we use our time, which route we take to get where we want to go to dodge traffic, and what we’ll eat. We know these have consequences, hopefully helping us lead safe and healthy lives. We are fortunate to have a baseline of privilege, ability, and a certain level of affluence. It’s hard for me to imagine being in a place like the man lying by the pool in Jerusalem who for 38 years is sick, lame or partially paralyzed, apparently unable to go into the pool by himself where he might at least be cleaned. Surely this man was an untouchable, someone no one would risk their own well-being to help. What does Jesus do? What did the Good Samaritan do? He sees the unwell man. Over 38 years, don’t you imagine that the man had become invisible? How long do you have to live in a city where you no longer notice the homeless sleeping on benches or sidewalks? Hopefully we would never be blind to the suffering of our neighbors, but that homelessness, dire poverty exist, we have let it not be our problem to solve.
Jesus sees the man lying there, knows he had been there a long time, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
I could stop there with this passage and bask in the grace and mercy waiting in the wings. “Jesus, ask us today, ask EACH of us today: Do you want to be made well?” Wouldn’t we fall at his feet and wash him in our tears? “Yes, Lord, make me well. Heal all of us.” Isn’t that what you would imagine us saying?
But that’s not what the sick man says, the one who has been lying in sickness and filth for 38 years, 13,870 days and nights. He says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool . . ., and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Do you hear this the way that I do? Jesus asked if he wanted to be made well, and the man replies that he has no one to help him or others get in his way. He places the blame outside of himself, but it presupposes that the way to be well is that he has to get into that pool.
Jesus knows the man has been there a long time. Jesus knows the man wants to be well. Jesus knows that man needs to be shown another way. When Jesus says to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” he is doing just that. Listen to my voice, follow my command, and you shall be made well. The man heard these words and believed Jesus spoke what is true. His believing and following made him well, but for those looking on, they saw Jesus heal a man on the sabbath, doing work on a day of rest. We know this is another of Jesus’s signs in the gospel and that it’s also something his adversaries will use as fuel against him. I think it’s also important that we know Jesus isn’t telling the man to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Not only is the man not wearing boots, but everything about his situation puts him at a handicap so great that he cannot overcome it alone. He needed an intervention. He needed help. He needed to be shown another way, yet it still remains within his agency whether or not he heeded the way revealed to him.
Unfortunately we don’t often have power of the Almighty to speak the Word and make restoration complete. When we see a problem, we might think we know how to fix it, make it better. We may give a few dollars away or hand out bags of sustenance and hygiene to the homeless on the roadside, and this is good, helpful for a moment. This Friday I got off the interstate and realized no one was in the left turning lane. I looked at the corner and noticed a man standing there with a sign, as is often the case. The other turning lane had at least six cars in it, and honestly it crossed my mind to get in line behind them so as not to have to interact with the person on the side of the road. I didn’t have any money or food within my reach. I had nothing to give him. I recalled, however, that visibility means something. I had a card with our church number. This happens all in seconds, right, this decision-making. I rolled down my window as I approached the man, who turned his weary eyes my way. “I don’t have any money or food to give, but what do you need?” I asked him, hoping that I might at least be able to point him in the right direction. “If you could give me a prayer,” he said. I stuck my arm out the window, extending my hand to him, and he gave me his hand to hold as I prayed that the Lord would bless him and show him the way, provide for him and guide his path, and whatever else I said, hoping that the Holy Spirit was giving him the words he needed to hear. I realized as I drove away that I forgot to remove my sunglasses so that he could see clearly that I saw him. I had remembered to ask his name. Gregory.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked.
We don’t always know what we need for ourselves, and we certainly seldom know what another person needs. We do know that our individual well-being benefits us all, and we have to want to be well ourselves before we can take next steps. But just because we want to be well doesn’t necessarily mean we want the whole system to be well.
I can make full recovery and then return to the activities or exploits that made me sick or ill or dis-eased to begin with. I can make my way up out of the valley and once on higher ground contribute to keeping others in the valley. How many people who have truly experienced the pitfalls in the welfare, medical, incarceration, housing, immigration, and all other systems are actually in positions to make the changes that need to be made to heal what is broken or flat out isn’t working?
This is where the family systems class struck me. At the end of the class, we were posed with a powerful question. (That’s often the case that some of the most intense questions or would-be conversation comes when time is up, isn’t it?) The question was
How many people would it take, doing even one of the following:
- Connecting with their generations, eradicating all their personal cutoffs
- Educating themselves as to the facts in our society
- Becoming clear on their guiding principles, being guided by them instead of the anxiety of the moment or groupthink (mob mentality)
- Taking a stand, after careful consideration
- Defining a self in their families
- Becoming principle-guided parents, rather than projecting a worried focus
to bring the regression to an end?
The regression speaks to the place we are in our society that is incredibly polarized, emotional to the point of triggering fight/flight responses, and reactive rather than proactive for the benefit of the common good (my lay summary). From a family systems perspective, the regression indicates that we are not well. We really need only look at the increased violence, depression, anxiety, addiction, and everything else that contributes to our dis-ease to affirm that we’re not in an overall good place, not to mention the groaning of the earth itself with the weight of our population and exploitation of natural resources.
Family systems say that there are leadership principles that can influence the system or society in a positive way. Those principles are to
- Learn the facts,
- Learn to “think systems” (or to think relationally),
- Get clear on one’s guiding principles, and
- Take a stand.
“Do you want to be made well?”
I want to be well. I want our society to be well. I want our earth to be well. Is my guiding principle for everything to be well? I am fond of repeating Julian of Norwich’s mantra, “All shall be well.” Or is my guiding principle that God’s will be done. My love and obedience to God will guide me and others toward what is good and best for the whole. Come what may, my love of God is steadfast. The Lamb of God is my Light in the darkness; by night I do not need the brightness of the moon. I am open to hear the Word of God; like Lydia I am willing to open my heart and home that the Way of Christ may fluorish. May God use my heart, my mind, my feet, my hands to move us all toward God’s will. Love of God is love for us all.
“Do you want to be made well?”
God’s will be done, now and for generations to come.