Offensive Grace

Offensive Grace

Scripture passage: 2 Kings 4:1-14

Naaman had an opportunity to be made well, and he was so offended by the packaging (the presentation) of that opportunity that he almost didn’t take it. He was a mighty general. He expected to be received as a Head of State. “He was a big player,” says Anne MacDermaid. He figured “he should get the best healing possible: the one with waving arms and fancy hocus-pocus words; the Vegas production number of healing.” Instead, he got no reception at all – just a message from the prophet’s servant suggesting he go take a bath in the local river. Have you ever been unenthused, or even downright offended, by the way God proposed to work in your life? Have you ever been surprised by the avenues God uses to reach out, heal, and transform? If so, then join the crowd. As a child, John Townsend thought his parents were being mean and unloving when they made him wash dishes and clean up after himself. It’s fair to say that he never enjoyed those activities. Today, however, he recognizes them as a necessary part of being a functioning adult. He does them automatically, and, he says, “I am truly grateful for the time my parents took to be an external support for discipline until it became a part of me.” When Leonora Tisdale had surgery to repair some broken bones, she endured her long convalescence by imagining that when her cast was finally removed she would walk out of the doctor’s office with all abilities fully restored. What she found out instead, was that “healing required me to go week after week, three times every week, to physical therapy, and to do those repetitive, non-glamorous, sometimes painful exercises my therapists prescribed.” She likens to being asked to immerse, not once, but seven times, in un-beautiful, un-romantic Jordan River. “I had to put my faith in the therapists, and to actually believe that somehow, through the simple repetition of circling my ankle round and round, or lifting my leg over and over, or turning the pedals of a bicycle again and again, I was actually heading toward the wholeness I desired, and they desired for me.” Decades ago, a man immigrating from Russia came to a desk at Ellis Island and was profoundly offended by the way the clerk spoke to him. In fact, he refused to answer the questions being put to him. And so, the clerk listened to the words that the man’s wife was using to sooth the children, and he put down “Ziskind” (“Sweetchild”) as the family name. The man went forth into his new country determined to life his life, as much as possible, according to the ways and values of home. His children experienced him as rigid, distant, and lacking in compassion. However, as the years passed, he began to soften and change. To Mr. Ziskind’s granddaughter, he was the kindest, gentlest, most understanding man that ever lived, teaching her many lessons about how to value and appreciate life. The immigration clerk’s choice of a name, so many years ago, now seemed prophetic, for Mr. Ziskind was, above all, the one person in his granddaughter’s life that convinced her she was a sweet, precious, and valued child. Could old age (feared, resisted, and admittedly sometimes unpleasant old age) have brought about this gift and this transformation? Theologian Dorothy Solle, who has read and listened to a lot of people, says that God’s grace is most often described as “unexpected” and “beyond our control.” “To receive God’s grace, we have to become aware of our vulnerability,” adds Larry Ousley. The fact of the matter is, we’re an awful lot like General Naman. We don’t usually like things that are unexpected and out of our control. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. Besides that, agrees Lauren Winner, we can hardly believe that God uses such “ordinary tools” to work out our salvation – tools like river water, daily chores, physical therapy, new names and new homes, and the natural processes of the human life cycle. When the gifts of God come in mundane packages, or in forms that seem “beneath us” or “beneath” God, we have an unfortunate tendency to resist them. We can easily recognize ourselves in that old and often-told joke about the man caught in a flood who goes up onto the roof and prays for God to rescue him. Person after person comes by in a rowboat, offering to take the man to safety. “No thanks,” he answers each one, “I know God is going to save me.” Finally, the waters rise over him and he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he marches right up to God with his complaint. “I prayed and I prayed, but you didn’t save me.” God answers, “I sent four rowboats and you didn’t get into any of them.” If we’re not careful, we get to thinking we’re too good to ride in a rowboat, or that if God’s work in our lives doesn’t look spectacular, then it doesn’t count as a miracle. Naaman was blessed by having humble people in his life, points our Barbara Crafton, servants who lived and worked at someone else’s command and could recognize need when they saw it. People who knew what the source of life was and weren’t ashamed to seek it out. People who shared good news if they had it, and encouraged others to take advantage of their opportunities. “Most miracles ARE like rowboats,” she points out, “they come along regularly, but you have to get into them to get the full effect.” Marilyn McEntyre has written this poem called, “How to Recognize Grace:” It takes you by surprise It comes in odd packages It sometimes looks like loss Or mistakes It acts like rain Or like a seed It’s both reliable and unpredictable It’s not what you were aiming at Or what you thought you deserved It supplies what you need Not necessarily what you want It grows you up And lets you be a child It reminds you you’re not in control And that not being in control is a form of freedom. Toni Flynn recognized grace on the street one day, in a form that she at first tried to dismiss and avoid. She was on her way to see a movie, eager for rest and respite from her week, eager to be distracted and entertained. Half a block from the theater, as she hurried along, she came upon a familiar figure. “It was Michael,” she writes, “dressed in filthy rags, standing on a milk crate at the corner near a traffic signal. His arms were flailing like windmill blades, and he was ranting nonsense to passing cars. ‘Repent,’ he called, ‘the world is doomed.’ It was Toni’s day off. She had already made several efforts to help this homeless man, and he had not responded to any of them. She thought maybe she could slip by before he noticed her, or that maybe he wouldn’t recognize her. But she was wrong. He stepped off the milk crate and greeted her. “Hi Toni,” he said, “I’m running for mayor. Can I count on your vote?” Toni had to force herself to look at his face – a face which she describes as “crazy, terrible, awful, beautiful, sorrowful, redemptive.” She recounts what happened: “Yes, I answered flatly as I made myself look into his eyes. He gazed back at me with something akin to sanity, and, for a split second, I could almost sense the beating of his heart. The moment passed all too quickly. Michael’s eyes glazed over, rolled around wildly, and he resumed his position on the makeshift mayoral platform.” “ ‘YES!’” he yelled at a red mustang. ‘The lady said yes! The world is saved! We are filled with grace! We are filled with thanks! Everything is going to be all right!’” Toni hasn’t seen Michael for years now , but he haunts her dreams, calling her to remain faithful to her work and to continue her efforts to help build a better world… urging her to say “yes” to God… reminding her that, in God’s good time, everything IS going to be all right. It may be hard to appreciate how there can be anything about a man as sick as Michael was that could mediate God’s grace. But I am grateful to Toni for telling her story, because something very similar happened a few months ago to me, and I had thought it was too weird to talk about. Strange (or offensive) as it may sound, I too, have felt God’s grace draw near as I conversed on the street with a mentally ill man named Michael. The Michael I met, as I waited for a friend to meet me for a walk, was pacing around in a roadside park above the ocean, just north of Law Street. He said his name was “Michael the Defender” and he wanted to tell me all about the little green men who were populating the world. His story was very convoluted, and I had a hard time following it. Trying to be sympathetic, I said, “It sounds pretty scary.” Michael immediately stopped his pacing and his rambling. He turned toward me and looked me straight in the eye. “Oh no,” he said, with absolute conviction. “Don’t ever be afraid. You don’t ever have to be afraid.” And I believed him. Because his name was Michael, like the angel who carries God’s sword of light, and because seemed to be speaking so clearly to me as a fellow human being, I believed him. With God in our lives, we don’t ever have to be afraid. God’s ways are not predictable. They are not necessarily pretty or respectable. God isn’t interested in “proper channels” or “hierarchy of authority.” As Naman found out, it doesn’t really matter if we have more enchanting rivers at home. God sends messages through the least and even the lost. God uses plain old water to bring about healing. God doesn’t tend to roll out the red carpet, God just says “immerse yourself in the stream of my grace as many times as it takes to be convinced that I’m in charge, not you.” Apparently, it takes some humility to be part of God’s program. We humans tend to think we know better than God how things should be done, and we are offended when God doesn’t do things our way. Naman’s story suggests that maybe it’s time we gave God a little credit. These reflections, by an anonymous author, could speak for any of us: I asked for strength… and God gave me difficulties to make me strong. I asked for wisdom… and God gave me problems to solve. I asked for prosperity… and God gave me a brain and a body so I could work. I asked or courage… and God gave me danger to overcome. I asked for love… and God gave me troubled people to help. I asked for favors… and God gave me opportunities. I received nothing I wanted… I received everything I needed. So, with Naaman, we leave behind our hard-heartedness, and we open ourselves to receive God’s grace. Dear God, we dunk ourselves seven times in the river: Once to wash away the delusion that power or might, prestige or accomplishment will exempt us from the human condition. Twice to free ourselves from assuming we know how you will act or what you will do. A third time to open our eyes and ears to what seems strange or new or even insulting to us. Maybe your gifts come in quiet and ordinary forms. Maybe your gifts come through vessels that look profoundly broken to us. Maybe we haven’t wanted to hear or learn, but now we’re going to try. A forth time so that we begin to feel thoroughly soaked, from the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads – soaked in something essential to our survival, but not the place where we usually live. A fifth time so that we begin to gasp for air, and we really do feel vulnerable and maybe frustrated and at the end of our rope. A sixth time during which we resign as general manager of the universe and let everything go: into your wisdom, into your care, into your love, into your justice and mercy. A seventh time in which we feel tickled by the fish and freed at last from fear. Laughter bubbles from our ears and lips. We stay immersed as long as we can, enjoying the temperature of the water and the push of the current.. but at last gratitude lifts us to the surface and we burst forth shouting your praises and scattering droplets of sunlight everywhere. You can make us new, gracious God. You can bring life out of death. We thank you. We smile at the world. We give ourselves to your purposes.

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