(Originally written about 5 years ago…)
“On another occasion when [Jesus] went into the synagogue, there was a man there whose hand was shriveled…” (Mark 3:1)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the irony that, as broken human beings, we are conditioned to clean ourselves up, put on a smile and pretend that everything is ok before we step through the doors of the church. In some ways, it would almost be easier if our wounds were visible, like the man in Jesus’ synagogue encounter… if other people could tell just by looking that no, we most certainly were not ok, that we were in desperate need of healing, of people to gather around us and gently tend our wounds. I wonder sometimes just how many people come to church each Sunday with giant, gaping ‘soul wounds’ (I know I do more often than I care to admit). We are in desperate need of healing, of people to gather around us and gently tend our wounds. But instead of admitting our need, we put on a smile, sing some praise songs, listen to a message, greet a few folks, grab our coats and head out into the cold—to face our ‘soul wounds’ alone.
“Stand up and come out here in front!” Jesus’ words cut through the façade and spoke directly to the man with the shriveled hand. Did the man stop to worry about the possible repercussions of his obedience as he slipped out of his seat and stepped toward Jesus? Who would relay the story in the lobby after the service? Who would judge him—blame him for his own weakness? The Bible says that there was a dead silence and I imagine the man’s quickened heartbeat echoing in his ears, his mouth suddenly dry, his mind reeling. We don’t know what he was thinking in the long moment before Jesus spoke his next words. But we do know what he did. He stood up. And then Jesus broke the dead silence with words of life. “Stretch out your hand!” In that vulnerable moment of obedience, of admitting his need and reaching out to Jesus, an amazing thing happened. The man was healed! Imagine what might happen if we, too, listened closely to the gentle voice of our savior and began to stand up and stretch out our hands… to bring our own broken, vulnerable ‘soul wounds’ to Jesus.
Jesus and the man are not the only characters in this compelling story, though. In contrast to the man’s obedience stand the mocking faces of the others gathered in the synagogue that morning. Mark records that as this event unfolded, “Jesus, deeply hurt as he sensed their inhumanity, looked round in anger at the faces surrounding him.” Why was Jesus so hurt and angered by these religious people? I think it is because they were so worried about their Sabbath rules that they chose to overlook both the need right in front of them and the One who was infinitely capable of meeting that need. Their inhumanity was not in their failure to show up, but in their failure to actually be present. How often can the same be said of us? How often do I come to church to keep up appearances or to pay my religious dues or to set a good example instead of showing up expecting to encounter Jesus and to help those around me do the same?
So the challenge emerges for those of us who call ourselves “the church” to create the kind of emotionally safe place where this beautiful kind of vulnerability, authenticity and obedience can happen. But how? Perhaps we need to remind ourselves (and each other) often that it is ok not to be ok—even (especially?!) at church. Maybe our call is to slow down enough to listen for that edge in someone’s voice, that question that they are silently begging someone—anyone—to ask. It could be that we need to pray for eyes to see the ‘soul wounds’ all around us and to respond gently, compassionately. And certainly we must stand alongside as our brothers and sisters respond to Christ’s call to stand up—maybe confidently and full of faith, maybe more hesitantly at first—and stretch out their hands to Jesus.
In different circumstances, different seasons of life, I see myself at different places in this story. Sometimes I am the man with the shriveled hand… needy, hurting, wanting so badly for someone to ask how I am and care enough to actually listen to my answer. I hear Jesus’ call to stand up and stretch out my hand (once I take my fingers out of my ears!) and sometimes I do. But sometimes I am too scared… I don’t want to admit that I am not perfect, that I don’t have it all together. What would people think if they knew who I really am?
And then the focus shifts and I find myself in the crowd. When Jesus looks around and locks eyes with me, will he see my inhumanity? My mind is quick to rush to judgment and slow to reach out in compassion. It’s easy to smile and wave a quick hello. It’s hard to listen, to love, to stand alongside. It’s easy to give ‘good Christian advice’ and say that you’ll pray. It’s hard to be a good friend, to really pray, when your words seem small and inadequate. Fortunately for us (and for the brothers and sisters around us whose lives are crippled with devastating ‘soul wounds’), Jesus doesn’t call us to do what is easy. He calls us to look with compassion on those around us who find themselves in places of desperate need and to look in faith to the One who is infinitely capable of meeting that need.