Streams will burst forth in the desert, / and rivers in the steppe. / The burning sands will become pools, / and the thirsty ground, springs of water. . . .
Isaiah 35: 6
In today’s gospel Jesus heals the crippled man who has been brought to him, with some difficulty, by his friends. The friends’ love of the paralyzed man brooks no obstacles to caring for him, be it the physical difficulties in getting him to Jesus or the threat of embarrassment or shame that could arise out of religious custom or social ridicule. Even before Jesus cures the man the friendship in his afflicted life is a stream in the desert and a spring of water in the thirsty ground. Jesus but ratifies and brings to fullness the power and the life in such a love in the midst of suffering.
More than ever during this early winter in the United States, an exceptionally warm one so far, I find myself attracted to the beauty of the leafless, barren trees around me. In their starkness and simplicity the beauty of their simple lines and their solidity in their vulnerability appeals to me as increasing age diminishes my energy for performance and my need for social accommodation. There is, in truth, the life and potential of next year’s growth and flowering within the unadorned and apparently barren skeleton of the naked tree which stands out, limb by limb, against the gray sky.
In today’s passage from Isaiah we hear that when the glory of the Lord comes all that appears lifeless and barren to us will be seen to, in fact, be filled with life and to be sources of nourishment. A teacher of ours would often tell us that when a person would come to us with deep hurt, suffering, even apparent self-destructive tendencies, our work with them was to seek out the signs of life in that action or experience. To live in faith is to believe and to trust that underneath whatever is there courses the deep, abiding, creative love of the God who is love and life. In today’s gospel the life resides in Jesus, of course, but also in the sinful paralyzed man and in the ordinary, unspectacular but life-filled love of his friends. The are at once the paralyzed and foolish ones, but the water of love and grace abides beneath that surface. Love and life is absent in those who deny their humanity and adorn themselves with apparent faith and self-justification.
We are reminded today not to judge where the life is, in others or ourselves, because our worldly view is likely to get it wrong. Perhaps in those memories and experiences that seem darkest and most painful there abides the presence and the call of a creative and transformative love. May we look again, that is respect, and investigate deeply those aspects of life which faithlessly we tend to repress or ignore. With such faithful “respect” we may well come to realize the life and love we have been given in and through what may seem to us stark, fragile, and barren.
The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.
Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, p. 32