There are many occasions in our lives where, if we allow time to reflect, we’ll realize that we are at a loss. That we really don’t know what to do or how to respond to the situation we find ourselves in, or to the challenge posed by it.
Such times of life seem characterized simple endurance. But there is a difference, I think, between enduring and abiding. Endurance puts all the weight of getting through on our own sholders, on being strong enough to bear it. Abiding hints at a foundation, a support and bulwark beyond ourselves. As Christians we are called to abide. Specifically, we are called to abide in Christ, which is to abide in hope.
Hope can be a difficult thing because of the way we often think about it. For some among us, hope seems to be characterized by a lack of grief, or pain, or by an active glossing over of the negative emotions we experience in response to loss, affliction, illness, abuse, or trauma. I was recently reading an account by a grieving mother who’d lost her child. When she took the time and went through the effort of sharing her pain with others, some–calling themselves Christian–were all too quick to respond by citing scripture: do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). As a Christian herself, she was not without hope, but as someone who had experienced loss, she was grieving, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. (In such situations I direct folks to Romans 12:15–Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Any desire to “correct” the grieving of others means that we are not actually with them in their time of need).
Enduring such a situation means learning to put one foot in front of another. Abiding at such a time means remembering–somehow–that we don’t have to put one foot in front of another alone. We might think of enduring as being like Atlas of Greek myth, kneeling, bowed down, but enduring, with the weight of the world resting on our sholders. Alone. Weighed down. Unable to do anything but endure. But we don’t have to be frozen and weighed down. We can move forward, even in the dark. And we don’t have to find our way alone, in the darkness of such times. We can find our way home, because Jesus is there to lead us. To help us endure, yes–but also to help us learn what it means to abide.
Our gospel lesson (Mark 1:29-39) provides us with the moving story of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We don’t know her name (nor do we know the name of Peter’s wife for that matter). One of the pastors I follow online has decided, for the purpose of her sermon, to refer to her as Lois, which name is as good as any, so I’ll follow suit.
Lois is not in a good situation. She’s sick, in danger–fevers can be scary things in our day; at the time of the New Testament, they were often a prelude of bad things to come. But Jesus comes to her. Jesus, fresh from the Synagogue there in Capernaum, where he demonstrated his authority and power by silencing the demon and casting it out of the afflicted man. Jesus arrives at the house of Simon Peter and Andrew and is immediately told of Lois’ condition. He went to her, took her hand, lifted her up… and she was cured. The fever left her. Immediately. To emphasize the point that she was completely well, we’re told that she “immediately began to serve them” (Mark 1:31). I should acknowledge here that I’ve had some questions arise about the results of this healing. I recall one Bible study where someone made the comment, “Well, that sounds about right.. the woman was nearly dead and it took Jesus himself to heal her, and the first thing she ends up doing is taking care of the men.” If we see it this way, I think it’s safe to say we’re missing the point. It’s a shame, because a lot of people have evidently missed the point, enough that one of my study Bible’s includes a note about this that makes an important point for us:
One must beware of any tendency to reduce the importance of the mother-in-law’s action because she is a woman. She acts toward Jesus and the others as the angels earlier acted toward Jesus in the wilderness. (p 1807, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible)
The word used to describe Lois’ actions (serve) is the same word used in Mark 1:13 to describe the actions of the Angels as they were said to have “waited” on Jesus.
One of my former seminary professors, Fr. Bill Carroll, now engaged in parish ministry, wrote a moving sermon on this week’s gospel (Mark 1:29-39) a few years ago (which he re-posted a few days ago), that has embedded itself in my thought process this week. In particular, in terms of the symbology of Jesus taking the mother-in-law’s hand and lifting her up. Connecting the dots of this healing act to our own need and desire to be lifted up, to have Jesus take our hands in the dark hours of our lives, he mentions the beloved hymn Precious Lord.
I’m sure many of you know the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand // lead me on, let me stand // I am tired, I am weak, I am worn // Through the storm, through the night // Lead me on to the light // Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
How many of us are aware of the origins of this hymn? Like several other beloved hymns–probably more than we actually know–Precious Lord is the result of tragedy. Thomas Dorsey wrote it shortly after the death of his wife in childbirth, followed shortly by the death of their infant son. (I’m struck by the similarities this story bears to the origins of another well known hymn, It is Well With My Soul).
Somehow it is prayer and praise, testimony and plea all in one. In it Dorsey’s words become ours, as we sing and ask that Jesus would take our hand, while at the same time proclaiming that he has and will.
Texts like this speak to us, no matter the details of our lives, because they speak to universal experience. As Fr. Carroll put it so well, “They apply equally well at deathbed or prison. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle–whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.”
Remember that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is said to have served Christ in a manner similar to the Angels in the wilderness. I think we can expand this analogy if we look at the role of Angels in scripture. Angels are the messengers of God (angelos means messenger), they proclaim the acts of God and share good news. It is in their very nature to do the will of God. As Christians we are called to do the will of God as revealed in Jesus, to do what he commanded us–to love one another as he has loved us, to share the good news, to imitate Christ as best we can in our faltering ways.
In the darkest and most challenging times of our lives we can find the strength not just to endure, but to abide, praying for help, and testifying to it.
We can abide in Christ because we do indeed, have hope. Hope that in such moments, Christ will lead us home here, and that in the end, when we stand “at the verge of Jordan,” ready to cross over and be with God, Christ is there as well. As Dorsey writes in another verse:
When the darkness appears // and the night draws near // And the day is past and gone // At the river I stand // Guide my feet, hold my hand // Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.
In the end we are able to abide in Christ, because Christ abides with us–taking our hands and being with us in the most trying moments of our lives, calling us. Wounded angels walking the highways of life, abiding in Christ and sharing his Love. Amen.