Isn’t Jesus wonderful? Would you talk about Jesus to me?” She grinned as she asked. She lay in a hospital bed, only a few days away from departing this life into the care of God at the age of ninety-one. We talked about Jesus’ words in the gospels and she asked if God would care for her family after she was gone.
A few minutes later I heard footfalls pass just outside her room. Suddenly, she gripped my hand and her eyes widened. “Is there someone in my kitchen?” she asked. “Are you sure we’re safe here?” Through her hand I felt her heart racing.
I assured her that we were safe and reminded her where she was. I showed her my badge and told her my name again. She eventually relaxed. This formed the pattern of our visits: a few moments of semi-clarity, followed by periods of intense anxiety and fear.
As a professional hospital chaplain, I engage routinely in conversations like this one. I’m left day after day with the question of what God’s presence and action look like in human lives when the mind wanes, or when profound suffering distorts personality or otherwise reduces people to stark dependence on others.
I’ve spent a couple years now asking what a relationship with Jesus Christ means for a person who lives without what so many consider normal cognitive function. I’ve discovered a wealth of resources from theologians and others. But one issue I come back to over and over again with my patients and others is a view of dependence as a place where God’s love is at an end, where God’s saving power just got stuck. I want to propose, instead, that what we so often call “being a burden” is actually one of the experiences in which God is most active in the world. And I think Jesus shows us exactly that—how to be a burden.
Uncovering Our Self-focus
We don’t like to be burdens. We like to have it all together, or at least look like we do. But the Bible paints a different picture, one where the story isn’t so much about us and what we can and cannot do as it is about God and what God does and is doing to save us. This recurrent self-focus has a lot to do with why we find it hard to see God at work in weakness and dependence.
Self-focus also alters how we as a culture read the Bible. For instance, a lawyer once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the well-known story of the good Samaritan. If you were raised in church, you may have heard an exhortation for the audience to live like the Samaritan.
There’s a problem here, however. We are not the Samaritan; Jesus is. After saving the man’s life, the Samaritan (i.e., Jesus) takes the man to my favorite underappreciated character: the innkeeper. He supplies the innkeeper with what he needs to care for the man until the Samaritan returns. The Samaritan’s action to save the dying man is one and the same with his action to put him with other people and supply those people with the means of carrying on the rehabilitation. The robbed man’s dependence on the Samaritan is continued in his dependence on this new community.
The lawyer wanted to know the limits of what he needed to do to make God happy, so he could do that and be done. Like us, he thought of a relationship with God as primarily something we do. Instead, Jesus tells a story revealing in part the lengths of his efforts to save us and the essential neediness and relationality of humanity. We need God, and we need each other. And God created us that way.
This way of reading the story sparks our imagination for what it might look like to share in the gospel-life. As Christians, we are not the Samaritan, at least not directly. Instead, we correspond more closely to this diverse group of people that Jesus, the truest depiction of the Samaritan, has brought to the inn. We all come in various kinds of disrepair, each with our particular woundedness.
Our healing begun by meeting Jesus continues in the community through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit isn’t simply out to heal us immediately. The Holy Spirit doesn’t always heal our wounds; more often the Spirit uses our weakness as a part of his work to heal the world.
In the Spirit of Jesus
What does it mean to say that the Spirit is the mysterious presence of God whose power works to redeem the world especially through areas of personal weakness and brokenness? What use are broken people? But let’s remember: this is the same Spirit who worked through the cross of Christ. The image of Jesus crucified portrays for Christians the meaning of God’s power: divine love at work through human weakness. This Spirit was at work in Jesus who gave himself on behalf of the world by first giving himself as a dependent baby to his mother Mary, Jesus whose ministry was funded by others, Jesus whose act of sacrificial love culminated in a man named Joseph carrying his body to a tomb. Somewhere in our tellings of Jesus’ story we forgot the many times God’s perfect love and power was revealed in Jesus’ dependence on others.
Being dependent means being a burden to some extent. But it is the great American sin to be a burden. Jesus himself was a burden in many ways as we have seen. That’s part of the way God works. The Holy Spirit reveals God’s power not by fixing at one stroke our woes and brokenness. I certainly don’t feel whole, nor do my patients. But this Spirit enables our periods of being a burden and being weak to be transformed from shameful states into part of the gift I give to others, the gift of allowing others to care for my weakness. Within the church these gifts should be received with tenderness and care rather than with attempts to cure and fix, attempts now left to the wiser power of God. When we receive one another in this way, we come into close contact with the very Spirit of Jesus.
Giving Me, Receiving You
Being dependent means giving up our schemes of fixing ourselves and others. The healing that we most need isn’t truly in our power to grant anyway. Rather, healing is the power of Jesus coming through our weaknesses, our fumbling attempts to listen to each other and to care for one another. Healing of any kind, even physical, remains both an unmerited gift and a promise that what Jesus starts, he himself will finish at the resurrection and recreation of the world. Jesus comes to liberate and bring light to darkness. But Jesus also needed Mary, not because God couldn’t accomplish salvation otherwise, but because dependence turns out to be God’s preferred method for renewing the world.
I sat with my patient and listened to her stories and tended to her fears. Yes, God will care for your family. Yes, God is faithful, even and especially in death. No, you are never alone. She tended to me by trusting me with these concerns and displaying in her face a radiance at the name of Jesus in between wincing from pain and fear. This journey of life in the gospel of Jesus Christ will leave us one day looking at each other and asking just who really cared for whom. The answer will always be Jesus, whose care for us extends through the diverse faces of those around us.