I realize that some weeks ago I posted the first of several homilies from our week at the Lift Disability Network “Breakaway” retreat. Following is the second of these homilies.

“Distress” (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 129, 132)

I have several walking sticks this week as visual aids. The one I hold today is an old cane from the 19th century — it looks normal, but when you twist the top and pull it apart, . . . the top doubles as a dagger for danger to be used in moments of distress.

We live in a world of lying lips – the world is telling us that we are o.k., we deserve it, we can overcome, we can achieve, we can find the strength, dig deep, work hard, and you can do it. I call this “Nike Theology” – “Just do it.” While it might be appropriate in some realms of athletic competition – at the end of the day – in the realm of the pilgrim life of faith, this is a dangerous lie that speaks against faith in God who alone is able to meet our needs.

But let’s also admit that there are many times, facing disability, when the distress of life can overwhelm. We encounter people who can be patronizing and pitying in ways that demean and dehumanize us or our loved one. There are the seemingly endless demands of care, fragility, and then dump on top of that the bureaucratic nature of finding help. It can become overwhelming.

David and the other psalm writers knew this feeling too. Look at these psalms:

“In my distress I called to the Lord” 120:1 – he is distressed. It is real. Too often Christians have this tendency to avoid reality – “Hey Praise the Lord!” And while we are called to praise Him in all circumstances, it is another thing altogether to be “happy” in our circumstances isn’t it? He confesses his distress, and we can too.

Then he says, “Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.” 120:5-6 – here he is expressing woe or “oi vey” has the Yiddish says. Meshech and Kedar are foreign lands to the north and the south. He is saying too long has he dwelt where he is not wanted, where he is an alien. This too expresses the Christian pilgrim experience of being aliens and strangers in this world. But let’s admit it, too often we feel like aliens and strangers – sadly sometimes even in the church, right?

So when we feel that alienation, that subtle rejection, again we can relate with the psalmist in 123 when he says, repeatedly, “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud” (123:3-4). This has been echoed down through the centuries as Christians have said together, “Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” – “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy!”

This cry is not admitting defeat – but it is admitting distress and our inability to manage or change our circumstances. It’s admitting we are in over our heads. We can’t climb this mountain alone on our own strength. Admitting our distress is the first step toward dependence and deliverance.

Let me as you this: When do we learn the most? In hardship. Where are we when we learn the most? In distress and deprivation. And most important, where does God most often seem to “show up”? Over and over in the stories of Scripture, He shows up when people find themselves in the wilderness. Without hope and without a way out. In fact this is where the Land of the Bible is a metaphor for life.

In the land of the Bible, where there was the most fertility and comfort (the northwestern area of Jezreel), there also was the most apostasy, the most abandonment of faith in God. Conversely, in the southeastern region, where there was the least fertility, the most deprivation, God was most likely to visit His people and faith was built up and displayed in the midst of great need and desperation.

You see one of the great assumptions about modern the world is that we have CONTROL over everything. And we are given the illusion that this is true. Thermostats, microwaves, automobiles that respond to our every whim. This is such an unspoken assumption that we talk about people for whom life is “spinning out of control.” But when you buy this idea that you are supposed to be in control of all the circumstances surrounding your life, when things happen “out of your control” you start to “lose it.” Thus, America has 5% of the world’s population and 98% of the world’s therapists – when you “loose” control” you need help!

Well the same tendency has snuck into Christian faith in the West as well. “We got this – all we need is a little help.” Jesus is my friend and he helps me along the way. I’m not so bad – heck I’m a lot better than all those people we hear about in the news. I haven’t killed anyone lately.

The problem is we think way too highly of ourselves. In fact, and let me say this as gently as I can, we are much worse than we think we are. Here it is friends: The Good News of the Gospel presumes that there is bad news (otherwise, it wouldn’t be “good” news, right? It would just be “news”). The bad news is we just don’t need a little help from our friends. We aren’t in a situation where a self-improvement program is going to solve our problem. The bad news is we are sinful and profoundly broken – every one of us. Compounding this problem is that God is Holy and there is alienation between us because of our sin. In fact, despite our American “can do” mentality, we can’t do this. We are, as the Scriptures say, “dead” in our trespasses and sins. Dead people cannot help themselves.

C.S. Lewis got this when he said: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

We are in distress due to sin. Best Bible story of this: Luke 5 about the paralytic. His friends knew their paralyzed buddy was in bad shape, but in reality, they had no idea how bad. They thought they knew what he needed – we need to get him in front of Jesus to get healed. But look what happens – they take the roof apart, lower him in, there he is in front of Jesus, everybody is looking for a miracle, and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Really!?! I mean, c’mon, how much trouble can a guy get into lying on a mat?

But listen friends, Jesus knew the distress this man faced, while the world saw it as physical disability, Jesus saw the spiritual alienation from God. The superficial need was physical healing, The deeply profound real need was forgiveness for sin. This was the trouble he faced. But remember this too – he could no more make himself right with God than you or I. It was God who reach down to him in Christ and said, “Your sins are forgiven” that changed everything for him – not just for a few more days, months or years on this earth, but for eternity!

Do you realize that your greatest need is not some physical disability – however profound and frightening and debilitating it might be? Nor is it an emotional brokenness, or a psychological weakness. Your greatest need – the deepest distress you face – my greatest need is that you and I are broken and sinful and unable to do anything about it. But coming to the end of yourself can be the beginning of new life. You see the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is self-reliance, believing that you are really “OK.”

But the Good News of the Gospel is that when we come to the end of ourselves and self-reliance, then God can begin to reshape us, remake us into something new. That surrender, that moving from distress to dependence on another who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, we will talk about in the next homily.