Sunday, February 26, 2006
Too Sick to Pray
Hidden somewhere in the middle of Willie Nelson’s 1996 release, “Spirit”, is a song that describes something many people feel but are too scared to articulate. The song is a melancholy blend of strummed classical guitar with the unusually haunting nasal tones of a Nelson who’s as beaten as a rusty tin roof. The lyrics fall on your senses like an exhausted housewife after the kids have gone to bed, or a dehydrated runner at the finish line of a race. They’re soothing because they have told us a secret that we know, but can’t hide any longer. Sometimes, as bad as it sounds, we’re too sick to pray.
The song begins “I’m too sick to pray, Lord//That’s why we ain’t talked in a while//It’s been some of them days, Lord//I thought I was on my last mile.” Ever felt like that? Ever look up and notice that you’re out of gas and you don’t even know why? Ever face the stark reality that you’ve gone six months without being able to isolate the last time you prayed? Have you ever felt too sick to pray?
On a recent trip home for the holidays, I suddenly passed out in the middle of my in-law’s driveway. A stiff co-pay, three hours in a holding cell (I mean hospital room), and an ER doctor later, they informed me that I was in the midst of a severe anxiety attack. Severe anxiety attack? Me? How did this happen? I’m a pastor for goodness sakes! Pastors don’t have anxiety attacks! Pastors pray and read the Bible and we all got our anxiety immunizations at the time of our ordinations, didn’t we? How in the wide, wide world of Christendom did I have a severe anxiety attack?
Forget the fact that within about a five-month span I had lost my best friend to a fatal heart attack, wrestled with my youngest son’s Autism diagnosis, officiated three funerals in four months, and had my hometown leveled by a category five hurricane. I must’ve looked like the Black Knight in “Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail”, lying on the ground, limbless, shouting “It’s only a flesh wound!” Truth is, it was far worse than a flesh wound. My spirit was so wounded that I wasn’t even fighting anymore. I was the dehydrated runner, limping and convulsing toward an unreachable finish line. I simply couldn’t make it on my own. I needed help, and my secret was out.
Things that had always come so naturally had become petrifying and immobilizing. I was gripped by this insidious fear and broken to pieces with the sudden impact of an earthquake. Reeling, I was unsure of everything that had come before. Was I ever going to be a good husband and father again? Would I ever feel “normal” in this life? Had the happy, go lucky “me” I was only days before been replaced by this other confused and cowering “me” that I had become? Nearly a month passed and these questions sat unresolved like half eaten leftovers in the back corner of the refrigerator.
It was in the midst of this “breakdown” that I was shuttled off to a remote area in East Texas to spend six days alone in a pressure free environment. Now, I’d like to think of myself as a man’s man, but the thought of spending six days in the woods by myself seemed about as inviting as a relaxing swim through shark infested waters. To be perfectly honest, I was terrified. I love the outdoors, but being alone in the woods is kind of like being alone at the movies. It just doesn’t feel right. But there I was, stricken and rendered powerless by anxiety, and terrified, like a child at bedtime, of being alone.
The first day of this week of isolation began with a story that I will never forget. I opened the Bible (because what else do you do when you’re isolated in the woods?) to Genesis 41 and began to read the story of Joseph. It was the part of the story just before Joseph’s first encounter with his long estranged brothers who had sold him into Egyptian slavery many years before. There was a small portion of the narrative that caught my eye like a shiny car exiting the freeway. It wasn’t part of the “main road” of the story, but it was definitely enough to grab my attention.
In the midst of the gut-wrenching account of Joseph’s wrestling with his brother’s treachery and forgiving their wrongdoing, mention is made of his two son’s, Manassah and Ephraim. The boys have no bearing on the story whatsoever, yet they are mentioned briefly but clearly. Why?
Why not omit these two until the end of the story when they are blessed by Joseph’s father, Jacob? At that point, the boys are crucial to the history of Israel, and their blessing unites them with God’s covenant. But why here, in Chapter 41, where the main plot is the ironic pleading of Joseph’s brothers to the Egyptian official whom they don’t even recognize as their long forsaken sibling?
In fact, Manassah and Ephraim are crucial to this part of the story. So key are they that Joseph may never have become the Old Testament’s primary picture of forgiveness and love without them. And the answer to their importance lies in their names.
Mannassah means “to forget” and Ephraim means “double prosperity in my place of despair.” For a man who was forcefully orphaned by his brothers, wrongly accused by Egypt’s first lady, and tragically imprisoned before he was empowered, “to forget” and receive “double prosperity in my place of despair” was saying a lot. Joseph was so changed by these two concepts that he actually named his kids after them, no doubt to serve as constant reminders of the work the Lord had done in his life.
It’s so fascinating that Joseph recognizes the importance of forgiving and forgetting, but it is even more interesting to note that although he was blessed with prosperity, it came in his “place of despair”. Joseph never wanted to be in Egypt. Whether he was ruler of the land, or in prison, or anywhere in between, Egypt was an unclean land that was forced upon him, and he despised it. He wanted to be home in the land of Canaan, and his desire was so great that his dying wish was that his brothers promise to carry his bones to Canaan when they were finally able to move from Egypt. Joseph was ushered in to Egypt’s most sought after position in only thirteen years, and he ruled for many years thereafter, but he never wanted it. It always felt awkward and painful, and you get the feeling that he’d have been thrilled to watch sheep in his Father’s fields if he’d had his druthers.
Joseph’s story is not simply about the agonizing process of forgiveness in the midst of unprecedented personal progress. At its core, this is a tale of prolonged despair despite amazing achievement. Its shocking message is that you can be prosperous in this life without feeling “good”. You can be a rugged individualist and still long for home. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that God wants terrible things to happen to you so that His purposes might rule the day. This is not a “happy” story, but it is a good one.
Francis Schaeffer, in his book “True Spirituality” speaks of “the divine negative.” His point is that walking with Christ means walking through the bad things along with the good. He speaks of the final stages of Christ’s life and summarizes that Jesus was “rejected and slain before he rose again.” In the same way, we must also walk through rejection and death before we can ever truly experience the hope of the resurrection.
Joseph walked through rejection and death, but the Lord brought him forgiveness and prosperity: The hope of the resurrection. Funny thing is that we don’t really need forgiveness and prosperity without first enduring rejection and death. If you’ve never been done wrong, there’s no need to practice forgiveness, and if you’ve never walked through the darkness of loss, prosperity is a birthright rather than a gift.
The most poignant aspect of these two concepts is that they form the perfect definition of grace: forgiveness and prosperity in our place of despair. In a sense, these concepts are not only the names of Joseph’s sons; they are also the symbolic offspring of Christ. Jesus brings humanity hope because he offers that which nothing else can deliver: forgiveness and prosperity.
Our problem is that we want these spiritual treasures in our place of ‘happiness” or “gladness” or “luxury”. It seems clear in Scripture that we only experience forgiveness and prosperity in our place of despair (see Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Christ, Paul, etc.). That has certainly been the case for me. I recoil at the thought of the panic and depression I have endured over the past month and a half or so. It ‘s been so uncomfortable and miserable that it’s even hard to write about. I’m reminded that the Bible never gives a quick fix equation to the struggles we face, and even if it did, we don’t cling to it because it offers a fix. We cling to it because, although we live in a world of uncertainty and pain, it offers us the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ. Not a quick fix, but certainly an eternal one.
The next time I’m “too sick to pray”, it’s my hope that rather than looking for the blessings of this life, I’ll cling to the hope that is yet to come. And by knowing Christ and being known by him I’ll have all the blessing I need… even if life still sucks. We don’t follow for what Christ can do for us, but for what he has already done. And what he has already done is more than enough.