Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Healing a Leper (ca. 1650-1655), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The following parable was inspired by Mark 1:40-45.
There once were two lepers. One obeyed the Law of Moses, keeping far from other people. The other broke the Law of Moses by going up to a healer and begging to be healed. After the healer touched him and cured him of his leprosy, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone about his healing. The healer told him to obey the Law, show himself to a priest, and offer an appropriate sacrifice for his healing. Again, the man disobeyed. Instead of going to the priest and offering a sacrifice, he blabbed to everyone about what the healer had done, even though the healer told him not to. As word spread of the leper’s healing, people flocked to the healer so much so that he had to stay in lonely places outside towns.
One day as the healer was wandering alone he saw in the distance the leper who obeyed the Law of Moses. Upon seeing the healer, the leper began to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” The healer tried to approach the leper to heal him, but the man ran away.
The healer stood there dumbfounded. He was able to heal the sinful leper who broke the Law, but he couldn’t heal the righteous leper who kept the Law.
The Large Blue Horses (1911), oil on canvas, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I step into the painting of the four blue horses. / I am not even surprised I can do this.
One of the horses walks toward me. / His blue noses noses me lightly. I put my arm / over his blue mane, not holding on, just / commingling. / He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. / I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses what war is. / They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. / I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. / Maybe the desire to make something beautiful / is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me / as if they have secrets to tell. / I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. / If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what / could they possibly say?
Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York, Penguin, 2017), p. 21.
My wife Amelia was reminiscing about a time when her father went to a water park. He was already retired by that time, yet his inner child came out to play. Having plunged 100 feet down a water slide, he emerged from the water with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. That made me think, When was the last time I experienced this kind of childlike joy? I couldn’t remember. Sure, there are things I’ve enjoyed doing but nothing that prompted a belly laugh, jumping up and down, or that I’m-going-to-Disneyland open-mouthed smile.
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This bit of wisdom is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When someone quoted Honest Abe recently, it made me think maybe happiness isn’t something spontaneous that just happens. Perhaps it’s a choice we make. I spent the week trying to make up my mind to be happy. It worked. Sort of. Making a concerted effort to be happy improved my mental state, a little. But it didn’t evoke the kind of childlike glee I felt I was missing.
I decided to follow the example of one of my favorite saints, St. Augustine, who obeyed the voice of a child and was converted. In my case, the child was my twenty-year-old daughter Maddy, hardly a little kid but someone who still knows how to have a good time. Her older sister Nadine and I visited her last weekend at Virginia Military Institute for Family Weekend. Several times Maddy said she wanted to go to the Safari Park in Natural Bridge, VA. Finally, on Sunday afternoon I gave in (when her sister agreed to pay the steep admission fee!). Driving through the park was fun and I enjoyed watching my two grown daughters delight in feeding the animals through the car windows, but it still wasn’t doing a whole lot for me. I’d been to a real safari park in Africa a little over a year ago.
At the end of our drive-through safari adventure, we parked and visited the walk-through zoo. It was hot and I was ready to leave. Then I saw the aviary filled with colorful little birds called budgies (aka common parakeets). We went in. That’s when it happened. I little blue bird landed on my arm and started gentle nibbling at my skin. Another landed on my shoulder and nibbled at my neck. A big grin came across my face. I think God was smiling too.
Is happiness a choice or just something that happens to you? It’s both. One of the keys to happiness is spending time with people you care about. Another is experiencing new things. Telling yourself to be happy can help a little, but creating the conditions for happiness helps a lot.
Living a good life doesn’t mean laughing all the time. The Bible says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.” We’re surprised by both joy and sorrow. If you’re a glass-half-empty person like me, weeping comes more naturally. Laughing takes effort. But it’s worth it.
For the past seven or eight months, I’ve been in therapy. Not because there’s anything wrong with me. I’m not schizophrenic, bipolar, neurotic, alcoholic, nor am I thinking of harming myself or others. So why did I start seeing a psychologist? As I approached the big five-oh (which I’m thankful to have behind me), I was struggling with issues of identity. Who am I? What do I want to be? While I’m still working on answers, wrestling with those questions has led me to a career change, which I discussed in my last post.
One of the benefits of no longer being a pastor is getting to hear other people preach. The sermon this morning concerned issues of identity. In the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus quizzes Simon Peter, asking who people say he (Jesus) is, then asking Peter his opinion. Peter’s answer to the question earns him praise, not because he studied for the test and made an A, but because someone whispered the right answer in his ear: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). Grace, not nature (“flesh and blood”), enlightened Peter’s understanding of Jesus’s identity. And that grace came from Peter’s relationship with God (“my Father in heaven”). The preacher made the point that to know Jesus the way Peter did we must be willing to follow Peter’s life and example. He ended his message with this: “How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to know Jesus the way Peter did?” Good question.
Peter followed the Lord closely but imperfectly. When Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus to save his own skin. St. John Chrysostom speculated that Peter “fell into sin so that, remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.” Acknowledging our own sins allows us to do the same. Confession and repentance not only build self-knowledge and humility, they also develop empathy and encourage us to show mercy.
Studying today’s Bible lesson inevitably leads us to turn the main question back on ourselves: Who am I? It’s a difficult question. As with the original question, the right answer doesn’t come from preparation but from grace. The phrase “know thyself” was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi. The inscription implies that self-knowledge is an essential part of worship. That doesn’t mean religion is primarily self-focused. It isn’t about us. But as we grow in our knowledge and love of God and others, we also grow in our knowledge and love of ourselves.
U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.
Sorting through boxes in our basement to downsize ahead of a move, I came across a research paper I wrote in high school on the Third Seminole Indian War. You’ve probably never heard of it. Most folks haven’t. Even those who grew up in Florida, as I did, know little, if anything, about the Seminole Wars which began two hundred years ago. Attending Osceola Middle School, named after a famous Seminole leader, made me curious to learn more. In the eighth grade I pulled a book off the display shelf in my school library and couldn’t put it down. Even when the bell rang I sat cross-legged on the library floor, engrossed in the book on my lap: History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. My fascination with the Seminole Wars inspired a family trip to the Dade Battlefield in Bushnell and more visits to the library.
After high school, I kept my love of history but moved on from U.S. military history to other interests. Eventually I earned a PhD in history. My specialization was about as far from U.S. military history as possible: sixteenth-century German religious and cultural history. After five years of college teaching and not securing a coveted tenure-track job, I applied for and was offered a position at the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) in Washington, D.C. I turned it down but regretted my decision afterward. Five years later another career opportunity opened up at CMH. Again I was offered a job. This time I took it.
My interest in history has come full circle. Once hooked by U.S. Army history, I am now a U.S. Army historian. I get a kick out of the fact that I, a Navy Reserve Chaplain and non-combatant, am researching and writing about Army combat operations. God must have a sense of humor.