Signs of Desperation and Hope

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John 4:46-54

It was his last hope, his “hail Mary pass”—he was desperate. His son is dying… and he was ready to do anything, anything to save his own son. The royal official had heard that the one who worked a miracle of changing water into wine had returned to Cana… 20 miles from where he lived. It would take a while to travel but his son was dying. It would be worth the trip if this miracle worker lived up to his reputation. Word was, he had powers beyond that of an ordinary human. They said that he had the power to heal. He wasn’t sure what to make of this story of this rabbi. He wasn’t one to believe you know. He wasn’t Jewish or someone who was known for faith. In fact, he was likely in the service of Herod Antipas–  the same Antipas who Jesus would later meet on Good Friday. This does not seem like someone who would be turning to Jesus.

And yet… this was the reality… his son was dying… and he was desperate… perhaps ready to risk everything—professional and personal credibility and integrity… risking what others would say about him… by trying to get a miracle from the one who turned water into wine.

Of course, you and I would do the same thing if it were our child dying,wouldn’t we?  Downton Abby fans… think of Lord Grantham, the proud patriarch.  Don’t you think even he would have begged Jesus, if he could, to save his daughter Sybil?

So I’m not surprised that the Royal official turns to Jesus—even if he was a Jewish Rabbi. Desperate times, they say lead to desperate measures. He had no where else to turn.

Which, you have to admit, is when we often turn to God…we only do this when things spiral out of our  control.

Most of us, when times are tough, first try to handle things on our own… ( or in the words of a toddler: “I can do it all by myself”)   It is part of our human frailty… or our ego… call it what you will… that we seem to exhaust all options before we give God a try. But when all else fails, we turn to God… we resort to prayer.

They say no one will ever take prayer out of the schools as long as there are exams. I bet more than one student here has prayed,  “Lord, I know I didn’t study hard enough, but please help me pass this exam.”

Or maybe you have tried everything as a parent to help your child who is struggling, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually… you have bought all the books, done everything in your power and you still feel helpless… or maybe you have been trying to figure out how to save your marriage or a relationship dear to you… again, you’ve read all the books in the world on the subject… and finally you pray—maybe it is the first time you have prayed in a long time, and maybe it is the most honest prayer you’ve ever prayed in your life… and it sounds  something like this:  “Lord, I have tried everything to fix this situation. I give up. Only you can pull this one out of the fire.”

Or in the words of Anne Lamott in her new book: “Help me.”[1]

Anne has known more than her fair share of pain, addiction, dysfunction and loss.  She knows what it is like to turn to God in desperation and cry out,

 “Help me!”

She says, “When…my other friends (agnostic and religious alike) and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer. We say, “Help”

We say, “Help, this is really all too much, or I am going slowly crazy, or I can’t do this, or I can’t stop doing this, or I can’t feel anything…When we reach the bottom or end of our rope, or just don’t know how to cope, or when something as devastating as a hurricane washes over our lives and turns everything inside out, then we cry out or whisper “help”…And then, then the door is open to sense the loving listening ear of God.”

To which I might add, that the door is open to healing, hope and renewal that can only come from the Lord.

I enjoyed this book so much I gave it to our children for Christmas.

I was talking to our son about the book and he said he picked up an idea from Anne that he is putting into practice. He has begun using her idea of a God box—a prayer box.

Have you ever heard of that? Maybe you will want to try it, we are going to try it later in the service.. perhaps you might use the idea as a Lenten practice…

Anne says it is a tool she has used for letting go in prayer for 25 years. She has used every imaginable container: a pill box, to her car’s glove box, to decorative boxes… “A God box is a Kleenex-sized container. On a note, she says she writes down the name of the person “about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it.  I might have a brief moment of prayer that it might sound like this: “Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how to best proceed.”

Funny thing, she explains: “The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something… With a God box, you’re finally announcing to the universe that you can’t do it, that you have ruined things enough for the time being.”

She says, “Over the past few years, I’ve put a lot of slips of paper in that basket—naming people and situations that I couldn’t seem to release by ordinary means. For some reason, taking that simple, concrete action often does the trick. Sometimes, I almost mistake the God basket for the “donation” basket. I’m about to put my dollar in it when I realize my mistake. But maybe it’s not really such a mistake. Putting a prayer in the basket is a little like putting an offering in the plate at church. It’s a sacrifice of faith. It’s a way of saying to God, I trust you to do with this exactly as you see fit.”

Help me. The first great prayer that led the official to Jesus… maybe it is the first prayer that has led many of us to the Lord… and has led many to find healing.

What amazes me about Jesus in this story is that Jesus listens to us—and acts for us… even in our desperation, even when he is our last option. He does not respond with words like: “Well, why didn’t you come to me in the first place?”  or

“Seeing that you wanted to do everything on your own, I am washing my hands of you.” Or, one of my personal favorites, “You made your bed, now lie in it.”

No, Jesus acts in grace… Jesus works in ways to bring hope to the hopeless… to bring life to our situations of desperation.  Doing what God does best: bringing life out of death. Sometimes bringing life even in the midst of death, where death is imminent. The Lord meets us where we are… seeking to make a way where there seems to be no way…

If you read John’s gospel you’ll see Jesus do this again and again. John  calls these signs… his gospel is filled with signs…to bring hope to people.

Anne shared how one of these signs came to her.

She was going to meet two close friends, Barbara and Susie for a walk, or rather a stroll and roll, as Barbara has Lou Gehrig’s disease.Anne says, as you can only say to a close friend, ‘I have pointed out to her, Lou Gehrig’s is the one disease you are supposed to actively try to avoid. But she went ahead and got a full-blown case, which has come to mean she uses a walker, feeding tubes and a computerized speaking device called Kate that works through her iPad.

So Susie drove us to see the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.

“I had not yet settled down into what is true—that Barbara is pretty sick and getting worse—when we arrived the view was socked in with fog. We gamely got out of the car anyway and on top of everything, the Lou Gehrig’s, the fog, my anxious sorrow… there was a cold wind… It was all hopeless. I had no choice but to pray. “This is all a mess”, I said to God. “I love these two women so much, and I had had such high hopes for connection and joy today. Help.”

And I got my (sign), my divine revelation:

We all needed to get back into the car immediately… then, at some point the warmth and golden sun flooded through the car windows… and Susie drove us around the neighborhood and from inside we took in the brilliant and beautiful flower gardens. We found the one perfect spot at the foot of the steps, where we could spend as much time as we liked taking in all of the beauty of the flowers and the ocean. We all got so happy. We talked about real things for an hour: life, death, families, feeding tubes, faith. I asked Barbara, who does not eat food anymore, “What are you most grateful for these days?” She typed on her iPad, and Kate’s mechanical voice spoke for her: “The beauty of nature, the birds and flowers, the beauty of friends.’

This is called radical gratitude in the face of whatever life throws at you. This is a sign of redemption and renewal and life breaking through the most desperate of times.

For Anne, this was the sign of hope she needed.

The Lord would also give us this gift in out times of desperation. That’s what John wants us to know. John fills his gospel with signs meant to lead to a deeper faith and to new life… new hope.

How do I know? He tells us so! At the end of his book, he tells the readers:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have LIFE in his name.”

Whether it be in a moment of desperation or even a moment of sheer joy, may our eyes be open to the signs of the Lord’s presence among us, and may the Lord grant us the faith to trust… to believe… so that we too may receive the gift of life… especially in the most desperate moments of our lives. Amen.

[1] Help, Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers


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