I spent time with a friend today. The weather is beautiful here right now. Autumnal perfection. It’s easy to sink into contemplation when straddling seasons. It feels a bit like summer but not quite. The bright, red Maple leaves announce the coming fall temperatures. it’s a time of transition. We are tempted to look back upon the last season and, at the same time, we are either hopeful about the future or anxious about the upcoming holiday frenzy. This time of year is laden with meaning for many.
Our conversation drifted to the topic of service dogs. She trains service dogs among other things, and the United States has few regulations around the service dog industry unlike Canada. I have watched her train two service dogs, and I now have a better understanding around what it really means to need a service dog and what services these dogs provide. There should be regulations. It’s very costly to train and handle a service dog. The notion that psychiatric service dogs are being requested came up, and this is controversial. Should those with mental health issues have a service dog? A service dog is only provided to those who physically cannot perform a certain task, but, at the same time, can handle the dog. Under what circumstances would a person with mental health issues require the aid of a service dog? The idea was put forth that a person with an anxiety disorder might want a service dog. Why? To feel better? That isn’t a service dog issue. That’s a therapy issue. That’s a self-care issue. What if they were having an anxiety attack? If a person has anxiety attacks that are so debilitating that they cannot find and take their Ativan, then how will a service dog help them? This is still a therapy issue. That person most likely has a panic disorder and requires a different sort of intervention requiring different medications, appropriate psychiatric care, CBT/DBT, a support group, as well as family/peer support. This is not a service dog issue. This is, once again, up to the person. This is a will issue.
I have met a fair amount of people who talk a good game, but when push comes to shove their good game is just that. A game. Underneath the talk and Christianese and psychobabble is an insidious passivity that enables some sort of mindset that permits self-victimization. This is what makes a person think that a service dog is a better idea than attending a DBT Support Group. After all, a service dog isn’t going to say anything when you lie on the couch bingeing on Oreos watching a “Breaking Bad” marathon marinating in self-pity because no one has called you to see how you’re doing. Never mind that you haven’t called anyone to see how they’re doing. But, a DBT Support Group? What would they say? They would use phrases like “distress tolerance” and “emotional regulation” and “personal responsibility”.
Something I have come to call “responsible religion” has a wonderful way of cutting through all the bullshit. We see an example of this in the New Testament text of John 5. Jesus was in Jerusalem. He strolled past the pool of Bethesda where many sick people would gather for legend had it that when the water moved an angel had touched it. The first person to get into the water would be healed. Jesus saw a man who had been coming to this pool for over thirty years. He approached him and asked, “Do you want to get well?” That’s a powerful question. That’s a question aimed at the will and the heart. “What do you really want here?”
“What would you do to get well?”
When I was growing up, attending Vacation Bible School, going to Lutheran Summer Camp in the wilderness, and church hopping, there was one tenet that was always driven home with a fury. If you want to follow Christ, then you must count the cost. Count the cost! There is a cost to discipleship! I never really understood what that meant. I just felt afraid. I thought that perhaps God would send me off to a lonely, undiscovered country to live amongst cannibals. I would die with a Bible in my hand tied to a spit. Perhaps the cost might be giving up all my desires and living a solitary life. No husband. No cats. No children. I would die a virgin spinster never having tasted the joy of having had a true adventure. What would God demand of me? What price would He make me pay? What cross would He cause me to bear in the name of sanctified holiness?
Fortunately, I had it all wrong. Do you know what the cost is? I had to answer the question. “Do you want to get well?” It might seem easy enough, but when you are asked directly what you really want it’s suddenly not so simple anymore. If you really want to be well, then there really is a cost. True health costs you something. True spiritual, mental, intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being might cost you everything. It means that there are now no more excuses for, well, anything. It means that you have to find your will forsaking all forms of passivity, self-pity, shifting the blame, and negative thinking for something else. No more victim thinking. No more regrets. No more looking back and wishing you had taken a different road. There is only now. And, what if now is a mess?
What if your relationships are in ruins? What if you are addicted to approval? What if you are addicted to anything? What if you are living a secret life? What if you are bullied by your family? What if you are the bully? What if you are trapped in a life that you didn’t choose, or you chose it but hate it? What if you hate your spouse? What if you hate yourself? The point is this is your life. No one else’s. If you are unhappy, then it’s your responsibility to take care of that.
This is the cost. It’s the cold slap in the face of extraordinary personal responsibility. What does it truly mean to be created in the image of God? To carry the breath of God within you? It means to be empowered among other things.
Empowerment and victimization are mutually exclusive. What did I want? I wanted peace. I wanted joy. I wanted healthy relationships. I wanted clear thinking. Did it cost me something? Yes. Does leaving behind codependent relationships, learned helplessness, and old thought patterns cause pain and subsequent grief? Yes, but this is the calling. We exchange one thing for another. If we want to be healed, then we must exchange our infirmities for that which will provide healing. Like the man by the pool of Bethesda, we have to be prepared to answer the question, “Do you want to be well?” and then do whatever it takes to get there.
The profoundly good news here is that there is an empowering presence available to us. We need only ask. God’s grace, that empowering presence, is given freely to us. We don’t earn it. It’s not given to us because we’ve performed well. His empowering presence is given to us because it pleases God to save us. He sees each of us as we are and as we will be. He stands in the space of our future development beckoning us forward, whispering to our hearts through our longings, leading us on with cords of kindness, He gives us a taste of His goodness through experiences of joy and unexpected provisions. “Do you see that I am good?” He loves us through the extraordinary kindness of people. “Do you see that I am kind?” And then He makes you an offer that you can refuse when you come face to face with your pain. “Deny yourself the pleasure of pity. Deny yourself the masochistic rush of reveling in regret again. Deny yourself the self-flagellation. Deny yourself the accusations. Deny yourself the hatred. Deny yourself the avoidance and hiding in the darkness of escapist fantasies. Deny yourself the shame. I see you. I love you. I have plans for your life. They are good plans. You have a future full of hope. (see Jeremiah 29:11)”
And it all starts with that one question.
“Do you want to get well?”
There are some days I have to think hard about that question because sometimes the road feels hard, and it’s lonely. Pursuing God and a better life has cost me a lot. I’ve lost much, but what have I gained? I exchanged profound fear for peace and rest. I exchanged victimization for empowerment. I exchanged self-pity for self-esteem. I exchanged despair for hope. I exchanged grief for joy. I exchanged confusion for clarity. I exchanged passive silence for active communication. I wanted to get well, and I wanted an authentic relationship with God. There are a plethora of false Gods in the world–Aryan God, Milquetoast God, Nice Guy God, Mean God, Hippie God, Neo-Conservative Evangelical God, Liberal God, Lutheran God, Convenient God, Friendly God, Scary God, Baptist God, and even Elvis God and anti-Semitic God and all the others. With all these Gods from which to choose, I can’t help but think of this:
“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’
‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let Me in either.”
― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out
So, how did the story of the man at the pool of Bethesda end?
He never really answered Jesus’ question directly. He had been afflicted with paralysis for over 30 years, but every day he had someone bring him to that pool in hopes that he would be the one to make it to the water first. Ponder this for a moment. How does a paralyzed man get to be the first one into the water if there are many other infirmed people lying around the pool just waiting for the waters to stir? It won’t happen, and that was his answer. “There is no one here to lift me into the water should the water stir but I come here anyway.” So, Jesus healed him on the spot. The best the man could do was show up. And in his showing up Jesus showed up. In our small efforts, God shows up. Sometimes extravagantly.
And, you know what? Sometimes that’s all we can do–show up. And that’s often the first and best place to start.