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Theological Identity Theft

Perhaps it was merely a symptom of Lent given all that “mortification of the flesh” talk we hear at this time of year, but lately it seems that my credit card has been having a whole lot more fun than me. The initial clue came to us a few hours before dawn last Monday when the BlackBerry cradled on the nightstand chirped and I found myself talking with a Fraud Protection specialist working the graveyard shift at a global call center located somewhere on the Indian subcontinent. Speaking with an impeccable version of the Queen’s English, he worked through a daffy series of those account-security verification questions designed to make certain that he was speaking with the sole and properly authorized guardian of Dr. Crosno’s American Express card. But after he successfully interrogated me regarding my mother’s maiden name, the date and standard gift designated for our most recent wedding anniversary (um, is it supposed to be paper or plastic when you get past the first 35 or 40 years?), as well as the fore and aft shoe size of my first pet rabbit; the young gentleman speaking with that very proper, accented voice straight out of the British Raj let me know that regretfully he simply had completely dreadful news to relay. For apparently while I had been sleeping sound as a stone here in Spokane, my credit card had been running wild out on the town way down south in La La Land, eagerly racking up a series of $250 tabs for Uber rides all night long in a state that I last visited back when Dubya was still living at the White House.

Honestly, who would have known that my credit card would be opting for such an impressively cosmopolitan night life? Thankfully, in very short order the nice man from Fraud Protection had given assurance that we would not be held responsible for those credit card charges that were presumably being run up by some enterprising young hacker who was just then quite busily crisscrossing Los Angeles with a ne’er-do-well posse of slightly inebriated friends. But looking back now, I’m also hoping that none of this will entangle me in one of those rogue intelligence service investigations regarding Russian wiretapping. Yet if you were to ask me for my honest opinion, the entire episode sounds more like I simply got set up to be a designated driver for some sort of Nerd Prom. Because in the end, while the initial news that my American Express account had clearly been compromised did not prove to be quite as dreadful as that Fraud Protection specialist first feared, it was definitely not the way I had planned the beginning of a new week at O-Dark-Thirty on that Monday morning. So, with that kind of famously British, stiff-upper-lip attitude, my new Indian phone friend could have bid me a posh, “Cheers, Old Chap,” farewell after responding to that unexpected moment of adversity. Instead, what I do remember him say came out something like, “Sorry Dude, but you’ve been hacked.” And just like that, without knowing why or even how it had happened, we unexpectedly found ourselves the newly minted victims of what people call an identity theft.

Precisely because it is now the season of Lent, I know that this is not exactly a new problem. The other day, for example, the assigned Gospel reading from the Daily Office Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer held dear by our spiritual forefather, John Wesley, transported me back to the story of an invalid man waiting daily for a miraculous healing at Jerusalem’s ancient pool of Bethzatha. The Gospel storyteller known to us as John rather laconically notes that the man had been laying paralyzed next to the pool for 38 years, which does seem to be a rather long time to wait for a miracle, if I can be completely truthful. You probably remember the explanation for his patience. Local legend had it that from time to time an angel from the Lord would reach out on behalf of the Almighty to stir the placid waters of that miraculous pool with whatever it is that an angel might have in the way of fingers. In fact, the footnote providing verse four of that fifth chapter of John even goes on to report the kind of pop theology conjecture that sounds like it would fit right in with what any of us might be picking up in the latest bestselling volume of the DaVinci-Purpose-Driven-Shack-of-Jabez. For what the story says about what is really going on (no matter what the rabbi might have tried to teach you way back in Sabbath School over at the synagogue), is that when that chronologically creative angel finally shows up to trouble the water in the Pool of Bethzatha, the very first person who manages to dive right in becomes the one and only person that God chooses to miraculously heal. Or, if you will allow me to put a little finer point on the matter: The local legend of Bethzatha offers up a pop religion that tends to only bless and reward folks who already enjoy a pretty solid base of advantage, rather than providing any real hope for people who have no choices and opportunities apart from the undeserved grace of God. Because if you have to be quick at getting wet in order to get well, all the smart money over at the Pool of Bethzatha will always be plunked down on the people suffering from ingrown hang-nails or chapped lips as the likely recipients of some fresh miracle rather than that forlorn fellow who has been lying next to the pool, completely paralyzed for the last 38 years. So stop me if you’ve already heard about this kind of religion. But I tend to suspect that there will always remain plenty of places you can still go, if like the haggard folks languishing in misery around that ancient Pool of Bethzatha you are only expecting the kind of stingy faith that rewards the already fortunate while stiffing the truly down-and-out. If we ever get honest about this kind of approach, perhaps we will also find the courage to admit that when it does not work for everybody, it should never qualify as truly Good News for anybody.

Here is the thing that sticks in my craw whenever I read this story: I see no reason to suspect that the Reign of God that Jesus was inaugurating was ever envisioned as a winner-take-all operation. Whenever Jesus actually does show up, what he instead seems to have in mind appears to bypass every kind of huckster religion straightaway. Rather than stealing hope from desperate people in need, the Kingdom that Jesus announces begins by indiscriminately casting the blessings of God upon the very people most of us tend to write off under bold print banners that read: Nothing More Can Be Done.  So from the very beginning, the Beatitudes of this strange, new Kingdom completely invert our usual calculus regarding the good fortunes of the blessed life: The poor in spirit are enviable rather than bankrupt, the bereaved and mourning can expect comfort, and the humble meek turn out to be proud owners of the very things money can never buy. In short, losers turn out to be winners precisely because the game has always been rigged.  For in the Kingdom of God, the children of the King will always be playing with House money.  And this undeserved grace (as if there is ever really any other kind) that Jesus seems to insist on lavishing upon broken people poses a stiff and absolutely necessary challenge to that kind of bogus, pop mythology that passes for spirituality down at the Pool of Bethzatha.

By now, you know that I am preaching rather than simply telling you the Story, so let me turn back once again to what the Gospel narrator has to say about the day that Jesus met up with the man who had been waiting 38 years for a miracle that would change his life. The text indicates that Jesus does not seem to be too interested in either popular theology or its legendary footnotes. Jesus simply shows up that day to ask the paralyzed man a rather impertinent question: “Do you want to be made well?” What first seems to be at issue is the matter of that man’s theological identity. After all, who are you really, once you admit that you have, in effect, been sitting paralyzed for some 38 years while waiting for your life to magically change for the better? Who would you actually be if the central fact of your life, the very way that you are at present and always have been, is actually still open to question and even open to new possibility?

Perhaps you remember the man’s exasperated response. He begins to explain to Jesus that his healing will never quite be possible or even likely until he finds someone able and willing to help him into the pool at that unpredictable moment when the Lord’s own angel stops by to stir the miraculous waters. You might say that the man seems to have adopted a way of thinking and acting that Michael Marsh once described in speaking about the “As Soon As” life. In fact, maybe you already know what this As Soon As life will often sound like in actual, daily practice:

As soon as the water bubbles, then I will get up off my mat;

As soon as I get to the water, my life will automatically be better;

As soon as I get into the water, all my problems will be fixed;

As soon as I finally graduate, get a job, or get my dream job;

As soon as I get married, or get out of this unhealthy relationship;

As soon as I have more free time, more spending money, or a much better house;

As soon as he changes the way he acts, or she decides to apologize;

As soon as I feel better, or get through this difficult time in my life;

As soon as they get serious about doing what I want;

As soon as I get a vacation, retire, or move away to the coast;

As soon as I get over this grief and no longer feel sad all the time;

As soon as I lose ten pounds and finally get in shape.

As Soon As . . . well, you can fill in the blank with almost anything, for there is always something that we can be waiting for down at the Pool of Bethzatha. But meanwhile, the toxic illusion hidden in this As Soon As type of living usually serves to put the actual demands and opportunities of daily existence on hold. We end up pushing the Pause button until somebody like Jesus comes along to raise an existential question regarding whether or not we are ready for a new and significantly healthier sense of self-identity. And in that interim, all the real living that waits just beyond our grasp is left to those nimble enough to keep moving rather than settling for identities largely determined by what has, or has not, happened for us in those places that we became stuck. In fact, I suspect that it is likely that all of us do manage to get stuck at times, so maybe we will need to come up with a new bumper sticker that confesses something like: Stuckness happens! But the real point perhaps remains to be found in the way we might respond to the conditions we inhabit. What happens, in other words, once you come to realize that you have been spending more time than you would have ever thought possible waiting upon a visit by some inscrutable, unscheduled angel?

Because it is Lent, let me at least be clear that none of this is meant to suggest that your life becomes an urgent matter decided only by self-help, positive mental attitude, multi-vitamins, and good weather conditions. Remember, we already described that desperate scene around the Pool of Bethzatha as yet one more way to blame real victims while congratulating the folks fortunate enough to be born on third base who mistakenly came to believe that they smashed a triple on their very first time up to bat. No, the story of a paralyzed man finally healed after 38 years is not a testimony of praise for people who helped themselves, pulling themselves up by their own moral bootstraps. In the Gospel story that I’ve been reading and thinking through this week, the paralyzed man was never healed because he had done something for himself. He was only healed because Jesus helped him; maybe because God remains simply grace-bent on trying to reach and save sinners who have lost their sense of identity as beloved children of the Almighty due to the staggering blows they have suffered in this world.

What in heaven’s name are we supposed to do about all these victims, all these downcast people who can no longer remember their identity as beloved children of God? I don’t know about you, but I can think of a whole bunch of folks, hurting people who long ago bailed out on institutional religion; people who left the Church to spend the rest of their days waiting down at the Pool. But then, here is some really Good News to remember this Lent: When they went to the Pool, so did Jesus! 

Jeff Crosno