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What a Friend We Have in Jesus

We often like to speak, in Christian circles, about the God who descends, who comes down, who is somehow nearest to those on the bottom, those who find themselves on the wrong side of the score. The words roll off our churchy tongues almost too easily. Friend of sinners… Blessed are the poor, those who mourn… A bruised reed he will not break… Man of sorrows, familiar with suffering… I have not come for the healthy but for the sick… The list could go on and on. We are well acquainted with the idea that Jesus seemed far more comfortable with the “losers” than he did with the “winners.”

I wonder if we really appreciate what this means. I wonder if we ever really grasp the significance of the way in which God conducted himself when he showed up as Jesus. 

I suspect that some of us implicitly think that these attributes are kind of like the charitable side of God. Because we know, of course, that God is very, very big and very, very powerful and that God is the sovereign ruler over all that is. We know that God has a rather weighty list of tasks—universe supervision, the dispensation of blessings, supplying his creatures with suitably awesome evidence of his majesty in creation, providing the foundations for morality and aesthetics, etc., to name just a few. And on top of all this impressive stuff, God also cares for the weak and the poor! How very good of God, we think.

But this special concern for those on those on the bottom is not a kind of brief interlude in the life and nature of God—as if God periodically pauses from his ordinary, more God-like activities to spare a sentiment for the downtrodden. It expresses, I am convinced, the deepest, most transformative and powerful truth about who the God finally made fully known in Jesus Christ really is.

We could spend a lifetime plumbing the depths of what this actually means.  But whatever else it might mean, it at least means that those whose primary experience in life is of not fitting or not belonging or failing to measure up or of constantly struggling and straining are the ones who are, in some sense, closest to the very heart of God.

 The refugee whose primary experience of the world is dislocation and disorientation…

The poor young woman who wonders how she will possibly feed her children…

The lonely kid on the playground who nobody bothers to try to understand…

The social outcast who smells bad and stutters so terribly that he can’t have a normal conversation…

 The orphans of war…

The couple coping with the devastating loss of a child…

Those who face mental and physical disabilities…

The old woman groping through the fog of dementia, wondering why she can’t remember her husband’s name or face…

The middle-aged man who has failed at everything he has tried in life…

The homeless and poor…

The neglected, the unattractive, the forgettable…

The ones whose actions make it virtually impossible to like them…

If we believe—truly believe!—that Jesus gives us the truest and most accurate picture of what God is like, then we are saying that these are the people that God understands and identifies with in a unique way.  We are saying that sorrow and pain, rejection and are not human experiences that God is gracious enough to experience some temporary compassion over; rather, these are part of the very heart of who God is, the very heart of who and how God loves.

It means that God is a wounded lover, that there is a sadness that stretches over God’s very self, that the one who made the world is nearest to those who regularly feel that this world has no room for them.

What Jesus shows us is that descent is part of the very ontology of God.

I thought of these things as I spent some time this morning with a dying man. He is pretty nearly deaf, so I wrote a few things on a little white board and held it up for him. I asked him if he was at peace, if he was ready to go.  I asked him if he was afraid. A small smile crept over the corners of his mouth, and he shook his head slowly. I smiled, too. Of course he’s not afraid, I thought. He’s spent a lifetime with this God… He knows what this God is like and those to whom this God draws near… 

As I was leaving the care facility today I passed through a mostly empty atrium. There was a woman at a piano, and an old man in a wheelchair. His square head was topped with wispy silver hair. He had a colourful-checkered shirt and broad black suspenders. They made for an interesting sight, these two. Her back was to him as she played, and his wheelchair was sitting at a bit of angle, pointed off toward nowhere. Was it a chapel service? A sing-along? Was this old man the only one who had showed up? There had been a flu outbreak of some kind in the facility—perhaps he was the only one brave enough to venture out of his room.

But there he sat with this silver hair and his black suspenders. There he sat, singing out of key and at the top of his lungs.

What a friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear…

I stood and I watched this wondrous sight for a few minutes.  Here, I thought, is a choir truly fit for our king.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. mmartha #

    All of the world is so broken. On another website, we have been crushed by the sudden change of circumstances for a bishop. Suddenly she is in jail. And many have been grieved.
    Eugene Peterson in the intro to Ruth tells of her circumstances and the change in them; she comes into the line of Jesus’ ancestors. He said, Everyone counts. And although I do know God’s identification through Jesus is in the lowly, here so well illustrated, and I try to heed that, I think in so many ways that includes us all. He came down to lift us up, and to minister through all to all, to those obviously in the depths, to those whose depths are hidden from us.
    L’Arche has shown the ministry of the severely handicapped to the more abled. And I think you have said that well through the clear cameo of the man near the piano.

    January 14, 2015
    • I think in so many ways that includes us all. He came down to lift us up, and to minister through all to all, to those obviously in the depths, to those whose depths are hidden from us.

      Well said, Martha. We have a number of L’Arche folks in our church each week. They are a gift to us in so many ways.

      January 15, 2015
  2. mike #

    Great message, Ryan. ….Everyone counts

    January 14, 2015
  3. samantha #

    Thank you for this. I’d like to add “The ones living under the shadow of depression” to your list, because that is where I fit right now. Much of my depression is because I have deep philosophical doubts about God and about truth, and I am paralyzed by fear of the doubt and the possibility of relative truth. This makes it hard to trust anything that might be comforting, but I think I can allow myself a smidgen of faith in this Wounded Lover you describe. Thanks for shining a bit of light into my heart today.

    January 14, 2015
    • I’m really sorry to hear this, Samantha. I hope you have people in your life that you can talk to about these things. If not, I would strongly encourage you to reach out to someone in your area. Depression can be such an isolating experience. The questions plaguing you are deep and hard ones, but it is my opinion that in the deepest questions of life, all of us, regardless of our religious convictions, are operating in the realm of faith, not certainty. All of us must decide in which directions we will “lean” in the absence of the 100% proof that we would probably like. This can be paralyzing. It can also be liberating in that living an meaningful and hopeful life has less to do with being “right” or “certain” than it does with trust.

      I wish you well. I pray that the Wounded Lover will draw near to you in ways that are hopeful and liberating.

      January 15, 2015
    • mike #

      .”If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” -St. John of the Cross

      I can relate to everything you said, Samantha. I am learning to live with melancholy in a lonely “no-mans-land”, having had most of my long held religious beliefs stripped away by critical scholarship. But there are many others of us out there 😉 I have received great comfort from reading the stories of those who have gone through this same exact “wilderness” experience, I hope you will seek these out.
      For me, I’ve noticed that no matter how many doubts and serious questions I raise concerning God and “truth”, my core faith/belief in the “Higher Power” never goes away, it is a Gift to me from God himself that can’t be taken away no matter how much Doubt and confusion I manage to stir up, so then I can relax knowing this and continue to pursue and probe for spiritual knowledge and “Truth” all-the-while holding doubt and faith in tension with one another. There is a huge difference between having belief in a Theology with lots of iffy doctrines and dogma, and having a simple child-like Faith grown only from RELATIONSHIP with The Creator through His Christ.

      “Once some brothers came to visit Abba Anthony, and Joseph was with them. Abba Anthony began to speak about the Holy Scriptures. He asked the younger monks to speak about the meaning of the texts. Each of them gave an answer and to each he said “You have not yet found the right answer.” Then he said to Joseph, “What do you think this text means?” Joseph replied, “I don’t know.” Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Joseph alone has found the true way, for he said he did not know.” (Stories from the Desert Fathers)

      January 15, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Beautiful….I am angry with my step daughter today. At times considering harsh options. Time for her to strike out on her own I say to myself….give me some peace and one less headache, more like it….Thank you for this reminder of the superficial nature of anger. The reminder that our God is always present in the depths of all suffering. And that those who choose to follow God ought to be present in the suffering of others. Like the suffering that often occurs transferring from adolescence into adulthood.

    January 15, 2015
    • Thank you, Paul. We’re a bit earlier on the journey than you, but are already learning that teenagers require so much grace, patience, more grace…

      I wish you well with your step-daughter.

      January 15, 2015
      • Thanks, Ryan. This post sparked constructive dialogue between my step daughter and I and I thank you again for, “being here”. 🙂 Her “problem” as l see it seems insignificant to her. She is not going to graduate from high school this year as she should. The sole reason being lack of effort, intermittent skipping and casual pot smoking. She says she will catch up and that we need to give her another year. She is Egyptian born and has a bitter and broken relationship with her biological father. Raised initially in a strict Islamic environment until she was 10, finding her own voice and peer acceptance has been even more of a priority for her then it is for the average teen. Like most her age she does not yet see the damage to her future lack of education and effort will do. Like any loving parents her mother and I are trying to find ways to motivate her, expose her to some of the consequences of her choices, yet at the same time offering her something of a safety net in the hopes that, ” the light will go on” and her actions and efforts will start lining up with her desires for her future. Sadly offers of Christ are rebuked. She like so many others today does not see him present in the world. If she is to find Him at all, as this thread illustrates, it will be in the depths of despair. The place He is most visible to us…how it must the Lord’s desire that he meet us anywhere else but in the darkness of suffering but if that’s what it takes, that is where He will wait. In so many lives and ways His crucifixion is ongoing…. and so it goes…”patience, grace and more grace”, how true your words are. Thanks again for the reminder.

        January 16, 2015
      • Thank you, Paul. Yours is not an easy road. I pray that you might be one of the means through which your stepdaughter is able find Christ in the world.

        January 16, 2015
    • mike #

      I appreciate your comment as well as your wonderful perspective on things ,Paul.
      As someone who has helped raise step children, I know full well the “headache” they can be at times. I also know the psychological/emotional devastation that can eventually occur if a healthy Coping Mechanism(such as yours) isn’t employed sooner rather than later. My Brother-in-law Jim is a prime example of the disastrously ill effects produced by the sustained “pressure” often present in blended families. My sisters boys are outlaws, always into something that involves breaking the Law. For a number of years Jim has had to endure the stress of round the clock drama, whether it is the cops beating on the door or shady characters in and out of the house at all hours, just to mention a few. About 3 years ago I began to notice a drastic change in Jims personality, he started to exhibit pronounced anxiety and paranoia indicative of PTSD/Anxiety Neurosis (ex. late night roaming the house going from window to window, gun in hand, “checking” on things. Increasingly Jim had sought relief from the stress of dealing with his dysfunctional home life through various prescription medications and Alcohol, eventually becoming “dependent” (he failed a treatment/recovery attempt). Currently he spends most of his time in bed(Jim is retired), sleeping 16-18 hours a day, he has voiced suicidal thoughts, he is un-kept and often smells, he looks terrible…Jim is the victim of a psychological breakdown from enduring the relentless pressure and aggravation of his sad home life, I have little hope for him barring a miraculous Divine intervention, but he says he doesn’t really believe in a “God”.

      January 15, 2015
      • Thank you for your kind words, Mike. Likewise I am thankful for your voice around here. There is always wisdom and charity in your writing that is useful to the old, “hardass” I can sometimes be. I will pray for Jim. Perhaps, if you think it wise, you could persist in relationship with him and continue to offer Christ
        If he is still lucid he is definitely at an age where the, “what good have your other choices done you” , argument should resonate. If nothing else a kind voice and some companionship is always a good tonic. God be with you.

        January 16, 2015

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