Overcoming The Odds
One day, when the popularity of Jesus was at its peak, the Master stopped at a friend's house in the city of Capernaum. The word of his whereabouts spread like wildfire. His reputation as a teacher and a healer had made him famous.
About midday, down the dusty road, leading toward the city, came four men, carrying a paralyzed friend on a stretcher. They had come a long way to see Jesus with great expectations. But when they arrived they were disappointed to find that the house was full, the windows were jammed with people peering in from the outside, and a long line of hopefuls stretched out in the hot sun.
The Bible does not mention a conversation between these men. But there must have been quite a discussion going on between them as they tried to decide what to do next.
The first man might have said, "Well, we've done the best that we can do. The hot sun is unbearable. We might as well take our friend back home. Perhaps we could come back tomorrow." But the man on the stretcher stopped him before he could finish. "Let's not jump to conclusions too fast," he said. A second stretcher bearer said, "Well, let's go to the end of the line and wait. Toward evening some of these people will drift away and we will be able to enter the house and see Jesus." But the man on the stretcher protested, "I've been waiting in lines all of my life; and whenever my turn comes it's always too late." Then the third stretcher bearer spoke. He was a man of great piety. "We've come this far by faith," he said, "so we can't turn back. Why don't we quietly sing a few hymns and pray awhile? The lord will make a way for us." But the man on the stretcher spoke up, "I really don't feel like singing right now and I pray without ceasing."
But before he could finish what he wanted to say, the fourth stretcher bearer showed up. He hadn't heard any of the conversation. He had been probing the premises, looking around the building, to see if there were other possibilities. Gathering his friends in a close knit circle, he started to speak in a low voice. "Around the other side of the house," he said, "where there are no windows and no door, there is no crowd. We could lift our paralyzed friend up on the roof, open up the ceiling, and let him down at the very feet of Jesus."
Well, as you might imagine, there was an immediate chorus of disagreement. The other three stretcher bearers, almost in unison, exclaimed, "It won't work. As soon as someone sees us or hears us, they'll call the cops and we'll all end up in jail!"
Such a chorus of disagreement is not unusual. New ideas are frequently greeted with reticence, fear, or downright opposition. Even though the present course of action is stymied, people often resist change, saying, "We never did it this way before." Or they'll dig up the history of past failures, saying, "We tried it once and it didn't work."
But, thank God, that paralyzed man on the stretcher was desperate and determined. "Let's go for it," he said in a firm whisper. His insistent tone shamed the reluctant stretcher bearers. One by one they gave their consent. Once they were agreed, they began to work together.
They had a brief prayer with their eyes wide open. Then, before anyone inside or outside of the building understood what was happening, they saw a man on a stretcher coming down out of the sky through a hole in the roof. The author of the Gospel of Mark says, "When Jesus saw their faith" he was pleased. Jesus may have been disturbed by the mess they caused as the crumbling clay from the roof pelted the people who were gathered inside the house, but the Master admired their insistent determination.
The Bible says that Jesus looked down at the paralyzed man on the stretcher and said, "Thy sins be forgiven thee." But, I imagine, he also looked up at the stretcher bearers, peeping through the hole in the roof, and included them in his word of forgiveness.
A few critical Pharisees, who were present, questioned the power of Jesus to forgive sin. Then Jesus, in order to demonstrate his extraordinary divine endowment, said to the paralyzed man on the stretcher, "Rise, take up thy bed and walk." Slowly the man stood up on his feet with a smile. Then he reached down, gathered up his stretcher, and began to walk. The people inside and outside of the house were amazed. With one voice they exclaimed, " We have never seen anything like this before!"
In his national best seller, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck begins by saying, "Life is difficult." Then he goes on to add that "Once we understand that life is difficult, we transcend it. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult", he says, "it no longer matters." Then he goes on to provide us with an extraordinary menu of helpful suggestions. That sounds easy, but when you're paralyzed, lying on a stretcher, beyond the reach of health care systems or human assistance, you need more than a good attitude. You need a miracle.
That entourage of stretcher bearers who received the healing and forgiving miracle of Jesus in Capernaum long ago had what it takes to turn losers into winners. They had a prayerful determination, a commitment to cooperate, a workable plan; a willingness to risk trying a new idea and the availability of a divine miracle.
There are millions of people in this world who are filled with rage, afflicted with depression and who are perpetually angry because they believe that life is not only difficult—it is unfair. It's like the feeling that wells up in a ball player or a coach who believes that the umpires, who are chosen to enforce the rules, are against them.
It is here that the miracle of God's grace applies. Grace, in Christian theological experience, is the aggressive action of the love of God toward us, which is described in many ways. For example, we talk about "prevenient grace," which is the ever present witness of the spirit of God toward every human being, everywhere on earth, all of the time.
Then there is what we call "sufficient grace," which helps us to bear our infirmities. "Justifying grace" is what we have received through the redemptive action of Jesus on the Cross. "Sanctifying grace" assists each true believer to become all that God intends for us to be.
But beyond all these, there is what I call "enabling grace" to help us overcome when the odds are stacked against us.
Now we know that this categorizing of the grace of God is just a human convenience, as is true with all of our theologizing. But we know that God understands the limitations of our humanity because grace, in fact, is a singular gift of God.
Our lives are sometimes like the experience of Frank Shorter, a one-time long distance Olympic champion. He says there is a point in every race of the long distance runner when you reach what he calls "the Wall." Your legs are too tired to go on and your breath is failing. Then, just when you feel totally exhausted, you get your "second wind," a surge of adrenaline; and the long distance runner finds a new inner resource which enables him to keep striding toward the finish line.
Children are sometimes afflicted with crippling ailments that threaten their future. That was the case with Wilma Rudolph. As a child she was struck down with the dreaded disease called polio. It causes the muscles of the body to wither and become deformed. But her mother kept prayerfully rubbing her legs; and Wilma kept trying to walk and run—until she became an Olympic champion and world record breaker. She overcame the odds.
Ben Carson was the child of a teenage mother, whose father deserted the family. His mother had psychiatric problems; but it did not deter her devotion to her two children. Ben spent part of his childhood living in a tough section of inner city Detroit. In his book Gifted Hands, he describes in great detail the story of his life. At age 33, this tall, slender black man became Chief Pediatric Neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. On September 5, 1987, he accomplished, for the first time in medical history, the separation of Siamese twins who were joined at the head, at the occipital cranio pugus. Today he is one of the most celebrated neurosurgeons in the world. A devoutly religious man, Ebony magazine said of him, "With love, faith and hard work [he] overcame seemingly impossible odds."
But in each instance I have mentioned, each celebrity would be the first to declare that their achievement is a miracle of the enabling grace of God.
February is Brotherhood/Sisterhood, Race Relations, and Black History Month. February is also the month of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington was born into a wealthy Virginia family. Lincoln was a poor boy from Kentucky.
After leading the struggle against the tyranny of England, Washington chaired the Second Constitutional Convention in which the Constitution of the United States was adopted, and he became the nation's first President.
Lincoln was elected President at a time when the nation was on the verge of being torn apart over the issue of the extension of slavery into the Western territories. After a bitter struggle, under Lincoln's leadership, the Union was saved; but on the eve of victory, Lincoln fell victim to an assassin's bullet.
Neither of these two stalwarts could have imagined the challenge we now face in the remaking of America today. America is now a collage of beautiful people from every sector of the globe: African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans. After many painful years of civil rights agitation, African Americans, with the aid of European Americans of good will, have updated the American Constitution and pushed open the door of equal opportunity for all Americans. The United States of America today is the world's most extraordinary democratic nation.
Now—in spite of the negative predictions of doomsayers and devious tactics of resisters who do not believe we can succeed—our diversity, they say, will be our destruction. But we must prove them wrong. This new multi ethnic America must cooperate in perfecting this land of promise; so that, by the Grace of God, "Government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Real patriotism, today, is repenting of our past sins and putting together the winning combination that brought success to the five men in Capernaum a long time ago. Their spiritual insistence and practical togetherness was rewarded by the enabling Grace of God—a healing miracle.
Let me close with a revised version of a famous freedom song:
We are moving up.
We are moving up.
We are moving up today.
I'll do my part.
You do your part.
We are moving up today.
So be it.
Bishop Roy Calvin Nichols
THE PROTESTANT HOUR