Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spiritual transformation

Ever feel like you were in need of life support; spiritual life support that is? Machines beeping, lights flashing, ventilators pumping, IV bags dripping: These are all things the body needs when it can't live by itself or until it recovers from a surgery or a trauma. The body and its many complex functions and delicate organs may need assistance - not just to keep a person alive, but to help them heal and recover strength.

We got news last week that the mother of a close friend was in the hospital in a coma and on life support. No one knows if she will ever regain consciousness or be restored to her former vitality. Medicine can do some amazing things. God can do even greater things.

I don't have much memory of it. And, I wasn't in need of a breathing machine. Not long ago, I was looking at pictures from my stint in the hospital though, and it struck me just how helpless I was after my unfortunate meeting with a bus. I am told (again, I don't remember this) that I was annoyingly insistant to anyone who entered my little cubicle in ICU. I wanted to get up. I wanted to go back to work. I wanted to get back out on the running trails. I couldn't understand why I was strapped down to a rotating bed, head, neck and legs immobilized by traction. I had no real idea of how utterly helpless I was without the assistance of machines, orthopedic equipment, specialized nurses and doctors and medicines. Without all that, there is no telling if I would be here writing this today. At the time all I could think of, apparently, was how determined I was to get back on my feet and doing everything I had done the moments before I was run over. I didn't realize my neck was fractured and dislocated. I had no clue how the lacerations and road rash on my back posed a huge risk for infection. I wasn't aware how badly fractured my hips, pelvis and ribs were. It didn't dawn on me that even if I had tried to get up, I probably would have collapsed from the neural weakness in my extremities and that I could have done more serious damage to my already compromised spinal cord.

I wanted to be transformed. I wanted to be normal and healthy. No way! Wasn't going to happen. I needed help.

Not long ago, a group of us were up at 6:30 am studying some wise words from the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. This idea of transformation captured my attention and has been on my heart since. Paul said, "And we...are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (II Cor. 3:18)

I run into people who think they can become better Christians simply by their own determination and effort; that it's possible to pull ones self up by their own spiritual boot straps. "If I just do more good deeds; if I just pray harder; if I just go to more church meetings" are some of the phrases I hear from the people who come and sit in my study or with whom I visit at Starbucks, in living rooms or across the fence on warm summer evenings.

The reality is that we can't do it on our own. "Apart from me, Jesus said, you can do nothing." (John 15:5). There are times when the best we can do is just lie there, helpless and yielded. That's all. Then, at the place of our own greatest weakness, transformation starts to take place from the inside out. Spiritual life support; God's Holy Spirit working in and through us to make us whole; to transform us into the likeness of Christ himself. Wow!

Wait, there's another part to this to. I hadn't thought of it til just now. Part of the healing and transformation does come from the outside. Just like physicians, nurses, therapists and technicians work from the outside to heal the inside, God uses other people to encourage, strengthen, challenge and build us up.

My own experience - and I do remember at least parts of this - was that I couldn't have made it through some of those long nights of pain, immobility and discouragement if it had not been for people who came to read to me, tell me jokes, or just pray over me. My friend Cyril, a Jewish Rabbi came and read the Wall Street Journal. Bill read some of his brother's sermons through one long night. Daryl brought by CDs to play and filled me in on the latest box scores. Bob read Bible verses and left me the small pewter cross he had carried in his pocket since the previous Lenten/Easter season. Melissa told me about her final English paper. Others just came and sat. Like God with skin, their presence encouraged me.

There was one momentous day at Rio Vista Rehab Hospital in El Paso that stands out. Three men from Calvary Presbyterian had come all the way to El Paso to spend three days with me. That church had just called me to be their pastor. I think they wanted to make sure there was some hope of my recovering enough to eventually assume that role.

This particular day was the first day that Gina - my 4' 10" Phillipina Physical Therapist had tigihtly cinched a gait belt around my waist and wheeled my wheelchair in between two stainless stell standing rails. With a sly grin she said "let's see if you can stand upright for 15 minutes." This was the first time in over 2 1/2 months that I been on my feet. As I stood there, it was all I could do to support my weight with my emaciated arms and my one weight bearing leg. Sweat began to pour off my brow. Nausea welled up inside. I came to learn that she was more devious than I gave her credit for and that 15 minute challenge soon became 20, then 25, then 30 minutes - all the time Gina patiently standing there grinning.

Keith, John and Charlie all stood or sat nearby watching this spectacle as well. I have to say it couldn't have been very exciting for them - kind of like watching grass grow. But they were there cheering me on. I think I would have quit much earlier had these three men not been there for me to try and impress. When it was over, I collapsed back into the chair and was bone tired physically. At the same time I was exhilarated emotionally and spiritually. Against the dire predictions of neurologists and orthopaedic specialists, I had stood upright under my own strength (with Gina holding on tightly to my gait belt). I knew I would eventually regain my ability to walk. The support and encouragement of others made that even more realistic.

Transformation comes from the authenticity and care of others. It comes from the respiratory help of God's Spirit living in our hearts. Becoming more the kind of person that God wants us to be does not and cannot happen simply by just trying harder. It is only when we are sickest or weakest and least capable of helping ourselves that we come to realize God's transformational life support.

I don't know about you, but I think I need that today - and just about every day.