Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Are We Powerless? My Son's Seizure, Boston Marathon, and Brief Reflections on Nehemiah

This past January, I was in the middle of a church meeting when my wife's number showed up on my phone. My son's body temperature rapidly spiked and he had begun to seize. I will forever remember hitting triple digits and beating the ambulance home, ushering paramedics to my kids' room, and witnessing my wife on the floor with my son battling a febrile seizure. I experienced six of these fever-induced seizures as a child, each of which my mother vividly remembers. I am sure the same will be true for my wife and me.

While many affirm what was actually occurring in my son's little body was not as scary as it looked, the experience was nonetheless the most horrific I have had to date. We felt powerless. We feared there was nothing we could do.

Thankfully, our son recovered and within 24 hours was restored to his normal, mischievous, playful, and quirky self. Still, in those moments when we held him in his tiny hospital gown, restrained him as he received an IV, and even prayed for him and his body temperature to be restored to normal, my wife and I felt powerless.

The feeling of powerlessness is the most oppressive emotion and crippling fear a human can experience.

We feel powerless when our children and loved ones face grave or life-threatening illnesses.

We feel powerless when we cannot afford related hospital expenses unpaid by "insurance."

We feel powerless when we learn of pervasive poverty near and far.

We feel powerless when police forces in nations like Honduras are more corrupt than the citizens they are commissioned to protect.

We feel powerless when we have to walk down our high school or middle school hallways, certain that person will be there to attack our dignity and even our body.

We feel powerless when we are a part of a culture that requires more than we can give, or at least more than we can purchase.

We feel powerless when we learn a peaceful and unifying event, like the Boston Marathon, has been victimized by a senseless and unfathomable act of violence, taking the life of an eight-year old boy waiting for his father.

The posed or actual reality of not being able to prevent or escape evil and suffering can crush a spirit and lead people to do things they otherwise would never consider.

The ancient people of Israel, divided in the wake of oppressive Babylonian conquest and captivity, would agree. Some of the rescued exiles lived in Susa under the protection of the Persian emperor; others lived in the remnants of their beloved homeland and within the shambles of temple walls. Even when Nehemiah, whose name means, "God helped," received an imperial edict to rebuild these very walls and reunite the covenantal people, the jeers of political and militant naysayers were too much for despairing Israel:

"What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they revive stones out of the heaps of rubbish- and burned ones at that?" (Nehemiah 4:2)

These words hurt like hurled stones, penetrating the depths of their conscience and breaking their spirits as they tried to restore the temple walls. They believed the cynical taunts. The famine in the land was no help, either:

"We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during famine...we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others" (Nehemiah 4:3-5).

Those who felt powerless resorted to drastic and unthinkable measures as they clung to life in Jerusalem. Valuable property put up as collateral for immediate financial needs. Children sold into slavery for uncertain survival. Daughters of the defenseless ravished in their weakness.

All this taken place "among their own people;" self-destruction provoked by feelings of powerlessness. That is, until Nehemiah rebukes their cowardice, reminds them of their identity as the people of God, and implements an impromptu jubilee practice that "restores everything" to the way God intended.

Were these feeble Jews really powerless? Did they have to surrender to the taunts of their oppressors?

At least in this segment of Nehemiah, the answer was, "No!"

"I devoted myself to the work on this wall...So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived this work had been accomplished with the help of our God" (Nehemiah 5:16, 6:15-16).

Their despair turned to devotion. Nehemiah declared the truth of his name as cause for the people's restoration- God helped.

Will God help us now?

Over two millennia later, are we to remain passive victims of chaos and defenseless against injustice?

Are we to throw our hands in the air and wave our flags in surrender whenever we encounter real evil, pain, suffering, or any form of human distress?

Are we to allow children, our sons and daughters, to be the innocent victims of passivity and raw feelings of powerlessness?

Are we to stand still or sit on our folded hands as we look to the heavens for help?

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

The Spirit mobilizes us to bear witness to and work towards God's dreams of restoration and reconciliation of all things. We are not powerless as we devote ourselves to God's work on crumbling walls of despair.

Against walls of war and violence- not powerless.

Against walls of poverty, injustice, and exploitive industries- not powerless.

Against walls that segregate humanity by race, class, orientation, and religious conviction- not powerless.

When organizations develop proposals to purge corruption in politics throughout Honduras- they are not powerless.

When youth befriend marginalized and bullied peers- they are not powerless.

When young and old(er) people dream together about what the future of their church and related mission in their community can look like in a developing nation or one that claims to be developed- they are not powerless.

As my wife and I were comforted by unexpected friends in the hospital room and my son treated by doctors- we were not powerless.

As medics, runners, police officers, and "ordinary" citizens in Boston rushed towards versus away from the explosion to help victims- they were not powerless.

When faced with death- we are not powerless.

This is the spirit of the resurrection and the hope claimed in Jesus' grand exit from a cold and dark tomb. God-in-flesh was and is not powerless against humanity's cruelest intentions.

And because of this, when we face all forms of evil, suffering, and oppression- we are not powerless.

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:37-38).

So may we look for opportunities to challenge those powers that seek to suck the life out of humanity and the creation God made good and beautiful. May we provoke impromptu jubilees around the world as practitioners of resurrection. May we run towards manifestations of injustice and despair in full pursuit of restoration and reconciliation, using whatever resources we may have.

May we do asinine things in light of Jesus' good news of God's kingdom because we know we are not powerless against even the worst things thrown at us or our children.

Because death does not have the last word, even when it speaks loudly in the streets of Boston.

So, what's your wall? Devote yourself to its restoration. You are not completely feeble. God will help you, for sure.

*Graffiti above is by Banksy, Bethlehem 2005. See Banksy: Wall and Piece (2006).