Why Is This Tree Like That?

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. John 9:1

PREFACE: I really do not want to write this piece. I have been saying that a lot lately, but it’s true. I enjoy writing when it encourages someone else. It is difficult to write to encourage myself. Almost always, as I write, I end up putting a positive spin on the end. That’s the hope of the good news, and it’s very therapeutic for me to write in that way. But truthfully, I’m not even sure that this piece will do that for me.
It never dawned on me when I was a ten-year old starting to journal that writing was helping me to put a bow on my day. Even now, having ADHD, writing is the best way for me to put my thoughts together. I can talk about anything once I have written it. But, until I write to completion, my thoughts on the matter are always all over the place. Combine my ADHD with anxiety and occasional symptoms of depression, and sometimes it can feel as if I have no control over my thoughts. But that’s why I write. It helps me to put the pieces together.
The reason that I do not want to write this piece is because I do not know what the positive spin will be. I’m very good at believing God will work things out when I see the possibility of it. You know that prayer, “Thank you, God, for working things out the way that I wanted you to do it.” But that’s not where I am.
It is very difficult for me to operate blindly, and that’s how I feel right now. I cannot swim, and yet I feel as if I have been walking on water for over four years. I know for certain that Jesus has been with me, but out at sea is an exhausting place. Not only do I not know what the positive spin will be for this piece, the questions I will write about are the ones that I wrestle with the most. They are very personal to me.
Over the past two weeks, as I have sensed a season changing, I have noticed my highs going higher and my lows going lower. I don’t mean my mental health or even my emotions, but spiritually. The waves of the storm are stronger than they were before. God has revealed himself in ways that make me laugh out loud and cry salty tears. But what about when I’m not laughing? Is He still there?
I don’t like waves nor rollercoasters for the same reason – I have no control. I like my feet on the ground. I am doing my very best to believe that God is using the waves to bring me off from the water and on to a Rock that is higher than I, but it’s hard. With that said, let’s look at John 9.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. John 9:1

This is Jesus walking along. He had just slipped away from people who wanted to kill him after he declared truth to their power, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, ‘I am!'” The Jews had been questioning the power and authority of Jesus. He had become a threat to their way of living. Jesus did nothing to make them think that he wasn’t. He told them that their “Father Abraham” had longed to see his day. Jesus was pounding on the foundation of power they had established for themselves. The Jews who had become so angry had been doing everything right – how could Jesus possibly have any authority if he wasn’t like them? They didn’t like that threat, so they tried to kill him. Jesus left there with his disciples, and soon after that they came across this man who was blind from birth.
It would be safe to believe that this man had experienced a lifetime of dependence. That doesn’t mean he was without ability, but it does mean that many who were blind or lame became relegated to begging for food or money. It would not be completely out of line to imagine this man as someone standing with a sign at the off-ramp of our highway. You might see him often, and on a good day you offer him a dollar. Or, because you are clever and don’t want him to use the money for alcohol or drugs, you offer to buy him a sandwich.
And, when you see him, if you aren’t too busy ignoring him, you ask yourself a mental question, “What happened?” You want to make sense of it, and, if you’re like me, the easiest way to make sense of it is to assume that they did something wrong. Or, maybe they didn’t do something wrong, but they definitely didn’t do something right. They probably didn’t pay attention in school. Maybe he drank too much or has a mental health issue.  I mean, after all, just look at him. There’s a reason that we say someone is “dressed like a bum,” right? Maybe the poor guy has no family. But I guess I will never know, because when the light turns green I can drive away and say a brief prayer of gratitude, “God, thank you that I am not like him.”
Oh boy.
If those words have a little bite, I understand. I assure you that I have thought all of that and more. How easily I have let myself off the hook time and time again, all while wondering the same thing that the disciples asked next.

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:1,2

This is a pretty common Scripture passage for sermons. I’m not sure if we are allowed to have favorite books in the Bible, but John is one of them for me. I have used a good deal of the book for messages before. It’s very rich and relatable. Most sermons that I have heard on this passage remind us that something such as blindness or being crippled was often associated with sin at that time in history. But, do we really think about it much differently now? Sure, with blindness or a genetic disease, we better understand the physiological workings in play behind the scenes. We won’t necessarily blame someone for being blind, but what about when we see someone struggling? What about when someone is in an extended period of dependence? What do we think then? If you’re uncomfortable with the word “blaming,” maybe a better way to think about it is that we have questions. We wonder, “What happened?” That is a perfectly fine thing to wonder. After all, each person has a story. But what do we do with our question?
At some point in his life, someone must have pointed out to the blind man in John 9 that his world was different than most. He was blind from birth, how would he have known? He could speak, hear, feel, and taste, so how would he have known that other people could see while he could not? We all think our experience is normal until we start to see other people’s experiences. And then, at some point, it begs the question, “Why are they like that? Why do they live differently?”
If you know anything about where I grew up, you know that it is very homogeneous. Nearly everyone in the community is white. Most of the people who I encountered in my youth were Dutch, or at least it seemed like it. Almost all of my circle of people went to a Christian Reformed Church, it was just a matter of which one they attended. And you either went to “Christian” or you went to “Public,” but even then we rode the same school bus and often went to the same church. You obeyed the rules, you honored your family, you did well in school, played sports, went to church twice on Sunday, and had fun but not too much fun. There was very little about my life that was different from those around me. I saw other American families on TV living (more or less) like I was. This was the script, and I was following it.
Our church had a few missionaries over the years, and every once in a while we would get updates on their work. Our church and others supported them financially because they were doing a noble and good work that, frankly, most of us couldn’t imagine doing. Most of the time the missionaries were somewhere far away helping poor black and brown people. We might get something in the mail from World Missions and it would have a picture of little brown child who was in need of help. At some point the question started to form, “Why are they like that?” Underneath that question a viewpoint began to form for me, and it became a dangerous one.
It was never really spoken about, but the images and ideas started to crystallize. I was beginning to get the impression that if people didn’t look like me or talk like me, maybe they were doing something wrong. After all, I was doing everything right. Right?

But the really dangerous part came in to play on the flip side of that idea – I felt like I was earning God’s love by doing things right. And if I could earn God’s love by doing things right, couldn’t I also earn my salvation? After all, if God loves me for doing things right, isn’t that why He saved me? And, if other people were struggling, it probably meant that they weren’t following the script. So did God love them, or did he need me to fix them first?

Help us, Lord.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” John 9:3

It’s quite a leap for Jesus to say that this man’s blindness is all about God’s glory. You sure, Jesus? Glory? He can’t even see!
Jesus was sure, and he was right.
It has been a long and difficult road for me to go from verse 2 to verse 3. I’m not even sure that I have made it to the end of verse 3 in terms of how I understand things. Or, if I understand it, I understand it for others. But it doesn’t make sense for me most of the time.
Mentally, I can find myself stuck in verse 2. I haven’t experienced anything like what Job did, but sometimes I feel like his friends walk with me throughout the day. They ask the same questions that the disciples did, and I don’t have a great answer. I hear, “What did you do wrong, Doug? Why are you struggling, Doug? Didn’t you follow the script?”
No.
I didn’t.
I have had countless times where I wondered why I couldn’t have taken the easy path. I had good grades in school. I went to college. I have a degree. So why, oh why, am I struggling? I’m a white Christian male in the United States of America and I’m one class away from having a Master’s degree. Someone needs to check the equation, because this should be working out great. But it’s not. Maybe I forgot to carry a one. 
This mess and stress is for God’s glory? That can’t be right. Right?

One of the features that I love about the book of John is his repeated use of the phrase, “so that.” He uses it again and again, including in verse 3. By using, “so that,” we are reminded again and again that there is a purpose and there is a plan. But it’s not our purpose, and it’s not our plan. (That phrase is sprinkled all throughout Scripture. If you mark up your Bible like I do, start circling that phrase when you see it.)
Truthfully, sometimes my response to, “So that,” is, “So what?!” If I’m struggling, and all I hear is you saying, “Well, this is for God’s glory,” I will very likely want to say, “So what! If it’s for God’s glory, then DO SOMETHING!”
Thankfully, Jesus did something.  Jesus always does. God always does. The Holy Spirit is always present. But here’s where I’m stuck personally.  I still have mud on my eyes (John 9:6) so I can’t see the purpose yet.
About a month ago I drove past a billboard that I had seen before. But, for some reason, the words on it made me very angry that day. It is a billboard for a homeless shelter, and it has a woman pictured with two young children. The quote that I chose to use is, “We may be homeless, but we still have faith.”
Let me be perfectly clear – I am not upset in the least at the homeless shelter, nor how they constructed their billboard. They do excellent and noble work. They provide very necessary services, and they do make it very clear that they promote the Christian faith. I became very angry that morning because of my question, “Yes, but WHY are they homeless?” I’m not asking what a person did in order to become homeless, I’m asking how we as a body of faith have allowed it to happen.
I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In many ways it is different from my hometown, but it has many similar features. There are churches EVERYWHERE. If I stood on my rooftop right now, I could easily see seven churches. Seven! There are Dutch people, Dutch businesses, and the headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church right here in Grand Rapids. It is a thriving city. Business is booming and the construction of both new homes and new businesses are all over.
So.
What.
Are.
We.
Doing.
Wrong.

Somewhere along the line we bought into the lie behind the American Dream. When the Deceiver whispered to us, “Did God really say that you can’t have that?” we went to Scripture and couldn’t find a good answer. No, God didn’t say how big my house could be. No, God didn’t tell me what kind or how many cars to have. There’s nothing in Scripture against vacations. Jesus would have a smartphone, I think. I bet he would have cable tv and really, really like movie theater popcorn. Right?
I’m guilty of everything I just wrote about and so much more.  And you know what? I’m hurting. If I felt like a bent apple tree before, I am in need of some pruning so that I can bear better fruit. God needs to prune.  This is where it can get tricky.  As we have already established, I’m a white American male with a degree and a fairly sound mind.  For almost anyone reading this, I am likely the last person who should be asking for help.  “God helps those who help themselves,” right?  What verse is that again??  Should I pull myself up by my own bootstraps?  I mean, this is the land of opportunity, after all. That question always demands an answer, “Why is this person like that?” Did I create self-inflicted pain? I don’t believe that, but I wonder that. If I added up what I have given away over the years, it’s more than enough to make me feel a lot more comfortable about my situation. But when did it become necessary for us to know why someone is as they are?  Why can’t we just accept their presentation at that time? 

If you’re inclined to help me, I don’t think that this is a hard concept for you. But not everyone is like that. But let me tell you, those who have been in need of fruit are watching closely. If I can’t ask for help, if I can’t receive help, what hope is there for them? The people who have come to me asking (after years) remind me of Caleb and Joshua scouting the land of milk and honey. They’re testing me out. Do I bear good fruit? Is it worthwhile to them, or should they just stay where they are? And let me tell you, there are WAVES of people behind them if they can taste and see that God is, in fact, good. 

So yes, I will be pruned.  And, at the same time, I’m asking God to not let me break in this season.  I’m trusting and hoping. But hope is the thing with feathers, and trusting means that my feet are off the ground.
There are many times when I have wished that hope was a facet of the fruit of the Spirit. If you just go through enough discouraging times, and make it, then you just have always have enough hope.  But hope  is a gift. It is something that God gives and He invites us to receive. The more tightly we try to hold on to it, the less likely we will.
The day after my last post was not a good one, at least not the start. I checked my tiny bank account after dropping off they boys at school. Maybe the bank had forgotten to add some zeroes to my balance. I was right, in a way. I had forgotten about the car insurance payment that automatically withdraws, and I was less than zero. It’s an interesting feeling to go out and help others for the day when you know that you can’t even afford water if you are unprepared. So I made sure that I had something to drink and a few snacks. I set off for work, but my work truck didn’t start. I charged it and tried to get going again. Whump, whump, whump. Perfect. A flat tire on the front passenger side.
As a brief aside, I want to use that to illustrate the importance of mental health care and, as needed, medication. Even five years ago you would not have caught me saying that – not for me. But that situation and that morning could have easily sent me crawling back under the covers, ignoring my phone, and wishing that  everything would magically get better. Please do not treat someone’s mental health with prayers alone.
But I will point out something else that I did not do that day. I didn’t ask for help, not from you all. I wanted to, I really did. Social networking is a powerful thing. I’m sure that, had I asked certain people at that time, that some of my suffering could have been eliminated. The reason that I didn’t was because I didn’t want it to be MY plan. I am too tired of working it out only to not have it work out. And I know that it has been God all along, but I have not done very well at allowing His “so that” to come through. And you know what? God did work it out. People who give without telling me that they will really help me to trust God’s plan and provision.  I think we miss out on that when we ask our Facebook friends. Sometimes I’m helping people who have over 3,000 “friends” on Facebook. 
But yet, I’m a crooked, bent, and (nearly) fruitless apple tree.
Last Friday the power was turned off because I had waited as long as I possibly could before making a payment. I waited a smidge too long. Tomorrow it could be the water. Or the gas. And, being transparent, the house is in danger of foreclosure if I don’t do something fast. I’ll explore my options, but, at the same time, I’m in desperate need of unclenching my fists around the grains of sand that I have called a plan. Your way, Yahweh. And hope is the thing with feathers.
All day long I see people appear to be tall, towering oak trees. They’re impressive. Look at all of the resources that they can provide. But that American Dream is tricky. Those impressive oaks don’t bear any fruit. But they can be a resource.
In shade and dark places, rooted and growing things have to bend to reach the light. I feel like that has happened with me. And this circumstance of having people in my home with no end date, people using the car when I don’t need it, and having pets dropped off here has been a long, long journey.
I cannot say with certainty that God is calling you to invite the person by the highway to stay in your home. What I can say with certainty is that IF you give something of yourself, {Having said this, he (Jesus) spit on the ground, made some mud with saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes,” John 9:6} and offer some instruction {“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent) John 9:7a}, the person that you help will begin to see the Light {So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. John 9:7b}, and have a testimony {“He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” John 9:15b} to God’s glory {“Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” John 9:32,33}.
If you do not have people asking for your fruit, please start to seek them out. Put yourself in a position to get answers to the question of, “Why are they like that?” If you can be a lifeblood for the body of Christ in this season while I am hands and feet, I will not refuse your gift. PayPal and SquareCash are game-changing resources for us as a body of Christ to meet the needs of others. There is a daily list besides those who have shelter in this home, and it is far, far from only financial need.  People have shared stories of horrific abuse. A young lady found out her pregnancy ended and had to have the baby removed.  Men are struggling in their marriage.  I can’t meet all of those needs, and I was never meant to.  But if they can come to me and find that they’ve reached an edge of a safe oasis, then we can do more for them.  If you have a gift, or time, please let me know.  They need you, and you need them.  But for the immediate financial needs, you can use SquareCash to give by using my phone number, 6162092446. You can use my email to give via paypal, douglasjroede@gmail.com. These are fee-free ways for people to share financial fruit. For those of you who have already helped and given, consider with whom you can share this story. And pray.
A week ago when I was struggling, I wondered about how tightly I should hold on to this house. Sometimes when I look at my choices, I feel like we do not deserve this house. Sometimes I think this house  doesn’t deserve us. Maybe you know someone who would buy this house as an investment (in this area, it would be). Maybe someone would buy this and allow us to live here for low rent (or free!) while they invest in improvements to the home.
Truthfully, I really don’t know. The wave is low, but it will rise. And then, only then, will I see where God is helping me to land. It will be on a Rock, and I will bear fruit again. But I don’t want to be only an oasis. I want to be part of an orchard, with you, my fruit-bearing family.

So That.
God’s Glory.
Might Be Displayed.
In My Life.

Amen.

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