Rick Langer is professor of biblical and theological studies and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Talbot School of Theology. He previously served as senior associate pastor at Trinity EFC in Redlands, California.
Offering glimmers of heaven in a broken world
Theologically, we await the dawn.
In kingdom terms, the night is fading. We enjoy foretastes of what will be. Christ is resurrected, and we live in resurrection power. But victory is not yet ours, our faith is not yet sight. The sky is brightening, yet most of life is pretty dim.
Still, there are moments when light breaks through. One of those moments for me came while praying with a member of our congregation in the front seat of my car.
I had picked Tim up at his house because we needed to talk. Tim (not his real name) was part of a small-group home Bible study. He was the group funny bone, always telling jokes with a twinkle in his eye. He loved to make other people smile. The problem was, he didn’t always know when to stop. And when he got nervous, he would talk more. The group leader had talked to him about this, but nothing had really changed. He wanted me to intervene.
Honest conversation with a friend
I drove to Tim’s house a good hour before he needed to be at a class, because I knew this would be a long and painful discussion. I was glad for the extra time, since it took more than 10 minutes for Tim to traverse the 100 feet from his house to my car. Tim had cerebral palsy. Nothing was ever easy for Tim.
As I drove, I explained the issue. Tim nodded his head almost as if he had been expecting this. It was hard for him not to participate, because he had so many things to say. And he knew that his jokes weren’t always as funny as they should be—with humor, timing is everything, and his body refused to do timing. We agreed that he should continue to participate, and that the group leader would give a subtle sign when he was going too long.
Tim seemed fine with this solution. We talked a little more in the parking lot, and before I helped him out of the car, I suggested we pray. I mumbled some prayer whose words now escape me, and then Tim prayed.
In his stammering and quavering voice, he offered one of the most memorable prayers of my life: “O Lord, I can’t wait for heaven, when this won’t be a problem anymore. . . . I just can’t wait.”
We sobbed together in the car for a few minutes, and then I helped him out of the car and watched through my tears as he struggled down the sidewalk to class.
Tim was a man who understood hope. He could almost taste the day when his faith would become sight. He couldn’t wait for the day when “this wouldn’t be a problem anymore.”
I can’t wait either. But we have to wait. Indeed, the Church is called to wait. Our job is to make others aware of the hope of the kingdom—to make this world glimmer with the light of the next.
What glimmer of the next world might illumine this present world for those who have disabilities and those who know and love them?
I think of Tim.
In the next world, he will be healed. His jokes will come with perfect timing and be received with perfect love. He’ll walk to the car without help and without pain—assuming we have cars and that we need to walk. His fingers will be straight. His back will be too. His eyes—well, his eyes will be just like they were here, twinkling and sparkling.
But we can’t make any of those things happen for Tim here. We have tried. We have tried medicine. We have tried prayer. We have tried therapy. His body refused our ministrations.
But then I think of Tim’s prayer.
Glimmers of heaven
I realized, even at the time, that when he prayed “that this won’t be a problem anymore,” he was praying more about his relationship with the small group than his body.
Tim was 50 years old. He had pretty much gotten used to his body. He certainly looked forward to its healing. But on a day-to-day basis, loneliness was a bigger problem than weakness. He sought companionship more eagerly than healing. He had found friends in the group, and he didn’t want to lose them. I’m sure he had lost other friends before.
So for Tim, to make this world glimmer with the light of next, we did not need to fix his body; we just needed to keep him connected to our body—the body of Christ. He needed people who would leave early to pick him up and take him to church and to Bible study. He needed people who would listen to his jokes, even when his timing kept them from being funny. He needed people who could give a hand in his weakness and have patience with his painfully slow movements.
And it should be remembered that Tim needed to accommodate the church as well. Keeping a group of sinners united in love is almost as miraculous as healing a physical body. We all must accommodate each other—we must all count others as more important than ourselves.
Tim was pretty good at doing this. Tim’s group was pretty good at loving as well. And the leader did a good job of helping everyone make the most of the honest challenges of loving one another in a broken world.
Becoming more like Jesus
It was probably a year after this that Tim told me he was moving out of state to be with his family. I was sad to see him go. I wondered, How did we do? We tried to make things work, but was trying enough?
About five years later I got call from one of Tim’s relatives. He apologized for bothering me, explaining that I probably didn’t remember Tim, but that he had passed away.
I assured him that I remembered him very well. And Tim had remembered us also. He had requested to be buried in California, and he wanted me to do the graveside service. It was a joy and a pleasure. A few months later, we discovered that Tim had left his life savings to the church. It was a widow’s mite, to be sure, but I still remember that gift more than any other that our church received in my years there.
My time with Tim always reminds me that disabled people often need far less than we think they need, and they often give far more than they get. I’m not sure I’d say our church did our best in this situation, but we did something. I’m not sure we loved like Jesus loves, but because we tried to love, we became more like Jesus. In a small way, Tim and his group made this world glimmer ever so faintly with the light of the next.
And one of the heavenly joys I most look forward to is meeting Tim and listening to his jokes. We’ll laugh and laugh and it won’t be a problem any more.