The subject of “the pool at Bethesda” alludes to the following excerpt from the Thorton Wilder play, “The Angel that Troubled the Waters.” The play is based on the biblical verses of John 5:1-4, but it changes the end of the parable. I first encountered this excerpt within the book “Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging,” by Brennan Manning.
The play tells of a physician who comes periodically to the pool of Bethesda, hoping to to see the stir and then be the first in the water and healed of his melancholy. The angel appears and troubles the water. Everybody at the pool hopes to be the first in the pool and thereby be healed of his disability.
An angel appears and blocks the physician at the very moment he is ready to step into the pool and be healed.
Angel: “Draw back, physician, this moment is not for you.”
Physician: “Angelic visitor, I pray thee, listen to my prayer.
Angel: “This healing is not for you.”
Physician: “Surely, surely, the angels are wise. Surely, O Prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught; the sin into which all my endeavors sink half-performed cannot be concealed from you.”
Angel: “I know.”
Physician: “Oh, in such an hour was I born, and doubly fearful to me is the flaw in my heart. Must I drag my shame, Prince and Singer, all my days more bowed than my neighbor?”
Angel:“Without your wound where would your power be?It is your very sadness that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.”
Later, the person who enters the pool first and was healed rejoices in his good fortune then turns to the physician before leaving and said:
“But come with me first, an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I — I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood.”
“Only an hour… my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us but she will listen to you.”
For me, the play pierces with the ‘bullet-message’ of this wonderful line— “Without your wound where would your power be?“ This is like a slow percolating of Paul’s teaching, mainly that it’s through my weaknesses that I can truly minister to others like Jesus. It’s the Apostle Paul declaring it’s the weak things that work to create something solid and true in us. And I hope in the many lives that this ministry, brokenbelievers.com reaches.
“Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.”
—Ambrose of Milan (340-397)
Our theology makes all the difference in fighting depression, writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Author of “Darkness, Is My Only Companion” and Episcopal priest. Here is an excerpt where she introduces the depression of Christians.
In his Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that suffering is uniquely difficult for the Christian, for the one who believes in a good God. If there were no good God to factor into the equation, suffering would still be painful, and ultimately meaningless.
For the Christian, who believes in the crucified and risen Messiah, suffering is always meaningful. It is meaningful because of the one in whose suffering we participate, Jesus. This is neither to say, of course, that suffering will be pleasant, nor that it should be sought. Rather, in the personal suffering of the Christian, one finds a correlate in Christ’s suffering, which gathers up our tears and calms our sorrows and points us toward his resurrection.
In the midst of a major mental illness, we are often unable to sense the presence of God at all. Sometimes all we can feel is the complete absence of God, utter abandonment by God, the sheer ridiculousness of the very notion of a loving and merciful God. This cuts to the very heart of the Christian and challenges everything we believe about the world and ourselves.
I have a chronic mental illness, a brain disorder that used to be called manic depression, but now is less offensively called bipolar disorder. I have sought help from psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health professionals; one is a Christian, but most of my helpers are not. I have been in active therapy with a succession of therapists over many years, and have been prescribed many psychiatric medications, most of which brought quite unpleasant side effects, and only a few of which relieved my symptoms. I have been hospitalized during the worst times and given electroconvulsive therapy treatments.
All of this has helped, I must say, despite my disinclination toward medicine and hospitals. They have helped me to rebuild some of “myself,” so that I can continue to be the kind of mother, priest, and writer I believe God wants me to be.
During these bouts of illness, I would often ask myself: How could I, as a faithful Christian, be undergoing such torture of the soul? And how could I say that such torture has nothing to do with God? This is, of course, the assumption of the psychiatric guild in general, where faith in God is often viewed at best as a crutch, and at worst as a symptom of disease.
How could I, as a Christian, indeed as a theologian of the church, understand anything in my life as though it were separate from God? This is clearly impossible. And yet how could I confess my faith in that God who was “an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1) when I felt entirely abandoned by that God? And if this torture did have something to do with God, was it punishment, wrath, or chastisement? Was I, to use a phrase of Jonathan Edwards’s, simply a “sinner in the hands of an angry God”?
I started my journey into the world of mental illness with a postpartum depression after the birth of our second child. News outlets are rife with stories of women who destroy their own children soon after giving birth. It is absolutely tragic. Usually every instinct in the mother pushes toward preserving the life of the infant. Most mothers would give their own lives to protect their babies. But in postpartum depression, reality is so bent that that instinct is blocked. Women who would otherwise be loving mothers have their confidence shaken by painful thoughts and feelings.
Depression is not just sadness or sorrow. Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being “down.” It’s walking barefoot on broken glass; the weight of one’s body grinds the glass in further with every movement. So, the weight of my very existence grinds the shards of grief deeper into my soul. When I am depressed, every thought, every breath, every conscious moment hurts.
And often the opposite is the case when I am hypomanic: I am scintillating both to myself, and, in my imagination, to the whole world. But mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work. Sometimes, when it tips into full-blown psychosis, it can be terrifying. The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it: there is no pulling oneself “up by the bootstraps.”
And yet the Christian faith has a word of real hope, especially for those who suffer mentally. Hope is found in the risen Christ. Suffering is not eliminated by his resurrection, but transformed by it. Christ’s resurrection kills even the power of death, and promises that God will wipe away every tear on that final day.
But we still have tears in the present. We still die. In God’s future, however, death itself will die. The tree from which Adam and Eve took the fruit of their sin and death becomes the cross that gives us life.
The hope of the Resurrection is not just optimism, but keeps the Christian facing ever toward the future, not merely dwelling in the present. But the Christian hope is not only for the individual Christian, nor for the church itself, but for all of Creation, bound in decay by that first sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you … It will produce thorns and thistles for you …” (Gen. 3:17-18).
This curse of the very ground and its increase will be turned around at the Resurrection. All Creation will be redeemed from pain and woe. In my bouts with mental illness, this understanding of Christian hope gives comfort and encouragement, even if no relief from symptoms. Sorrowing and sighing will be no more. Tears will be wiped away. Even fractious [unruly, irritable] brains will be restored.
Then Joshua told the people, “Make yourselves holy, because tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”
Joshua 3:5, NCV
There must be people today standing in the place of Joshua. They holler 0ut to us and motivate us to holiness. I encourage you to recognize them. They want you to come to the Father. Pastors and elders should be like Joshua, speaking out loud to the Church again and again.
There is effort that is involved, “Make yourselves holy.”We must decide if this is going to happen. But holiness isn’t like the “common cold,” you just don’t simply catch it. Rather it is an intense decision to be something more than you are right now. We make that effort to be his, set apart to be very different from everything around us. Clearly, we must make it– or we will fake it!
Joshua declares the things the Father intends to do in the lives of his people. It requires a commitment that gets out and sweats. It gets down to work. Jesus told the people, “to prepare the way of the Lord.” We prepare, and he comes. I started to think of Elijah, on Mt. Carmel. He worked to build an altar for the Lord. He cleared a spot, and then moved rock to create an altar. But his effort, was not to make a monument, but to create an altar–which was expendable.
The Father comes to Carmel , blasting and blazing. Everything comes however, by his people making a way. We must “set-it-up.” And that takes a forethought. We must prepare a way for him to come, and we’ll not be disappointed.
“Tomorrow” takes us to a forward place. We are to anticipate his coming to us, and tomorrow means we start expecting. It’s not quite here yet, but we expect him to show, to make us and change us. But, it is “tomorrow.” Today we must work. We must bring things into a definite order, to create the environment that brings him close. We must prepare for him. Altars need to be built.
The last part of this verse, is perhaps the best. “The Lord will do amazing things among you.” Essentially, we can anticipate things that intervene into our tedious and mundane lives. Something special is coming. We can expect events that amaze us. We can deeply appreciate his dramatic presence that changes everything.
We intend to make him supremely comfortable, in our hearts.
But are you “preparing the way of the Lord?” You must step in the wind of the Spirit and set in place, like Elijah, the altar in which he will come. Evil will resist you. The darkness becomes an issue. You have to ignore it, and press in to building that altar. The future holds his plans, and we understand (for the most part) his supreme effort in the hearts of men. He will change us, and we will be someone else.