“When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately, his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go; show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
–Matthew 8:1-4 (NRSV)
It was June 18th 2006, a few weeks after high school graduation. I stood, waist deep in a billowy gown like a bed sheet ghost with a human head, in a rectangular tub of what I guess was holy water. I don’t know what makes it holy but it smelled slightly like the pool at the YMCA. Maybe that’s been the Y’s clandestine ministry: baptizing unwitting swimmers since 1844.
The pastor asked if I wanted to share my testimony to the audience. Not known for my reticence, I smiled in clumsy silence, content to just complete the sacrament.
Privately, I still recalled the words, years ago, that led me to that tub: the fattys, the freaks, the Flubbers (a horrible movie by the way), and the Chineeeese boy’s, all hissed with the sort of snide injury that only middle-school children can inflict.
I recalled how they tumbled around in my head, violently, like loose change in a laundry machine. Anxiety steeped and, for a stretch of several days and possibly weeks, I was nearly sleepless—managing a few hours every night—apprehensive of each approaching day.
I recalled one of those anxious nights, when I closed my eyes in the dark for my first sincere prayers to the God of my then-newly converted mother. Those petitions weren’t profound: to lose weight, to fit in, and for this girl on the bus to like me. See: textbook middle school angst.
I recalled the desperation to escape a dreadfully wearying cycle. I needed something, anything, different and new.
Lepers in first-century Galilee, like this one in Matthew 8, had lesions on their skin, an illness and condition that isolated them from society. Their bodily affliction, allegedly, manifested the state of their soul: unclean, incurable, and icky.
Jesus’s healing of the leper here tells a lot about Jesus. It was a demonstration of Christ’s divinity and healing. It embodied his radical compassion for the marginalized and his power to redeem the irredeemable. But what could it have meant for the leper?
In Jewish society at the time, identity was bound to the family or the community (e.g. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus; Simon of Cyrene). To be removed from both, if you had leprosy, was to forfeit that identity; there would be no more descendants, no more temple worship. And to be a leper was a permanent state.
When it comes to this healing then, Jesus was not only demonstrating his awesome divine power as Lord, he offered this man something beyond his old community and past identity. The leper would be offered a different, new community and a new life, an opportunity to be ushered into a new kind of Kingdom with a new kind of Ruler—a new identity.
His entire framework would change.
As life unfolded, God gave me what I needed but not what I prayed for. What I asked for that night was deliverance within my limited middle school world. I wanted newness within a framework of values as I had ordered them. I was asking God for currency in a flawed economy.
Instead, God began the lifelong process of recasting myself in new light. My ultimate value would not be placed in my appearance or in my esteem in the eyes of others but in the excessive and abundant love of Christ.
Of course, life isn’t now some ineffable testament of joy. I still carry past (and new!) insecurities and I sin magnificently out of them. But at least the world began to regain its freshness and I slowly reclaimed my zeal for it, which I had Jesus to thank for (hence, the tub of holy water).
Today, January 1, 2016, as a self-identified adult, I see how this cycle repeats. This New Year, I’ll pray that Jesus would reveal the Kingdom and Himself to me in new ways, but I’m also terrified that God will upset the more elaborate framework that I kind of need Him to work within now.
As long as God doesn’t disrupt my ambitions, or challenge my comfortable role in ministry, or question my preferences in a relationship, or prod at my unassailable political vision, THEN God is welcome to do something new. Now that I’m grown-up and the affairs of my house are more defined, I’m less inclined to invite God in to rearrange the furniture.
Many Christians will be praying to God to show up or become real in a new way this year. And we should.
But I think if we knew what this truly entailed—that God’s “newness” is not likely to come on our own terms, within our own framework—we probably wouldn’t ask. On the other hand, if we really understood who we are, children desperately wanting for the redeeming transformative grace of God, we would never ask for anything less.