by Jason Micheli
Galatians 6.1-6 (click to see Scripture text)
“Bear one another’s burdens, in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.”
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School whose scholarly expertise centers on the history of the Prosperity Gospel movement in the United States.
What began as a professional academic pursuit became a pressing, personal matter when Bowler, just in her mid-thirties, received a grim diagnosis of stage four colon cancer.
Recuperating from an initial surgery to remove the many lesions massed on our internal organs, Bowler shuffled Duke University Hospital’s hallways still wearing her gown and tethered to an IV pole and wandering through a fog of disbelief.
In her new book, No Cure for Being Human, she recalls how she wandered into the hospital gift shop and started to pull the books that triggered her off of the shelves.
“I can see now that it was probably alarming for the teenager at the gift shop counter to see a patient in a blue cotton gown wheel her own IV into the store, mutter loudly at a carousel of books, and begin to pull titles off the shelf. Not one by one. But dozen by dozen.
“Can I help you ma’am?” the manager asks gingerly.
But I am coming in hot.
“Yes! Thank you. I need you to know that these books are not suitable to be sold in a hospital.”
I point to the pile of Christian bestsellers I’ve made on the floor, books that I carefully studied and documented in a comprehensive history of the movement known as the prosperity gospel. I spent ten years interviewing their celebrity authors and pulling apart their promises for divine happiness and healing with gentleness. But gentleness is not what I’m after today.
The manager only stares.
“Okay, like this one for example.” I nudge Your Best Life Now with my foot. Televangelist Joel Osteen is on the cover and learning in to the camera.
“It says here it was a New York Times bestseller,” the manager says reasonably.
“He’s written about the “the prosperity gospel.” He’s saying God will reward you with money and health if you have the right kind of faith.” My voice is too high, even I can hear that.
“Normally, okay. I can handle this. But you can’t sell this in a hospital. You can’t sell this to me.” I gesture melodramatically to my gown, and she looks away, as if to give me a moment of privacy.
I gesture to another book and then another. “This book tells me to claim my healing using Bible verses. This one tells me that if I can unleash my positive thoughts I can get rid of negativity in my life.”
“So what do you recommend instead?” The manager’s back is to me as she starts to reassemble the display I have dismantled.
I glance around the bookstore. There are books on how to let go of the past, how to live in the present, how to claim a brighter future. I suddenly feel like I need to sit down.
“Just let me point out the books that actively blame people for causing their own diseases.”
Which she lets me do.
The next time I wheel past the bookstore window, copies of Your Best Life Now have been replaced by copies of Joel Osteen’s new book, You Can, You Will.
I had my own hospital meltdown maybe six years ago.
I was sitting in the cafeteria at Johns Hopkins with a parishioner named Katherine. Her daughter was a student in my confirmation class. I’d buried her husband just three months earlier after he’d died suddenly at home. No sooner had she put an offer on a new home where she and Beth could start fresh than Katherine started to have recurring and persistent nose bleeds.
The third doctor she consulted finally discovered the tumor in her brain; at which point, her already poor odds had become a long shot.
We sat in the cafeteria. Her siblings from Scotland had taken Beth for a walk. Katherine wore a pink North Face fleece over her hospital gown.
She sipped tea and wondered why she was so hungry.
She’d been googling private schools on her iPhone for her daughter back home in Scotland, she told me, planning for what no longer seemed an unlikelihood.
She covered her mouth as a wave of anguish crashed over her, and I could barely make out the question in her gasp.
“Why is God doing this to me?” she asked.
And then, as if to venture an answer to her question, she confessed to me, mistakes in her past, an affair early in her marriage, an abortion before it, that might account for why God was afflicting her with such sorrow.
Maybe it was my own pastoral exhaustion, but I smacked the cafeteria table so hard my coffee spilled across over the floor.
“GOD’S NOT FREAKING DOING THIS TO YOU!” I yelled, only vaguely aware of the stares directed my way.
“I’VE CERTAINLY GOT MY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT THE HELL HE’S UP TO RIGHT NOW BUT I KNOW HE’S NOT DOING THIS TO YOU! GOD DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY.”
I didn’t even bother to mop up the spilled coffee.
I was angry.
And I was furious not at God or the fickle cruelty of the universe.
I was righteously pissed at all the many messages that muddle the gospel with the law so as to produce questions like, “Why is God doing this to me?”
Because it’s Glawspel that produces un-Christian questions like, “Why is God doing this to me?”
The same assumed system of merit and demerit that says God’s done his part, forgiving you all your sins in Christ Jesus, but now you’ve got to do your part, earning your forgiveness and accruing righteousness of your own— that same system of merit and demerit is at work in questions like “Why is God doing this to me?”
The grammar of such a question depends upon the logic of the law not the the gospel.
But God works by grace not law, Paul has angrily insisted for five chapters of his letter to the Galatians.
And grace is not karma.
This is why Paul adopts such a furious, four-lettered attitude in his epistle.
For Paul, getting the gospel right is every bit as urgent as getting the gospel out because what might strike us as a theological error, muddling the gospel with the law, for Paul is a pastoral emergency.
Just game out the practical implications of the false teachers’s Glawspel message.
The false teachers’s had convinced the Christians in Galatia that, by dint of their good-deed-doing, upright living, and button-downed piety, they were the active agents of their salvation— a glad, flattering message so long as you’re playing the game of life with a full house and an ace in the hole. But by that same logic, as soon as life deals you a few rotten hands or you go bust-up and broke, it’s your fault. It’s because of some sin you committed or some commandment you did not keep.
It’s the logic of the law.
Merit and demerit.
Reward and punishment.
The church is a hospital for sinners.
The church is a hospital for sinners, and the Letter to the Galatians is Paul, wearing a surgical gown and tethered to an IV pole— screaming, “But you can’t sell this in a hospital. You can’t sell this to me.”
There is perhaps no surer evidence that God does not operate according to a system of merit and demerit, than the assumption that lies behind Paul’s command in our text today, “Bear one another’s burdens, in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.”
That the community of disciples are commanded to share one another’s hardships and suffering is but an indication that hardships and suffering are inevitable.
God’s people are not to think themselves exempt from hardship. Indeed God’s people are commanded to expect hardship and, in the face of hardship, they are commanded not to allow one another to suffer it alone. It’s not that God sends hardship and suffering upon his people but rather, in a world of hardship and suffering, God sends a people, a people called church, who bear one another’s burdens.
Notice, moreover, Paul does not prescribe any words for us to offer one another in the course of our burden-bearing. Paul does not say “bear one another’s burdens, reminding each other that all things work together for good.” Paul does not say “bear each other’s burdens, encouraging one another that everything happens for a reason.” Paul only mentions speech in these verses when he tells us we’re obligated to confront, in gentleness and truth, those who’ve trespassed against us. But Paul does not provide any words that should attend our burden-bearing. It’s like Paul knows we cannot be trusted with words in the face of suffering.
We’re simply to be present to and share in one another’s suffering, which is but a reminder that the God of the Bible has steadfastly refused to give us any explanation for the persistence of suffering in the world. Rather than an explanation for suffering, what God has given a suffering world is a community of care made possible by his cross, a people whose practice of bearing one another’s burdens, Paul says, fulfills the law.
A dear friend of mine, Thomas Lynch, is a poet and an undertaker in Milford, Michigan.
In his book of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch reflects on bearing one another’s burdens as he writes about preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:
Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning.
But Milo is dead.
Milo is dead. In the hospital where he died, Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe. I sign for him and get him out of there.
Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features, eyes and mouth, that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Milo’s hands, one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.
They will not be doing anything anymore, either.
When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here with me, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me.
What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.
After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, “Never mind that,” is what Milo said. “One hand washes the other,” is what Milo said.
I place Milo’s right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesn’t matter. One hand washes the other either way.”
By bearing one another’s burdens we fulfill the law of Christ— that’s a remarkable statement.
How does our sharing in one another’s suffering, being present amidst another’s pain, fulfill the intent of the law?
The law of Christ, Jesus makes clear in the gospels, is consonant with the law of Moses.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;” Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle will pass from the law…”
The law of Christ, Christ makes clear, accords with the law of Moses. The purpose of the law of Moses was for God’s particular people, Israel, to be a light to the nations. To bear witness to the wider world that this is what life with God looks like. To live already as a harbinger of a kingdom not yet come.
How does our taking the time to suffer the presence of another who suffers constitute a light to the nations?
As you might know, I visit the oncologist every month for blood work and scans and “maintenance chemo,” a euphemism meant to mask the brute fact that what we’re maintaining is my life.
My doctor has the appearance of a Bond villain and, even better, the bedside manner of an East German Stasi interrogator.
For every visit, he repeats what I remember him doing the first time I woke up from surgery a few years ago to the news that I had a rare, incurable form of cancer.
Each time, he flips over the nearest box tissues or rubber gloves and in thick, black lines drawn with a sharpie he sketches out the bell curve for the standard deviation of the time I’ve likely got left.
I think it was the third of fourth time, sitting on butcher paper and staring at the bell curve like it was the hour glass from Days of Our Lives, the truth swept over me like forced sobriety. Life is made up of minutes not moments. Life is not made up of moments but minutes. It’s a treasure all of us possess only in ever increasing poverty.
And then, almost immediately, a second realization struck me.
That life is made up of minutes not moments was also true of every fellow believer and church member who had taken the time to pray for me or visit me or cook for me, every person who accompanied me to chemo infusions or caught me when those infusions left me teetering.
Their lives too were made up of minutes not moments, yet they had wasted their time on me.
Rather than seizing their own day or checking off a bucket list of their own, instead of a more fulfilling activity— because, YOLO— or living their own best lives now, they’d joined me in my worst time.
Life is made up of minutes not moments; nevertheless, God has called forth a people to waste precious time, lavishing it on the burdens of a brother or sister.
This is the way in which our suffering the presence of the suffering other fulfills the law.
This is the manner in which our bearing one another’s burdens in turn bears witness to the world, for the world is determined by a fear of scarcity— especially the scarcity of time.
I mean, some are willing to let the planet get hotter and hotter in the belief that the time we have right now is the only time we have— so damn the future. Such fear informs our economic unrest. Such fear feeds the anger and grievance in our politics. Such fear produces the sense of urgency and anxiety that besets our institutions, particularly the church. We’re running out of time to recover what he had in the past.
In such a world, a world determined by the conviction that time is a commodity with shrinking returns, God has called a people to take the time, out of their own shrinking treasury of time, to suffer the presence of those who suffer.
It’s true, of course, that many people bear the burdens of others.
A willingness to bear the burdens of another is not necessarily an indication that you’re a Christian. However, only Christians are commanded to bear the burdens of one another, and only Christians are told that so doing summarizes the entire vocation of God’s people to be a light to the nations.
In other words—Christians and non-Christians alike may bear the burdens of others; in fact, many non-Christians may perform the work of burden-bearing better than Christians.
That burden-bearing summarizes our vocation means that what the Christian possesses that the non-Christian lacks is a particular story that makes intelligible our willingness to waste our time on the pain and suffering of others. We have a narrative— a promise— that can account for our willingness to spend our minutes on someone whose pain we cannot remove and whose problems we cannot solve. To bear the burdens of another, therefore, is to live in a manner that suggests our story is true.
Life is not finished even when it is over.
There will be more moments to follow our allotment of minutes.
Because the tomb is empty. He is not there. He has been raised. He has gone ahead of us. And, in the fullness of time, he will come again and raise you up to a new, renewed time. And, therefore, you have an abundance of time— literally all the time— out of which you can afford to live your neighbor’s worst life now.
You can so afford to live because, on the contrary, you DO NOT only live once.
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil* the law of Christ.
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