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When Good News Is Bad

When Good News Is Bad

    Hartford Hospital solicited my participation in a program to counsel with others who are contemplating bi-lateral knee surgery.  It's a worthy idea and ordinarily would win my participation.  But I did not sign up, for a reason I hope will become clear through the course of this essay.

    A month ago I received a phone call from a fellow in Port Chester who was preparing for his second round of knee replacement surgery.  He had been sent to my website where I had posted the piece entitled "My Miracle," celebrating the skill of my orthopedist and the unexpected ease of my rehabilitation.  The fellow from Westchester, Otto by name, had only one question for me, a plaintive one, "Why did your surgery go so successfully and mine hasn't?" 

    I didn't search for the explanation, because I could anticipate where the dialogue was going.  Instead, I stressed the likelihood that my experience was not normative: no real pain before or after surgery and during rehab... when most candidates for surgery go through with it only because they suffer severe pain and have trouble sleeping.  I suggested that prior to surgery I had been diligent in exercise, riding a stationary bike and lifting weights.  He shot down that trial balloon instantly.  He was a body-builder, at it every day of the week, and could lift twice his own weight.

    He had had surgery ten years ago; but the pain never went away.  My good news about knees was, if not insulting, perplexing to him.

      Most of us should be able to understand.  Remember those algebra tests in ninth grade?  I really didn't want to hear that someone got 100 when I got an 80. 

    Or like that group session at seminary when, gathered in a circle, each of us reported on how we had spent our summer.  One fellow had been in the South of France with the Taize community. Another had braved dangers on the streets of East Harlem running a day camp for inner city children.  And what had I done?  Supervised a playground for middle class kids in a suburban Connecticut town. Their good news about good deed summers intimidated me. 

    Through fifty years of pastoral care I have tried always to remember my own reaction to others' good news, softpedaling my successes or minimizing their importance.  It's also a consideration in my refusal to wear (and even own) a clerical collar: people see that swatch of white at your neck above a black rabat and, more often than not, dismiss you as too good to be real. 

    There are limits to telling good news.  Which must also be remembered when telling the Good News. 

    My exposure to testimony meetings began on the evening of February 4, 1956, my debut Sunday in my first full-time appointment as an ordained minister.  One after another of the young people stood up and gave witness to the wonderful changes wrought when Jesus came into their life.  The sin, the doubt, the downward spiral of "before" was starkly contrasted with the rapture, goodness, and success of the "after."  And it was all more than a little hard to take for this young pastor fresh from seminary, schooled in the classic tradition of the Christian faith, aware of nuance and the capacity of the "saved" to behave very much like the sinner.  I wasn't so much shamed by their good news as made to wonder whether it was true.  When one of the testifiers went on too long, a senior member of the church interrupted her witness with the proposal to sing a hymn, #73, "Be Still, My Soul."  Mine wasn't the only irony present that night.

    What most of us want is assurance, sympathy, some good news for ourselves.  Other peoples' good news about themselves sounds very much like bragging... even when it revolves around Jesus... or, maybe, especially when it revolves around Jesus.

    There is a twist to this problem with good news and Good News that needs also to be honored.  Those in the company of Jesus (the "saved"?) owe it to him to be quick to celebrate good news whosever it is.  Like the sun shining and the rain falling on the fields of good and bad alike: how generous God is to us!  Good news.  Or as when the disciples came to Jesus filled with indignation because someone outside the circle of faith had been casting out demons in Jesus' name: on which apparent perfidy Jesus pronounced the benediction, "Who ever is not against us is for us."  

    The Apostle Paul framed it in his marks of the true Christian, one of which is to "rejoice with those who rejoice."  That may be harder to do than to "weep with those who weep," because even the sanctified feel twinges of envy when a friend succeeds.  One has to be solidly grounded in faith, hope, and love to celebrate the other's good fortune and really mean it. Those followers of Jesus whom I admire most are those who own not only a simplicity of faith but a complexity of understanding of human nature, fully appreciating one very basic mortal quirk, namely, being profoundly self-centered.  So one's own good news is muted while the other's good news is congratulated. 

    They are those who match a certain rabbi who dismissed a flatterer for too easily calling him (the rabbi) good.  The same rabbi could be heard on a couple of other occasions (to a Syrian woman and a Roman soldier) exclaiming that he had rarely seen such faith as they possessed.

    Think that thought, friends, the next time you hear WWJD.  


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