This past week has been a tough one for Janine, because of her father’s death. It has reminded me of the deaths of others I have known, and especially the more tragic ones. Of a woman who was eight months pregnant and who died in a car accident; of a man of forty-two, the father of two young boys, who died of a heart attack; another man of similar age who also died of a heart attack.
Then, there was the case of a young woman of thirty-five who died in terrible pain of cancer, and another woman of forty, who found she had an hereditary cancer, and she died in a matter of weeks, also knowing that her two daughters also had the gene that was carrying it.
I can tell you of a man who just retired after being well all his life. He had never spent a moment in a hospital as a patient, but fell unwell one day and went to see the doctor, and ten days later he was dead; and I can tell you of a butcher who thought that his draughty shop was giving him back ache, but it was discovered he had bone cancer and was dead within a week of knowing it.
Life sometimes comes at us hard and without warning it cuts us down.
In many ways the ones who pay are the ones left behind … they are the ones to grieve, to feel sick with worry about what will happen to them without their friend or husband or wife, to experience the loneliness, to have to create a new life for themselves.
Yet in all this, there is a remarkable fortitude and inner strength that appears out of nowhere and I find that in devout Christians this strength is all the more apparent.
Where does this strength come from?
I think it comes from knowing that there is a God with whom we can have a relationship and because that God is the God of all creation and that he sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world and has become for us his human face, the pain we feel is understood. His Son in particular knows what pain is in every sense.
I don’t know if I have ever told you this before, but back in the 1970s when I was a Hospital Chaplain, I used to visit a woman who had a wasting disease in which all her bones and muscles had disintegrated. All the bits that held her together were lost, and she was just like a rag doll, yet she did not die. Everything that touched her gave her pain. Even an ordinary bed was painful for her to lie on, because of her own weight.
The best solution that could be found was a soft cotton open weave hammock. Everyone would have pardoned her if she had been miserable or complained about her condition, but no … she was one of the most cheerful people I have ever met. Oh my dear, she said to me one day, don’t waste your time with pity for me … what I have is nothing compared to the ills visited on Job, and just as Job praised his maker so will I.
The strength that that woman had, will inspire me for the rest of my days, giving me strength and courage. That, I believe, is what Christ can also give us, for he is both an example and challenge for us to discover what our true vocation and faith is all about.
In the letter to the Hebrews, it says something that I think is true, though it expresses it in negative terms. I want to turn it around and express it positively. We have a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness because we have one who, in every respect, has been tested as we are. (based on 4:15) If we deal positively with the trials and tribulations that beset us, we come out stronger. It is like Paul says, metals are better when they have been through the refiners fire. Before the fire, they are dull ore of little value, but after the process of heat and hammer it emerges as iron or silver or gold with strength and/or beauty.
In just the same way we are refined by the troubles, sorrows and difficulties that come to each one of us and we emerge as stronger and better people as a result.
C. S. Lewis, an author you have almost certainly heard of but maybe not have read … which is a pity because he has some good advice and knowledge to impart … said that the philosophers and pundits who believe that this life is the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure have got it wrong.
Life is not about avoiding pain it is about dealing with it.
When we deal with pain, the pleasure emerges, we don’t have to go seeking it because it comes to us. That is why, in the story of the rich man, the sadness is that he felt he had to hang on to every bit of his wealth because he used that to seek the pleasures in life. He missed the point by several miles.
If that were true, the rich people would be the happiest but that clearly isn’t the case. By using money and earthly riches as a buffer between himself and the realities of life he was missing the greatest riches of all.
As I have said to you many times, we are to become as children in order to experience the riches of God’s grace in his kingdom. That is, we have to become dependent relatives of Christ without the things that bind us to the earth. If we are bound to the earth we will not enter a heavenly kingdom.
Of course, the man went away saddened. He had made a huge investment to secure his earthly happiness and well-being and now this Jesus was telling him that he had invested in the wrong shares. What he had bought was worthless in the market place of God’s kingdom.
Imagine you are a young person who wants to be a doctor, and you go to the careers teacher who tells you to study languages because doctors need to speak many languages. Ten years later you emerge from university fluent in five languages and you go to medical school to register and they look at you as though you are mad and say but where are your physics and chemistry and biology results. It is no use saying, oh I thought I would do that here, because they will laugh and tell you to start again. You think that someone in that position would be happy?
Life hits all of us hard at times and the people we become as a result of those hardships shape us through the way we deal with the problems that have confronted us.
If we are not sure of what to do and we need help, ask Christ in prayer.
Study how he, the earthly face of God dealt with life’s problems.
We will not go far wrong if we follow his pattern and example.