If We Never Meet Again. . . .
Another wounded soldier passed recently. Not like the others. This time he fell on his own sword. This pains me, not unlike the others, but this time I can’t help but be a bit angry. God knows that I myself have often looked down at myself in contempt, doubting that this sword of the Spirit really fit my arm. I doubted my strength. I doubted my shield of faith. I even laid down my armor to die. I don’t know how I made it through except to say that at some point my despair didn’t work anymore.
Wait, yes I do remember. I got reminded quickly that I was not alone. That this fight was not mine alone. That I was surrounded by other Christian soldiers all around. They surrounded me, picked me up, and pointed out that we needed each other. And I didn’t want to die.
But this man isolated himself. He got alone long enough to end it. I don’t want to judge a man who wasn’t in his right mind. But for me, I feel that Ending It is an angry, selfish thing to do.
I’ve lost many friends in this life. I know that this will continue in my life because death is a part of life. I guess I’ll never get used to it. I don’t think I’m supposed to. Each loss takes its own small piece of me.
When I was about the age my son is now I befriended a man who hung out on our community’s front porch. He was so kindly and full of life. But he was also always red faced. I learned over time that he didn’t come inside because he was drunk. He always asked me about myself and what I was doing. He said I reminded him of his son and he always imagined that somehow we’d all meet someday.
Over time something I said to Jose really softened his heart. One day he was overcome with tears and said he really wanted to quit drinking and live his life. My dad gave the wonderful news when Jose gave his life to Jesus, joined our little community, and turned his life around. For six wonderful months I hung out with Jose and got to know him as a fresh faced, sober, intelligent and kind person. One day I got the news my friend, who had quite a temper, just stormed off one day and hitchhiked away from us. I saw him again in front of a Catholic Worker house one day. He was doing OK, drinking on and off, but trying to manage. And then one day we got a call that he had gotten drunk and been killed. I was there when we carried his coffin and laid it in our community’s little paupers grave. Jose was finally laid to rest. I didn’t understand why he had to struggle so but I was happy for the time I got to know him.
Later as an adult I made a friend named Gary. Gary rode the rails for a living. He fancied himself a professional hobo. Somehow he got tied into my circle of friends. Every night we talked and laughed and really enjoyed his company. He gave his life to Jesus and swore off alcohol. The last day I ever saw him was on a Sunday. Though he felt afraid and felt terribly out of place, he wore his best shirt and sat through a church service with us just to belong. In the parking lot afterwards he asked what I was doing the next day. I had all kinds of papers due and tests coming at school. “Oh” he said, “I just wish I knew where I could hang out. I get lonely and its hard to stay sober.” I suggested he stay with my friend Richard but he couldn’t go there because it was a shelter. Even with the cold coming on he needed to be outside. And that was it. After that he was gone.
After three days I found a notice from the police in a shelter stating that they’d found a homeless man who’d been beaten to death by the railroad tracks. They gave a number to call to identify him. I was so shocked. Though I’d had the experience with Jose, this time I felt personally responsible. If only I’d been with Gary this wouldn’t have happened! I called the detective and gave him the info I had for Gary. Just before his death Gary had given us his address. At our little coffeehouse we held a memorial service for Gary. Somehow the Lord had seen fit to allow us to share his last days. We sent his ashes back to his family in Colorado. It didn’t seem fair the way he went. It didn’t seem dignified. But what is dignified about death?
The older I get the more I realize that death is a part of life. I struggle with saying goodbye as much as saying hello. I’ve had to say goodbye to too many friends. But this is life in abundance. This is what God has dealt with since he created life. The dust he used returns to dust.
I suppose my real struggle is with my responsibility. To love other persons and know them as I am loved and known. Am I ever really doing it right? The words, the touch, the look, the bodily presence, it never quite measures up with the memory, the thoughts of “what if I had only. . .”
As I understand faith, Obeying God is as much about acceptance as it is about action. Accepting things we can’t control, like the actions of the other person and their eventual absence. The loving action involves a courage to do what I can. That action must involve the faith that God somehow uses my efforts.
Finally, let me say I do believe in heaven. I believe in reunion. The song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” speaks to that. I also believe in the family of believers across time. I am grateful for the connection I share with the thoughts and actions of believers who’ve been gone for many years. I believe I am a part of this Family across time and I’m grateful for that.
When it came time for the prayer requests in the Baptist Church I used to attend I would tune out. Miss Hutchins has pnuemonia, Miss Doughty is a shut-in who asks that we remember her in prayer after a recent spill. Mrs. Smith has a son who is backslidden and on drugs. And on occasion I honestly thought to myself that the Church must be this place where the gospel is like a shalack meant to preserve us, but that over time it wears off. Prayers for healing, deliverance and salvation must be new coats of shalack that delay the inevitable. I used to think of the way the deacon called for prayer for the “Sickamongus” as though it were some flesh eating disease. In that church all the hymns were about victory living or getting saved. So when he spoke of the sickamongus he said it like we had to pray that it didn’t infect our sense of victorious salvation. I also remember the “unspoken” prayer. Such and such has an unspoken prayer. What was that about? How was I supposed to not wonder what that unspoken prayer was? Did that person have AIDS or the gout? Were they secretly smoking? Come on give up the goods!
I don’t have to think real hard as to why it is unspoken. Prayer requests too often cleverly disguise gossip.
I’ve never had to deal with real sickness. I was told that I was miraculously healed of a serious ear infection as a child. But since that time I can’t think of a time I’ve needed prayer for serious bodily healing. For that reason maybe its self satisfaction and lack of empathy that makes me despise speaking of the sickamongus.
There’s another reason. I’ve been exposed to so much real suffering in the world, that I can’t help almost laughing at Miss Hitchen’s flu. Oh you poor thing. Lebanese children are being bombed. But I’m sure the Lord cares more about your flu. You just happened to win the genetic lottery being born in Christian Missouri, God Bless You. That’s a cold and heartless sentiment. And yes, truthfully, somehow God cares for everybody. Even so, I have always battled with what seems to be a religion of anesthesia that infected that church and many others I’ve been in.
Truthfully, I hate sickness because, when it is severe it points to death. I believe it is true that Jesus is victorious over death and that as his followers we are too. I believe in Jesus healing power. But its always been important to me to remember the grand Scheme. Sickness here is no more important than a child dying of dysentery in Africa. And yet TV tells us every night that any discomfort whatsoever is an afront to our humanity. That we are entitled to the best drug at any time. I can’t help thinking that this wellness culture is an affront both to divine healing and universal concern. The trickle down we keep expecting from the West, the spillover of compassionate conservativism will come after our wealth is preserved from terror. Freedom for us seems to mean impoverishment and hell for hundreds of thousands of others.
Sickness and death seem to indicate a threat to the Church’s work. Jesus went about healing all manner of sickness. He raised Lazerus from the dead. But then Jesus was crucified. He was beaten and mocked. The Powers that be made a show of him to display their power. When Jesus rose from the dead his victory over death was complete. His victory over the Powers was complete. But he lived it all. He lived the suffering, the temptation, the fear, and bore our shame and guilt. And he promised all of these things to us. “No student is better than his teacher.” Take up your cross and follow me.
So if following Jesus is a promise of both joy and suffering, how does intercession and prayer help? If by that I mean that prayer makes us feel better, it is not a help. The consolation or ease we feel in praying the prayer comes and goes. The feeling itself is not the reason for prayer. We pray because we are told to. Because, as branches of the Vine, as members of the Body of Christ, prayer is the activity that sustains us. Not only does it sustain us, it is part of God’s work in the world. Prayer is not meant to narrow our gaze but to broaden it.
I’m really no expert on prayer. If you want something substantial Irecommend Karl Barth’s book on Prayer or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible. More importantly are the Scriptures themselves as a model for prayer.
So what sicknesses and what deaths are important to God? All of them! The nightly news can make us feel completely detached from life as it is. We know more about floods and war and the economy than we do our own neighbors. But what do we really know about any of these? I have often prayed with a hand on someone’s head: “Dear Lord you know this persons far better than I.” And truthfully we never really know. While we want to pray intelligently, the fact is, prayer is resignation even as it is action. Surrender to the will of God. Surrender to His goodness. He commands us, Ask, Seek, Knock. Believe. And yet all of these are active resignations. In prayer I am saying “Dear God I am not You. I do not presume to know. I believe in Your goodness for this person. I ask from You.”
I have said before and I will say it again with conviction that God’s will is for Christians to take seriously the doctrine of the imago dei. That is the belief that every human being equally possesses the image of God. In Jesus final instructions to his disciples he said “Preach the gospel to all creation and make disciples.” I can’t help but believe that involves a deep abiding belief in the goodness of God and His desire that we preserve humanity and the earth. Sickness and death appear to be assaults on humanity and creation, but because of Christ’s work they are taken up into God’s trevail and activity. Instead of mortality and annhialation they point to God’s New heaven and Earth. That takes a lot of faith and acceptance. But I want to be a part of that.
Given all these glorious affirmations, let me get painfully personal and come to the reason for both of these audio blogs. The truth is, I can’t bear to see up on a blog in digital print what I’m about to say. My dear mother who gave me birth is facing a life threatening illness. Brain cancer. I don’t know how to deal with that. I read from Ecclesiasticus this morning. Not a book I normally read. Chapter 2 verse 4-6. It reads:
“Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.”
That is my word for today. There are no easy answers when faced with the suffering and possible end of my mother’s life. I face this not alone but with the rest of my family. I know that my father’s pain in all this is much more severe. It is one thing to endure pain myself, it is quite another to accept it for my mother. Here are some helpful suggestions I’ve been receiving:
1. Remember that this is not about me, but about my mother. I accept the feelings of guilt, fear, pain and then I surrender it.
2. I want to be present for my mother in the miracle of life that I have with her today. Regular phone calls to connect are essential. When I am with her I will try to make the most of every encounter and share in a new way all that we have.
3. The future is in the future. Each day I’ll let my fear of it go and reach out for the strength from God to face today.
4. I am not alone. What I feel I can see in the eyes of those I love. Their strength, their need, their hope, their celebration, is a gift to me. Sorrow is also a gift we share. My feelings alone are not more important than theirs. Our shared life gives me strength for when I’m alone. (Which with a wife and three young kids is not often!)
5. Christ is the center always. He is between me and all persons. Between me and each day. Between me and suffering. Between me and death. Jesus Christ is good. In Him, I and we are never alone.
Jesus is joy in suffering and death.