– Romans 5:1-5
I have always found Christianity easier to believe than to live. It is one thing to have a Savior, and to glory in the promise of God’s grace and love, the assurance of blessing in our lives, and the confidence of life after death. It is an altogether different thing to glory in our sufferings, to deny ourselves, to die to self, and, finally, to pray “not my will, O Lord, but Yours.” We all believe these things, but allowing them to be woven into the fabric of our lives goes against everything in us, and not just a little. Nothing in us is geared toward those tenets.
Some years ago during the long process of ordination, I was going through yet another round of psychological evaluations to ensure I was stable enough for ministry, a process required of all candidates for ministry in the UMC. One of the questions asked was something to the effect of: Would you do something against your will just because someone expected it of you? I remember reading the question and thinking, “Apparently, whoever wrote this question has never been under episcopal appointment.” Having grudgingly packed my bags and moved to the back side of nowhere, I had taken my son and made our home in a town I wasn’t interested in driving through, much less living in for several years. Thus, I responded “yes” to the question. Ironically – since I was being tested for suitability for ministry – my response raised a red flag that required a visit to a psychiatrist and an explanation of my weak-willed, malleable character.
I share that story for two reasons. First, everything in the world – and sometimes, even in the church – encourages us to pursue what we want, to self-define who we are, to chart our own course, and to satisfy our own needs and desires. That message inundates us from every angle and in every aspect of our lives. Everything we hear or read or see points to the goal of getting what we want in life. That message is perfectly suited to the human heart and mind. It fits our own inclinations exactly. The second reason I share that story is because, looking back, that moment was a turning point for me. Without even realizing the significance of the answer, what I had accepted directed and shaped me for the rest of my life. Following Christ often meant doing something I didn’t want to do.
So many people have lost so much. In ways that awe and humble me, the Body of Christ has gathered around its own wounded and hurting, shoring up flagging spirits while working shoulder to shoulder to recover from the devastation. In these times, the presence of others can be a source of great comfort and encouragement, but their presence can also be a reminder of all you have lost and they have not. For if you were one of the people whose home was flooded, the loss and sorrow stretch beyond mortar and bricks. At a profound level, what you have lost is the security you had, the stability of your life, and confidence in your ability to protect yourself and control your own circumstances. These losses shake us to the core, much more so than the physical loss of a house that can be rebuilt. The greatest losses are what the house represented and what it stored. Your home is where you are safe. Our homes are an extension of ourselves, the place to which we retreat from the world, where we are only ourselves and not anyone else’s expectation. Now, your private sanctuary that has become a monument to destruction and chaos, and that is experienced as a deep violation of yourself.
Moreover, our homes are the vaults of our lives. They hold our memories and tell the stories of our years of living. Our homes reflect who we are and what we value. Irreplaceable, sentimental treasures are held within, and beloved heirlooms revealing our roots are displayed and even used in daily life. And now, they are all just gone. So, no, it is not merely the loss of things that many of us face. Rather, it is the shattering of our identity in some ways, the destruction of those things that helped us know who we are.
I understand. More than words can express, I understand. After packing what little I had and watching others put the rather pathetic leftovers of my life into storage, I climbed into my friend’s car, his wife following in my own, and was driven into a future I could not see and did not want. I had no home, no career, not nearly enough money, and chronic disease. The Body of Christ gathered around me, bringing me into their homes, loving me and supporting me, and praying for me, for which I will always be unspeakably grateful, but…, they still had their future. They still had worthwhile lives and plans and dreams. I had nothing. Or so I thought…
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, when anger, sorrow, and fear threatened to overwhelm me, I prayed. It sounds like so little, but it turned out to be so much. Some days, I was on my knees beside my bed a half-dozen times as hopelessness consumed me. And every day, every time, Jesus came to me, just as He went back to find Thomas when he doubted. Jesus didn’t come to me with a grand plan or a map of the future, but He met every need I had. When I doubted, He reassured. When I feared, He gave peace. When I cried in sorrow, He held me in His heart and whispered of the coming resurrection. Years would pass before my life became more than “nothing,” but what God gave me during those years, I would not trade for anything this world has to offer. He gave me impenetrable hope in Him. That may not sound like much of a consolation in the face of your losses, but I promise you, hope in Jesus Christ is everything. Once it’s settled so deeply in you, you can never be shattered again. No loss can ever destroy you, not even death.
The thing is, you are going to go through this period of loss, sorrow, and grief one way or the other. The flood occurred, and nothing can change that. The only question you can truly answer is how you choose to respond. You can struggle with your losses and invest your energy in returning your life to what it was, to the life you built for yourself, and that is what many will do. Certainly, every construct of our society expects that, from insurers to advertisers to media gurus and, sadly, sometimes even to Christians. Or, you can hit your knees and plead for comfort, reassurance, and strength from Christ.
You’re going to rebuild or, perhaps, sell and move, but one way or the other, you’re going to have a home again. So, what you have to decide is whether you are going to go forward clinging to Jesus’ hand and letting Him soothe your fears, release you from anger, and dry the tears of your sorrow, or if you’re going to tally and carry the burden of all you’ve lost. I recommend the former choice because, squalling and complaining like a toddler (which is how I would describe my own response to loss) while holding onto Jesus’ hand, you will be led to a place you never imagined, a richness of life you never knew to seek.
When Jesus talked of dying to self or putting your hand to the plow and not looking back, He was speaking of times like these. Frankly, Scripture reads much better than it applies. Dying to self – letting go of your dreams, of your sense of control over life, of your confidence in your abilities – is a wretched and miserable process. Like I said at the beginning, Christianity is easier to believe than it is to live. Most of us prefer that our dying to self occurs with our last breath, not now. Never once did I glory in any suffering I experienced, nor was I ever remotely grateful for pain or loss that occurred in my life. And yet… Looking back, I would not change a single step along the way, because without the loss, without the suffering, without the shattering of my life, I would never truly have known resurrection.
As others before me have pointed out, the Gospel is often bad news before it is good news. The good news is that there is a resurrection coming and not only after you die. Your Father has a resurrection for your life now. The bad news is the death you face now, a death of self-reliance, of self-defining identity in the world, and of control over your future. You wanted to be the one who helped people in need. You never wanted to be the person in need. So, my prayer for you in this time of loss, confusion, sorrow, anger, and misery is that you will succumb to your neediness for Christ, for His presence, comfort, reassurance, and strength, and that you will persevere in neediness. For if you do, one day when you wake up, your life will shine with hope in Him, because your resurrection snuck up on you. Then, you will look back and be stunned by the love of God that was being poured out in your heart at the very moment you thought you lost everything.
In Christ –
© 2017, SF