Reflecting on suffering

aaron-burden-426280-unsplashJames, the brother of Jesus, opens the argument of his New Testament letter with these words…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
(James 1:2)

At first glance, this seems superficial—put on a happy face, smile, look on the bright side. At second glance, this seems a gloss or a pretence—things aren’t really that bad, there’s always someone worse off than you, you think you’ve got problems, luxury. At third glance, this seems to represent an asceticism or stoicism that’s detached from reality—pain is inherently good, no pain-no gain, harden up.

But if you only glance three times at this verse, then you will be ill-prepared to face the difficulties of this life, and you won’t have much that’s helpful to offer others.

I’m off to a funeral this morning. A young man, husband, father of two, son, brother, friend to many. Some will still be in shock. How could this happen? It’s so not right. Many will feel the pain acutely. Something tragic has taken place. Relationships have been severed. The grief will be palpable.

We will gather in a church—a building that many of us have gathered in many times. We’ve been there for weddings, baptisms, funerals. We’ve come looking for answers, searching to find hope, seeking to make some sense out of such horror. We will ponder two small children without their daddy. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not in this life. Our hearts will crumble as we listen to family sharing, friends praying, people crying.

What help does James 1:2 offer at such a time? Is it a verse for such an occasion? Will it only rub salt into our wounds? Is it best left for another time?

James 1:2 is a word for a such a season, because it is written specifically to brothers and sisters. Not flesh and blood, but spiritual siblings. Even though Jesus and James shared the same mother, it’s their spiritual bond that matters most. He writes for those who have been adopted into the God’s family through trusting in Jesus Christ. James has a word for Christians who call God their Father.

It’s a timely word for us today, for James is not saying to pucker up and smile. He’s saying first of all to think. That’s right, think. He doesn’t say ‘Be joyful’, he says ‘consider it pure joy’. He calls us to reflect, ponder, meditate upon, consider what’s really going on when we face trials of many kinds. When life is difficult beyond belief, when people are suffering, when there don’t seem to be answers, when it just hurts so deeply… at this time consider it joy. How so?

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
(James 1:3-4)

A Christian funeral is not a place for platitudes. It’s not a place for wishful thinking, for simply hoping for the best, and least of all for glossing over the pain and hurt. Death is harsh. It’s unkind and unrelenting. It’s devastating and cruel to all who are left behind. And yet, for the brothers and sisters, for those who hope in Jesus, for the ones who trust that Jesus has conquered death and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust him—death causes us to reflect again on what matters most. We are reminded to refocus, to maintain our hope in Jesus, and to persevere in trusting him.

We might not feel much joy on this occasion, but we have reason to be reminded of the objective joy of resurrection hope. My friend is now with his saviour. His wife, his children, his family, his friends, you and I, will one day be reunited for all eternity if we persevere in our faith. Death and funerals will test our faith. As we look to Jesus, this faith grow stronger.

“Dear Heavenly Father, as we mourn today, fill our hearts with the truth, enable us to trust in your good and loving purposes, enrich our faith in Jesus Christ, and remind us to see the joy in being with you for all eternity.”

Hope beyond cure

‘Cancer free to no hope in less than two weeks.’

This was the headline to the post I read on a cancer forum yesterday. How could things change so quickly? The truth is, they hadn’t. There’d been a bad case of miscommunication.

I browse these forums from time to time. I can’t do it daily. I find it too sad, too overwhelming. People are sick, confused, powerless, dying, and so often lacking in hope. Every day there are desperate cries of anguish. There are pleas for prayer. There’s the outpouring of grief. Sometimes there’s an explosion of anger at the merciless killer, cancer.

As I read the headline above, it clarified in my mind what it is that I so want to communicate. It’s what I’m praying my book will achieve. My goal is to offer hope beyond cure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% pro-cure. I want my cancer to completely disappear. I pray that it will and I pray the same for others. I’m excited by medical advances and new discoveries. I absolutely love hearing that someone with cancer has no evidence of disease anymore. I love the hope that comes with this pronouncement. In a sense, life can begin again. A new chapter with a new outlook.

Yet when the prognosis is bad, when all attempts at medical intervention have been exhausted, when prayers have not been answered as we might wish… what then? Is there hope still? Or has all hope been exhausted?

Is cure the ultimate hope for those of us with cancer? Is this what we hope for beyond all else? I don’t know really. I haven’t asked enough people. My guess, is that we have a range of hopes. But I’m concerned if the hope of a cure for cancer is where we stop.

What happens if we are cured? We go back to life. Not as normal. More likely as radically changed people. But then we’re likely to get sick again. It could be the recurrence of cancer. It may be something else altogether. We may recover and we might keep recovering, but there will come a day when we won’t. Death will catch up with each of us eventually.

What then of hope? Is it a meaningless platitude? Was Nietzsche right when he wrote…

In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.

Or is there hope yet for those facing death? This is such an important question and yet so often it doesn’t get asked. We become so consumed with life here and now, that we don’t pause to consider the inevitability of our death. I may not have cancer when I die, but I will still die. Is there hope for me? Is there hope for any of us?

19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  (1 Corinthians 15:18-19)

God’s Word tells me that the answer is YES! There is hope beyond death and it’s found in Jesus Christ. I long for people to know the certainty of this hope. This is a hope that stands on the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus is alive today, then there is hope beyond cure. There is hope beyond death.

Faith, hope and tears

The shortest verse in the Bible is filled with empathy. Jesus, the author of life, understands what it feels like to experience grief and loss when a loved one dies. It hurts. It aches. We cry tears of sadness. We grieve in death. There’s a time for mourning, a time for weeping. As it says in John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Some might question whether it’s necessary or appropriate for Christians to mourn the loss of a fellow believer. Don’t we believe they’ll be raised? Aren’t we confident they’re now with Jesus? Doesn’t our faith in eternal life make such sorrow out of place? Surely, a Christian funeral should be a celebration, not a time of grief and sadness?

Look again at John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Jesus believed in resurrection. In fact he spoke of himself as the resurrection and the life. He knew that his good friend Lazarus would be raised from the dead. He knew, because he would raise him!

And yet, John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

If you’ve experienced the loss of someone you love, let the tears flow. Jesus did.

Letters from the land of cancer

wangerinI began reading Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin Jr. nearly a year ago. However, I didn’t finish it. I think I felt a little overwhelmed by it. The topic, the intensity, the unrelenting discussion of cancer and death. I wasn’t yet ready to read 22 letters by a man reflecting on his cancer. I set myself the project of reading it all this week. If I was planning to write a book about living with cancer, then I needed to consider what it felt like for the reader. This probably makes me one of the more motivated of his readers. We share the same cancer, a similar profession, same number of children, grandchildren (that’s right – I’m awaiting delivery in October), love of motorcycles, and more.

The obvious difference is that Walter Wangerin is a world-class, well-respected, writer. That makes WW a WWW! (Grandad joke!) He’s a teacher of English literature and a prolific writer of fiction. He’s a wordsmith. He’s eloquent. He’s poetic. His writing is thick, like treacle. It’s deep, intense, heavy, profound. His words are disturbing, niggling, probing. But they’re also light and fresh and invigorating. They stir the soul to action. At least, they did mine. I’ve written so many notes and comments and questions.

I found this book hard to get into, but harder to put down. I wanted to know what happened next. What did you learn? How is your treatment? How is your wife? What are the doctors saying? What are the results of the next scan? How does this mesh with your faith? What is important to you now? What will you make your priorities? What’s it like to be on oxygen 24/7? Why don’t you pray for your own healing? Why do you look forward to death? How do your family feel? What leads you to say your cancer is an adventure? Or a blessing rather than a battle? I suspect that I was vicariously travelling this journey with him, and that these are more questions about me than him.

This book worked for me. It pushed me to reflect, to reconsider my own experiences, to look again to God. It’s heavy, but he’s writing about heavy stuff. Reading 22 letters one after the other is a bit like watching a still frame motion picture. You know, the ones that show a seed being planted, a sprout emerging from the ground, a plant growing to maturity. All frame by frame. One picture per day. It’s like that. We see the outside journey experienced by the Wangerins, and we also learn of the inner journey, the impact on his mind and heart, his faith and convictions.

I’m not sure who I’d give this book to. My dad has read it, so I’ll have to ask him his thoughts. I suspect you’d want to be a serious reader to tackle it. I also suspect you’d need to be willing to be confronted heavily with your own mortality. It’s no coincidence, that I wrote the poem, Pain, while reading this book. It’s an intense book.

Following his journey throughout this book, I fully expected the final chapter to be posthumous. Perhaps, a final word from his wife, speaking of Walter’s passing. But no. It’s all Walter. The cancer was discovered in 2005, the final letter of the book written in 2008, the publishing date 2010. As soon as I finished the book, I hurried to my computer and googled his name. So when did he die? According to his website he has a speaking engagement on May 31 in West Virginia, so I’m guessing not yet!

I’d love to meet this man. I think we’d have a lot to talk about!

Our time is in God’s hands – Psalm 90

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  (Psalm 90:12)

crosscalendarMy days are numbered. So are yours. There’s no point in denying it or ignoring it. It’s a fact we can’t overcome. What matters is how we choose to spend the days we have. Will we waste them away in meaningless trivia? Or will we make them count? My prayer is that I will number my days. Not literally count them down, because I don’t have sufficient information to do this. But understand deeply that they are limited, so that I use the time I have wisely.

I want my life to count for eternity, not by making a name for myself. It would soon be forgotten anyway. But by bringing honour and glory to God. By declaring his praises. By drawing people to his love and kindness. By showing people to the gateway of heaven, Jesus Christ. He alone is the way, the truth and the life.

In December last year, I celebrated a year since my cancer diagnosis in a rather strange and almost eerie way. I was invited to speak at the same conference I’d spoken at the year before. This was the conference I was attending when I was admitted to hospital. To tell the truth, I didn’t expect to be at another conference, let alone give the opening talk again. God had other plans! It seemed fitting to speak on Psalm 90. This is a psalm that highlights our weakness and mortality.  It calls us to fess up to who we are, to get real about our limitations, and to make the most of the time given to us. There is a rawness to this psalm and it spoke powerfully to my circumstances.

I believe it speaks to us all and the wise course is to consider it very carefully. I recommend you take the time to read over Psalm 90 and ask God for wisdom to help you number your days.

If you would like to listen to the talk I gave on Psalm 90 at the 2012 AFES staff conference, you can listen or download it here.

Good Friday and the curse of cancer

Cancer has been front and centre this last week. Relay for Life on the weekend, with cancer survivors and carers, and the memory of loved ones now gone. Surgery today for our niece to remove any traces of melanoma. A funeral this morning for my friend’s mum, who lost her brief battle with lung cancer. Not long before there was Tony Grieg, and then Peter Harvey, and there have been so many others. Mums and dads, grandparents, cousins, uncles, children, bosses, neighbours, colleagues, passing acquaintances. Cancer is a cancer on our world. It invades our lives. It breaks our hearts.

Next Friday is Good Friday. A strange day, when we remember a man dying. In fact, I remember two men dying on this day. On Good Friday 2007 – it was the 6th April – I lost a good friend. He was only 29 years of age. He’d only been married for two years. We’d go to the gym together. He was my neighbour. He stood in the rain and helped us bury our family pet. He’d encourage me with stories – all true. He was my brother in Christ. Cancer took hold of my friend and it didn’t let go. I’d conducted his wedding and, soon after, I conducted his funeral.

It’s not right that a parent should have to view the death of their child.
It’s not right that a wife should lose a husband after only 2 years of marriage.
It’s not right that a man shouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

It’s not right. God knows it’s not right. I wondered, after my friend’s passing, if we’d be able to look on Good Friday as good ever again. How could it be good when every Easter we’d be reminded of the death of our friend, or husband, or son?

crossWe need to reflect on the death of the other man. He’s the reason we call it Good Friday. Jesus, who wasn’t much older than my friend. Jesus, who never married. Jesus, whose mother looked on in anguish at his death. Not a good Friday for Jesus. Nailed on a wooden cross. Between two criminals. Publicly ridiculed. Despised and rejected. Forsaken by his followers. Crying out, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The worst of Fridays. The brutal execution of an innocent man. A genuinely good man. A just and merciful, compassionate and courageous man. But even more, this man Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Saviour. He was Immanuel, God with us. The death of Jesus was no accident. God wasn’t ambushed by the might of the Jews or Romans. There was a plan, a costly plan, a purpose to the death of Jesus. Something that would turn the worst of Fridays into the best day ever.

God had promised this day, centuries before, through the prophet Isaiah:

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
on him, on him. (Isaiah 53:2-6 The Message)

On that first Good Friday, Jesus took our sin upon himself and he bore the punishment. He paid the price. He won our forgiveness, our freedom, our life with God. As Jesus hung on that cross, it should’ve been me… and you. Jesus, the Righteous One, took the judgment we deserve. He endured it, himself, so that we don’t have to.

It’s because of that first Good Friday, that we can look on the day my friend died as a very good day. My friend knew the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus. He trusted Jesus, not only in his life, but unto death. He knew the significance of Good Friday and the sure hope of Resurrection Sunday. As I saw the lifeless body of my friend in the hospital on Good Friday, I recognised that he was no longer there. He’d already departed. He was now with his Saviour. Death no longer had hold on him. Cancer did not have the final word. That word belonged to Jesus.

Learning from the Mayan mistake

mayanDecember 21 came and went without so much as a ripple. 21/12/12 had been forecasted as cataclysmic end to the world, based on a particular understanding of the Mayan Calendar. A handful of people escaped to various ‘safe zones’ throughout the world – though I’m not sure how that helps if the earth gets destroyed. Others were stockpiling food and wine – but I don’t know if they planned a feast before or after the world’s end! There was a bit of noise, some media hype, a few fanatics, and then disappointment – or should that be relief? December 21 was followed by 22, then 23, then 24, then Christmas… and now we’re well into 2013. What do we make of this? Ignore it? Joke about it?

I recommend learning from it. But what’s there to learn? Don’t listen to doomsday prophecies? Filter all media beat-ups? Be skeptical of all mystical explanations of the cosmos? Maybe, but I suggest something more concrete and personal:

It may not be possible to predict the end of the world,
but you can certainly predict the end of your world.

You probably won’t know the day or the month or even the year, but you can be absolutely certain that it will happen. Death is one of life’s certainties. We are finite beings. We grow old, get sick, and die. Sometimes this comes quickly, sometimes it’s delayed, but it always happens. Moses got right to the point when he wrote long ago:

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.  (Psalm 90:10)

RepentThe Bible also teaches that this world will come to an end. It’s tied up with Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus entered this world once to bring salvation, so he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus promises that this day will mean judgement for all who reject him, and life for all who submit to him and trust him. It’s common to ridicule and caricature the Bible’s teaching on the end of the world, but we’d do well to take Jesus at his word. He will come again.

So whether it’s the return of Jesus that marks the end, or whether it’s our mortality that guarantees our end, it makes sense to be prepared. There’s no point stockpiling things because they won’t help you and you can’t take them with you. There’s no ‘safe zone’ in this world you can flee to. But there is a way to prepare. Flee to Jesus and find refuge in him. He died and rose again to rescue you from the judgement to come. He’s offering you fulness of life now and forever. Do it now so that you don’t get caught out. Do it now so that you don’t miss out on the joy of relationship with Jesus in all the time you have left. Do it now because the more you practise putting things off, the better you’ll get at doing it. Do it now because the God who gave you this life wants you to enjoy life with him forever.