That happened again recently.
I’m writing to you in March and next week I’ll be flying to Philadelphia to speak at the funeral of my friend, Arlene Townsend. Arlene was a physician (as is her husband, Ray) and a remarkable woman. She and her husband have been involved in medical missions all over the world and serve in a great number of ministries. Arlene and I served on the board of Harvest USA. She read Three Free Sins and, to my astonishment, liked it a lot. Arlene seemed so together, obedient and faithful that I suppose I felt she didn’t need such a book. (If you want to bond with an author, tell them that you liked their book. You will be friends for life.) Arlene became my friend…and a friend who got grace in a profound way.
Over the past weeks Arlene prepared for her death. As a doctor, she didn’t have any false hope. Arlene knew she was dying and she was incredible with the peace she felt resting in the arms of Jesus.
In one of her last emails shortly before her death, Arlene wrote to me about her funeral: “I wanted to tell you some of my thoughts lately. A while ago you said you were distressed when people said at funerals, ‘Well done good and faithful servant.’ [I had referenced that in a sermon and said the text was misused.] I was quite disappointed because I thought I wanted someone to say that about me! I even thought about how I could manipulate you into saying that about me at my funeral. However, in the past few months I have found what an unprofitable and unworthy servant I am, and I totally agree that there is only one truly good and faithful servant and he is our Savior. Therefore don’t you dare say, ‘well done good and faithful servant’ in reference to me. (Although I know you know me better than that!)”
Is that great or what? I plan to read that at her service.
Reading over what Arlene wrote, I thought about how Christians deal with the “hard stuff” of life. It’s silly to think that Christians can ever speak as outsiders of the human race. We aren’t altogether happy about dying any more than anybody else. (“The good news is that you’re going to heaven. The bad news is that you’re going on Thursday.”) We don’t like cancer any more than anybody else. We hate going through a divorce just like everybody else who goes through a divorce. It’s painful when we discover that our kid is gay (or maybe face our own struggle with same-sex attraction) or when a friend betrays us, we lose a loved one or we lose a job. We are just as confused as anybody about the world, politics, war and hunger. We cry when it hurts and we bleed when we’re stuck with a pin. “Bucking up” is just as hard for Christians as it is for everybody else. We “cuss and spit” with the best of them.
But there is a difference and it shows.
I’ve seen that difference, when it hurts, in Arlene and a pile of others. On occasion, I’ve even experienced that difference in myself. That difference comes from two facts: 1) God is God, and 2) we’re not.
The first fact isn’t just about God’s existence; it’s about his nature. He is good all the time and he cares. The Psalmist wrote, “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). But it’s more than words. He took on our frame and became dust, experiencing everything that we experience (Hebrew 4:14-15). The Scripture says that God became man and experienced the fear, loneliness and pain that we all experience. In the dark, we cry out and he always says, “I know, child.”
A number of years ago, the late missionary doctor, David Seel, wrote a wonderful book, Does My Father Know I’m Hurt? David wrote about dealing with cancer (which he compared to Satan) and he answered the title’s question. Not only does our Father know we’re hurt, he tastes the salt of our tears. I have a friend who went through a hard time in his life and said to me, “If I thought God gave a rip about what I’m going through, I could deal with it better.” He does give a rip. That is a secret known to Christians and it does make a difference.
But there is always the second fact: We’re not God. We’re so confused, scared and devastated that, when really bad things happen, our helplessness defines us. That’s bad. No, that’s good. Paul wrote that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and when we don’t know what to do in our pain, we turn to him. My friend, Larry Crabb, says that we should go to the dark places because it is there that Jesus meets us. He does. He always does.
My friend Steve McCoy lives in Washington State. We’ve only been together once and that was over 30 years ago. While we don’t see each other, Steve and I write regularly. (We may be the only two people in the universe who write real letters.) Recently Steve’s brother, whom he loved deeply, died unexpectedly. Steve, who is an author and incredible with words, wrote something in his grief and pain that I want to share with you. Read it with your mind, but be sure and read it with your heart too:
My unwelcome companion. You have invaded my life, uninvited, unwanted, in the shadows you have waited, until this moment to ambush me.
Now you have overtaken me with a ferocity of a predator subduing the prey. I am overcome.
The hopes I once held, the dreams I once nurtured, now shattered and broken. They lie in pieces at my feet mingled with the fragments of my life. I am undone.
My wounds are deep, they are beyond repair by bandages and ointment. Dread and gloom now greet me each morning. Desperately I try to escape your grip, to tear you away from my heart.
Nothing helps. There is nowhere to get away. If I shove you aside, try to push you away, you only conceal yourself within me, eventually expressing your displeasure in ugly and destructive ways.
So it is I surrender to you. Come now, sit here beside me. Up close. You will be my companion. We will walk together. I will bathe myself in the tears and let despair purge me. I will wrap my arms around you and hold you close. You will become part of who I am.
We will become friends, you and I. But know this, you are not my master. I will not make my home in despair and hopelessness. Together, we will journey this path, a path that will once again lead to delight and gladness.
I know this to be true because of the one who traveled with you long before me. I trust him. I trust the journey will lead to new hopes, to new dreams, just as he promised. You mustn’t leave, for in you my memories and pleasures of yesterday reside. And they are very much a part of me. But together, we will press on. The path may be difficult, filled with distress. I will fall to my knees many times. But we will once again arise and move forward. Ever so slowly to the hope that lies ahead.
Well, this is an “up” letter. Sorry.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about what I wrote a lot of late and…he told me to tell you.