The Tough But Joyful Life

John 16: 32-33

Jesus answered them, “Do you finally believe? In fact, you’re about to make a run for it — saving your own skins and abandoning me. But I am not abandoned. The Father is with me. I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I have conquered the world.” Difficulties? A little list.

Arthritis… clinical depression… alcoholic parents… migraine headaches… hurricanes… retarded child… anorexia… auto accident… alzheimers… drug addiction… widowhood… cancer… disfigurement… ugliness… osteoporosis… deafness… malaria… starvation… child abuse… deformity.. gunshot wounds… Iraq… career collapse… flood… robbery… diabetes… poverty… blindness… dysfunctional family… Dafur… unemployment… disintegrating disk… heart disease… deformity… divorce… isolation.

Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows…even the best of you. Interesting…every translation has it a little different. Difficulties, trials, sorrows, persecutions, troubles, tribulation, suffering. But it all adds up to the same thing. Sooner or later we all get our share. Sooner or later, if not in our own body, then in that of a loved one. If not in body, then in mind or nervous system. If not within then without, in circumstance or relationships.

Nobody escapes. It may look like that with some of your friends, neighbors you know. But courageous smiles can hide a lot of secrets. And life is not over for any of us. (Well, some of us may look pretty far gone. )

Nobody escapes. But the word goes on. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows: but take heart, cheer up, for I have conquered the world. Oh sure. Here I sit on my ash heap, covered with boils like Job, my husband just walked out on me, the doctor has just read me the fatal verdict, the school has called to tell me junior is in trouble, I have just lost my job, and the answer I get is “cheer up.” What’s the old line? They said to me, “Cheer up, things could be worse,” so I did. And sure enough, they got worse.

Well, there is obviously more than bromide here or we wouldn’t bother this morning. But even in that little word “take heart, cheer up,” there is the insistence that we are not totally victims of our troubles, prisoner of our sorrows. There is real danger in the belief that we have no freedom, no choice of the spirit with which we tackle life tomorrow. Against a lot of the pop psychology and social determinism of the day, here is a word that reminds us that we are not just the product of our surroundings emotionally. You can find happy spirits in hospital beds and misery in mansions.

One man tells how he and his wife visited an elderly woman in a hospital bed who spoke appreciatively of the light coming into her room towards the end of the day, of the colors of the flowers on the window counter, of her deep satisfaction with her life, of her pleasure in her loved ones, of her gratitude for our simple ordinary visit. Everything about her was positive. On the way out, with a wink and a smile, she got me at a weak moment to contribute to one of her favorite charities. Then we stopped briefly at a social gathering where I met a young man in the prime of success and health, who had so magnified some alleged, imagined, or perhaps real trickery or chicanery on the part of business associates, that he had worked himself into a rancor of bitterness, making himself a very miserable person. What a contrast.

But as I say, there is more here than frig magnet or bumper sticker. Two very important words really. The peace of acceptance. The courage of hope.

The peace of acceptance, not embrace but simple recognition. One of the problems we have with our troubles, sorrows, rejections, downs, lies in our refusal to accept the reality that this is life. The pain of the problem is not nearly so bad as the agony of rebellion. Life is hard, but once you accept that, it is not so hard.

Four-year-old Jimmy was on a family vacation last summer and he was given quarters for the video game by his older sister. Since Jimmy was not proficient in operating such games, the quarters went rapidly. Finally he had to be told that there were no more quarters. He demanded angrily, “But I want more.” To which his sister responded, “Jimmy, in life we don’t always get what we want.” Jimmy paused and then shouted, “I hate that rule.”

We don’t like the rule that life will be hard, difficult, filled with reversals, disappointments, losses, troubles, tragedies. But until we come to terms with that reality, no real peace, no good cheer. Here is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sitting in a Gestapo prison cell. “…it is the mark of a grown-up man, as compared with a callow youth, that he finds his center of gravity wherever he happens to be at the moment, and however much he longs for the object of his desire, it does not prevent him from staying at his post and doing his duty. The adolescent is never quite all there: if he were, he wouldn’t be an adolescent, but a dullard. There is a wholeness about the fully grown person which makes him concentrate on the present moment. He may have unsatisfied desires, but he keeps them out of sight, and manages to master them in some way or other…clinging too much to our desires easily prevents us from being what we ought to be and can be. Desires repeatedly mastered for the sake of present duty make us, conversely, all the richer. To be without
desire is a mark of poverty. But we can have a full life even when we haven’t got everything we want — that is what I am really trying to say.”

But is that what our culture tells us, drums into us day after day? That we can live a rich, full, joyful life even though we don’t get everything we want? Hardly. The overwhelming message is that suffering, difficult, trouble are not realities to be accepted, but problems to be quickly solved. There is a pill for every pain. There is surgery for every disfunction. There is a therapy for every hurt. There is a vitamin for every lethargy. There is a twelve step program for every addiction. There is an electronic devise for every handicap. There is an exercise for every physical or emotional deficit. There is a spare part for every organ or bone. There is a political solution for every social problem.

Now, let me add very quickly that in part this has been one of our most admirable traits as a culture and people, this belief that we can solve problems, eradicate pain and misery, if we find the right expert, spend enough money. It has been part of the dynamic of our story, and it has led to the alleviation of a lot of the agonies and ills that human flesh is err to. But it can easily lead to a lack of realism, to the feeling that there must be a solution to all our troubles, and answer to all pain and trouble, to the assumption that unless it does we cannot know joy, live a happy life.

Daniel Boorstin, head of the Library of Congress, caught it well. “We expect too much of life. We turn on the car radio in the morning as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theater and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a faraway atmosphere if we go to a nearby place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a faraway place.

“We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever- more neighborly, to go to a ‘church of our choice,’ and yet feel its guiding power over us. To revere God and to be God. Never have a people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.”

In this world you will have trouble… Two businesswomen were having lunch and talking about the offfice, taxes, the cost of living and their families. “I raised four boys before I came back to work,” one world said proudly. “That’s a nice family,” said the other woman. “I wish I had four children.” With a touch of sympathy in her voice, the first woman said, “Don’t you have any children?” “Yeah,” said the other woman. “I have eight.”

In the world you will have trouble. But with the peace of acceptance, this all begins to change. A man tells how as a little boy, he had infantile paralysis, and had a great, big brace on his leg. When he was little, it didn’t bother him, but when he had to compete with the other boys, he realized that he couldn’t win with that leg brace. So he said to his father, “Dad, do you suppose that God will ever heal this leg of mine?”

His dad was a kind and pious man, so he said, “Let’s just believe, and when the day comes, I’m going to take you to the cathedral where I have heard that people have been healed.” The day came. The boy got dressed in his best clothes and, with the brace on his leg, walked down the aisle with his father. They knelt at the altar, and the father said, “Pray, son.” As he prayed, the boy looked at his father’s face. The father was looking up toward the high altar and his rugged face was full of hope and faith. The boy looked down, and there was still the withered leg with the brace on it. They got up and started down the aisle, the leg still thumping along. About halfway down the aisle, the boy was engulfed by an enormous happiness. The man now says, “I can remember to this day the power of that experience. I knew that I was healed—not my leg, but my mind. And from then on, it made no difference that I had a game leg. I had a mind full of faith and peace.”

“Here on earth you will have many difficulties, trials, sorrows, but take heart, for I have conquered the world.” Meaning what? Meaning that with his cross and resurrection he has shown us that the world, the world of difficulties, trials, and sorrows never has the last word. The writer to the Letter to the Hebrews says of him, “For the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” But cross and resurrection are not seen just as the end game, but the reality of life with every day. There are crosses of difficulty and trial but there is always hope that beyond them there is more life. Christianity is specially suited to come to terms with the complications presented in sudden and unexpected trouble. In doctrine and history, our joy is purchased in suffering, just as our sorrow always points to hope. Thus we do not despair but learn and grow.

Here on earth you will have many difficulties and trials, but take heart, for I have conquered the world. Meaning what? With his spirit so can we. The peace of acceptance and the courage of hope. For this acceptance of the troubles of life is no passive resignation, it is no giving up on life. It simply sets the stage for the proper battle, which is as much the battle within as it is the battle around. Bruno Bettelheim, writing of the prisoners in the concentration camps which he experienced in World War II, says, “Those prisoners who stayed in touch with their inner determination even when they could hardly afford to act on it, those prisoners who kept hope alive within, survived, whereas those who neither accepted their situation nor hoped for a future within it, invariably did not.

Finally a picture of Jesus’ promise lived out today in his land. Next week we will travel with thirty of our membership to Israel to visit the sites of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection. In Jerusalem we will stay at the American Colony Hotel. The story of this place goes back to 1873 when wife, Anna, of a successful Chicago businessman, Horatio Spafford, sailed with her four children to Europe. She barely survived a shipwreck in which her four young daughters drowned. Horatio, in his grief, penned the lines of the hymn, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll,
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” And then in 1880, Horatio and Anna lost a young son to scarlet fever. Determined after these losses, to give their lives to humanitarian service, they set sail for the Holy Land with two young daughters born after the losses and an entourage of family. They settled into a house which today has served as a clinic for the children of Palestine for over 70 years.

Jerusalem was then a forgotten outpost of the Ottoman Empire, few hospitals or schools, no telephones, sewers or electricity. Soon after the Spafford’s arrival, an American diplomat warned Washington that their efforts would result in disappointment and disaster. Within a few years Horatio died of malaria, but Anna and her small clan stayed on, working as nurses and educators, Anna and daughter Bertha, and granddaughter, Anna Grace. In 1900 Anna and her followers purchased a villa from a pasha, which is today the American Colony Hotel. Situated on the line between East and West Jerusalem, the mission over the years has survived war between the Ottomans and the British, the Arabs and the Jews, the Jordanians and the Israelis, nursing the wounded and caring for the orphans, meeting place for enemies.

While there we will meet Valentine Vester. At 93 she is the last tie to the past, having married a third generation Spafford in 1963. In Jerusalem, she plunged into the work of the mission, at what she called the job of chief executive of the kitchen. Hard of hearing now and with failing vision, she remains funny and tart about the world around her and the accidents of her own life. She clearly retains the spirit and faith of the Spafford women who have carried on in that difficult world for over a hundred years. “I’m quite well in myself,” she says. “Nothing wrong with me. I can’t see very well, I can’t hear very well, and I can’t walk very well, but I’m perfectly well.”

I think a living example of what Jesus offered, “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I have conquered the world.” .