My father in-law has easily been one of the most intelligent men I have ever known. He had a mind for business and mathematics and science, and yet he loved history and nature. He loved exploring the world, finding out what had happened, and collecting bits of information and storing them up to share with others. He was an avid reader, and he read widely in political theory, fly-fishing, economics, biblical studies, philosophy, biographies, and even poetry. He would frequently ask me about what I was reading, and it was very rare for him to have nothing to say in return. He almost always could keep up the conversation and could find something interesting in what I was reading or thinking about. Just a couple of weeks ago I read a little book by Francis Shaeffer called Escape from Reason, and I mentioned it to Bill thinking he might find it interesting. Sure enough Bill had read it years ago and proceeded to tell me about some of the other Shaeffer books he had also read.
To borrow from Shaeffer, we might say that one of the most important questions that can be asked at a funeral is the question: Is this real? Does this event, do these feelings – do they matter at all, really? Sometimes we ask this question differently by speaking of lives wasted. To say that a life is wasted is to say that it meant something or at least it should have meant something. It presupposes a meaning, a standard, a value, and we compare particular lives to that standard and evaluate whether they were good lives, lives well spent, or else lives wasted. But to ask this question is to assume that this is real, that there is meaning in the world.
The vast majority of the human race has answered these questions with an emphatic yes. Of course this is real. Of course it really hurts to lose a loved one. And that’s because life has intrinsic meaning, intrinsic value. But sometimes the temptation is to grow cynical. When lives seem wasted, we wonder if any of this is real or valuable or true. What if it’s all just an illusion? But if we question it all, if we doubt there is meaning and truth in the world, we are questioning the very basis we have for questioning. If we say life is meaningless then we have no grounds to complain about anything. You can’t insist on the meaningfulness of your complaints while insisting on the meaninglessness of the universe. This is what Shaeffer called antithesis. One of these things may be true but certainly not both.
As I watched my father in-law suffer over the last four years, one of the questions that arose in my mind and I know arose in his mind was the question: Why. Why cripple a man who loved to walk? Why inflict a man with pain who loved to laugh? Why take a grandfather from his grandchildren just when they are getting old enough to fish together, read together, explore together? And what we’re asking is: is this a waste of life? Was the sharp and inquisitive mind thrown away? Was the jovial, conversational friendliness, faithfulness, generosity – was it wasted by a deadly disease, by chemicals that we’re still learning to aim carefully?
The Christian answer to this question begins by insisting that in this world something has gone terribly wrong. In fact many things have gone wrong. But to say that things have gone wrong is to simultaneously insist that there is a right, that there is a standard of goodness and value in the world. Otherwise saying that something has gone wrong is completely incoherent. You might say that a line is crooked but that’s only meaningful if there is such a thing as straight. You may say that an instrument is out of tune, but that only matters if there is a pitch to match. Do you see what I mean?
Everyone instinctively knows that something has gone wrong in this world. There is pain and suffering and betrayal and always, again and again, death. And we all want to say that there is something wrong about it. It shouldn’t be this way. But it’s only meaningful to say that it’s wrong if we have some inkling of what is right. The name that Christians give to what has gone wrong is sin. I’m talking about things like greed and lies and broken promises and lust and bitterness. The Bible says that sin is the great mutilator of humanity. Sin poisons men from the inside and eats out their hearts and minds and destroys us and our world. Of course hurricanes and car accidents and cancer are not usually directly caused by human sin, but the Bible says that because we are made in God’s image and made to care for this world, somehow our sin has infected the whole world. And now death and decay and destruction are everywhere.
The temptation is to give in to the darkness. The temptation is to despair and to somehow make peace with our sin, make peace with death. And so we say quaint things like: That’s just the way the world is. Or, this is the natural order of things. Or perhaps we try to suppress our feelings and we say that none of it means anything at all. We’re just advanced animals acting according to our evolutionary instincts.
But do you see what we’ve done, if we say any of these things? We’re saying that this moment, this life, this pain – we’re saying these are not real. We are giving in, and we are giving up. We are surrendering to the dark. We are surrendering to despair.
If Christianity is anything it is a rebel cry, a defiant scream, a deep down refusal to accept what has gone wrong as just the way things are. Christianity looks at the brokenness of the world, the brokenness of our lives, the brokenness in our hearts and it agrees with us that this is not how it’s supposed to be.
But Christianity is not merely a religion, not merely a set of beliefs to assent to. Christianity is fundamentally the insistence that this world is not only meaningful, but that the reason it is meaningful is because there is Someone who means it. There is Someone behind it; there is Someone who made it. And so the good news of Christianity is that there is One who knows how this world has gone wrong. He knows how it has gotten off the tracks. And He, more than anyone, understands that this is not how it’s supposed to be.
But He, more than anyone, understands the problem because He is the only one who is not part of the problem. He made the world, and He filled the world with His goodness. This is why we still laugh and dance; this is why we embrace and love; this is why we tell stories and sing and taste the goodness of the world in our mouths. We experience the contradiction every day. We see the contradiction all around us. There is goodness and truth and beauty, and yet it’s marred, it’s broken, it’s bent.
Christianity tells the good news of this Creator not leaving the world to its own destruction but rather entering into it. So He became a man and lived among us. He was the only perfect man, the only sinless man, the only truly good man. And he was betrayed by a friend, lied about, spat on, and condemned as a blasphemer and traitor. He was beaten, flogged, and nailed to a tree to hang until he died.
The Bible claims that somehow when this Man died the darkness of the world began to die, the brokenness in this world began to come unbroken. What’s striking is that the only perfect man in the history of the world, the only man who never lied or cheated or broke His promises, an intelligent man, an articulate man, a gifted man – He was misunderstood, lied about, hated, convicted of crimes He didn’t commit, and ultimately executed like a common criminal. Clearly, if there ever was a life wasted, it was His. And so before we can ask if my father in-law’s suffering and death was a waste, we need to get this straight. Was the death of Jesus a waste? Was His crucifixion a meaningless moment in the chaos of the universe?
The Prophet Isaiah says this about the suffering of Jesus: Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:4-5). Isaiah and the rest of Scripture insist that the suffering of Jesus was not a waste. The Bible calls His suffering love. By this we know love, the Apostle John says, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 Jn. 3:16). Just before this John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers” (1 Jn. 3:14).
You see, the striking thing about Christianity and following Jesus is that when you trust in Jesus the new life that begins to take shape inside of you mimics His life. Not only are the sufferings of Jesus for us, but somehow Jesus claims the sufferings of all His people – when Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus while he was persecuting the Christians, Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?“ Jesus claims the sufferings of His people and uses them to continue to display and demonstrate His love. This is what Christian baptism means and this is why we anoint the sick: it means that God has claimed your life and now He is set on displaying His love through you and your suffering. You can tell that you have passed from death to life, you can tell that the new life of Jesus is inside of you because you love the brothers. You love being around other Christians. And suddenly and strangely, you want to lay down your life for them.
Last September it finally hit me that it was not merely that God was vaguely doing something good through this suffering, it was rather that by this suffering God was determined to do something better than would have been possible without it. And this means that God knew that it was more important for Bill’s wife and daughters and sons in-law and grandchildren and family and friends – it was more important that Bill minister to us through his sufferings than through fishing trips and vacations and long conversations on the back porch. God knew that Bill could give things to the ones that he loved most effectively through suffering and dying from multiple myeloma.
I spent more and more time with Bill as he weakened, and I think perhaps one of the most surprising things I witnessed was how strong Bill was all the way to the end. The man wouldn’t stop fighting. I think this is particularly well illustrated in Bill’s refusal to sit down or lay down for longer than a few hours at a time much to the chagrin of Libby. This made for long and hard nights for her especially as Bill became less and less stable on his feet. He would go to bed and wake up sometimes only a few minutes later and say that he needed to get up. He needed to walk. He needed to move. He couldn’t move very quickly, and a trip down the short hallway and back was frequently an hour long adventure. As I started spending the night with dad over the last month so that mom could get some sleep, whenever dad woke up, he was under strict instructions to blow a little whistle that hung on his walker. He was not to attempt any heroics on his own. (As a side note: Once when he had slipped out of his chair, mom called Deacon and I to came over to help her get him up, and he noted rather wryly that there would be no more skydiving for him.) So when I stayed over nights, I would hear his whistle from the living room and come walking in and Bill would cheerfully say hello and tell me he needed to get up and take a walk. We had some wonderful conversations as he slowly moved one foot and then another. He would start to doze off for a minute, and then catch himself or I would ask him a question and he would pick right back up where he had left off. As recently as this last Sunday night, he insisted on standing up with me, and even though it became clear very quickly that he would not be able to go anywhere, he nevertheless wanted to stand. And after about an hour of standing up with him, however gently I encouraged him to sit back down, I realized that he wasn’t going to budge. He said he couldn’t sit back down.
As Jenny and I were musing the evening after dad died, we sympathized for a moment with Brittany Maynard, the young Oregon woman with a terminal disease who took her own life this last October, not wanting to face the pain and suffering that would likely come from her sickness. It’s hard to face pain and suffering. But it suddenly struck me perhaps more vividly than ever before, just what Bill had given us. Or rather, what God has given us through Bill’s suffering. Dad refused to stop fighting the cancer all the way down to just a few weeks ago because he loved us. He did it for us. O sure, Bill was a sinner like all of us, with moments of anger or frustration or fear or selfishness. But Bill held on for his wife and children and grandchildren. He kept loving. He wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t sit down. He needed to stand because he needed to take care of his people.
The Apostle Peter says that even though we must endure many trials for a little while, these trials show that our faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold, proving that our faith is far more precious than mere gold (1 Pet. 1:6).
Jenny told me that on one of the last days all he could muster at one point were the words: “I love you all. It hurts.” I’m not sure it could be anymore plain. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers. In fact, it may come as a surprise, but Bill actually died many years ago. He lost a son who was stillborn in 1984 and within two weeks his company sent him to the Middle East on business, and feeling lost and alone, he stumbled on a copy of Daniel Defoe’s famous book Robinson Crusoe, and there confused and broken, Bill met the Lord Jesus. Bill had been baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church as a child, but it was at that point that Bill placed his trust in Jesus and passed from death to life. The light of Christ shone on him, and he received a new heart. And because of this, Bill’s life was no more wasted than the life of Christ. Bill’s suffering was taken up into Christ’s suffering. Bill didn’t pay for our sins, but Bill’s suffering was a beautiful picture of the One who did.
Is that real? Is it true? Are these just sentimental thoughts, chemicals doing what chemicals do? Well, you need to ask yourself whether any of our words are true, whether there is any meaning in the universe. And if there is, where does it come from? And if things have gone terribly wrong in this world and in your life, have you given up hope? Jesus died that all darkness might die, and He rose up on the third day as God’s defiant promise that the darkness will not win. And so we rejoice that Bill is not dead. He is fully alive, and he is only enjoying a much needed nap with the Lord. And one day this man, Bill Jackson, one of the best friends the Lord has ever given me, will kick open his coffin and climb out his grave with a new, indestructible body, and he will take a deep breath of Idaho air and say, “I need to get up. Let’s go for a walk.”
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.