Beauty amidst ashes

Today I attended the funeral of a senior member of my Christian church community.  Our pastor asked me to look after the final prayer because of my long relationship with the man.

It was a privilege to help those there to acknowledge and thank God for the deceased’s life and the way Christian faith had shaped his life.  His family and church friends recognised some attractive reflections of Jesus in him: the faithfulness of his lifelong and loving relationship with his late wife who by their children’s common view had several complex “issues” and lacked Christian faith; the generosity of a life of service, first to his family settling in a new country, then working as a window cleaner till age 68, and finally volunteering with the Royal Society for the Blind for almost 15 years (which gave him an Order of Australia Membership); and finally the quiet and strong but good-humoured Christian faith which gave him stability and standards throughout his life.

It was a wonderful thing to be asked to bring all this together and to thank God for the real difference Christian character shaped by faith can make.

A month ago I attended another funeral, also of a long-time friend, but with much of the above missing in his life.  No integrating belief other than in having a good time.  A man who loved his wife but whose children and friends had nothing much to say at his funeral other than that he’d had a lot of fun, had a lot of “toys” and had done a lot of travel.  It’s not necessary to say more than this.

Also on my mind at present are two sets of parents, again one Christian and the other agnostic, each of whom are seeing one of their children go through a hellish time in their battle against cancer.  Through much of my life I have given pastoral care and support to people of all ages and stages of life, in church, hospital and elder-care contexts, but I have never had to work with people going through what these two families are with their men.  Again, I need say no more.

But once again, I have been deeply affected by the contrast in the pastoral support I can give.  In some respects what I can do is similar.  In the face of an aggressive malignancy and no-holds-barred treatment, everyone feels just so very helpless, vulnerable and angry.  Whatever our personal beliefs, when serious illness or disability strike, there is nothing we can say to change the present, and we have no knowledge of the future prospects.

But when Christian faith is part of the situation, there is something to build on.  Not that I can prove God, Jesus’ resurrection or what the Bible says about my future.  But the Christian story does offer a bigger picture, a standard by which to measure our lives, a framework for discussing the meaning of good and wrong, life and death, God and myself and the judge of goodness and truth, and a coherent collection of pictures and promises to reassure and comfort.

I believe what I suspect most fair-minded people believe: that faith is just that: the result of our decision to trust and build on somebody or something bigger than me.  I have had a wonderful marriage of almost 44 years and have enjoyed safe and harmonious family life from birth.  How so?  My parents were God-honouring Christian people who despite their imperfection were able to pass on their way of integrating their faith, life and work.  In Helen I met somebody of like background and we’ve committed ourselves to love, respect and trust each other – just as we did God.

As I’ve grown up I too have learnt that life is complex!  Today even more than before, I have wanted to be fair-minded, honest, understanding and accepting.  This has sometimes caused me to feel something of an outsider among more “strong-minded” Christians, but I’ve also been heartened by people who value honesty, openness, passion, depth, and respect.

One thing more than anything else has continually puzzled and saddened me – although I also suspect I understand the answer.

Why do so many people decline or reject a faith relationship with God as we know God through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ?  Why choose to live with our values and life goals set not by the God of Jesus Christ, and rather by chance, fate, or a commitment to uncertainty or a lack of commitment to anything other than self?  Why do people allow themselves to stumble over the sometimes loud and ugly imperfection of Christ’s followers and close their mind to the strong positive impact Jesus Christ and his many dedicated followers have had on our world and personal lives?

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3 comments

  1. Hi Fred.

    Thanks for the gift of another set of inspiring thoughts.

    As I add up the score in the twilight of my life, I feel that I have too often mistaken perfection for excellence.

    I once found a good metaphor for the difference in the form of a running race. In the perfect race, I start off well, sit in behind the leaders for a few laps, then at the top of the straight, I surge to the front and record a glorious win.

    In an excellent race, I start off equally promisingly, but then disaster strikes. I make a silly mistake, I stumble and fall. All hopes of victory are dashed. But in an excellent race, I get up again and stumble on, using every resource I can muster. Given the setbacks, I actually make some quite impressive progress. But sadly, the glory of victory is destined to evade my grasp on this particular day. The self esteem of having a darn good try against the odds, is however etched onto my soul.

    The one thing I think the Christian philosophy has got right is the symbol of the resurrection; God always offers us a second go at things.

    Alternatively, the God of perfectionism probably destroys us all. I suspect the excesses in Catholic schools in the 50’s was motivated mainly by the thought of raising a perfect child ( sadly by beating the devil out of them.)

    And thanks to perfectionism, I suspect many of us end up like Frank, the alcoholic teacher in the movie, Educating Rita. In describing his divorce in a moment of deep honesty, he says, “My ex-wife is actually quite lovely. It’s me I am not too keen on.” That’s what failed perfectionism is like; self hatred.

    And I agree that the Christian resurrection, and often a healthy Christian community, can offer us an escape from that hell of low self esteem. The evidence is to be found in so many self help groups like the 12 Steps.

    Someone once paraphrased the the first three steps as:
    I can’t (deal with this spiritual problem);
    God can;
    I will let Him.

    It seems to work, especially when you are motivated and encouraged to put in the hard yards in the other 9 steps.

    Love from Brian.

  2. Thank you once again, Brian, for your thoughtful, kind and expansive response to my post. I always look forward to getting some comments from you: you always add new and valuable perspectives to my own thinking and experience, and I’m sure many other readers will also find this enriching. Whatever I write always gives me cause for further reflection (and sometimes second thoughts), and I like that openness as I explore my own journey. I’m grateful to you for this as well as the opportunity we have to “meet” and interact here.
    Keep well, and receive my best wishes and love!

  3. Yes, I believe Emerson had a rather helpful perspective on the freedom to have second thoughts.

    Rather than implying, as many debaters do, that his friends should maintain a consistent set of beliefs, he used the following greeting…..”And what have you discovered since we last met?”

    I think an open mind is a fairly important spiritual skill. After all, when we are dealing with the unknown, it is all speculation. But speculation can lead us to some very helpful places.

    As TS Eliot put it:
    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

    Love from Brian.

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