Thursday, September 5, 2013

Eternal Encouragement

I have been struggling recently with how to encourage people who are hurting, or people who have someone close to them hurting, especially people in the "last third" of their life, as a friend has put it. That is, people who are nearing retirement, are empty nesters, and perhaps physically or mentally not what they used to be. First third would be childhood; second third would be higher education, marriage, building a career, and raising children; last third would be after all that, or at least past the height of all that. As a Christian, it is not a good thing to be struggling with how to encourage here. This is supposed to be what we are good at. We have the words of life. We have the link from this life to the life to come, namely, the Bible. We have the best news in the world, the gospel. We have plenty of material to encourage with, and we have the Holy Spirit himself inside us as an unending fountain of encouragement. But it is still hard. I have found that it is hard in a sense because until people are in their last third, which could be before they think, before retirement, kids out of the house, ailments, etc., we can easily be deceived into thinking the encouragement doesn't yet apply to them. How tragic!


When I started in the foam business, I began as an interim production supervisor in our local facility. It was a "baptism by fire" experience, as they say. There was a lot to learn real quickly, a lot of conflict to resolve, a lot of fires to put out, and just a lot of fast pace stress. I remember working every Saturday for two months. I remember sitting in with the Plant Manager with an employee who had brought a gun to work and told a fellow employee about it in anger. I also remember a lot of really good people who were a pleasure to work with, and made my job supervising them very easy because they were so good at what they did. They knew the customers and the parts in and out, and so all I really had to do was keep track of where things stood and make sure everyone knew their role and when they were needed for what.

One of those people was Brenda. A soft-spoken lady with a slight draw, she single-handedly for years produced the numerous and complicated parts for a very big marine customer. I remember when she went on vacation the plant faltered a bit, and the customer noticed. She was really good at her job, extremely important to the company, and very helpful for me as I was learning and attempting to supervise the day to day. After I moved out of the plant to "corporate", I loved going out to the plant randomly wandering around. Her working area was directly across the plant from the door I went out, and I would try to always pass by her and catch up. I regret I did not make these wandering trips more often. But she always had a smile and seemed really glad to see me, and it was great to chat for a few minutes. In the whole company (5 plants across the state) there really isn't another employee with whom I had or have this kind of relationship, at least from the standpoint of being around and working alongside me in my first months.

Brenda unfortunately was a smoker. Earlier this year, after 24 years working with us, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to stop working to undergo treatment. They caught it late, and it had already spread to her lymph nodes. A little more than a week ago, she suffered a heart attack. The following weekend, she passed away.

I am struck by how quick life can be taken from us. The Bible says that life is like grass; it withers. Here today and tomorrow gone. I don't think this means that our life is like grass in that it is only as important as grass, but rather, that life is like grass in that it is short and fleeting. But since it is so important, to withhold eternal encouragement from people because they don't seem to need it yet - as if old age and sickness is the only sign of needing it - is just tragic. And I really want to not withhold it anymore, or wait until it is too late.

Two days before Brenda died (Thursday), I wrote her a letter that I gave to a co-worker who was going to visit her the next day (Friday). I was going out of town with my wife's family that Thursday night. She died Saturday. At her visitation Brenda's daughter told me that she read it to her, and Brenda said it was beautiful. The timing was all very sobering for me. As my wife said to me, the word of God is not bound. O, how profound and wonderful!

In the letter I had written, I hope, were words of eternal encouragement - the only kind that matters. And the kind that is always needed, whether you are young and healthy, old and sick, or somewhere in the middle. The Bible is true and Jesus is everything. To the young and perfectly healthy, or to the middle aged with mild ailments, or the old and terminally ill, or some combination or anywhere in between, I hope these words to Brenda can give you eternal and lasting encouragement, hope, and joy:

"First, I wanted to say that I miss you around Foamcraft. I miss seeing and catching up with you when I wander out in the plant (which is still too rare!). I want to be able to encourage you, but I recognize there is very little I can say considering your very difficult situation. But I want to try! I believe that even when there is very little physical or earthly hope, there is still eternal hope. I hope you believe that also! I want you to know I've been thinking of you and praying for you often. And a couple Scripture passages have come to mind and helped me in that process, and I wanted to share with you if you don't mind.

"Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent." - Psalm 71:9

"So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again." - Psalm 71:18-21

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though for now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." - 1 Peter 1:3-7

"Brenda, I pray that this somehow can be true for you, and in turn encouragement, and even joy."


I had this collection of related thoughts come to me the other day, the kind of thoughts that, at least for me, inspire a blog post. And then scanning twitter I realized that someone else recently had the exact same collection of thoughts, and wrote a book about it. Stole my thunder, he did. But, I am sure the author put a lot more time and thought into it than I would have been able to, so without reading it, I commend to you the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson. I am going to read it at some point because I am very intrigued by the topic, clearly, as it came to my mind without knowing about the book.

Then, an absolute tragedy occurred within a church family in my city. The type of tragedy when you hear about you want to stop thinking about, if you can, because it is so sad.

But in case you don't want to read the book, or if you haven't heard much about this event, or the way God is using it for his good, here is some of my thought process in light of these things, and certainly with the passing of Brenda, surrounding the topic of living and dying well.


We sure gravitate to extremes, don't we? In everything, I feel like many of the problems or misunderstandings we have in life result from erring on one extreme or the other, neglecting a healthy balance. Let me give you an example.

I get the impression that many people would be uncomfortable if I said that all of life was actually just preparing for eternity. Or, that our main focus should be preparing to die and being able to die well. Discomfort with this mentality is understandable, because this is an extreme. It basically assumes that the life before we die is less important than the eternity we will die into, either everlasting joy in heaven, or everlasting separation and judgment in hell. It is right in the sense that we should want to die well, and there are ways to prepare for that, namely, from the Christian perspective, treasuring Jesus Christ more than possessions, family, friends, and even your health, so that when you lose these things you will still praise Jesus knowing you can never lose him. But it is an extreme in the sense that we shouldn't only be focused on eternity after this life. Eternity is longer than our lives on earth, but that doesn't mean it is more important. And actually, eternity is already well under way, so to say a focus on eternity excludes the here and now would be wrongheaded.


So the (over)reaction to this is: instead of only preparing for eternity, or preparing to die, life should be focused solely on preparing to live. Or, that we should be maximizing the life we have now, without much, if any, concern for death or anything after death. YOLO. You only live once, the youngsters say (I am a youngster, I think).This is the other extreme. It basically assumes that there is no specific way to "die well", and if we enjoy and get the most out of every minute of our life, than we automatically will die in as well a way as possible, given the uncontrollable nature of such a thing as death. It is right in the sense that we should be very prepared, and concerned, for the way we live, and everything about our life before death is very important and matters. But it is an extreme if life here and now is focused on at the cost of neglecting things that will affect us for eternity (which is a long time), such as specific decisions for faith in Christ and repentance from sin, and biblical understandings of suffering so that when it comes we aren't surprised or hopeless. 


At the end of film The Last Samurai, the young Emperor of Japan asks Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) about the death of his mentor and friend, Katsumato. He asks, "Can you tell me how he died?" To Samurai culture, and by extension to Japanese culture, even in the New World portrayed in the movie, the way someone died was a big deal. To die with honor was an important priority, even if what it meant to die with honor is different than what we would think (committing suicide before being killed, if possible). So for a great warrior like Katsumato, the way he died was always on his mind, and was important and interesting information after it actually happened. Algren answered the Emperor, "I will tell you how he lived."

Classic, epic movie line. Just fantastic. I love this movie by the way. But consider what it communicates. On the positive end, it communicates that the culture that prioritized death so highly was an extreme, especially in the sense that it neglected the detail and honor of the life of a respectable warrior and man. So in that way the emphasis on the life instead of the death is important and good. But on the negative end, Algren basically outright ignores the Emperor's actual question. Does it not still matter how he died? Not just specific to the culture, but in general. And I don't mean just physically how he died, whether the sword went through his heart or slit his throat. I mean, and I think the Emperor meant, how did he die, like did he die honorably? Was it a fitting end to a faithful life? For us, I think this matters, though differently than with Japanese Samurai. Yes, it does matter how we live. So farewell to the perspective of only caring how we die, or only preparing for death and life after death. But if that is the extreme that is most tempting to us, which I would argue for many Christians it is, let us not swing all the way to the other extreme and not consider the importance of dying well and therefore not preparing to do so. We are all going to die, you know. The less denial in this area, at any age, with whatever health, the better we are going to be able to live.

That gets me back to the discomfort I spoke of earlier. I think we are uncomfortable with the language "preparing to die". But since we need to do that, despite our discomfort, and since we now agree that we don't want to do that in a way that neglects or discounts the importance of how we live, I want to make the case that the way we prepare in both cases, and the way we encourage others who are in whatever circumstance - sick or well, young or old - is the same. We should strive to live in such a way that will inevitably prepare us to die well. Live well to die well. Ultimately, I am challenging the assumption that it is even possible to die well unless we live well, and encouraging us to live well knowing that one (maybe the most important) end result will be that it will prepare us to die well. To say it another way, and to steal the wording from the summary of the upcoming book I mentioned, "to truly live we must recognize that we are dying." That sums it up. Very profound. Think about that.

We are all dying. Whether in hospice with days to weeks, or just diagnosed with a disease with an unclear prognosis, or at home from work sick on the couch, or feeling fine with a cool drink and sand in your toes, or energetic and contributing much to your job, or physically aching and mentally strong, or mentally confused and physically strong, young with friends, old without anyone - we are dying. But of course, if you are reading this, we are all living also. Whether in the last hour of life, or the first hour of life, we are alive. And shouldn't the encouragement be the same? Yes, I think so. Live well to die well. I hope that takes away a little of the discomfort, because if this is true, I think we can really encourage elderly people who are statistically "closer" to death, without implying in our encouragement that it is only for them because they are about to die, whereas before it wouldn't have been encouragement. Of course it would have been. Does that make sense? The encouragement for someone who is older about how to live the time they have left and die well whenever that is, is the same encouragement that all the rest of us need. So to give it to someone who happens to be older, or sicker, than us, should not be insulting or awkward or uncomfortable, even if it implies that they are dying. Because so are we. Right? Perhaps even before them, if the Lord would have it that way.


So here is my encouragement. To warn you, it is not physical encouragement, like if you are sick God will definitely heal you (he might, and he can!), or earthly encouragement such as if you don't like or just lost your job, God will lead you to a better one or improve the situation where you are (but he is able!); the encouragement I have, the only encouragement I know of that is always true and always applies no matter your circumstance, is eternal.

The following is the "overview and response" from Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis to the tragic bus accident that took the life of Chad and Courtney Phelps, and their unborn baby, parents of and survived by little 2 year-old Chase; and Tonya Weindorf, wife of and survived by Charles Weindorf, and mother to and survived by five children. It is the most profound and wonderfully shocking example of biblical rejoicing in suffering I have ever read:

"On Saturday, July 27. 2013, at around 4:30 p.m., the Lord allowed a bus accident to take Pastor Chad and Courtney Phelps and their unborn baby, and Mrs. Tonya Weindorf, home to enjoy Him in His presence forever (Psalm 16:11, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Hebrews 11:13-16). Dozens of our children and teens were returning from a week at camp when the accident occurred with the teen bus. The Lord spared the lives of all 33 teenagers and 2 children on board and the bus driver, although many are still recovering from significant injuries. God's mercies in this tragedy are too many to recite (Psalm 103), and we magnify his sovereign goodness even in the moment of sorrow (Psalm 119:68, Romans 8:28-20). We believe the Biblical message of good news that God willingly and lovingly sacrificed His own son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross in order that we might be rescued from the penalty of our sins; and because that same Jesus rose from the dead, we of all people have an assured hope of eternity beyond the grave through His resurrection and life (John 10:21-27). Furthermore, we have heard of God drawing people to Himself in saving faith through this situation, and we're amazed by a God who brings beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). For these reasons and many more, we rejoice, even as we sorrow!

"Countless numbers of believers, churches, businesses, and community organizations have sent flowers, expressed prayer, posted strengthening words, and been a ministry of God's grace to our church family at this time. We cannot overstate the encouragement you have been to our church family, and we want to humbly thank you all for your loving and generous kindness, especially to those families directly affected by this accident. 

"God's grace is being found to be sufficient for our every need (2 Corinthians 12:9-10), and we are grateful for the rich and everlasting hope we have in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58) - since 'absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,' (2 Corinthians 5:8) we do not 'sorrow not as those who have no hope' (1 Thessalonians 4:13018), for an everlasting reunion is promised with friends and family who have gone before, and in our midst will be our accomplished and victorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:1-5, 22-23)."

This kind of response might be shocking, even repulsive, to you. How could God allow this kind, or any kind, of suffering to bring about good? Perhaps the reason this response is hard to stomach is because the promises included do not apply to you. By that I mean, the promises of God in Christ for forgiveness, resurrection, and enduring grace in suffering are not yours because you have never put your trust in Him to be your substitute, savior, and your Lord.

Whatever the case for you, I pray that you can delicately reflect on the Scripture passages referenced above, and patiently open your heart for the God of the universe to speak gently and profoundly to your soul. He will. If these eternal truths can be encouragement even for those who have experienced so tragic a situation as this, how much more should it to us - whose sufferings are by comparison light and momentary - be lasting and unbreakable encouragement and hope? O, I pray that it is for anyone and everyone reading! As for me, I will continue to rejoice (Philippians 1:18-26).