The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 14, 2023
William Breitbart, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, specializes in end-of-life care for the terminally ill. He has noticed that many, especially those who view death as utter and complete extinction, want to end their life, not because it has become too painful, but because it has become meaningless in their eyes. Thinking they’re facing the cessation of their existence, they lose their sense of value and purpose – and life seems no longer worth living.
A few years ago, the magazine New Scientist asked various thinkers to address a few philosophical questions “from a strictly scientific point of view”. One such question was, “What is the meaning of life?” Graham Lawton wrote, “It has none. Your life may feel like a big deal to you, but it’s actually a random blip of matter and energy in an uncaring, impersonal universe. When it ends, a few will remember you for a while, but they will die too. Even if you make the history books, your contribution will soon be forgotten. Humans will go extinct. The earth and the sun will be destroyed. Eventually, the universe itself will end. Against this bleak reality, how can a human life have any real meaning?”
The Bible gives a different viewpoint. It says that we shall go on living after we die and that everyone’s life is packed with meaning and value. The first martyr Stephen believed that there is life after death and that, on both sides of death, life bears deep significance.
When the church first ordained deacons, Stephen headed the list. He was, the scriptures say, a man “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” and “full of grace and power”, so that he did “great wonders and signs”. But the religious establishment hated him and launched a smear campaign against him. When he was given a chance to make a reply, his face shone, the Bible says, “like the face of an angel”. Nevertheless, his words enraged his enemies. As their fury rose up against him, Stephen “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”. Stephen held on to that vision of where he was headed even as his hatters dragged him out of the city and stoned him.
Because Stephen had locked his eyes on his destination with Christ, he did not respond to evil with evil. Rather he entrusted his spirit to Jesus and prayed for his enemies that Jesus would not hold their evil deeds against them. Stephen saw his destination, and that seeing kept him from being pulled down to the level of his enemies. Rather his seeing his destination pulled him up to the level of Jesus who spoke words of grace and forgiveness at his crucifixion. Like Jesus, Stephen offered mercy to the merciless, kindness to the cruel, love to his hating.
When we bear in mind the big picture, we gain perspective; and when we gain perspective, the troubles and trials of this world cannot overwhelm us. Seeing and bearing in mind our destination enables us to rise above our adversity and even find joy in it.
Tim Keller in his book Making Sense of God offers an apt analogy for understanding how this works. Imagine you are a manufacturer and you hire two women of the same age, same educational level, same socioeconomic background and same temperament. You give them the same boring job on your assembly line: They will, eight hours each day, insert part A into part B and then hand on what they’ve just put together to the next worker. You put the two in identical rooms with identical lighting, temperature and ventilation. You give them an equal amount of time for lunch and an equal number of breaks. The conditions are the same in every way – except for one difference: You tell the first that, if she stays on the job until the end of the year, she’ll get a three thousand dollar bonus, and you tell the second that, if she stays on the job until the end of the year, she’ll get a thirty million dollar bonus.
A few weeks on the job, the first woman complains to the second, “Isn’t this unbearably tedious? Doesn’t it driving you nuts? Aren’t you thinking of quitting?” But the second replies, “Not at all. It is boring, but I’m fine with it. In fact, I whistle while I work.” Why do the two have radically different responses to exactly the same circumstances? Because they have different destinations in sight for the end of the year; because they have different expectations about their future!
What we believe about how we’ll end up in the future determines how we are in the present. If we by faith see our destination in Christ and how wonderful it is, we can put up with a lot and not let it dismay or discourage us. If we anticipate and appreciate the riches of heaven, we won’t be taken in by the lesser, fleeting riches of fame, money and pleasure; and we won’t balk at making sacrifices and taking pains to do what truly matters: meeting the needs of the poor, bringing justice to all and telling the good news too good to keep to ourselves. If we see where we’ll end up, we won’t complain about problems, but will convert them into servants of the high and holy purposes that make our lives meaningful and soul-satisfying. We will have joy, not because we escape difficulties, but because we make something out of them that achieves significant goals.
I think of David Kuo who served as the deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. David fought a ten-year-long battle against cancer and suffered the vicious side effects of surgery, radiation and medication. But, seeing his final destination in Christ, David never gave up on seeking to make a difference and to uplift the lives of others. He actually thanked God for his difficulties because they enabled him to dive below the shallows of engagement with folks and to touch them in the depths of their souls. His cancer made his life hard, but it also made it more fulfilling and joyful.
When Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach was asked how he kept playing football through injuries and pain, he replied, “If you’re not playing hurt, you’re not playing football.” So it is with living the Christian faith. If we’re not living it hurt, we’re not living it…but this often hard and painful life can be one of greater happiness, hope and meaning. We just need to see our destination and keep our eyes on the prize!