Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Teachers in the School of Suffering

Almost two years ago I posted some thoughts prompted by a talk given by Judy Asti, author of A Spiritual Journey Through Breast Cancer. Judy told our assembly of pastors that cancer would in somehow affect the life of every person in our congregations. I had no idea at the time how that would play out in our own church family.

Last Monday, a man who has served our church faithfully for over 35 years, died of an inoperable brain cancer that had slowly robbed him of his ability to articulate his thoughts. This was especially tragic since Karl was an eloquent man with great poetic skill. It was heartbreaking to watch this man, who for so many years recited Luke's nativity account from memory at our Christmas Eve candlelight services (where he also led us in caroling), gradually lose the ability to verbally express himself. Amidst his numerous ministries, Karl was also one of our elders who, in the absence of a senior pastor, filled the pulpit, opening God's Word to His people.

Over the last 5 years or so I had the privilege of meeting weekly with Karl and some other men for the purpose of praying with and for each other, studying Scripture together, and confiding in each other concerning our joys, aspirations, disappointments, temptations, and failures. Being the creatures of habit that we are, we almost always took the same seats in the room we met in each week. Karl and I usually sat directly across from each other. One of the things I remember most about those meetings is how often I was challenged by Karl's example to be a more attentive servant of my wife. Years back Karl's wife had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The procedure impaired her vision and equilibrium which meant that she could no longer drive and that Karl had to assume more responsibilities which he did with gladness. Never did he complain about the changes in their lives and the new demands placed upon him. He viewed his service to his wife as the fulfillment of the vows he made to her and their Lord almost 44 years ago. As one who didn't have the opportunity to witness such marital commitment in my own family, I am grateful beyond words for Karl's example.

Last Friday I conducted the funeral of my dear friend who gave me my "Got Jesus?" golf ball. The morning was filled with music he loved and testimonies from people of all ages about how Christ touched their lives through Karl's. Among those who couldn't join us is a missionary now in Ukraine largely due to Karl's influence. In 1994 he was one of 6 people from our congregation whom Karl led on a short-term missions trip to Latvia, thereby planting the seeds for future long-term labor.

Amidst those gathered for Friday's service was another stalwart of our church who days before was released from the hospital to begin hospice care at home after battling colon cancer. John is another dear friend and former elder who, like Karl, has been a father figure to me and so many others in our fellowship. He's a quiet man of impressive stature who has also modeled sacrificial devotion to his family and the body of Christ. Throughout the course of his cancer treatment his wife has distributed e-mail updates that, while asking for prayer, leave the reader with gratitude for the edification received through her words. Shortly after we received word that nothing more could be done to stem the tide of John's cancer, some of us were praying for him in his hospital room. When we concluded, he recited Hebrews 12:1-3, a passage he had committed to memory, and added "Lord Jesus, I pray that for everyone in this room." On another occasion he related how grateful he is for the instruction he received over the course of his life concerning the sovereignty of God.

John and his family were in church this past Sunday as were Karl's widow and their teenage granddaughter whom they used to bring to church each week when she was a child. I can't describe the wave of emotions that overtook me as I watched them singing the praises of their God and Savior but one word that comes to mind is "beautiful." In that post on cancer I wrote two years ago I also mentioned Judy Asti's observation that the American church's theology of suffering is anemic, if not nonexistent. Through the lives of Karl, John, and their families, the Lord is teaching us what faith-filled suffering looks like. Oh, how privileged we are to have teachers such as these.

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