Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Happy Resurrection Day!
One of my favorite women is Elisabeth Elliot. Her writings have been extremely helpful to me over the years. We personally know so many out of work, suffering with illness and struggling with what the future holds, yet she reminds us that some things never change.
Hope Is a Fixed Anchor
My friend Miriam is herself a walking miracle, having recovered more than twenty years ago from cancer. Her case was so serious that the doctors told her husband not to expect her home from the hospital. The cure was so miraculous that one doctor described it this way: "If you parked your car on a hill and the brakes let go, would you expect it to roll to the top of the hill? That's how incredible this is. This cancer was supposed to travel in one direction and kill her. It went the opposite way and quit."
Miriam was the only one who could talk like a Dutch uncle to my husband when he had cancer. He would listen to her when he did not want to hear a word out of the rest of us. His hope, of course, was that he would be cured as she had been.
The more hopeless my husband's case appeared to be, the more faithfully Miriam called to remind me, "Our hope, Elisabeth, is not in radiation or surgery or chemotherapy. Our hope is not in the doctors. Our hope is in God."
One night when I went to bed I found a card on my pillow. My daughter Valerie, still a teenager, had made it, intertwining the letters with tiny colored flowers. It said HOPE IN THE LORD. With all my heart I did that. With all my heart I prayed. It has been eight years now since Add died, and the card is before me tonight as I write. I am still hoping--but for what?
Christian hope is a different sort of thing from other kinds. The Greek word used in the New Testament for hope was one which in classical literature could mean expectation of good or bad, but was used by Christians to mean that in which one confides, or to which one flees for refuge. The real essence of the word is trust.
When Lazarus died, the hopes of his two loving sisters, Mary and Martha, were dashed. Jesus, hearing the news, did not hurry to the house but stayed where he was for two more days. When he finally got to Bethany both sisters greeted him with the same words: "If only you had been here, Lord!" Martha remembered the fact of the resurrection. She knew Lazarus would rise again on the last day, but that wasn't really good enough. She wanted her brother now, and her brother was dead. The terrible thing was that he might have been alive if only Jesus had been there. Jesus said to her, "I myself am the resurrection."
This is our hope. It is a living thing. It is, in fact, Christ himself. It is also something to live by. When our hopes for healing or success or the solution to a problem or freedom from financial distress seem to come to nothing, we feel just as Martha did. Jesus might have done something about it but he didn't. We lie awake thinking about all the "if onlys.'' We wonder if it is somehow our fault that the thing didn't work. We doubt whether prayer is of any use after all. Is God up there? Is he listening? Does he care?
The Lord might very well have healed my husband's disease as wonderfully as he healed Miriam's. The simple fact is that he didn't.
HOPE IN THE LORD, says the little card. How am I to do that now? By placing my confidence in the God who promises faithfulness. He has far better things up his sleeve than we imagine. Mary and Martha had envisioned his coming and raising a sick man from his bed. He came too late. Unfortunately Lazarus was dead--so dead, Martha pointed out, that decomposition would have set in. It had not crossed their minds that they were about to see an even more astonishing thing than the one they had hoped for--a swaddled corpse answering the Master's call and walking, bound and muffled, out of the tomb.
The only difference I see in the Lazarus story and our twentieth-century stories of disappointed hopes is the matter of time. Jesus did arrive at Mary and Martha's in a matter of a couple of days, and in perhaps an hour or so after his arrival he raised Lazarus. It looks very quick and easy as we read the story, but of course the two sisters experienced all that those who love a sick person experience, and all the agony of bereavement. Sorrow ran its course. They suffered what humans always suffer, albeit for a very short time.
The truth of the story is that God knew what was happening. Nothing was separating the grieving women from his love. He heard their prayers, counted their tears, held his peace. But he was faithful, and he was at work. He had a grand miracle in mind. The Jews who saw Jesus weep were baffled, and said just what we would have said: "Could he not have kept this man from dying if he could open that blind man's eyes?"
God's timing of the events of our world is engineered from the eternal silence. One time he heals a sick man, such as the paralytic who was lowered through a roof. Another time he lets a sick man die. Miriam's cancer receded. Add's cancer grew. Was God paying attention in the one case but not in the other? So it seemed to Mary and Martha at first. Their prayers for healing were not answered. Jesus did not come. Lazarus died. But what a glorious ending to their story! And ours? What about ours?
"Did I not tell you," Jesus asked, "that if you believed, you would see the wonder of what God can do?" Here is the clue to the lesson: It is faith he is looking for, a quiet confidence that whatever it is he is up to, it will be a wonderful thing, never mind whether it is what we have been asking for.
The usual notion of hope is a particular outcome: physical healing, for example. The Christian notion, on the other hand, is a manner of life. I rest the full weight of my hopes on Christ himself, who not only raised the dead but was himself raised, and says to me in the face of all deaths, "I myself am the resurrection." The duration of my suffering may be longer than that of Lazarus's sisters, but if I believe, trust, flee to God for refuge, I am safe even in my sorrow, I am held by the confidence of God's utter trustworthiness. He is at work, producing miracles I haven't imagined. I must wait for them. The Book of the Revelation describes some of them. The intricacies of his sovereign will and the pace at which he effects it ("deliberate speed, majestic instancy") are beyond me now, but I am sure his plan is in operation.
HOPE IN THE LORD. Doctors, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation might very well have been a part of God's plan, methods he might have used to answer our prayers for a complete cure for my husband. They evidently were not. But that was not where our hopes really lay. They lay then, as they lie now, on the faithfulness of the One who died for us and rose again.
What God promised to Abraham ("Surely blessing I will bless thee") he promises to us. We have two "utterly immutable things, the word of God and the oath of God, who cannot lie," according to the Book of Hebrews. Therefore we who are refugees from this dying world have a source of strength. We can grasp "the hope he holds out to us. This hope we hold as the utterly reliable anchor for our souls, fixed in the innermost shrine of Heaven, where Jesus has already entered on our behalf" (6:19, 20 PHILLIPS).
I don't know, when I'm asking for something here on earth, what is going on in the innermost shrine of Heaven (I like to think about it, though). I am sure of one thing: it is good. Because Jesus is there. Jesus loves me. Jesus has gone into that shrine on my behalf. The hope we have is a living hope, an unassailable one. We wait for it, in faith and patience. Christ is the resurrection and the life. No wonder Easter is the greatest of Christian feast days! No wonder Christians sing!
The powers of death have done their worst,
But Christ their legions hath dispersed:
Let shout of holy joy outburst.
The three sad days are quickly sped,
He rises glorious from the dead;
All glory to our risen Head!
Lord! By the stripes which wounded thee,
From death's dread sting thy servants free,
That we may live and sing to thee.
Latin 1695--Episcopal Hymnal
Copyright© 1988, by Elisabeth Elliot
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