Earth is very dangerous planet to live on—at least under the present circumstances. One day, in the age to come, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the nursing child will play over the hole of the asp, and they shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9). But for now, the wolf does not lie down in peace with the lamb, and children must be taught to keep well away from asps, especially asps of the human kind. The earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the Lord, and has been well-described by poets as “a vale of tears”. As we grow old and walk through this deep vale, we are guaranteed to encounter much affliction.
The affliction perhaps is never so great as that which overwhelms us at the untimely death of loved ones, especially the death of our children, and all pastors know how hard it is to find any words to say on such occasions, though it is their job to find such words. What can anyone say at such a time? Where can we find comfort in such an affliction? I suggest two sources of comfort: we may take comfort in our littleness and in God’s greatness.
We are all of us little people. Politicians and celebrities and people who are very rich may perhaps forget this for a while, as their power, fame, and wealth tempt them to imagine that they are great and unlike the rest of us. But power, fame, and wealth are fleeting, and all fade with the onset of death. It is important for us all to acknowledge our littleness. We are little in that we are fragile creatures, terrifyingly vulnerable, subject to dissolution in a moment. The Scriptures constantly remind us of these very unwelcome truths. “All flesh is grass; and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Our strength and security and happiness may seem solid and everlasting. Then a doctor’s diagnosis or a policeman’s knock on our door bring the whole thing suddenly crashing down. Surely, the people are grass.
We are little not only in our strength but also in our knowledge. We sometimes admit, “We don’t know everything”. It is much truer to say, “We practically don’t know anything”—and that includes why God allows certain things to befall us, and what happens to us after this life ends. We walk through a world of mysteries and riddles, in which there are endless questions and almost no answers. But that can be comforting, because the littleness of our knowledge drives us to acknowledge the greatness of God.
We find our ultimate source of comfort in our time of affliction in God’s greatness, for it is the greatness of love. Our secular society has almost forgotten what real love is, and we identify love with indulgence—a false and fatal identification, as all wise parents know. To love is not to indulge. To love is to lead to ultimate joy, even if the path to joy is a frightening and painful one. Love leads us to a place of which it can be truly said, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well”.
For now, we cannot possibly see how all will be well and all manner of thing will be well. That is when we must remember our littleness, and remind ourselves that our inability to see how all be well is just one of the many things we do not know. We cannot now understand how the ways of God are the ways of love. But that is okay. We have something better than knowledge—we have trust. We trust in God’s greatness and in the overwhelming immensity of His love. And in this trust we can find peace. In this life we may well weep as we walk through the vale of tears. But a mighty mountain lies before and we will ascend that mountain. They will not hurt or destroy in all that holy mountain and God will dry all our tears. In that day, if we continue to trust God, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. This is our comfort in affliction.
I learned quite young (from several painful experiences) that we have to pass through this horrible place which looks beautiful while it is full of pain, sorrow and corruption. I also learned it is the only way out and into Heaven where Jesus awaits us and He made the roadmap to do so. We only need to follow it and keep the beauty in our soul – not in our bank accounts and vanity. We are sojourners in this world as Scriptures tell us.
A Vale of Tears. When someone is hurt and experiencing excruciating pain, they may wish they could die to escape the pain of living one more minute. Such a person may be crying out in agony…saying “my God, my God why have you abandoned me to this cruel source of pain. Where is the balm of Gilead? Where is my comforter? Where is the nurse or the doctor with their drugs to dull my pain.”
In moments like that…Love and prayers are not what the person in agony wants. They want the pastor or someone they trust to give them the peace and assurance that death is the place where their pain ends.
As Christians we want to tell people death is not the end. Christ is our proof.
Paul’s letters remind Christians that they need not grieve death like those who have not hope. Death brings a temporary sleep. Sleep is a respite from the pain of living. And then like the dawn comes bringing the freshness and the dew on the grass once again, we too will come again. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:16 remind us that the dead do rise…for a thousand years is like a day for God (Psalm 90:4).
Yes as you remind us Father Lawrence, we are “little” and we are like Grass. Without our breath our body dies. We stop feeling. We have no more pain. Our bones become dry and brittle and then like the ash that nourishes the soil. Does life swallow our breath ? Is this what we trust and hope for at what we imagine is the end of our life? Or do we trust in God’s command…God’s call to return from the dust and from our sleep (Psalm 90:3-4) to begin again? Beginning again we can learn and figure out new and better ways to live and love longer and better–remembering and comforting each other .