How do you cope with change? I am asking about the kinds of changes all of us face in varying ways and to varying degrees and that crisis we all will face one day, the crisis of dying.
How are you coping with the loss of physical strength, for example, if you are that age yet? How do you deal with disappointments in your marriage or family, if those are the kinds of experiences you know only too well. Or, perhaps a child going off to school or college has given parents that first taste of loss, of which there will be many in life. Have you had one of those experiences yet where you have achieved a goal for which you worked and sacrificed a long time and, once you got there, you are not as happy, as satisfied, as you thought you would be? Perhaps you have already lived through the death of a parent or a husband or wife or the end of a marriage, which would include half of the families in this county. Some of us have also known even greater challenges, the loss of a child or a life-threatening illness. Is there anyone here this morning who is immune from life, from change, from loss, even from crisis? Is there anyone here this morning who will not die one day?
I repeat my questions: How are you coping? How will you survive?
As you consider my questions, I will tell two stories, one ancient, the other contemporary, of those who have found the way to live successfully through life’s challenges and changes. And, I will tell you their secret.
The first story you have already been reminded this morning in that excerpt from Genesis assigned for this second Sunday in Lent.
The first time Abram and Sarah encountered God they were near the end of their lives, they thought. They were old, they had no money, no property, no children and were living as immigrants in a foreign land. Old age was bleak for them. The Lord approached them, asking for one thing: trust me and in return I will give you property for the first time in your life, indeed I will give you your own nation, a new nation you will found, and I will give you more descendants than you can count.
Where we pick up their story in today’s excerpt, Abram and Sarah have come into the promised land, but they are still childless. For the second time, the Lord “cuts a covenant,” to translate the Hebrew literally; we would say the Lord “cuts a deal.” The deal is this: even in your old age, I will reverse your bareness beyond your wildest imagination; your part of the deal is to trust me. Abram believed the Lord, we are told, and the Lord counted that belief as keeping up Abram’s part of the deal.
Even in their old age, even when it was biologically impossible, we are told in the story of Abram and Sarah that their trust in God, which is all the Lord asked from them in return, miraculously reversed their bareness and their hopelessness. It was as if they were reborn!
Now I turn to a contemporary story, no less miraculous. Many regard Reynolds Price as one of our greatest living novelists. Born in 1933 in Macon, North Carolina , the story of Reynolds Price begins with all the excitement of success and acclaim. He graduated from Duke University summa cum laude and became a Rhodes Scholar. His first novel won the William Faulkner prize. He enjoys a brilliant career as the author of over two dozen books, which have been translated into sixteen languages, and as a teacher, the James B. Duke Professor of English at his alma mater.
From 1933 until 1984, life was good for Reynolds Price in every way we measure the good life. But in that spring fourteen years ago, a large cancer was discovered on his spinal cord. It started at the base of his neck and went ten inches downward. Several very painful surgeries later, many radiation treatments and various attempts at rehab, Reynolds Price is now mostly paralyzed. But, he still teaches and he still writes. Just three years ago, he had published his moving account of how he survived change and crisis in his life. Toward the end of that book, entitled A Whole New Life, Reynolds Price makes this astounding statement: “if I were called on to value honestly my present life beside the past—the years from 1933 till ‘84 against the years since 1984—I’d have to say that, despite an enjoyable fifty-year start, these recent years since full catastrophe have gone better still. They’ve brought in and sent our more—more love, more care, more knowledge and patience, more work in less time.”
How has he lived through such a crisis and come through on the other side more in love with life than before and even more productive? How did Reynolds Price come to trust and believe? I can tell you in his own words.
As part of his rehab, he started sketching with brush and ink. And, he writes, “They were all, every [sketch], meditations on the face of Jesus.” “I know that the drawings became my main new means of prayer, when my earlier means were exhausted. By now I’d asked a thousand times for healing, for ease and a longer life. But calamity proceeded, and even the repetition of ’Thy will be done’ had come to sound empty. So the drawings were a sudden better way, an outcry and an offering. If they asked for anything, I suppose it was what I still ask for daily—for life as long as I have work, and work as long as I have life.” “So the faces [of Jesus produced] of my hand laid down on paper in those long days, imposing as some of them still are in their piercing gaze, only underlined what I’ve always heard at the core of Jesus’ meaning as it burns through the surface of his surviving words—to me it seems to be, All is forgiven where forgiveness is sought: all but the failure to trust.”
When he trusted, Price says, his life began again, and miraculously, it was even better, he says.
You and I are on the road of Lent to Good Friday to which, we already know, God’s response will be Easter. But that Good Friday and Easter toward which we are now traveling reveals to us on a cosmic level the pattern of our own personal lives, a pattern that is inescapable, that pattern is this: every change, every crisis, every kind of dying we will experience is always followed for those who trust the Lord by renewal, rebirth, a whole new life; every Good Friday is followed by Easter for those who trust the Lord. But it is also true that all our Easter experiences are preceded by Good Fridays.
Carl Jung said that salvation is slowly dying to all the pretensions and illusions of this life to be prepared for the next.
In today’s Gospel someone asks Jesus: “Will many be saved?”
Those who trust in the Lord in all the changes faced in daily living will already know the miracle of renewal, rebirth and resurrection in each of those crises so that on the day they die they will already have known the joy of salvation.
How do you cope with life’s changes and even the crises? How will you survive facing your own death? For those who learn to trust the Lord, as all our daily dyings are followed by new life, more abundant life, so we believe our death will be followed by life eternal. This is the mystery toward which we travel in Lent.