Sunday, September 11, 2016

Recommend-a-blog (21)

Michael Patton is a writer, blogger and president of Credo House Ministries. He is also, as he puts it, “waiting to die”.

This is where our readers usually check out, and I don’t blame you. On this blog, posts that are obviously about death are among our least-read, a fact that doesn’t surprise me at all. I suspect this is true across the board: after all, who wants (naturally, at least) to think about dying? In some ways, even Christians can be as uniformitarian as atheists: we know full well that we are all “waiting to die”, but a world without me in it still seems difficult to imagine.

I’ll see if I can find a great big gravestone picture to make the post’s subject especially obvious.

Michael Patton seems to be coping with the notion of a world without him an awful lot better than David Rönnegard, the atheist philosopher with stage four lung cancer who wrote a similar piece about his imminent demise. Patton’s whole post makes much better reading, though that is not always an easy task: Patton is ruthlessly honest about what he’s feeling.

Job-Style Suffering

I am quite taken with his comparison of the suffering of Job and Lazarus:
“The other day I was reminded of poor Lazarus. Not the guy whom Jesus raised from the dead, but the one who sat at the gate of the rich man begging for food (Luke 16:19-31). But more than this, I was reminded of my own sermon that I have preached about him many times. So many times we see our suffering through the lens of Job and not Lazarus. Job lost everything but eventually got it all back, and more. We think to ourselves that what God has taken he will restore or use it mightily for his kingdom. We have seen it a thousand times. God turns so much water into wine. He takes our lives of anguish and uses it to lift others up (2 Cor. 1:4). I don’t know how many times that I have turned to the suffering of Job to be encouraged. David’s time in the mire of doubt lifts me out of the mire. John the Baptist asking if Jesus was really the Christ lets me know I am not alone. I have always gravitated toward other Christians who spoke about their dark side with openness. It brings purpose to their pain. That is the Job story. It is very real. God does often bring us through trials so that we can, once restored, display the fortitude and resilience of our faith to others.”
So far so good. That’s Job, and the obvious restoration.

Lazarus-Style Suffering

But Patton continues:
“However, there is also pitiful Lazarus. He was thrown at the gate of the rich man (probably because his friends did not know what else to do with him), begging for food, and watching as the dogs lick his sores. In the eyes of the Jewish people of the day, he was one who God had abandoned. He was never healed. He was not restored. We find nothing in the story about him using his pain to help others. He wrote no books about how to deal with suffering. He did not blog daily about how he was keeping the faith. He just died. He was waiting to die and then died. Alone, with the dogs licking his sores, he assumed room temperature. And most shocking of all, his name (a rhetorical device in the parable) means ‘God helps.’ The rich man (at whose gate he was thrown) had everything: money, honor, and respect. And he was even a splendidly happy guy. He was the one everyone thought God was helping, but he remains unnamed (another rhetorical device). ‘God helps’ died at the gate without ever preaching one sermon.”
Patton thinks Lazarus and the rich man’s story is a parable. I don’t, but I don’t think seeing it as “only a story” hurts his point. If it was indeed only a story, the world around us is full of such stories, and we all probably know one or two in which suffering appears to have no discernible point.

A Message for Millions

But what Michael Patton doesn’t stop to note here is that while Lazarus wrote no books or blog posts about dying, his story has spoken to millions, perhaps billions. Like the woman who washed the Lord’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair, the death of Lazarus (and what followed) has been chronicled in the word of God and read or retold thousands upon thousands of times a day for two millennia.

It serves as a warning, as comfort, as a reminder of the justice of God and our obligation to tell the truth to those we love while still with them, as a little glorious inside glimpse into the heavenly realms and as a vivid and terrifying portrayal of Hades.

Assuming he and his suffering were real, do you figure Lazarus counted on that?

The Reason Why

Of course not. To his credit. Patton realizes this:
“My main point of my sermon on this passage was, ironically, to show how sometimes we do suffer, endure, go through trials and then we simply die. This does not mean our suffering was gratuitous in any way. God holds closely his secret council in which he allows for pain and kills for his sake his children. We don’t have to know the reason why. We just keep the faith.”
Quite so.

Telling the Story

Patton and David Rönnegard have this alone in common: that they consider their own stories significant enough to be worth remembering and retelling. It matters to Patton (though only initially) that the pain of Lazarus was not used in any obvious way to help others. It matters to Rönnegard that his family remember him:
“What gives rise to enduring sentiments may well vary among us, but my new shortsighted spectacles suggest to me that they will spring from events that have touched the lives of others. When such sentiments are shared they live on in those who stay behind. And so the Humanist quest for immortality is not corporeal. Rather, it takes many forms that touch lives, such as the friendships we maintain, the children we give birth to, the enterprises we start, and the books we write; in essence, the footprints we leave behind.

A life fully lived is in large part a life lived through others.”
Of course the problem with this is so obvious I won’t belabor it: Memories fade. Blog posts stop being read or are deleted. Books go out of print. Family members in whom your memories “live on” themselves go into the ground. In Rönnegard’s view these are never to be heard from again, and with them go the scraps of memory in which you may have been temporarily and wholly inadequately preserved.

The Story that Goes on Forever

On the other hand, what the Christian Patton has that the atheist Rönnegard does not is that GOD knows who he is. The entire story of Michael Patton is fully and perfectly preserved with and in the mind of his Creator and Saviour, who will one day call his body to eternal life from the dust of death.

But imagine being David Rönnegard, rising to appear briefly before the Great White Throne only to hear the words, “I never knew you”. Nothing about David Rönnegard’s life or essence matters. It will vanish like smoke.

Michael Patton may be forgotten entirely within a decade of falling asleep in Jesus. He and his family hope not, I’m sure, but if it happens … so what? Everything of value Patton has ever done will be revisited for glorious reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ, while everything he wishes he had not done, thought or said will be burned up, just as Patton himself (and all who love the Lord) would most intensely desire. In the resurrected Jesus Christ, Michael Patton will live forever, even if nobody in this world remembers him at all. I believe that’s why we call it a blessed hope.

Suffering is never trivial. The Lord himself wept at the grave of (the other) Lazarus. But as Patton says, “We don’t have to know the reason why”.

Not right now, at least. One day we absolutely will, I assure you.

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