Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Crossing the Gulf

“... with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

Easily said, isn’t it?

“Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed.” So said Abraham to the rich man suffering the torments of hades. That chasm is not crossable. “They which would pass from hence to you cannot.”

Speaking naturally, there is also a great gulf fixed between you and me. Not all of you, of course, but certainly some of you. Cross it we must. Our first step is to recognize it is there.

How Hard is It?

An illustration, if I may. Some months ago I attended the funeral of an old friend of my father’s. As is usual among Christians, I ran into a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in years. Sometimes these days it seems the only time we encounter each other is in the basements of church buildings, holding on to paper plates piled with those little triangular sandwiches which a certain species of evangelical woman is so adept at producing in times of grief, usually in copious quantities. You know the ones I mean, with the bread crusts cut off, and some kind of mysterious and not-entirely-unpleasant gray or pink paste between the slices.

As I sat down in the pew prior to the service, I recognized a middle-aged couple I hadn’t seen in over twenty years, and leaned over to say hello. The wife, acknowledging that my own father had gone to be with the Lord some time prior, said something kind about him that I don’t quite remember.

“Thank you,” I replied. “He had a long life, well-lived, and we know where he is today. We have lots to be grateful for.”

“Oh yes,” she said, all earnest and moist-eyed. “But it’s hard. It’s very hard.”

Hard? Hmm. I thought about that. You see, for me it wasn’t hard at all.

Saying Goodbye

Now, I love my dad with all my heart. Probably 70% of the useful things I know came from him. He was a fine example, a caring father, and an exceptional Christian and human being generally. He helped many people over many years, cared about almost nothing but Christ, Christians and his family, and this world is the poorer for his absence. But the last few years of his long life were tough for him, and not so easy for those who loved him. His hearing and sight were going, his breathing was labored, and his speech had become difficult to understand even for those who knew him well. He was cold all the time, and he couldn’t get out of bed on his own. His food had no taste and even reading his Bible had become all but impossible.

These problems are common among those who reach advanced ages, and Dad wasn’t a complainer. But life was no piece of cake. A few months before going on to glory, he told my brother, “I’m grateful for every day the Lord has given me ... but I’m not asking him for more.” He was content to accept whatever hand Heaven dealt him, but he recognized his time of service here was coming to an end. He was very comfortable with that.

So when he went to be with the Lord was it hard for me? I have to say it was not. I was thrilled for him that he had reached the end of his earthly journey with dignity and integrity, and I firmly believe he went into the presence of his beloved Lord and Savior to hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant.” I was relieved that his labors were over and that he had entered into the fulfillment of something he had deeply desired as long as I had known him.

And, Lest I Come Across a Tad Too Pious ...

I would also be remiss if I didn’t say candidly that I was relieved both for myself and my family. It’s not that I did very much at all for Dad toward the end. My mother and two siblings did all the heavy lifting. I just sailed in from out of town periodically for an hour or two and then headed back to my relatively easy routine. Still, when Dad died there was a sense things were at last moving forward rather than all of us waiting for an unpleasant inevitability.

All these thoughts lifted my spirits at a time when some people would be in a deep, dark hole emotionally. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, but if I rolled out the trite platitudes to make myself sound as I might be expected to sound, it would misrepresent the reality I experienced at the time. It wasn’t hard. We all felt the Lord’s help, and Dad’s life and faith had thoroughly prepared us to carry on in his absence.

I should also add that I am only attempting to describe my personal experience. I don’t for a second imagine that my limited emotional palette is the preferred one for Christians reacting to the death of a loved one, or that I will necessarily respond to every death of someone I care about in exactly the same way. The loss of an unsaved friend or a young believer may strike me very differently. But the fact is that when my father died, I was totally at peace with it. It was not hard. Make of that what you will.

Hitting a Brick Wall

I did not say this to the couple in the pew at the funeral, of course. For one thing, it’s way too long. But it was obvious to the wife that my emotional journey and hers had not been along quite the same path. She looked uncomfortable. So I said something brief to the effect that we were experiencing the comfort of the Lord and were grateful for many things about the circumstances of Dad’s exit from the world.

“But,” she said, this time with some serious steel behind the dewy eyes, “it’s HARD.”

I gave up. You would too. It wasn’t worth taking it further. She had lost her own father some years prior, and she probably went through a certain spectrum of emotions at that time which she had convinced herself are universal. They aren’t, but that is not something she was capable of acknowledging on that day. And that’s okay. She is probably in the majority, even among Christians.

But the experience reminds me how great a gulf may exist between us ... even between believers. Really communicating to one another, really having fellowship together, requires that we bear with one another, recognizing that we have different personalities, different experiences, different understandings of the word of God — differences of all sorts. We are not all made the same way, or made for the same divine purposes. Some believers are creatures primarily of emotion; others, creatures primarily of intellect. The Only Begotten of the Father, the Word made flesh, was full of grace and truth. You and I tend to skew to one end or the other of that impeccable balancing act.

An Even Greater Gulf

Another quick story, if you can stand it. My office is exempt from the lockdowns. The company provides what is rather laughably characterized as an “essential service” in our province. Still, management resolved early on to make working from home an option for as many employees as possible, and encouraged us to take advantage of it. I didn’t, but most did.

Last weekend, a co-worker I hadn’t seen since mid-March stuck her head around the corner of our office door, then inched her way along the wall twenty feet away from me toward her cubicle. It was evident she was petrified, but could no longer function from home without some missing paperwork. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, I pulled a copy out of my own file and placed it ten feet away from her on the counter top, then dutifully backed away to give her the space she so obviously craved.

She couldn’t bring herself to take it, petrified that the COVID-19 virus was crouched atop those pages waiting to pounce. When I realized she was pretty much frozen in place, torn between fear of infection and need for the missing document, I suggested she head home. I promised to scan the pages she needed, make a PDF for her, and send it to her by email. She gratefully edged out of the room after saying she hoped to see me soon, but “not until there’s a vaccine”.

Need I say that knee-trembling terror in the present crisis is not my experience? It isn’t, and not because I naively think myself invulnerable. But there is a vast gulf fixed between, and there is an even bigger gulf between believers and those who do not have the confidence of knowing Christ.

The Grace-Truth Continuum

Now, I sometimes think I’m about as sensitive as a rock. On the grace-truth continuum, I skew truthwise. It might even be accurate to say I deal best in abstractions. Grace comes to me laboriously, and sometimes only painfully. When the enthusiastic young man in the prayer meeting potters on interminably about what Jesus did for you and me, I always appreciate the crusty old Scot who interjects, “But laddie, the key trewth ye’re nae graspin’ is that the Laird Jesus pro-pish-iated God the Father!” Aye indeed. There are fewer and fewer of these pedantic (and precise) saints, and their impending departure will diminish us theologically.

And in reality, it may be better not to think of the virtues of grace and truth as opposed to one another. They need not be. After all, our Lord’s earthly walk was chock full of both, wasn’t it?

But we are all made differently, and few of us, even with a degree of Christian maturity, are capable of embodying all the virtues of our Lord simultaneously or to the same extent. We do not have his perfect balance.

That means we need to bear with one another in love. I will never be the one whose heart leaps for joy at changing the soggy diaper of an incontinent cancer patient, but I know a handful of Christian women for whom the opportunity to serve at the least desirable of tasks absolutely makes their day. That’s okay. They would not get delirious reading David Gooding, or go around buzzing with energy and enthusiasm because they discovered a previously obscure connection between two Hebrew words. Christians are one body, composed of diverse members functioning differently, and yet functioning as God intended to maximize the nourishment and spiritual development of all.

So Maybe It IS Hard ...

The believer who insists on telling us how “hard” it is at the funeral may be feeling that way because the prospect of heaven does not seem real to her, or she may be saying it because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to be saying at such a time. She may even be virtue signaling to tell us all what a wonderful, sensitive person she is. But should I assume so little of her without evidence? Of course not. She may be occupied with the harshness of death because of the intensity of her own empathy with the survivors. Am I going to call her un-Christlike for that, even in the quiet confines of my own heart and head? I sure hope not. Jesus wept. Not all those who weep are weeping with him, or for the same reasons, but many are. I’m not about to be their judge.

Equally, the Christian who can talk calmly and practically about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of his fellow men and women ending their lives on ventilators in crowded hospital hallways may not be as hard-hearted or indifferent to the sufferings of others as we might think. He may be, of course. We cannot rule it out. On the other hand, it is quite possible he is sufficiently well-read to understand how much worse things might have been, and be giving thanks to God that they are not. Far from trying to dismiss the emotions of others, he may be trying to provide them with a big-picture view of what God is doing, and attempting to encourage them with some balancing insights that have encouraged him. It may not work, of course, but we shouldn’t fault him for trying. He’s giving us what he has to give, and it may be that Christians of similar disposition will benefit from it even if we cannot.

Bugs and Features

We are all different. That’s a feature of God’s design, not a bug. At a time like this, we are well advised to put the best possible construction on what we hear and see from other believers, giving the benefit of the doubt wherever we can. Love is the bridge that crosses that great communication gulf fixed between us and enables us to see Christ in others.

So let us patiently bear with one another in love. Who knows? We may learn something along the way.

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