H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 9, 2005
LIVING WITH LOSS
Texts: Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13; John 10:27-30
“Nothing’s more certain than death and taxes,” the expression goes. We could add a third: Loss. Loss in all its forms. Loss of a job, a career. A crippling financial reversal. Loss of a loved one, a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend. Annie Dillard writes of watching her mother’s grief as a girl:
I knew life pulled you in two;
you never healed. Mother’s emotions
ran high, and she suffered
sometimes from a web of terrors,
because, she said, her father
died when she was seven; she
still missed him.1
Or you suffer a humbling, perhaps humiliating, failure. The idol of your perfect, idealized self is shattered. The Taoist sacred writings say:
Accept disgrace willingly
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
. . . . .
Surrender yourself humbly;
then you can be trusted to care for all things.2
There is the loss of divorce, a deeply complicated loss: Loss of love, loss of self-esteem, loss of dreams, loss of place.
There is the loss of physical ability through injury or illness; the loss of youthful attractiveness and youthful vigor through age - - which in our culture, that has made youthful attractiveness and vigor an idolatry, is a Big Deal.
Recently at a theological conference I met a brilliant and winsome theologian who also had what appeared to be the effects of cerebral palsy. At first I had trouble understanding him, but after listening to him for a short while, everything he said was as clear as a bell. One afternoon he said he was taking a walk and invited any of us to join. I decided instead to go for a run. What was I saying about loss in that decision? I did not want to walk that slow. I needed to run, run to beat back time and creeping middle-age bulge, run to extend my span of days, to hold off loss.
And I missed a chance to get to know him. There is even loss in the memory of what I missed.
Which brings up that powerful capacity of human consciousness: Memory. It is our greatest friend - - the ability to savor the best of the past. What would you trade for the sweetest of memories? And it is our greatest enemy - - the capacity to be bitter and sad forever, to roll over and over again in our minds what has been lost.
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says, which means at least this: In the face of loss choose to be grateful for what you’ve been given rather than to ponder the pain of what has been lost (I Thess. 5:18).
John Claypool, the remarkable preacher whose memorial service I helped lead last week, lost his daughter Laura Lue to leukemia when she was only nine. In a series of sermons during her sickness and death he wrestled with this inconceivable loss. In a sermon soon after her death he said these words to his congregation:
...I am here to testify that this is the only way down from the Mountain of Loss. I do not mean to say that such a perspective makes things easy, for it does not. But at least it makes things bearable when I remember that Laura Lue was a gift, pure and simple, something I neither deserved nor had a right to. And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was ever given her in the first place.3
How do we live with inevitable loss? Scripture brings us help, like a song in the night.
The Twenty-third Psalm is a song of trust in a God who is with us and cares for us in all circumstances:
The Lord is my shepherd, I will have enough...
in desert and green pastures, God is there...
in wilderness and clear paths God is there....
in the midst of enemy and friend, God is there...
in the valley of the shadow of death,
valley, shadow, death, God is there.
And in it all, beneath, beyond , above it all:
we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Can we ever hear that too much?
The Apostle Paul was a brilliant, complicated man. Compulsive. Guilt-ridden as only as Baptist, Catholic or Jew could be. Throw in sexual hang-ups. But he met something healing and saving in the Risen Christ.
He also had some kind of infirmity, something public and humiliating which made him a laughing stock among his opponents and might have undermined his ministry. He called it his “thorn in the flesh.” He prayed fervently for it to be removed, but all he got in return was the silence of heaven. Then finally this word, not a cure, not a healing, but this saving word:
My grace is sufficient for you;
for my strength is made perfect
II Corinthians 12:9
In today’s text from Philippians, Paul is writing from prison. He’s not sure he will get out. He may die there. And he writes: “I have learned [learned probably not in an instant but over time in the school of life and the school of Christ] in whatever state I am to be content.” The word “content” was a famous Stoic word, a Zen-like detachment from the vagaries of life. The word in the Greek is autarkes, which literally means “self-sufficient.” That sounds drearily like our modern American individualism. But Paul meant by this word not “self-sufficiency” but “God-sufficiency,” “Christ-sufficiency.” “My God shall supply all your need,” he wrote, “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). The Lord is my shepherd.... In God, in Christ, Paul had found his “enough.” Even in the worst of circumstances Paul was given enough. As the refrain in a Glen Phillips song puts it: “I don’t need anything I don’t have.”
“I have learned in whatever state I am to be content,” Paul writes with a chain around his ankle and prison bars in his face. “I know how to be abased and how to abound. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I am able to face all circumstances in Christ who strengthens me. I can meet all things, conquer all things in Christ.
We’d like that secret, wouldn’t we? It is not a secret withheld from us. It is there for us who seek to find. When we need it, it is there.
What is this “secret”? I have some hints of it. In Frederick Buechner’s book about a medieval hermit-saint named Godric, Godric gets the secret in a revelation from Mary:
The secret that we share I cannot I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.4
Can we believe this? That nothing good is ever lost, not finally; it is added to us, for us, forever, in the eternity of God?
Later Buechner wrote an essay in which he reflected on this passage in Godric and on how his mind had changed about God and about death. He wrote:
We find by losing. We hold fast
by letting go. We become
something new by ceasing to be something old.
And then the luminous words: “All’s lost. All’s found.”5
There’s a scene in a Wendell Berry novel, Remembering. The key character, Andy Catlett, has lost his right hand in a terrible farming accident. And now he is trying to come to terms with that devastating loss. Berry writes:
His right hand had been the one with which he reached out to the world and attached himself to it. When he lost his hand he lost his hold.... All the world then became to him a steep slope, and he a man descending , staggering and falling, unable to reach out to tree trunk or branch or root to catch and hold on.6
I think this is how I’ve engineered great loss in myself and in others. What we’ve lost was a way we held on to the world, how we met the world and steered ourselves into it. And now we’ve lost our hold, and we are like one falling down a slope and no way to catch hold. In the midst of this falling, this grief and loss, Andy is given an epiphany. In Berry’s words:
He is held, though he does not hold.... He will be partial, and he will die; he will live out the truth of that. Though he does not hold he is held. He is grieving, and he is full of joy. What is that Egypt but his Promised Land?7
I have carried those words with me in life and remembered them especially as I have gone through loss, slipping and falling, and been with people in their loss. “Though he does not hold he is held.” It calls to mind the words of Jesus:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give them life forever and they will not die forever. [All’s Lost. All’s Found] And no one shall snatch them out of my hand.... No one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
It was this same oneness with God that Jesus prayed we would all have, an eternal, indissolvable oneness, a oneness which is the heart of all reality despite our temporary separateness and estrangements. We are orphans who find our way home, amnesiacs whose amnesia is ended. It’s like the story of the young brother who leaned over the crib of his new-born sister and whispered: “Tell me about God; I’ve almost forgot.”
When you lose your hold, you are held, held in the everlasting arms. As scripture sings to us in the night:
The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath, underneath, are the everlasting arms. Deuteronomy 33:27 (KJV, altered)
1An American Childhood (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 171.
3Tracks of a Fellow Struggler (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1974), p. 82.
4Godric (New York: Atheneum, 1980), p. 96.
5"All’s Lost - -All’s Found” in A Room Called Remember (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 189-90.
6Remembering in Three Short Novels (Washington, D.C., 2002), p. 142.
7Ibid., p. 167.
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