I came down with a cold two days after Ash Wednesday this year.
I confess to feeling a little smug that it had not taken me down earlier. Well, maybe not exactly smug — but certainly grateful and surprised. Everyone around me had fallen to the nasty germ and somehow I had escaped. And then I didn’t.
It ran its course and I had a halfway decent week. And then it came back. And for the last week I have hardly slept with the congestion and coughing spasms. A visit to the doctor told me I’m not contagious though — for it is just a cold. So in this busy season I’ve just kept on working. However, it has been impossible to keep this barking cough a secret. Indeed, kind people around me are leaving me their favorite cough drops or lozenges. I’ve tried them all. And I find I am inundated with chicken soup! And lots of advice. Oh yes, all kinds of good advice on how to get past this.
My doctor told me to call back if it got worse. Two nights ago I coughed until I could not breathe. Surely this was ‘worse’ enough and so I finally called back. And as of this writing I am finding myself extremely grateful for an inhaler and am glad to say I slept a little more last night than I have in days, aided by a powerful cough syrup which promised to take away all my pain.
I am a wimp, I know. Compared to many, I know so little of suffering and yet I’ve gotten enough of a taste in the last three weeks to wonder how I will do when I really come up against it. Even with this relatively brief, although surely nasty illness, I have started to forget what it feels like to not cough every time I breathe, or speak, or open my mouth to eat or drink. Indeed, even with a felt, urgent need to cough, I grew so tired, I could hardly croak. (But I croaked a lot.) And while I have tried to find something redemptive in even this small suffering? I’m not coming up with much of anything. I just want to be done with it. I want my old life back where I’m not reliant on a stash of cough drops and where sleep is uninterrupted by my body’s desire to expel what has taken it over!
And so here it is. Again this week we have before us images of dying and rising. Indeed, we have before us now this marvelous image of a grain of wheat whose entire reason for being is to die so that something more might come of it. And we have before us this certain truth, bearing down us more surely now than ever before in this season, that Jesus did suffer and die for us. And there is this completely impossible to comprehend expectation that our lives as we know them and cherish them are finally, not to be ultimately loved. And that dying with a greater purpose is somehow also meant to be ours.
I’m not certain what any of this has to do with my unrelenting cough — except for maybe this:
- For oh, in these last weeks, how I have been reminded of my humanness. Of how frail the human body truly is. And yes, I do forget this sometimes. Or at least I fail to think of it when all my systems are working at full strength. To be sure, even an unrelenting cough can be a reminder of one’s mortality. To be human is to have limits. Even in busy Lent. Our reading from John today points to this certain truth. Jesus came to us as one so very human that eventually the demands on his body became too much. On the cross, his lungs did not finally hold up. (Indeed, as I understand it, those who have studied how crucifixion actually works tell us that it is usually actually death by suffocation. Hanging there, the body folds over on itself until the airflow is cut off. Whether that was the case with Jesus we do not know. We do know, however, that his breathing stopped.) We do not hear that Jesus ever suffered a late winter’s cold which would not let go. However, made like you and me, he surely could have.
- I finally had to ask for help. I gave up on completing list of phone calls which had to be made before Sunday because I knew I simply could not make them. I had neither the voice nor the breath. I asked for help. And the one who willingly added this to her already busy week told me she was blessed in doing so. My small ‘dying’ enabled another to live. And this week in worship, I gave over more of the leadership to an assisting minister. And when I sat with the children to teach them the familiar John 3:16, I literally had to urge them to speak up, for I could not. Perhaps my small ‘dying’ (not unlike a grain of wheat falling into the ground) enables others to speak and so to live. Imagine that.
And yes, this:
- I coughed through an entire three hour council meeting on Tuesday night. I could visibly see the cringes of those around the table. I did not extend my hands to hold those of others when we closed with the Lord’s Prayer as we always do. They were grateful, I know. And then the chicken soup and cough drops started coming. We’ve all been there, of course — so in need of one another. Even with just a cough. My very visible and audible struggle allowed others to extend kindness. Yes, perhaps my small ‘dying’ enabled others to live. Imagine that.
As for the grain of wheat that dies — it’s whole purpose is to die and multiply. Not just taken down by a late winter’s cold, this one, but actually being born in order to die for the sake of a more abundant life. I don’t know if a seed ‘suffers’ in the dark beneath the earth. I don’t know if the grain of wheat ‘hurts’ or ‘cries out in pain’ when it feeds on itself in order to give its growth its first sustenance. I am not a grain of wheat. Like you, I am a human being.
As we hear again the story we know so well, we understand that the very human Jesus had one purpose, too. He came for the life of the world — a purpose which would lead to — even require his dying. And we do know he suffered so. Because we are also human, perhaps we have some small sense of what that must have been.
I don’t believe God wills even the small suffering I have endured in these last weeks. And yet, even now I have seen God use this ‘dying’ in small ways to deepen life for me and those I walk alongside.
So, no, I can’t say I’m really fully on board yet with Jesus’ words about hating our lives in order to keep them. When I could not breathe two nights ago, all I could think about was breathing again. This is only human, it seems to me. Unless something is terribly wrong, our impulse is for life. At the same time, even in my unwilling ‘dying,’
- I find myself gifted with a perspective I’ve never had before or have somehow forgotten — about what matters most and all that I am called to give thanks for.
- I have gotten a taste of what it is to be less than self-sufficient and more deeply reliant on the gifts of others of God’s people.
- I have received a sure experience of the truth that a whole lot — even everything — can go on just fine without me. Even a moment of not breathing is a sure reminder that one day this will be so.
No, I can’t imagine that God really wants us to ‘hate life.’ At the same time, there are parts of life and ways of living which are less than God intends for us. And most of us, if we are so fortunate, can think of something worth dying for.
And so now, even in this small ‘dying’ of a late winter’s cold whose grip has not quite let me go, I am left with the question of what the rest of my living might be for. Indeed, wouldn’t it be something if in my living and in my dying — which one day I shall surely do — like a grain of wheat, my life given over should bear much fruit? Not as Jesus did, of course — but as Jesus’ follower — surely in some small way as well?
- The words of Jesus now surely have us grappling with the question of what our living and dying is for. How would you answer that question?
- Have you ever grappled with illness — serious, or like mine, not so serious? What kind of perspective does that give you on the “grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies?” In those times, have there been ways in which your ‘dying’ allowed others to live?
- What do you make of Jesus’ words that we are to hate our lives in order to keep them? How do you understand this hard truth? How does your understanding of this change how you live?