Late night phone calls rarely bring good news.
I was reminded of that not long ago when the phone rang in the middle of the night, waking me from a deep sleep. Startled and groggy, I wondered who could be calling at such an hour. It was a friend who lives in a distant state. "I've got some bad news." He went on to tell me about a mutual friend who lives several thousand miles away. He is a wonderful minister of the gospel, a great man, and a tremendous evangelist. "He had a massive heart attack an hour ago. They say the outlook isn't good." I knew he had been going through a hard time, but I wasn't prepared for this. The last time I saw him, he was upbeat, smiling, positive and future-focused. Now he is in a hospital fighting for his life. It didn't seem possible.
The man who called me said, "Son, the ways of the Lord are sometimes very strange." Indeed they are. When we prayed together, the man pleaded with the Lord to spare our friend. Then he said, "But Lord, we know you do all things well. And we are trusting in you completely tonight."
After I hung up, it was hard to go back to bed. Marlene and I stayed up talking about it for a while. As of the writing of these words, our friend is still alive but no one knows what to expect next.
That late-night phone call came to mind as I prepared this message from 2 Corinthians 4. If I could talk to my friend, he would say, "I'm definitely just a clay pot, fragile and easily broken."
I'm been thinking lately about the fragility of life. Maybe it's because of the flood that hit Nashville or the tornadoes that swept through this part of the country or maybe it's because of the string of earthquakes in many places or maybe it's because of a long list of friends battling various diseases. Whatever the reason, it's good to meditate on our own mortality from time to time. We all die sooner or later. When Pat Conroy wrote South of Broad, he included this sobering description of how death is woven into our existence from our earliest days:
The moment you are born your death is foretold by your newly minted cells as your mother holds you up, then hands you to your father, who gently tickles the stomach where the cancer will one day form, studies the eyes where melanoma's dark signature is already written along the optic nerve, touches the back where the liver will one day house the cirrhosis, feels the bloodstream that will sweeten itself into diabetes, admires the shape of the head where the brain will fall to the ax-handle of stroke, or listens to your heart, which, exhausted by the fearful ways and humiliations and indecencies of life, will explode in your chest like a light going out in the world. Death lives in each one of us and begins its countdown on our birthdays and makes its rough entrance at the last hour and the perfect time (p. 10).
In a deep sense, we are all born dying. We are born saying hello, and the rest of life is one long goodbye. That thought, reinforced by the late night phone call, leads to a deeper truth. The way we respond to the trials of life reveals a great deal about the strength of our Christian faith. If we deny our troubles, or if we give in to anger or bitterness, or if we blame others for our problems, we miss what God intends to teach us through what happens to us. It is a great advance spiritually to be able to say, "I believe God has allowed this difficulty for my good and his glory."
You can read the rest of the sermon online.