By William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, January 31,1999, p. 19.
It is a sad sight to see someone who seemed to be something reduced to nothing…
When I first visited him, he was a successful businessman, with a fine home, a beautiful family, and three cars in the custom-built garage. The last time I saw him, after the trial, he was peering at me through the bars of a state prison and he looked like a scared, helpless, little boy. It is something to see someone who has been something reduced to nothing. Something sad.
Yet, when those who seemed to be something are reduced to nothing, it becomes possible for their lives to be reconstituted into a new something, some new reality outside of themselves and their devising. Those who once sustained their lives on their own, by their accumulation of success, power, prestige, and glory, in their foolish nothingness, are now free to see a reality greater than themselves, namely, the wisdom of God, in Christ, which is now the word of the cross. On the cross, Jesus committed his Spirit into the hands of his Father. When you have been stripped, beaten down, and picked clean, there is nowhere else to go.
And after the experience of the cross in our life pulls open, stirs up, demolishes our wisdom and power, we are free to encounter a different reality.
I don’t know wherein your source of self-security lies; that thing on which you lean for support, that security which needs to be ripped from you and brought to nothing by the word of the cross. Our world has many ways of denying the power of God in the cross and depending on our own power. I’ve got my diplomas on the wall, my position at the university, my professional titles, my investments and my insurance policies; and you’ve got yours. And I also know that life has many ways of stripping you down to nothing…
I pulled up a chair close to her bed. She was in great pain, flung down by a serious illness that had kept her in the hospital for weeks.
“I keep asking myself,” she said, “Is this God’s will? Is God trying to tell me something?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “God didn’t will this; this isn’t some message from God. It’s a virus.”
“How can you be so sure, preacher?” she replied. “I’m an awfully proud person. It takes a lot to get my attention. And think about it—after what God allowed to happen to his Son on that cross, who can be sure what God might do to get through to us?”
What greater motive could there be to a religious life than the vanity and the poorness of all worldly enjoyments? What greater call could there be to look toward God than the pains, the sickness, the crosses, and the vexations of this life? What miracles could more strongly appeal to our senses, or what message from heaven speak louder to us than the daily dying and departure of our fellow creatures? The one thing needful and the great end of life need not be discovered by fine reasoning and deep reflections. It is pressed upon us in the plainest manner by the experience of all our senses, by everything that we meet with in life.
–William Law (1686-1761), A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
Sickness is the everyday, in-life experience of vulnerability, finitude, and death. Sickness, at its worse, is a foretaste of what it is like to have the world go on without you, to be nothing. Sickness is a reminder that life is fragile, limited, vulnerable– in short, terminal. Sickness is a brush with death.
Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 after a twelve year battle with lupus. She once wrote in a letter: “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” —Habit of Being, page 163.
A petition from ‘The Great Litany’ in The Book of Common Prayer:
“From a sudden and unprepared death, Good Lord, deliver us.”
Psalm 31:5 — Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.
I Corinthians 1:18 — For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
I Corinthians 1:27-29 — But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
–Jesus, Luke 23:46