In the final scenes of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta peer into the countryside from the train that returns them to their district. Peeta asks Katniss, “What do we do now?” She replies, “I guess we try to forget.” Peeta and Katniss have literally had to fight for their lives and have discovered love in the process. Their experience has been incredibly tough, one that wasn’t asked for but chosen for them by lottery. Peeta responds: “But I don’t want to forget.”
I watched that scene and instantly noticed the parallels. I’ve had tough times and we all do. Let me share some points this scene rehearses for me.
Never forget the days that humble you. In fact, they’re unforgettable because they’re often full of pain that grinds us down in positive ways we don’t realize until months and years later. We shouldn’t forget these periods because God, in his providence, oftentimes orders our steps through these places, always with a purpose and providing for our safety. We must embrace these tough times for the spiritual training they provide and certainly as grace afforded us. I’ve learned to thank God for the hard times in my life. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything now because I’ve gained too much from them.
Hard times should prove the good in us. They should be a constant reflection to us of how well-equipped we are for our challenge; of our spiritual strength and progress, although our knees may buckle at times. Our perspective should also change: God doesn’t send us through a wilderness to be conquered. If anything is to be lost, then the course is designed to necessarily relieve us of excesses and encumbrances impeding of God’s purpose in us, for which we always need refinement. In the end, God wants to make a show of us to us.
Pain produces shared intimacy that can otherwise never be known. People who experience incredible hardships or disasters together are often knit heart-to-heart forever thereafter. This is why Peeta says what he does. Their lives were at stake and they had to trust one another in the most ultimate way. They learned things about themselves and each other and had to use it to survive. The situation was serious; there was no playing around, not even with words. Our relationship with God is the same. Those who rely on God through their toughest times gain an intimacy with him others who neglect him cannot know. People often desire the spiritual connection they perceive in some. But it won’t be acquired apart from walking with God wherever he leads—and that includes through tough times.
The chorus of Colton Dixon’s beautiful song “Through All of It” says:
“I have won and I have lost,/ I got it right sometimes,/ But sometimes I did not./ Life’s been a journey;/ I’ve seen joy, I’ve seen regret./ O! And you have been my God through all of it.”
Once word spread about Job’s tragic misfortune, three of his friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—traveled to visit and mourn with him. Generally, nothing wonderful is made of these men due to the flawed counsel they offered Job. But their companionship is something they model that we should emulate.
The Pervasiveness of Trouble
Hard times hit us all…no one is immune. Sometimes trouble comes crashing in on us unexpectedly; at other times we bring it upon ourselves. Whatever the case, the toll on a person can be significant in every way.
Job didn’t have just a single problem that stressed him; instead, he dealt with compounding heartaches—financial ruin, the tragic deaths of his children, a hideous and disfiguring disease, and the loss of a supporting wife. We need not wonder about the toll it took on him because he tells us: “May the day of my birth perish and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’…may it turn to darkness” (3:3-4).
How to Help Others
Fortunately, Job had people who cared enough to come see about him, folk who let him know that he didn’t have to face his cares alone. And thousands of years later, the necessity of a ‘crying shoulder’ or person to lean on hasn’t changed. No matter how spiritual we may be or how much faith we possess, we have limitations and will experience emotional pain. But hardship is eased by meaningful relationship.
Here are some pointers I’ve learned helping others and needing that help.
Don’t be silent. In high school I had a friend whose mother was killed in a car accident. I never spoke to him about the situation, although I really wanted to but didn’t know how. The problem with silence is…it’s so loud. It becomes the evidence that everything is known, but for some reason you’re not acting; and then it becomes stigmatizing. It shames the one who is hurting, the one who wants to be heard and have his burden shared. Find a way to show care, even if it seems awkward at first. You’ll find your feet as you go.
Don’t pity people. Pity makes us feel sorry for folk and glad that we don’t have to live as they do. It is love from a distance, which is no love at all; and it keeps us from feeling people’s pain. Pity disgraces people and makes them feel bad about themselves. It is not the love of God, and it restrains us from getting involved.
Don’t turn people into their trouble. Regardless of an individual’s predicament or how they got into it, they are still persons whom God loves and those he requires us to love. If we’re not careful our moral stances can make us calloused toward folk we identify as offenders. But people are not their problems and they can change. If we don’t believe this, then we don’t have authentic Christian faith.
I enjoy the kitchen. It’s the process of creating that I like and the reward of making the people you love happy and satisfied. Although cooking demands attention, it’s a great mental escape for me since I tend to live in my head.
My family has come to expect baked sweets from me. I enjoy making them but what gets old is the assumption that I must make (blank) whenever we gather. I’ve tried to give certain recipes to my sisters, but they don’t want them; they want me to make them.
The flip side of doing something well: you get marked for doing so.
In Days to Come…
Maybe I should be happy about it. I suppose I could have a lackluster or all-out bad reputation as the helpless bachelor in the kitchen (#9-1-1). “I can’t make it like you do” might be a compliment and mean “Michael, no one can infuse love and pride into that cake like you do.” It’s sentimental and becomes part of my tradition with others.
It’s the same way with the adages and admonitions our parents and elders gave us. This very moment there is someone’s voice you can clearly hear, a face and gesture you can see, from yesteryear giving you advice that you got sick of hearing at the time. But because you ate long enough from their table of wholesome advice, you are now a better person for listening.
The instruction we received became those folk’s legacy with us even though we weren’t always buying what they were trying to sell us.
Creating a Legacy
I wonder if grumpy Thomas ever rolled his eyes and said of Jesus, “There he goes again with ‘love your neighbor’!” Did any of the disciples need the smallest respite from Jesus? I mean, they listened to every teaching, crowd or no crowd.
That might sound funny (or irreverent) but they surely didn’t anticipate post-Pentecost. They had no clue that all Jesus was telling them would shortly become their saving grace in ministry.
Years later Peter understood the principle well, that his words were to his readers what Christ’s words were to the Twelve; so he explains, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have” (2 Pet. 2:12). Moreover, it was imperative because he knew he would soon die and, like a good parent, wanted to make sure his children were ready for greater responsibility.
What an honor God has granted the biblical writers, for we prove the point of good and lasting heritage whenever we search out certain ones for our devotional needs. We desire that voice because…no one touches our hearts like David does, no one says it quite like Paul.
And there’s something you do with others that you may or may not be aware of that really is making a difference in someone’s life, a legacy of your own. It could very well be what they’re balking at right now. Just keep at it. It’s sinking in…time will tell.
We are a church culture that ranks sins. A few get to tell glowing testimonies of how they were freed from their flaws while others know not to breathe a word about their past misdeeds—at least not the whole story—for fear of being scorned by some or investigated about the extent of their freedom.
This is shameful. It demonstrates that some of us have not understood the nature of sin, that we all stand under the same curse and that the mite of sin is as great as the vilest and most flagrant. We have also not understood the holy nature of God, his seamlessly pure moral character, or the extravagant grace that rescues us all from equal depravity.
Keep the Main Thing…
I like the way Paul addresses the fact—and how do we miss the point?
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
So profound! Paul highlights issues that were specific to Corinthian society and his hearers; so we gain a telling picture of Corinth. What I love here is that one’s particular “sin background” is non-essential; instead, believers now stand redeemed by the work of Christ—and that’s all that matters, not the once-but-delivered ailment.
If we’re not careful, we will make a big deal about sin and lose love for sinners and fellow believers who wrestle with internal conflicts. We would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” Make sure, the writer explains, that no one—sinner or saint—lacks of the Lord’s great kindness.
Assessing Our Approach
Therefore, our churches must be spiritual communities where harbored sin in people’s lives breaks our hearts and where we have mastered a quick prayerful, loving, and restorative response, in the same way a body heals itself.
Compassion is the key. It characterized Jesus’s approach with others. And Paul, in Galatians 6:1, reminds us to compassionately restore those in indiscretion mindful that not only are we too susceptible to sin, but also to their kind of sin.
Sin will (and should) always be an affront to God’s holy nature in us, yet we must stop being surprised and shocked by the personal matters family, friends, and peers share with us. We are all human and err. Amazement only makes one feel bad about divulging their troubles; it also makes them question if God really cares about them.
Sin ain’t pretty. Yours wasn’t. So we dare not offend the Lord by being insensitive to others and impede ministry before it starts.
This isn’t just about sinners bearing all, if you’re still missing the point. Christians trip up and get bound, too. The context for Galatians 6 is the believing community; so Paul continues, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2, NKJV).
So our churches must be havens where certainly the godly can unpack their burdens and receive guidance and healing prayer. We should think this normal, but it isn’t hardly the case. It is sad that some Christians are scornful, judgmental, untrustworthy, and unloving toward their own—how can the lost ever be saved!
A New Culture
I’m concerned we err because we take our cues from the non-Christian culture around us, not the word of God. But the kingdom of God is our culture, a new and shockingly transformative one, and its implications are monumental. No, we don’t think and act the way the world does; our actions and responses will indeed be revolutionary and countercultural and make non-Christians wonder about our dissimilarity.
And our difference should be most evident in our relationships, the one aspect Jesus seems to deem the very purpose of our lives (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Thus, we take none for granted, neither those with the most need for an assurance of grace nor those who already possess it but need strengthening.
We will best love others and be most real with ourselves when we stop cherry-picking sin and esteem the marvelous grace that rescues us all.
Bladder cancer meant the last year of my grandmother’s life. That’s how it was. The doctor had told us that it wouldn’t be serious. Somehow this was a friendly cancer that would let Grama live to die of something else, like her diabetes maybe, but he was dead-wrong.
The clock had already been ticking. Christmas that year, six months and four days before the end, the eve of which was her birthday, had been unusually joyful. Grama, with all her grandchildren around, laughed until she cried, until it seemed that delight could be her cure, yet we all saw it coming.
When to Say Nothing
I returned home to live from Indiana in early June of 2006; Grama had not long been in a nursing facility in Martinsville, the next town over. She was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I knew well. I planned my visit to see her as soon as I could unload and place my belongings. I hoped the surprise wouldn’t backfire and be mine to loathe because I wasn’t sure what I might find. I could only wish for my granny healthy as possible, recognizable, and glad to see me.
That day I strode down the corridor past open doors and the oddities and odors that claw at passers-by in such sad places of the physically marooned, hoping that Grama’s room was a refuge. I slowed as I approached the doorway, which was open; I didn’t hear visitors inside. I took a deep breath and entered the room confidently.
It was bright and sterile, spotless in fact, and peaceful, with the sun in full glow like a gift for the moment. My grandmother was lying in the far bed next to the window and neatly tucked under a white blanket. She was looking out the door when I entered. “Michael,” she said plainly, the inflection revealing her surprise and bewilderment.
I’m not sure how I reacted, but I went and kissed her on the forehead. Grama looked herself. She turned her face toward the window and cried; I didn’t try to console her. I wondered then and many times since if she wept for seeing me, her eldest grandson come to see about her or because she knew that it might be my last chance.
Bittersweet is hardest to swallow.
In that moment I had no context to understand how she could be feeling, so I respected those deeply profound seconds by waiting. What is it like to face your own death? To know there will be no more living? The future isn’t scary when it means you’re alive and prospering, but the future is perfectly inconceivable when it means you’re dead. I know what my Christian faith explains about the afterlife, yet a human creature, indeed any living thing, designed to grow and reproduce abhors the thought of death.
Grama knew that she was dying because she was already discussing her final wishes. I recall the few times I heard her exclaim “I thought I was gon’ die!” when in the past she had fought off a bad bug or complications. The comment would always make me hide my laughter and still brings a smile to my face for its superstitious absurdity. But seeing Grama cry, however, was in its own way a door of finality.
Grama always assumed my return the next day. She wanted to see her family daily simply because she was there. I suppose that I would want my folks near me too for less grievous reasons. But I didn’t always make it back to Grama daily despite the easy thirty-minute drive. Sometimes it was no reason more than the monotony of the place: watching her sleep, no TV, window watching, book boredom, the nosy roommate.
We all lapsed a time or two, for different reasons, and not because we didn’t care but for the cares that consumed our time. Where there wasn’t work and business matters to tend, there was indifference that often trades substantial things for indulgence and always counts on tomorrow. I’m not sure that brand of tomorrow exists though whether we’re living or dying.
I cringed at the fact that when I could have and maybe should have been with Grama, I was busy doing nothing. Sometimes I was lying around watching TV while she was lying down waiting to die. The self-interest disgusted me. Yet I would think this way of Grama, too. Didn’t she realize that we couldn’t possibly be there all the time? Did her dying lend her more right to need? I hated myself for thinking this way. I’ve learned that human nature is a demanding, self-centered circus of a thing—even when the animals are calling it quits.
Grama forgave us for missing days but not for leaving her there. She wanted to go home and was belligerent about it. The first day I saw her she wanted me to take her home. I could be Hercules with her hoisted in my arms plucking off every resistance until I laid her down in her own bed. It was that mythical at least.
Conversation became awkward at times. “I can bring you lunch if you’d like,” I would say. “What do you want?” The reply would come like a blow and deadpanned: “I wanna GO HOME.” The most I accomplished for her was to get a new chair in the room to make her more comfortable and allow us to sun on the patio.
There soon came a day when I entered the room and noticed signs of the inevitable peering back at me. Grama was gaunt. The volume in her face was gone, completely, and she appeared skeletal. Her skin had become ashen. Her mind and morale remained but her body had been taken hostage. This alarmed me because it happened quickly, and I’m sure she had no idea of it.
One day she requested a mirror from the nurse to look herself over. I couldn’t know how long it may have been since she had seen herself. The act of something so simple seemed so primitive and animal-like to me watching her do it. Research shows us certain animals, like chimpanzees and elephants, querying themselves this way to demonstrate self-perception. Did Grama recognize the person staring back at her? I expected an exclamatory remark but she said nothing.
The Final Night
A few days from that time we got the call to come because our friend—the cancer—had turned foe and would wait no longer. I walked in the room this time and Grama was but a shell now and clearly in her final hours. She was lying on her right side into the bed railing, her eyes partly open, her mouth twisted.
Death is such an indignity.
Her roommate was a Christian woman and an unfortunate soul for the trials she had endured to this point. She had come to the facility with her husband roommate, in that very room, but he had died beside her; she was given a new roommate who also died there; now it was my grandmother’s turn. The staff moved the lady to another room to give us privacy, but I considered it an act of compassion for her own sanity.
Yet the roommate didn’t leave without first detailing my grandmother’s final night. She spoke as frankly as possible. “That woman drove me crazy!” The way she bellowed the word—CRAAZI!—with a distinctly Southern drawl, I found more embarrassing than insensitive, especially standing there with my mother and the pastor.
She said my grandmother had kept the nurses running all night and screamed for the pain in her body—“callin’ on Jesus and askin’ God to kill ’er.” Her words were chilling. That kind of pain must be hell itself. “But she was a good lady,” she affirmed, noticeably in past tense. She repeated herself then quickened, lifting her hand to God. From her account I figured that my grandmother was lucid into the day until her condition turned sometime that afternoon.
The Shadow of Death
Family and many from the church soon packed the room, presences casting their farewells. I was surprised by the show of people and most remained into the early evening. The night came and with it my decision not to stay to the end, whenever it arrived, but I was sure there was no tomorrow.
It was now the very end of June, less than a month since I had first burst in and kissed Grama’s forehead. This time, my last moment with Grama, I walked to her bedside, took her right hand, and bowed in silent prayer to the God who had numbed her soul against a ravaged body. I offered thanks for all the care and fun and meals and counsel she gave me, along with a request that I might pray and trust as she had, until my very end.
I was told by a family friend of a peculiar moment that happened after I had left when she recited Psalm 23 to my grandmother, which was also Grama’s favorite reading of the Bible. Science suggests that hearing is the last of the senses prior to death, presumably the reason—and a good one—why people venture to talk to the unconscious. Our friend leaned down into Grama’s ear and recited the passage; at the line “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” my grandmother made an audible drone, the only sound any of us heard out of her that day and forever.
Joy and Cheryl, two of my sisters, were determined to keep vigil and not leave Grama to die alone. They were the saddest of anyone having been the closest to Grama of the five siblings. They had taken the most of her care and heed through the years, especially Cheryl who had now managed her affairs for a long time.
It was no surprise to me that they waited. I was sad in theory. I loved my grandmother and my heart had suffered some whenever I sat with her. Still, I saw death as a natural part of life and it no longer rattled me as it did when I was half my age. And I think that’s how you get through it, by remembering that death is personal for us all. Grama had now lived to be eighty-nine years old, well past life expectancy, but one expects old people to die. Young deaths and tragic ones are tougher, for their abruptness and intrusion, but the elderly just fade away. I wondered if I was supposed to feel sadder.
Grama passed at 3:30 in the morning. It was June 29, an otherwise happy day on the family calendar because it is Joy’s birthdate.
Joy reported that Grama sat up suddenly and looked around. My sister jumped out of her seat calling aloud to Grama trying to arrest her attention. Whether Grama saw her cannot be known. When I heard this I thought of the Resurrection account of the dead supposedly returning to the streets of Jerusalem at their pass into the heavens; and out of a cancer-eaten body my grandmother’s spirit lifted, too.
She very well might have caught a glimpse of the room and my sisters, but I imagine that the vista into which she rushed was rapturous. No sooner than she had sat up, she lay down again, and like that she was gone.