By Rev. Ben Black
Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, I lived in Boston, where I spent a summer as a chaplain at one of the local hospitals. My job was to go room to room and talk with patients about whatever they might be dealing with. I had many memorable conversations that summer, but as I was reflecting over all that I have to be thankful for, my conversation with Mr. Arnold came back to me.
I stood in the doorway of his room. In the corner, there was a small television tuned into the local news. Mr. Arnold was a hefty man in his mid-60s and was sitting on his bed with his hospital gown draped haphazardly on his shoulders as he focused on reading an article from the day's paper.
Apparently, he had been at this for some time as pages of the paper were strewn all over his bed and the floor. The article he was currently devouring sat on top of his half-eaten plate of room-temperature scrambled eggs from breakfast.
As I entered, Mr. Arnold grabbed the article he was reading, crumpled it and tossed it onto the pile of other discarded bits of news that lay on his blue comforter. "Mr. Arnold, I am the chaplain, would you mind if I visited with you for a bit," I asked, as was the custom for all chaplains before we are permitted to speak with a patient.
"Sure," he responded. "Hopefully you are more pleasant than the news seems to be anymore." We started to talk, and I found out that Mr. Arnold had led an interesting life. He learned to box when he was 10 years old from having to defend himself from his father.
He took up smoking cigars when he was 12 when his dad forced him to addiction in order to have a smoking partner in the house. He started truck driving at the age of 14 when his dad "persuaded" him to help his uncle run moonshine out of the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.
After a series of arrests, he decided he would be better off driving for a legitimate trucking company and he left home never to return again. He spent the next 50 years in the cab of a truck. As our conversation continued, he stopped me in mid-sentence and asked me in a 'colorful' way if I would mind turning off the blasted TV. I obliged, saying that it would be easier to talk without the distraction of having to talk over the news.
He responded, "I don't give a hoot about distractions, I am just tired of all of this bad news." He then reached behind his back and seemingly out of mid-air pulled out a cigar and placed it into his mouth. Startled, I responded "Mr. Arnold, I'm not sure you are allowed to sm... "
He cut me off, " They tell me if I smoke around this oxygen tank they hooked me up to, I am liable to start some mighty inconvenient fireworks … Don't worry, I just like to have something to chew on that reminds me that there is something better outside waitin’ for me."
It's a good practice to always remind ourselves that there is something better waiting for us. I was to learn in subsequent conversations with Mr. Arnold that when he reached for his "chewing cigar" that I should pay close attention to the words of this unlikely sage.
He turned out to be a very optimistic guy. I asked him about how he had made it through so much adversity as a young kid and why, if he found the news depressing, did he watch it? Why rifle through newspapers that contained so much of the same?
His response, "Life is a lot of things. The news is mostly bad and we all come through lots of rocky stuff." He then reached for another cigar. "But we need to know what it means to wade through a swamp if we’re gonna truly enjoy the beach."
This stuck with me because Mr. Arnold is right. Every time we turn on the news we are bombarded with tragedy: Superstorm Sandy, the Gaza Strip, those poor children perished in their school bus in Cairo ... the list goes on and on. Even in our own lives we all experience our own tragedies. Loved ones suffer disease, we find that jobs are temporary, our family members cause heartache, people we care about die—these things are the "swamp."
We are constantly reminded that we live in a fallen world. But we do have a beach. This is not the end.
God never says that life will be easy or free from suffering, however he promises to sustain us through everything. In fact, it is often when we experience trials that we grow closer to God, even though we don’t always feel closer to God. When we go through times of struggle and hardship, God is revealed in new ways as our perspective changes. When things are going well we tend to rely on ourselves. We don’t recognize our need for God.
However, when calamity strikes it is then that we begin to ask the questions:
- Why did this happen?
- How will I get through this?
- Where is God?
- Am I making the right decisions for my life?
- Is there a greater plan?
- What will tomorrow bring?
When we begin to ask the “hard” questions God is always there with the answer in hand. It is in those times where we realize that maybe our priorities haven’t been where they need to be. It is in those trials where we begin to see some of the things that God is doing that were too subtle for us to notice before. It is when we struggle with the burdens of life that we realize that we cannot hope to carry that weight on our own.
I don't know what you might be struggling with. I don't know your pain. I don't know your history. I don't know your regrets.
But I do know you aren't alone in your crawl through the swamp. Hang in there. Just like Mr. Arnold's "chewing cigars," God gives us glimpses that there is something better just outside, but we need to keep our eyes out.
We celebrated Thanksgiving this past week and I hope for all of us that it is a reminder of our many blessings in life. However there is something even greater out there than our blessings of today. There is something even better than the gifts and glimmers of hope we have even now—there is more.
There is purpose in life and hope for what is to come—we're beach people. I believe that is why God sent His son Jesus Christ. So that we might wade through the swamp, and live for the beach that is to come.
Don't let your thanksgiving end on the fourth Thursday of November. Being thankful is a way of life, and when we live life with the salvation from a savior, then Thanksgiving is a glimmer of the joy to come!
Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me; O LORD, be my help. You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my clothes of grief and mourning and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!
The Rev. Ben Black is pastor of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church.