During the Second World War, German paratroopers invaded the island of Crete. When they landed at Maleme, the islanders met them, bearing nothing other than kitchen knives and hay scythes. The consequences of resistance were devastating. The residents of entire villages were lined up and shot.
Overlooking the airstrip today is an institute for peace and understanding founded by a Greek man named Alexander Papaderous. Papaderous was just six years old when the war started. He home village was destroyed and he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. When the war ended, he became convinced his people needed to let go of the hatred the war had unleashed. To help the process, he founded his institute at this place that embodied the horrors and hatreds unleashed by the war.
One day, while taking questions at the end of a lecture, Papaderous was asked, “What’s the meaning of life?” There was nervous laughter in the room. It was such a weighty question. But Papaderous answered it.
He opened his wallet, took out a small, round mirror and held it up for everyone to see. During the war he was just a small boy when he came across a motorcycle wreck. The motorcycle had belonged to German soldiers. Alexander saw pieces of broken mirrors from the motorcycle lying on the ground. He tried to put them together but couldn’t, so he took the largest piece and scratched it against a stone until its edges were smooth and it was round. He used it as a toy, fascinated by the way he could use it to shine light into holes and crevices.
He kept that mirror with him as he grew up, and over time it came to symbolise something very important. It became a metaphor for what he might do with his life.
I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world–into the black places in the hearts of men–and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.
Robert Fulgham, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It
Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.
In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is Too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.
Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big a view of God’s love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that “A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations.”
Source: Adapted from Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)
In 1927 the wife of Scottish preacher Arthur Gossip died suddenly. When he returned to the pulpit he preached a sermon titled “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” In that sermon Gossip compared life to watching a plane pass through the sky during wartime. There you are, lying on your back watching a plane fly gracefully across a brilliant sunlit blue sky when all of a sudden it is blown apart by gunfire and falls to earth a tumbling, tangled mess of metal. Only on this occasion the gunfire was the tragically unexpected death of his beloved wife.
Gossip went on to explain that he didn’t understand this life, but what he did know was that during this darkest period of his life he needed his faith more than ever. “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.” Without his faith there was no hope.
Source: Reported in Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker 1987). Hans sourced the sermon from Arthur Gossip, The Hero in Thy Soul (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930)
Roy Campanella was one of the first African Americans to play in the US Baseball major leagues. In a distinguished career he won the Brooklyn Dodgers Most Valued Player award many times, and in 1955 was in the team that won the World Series.
But in January 1958 his career was cut short after a car crash left him a quadriplegic. After he was injured he spent a lot of time in the Institute of Physical medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City. One day he stopped to read a gold plaque upon one of the walls, and for someone who had been blessed with such athletic gifts it resonated deeply within him:
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey…
I asked for health that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity that might do better things…
I asked for riches that I might be happy,
I was given poverty that I might be wise…
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God…
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things…
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed!
Source: Scott Higgins, using information from Baseball Library.com and Chicken Soup for the Soul.
What should have been a joyous occasion turned into a nightmare of grief. Randy Hoyt watched helplessly as his wife Kris went into hospital for an emergency Caesarean section operation when only 5 months pregnant. The bleeding was tremendous. Kris required 30 units of blood. As the doctors battled to save her life Randy cried out to God “God, what do you want? I know you can heal her; why don’t you?”
God didn’t heal her. Kris and 16 days later their prematurely born daughter Grace lost her struggle for life. Randy was left the single parent of six children.
“What about our plans, God?” he asked. “Who will teach the kids, guide them, and love them like their mother?”
Randy soon found out. A program was started which became known as “Help Bring Hope to the Hoyt Kids.” Over the next six months, hundreds of people worked, sent money, donated meals and supplies and poured love into Randy’s family. Randy received more than 500 letters, e-mails and cards from people who said they were praying for us.
At the end of the six months the medical bills are all paid, the mortgage has been paid and Randy is back at work. God did not save his wife, but God’s love was ministered to Randy and his children in deeply profound ways after Kris’ death.
The pain of Kris’ and Grace’s death of course remained. Yet when he started to sink into despair Randy could imagine the two of them in heaven together, fully alive, healthy and full of joy. “See her as she is now,” he felt the Holy Spirit saying. “She is alive.”
Reflecting upon his experience Chris says, “I asked God for the life of my wife; I received instead a lesson on the nature of God. God is good. Armed with that knowledge, I have no fear for today or the future. God will always be enough…for any situation.”
Source: reported by Randy Hoyt, “Seeing God,” Pentecostal Evangel, January 21, 2001, pp.14-15
In the summer of 1967, Joni Erickson and her sister rode their horses to the Chesapeake Bay to go for a swim. The result was tragic. Joni dived into shallow water, struck her head on a rock and became a quadriplegic. She is paralysed from the neck down.
During two years of often painful rehabilitation Joni learned how to paint with her mouth, and what this disability meant for her faith. At times Joni was angry with God, demanding to know why he let this happen, even at times wishing she hadn’t survived. But in the years since Joni has learned that it is in her weakness that God’s strength can shine through. She has been a source of enormous blessing to people all over the world as she shares the faith that sustains her.
At first Joni found it impossible to reconcile her condition with her belief in a loving God. But one night Joni became convinced God did understand. The catalyst was a good friend who said to her, “Joni, Jesus knows how you feel. He was paralysed. He couldn’t move or change position on the cross. He was paralysed by the nails.” The realization was profoundly comforting. “God became incredibly close to me and eventually I understood that He loves me. I had no other identity but God, and gradually He became enough,” stated Joni. “I prayed for healing and truly believed it would come. The Bible speaks of our bodies’ being glorified’. Now I realize I will be healed; I’m just going through a forty or fifty year delay, and God stays with me even through that.”
Source: Joni and friends website, Joni’s books
In December 1985 the United States NBC TV News ran a week long feature on it’s evening news program. The advertising in the lead up showed a child praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, what about the earthquake in Mexico City, the Japan Airline crash that killed 520 people, the AIDS epidemic, and the starvation in Africa?” The advertisement finished with this tag line: “Is God punishing us?”
Source: Advertisement reported in Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987),
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.
Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a young Albanian. He removes his shirt to reveal a bullet scarred back. ‘ In Kosovo we endured terror… shootings… torture!’
In another group an aged aboriginal woman pulls a crumpled, tear stained photograph from her pocket. ‘What about this?’ she demanded, ‘This is my precious child. I have not seen her since the day she was stolen away for no crime but being black!’
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer’ she murmured, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in this world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!
‘Let him be born into a hated race. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
‘At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Elie Wiesel was a survivor of the dreaded Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. He wrote of his experiences in the book The Night. In that book he relates the harrowing story of two Jewish men and a Jewish boy hanged alongside one another. Having mounted the stairs the two adults cried, “long live liberty”, but the boy was silent. Behind Wiesel someone desperately asked “Where is God” Where is He?” The chairs the victims were standing on were kicked out from under them and the three hung there. The adults died quickly, but the boy’s weight wasn’t great enough to snap his neck immediately. For more than half an hour he hung there, dying in slow agony before their eyes. Again Wiesel heard the question “Where is God now?” And standing there Wiesel heard a voice within himself answer: “Where is he? Here he is. He is hanging here on this gallows.”
When Wiesel said it was God hanging on the gallows he indicated the death of his faith. Faith in God died with that hanging child. But there is another interpretation, that God suffers with those who suffer, seen most visibly in the death of Christ hanging on his own gallows, the cross.
Source: Elie Wiesel, The Night (1969). Reported in Moltmann, The Crucified God and Stott, The Cross of Christ.
The movie Amistad tells the story of a group of African slaves who seize control of their slave-ship and demand to be returned to their homeland. The captain instead takes them to an American seaport where they are imprisoned.
As they await the judge’s verdict one of the men, Yamba, sits in a corner of the prison cell thumbing through the pages of a bible.
Cinque, the leader of the group, looks over and says, “You don’t have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody’s watching but me.”
After a brief moment Yamba looks up. “I’m not pretending. I’m beginning to understand it” he says. He cannot read the writing – English is foreign to him – but he can make sense of the pictures. When Cinque comes over to see for himself Yamba explains the story in their native language. “Their people have suffered more than ours” he says. Showing Cinque a picture of Jews being attacked by lions, he continues, “Their lives were full of suffering.”
Then Yamba flips the page and points to a picture of the baby Jesus, crowned with a halo of light, “Then he was born and everything changed.”
Cinque asks, “Who is he?”
Yamba replies that he doesn’t know, but that the child must be special. He moves through the pictures of Jesus. He points to a picture of Jesus riding on a donkey, praised by onlookers. A golden orb forms a halo around Jesus. “Everywhere he goes” says Yamba, “he is followed by the sun.”
Picture after picture the same theme emerges. Light surrounds Jesus as he heals people with his hands, as he protects an outcast woman, as he embraces children.
But this is not the end of the story. “Something happened” says Yamba. “He was captured, accused of some crime.”
Cinque shakes his head back and forth and insists, “He must have done something.”
Yamba says, “Why? What did we do?… Do you want to see how they killed him?”
Yamba is now getting very emotional. Cinque reminds him, “This is just a story, Yamba.”
Yamba shakes his head in protest. This man’s death was real. “But look” he says. “That’s not the end of it. His people took his body down from…” Yamba pauses and draws a cross in the air.
“They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again…and he spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky.”
“This is where the soul goes when you die here. This is where we’re going when they kill us.” Stroking a picture that depicts heaven, Yamba concludes, “It doesn’t look so bad.”
Kilmer Meyers was the pastor of a church in Manhattan, USA. One of the more disturbing aspects of his pastorate was a woman named Emma who used to stand outside the church every day at 4pm and scream insults at Jesus. Emma’s pain was understandable – she was a survivor of the Holocaust. One day Bishop Meyers went outside and said to Emma, “Why don’t you go inside and tell him?” She disappeared into the church.
An hour went by and Emma had not returned. The bishop was worried and decided to look in on her. He found Emma, lying before the cross, absolutely still. Reaching down, he touched her shoulder. She looked up with tears in her eyes and said quietly, “After all, he was a Jew too.”
Source: Reported in Maggie Ross, The Fire of Your Life.