So far in our illustrations of the paradox of story we have largely been tapping our Jewish heritage. This is for two reasons. One, is that this remains our heritage and we should be reminded of it. Secondly, neither the sharing of stories or paradox is alien to Christian tradition. The fourth story of paradox we share is that triumph grows out of suffering.
Indeed the cornerstone of our faith is in the central story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paradox is firmly in the gospel tradition. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever who would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses it for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-26). It is precisely in suffering that God is known and is present. That is why in exile the prophet Isaiah could speak of hope and proclaim that God’s will shall still achieve its purpose. He will use the suffering of his people for the salvation of all. This conviction of ultimate triumph beyond current disaster lies behind the following stories. And it is the conviction that provides the basis for the peace and tranquility of the stories’ characteristic in the face of personal trauma.
Rabbi Akieba took a trip to a strange land. He took an ass, a rooster, and a lamp. Since he was a Jew he was refused hospitality in the village inns, so he decided to sleep in the woods. He lit his lamp to study the Holy Book before going to sleep. But a fierce wind came up knocking over the lamp and breaking it. So he decided to turn in, saying, “All that God does he does well.” During the night some wild animals came along and drove away the rooster and thieves stole the ass. Rabbi Akieba woke up, saw the loss, but still proclaimed easily, “All that God does, he does well!”
Finally, let me share a moving story from Father John Powell on the same theme.
Some years ago, I stood watching my university students’ file into the classroom for our first session in the Theology of Faith. That was the day I first saw Tommy. My eyes and my mind both blinked. He was combing his long hair, which hung all the way down to his shoulders. It was the first time I had ever seen a boy with hair that long. I guess it was just coming into fashion then. I know in my mind that it isn’t what’s on your head but in it that counts, but on that day I was unprepared and my emotions flipped. I immediately filed Tommy under “S” for strange . . . very strange.
Tommy turned out to be the “atheist in residence” in my Theology of Faith course. He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Father God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admit he was at times a pain in the back pew. When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, he asked in a slightly cynical tone: “Do you think I’ll ever find God?” I decided on a little shock therapy. “No!” I said emphatically. “Oh,” he responded, “I thought that was the product you were pushing.” I let him get five steps from the classroom door and then called out: “Tommy! I don’t think you’ll ever find him, but I’m absolutely certain he will find you!” He shrugged a little and left my class and my life. I was a bit disappointed that he missed my clever line.
Later, I heard that Tommy had graduated and I was duly grateful. Then I had a sad report Tommy had terminal cancer. Before I could search him out, he came to see me. When he walked into my office, his body was badly wasted, and the long hair had all fallen out as a result of chemotherapy. But his eyes were bright and his voice was firm, for the first time, I think.
“Tommy, I’ve thought about you so often. I hear you are sick!” I blurted out.
“O yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. It’s a matter of weeks.”
“Can you talk about it, Tom . . .?”
“Sure. What would you like to know?”
“What’s it like to be only 24 and dying?”
“Well, it could be worse.”
“Well, like being 50 and having no values or ideals, like being 50 and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real “biggies” in life.”
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under “S” where I had filed Tom as Strange. (It seems everybody I try to reject by classification God sends back into my life to educate me.)
“But what I really came to see you about,” Tom said, “is something you said to me the last day of class. I asked if you thought I would ever find God and you said, “No!” which surprised me. Then you said, “But he will find you,” I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was not at all intense . . . at that time.
“But when the doctors removed a lump from my groin and told me it was malignant, I got serious about locating God. And when the malignancy spread to my vital organs, I really began banging bloody fists against the bronze doors of heaven. But God did not come out. In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long time with great effort and with no success? You get psychologically glutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit. Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more appeals over that high brick wall to a God who may or may not be there, I just quit. I decided that I didn’t really care . . . about God, about an afterlife, or anything like that.
“I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more profitable. I thought about you and your class, and I remembered something else you said: ‘The essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave without ever telling those you loved that you loved them.’ So I began with the hardest one, my dad.”
“He was reading the newspaper when I approached him.”
“Yes, what?” he asked without lowering the newspaper.
“Dad, I would like to talk with you.”
“I mean . . . it’s really important.”
The newspaper came down three slow inches. “What is it?”
“Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that.”
Tom smiled at me, and said with obvious satisfaction, as though he felt a warm and secret joy flowing inside of him: “The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could not remember him ever doing before. He cried, and he hugged me. And we talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning. It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me.
“It was easier with my mother and little brother. They cried with me too, and we hugged each other and started saying real nice things to each other. We shared the things we had been keeping secret for so many years. I was only sorry about one thing - that I had waited so long. Here I was, in the shadow of death, and I was just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to.
“Then one day I turned around, and God was there. He didn’t come to me when I pleaded with him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop. ‘C’mon, jump through. C’mon, I’ll given you three days . . . three weeks.’ Apparently, God does things in his own way and at his own hour.
“But the important thing is that he was there. He found me. You were right. He found me even after I stopped looking for him.”
“Tommy,” I practically gasped, “I think you are saying something very important and much more universal than you realize. To me, at least, you are saying that the surest way to find God is not to make him a private possession, a problem-solver, or an instant consolation in time of need, but rather by opening yourself to his love.
“Tom, could I ask you a favor? Would you come into my present Theology of Faith course and tell them what you have just told me? If I told them the same thing, it wouldn’t be half as effective as if you were to tell them.”
“Oooh . . . I was ready for you, but I don’t know if I’m ready for your class.”
“Tom, think about it. If and when you are ready, give me a call.”
In a few days Tommy called, said he was ready for the class, that he wanted to do that for God and for me. So we scheduled a date. The day came, but he never made it.
Truly, he who loses his life for my sake will find it. Triumph grows out of suffering."