There is nothing more common to all humankind than the experience of loss. It is a pervading part of life from the time we lose the warmth of the womb until we leave on the "Long Journey." So much of life is spent adjusting to losses which range all the way from trivial to catastrophic. There are necessary losses which propel us from one stage of life to the next on the way to maturation. There are little losses which we can usually adjust to with minimal effort and keep our lives in manageable units. There are losses which usually, sooner or later, make some sense in the larger scheme of things. Then there are those losses which overshadow our whole existence and seem to make no sense at all.
Many years ago that longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer said: "A person's heart is a grave long before he or she is buried. Youth dies, and beauty, and hope, and desire. A grave is buried within a grave when a person is buried." You do not have to live very long before you begin to understand that.
Divine judgment, represented by unprecedented loss, was a common theme of Old Testament prophets. There is a vivid example of this in the Book of Joel. He speaks of a plague of such magnitude that no one alive had ever heard or seen anything to equal it. Listen to what Joel says:
"Listen all of you old people; hear me, all of you that live in the land: Has anything like this happened to you in all of your days or in your father's days? Tell it to your children so they may tell their children, and let them pass it on from generation to generation. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left the destroying locust has eaten." (Joel 1:2-4)
Everything was gone! Of course, things would improve. The sun would shine again, and the crops would grow next year, but for then everything was lost. There is nothing more final than the feeling of complete loss at the moment at which it occurs.
Later, in the prophecy of Joel, he makes a promise which is as amazingly unprecedented as the devastating locust plague. He says it in one sentence:
"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten." (Joel 2:25)
Can this be true?! Can anyone, even God, restore the years the locust ate?
Most of my ministry of more than half a century has been spent with people who were trying to cope with some kind of loss, and a sizeable slice of my own discretionary time for 75 years has been spent coping with losses of my own. I would not go so far as to say there is nothing one can do to avoid certain loss experiences, but I will say that there is nothing one can do to avoid loss altogether. Neither wisdom, nor wealth, nor youth, nor fame, nor beauty; no, not even luck can save us from the pain of some kind of significant loss. If you do not believe that, ask the rich and the famous, even the lucky. They will tell you. The manner in which we deal with loss will radically condition the quality, the direction, and perhaps even the length of life.
When we think of loss, our minds instinctively turn to that important and final loss-death. If the only loss we ever had was death, then our lives would be relatively trouble-free. Death is the final loss in our lives, but not necessarily the most painful. All of us know things worse than death. Death can come in a split second, or a few months; but to live for years with the unresolved pain of some significant loss is hell. To realize that you will never achieve some lifelong ambition, or to lose a child, or to lose your dignity or honor, or to lose your health, or to see someone you love lose their health: this can be worse than death.
Most of us have some difficulty coming to terms with the idea that loss is a normal part of life. Our idealized image of what life should be like if it were like it ought to be leaves no room for loss. Deep down, we expect to keep our health, youth, beauty, loved ones, and even our possessions. And how dare anyone assume to take these entitlements from us! We think of loss as abnormal, but it is not. It is only inevitable.
We do not all cope with loss in the same way. There are some who just can't stand to look at their losses. There are towns to which they will not go and streets they avoid because these are places which remind them of some specific painful loss. Then there are some who periodically look at their losses to learn from them and to see if they still represent loss. And, then, there are those who keep hoping and praying it will all go away. They are like the wistful little poem by Louisa Fletcher Tarkington called "The Land of Beginning Again."
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never be put on again.
Now some can take more loss than others without breaking. We do not all have the same threshold of loss toleration. There are some persons and some circumstances in which the burden of loss becomes too much, and they cannot cope with it at all. I read of an elderly man, known to his family as Uncle John. After many generations, Uncle John was the only one in the family left on the farm. But the "glory days" of farming were over. Everything had to be auctioned: animals, machinery, land, and all. Landless, farmless, and rootless, Uncle John moved into a small apartment in town. The loss was too much. One day he did what he had done so many times to old dogs, broken down horses, and infected cows. In one shot he took himself down, making sure he had first washed his dinner dishes and cleaned the kitchen. He left a note saying, in essence: "Too many losses. I had to go home." There are some for whom the burden of loss becomes too much, and we lose them. Be mindful of those persons, especially if you are one of them.
There is nothing more maddening than to be told on the occasion of some significant loss, while the pain is still fresh, that a loss is a blessing in disguise. This tends to trivialize the loss. When World War II ended, the English people heaved a sigh of relief at having been saved on the brink of disaster; and then they did a most incredible thing. They voted out of office the man most responsible for saving them, Sir Winston Churchill. The whole world was shocked, and Churchill was absolutely crushed. He fell into one of his depressed moods which he called the "Black Dog." His wife, Clementine, tried to comfort him. She said to him: "Winston, it is probably a blessing in disguise," to which Churchill replied: "If it is a blessing, it is certainly well disguised."
I do not wish to trivialize the pain of loss that any of you have experienced, but I believe that faith, patience, and reason can save us from some of the pain surrounding loss. And I believe that there is in Christ a spiritual alchemy which can change lead to gold.
The main problem with all of our hypothetical concepts of winning and losing is that we fail to take into account the possible value of losing. We think the only time we win is when we win. But anyone with a sense of history, whether it is world history or personal history, knows there are so many notable paradoxes in this winning and losing business that one had better not count either experience for what it seems to be at the moment.
There is an ancient Chinese parable about an old man who lived with his son in an abandoned fort. One night the old man's horse, "the only horse he had," wandered away. The neighbors all came to say how sorry they were about his misfortune. And he said, "How do you know this is ill fortune?" A week later the horse came home bringing with him a whole herd of wild horses. The neighbors came again and congratulated him on his good fortune. And the old man smiled and asked, "How do you know this is good fortune?" The old man's son took to riding the horses; one day he was thrown and ended up with a crippled leg. And the neighbors appeared again, like the proverbial Greek chorus, to tell him how sorry they were about his bad luck. And the old man asked, "How do you know it is bad luck?" In less than a week, along came a Chinese warlord conscripting all able-bodied men for his private war; but the old man's son, being crippled, missed the draft. Once more the neighbors came to rejoice with him in his good luck, and once more the old man said, "How do you know this is good luck?" Well, the story ends there, but it could go on forever.
There is a significant truth in this parable. How many days do you know in your life which were bad when they happened, but the years have transformed them? The answer to that question should make us all careful about putting a final evaluation on any event in our lives on the day upon which it happens.
What about the losses people suffer which are beyond redemption in this world, such as the people who were killed in the Holocaust, or the child who died before she had a chance at life, or the thousands of children who starve to death each day, or the innocent victims of war? I wish I knew!
There is an ancient Jewish belief that three days before the end of the world, as we know it, Elijah will return to earth and right all wrongs. Those who have unjustly lost anything will have it restored, whether it is their good name or the family farm. Even today there are Jewish people of that tradition who will warn anyone who does them wrong to which they have no recourse: "Wait till Elijah comes."
Now Jesus does not use this image in his promises of justice and judgment, but he uses equally powerful images that make it clear that our losses will not go unnoticed in the final workings of divine judgment. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake," said Jesus, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:10) We believe God is just and will finally square things even if it is in the next dimension of our existence. But, what about now? Is there any winning to be found in all the losing that we've known?
Many years ago Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a little poem entitled, "Along the Road," which has haunted me half a lifetime.
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
And she chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
Then I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne'er a word said she,
But, Oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
Can you hear that? I can and I suspect you can hear it too.
In his book "Beggars in Velvet," Dr. Carlyle Marney tells of reading of a strange scene from the memoirs of an old friend, G. J. Rousseau, who recalled seeing swarming locusts during his boyhood days in South Africa. Billions of insects up to seven inches long swarmed and settled on the crops. In flight they blocked out the sun, and when they descended they destroyed everything in sight. When everything was eaten and they had deposited their eggs in the ground, they died by the millions and piled up in windrows. In the locust years everything was lost. Then Rousseau said, "Something amazing would happen in the year after the locusts came. The most abundant crops ever produced came after the land had been fertilized by the dead bodies of last year's locusts."
We have all had years in our lives in which the locusts came and destroyed everything. And the feeling of loss was more painful at the moment than words can describe. It was the year the baby died, or the year of the divorce, or the year you lost your job, or the year you were sued. It was the year a child brought home a load of trouble, the year of the heart attack or the accident or the stroke. It was the year you lost everything.
If I were to ask you to tell me the one experience in your life from which you learned the most, the experience that really changed your life, you would most likely begin to tell me about the year the locusts came. You likely did not recognize the importance of the experience at the time. You probably prayed to be delivered from it. It is only later that the importance of a locust year begins to dawn on us.
There are so many paradoxes in this business of living that it takes awhile to see what an experience really means. For most of us the locust years eventually become a fertilizing influence which enables us to accomplish what we could have never realized without them. No school teaches us more than the university of adversity.
When the Lord Jesus Christ hung lifeless on the cross 2000 years ago, the victim of the power of Rome and the devious machinations of the religious establishment, when enemies mocked his death and his friends wept bitter tears and even the sun hid its face in shame, who had won-them or him? There is our answer to this business of winning and losing. Do not write your evaluation of an experience on the day on which it happens. It can change. If often does.
Let us pray.
Save us from despair, O Lord, when the losses in our lives push us into the zone of desperation. Let us hear in our hearts the words of assurance from Holy Scripture that you are with us always, always, always. Amen.