His health was failing. A stroke had weakened his left side and affected his memory. Soon after, he became unable to manage the workings of his own body. His emphysema worsened and every breath became a tremendous effort.
I was his priest, and during times when he was in hospital and through therapy, I came to know him well. On one occasion, he told me, “You know what the worst thing is about my condition? It’s not the pain. It’s not the therapy or treatments. It’s not the incontinence or shortness of breath. It’s the feeling of being so dependent. All my life I was in control and now I am in control of nothing!”
What do you do when your life seems beyond control? No doubt we have all felt that way. You are seated in your car on the highway, waiting hours as the authorities deal with an accident blocking the road. Or a tornado hits your community and in less than a minute your world is in shambles. Or you anxiously await an announcement from your employer on whether or not you will continue to have a job. Or the doctor tells you that your condition is terminal.
Think of the hundreds of thousands of people in the New York metropolitan area who have suffered the effects of Superstorm Sandy: the devastated homes without power, the cars crumbled on top of one another, the sand and debris on the streets, the long lines to get a few gallons of gas, and then add to that the refusal of some insurance companies to pay damages because Sandy was technically a “storm” and not a “hurricane” and you begin to understand the feeling of not being in control of life.
How do we cope when life seems beyond control? This issue runs through the Book of Daniel. The Jewish people were in exile. Jerusalem was a pile of rubble. The temple was burned to the ground. The monarchy was ended. Every symbol of Jewish life and identity was gone. No wonder the people felt helpless, hopeless, abandoned: things were beyond their control.
And yet, God was still in control. That is the message of the Book of Daniel. Yes, there will be tough times. There will be plenty of trials and tribulations. There will be periods, as American poet James Russell Lowell put it, when “truth is on the scaffold and wrong upon the throne.” Life will be full of ambiguity with questions we can’t answer and a future we can’t envision. But God does not turn away from us or leave us to fend for ourselves. Whether we believe it or not, whether events indicate it or not, whether it is obvious or not, God is in control.
Now, if you believe this to be true, then no matter what happens in your life, you still have choices. Daniel and his friends had choices on how to respond to a hostile world, and so do we.
One of the most helpless situations we might face is when we are in the hospital. When you go into the hospital, everything is done to you. You’re told to go here, to go there. They prick your finger, they stick your arm and they take you into this room for an MRI and you wait three hours. They take you over there, and you wait another three hours. Everything is being done to you. They wake you in the middle of the night and give you a sleeping pill. Everything is being done to you! Yet, even in that kind of situation, we do have choices.
I love the story of Norman Cousins, who was admitted to the hospital with a very serious illness. He said that on the first day at the hospital, four different people came by and drew blood. He thought to himself, “A man with an incurable disease does not need to have four slugs of blood taken from him every day.” The next day he put a sign on the door that read, “I will give blood once every three days. If you want it, be here!” He still had choices.
Even in the most helpless of situations, we have choices. We have the choice of calling forth our resources, of tapping that inner strength we didn’t even know was there, of using all the gifts and talents that God has given us. We have the choice of never denying our dignity, of refusing to demean our humanity, of never abandoning the quest for meaning and purpose and significance. We can choose to believe that life is good even when things go bad. Bitterness, cynicism and despair never have to have the last word in our lives.
But ultimately, our greatest choice when our life seems beyond control is to trust God. What Daniel did not know, but what we now know, is that Jesus Christ has won the victory. He has won the victory in order that we might win the victory. In Jesus, we know that God is love, and love leads to life. In Jesus, we know that the light of the world shines even in the darkness. In Jesus, we know that at the centre of the universe is not a black hole but the warm embrace of eternal love.
When I was a young college student at Fordham University, I learned the story of the Roman Catholic saint, Joseph Pignatelli. He was a faithful and pious Italian Jesuit priest who was heartbroken when the Pope suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773. Trusting in the providence of God, Joseph managed to remain faithful to his Jesuit vocation and found many ways to keep in contact with the dispersed members of the society. He died three years before Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus on August 7, 1814.
In one particularly difficult period in Joseph’s life, when he was coping with the reality that the Jesuit order no longer existed, he wrote this prayer:
My God, I do not know what must come to me today. But I am certain that nothing can happen to me that you have not foreseen, decreed, and ordained from all eternity. That is sufficient for me. I adore your impenetrable and eternal designs, to which I submit with my whole heart. I desire, I accept them all, and I unite my sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ, my divine Saviour. I ask in his name and through his infinite merits, patience in my trials, and perfect and entire submission to all that comes to me by your good pleasure.
Years later I met a man who had the same kind of faith as Joseph Pignatelli. Bob Williamson was a dear friend and Presbyterian minister who served a neighbouring church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After an all too short retirement, Bob was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His world was breaking apart, but Bob had this quiet trust in God that never seemed to waver. When I last saw Bob at his home just weeks before his death, he told me how he was handling the situation. He said, “I just prayed to God, ‘God, here I am committed to you. I am here to do your will, no matter what.’ ”
Once that decision is made to hand everything over to God, the rest is secondary. Because we will always be under God’s control. That’s what the Book of Daniel says. In fact, if you read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you will discover that history ends just fine. That’s the good news for you and me as Christians. We are on the winning side. God will carry us through the ups and downs of life into a life of perfect peace with him.
Call me sentimental, but I love the poem written by the American writer Carolyn Joyce Carty about a man who had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of the man’s life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that, many times along the path of his life, there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it: “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would leave me.”
The Lord replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Dear friends: that’s God’s promise to you. When everything seems beyond your control, Jesus who loves you always and forever will keep his word. He will never abandon you, or forsake you. He will carry you when you cannot carry yourself, bear you up when you feel broken down, sustain you, strengthen you and lift you with a love that will never let you go. For with Jesus, life is never beyond control.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.