It wasn’t my sermons that made her smile

Isaac Asimov tells the story of a rough ocean crossing during which a Mr. Jones became terribly seasick. At an especially rough time, a kindly steward patted Jones on the shoulder and said, “I know, sir, that it seems awful. But remember, no one ever died of sea-sickness.”

Mr. Jones lifted his green countenance to the steward’s concerned face and replied, “Man, don’t say that! It’s only the wonderful hope of dying that’s keeping me alive!”

Hope — it is what keeps us alive. Hope that in life as in death God is with us; hope that we can make a difference with our lives; hope that God’s love is more powerful than the worst case of sea-sickness, than the worst illness, than the pain and suffering we face in life, than even death.

A longtime member of the church I serve died after a long and lingering illness. She had suffered more than seemed fair or reasonable. She lost all ability to talk and could communicate only by nodding her head. But even as she faced death — and this is why I’m writing you about her — she radiated hope whenever I saw her. Her warm smile still lit up a room. As she radiated life even in the face of death, she renewed my faith by her hope.

I began thinking back over the time I had known her. When she was able to come to church on Sunday mornings, she would always sit in the second pew from the front, in full view of the pulpit. What I remembered was this: that although even then she was suffering from macular degeneration and had little sight, she always beamed as she looked up at me. At first I thought that maybe she really liked my preaching! But as time went on, I realized that she beamed the same way during the weakest message as she did the best ones I could muster. No, it didn’t have anything to do with my sermons.

Then one day, as she lay in her hospital bed, she explained it. I told her that I was always inspired by her smile and the look of such joy on her face. “Oh,” she responded, “that’s because when I look up at whoever is preaching on a Sunday morning, I can see the Lord, right behind them.” Finally I began to understand the hope and the joy that never left her, all the way to her last day.

I want to be a little more like that, in these days when it’s easy to grumble about everything from politics to the economy to our own aches and pains (what an older friend of mine calls the “organ recital” — you know, what’s wrong with this organ or that). I want to be one of those people who really does “give thanks in everything,” one of those who always manages to find some good news within the bad, one of those who has a gift for encouraging others. I’d love to think that I had the gift of giving hope.

In fact, if you’re having a tough day today, I wish I could borrow my friend’s smile and shine it on you. I know. After all, it used to do me a world of good.

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