Our cups were filled halfway with coffee and the other half with hazelnut flavored cream, crumbly bran muffins from Elmer’s county market sat on our napkins. We sat across the table from each other, chatting and laughing, buttering our muffins and enjoying each other’s company just like we had almost every Saturday morning throughout my elementary and high school years. Now, nearly 10 years later, not much has changed outwardly. I still return home to Upper Michigan frequently to see her and share diluted coffee and crumbly muffins. She still has the same clear blue eyes and sweet, wrinkly faced smile. Her gentle fingers, despite being crooked and overtaken by arthritis, still do everything she needs them to do, though occasionally she pauses to relieve a cramp and straighten one out. Her dining room table, now located in her apartment at an assisted living home, is still strewn with newspaper clippings and half-opened mail. Our friendship, though 58 years between us, is still just as close and cherished.
Looking on, everything seems the same, but as our conversation carries on, it is easy to hear that nothing is the same. Our conversations now go in circles, continuously returning to the same set of questions regarding when I am leaving town, where I moved to, or why her brother (who passed away years ago) won’t get her a new set of checks, though, according to her, she has reminded him again and again. On a good day, she remembers I am married and have two children, she also will remember that I moved away years ago to Kentucky, but has no recollection of travelling to visit me two years ago. These things are all okay with me—I don’t mind reminding her over and over because even on a not so good day, she knows my name, and this I treasure. I fear the day that instead of an excited exclamation of “Britts! I’m so glad you are here!” I walk into her room only to see her clear, blue eyes confused by my arrival. I feel this day quickly encroaching as I watch dementia rapidly stealing this dear woman from me. In some ways, I already feel as though I have lost her. And yet, she is still here with me, healthy and strong in body (for an 87 year old woman) but weak and wasting away in her mind. It is heartbreaking indeed but I cherish each day we have together—circular conversations and all.
Besides witnessing the sadness of dementia this past year, I have also walked with my dad as he underwent radiation for his battle with cancer, I continue to watch my mom walk with a dear friend suffering from a terrible condition called MSA (Multiple Systems Atrophy), and I continue to grieve with my family after the tragic and heartbreaking loss of my uncle one year ago. The list could go on. Death and disease surround us and as I process this heavy reality, it has been tempting for me to throw my hands up in confusion and despair. Many attempt to ignore these sad realities, paste a smile over their aching heart and carry on. I can’t do this however. I can’t ignore the sadness and wasting away that surrounds me and thankfully God doesn’t expect us to. Instead, he encourages us to look at it, square in the face with all its misery and gloom, and then he calls us to lift our eyes up, looking through the sadness, to the glorious realities that exist in spite of it all.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 it says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Here Paul, who experienced great suffering, pleads with the Corinthians to not lose heart even though they are faced with affliction on every side. Paul doesn’t ignore the reality that things outwardly are wasting away—our brain, lungs, heart and bones, and the brain, lungs, heart and bones of those we love are wasting away, literally being destroyed, infected or eaten away. It seems like a morbid thing to say but in one sense all human beings begin to die as soon as they are born. We are all in the process of wasting away and yet Paul tells us we are not to despair. He gives two main reasons in this passage why we shouldn’t.
1: Suffering is temporary for those who follow Jesus
First, he explains that for those who place their trust in Jesus, suffering is not the end. Pain will not get the final word for those who trust in Jesus. Despite the suffering Christians walk through now, the future is always bright with hope because Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life and died the death that we deserve. He took away the just punishment and eternal suffering that awaits all humans because of our sin. The sorrow that we experience here on earth will end at some point and not only will it end, it will give way to eternal rest, joy and glory. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death, disease, pain and suffering will pass away, and all things will be made new (Revelation 21:4-5).
2: Pain has a Purpose for those who trust in Jesus
The second thing Paul explains is that for the Christian, pain and suffering are not without purpose. In verse 17 it describes that our affliction is accomplishing something, whether it is cancer, depression, a sinus infection, dementia, or a broken bone. As this outer body breaks and decays, there is an inner self that is being renewed each day, an inward work happening—refining us, breaking down our pride, ridding us of self-reliance, greed and selfishness. In the furnace of affliction we are being made more like Christ and prepared for a future glory. This glory, unlike the temporary affliction, will last forever. It won’t waste away, be taken over by disease or stolen by death. This future reality awaiting us is so great that Paul even dares to call our pain and suffering “light and momentary”. When you hold the affliction you are experiencing now next to what awaits you, it will pale in comparison. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul tells us that what awaits the Christian is beyond our imagination—“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Jesus is the only one who offers hope in the midst of disease, depression, and dementia. He gives life—new life, new bodies, free from death and decay. He is a faithful God who conquered death and is now at work even in your affliction. He is faithful and will not forsake those who cry to him. Every moment of your pain, though you can’t see it, is meaningful and bringing about something glorious, both now and in the life to come. When all is said and done, when death comes and it seems as though disease has gotten the final word, for those who are in Christ, it is only the beginning. True life, everlasting life, begins.
There will likely be a day when my dear, sweet Mrs. Meehan forgets my name. But when that day comes, there will be strength and grace to meet us and we will sit and drink coffee and crumbly muffins, and I will tell her of the day that is coming for those who trust in Christ, a day when she will be given a new mind, a day when she won’t forget where she lives, where her purse is or what my name is. There will be no more funerals to attend, no more goodbyes to say, no more catheters to be put in and no more radiation to drive to. I will remind her that this world is passing away, a new one is coming and if we trust in Christ one day we’ll have new bodies and new minds. Then as I butter another muffin, I will tell her again, and again and again.
This is the storm, the storm before the calm
This is the pain, the pain before the balm
This is the cold, the cold before the warm
These are the tears, the tears before the song
This is the dark before the dawn