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Published by info, 2015-11-18 17:16:19

Going Through Vallyes

Going Through Valleys
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23).
Two Sermons
Why...And Why Not? and
Life Re-De ned
by
Dr. R. F. Smith Jr., Senior Minister Fifth Avenue Baptist Church Huntington, West Virginia
Preached March 1981, Fifth Avenue Baptist Preached August 1983, Chautauqua, New York
Dedicated To
Robert Forest Smith III
Faye T. Smith
Rebecca Smith Galli
Rachel Smith Clay
Fifth Avenue Baptist Church Healers in the Valley and
The Host of Fellow Travelers Whose Response Proved a Healing Balm
Edited and Published November 1994


'Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.
~Tennyson


Foreword
On September 3, 1978, Robert Forest Smith III, our only son, had a water skiing accident on Lake Hickory in North Carolina.
For eight days our seventeen-year-old son lay in an unconscious state at Baptist Hospital, Winston-Salem, where the best minds in medical science struggled to save his life. Word of his accident and critical condition spread over the country. Forest was a school and church leader, serving as president of Hickory High School student body and president of Southern Association of Student Councils. Thousands of people joined us in prayer for his recovery. Unbroken prayer chains enveloped us–his mother Faye, and his sisters, Becky and Rachel–giving us the hourly strength we needed.
Physicians soon indicated the hopelessness of his condition, intimating that should he recover physically, his brain had suffered so much damage there was little chance he would be the Forest we had known and loved so deeply.
Our prayers then asked that the transitional Angel Death would make a merciful call and take the damaged body of our son into that “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” where wholeness and completeness would be his once again.
At 1:05 a.m., September 12, 1978, our prayers were answered. He was never in pain, for that we are grateful. The damage to his brain was so extensive the physicians were amazed he survived the accident, let alone surviving for eight days. But we think the eight days were a gift of God, enabling us to prepare ourselves for the inevitable end. God showed us the options, none of which looked good. During the eight days, with the prayers and presence of caring, hurting people, we gathered up the armor of our faith and were able to walk, if not march, in the valley of the shadow of death.
Shortly following this tragedy in our lives, I wrote for publication the following statement:
We are Christians, not Stoics. We hurt deeply. We question why? What happened to our son is not hard to understand–it's impossible! We cry,


struggle, feel empty and cry some more and some more. Much good is already coming through this tragedy, and for that we are grateful. But no amount of good can replace the warmness of his body, his mind, his soul, his personality. We will always hurt, he will always be missed, and a part of us will never be the same again. But we shall make it. We have touched the bottom, and it is solid.
Soon after Forest’s death, I became pastor of Huntington’s Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. The love and care of this great congregation helped our family nd healing and purpose again in our lives. It was nearly three years later before I could approach in a sermon the tragedy we had experienced. The two sermons in this booklet–Why...And Why Not? and Life Re-De ned–were my efforts at that time, March of 1981.
In 1983, as Preacher of the Week at Chautauqua, New York, I delivered both sermons, after which the late Dr. Karl Menninger asked me to join him for after-meal coffee, an experience that highlighted my week there following every meal. Sharing with this great Christian and psychiatrist brought more healing.
Hospice of Huntington for many years used tapes of these two sermons in their ministry with families losing loved ones. The sermons have been reproduced hundreds of times on tape, and thousands of people have listened
to my hurts and attempts to nd healing. The fact that so many people have expressed appreciation for my efforts has helped my own healing process. Maybe healing is also found in sharing.
As you read these sermons, be aware that they were written at a time when I was hurting deeply, and very fragile in mind and soul. I had read many books during the intervening three years. And made notes. Some of those notes appear in these sermons, especially Life Re-De ned. At this writing–some 13 years later–I cannot adequately give credit to those whose thoughts and concepts helped with my healing and appear in this manuscript. I apologize to them for my inability to distinguish what is mine and what is theirs.
The late Dr. Ralph Sackman helped me tremendously through his writings. Later, preaching for a week at Chautauqua, New York, I learned why he helped me so much. After preaching Life Re-Defmed there–and citing quotes from Dr. Sockman–the director of the religious program at that famous retreat told me that Dr. Sockman preached often from the pulpit where I had just delivered the sermon. It was only then I learned that Dr. Sackman had also lost a child! Then I could understand why he spoke so realistically to my hurt.
As the late Dr. Edward Hughes Pruden, pastor of Washington, D.C.’s First Baptist church for over three decades, put it in a letter to our family following Forest’s death: “You have now joined an elite society of parents who have lost children.” Dr. and Mrs. Pruden also lost a son.


The French Proverb is right:
“To suffer passes; to have suffered never passes.”
R. F. Smilli Jr. Senior Minister Fifth Avenue Bapist Church Huntington, West Virginia
~~~~~~~~~~~
November 10, 1994 Forest’s thirty-fourth birthday


Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many
of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it,
she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord,
if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
John 11:17-37


Why...And Why Not?
(John 11: 37)
In 1978 we watched and prayed as a ne team of neurosurgeons with the Boman-Gray School of Medicine,
assisted by other medical personnel
in Winston-Salem's Baptist Hospital,
struggled for eight days to save the life of our 17-year-old son. But they lost the battle.
A few days later I received a letter written by the head of that neurosurgical team.
He shared his deepest regrets and frustrations over not being able to–as he said–do anything for our son.
Then he got into what I gured to be the real purpose of his letter. “'Tell me,” he wrote, and you could feel honest searching
even in the strokes of the typewriter.
“Tell me why this happened to a young man like your son.
I live with tragedy every day, always on the edge of death. Can you tell me why such things happen,
especially to young people?”
He wrote for nearly a page, venting his frustrations
and birthing his questions.
Then he ended with a sentence that summed up the import of his letter.
“'You are a minister; can you tell me why bad things like this happen?”
I sat down in the middle of my own grief–
grief that had about covered everything I had
except a shaft of faith that was keeping me on course– and tried to minister to the young physician
who had ministered so faithfully to our son.
I began with a statement given me by then-president of Wake Forest University, Dr. James Ralph Scales,
who lost his daughter when she was nineteen.
Our mutual good friend and minister, the late Dr. Carlyle Marney,
wrote Dr. Scales:
“Nothing in all our divine studies prepares us
for something like this.”
I cannot answer your questions, I wrote the young physician. I have some ideas, thoughts, and concepts
that have developed over the years.
I must use them as you use medicine at the hospital–
as a supplement to healing,


bringing not healing but dulling of sharp pain,
trying to make the patient as comfortable as possible
until the healing processes work their miracles.
When Bad Things Happen
So I shared with him some of my ideas about
why bad things happen to us and our loved ones.
Death, devastation, loss, pain, hardship– all these negative experiences
that y under the adverb-banner why–
happen because we live as un nished people in an un nished world
where God promises us not safety, but challenge and growth and learning.
We can say–when the adverb why pricks us with the sharp points of its question mark, shaped like a razor-tempered shhook–that
God has given us total freedom, complete liberty of choice, and therefore cannot grant us complete safety and total freedom,
not both and at the same time.
In our better moments we know that we live in a world where disease is rampant,
with bodies that are always susceptible to disease.
And we live in a world where accidents are possible, and fractions of inches and split seconds
determine safety or accident– just that quickly, just that arbitrarily.
The theological list of “Why bad things happen” is long. And theologians can add more,
enough to cover our confusion (or add to it)
under their favorite topic, “The problem of evil in the world.”
So I concluded my letter to the searching doctor, knowing that I had not answered his question,
no more than I had answered my own.
There are no real answers, only continuing questions. And even if we could answer the why,
the pain over our loss would not be eliminated.
I learned, in this deep valley, that while knowledge may be power,
it does not eliminate pain.
Maybe life is best marked not by nding answers, but living the questions!


Why Does Not God...?
A few weeks later, during my private Bible study,
I was reading in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11,
about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus and dear friends to Jesus,
had sent for the Master when their brother was sick. But Jesus delayed coming.
In the meantime, Lazarus died.
As Jesus approached Lazarus’ tomb,
some of the people standing around the tomb said:
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (Jn. 11:37)
I lined and underlined that question.
Through tear-blurred eyes I wrote, “How about my son, also?” For weeks I could not get beyond that verse of scripture;
that pricking, prodding, question that caused my insides to roll–not in faith–but anger.
But the question, “Why do bad things happen?” fades into philosophical background
when you raise the theological question:
Could not God have kept this bad thing from happening?
Your faith makes you answer that question, “Yes, Jesus could have kept him from dying.”
Then you expand that answer–
if you believe in the all-powerfulness of God–to say,
“He could have kept my loved one from dying!”
That makes the whole matter, and all the questions, harder. Why do bad things happen? becomes simple diet
for philosophical appetites.
But add to that,
“If God can keep bad things from happening, why doesn’t he?”
and you are in a whole new ballgame.
Ask, Why, and you can gtve some logical answers.
But ask, Why Not, and it gets sticky.
And that “Why didn’t God do it?” kept me grazing and gazing in an out-back pasture much longer than I wanted.
I couldn’t get away from it. I could not move on.


And these why’s and why not’s haunt, hinder, confuse, and almost devastate us at every turn
when something happens that’s not supposed to happen.
Why...and why did God not? scream at us from delivery rooms
when little, helpless babies come into the world minus normalities;
when we stand on military battlegrounds, complete with monuments marking bravery,
and crosses and stars marking graves of the country’s nest; when ravages of age cripple aging bodies beyond recognition.
When hunger and disease and hatred and pestilence and earthquakes and tornados and plane crashes and ships sinking
combine to bring pain and loneliness and devastation,
we cry, “My God, why?” And, “My God, why not stop it?”
With Lazarus’ mourners, we ask,
“Could not he have kept this man from dying?
Could not he have kept these tragic things from happening?” We answer Yes.
Then we ask, “Why didn’t he?”
We can give some answers. Maybe.
God cannot violate his own principles, we can say,
not even to keep our loved ones safe.
Perhaps granting recovery does not serve God’s purpose for our loved
ones, we ponti cate.
And most important, we can safely say
that God sees what we can’t see,
knows what we can never know this side of heaven;
maybe then we shall know; perhaps then we shall understand.
But all that really doesn’t help, does it?
It’s too logical, too theological, too thin to cover our wounds,
and too mild to effect much healing.
Rolling Away the Stone
One day, after spending too much time locked into that question–why didn’t God stop it–I read the next sentence:
Then Jesus...came to the tomb...and said, “Takeaway the stone.”
When I read that sentence the stones that had blocked my vision for so long started rolling down my theological hillside.
I had studied that passage of scripture many times over the years, but for the rst time in my life
I saw something I had never seen before.


When Jesus came lo the tomb,
that held their grtef and their devastation,
he didn’t even bother to answer or deal with their question of
why didn’t he keep him from dying.
He didn’t touch that question.
He didn’t even deal with the question or the cause of why Lazarus died. Rather, he dealt with the cure.
And on the same day that burst of light came to me,
we received a letter in the mail from a fellow minister–
a retired, beloved minister–
whose sermons and love had helped us.
His last sentence echoed the stone rolling away from my tomb: “Ah, my Friends, God’s participation
in the death of your son is not to be found at the point of cause.
but at the point of cure.”
In our tragedies that is where God is: “At the point of cure.” The scripture started making sense.
Jesus comes to our cure, not by answering our questions,
not by giving us reasons,
not by serving us with philosophical jargon,
but (after we roll away the stone) by walking to the door of our grief-tomb,
our pain-tomb, our why-tomb,
and calling our names, “Come out,” he yells. “Come out!”
And like Lazarus, we swagger out of that tomb, trailing mud of our own muck
and manure of our own self-pity, inging bandages right and left.
rubbing darkness from our eyes.
The Lazarus in Us
And for the rst time we realize
that Lazarus is not our dead or devastated loved one,
but Lazarus is us,
entombed by tragedy that happened to one we loved more
than self and life.
Once we see that we are Lazarus, then the question changes from, “Why did God not keep this from happening,” to,
“What will God do to and for me through this?”
And that, I believe, is when cure begins. Having come out of that tomb,


still unwrapping and being unwrapped by loving, caring people, I have learned some things which I share in Life Re-De ned
(that follows).
But for now let me say that a verse of scripture, always a favorite, has helped me unwrap the bandages
that bind all people when tragedy strikes.
For we know that God works all things together for good to them who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans. 8:28).
During the past few years things have happened to me and mine that I cannot explain,
and they have caused me to wave the banner Why all over my landscape.
When Life Fits Together
Yet, with Ralph Sackman, I say the only way I can understand any of these events is to use an analogy of a ship.
There are parts of a ship which by themselves would sink. The engine would sink if placed in the water by itself.
Thrown into the water, the propeller would sink. Almost everything needed to build a ship–
steel, lumber, nails, bolts–
would sink if thrown into the water separately.
But when the parts of a ship are brought and built together, they oat. So with the events of my life.
Some have been tragic. Some happy.
But when they are all built together, they form a craft that oats.
Oh, they more than oat.
They, I believe, are going somewhere. And in that, I am comforted.
Let me change Romans 8:28 according to my gospel; my experience:
For I know that God works all the parts–all the events of my life–together so it oats.
And I know that he has somewhere for me to go, and he has something for me to do.
And that is true of everyone who loves the Lord. It is true for you.


Life Re-De ned
(John 12: 20-26)
The year was 1929.
America experienced the worst economic crash in its history.
One morning the New York Times spread across half its newspaper
the headline: “Real Estate Agents Must Re-evaluate Entire World.”
The economic calamity had so devastated existing prices, money-value,
and property value
that everything nailed down had come loose in the crash.
Nothing was right and no one knew the market value of anything. And in a real sense the entire world–as it was known–had to be re-evaluated, rede ned.
The same thing happens following a “big crash” in a person’s life. Death, divorce, job-loss, sickness. accident–
and the hundred-and-one calamities, catastrophes, and crashes that can befall us–
demand that total life, one’s total world, be re-evaluated and re-de ned.
And in that re-de ning process we often discover that what was once of prime importance
no longer seems that big–and vice-versa. Mountains of meaning suddenly become
molehills of meaninglessness;
molehills of insigni cance abruptly are transformed into
mountains of extreme importance.
When a person has experienced a crash,
the need to rede ne and re-evaluate life is not an option,
it is mandatory!
And Jesus gives us not only direction in re-de ning but a headstart:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone,” he says, “but if it dies, it bears muchfruit” (John 12:24).
Until the grain of wheat loses itself in the darkness of the earth, it is alone, lonely, and can never realize its potential.
But when it loses itself, it nds real purpose of itself.
And then Jesus starts re-de ning life like you won’t believe:
He who loses life nds life.
He who loses his life saves his life.
He who sel shly keeps himself drops himself.


He calls losing winning and winning losing.
And he clinches it by saying: “What does it pro t you should you gain the whole world and lose your own soul?”
In the sermon, Why...And Why Not, I shared some of the crashes that almost totalled my life.
Now I’d like to share some of the things I learned from those tragic events.
Discoveries in the Dark
First, I learned that there are discoveries in the dark. And there are some things about life and in life
you can never know until you rst know the darkness of some tomb.
Artist Romain Rolland puts it in clear focus: “You don’t know what things are real in art
until you come to them in pain; sorrow is the touchstone.”
This fact applies also to the art of living. “Sorrow is not only the test of reality,
but also the spur to its discovery.”
Mystery, grandeur, love, tenderness, and beauty lie all around us, but are largely undiscovered, unexperienced,
until some dark event drives us into some tomb; then, in our darkest moments, a real light dawns;
we glimpse the heights and depths of life, seeing its beauty as well as its bitterness.
Have you ever noticed how the salespeople at the jewelry store show diamonds to you?
They place them on black velvet and the darkness of the background shows the precious gems in all their luster.
‘The sweetest stains of song and literature are those that tell of the saddest thought.”
Dante, Milton, Browning, Tennyson–
the roll-call is long of those giants and near-giants
whose literature has endured the realities of life precisely because they speak of reality
born of tragedy and tomb-darkness,
approached through pain and sorrow,
written with white ink discovered in the blackness of the dark.
There are discoveries in the dark stumbled upon by people who refuse to let tragedy have the last word.


Recently a prominent actress reported in an interview
that she had written poetry during the dark days of her career–
and it was good poetry, enjoying wide readership. When asked if she still wrote poetry, she answered,
“No. I can’t. My poetry came out of depression, hurt, sorrow. I’m not there now, and I can’t write.”
I can understand that.
During my own darkness I wrote hundreds of pages,
some published, most not,
but now I can’t write with that same intensity,
because darkness gives light which produces insight no light ever can.
There are discoveries in the dark;
there are hidden riches in the secret places
that produce life re-de ned.
Another truth, couched in Ralph Sockman’s arrangement, emerges:
“The more we love, the more points at which we can be wounded.”
The way to avoid wounds is to refuse to love; refuse to become involved with persons.
That is a choice open to us.
Like Jesus’ grain of wheat–we can remain un-invested.
But Jesus said if we do that, then like wheat we remain alone.
William Cowper reminds us,
partly from his own experience and partly from others,
that “The miserable are nearly always sel sh.”
They refuse to invest themselves–lose themselves–in the lives and loves of others,
choosing rather to maroon themselves upon some narrow island, cramped by safety instead of freed by invested love–
love that can be suddenly hurt on any given day.
Broaden your sympathies and the bigger the target for fate’s arrows. Have children, and you have given hostages to fortune,
and peace of mind–some contend–is largely gone.
Make friends, and you are wounded by their wounds and hurt by their misfortunes.
Shut yourself into your own life, and nothing can touch you but the misery of your own sel shness.
The More We Love


Expand your life–invest in the soil of family and community– and you risk all sorts of hurts,
but Jesus called these hurts “fruits,” something desirable.
“The more we love, the more points at which we can be wounded.” And Thorton Wilder sets the record straight: “In love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.”
Not Business as Usual
I have learned that when tragedy strikes, you don’t do business as usual.
Some years ago I saw a sign, printed in large letters and rising above the ashes of a burned-out business:
“Open–Business as Usual.”
You admire that courage, but while the sign and motivation that painted it are commendable,
you know that it’s impossible.
Business as usual can never be again. Your life is being rede ned, re-evaluated,
and there’s no way you can pretend it didn’t happen.
You admit the hurt, touch certain basic bases, but you can never have business as usual.
Because your life is re-de ned, changed, altered, and nothing is ever the same again.
No way!
I’ve learned also that there are some things in this life that get broken beyond repair, but never beyond use.
It took me a long time to replace that period with a comma.
“My life is broken beyond repair.” Period. That’s so tempting, so logical,
that it takes a lot of faith, hope, courage, and love to turn that period into a comma and add,
“but never beyond use.”
The tragedy of a tragedy is not to use the tragedy; to allow it to settle and simmer,
refusing to discover anything in the dark but darkness.


Darkness never gets anything but darker by itself.
Yet, just a ickering spark of a candle cannot be defeated
by all the darkness of a hundred hells.
Life does not get better by itself, but a ickering candle of faith
pushes the darkness back and shows just enough landscape for the next step.
And one step at a time is good traveling over rough terrain.
Suffering
There’s an old French proverb that brings into focus something else I learned: “To suffer passes away; to have suffered never passes.”
The tender wound ultimately heals, but the scar never goes away.
You never forget the tragedy, the loss, the wound that about did you in.
But one day the scars become stars, shining in the blackness, giving direction, enabling you to chart your course, saying,
“You are not alone; I am with you always and all the way.”
God ls Able
The greatest discovery I made is the fact that God is able. Period. And with his help, his touch, you come to know
as did the Apostle Paul:
“I know in whom I have believed,
and I am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.”
In tragedy I touched bottom, but found the bottom solid. Because he was there, at the bottom–
no, he is the bottom.
beyond which I can never drop or sink!
There’s a Greek legend about a woman who came down to the River Styx to be ferried across
to the region of departed spirits.
Charon, the kind ferryman, reminded her that it was her privilege to drink of the waters of Lethe,
the legendary river whose water causes people to forget.
“Drink of it,” he told her, “and you will forget the life you’re leaving.”
“I will forget how I suffered?” she eagerly asked.
“Yes. and you will forget how you rejoiced,” Charon reminded her.
“I will forget my failures?”
“And also your victories,” the ferryman added.


“I will forget how I’ve been hated?” she asked. “Yes, and how you’ve been loved.” Charon said.
She paused to consider the whole matter. Then, the legend goes, she left the river Lethe,
not tasting Its erasing waters,
preferring to retain the memory even of sorrow and failure
rather than give up the memory of life’s loves and joys.
To love deeply is to hurt deeply;
to live again is to re-invest deep love deeply,
and the deep hurt becomes a solid foundation of depth. Amen.


Epilogue
Robert Forest Smith III was born at Memorial Hospital, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, November 10, 1960. From the day he was born, until the sad hour he died, he was a person of beauty and a joy forever. He was mature far beyond his short seventeen years. Parents of his peers sought out his counsel for response to their own teenagers. He was con dant to his peers and mentors.
Forest was all boy. And some would say, especially in his last two years, all man. He had his head on straight, even at seventeen. He was a leader who sought the welfare of the group he was leading, whether in school, community, or church. He knew who he was and Whose he was.
In the eight short days between his accident and death, his family determined to establish a scholarship at Wake Forest University in Forest's memory. His mother and I had met while students at Wake Forest, and Forest was planning to go there upon graduation from high school, only nine months away.
Upon his death, family and friends were asked to make gifts to the scholarship in lieu of owers. Several thousands of dollars were contributed to the scholarship.
Two months later, the youth of First Baptist Church, Hickory, North Carolina, where I had served as pastor, sponsored a Rock-a-Thon to raise money for the scholarship. Youth from Hickory High School joined with youth from around the state to raise money in one night of “rocking in rocking chairs” around the clock.
When the night of rocking ended, over $16,000.00 was raised by the youth, and the scholarship's corpus then totaled over $20,000.00, enabling the granting of a $1000.00 scholarship for the academic year of 1979-80. At least one scholarship has been granted each year.
At this writing, the scholarship's corpus is over $100,000.00.
Each year when the admissions committee of Wake Forest contacts
is with the resume of the student they feel best meets the criteria of the scholarship's purpose, the young man we loved and experienced so deeply lives again in vivid reality.
We have discovered that one of the ways to “go through the valley of the shadow of death,” and a means of healing, is to re-invest our love. The scholarship is a continuing therapy.
~ R F.Smith Jr., November 1, 1994



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