It’s going to be one of those days. I can feel it.
Bill Cosby, in his earlier years, occasionally did stand-up comedy around the theme of growing older–particularly about passing the half-century milestone. That’s me (and then some), and I identify with it. An example: before you turn 50, you sit down in a chair, and later you get up. Down, up–no problem. After 50, the down and the up are accompanied by grunting noises, as if you were hoisting a barbell instead of sitting in a chair. You can edit out the groaning, depending on who’s in the room, but that doesn’t mean you’re not groaning inside.
I stay in halfway decent shape: I exercise and watch my calorie intake. I’m not overweight, but I also know that at my age, I’m working against roughly 14-to-1 odds: one day of eating everything I want means two weeks of extra effort in the gym. And I’ve learned not to expect any sympathy from those who may be struggling more with their weight. I was standing in line to get a cheeseburger at church. The man behind the counter asked if I wanted one patty or two. “One,” I said, thinking I was being at least mildly amusing, “I’m trying to watch my figure.” Without smiling, he looked me up and down, then responded sourly, “Yeah. You really need to work on that.”
Weight is not my issue, at least not yet. Tiredness is. Over a year ago, I was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, a viral infection that’s been linked to mononucleosis and chronic fatigue. Compared to many other with the same diagnosis, my symptoms are mild and non-debilitating. Most days, it feels like a mild case of jet lag. Some days–like today–it feels like I just got off a plane from Siberia. An invisible hand is squeezing my brain, and I wish it would just let go. But little is known about the condition. It could go dormant tomorrow. Or I could have jet lag for life.
For now, it’s simply become a part of me, as with people who have to live with chronic pain. I’ve had to acknowledge it to myself and to others. In the classroom and the pulpit, I generally have an intense and energetic style, with lots of movement. That’s how I am–that’s how I want to continue to be. But in the past year, I’ve had to tell people about my physical state. Now, when I preach, I have a stool standing by, in case I need to sit down–and sometimes I use it. When I have to give long lectures in the evening, I teach the first half from a chair, to steward my energy. If I feel up to it, I’ll stand for the second half, and go back to my usual habit of prowling back and forth in the front of the auditorium. That’s what I did last night. And this morning, well, that invisible hand hasn’t let up yet.
It’s hard to write those words without feeling like I’m whining. My condition is but a minor inconvenience compared to the kind of suffering I see around me in family and friends alike. And there are so many people who ask me how I’m doing that it’s a constant temptation to play the sympathy card. Something inside of me says, “Man up. Get on with it.” And I do.
But that’s part of the problem. I expect to be whole and healthy. To some extent, others expect it of me too. They are genuinely concerned, but that means they want to see the problem go away, as do I. Chronic health problems are an aberration to be fixed or prayed away. And sadly, some of the same expectation seems to apply to the creeping infirmity that simply comes with getting older.
Here’s what I’ve come to: life itself, in these mortal bodies, is a chronic condition. The apostle Paul writes:
We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free (Rom 8:22-23, CEB).
Things are out of whack. The whole creation is groaning like a woman in labor. And quite apart from any notion of Christian triumphalism over this life, even we who have the Holy Spirit groan right along with the rest of creation. Why? Because life in these bodies, apart from their full and final redemption, is not our eternal destiny, and somehow we know it.
It’s easy to feel even more like a whiner when I compare my life to Paul’s, and all that he suffered for the sake of the gospel. But we can’t just tell ourselves or each other, “Quit complaining–it could be worse.” Again, we might be tempted to point to Paul as our hero:
We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out (2 Cor 4:8-9, CEB).
We might make Paul into our first-century Rocky Balboa: knock him down, and he keeps getting back up, ready for another round. “Go for it, Paul! Show ’em what you’re made of!” But what he’s made of is clay (2 Cor 4:7)–fragile, ordinary. The power belongs to God, who is glorified in the way we live with our weakness. Paul endures the groaning of this earthly life because he has hope, a heavenly hope, one that isn’t based in anything from this world:
We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven. We groan while we live in this residence. We really want to dress ourselves with our building from heaven–since we assume that when we take off this tent, we won’t find out we are naked. Yes, while we are in this tent we groan, because we are weighed down. We want to be dressed not undressed, so that what is dying can be swallowed up by life. Now the one who prepared us for this very thing is God, and God gave us the Spirit as a down payment for our home. So we are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:1-7, CEB).
“We live by faith and not by sight.” It’s a good phrase to memorize. But I’ve usually heard it used in a generic sense, reduced to meaning, “You’ve got to have faith.” Paul seems specifically to be saying that faith, in the midst of our earthly groanings, means believing that we will one day be able to trade in this beaten up, worn out body for a heavenly one; we will trade our problems for a share in the glory of Christ the King. Life, as they say, happens. We can and should be good stewards of our bodies, but we can’t stave off or solve all of life’s difficulties. We need instead to cultivate faithfulness in the midst of our groanings.
There are those days where it feels like life is swallowing me up. On those days, and every day, I need to live by faith in what I can’t see with my physical eyes–the day in which, as Paul reminds us, what is dying will be swallowed up by Life.