The Struggle Has Ended

Greg Hewlett passed away on January 17th after nearly eight years of battling colon cancer. While we grieve his loss, we are comforted to know that he is with his Lord.

If you would like to leave your thoughts on Greg, please see this thread.

If you would like to make a charitable donation in Greg's honor, please see this thread.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Reflections on shared burdens

In the past week and a half, I have been enjoying the effects of the Christian principle of �bearing one another�s burdens.� The result has been a renewed vigor to fight.

The phrase "bearing one's burdens" comes from a command in the Biblical book of Galatians. Like so many other expressions in the King James Version of the Bible, this phrase has worked itself into the English language and has lost some of its edge in common usage. But it really is quite a powerful concept.
The idea here is that the church � which is at the same time invested fully in the world and exists as an alternate society or �kingdom� from the world � is likened in the Bible to a family. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament use the term �brothers� to describe those who are in this alternate society. It is interesting that this is the metaphor chosen. Of course, family members are not those with whom we would necessary choose to associate, like we do our friends. Rather they are those to whom we are born and to whom we are naturally related. Part of the joy and difficulty of life in a family is learning how to get along with and learning how to love and appreciate one's family members. But to me, one of the most remarkable aspects of a family versus a collection of friends is that family members go the distance with you. They make sacrifices for you. They grieve when you grieve and rejoice when you rejoice, in spite of their own situation. If you go to prison or suffer from AIDS or are the victim of a disabling auto accident, your friends may drift away but your family will more than likely still claim you as their own, at least when a family works the way we all somehow know that families should. In more typical trials, they regularly pick up some of the load on your shoulders and bear it on their own. This is a wonderful feature of the church when it is working as designed.
In anticipation of surgery last week (when I did not yet know it would be cancelled), I got together at short notice with a group of guys from my church to hang out for an evening. I was expecting and hoping for an evening of distraction � maybe some pool, a little poker, etc. At the get-together, I also wanted to spend a short time just telling them what was going on, and what kinds of things I was going to need from them in the coming year. Beating cancer takes extraordinary will power and I wanted to ask them to help push me along. I also wanted to tell them that saying stupid things to someone with cancer is way better than distancing themselves altogether, so please stay engaged. This short request turned into a long discussion about what I was going through and what my concerns were. More remarkably, they shared with me their own difficulties dealing with my cancer. I came to find out that they were burdened by my illness. There was even some shared weeping. They also communicated to me why they wanted me around and how I might be missed in the coming months as I fight this thing. We discussed how suffering fits into Christianity. Finally, they spent some time praying for me. That evening, as my good friend Jay Horne drove me home and we were discussing the problem of suffering, I began to notice a remarkable thing had happened that night. My burdens had been distributed among these brothers. They weren�t merely offering to �help� (which can sometimes be a safe, even patronizing offer), but they were genuinely engaged in a sort of suffering-with-me. They were fulfilling one of the purposes of a church � to love one another like family. I knew this taste from my natural family and from my in-law family. And now I saw that the church was providing that same taste.
As a student of Greek, one thing that I have noticed about the New Testament is how often the second person plural is used in commands. Many of the exhortations given are to �ye�, but there is no good contemporary English word for �ye� (That is, other than �ya�ll�. Southerners, you see, have discovered that �ya�ll� provides a precise, useful way of expressing the second person plural, but Northerners prefer to be remain imprecise and vague because they think �ya�ll� betrays a certain stupidity. I must admit, after living in the Northeast for many years, I avoid using it myself when possible.) So for example, the New Testament command to �pray continually�, is actually �ya�ll pray continually�. In other words, many of the Bible�s commands are intended to be heard and obeyed corporately. The fact that "you" is ambiguous, and that we Westermers are so individually minded, results in our missing the corporate element of these commands. The command I referred to above, �bear one another�s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ� is a plural command. You might say the command is �ya�ll, bear one another�s burdens.� The beautiful thing about this is that the burdens of an individual member of the church are to be borne corporately by the church. This is what I am thankful to be enjoying right now.
One last thought about this concept. It is interesting that the Bible says that in bearing one another�s burdens, we �fulfill the law of Christ.� It is a Christian activity to truly bear burdens. I�m not saying that only Christians can bear burdens. Nor am I saying that all (or even many) Christians actually do so. I am merely saying that Christianity provides a solid foundation for true burden-sharing. This, I think, is because this command is rooted in the concept of sacrifice and emptying oneself for another. God himself established the pattern for this when he lowered himself to become like us, suffer for us, and die for us. You might say that in Christ, God bore our burdens in the deepest way. From this perspective, Christian ministry to others becomes an activity of humbling oneself to bear the burdens alongside those whose burdens are heavy.
One Christian brother of mine, who was not there that night, told me individually (and I believe honestly) that he wished he could bear the cancer in his body for me. Wow! What can I say to such love? The Apostle John put it this way, �This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.� As I have seen this concept put into action in the past week in the comments and actions of dozens of brothers and sisters, I have been greatly strengthened to fight this battle.


Steve said...

so very sad . . .
but unfortunately true . . .
"If you go to prison or suffer from AIDS or are the victim of a disabling auto accident, your friends may drift away but your family will more than likely still claim you as their own, at least when a family works the way we all somehow know that families should.

Carl said...

Thank God for the gift of your renewed vigor. He is answering our prayers.

Nils Jonsson said...

God is already bringing about unexpected blessing through this trial. Your meditations here are helping me understand his Church more fully.
Speaking of shared sufferings, I think I�m anthropomorphizing your cancer. I had a dream last night in which I called you on the phone only to discover you had enlisted someone to screen your calls. He was a little overzealous and was holding you prisoner before you knew it. �Don�t you realize that there�s only one Greg and there are so many of you?� the screener said before he hung up on me. Then there was some sort of car vs. train chase after I tried to break into the maximum-security compound where you had been walled in.
I�ll try to be more level-headed during my waking hours.