Cynthia was invited to share the story of her faith in her successful struggle against death. She stood before the group with a candle in one hand and a pocket lighter in the other.
She began, "Three years ago I went to the hospital for a series of tests and I was told that I had malignant cancer. I was also told that, although it was possible for me to take chemotherapy treatments, the chance of them offering any help at all was very slim. My doctors said treatments would most likely only bring misery to my final days. This was, of course, very bad news for me. I fell into a deep despair. I was ready to give up. All I could see was darkness.
"As I lay in this dark despair in my hospital bed, I started reading a Bible that was in my room. I happened to turn to the book of Jeremiah. What I read there changed my life. It also literally gave me life."
Cynthia said,"In the darkest moment of my life, I read about the dark times that Jeremiah and the nation of Judah experienced. Following directions that he had received from God, Jeremiah prophesied for 12 years that Jerusalem would be destroyed. Finally, having angered the king by saying such things, Jeremiah was sitting in prison watching his prediction of doom come true. Judea was on the brink of destruction. Her enemies were making their final assault upon the city. The end was very near. Soon the enemy would break through and drag the survivors from their homeland into captivity in a foreign land. It was a very dark time for them. As I read, it was easy for me to relate to the despair of their situation."
"In the midst of this hopeless and despairing situation, God led Jeremiah to do an incredibly hopeful thing. At the moment when things looked the worst, God led Jeremiah to purchase a field. He bought land in a country that was about to be taken over by the enemy. Jeremiah knew that the hard times of exile were about to come upon the people of Judah, but God also led the prophet to symbolically proclaim that things would eventually get better and that God would return the people to their home. In faith Jeremiah saw that future. As a symbol of hope, he invested himself in that future by buying a piece of land."
Cynthia said, "When I read about Jeremiah's purchase of the field, it was as if God had suddenly brought a light into my darkness." Cynthia then lit the candle she was holding. -- a sign that she was going to trust God like Jeremiah and invest in the future.
Cynthia continued, "Against the recommendation of my doctors I took chemotherapy treatments. In the process I got very sick and I came quite close to death. But, as I stand before you today, my cancer is in total remission." She raised the lit candle in front of her. "God gave me hope during my darkest times, during my bad times. Like Jeremiah, I put my faith in God and invested in the future. Now I praise God and celebrate the good times of health that the future has brought me."
At this point in her talk everyone in the group broke into spontaneous applause. Everyone, that is, except for a quiet man in the back row. After a moment he raised his hand and asked to speak. He said, "Your story sounds similar in many ways to a story that was a part of my life. It is very similar, but only up to a point. My wife also had cancer. She too had hope that God would move her through the dark times into better times. She invested in that future. She trusted God as the light to see her through her darkness. She took all kinds of treatments and she too got very sick. Together we hoped, together we prayed, and then she died." He said, "Please don't get me wrong. I am very glad that the future in which you invested turned out to have good times in it for you. But as you stand there holding that candle, I have to ask you -- what do you think Jeremiah's hopeful action of purchasing a field has to say for my wife?"
All eyes were upon Cynthia. It was very quiet as they waited for her response. She also waited for her response, and then, discovering that she did not have one, told the man that she was sorry for his loss, blew out her candle, and sat down.
How are we to make sense of the man's question? Cynthia did understand this story correctly. The purchase is a symbol of hope. Cynthia heard the story saying that we can make it through even the very worst times by focusing on the future -- the time when God will finally set things right. Jeremiah's symbolic action seems to proclaim that there will be better times ahead. So, how do we respond to the man in the back row whose wife lit a candle in her darkness only to have it snuffed out by unsuccessful cancer treatments and finally by death?
When we move ahead in the biblical narrative we learn that the exiles do eventually get to go home. Ironically, Jeremiah is dead by that time. He never gets to truly possess the land that he buys; he can only think about it and talk about it. The prophet invests in the future, but where does he personally reap the dividend? Is it perhaps even fair to say that, like the wife of the man in the back row, Jeremiah hoped for a light in the darkness, but that light was snuffed out before he had a chance to experience it?
As we struggle with some of these questions and tensions, let us consider the story of another woman. Her name is Pamela. Pamela had a rare eye disease. She was a very successful accountant in her mid-30s and she was going blind. Pamela tried everything. She went from doctor to doctor and they put her on special diets and gave her special treatments, but nothing seemed to stop the steady loss of vision. Finally an eye specialist told Pamela that she had one last option open to her. There was a very complicated surgery that could be performed. If it was successful she would be able to save some of her vision. If unsuccessful, she would go completely blind immediately rather than gradually with the natural progress of the disease. Pamela chose to have the surgery. She emerged from that operation with no sight at all and no hope for that to ever change.
Pamela's minister went to see her in the hospital. He took Pamela's hand and said, "I'm so sorry. Is there anything that you would like me to do for you?" Pamela said, "Yes, there is." The minister said, "Just name it." Pamela said, "I would like a candle." The minister was considerably surprised by the request, but said, "Fine, I'll be sure to bring one when I come next time." Pamela said, "No. I want one now." The minister said, "Don't you even want to talk a little bit first?" Pamela shot back, "If you really want to do something for me ...." The minister interrupted, "Okay. I'll go get one right now."
The minister made the round trip to the church and back, then returned to Pamela's room with a candle in hand. Approaching her bed the minister asked, "Do you want me to light it for you?"
Pamela said, "Oh, no. Just hand it to me." She took the candle in her hands gripping it tightly. She then clutched the candle against her and said, "During these last months I have often thought of myself as a candle about to go out. I thought that everything I am is tied up in being able to see. I expected that when blackness came then there would be nothingness." She then said, "Now I'm blind. It's dark." She held the candle tightly. "But the candle is still here. I'm still here. I'm still me. God is still God. It's going to be okay somehow."
Perhaps in her blindness Pamela was able to see something in her candle that eluded Cynthia when she held up her lit candle before the group. Cynthia saw the flame of her candle as a symbol of hope. The flame was the symbol of light in darkness --But it did not speak to the man in the back row. And there may be times when this will not speak to us either.
Pamela, however, experienced the candle in a different way. She discovered that a candle is more than a fragile light. Flames come and go on candles. But, as Pamela discovered, a flame doesn't make a candle. It's the candle itself that makes a candle a candle. For her, the candle proper was a symbol of hope, because, regardless of whether there is a flame or not, her hope came in the promise of candleness itself. She came to realize that hope is not grounded in what will happen to us, but in who we are.
Each of us have our own terrible times. You know what yours have been. Perhaps you are in the middle of some pretty bad times right now. Yet, when things go badly for us that is not a time to despair, but a time to invest ourselves in the future.
We, like Jeremiah, are called to invest in the future. We do so not because we are certain that God has something better in store for us, but because we know who God has made us to be. Like Pamela, we can think of ourselves as a candle. We have good times and we have bad times. The flame may come and the flame may go. Ultimately it does not matter. Our hope is not grounded in the promise of good things happening to us. Our hope is grounded in the fact that we are children of God.
The hope we receive from God is not a promise of a constant and steady flame that will take away all the dark times. Our hope comes in the promise of candleness itself. Our hope comes at the core of who our God has created us to be. We are a people washed in the waters of divine forgiveness and acceptance. We are a people who live in and live through the church -- a community based in love and service and justice. That is the very essence of who we are. Our identity is in Jesus Christ and his church. That is the core of who we are. That is our candleness.
A few years ago you dealt with removing the Orange Order Hall and replacing the storage with a new building. Along with those changes to the "back yard" you established a garden. Soon there will be some changes in the bathrooms to accommodate a greater use by the Montessori school. This congregation continues to look forward and invest itself in improving on the facilities here to serve the neighbourhood. You made an investment in hope, so that we would be creating hope for ourselves and for hundreds of others. I can see that your investment has improved the lives of hundreds of people.
Even in the worst of times we can invest in the future, for in the love of Jesus Christ, God has invested everything in us.