The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2018
The Honorable Richard Bernstein
An author once penned that during a time of great tragedy, and during a time of incredible loss, the streets of heaven are filled with angels.
Lord, we come to you because we simply want to know why, as we reflect on the last few weeks. We want to know why. Why it is that you take from us the kind. Why it is that you take from us the warm. Why is it that you take from us the innocence? Why is it that parents will have to live without their children? And why is it the children will have to live without their parents? We come to you oh Lord, with praise. We come to you oh Lord, with glory. We come to you with righteousness. We come to you with passion. Why is it that you allow for such suffering? Why is it that you allow for such hardship? Why is it that you allow for such an indescribable amount of pain to exist?
People will say after a tragedy, like the loss of a child, or people will say after the tragedy, after the loss of a parent, they will often say, “Now it is time for the healing to begin.” People will say, “Now it is time that hopefully those who have found an insurmountable pain can reach closure.” But as we go through life there are certain instances where closure will never be found, and one can never truly be healed.
Why it is God, that you have to have a parent think about how their child was taken from us? Think about the noise that they must have heard. Think about the terror they must have felt. Think about how it must have been to see their last remaining moments without you, and to be all alone.
What kind of a God are You to allow for this, this pain, and this sorrow? What kind of a God are You to allow for the pain to only grow when a grandchild misses their grandparents on a day that they want to rejoice and share something special? What kind of a God are You when you allow for a parent to spend the remainder of their days thinking about how their child would have grown, and what kind of a person they would be? Or what it’s like for someone to now have to grow through their days having to set the table for only one.
We come to you, oh Lord, and we seek to understand why it is that it’s always the kind. It’s always the righteous. It’s always the good-hearted that you take from us that those who love them and are impacted by them.
There’s a story I always share. It’s about a wonderful young mom. She called me and she said, “Richard, I’m reaching out to you because I know that you care about people with disabilities. I know that you care about people with special needs. So I’m calling you because I want to understand why it is that of all the people in the world, God would choose me to have a child with special needs.”
I visit my friend’s home, and I see their laughter, I see their joy, I see their indomitable spirit and energy that exists. What kind of a life exists for my newborn? Will he ever have a chance to go to school? Will he ever be independent? Will I ever be a grandparent? Help me to understand. When do you think I will reach a point, and my child reach a point we will finally have a chance to live an ordinary life? And when do you think we will finally reach a point, we will no longer have to suffer?
It was right after my election. I remember having a conversation with some other judges about what the qualities are that go into being a good jurist. And people said, “Oh, it’s quite easy. To be a good judge, it really is decided by what school you went to. Your academic, prowess, your intellectualism, your ability to research, and to write, and to publish.”
And I remember thinking back, and saying, “I think you’ve missed the most important criteria.” When asked what that was, I responded by saying, “It is our life experiences. For, yes, ultimately, the streets of heaven are filled with angels. But it is our experiences that allow for us to understand and appreciate the world in which we live. It is our experiences that God gives to us that allows for us to shape our course, that allows for us to determine our destiny, that allows for us to decide the kind of life we want to live, the kind of people we want to impact, the kind of change that we want to make.”
We must always remember that yes, the streets of heaven are always filled with the righteous and the kind. They’re always filled with angels, and we have to remember that our lives are only temporary. That no matter how long we’re able to exist on this planet, for some of us it could be 80, 90, and hopefully for many of us, well over 100, that life is a temporary state, that we are here for something big, that we are here for something grand, that we are here for something noble.
And yes, the experiences that God gives us, many of which are good, but often many of which are tragic, many of which are harmful, and many of which are difficult are given to us that we can rise. They’re given to us that we can shine, they’re given to us that we can find greatness. Our experiences are given to us for a reason. Our experiences are given to us for a purpose. It is through our experiences that we come to know each other. It is through our experiences, that we come to find compassion. It is through our experiences that we come to find understanding. It is through our experiences that we come to realize our awareness. It is through our experience that we come to realize that we are part of something grand, that we are part of something noble, and that we are part of something far-reaching than just ourselves.
For yes, it might seem harsh. It might seem unfair. We don’t have to be happy with God. We don’t have to always be excited by God. But we come to realize that we are part of His destiny. That we are part of His plan, and that those experiences, that those hardships, that those challenges that are given to us allow for things to happen that we couldn’t imagine, or even thought possible.
I remember answering this wonderful young mom by looking into my own experiences and saying, “There is nothing about your life or your child’s life from this day forward that will ever be ordinary. You simply have to believe that you were sent here to be extraordinary.”
And I don’t believe that God would ever send anybody here, the idea that they were created to suffer. But there are some who walk among us that do have to struggle. And it’s through that struggle that we come to find our greatness. It is through that struggle that we come to find our identity. It is through that struggle that we come to find our strength. It is through that struggle that we are given the incredible choice of how we want to live, the people that we want to touch, the impact that we choose to have. It is through that struggle that we come to find our passion. It is through that struggle that we come to find our purpose. It is through that struggle that we come to find our ultimate reason for creation and existence in this world.
As we go through life, we will face loss. We will face hardship. There will be tragedies. There will be health setbacks. There will be financial reversals. There will be things that are going to happen that are going to make us question the life that we live, and the life that we now have.
I believe that through life experience, you come to find that you can’t spend your time and your energy, and your effort always trying to move forward, or always trying to get over it. The power comes in adapting, in adapting to your new life, in adapting to your new circumstance, in adapting to your new situation. Sometimes it is okay to not always have the ability to overcome. But the real transformation comes if you can find a way to adjust, to adjust to the loss, to adjust to the pain, to adjust to the suffering.
If you’re able to adapt to the new life that you have, to the new way that you have to live, you can find purpose, you can find reason, you can find mission. And that doesn’t mean that through adapting you can ever erase the pain, that you can ever erase the struggle, that you are meant to erase the sadness. But it’s through that adapting that you will find it within yourself, and those around you to have the opportunity to survive, to have the opportunity to move forward, and to have the chance to triumph.
So often, it is through that adaptation that you’re able to live your life with a greater and more profound sense of meaning, a greater and more profound sense of purpose. That you are able to find the essence of why we are here, that you are able to find the power to do things that you never thought possible, that you are able to take your life in a direction that you hadn’t anticipated or wanted. Yes, the streets of heaven are filled with angels. That leads us to the question that we all ponder that takes us back to the book of Job, which is the question that we started with this morning, which is, “Why is it God, that we offer you our praise? That we offer you our worship? That we offer you our humility? And yet you allow for such bad things to happen to otherwise such good people.”
Now I have been blessed in my life to have had the opportunity of completing 22 marathons and I have been blessed in my life to have had the opportunity completing a full Iron Man competition. For those of you who are not familiar, the Iron Man is a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike to be completed by a 26.2 mile run. The rules of the competition are quite simple, if you stop, if you rest, if you take a break, you run the risk of missing a cutoff. If a cutoff is missed, you will be immediately disqualified. If you finish at 12:05 instead of 12:00, it is like you were never even there. Two years of effort, work, and training, will literally be for nothing.
So I invite you to picture, if you would, that feeling you have as you dive into a frigid body of water. The water temperature that morning of Lake Coeur D’Alene was 55 degrees. Imagine swimming without having any idea what you started or any idea of where you’re going. Getting kicked in the face by all the other swimmers, trying to surface but you can’t because there’s other people above you and lastly, having the rope that connects you to your guide becoming entangled and ensnared. As the rope becomes ensnared with other swimmers, it starts taking you below the surface. The harder you swim, the harder you try to break free, the quicker it starts taking you below.
It’s easy to have a relationship with God when life is going well. It’s easy to have a relationship with God when things are going the way that you had hoped. But often is the case that a real relationship develops when it’s not so easy, when the future is uncertain. It tends to be at that moment when the pain is real and indescribable that you develop a stronger sense of faith, a stronger sense of belief. That you’re able to connect in a more genuine and profound way. And you come to find at certain moments of life when it’s difficult and hard, you simply don’t know how to move forward, when the pain either spiritual or physical is so severe, you come to find that ultimately is the case that yes, our bodies are mortal and for many, our bodies are infirm.
But if given the opportunity, if given the chance, it is our spirits and souls that can disconnect and soar to the heavens, for it is only through tragedy that you can come to find the resiliency, the strength, the ultimate genuine struggle that exists within the human spirit. It is sometimes only through tragedy that we don’t choose to embrace, that we don’t choose to find, that we don’t choose to look for, but that we come to find a strength and a power that exists within our spirit and a power and a strength that exists within our soul that takes us to levels that we never knew we could reach, that takes us to places that we never thought we could find.
Yes, it is our spirits and our souls that through the challenge and adversity that God gives us that rise to levels where we have a genuine sense of connection, that we have a genuine sense of understanding. And often as we go through life, we come to find through our struggles that yes, it is the case that dreams can be replaced by wisdom. So why is it that bad things can happen to otherwise such good people? And why is it that there are some who come to know a greater struggle or greater hardship than others can possibly fathom or even attempt to comprehend?
And we’ve come to realize through the week’s events that life can change at an instant. It can change without notice, it can change without warning. It was a beautiful day in New York Central Park and I was walking in the pedestrian lane. It was August 13, 85 degrees and sunny in New York Central Park. I had completed 17 marathons and a full Iron Man competition. I was in mint condition, I was in better health than I could ever have imagined or even hoped for and as I walked in the pedestrian lane, a bicyclist was traveling at a speed of an excess of 35 miles an hour. And due to his high rate of speed, he was unable to maintain control and in doing so, veered into the pedestrian lane where I was walking and struck me directly in the back. Now, a 35 mile an hour impact is catastrophic to say the least. It required over 10 weeks of hospitalization at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital.
We come to find as we go through our days that life is never about the big things. It is always about the little. We come here to give praise not for the big, but for the little. You miss what it’s like to have the chance to use the bathroom or take a shower. You miss what it’s like to sleep the night without having to writhe in an indescribable level of pain. Never the big, always the little. People would come to visit and I would ask them to tell me, “So where are you going when you leave Sinai?” And they’d always say in a very rudimentary or very mundane way that they were going to go and visit some friends or go back to the office or they were going to meet some people for dinner. I always tell them these are the things that so many people long for. These are the things that so many people pray for. These are the things that so many people dream about. These are the things that go into life at its core and that go into life at its essence.
We give gratitude and we give thanks for those little things that give our life meaning. That give our life purpose. That give our life reason. For life is ultimately defined as moments in time. It is the moments in time that are given to us by our creator that allow for us to understand why we are here, that give us the majesty and beauty of creation. And we celebrate every victory and we celebrate every joy that we are able to obtain, no matter how small or insignificant it is. For it is our experiences that govern. In my situation, I would celebrate the fact that I could finally sit up in bed. I would celebrate the fact that I could use a walker and I would celebrate the fact that I could make it to the nurse’s station.
Pain is something that is always with us. Like I said before, whether it’s a spiritual pain or whether it’s a physical pain, pain is something that is a part of our life. But it’s only through our pain, it is only through our tragedy, it is only through our difficulties, that we can start taking that first step. That we can start to rebuild. That we can start to find a way to adapt to the new world, to the new life, to the new circumstances that the creator has given to us. That we can take from those experiences something grand and something great. That we can set our life on a different course, on a different trajectory.
We celebrate all the victories. We celebrate all the accomplishments. We celebrate all the achievements no matter how small or insignificant. In the last remaining moments that I have with you today, I will share with you one last story. It was a short time ago and it was time for the New York City Marathon. Now this marathon would be my 18th marathon. But it would be the first after a catastrophic injury. Running through the streets of New York with a shattered hip and crushed pelvis was going to be difficult and painful to say the least. But in life, there are certain things that have to be done. There are new chapters that have to be written. As we ran the streets, the pain was becoming so severe and so intense, as we crossed the 59th Street bridge, and began running up 1st Avenue at mile 18, I remember reaching up to the heavens and praying to the creator that he would give me the strength and the ability to complete this task. I said, “Lord, please, let me have this. Let me have this. Please don’t let me pass out. Don’t let me lose consciousness. Please, oh Lord, let me have this.”
It’s always at those moments and it’s always at those times that miracles do happen. For you come to find that which is what we all seek. It is through our experiences, it is through our hardship, it is through our loss, but it’s through our struggle, that we come to find what it is that we pray for, what it is that we long for. We come to find a peace with God. And it is through that peace that we are able to understand and appreciate our place. And it’s through that peace that we’re able to answer the question why is it that bad things happen to otherwise such good people? And why is it that there are some who have to know a greater struggle or greater hardship than others?
I believe that the answer goes something like this. No matter how difficult the loss, no matter how insurmountable the pain, we come to find at a certain point, that we can’t spend our hours and our days trying to get over it. For we come to realize that there simply is no other alternative, no other choice, but to just get on with it. For ultimately, it is always those who face the struggle, who face the challenge, who face the difficulty, who know the loss, that will do what is hard to achieve no less than what is truly great. For we come to realize how temporary life is. And it is through that realization that we come to find that life is a subset of chapters within any chapter, there will always be setback, pain, and loss. But it’s only through that that we come to find hope, joy, and triumph.
We celebrate the lives that we are given. We celebrate the destiny that lies before us. We celebrate the experiences that the creator has chosen for us. For the good and the for the bad. If it wasn’t for the experiences I was blessed with, I wouldn’t be as good a judge. I wouldn’t be as merciful. I wouldn’t be as compassionate. I wouldn’t be as kind. I wouldn’t be as empathetic. We celebrate the experiences that we are given, for it is through that celebration that we come to find and experience those moments in time that allow for us to live life the way it was meant to be lived.
It was deep into the night as the angel came upon Jacob and there existed a tremendous struggle. And the struggle raged until the sun rose. And when the sun came up, the angel blessed Jacob and gave him a new name, the name of Israel, which is translated to mean one who struggles with God. But it was through that battle that Jacob was left with a crushed hip. He would go through life with a limp and face an indescribable amount of pain. One could interpret this verse and say it was only through this hardship, this loss, this pain, this setback, that Jacob could have an understanding, an appreciation, a connection, an empathy, and it was through that that he was given the wisdom, the compassion, and the vitality to be a leader. A leader of a people and the founder of a nation.
We celebrate the lives that God gives us, for the good and for the bad. We celebrate the experiences that we are given, but most importantly, we celebrate the fact that yes, our bodies are mortal and for some our bodies are infirmed, but it is our spirits and it is our souls, that truly know no bounds.
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