But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
II Corinthians 4:7-1
It was at a celebration of life, Pat’s life, where I learned about “the agony of the tea leaves”. Pat had not yet died, but was fully alive in a prolonged, agonizing battle against a rare cancer. Pat did not allow the ravaging disease to rob her of a minute of life; she went at life with joy.
So, wanting to celebrate Pat’s life while she was still with us, about a hundred friends and family gathered with her in a church hall. We ate cakes, dark chocolate and candies, while happily swapping stories about Pat, laughing and crying. It was there that someone told us about “the agony of the tea leaves”.
I am more a coffee drinker who knows little about making tea. And the little I do know of tea is that variety stuffed into little bags and sold by the box in the supermarket at bargain prices. I had not been with my wife to high tea with crustless finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, where quality loose tea leaves are carefully steeped in individual cups. I did not know about the aroma of leaves swirling in hot water and rich flavors released in the steeping process. I had no experience of what tea enthusiasts call “the agony of the tea leaves”: the twisting, writhing, unfurling, and agony of tea leaves as boiling water is poured over them. It is the agonizing moment when stored aromas and flavors of tea leaves are released for enjoyment.
Learning that night about the agony of tea leaves helped me to better understand what we all had been watching play out in Pat’s life. The years of chemotherapy, radiation, poking and pricking, along with not knowing, had released marvelous joy, both in Pat, and in all those who knew her.
Whenever I read today’s scripture, I often think of Pat’s remarkable life and the agony of the tea leaves! The apostle Paul tells something of the agony he is enduring, and what is being released in him. Paul describes his pain as “afflicted…perplexed…persecuted…struck down.” Each of Paul’s verbs grows in agony and pain. But in all that Paul endures, he is able to say that he is “not crushed…not driven to despair…not forsaken…not destroyed.” Paul says that, through it all, he experiences “the life of Jesus” made visible in his very body!
I count it as one of the ‘perks of the profession’ as pastor and chaplain, to get to watch the fruit of the Spirit released in peoples’ lives as they go through agony, pain, and not knowing. Time and again I watched in amazement as people thrive spiritually, not in spite of their agony, but because of it!
Theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer has helped open my eyes to the ways of God in the world. As Bonhoeffer awaited execution by the Gestapo, he journaled about the life of Christ in him:
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best of everything. I believe God will give us all the strength we need to resist in times of distress, but he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on Him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)
What Bonhoeffer wrote about is what I and a lot of others celebrated in Pat’s life. She lived without any fear of the future, knowing God always brings the best out of evil. That’s why Pat’s life, and Paul’s, and so many others’ lives still speak to me!
A fellow traveler,