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. – For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
II Corinthians 4:7-11
It was at a celebration of Pat’s life that I learned about “the agony of the tea leaves”. Pat wasn’t dead, but still very much alive in her long bout with a rare cancer. But wanting to celebrate Pat’s spirited life while she was with us, about a hundred of us gathered one night in a church hall to honor her. We drank tea, ate delectable goodies, laughed, cried, and were told about the agony of the tea leaves.
Connoisseurs of fine tea will talk excitedly about this process called the agony of the tea leaves. They say it’s what separates tasteless supermarket teabags from the exquisite flavors of tea leaves, steeping and brewing the perfect cup of tea. The agony of the tea leaves describes the twisting, writhing, and unfurling of the leaves as steaming boiling water is poured over them. It is at this moment of wrenched agony the stored oils of the tea and its flavors and aromas are released. The agony makes for a superlative cup of tea.
Of course, hearing about the agony of the tea leaves helped us to understand Pat’s life. Her years of cancer, tests, radiation, chemotherapy, and the not knowing, had released in Pat a fragrant aroma of joy and grace. Her buoyant hope and resilient faith touched and blessed any who knew her.
I often think of Pat’s remarkable life and the agony of the tea leaves. I think of what adversity might release in anyone of us. In today’s Scripture text the Apostle Paul talks of what adversity is releasing in him. The words “in every way” (verse 8 ) and “always” (verse 10) emphasize the extent, intensity, and agony of Paul’s afflictions.
Paul describes his pain: “We are afflicted…perplexed…persecuted…struck down”. Each verb grows in intensity and pain. But with all the trials of life pressing hard against Paul, he can say that he is “not crushed…not driven to despair…not forsaken…not destroyed.” He is down, but now out.
Paul speaks here of the mystery that is at the heart of the Christian faith: in our being given up to “death”, the “life of Jesus” is released in us. When we think of Jesus’ death we might tend to think of the cross, but Paul has in mind all the agonies we endure. He uses the “death” of Christ and the “life” of Christ as symbols for the Christian’s daily experience. Paul finds that in his troubles, the life of Jesus is being released in him. His trials lay him open to experiencing the infusing of Jesus’ power, releasing the fragrance of grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a German pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and martyred by the Nazis. Writing in Letters from Prison, Bonhoeffer told of the transcendent power of God that he experienced in a Gestapo prison:
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 use 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. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account.
Those of us who gathered to celebrate Pat’s life saw the power of God daily released in her. We saw how God does bring good out of evil and gives us the strength we need, and when we need it. Through Pat’s pain God released the sweet aromas of His grace. In her agony she made known to all who knew her that “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”.
Thank you Pat! Thank you Paul! Thank you Lord!!!
Grace and peace,
photo by Rob Ireton