No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of you or your friends yourself were, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
John Donne wrote these words many years ago, and he touched on a great truth, and I don’t think he even knew the degree to which he did. Sometimes I think deeply about what it means to us to lose a great man. I was living in England at the time, we were living in England when Winston Churchill died, and it’s strange in a way. It didn’t seem, in a way, like a great loss because he was very old, and by the time he died he was not terribly productive.
I think the last picture, perhaps, of his life and the one that always hangs in my memory of him toward the end of his life is one of him sitting on a chair, small stool or something, down by that pool of his that he created himself at Chartwell, wearing an overcoat because it’s a dampish looking day and a Homburg on his head. And the photograph is shot from behind, and he looks heavy and tired and old and very much alone. Very few things have ever conveyed it like that did. It was almost as though he had been taken through and used up for every bit of good that he had to offer in the world, and everything had been wrung out of him in his 91 years. But it was a terrible loss.
They loaded his body on a train for the journey to his burial place in Blenheim where he was born and where his mother and his father were buried. And at every rail crossing, at every bridge, at every little town and Hamlet where the train passed, people were out in their hundreds and their thousands at every one of those locations. And old veterans, some of them standing, some of them in wheelchairs, saluted Winston as he went by with tears running down their face. What a great man and what they had lost. And I don’t know if they really realized what they had lost until he was gone.
When you consider what he knew, when you consider what he’d experienced and where he had been, he was a fount of knowledge, of experience, of wisdom that would serve us very well right now in this world. But he’s gone and he’s lost to us except for his books. We can’t ask him questions, we can’t go to him for his advice, we can’t call him on the television program and ask Winston what he thought we ought to do about the situation we face in the world. And I doubt that anyone really knew what they had lost until he was gone. And I, to this day, hearken back on his passing and wonder how I could have let it go by me so easily without going down to one of those railroad crossings myself and saluting the old man as he went to his grave.
But our loss in this kind of thing is not limited to great men like Winston Churchill. As John Donne wrote, the death of every man and every woman is a loss to us all. We often go on oblivious to what we have lost because we never asked them while they were alive. We never really looked at it while they were alive and we never tumbled to what we were losing until it was gone and we had lost it and would never be able to grab it again.
Do you have any idea what a motherlode the experiences of life is? It’s a staggering motherlode of value, of experience, of wisdom, of knowledge, of love, of all the things that we human beings produce that is the best of us. And even out of the worst of us grows knowledge and experience and wisdom and I don’t know if we understand how much of it there is.
Most of us have some idea of the value of winning. I don’t think we appreciate nearly enough the treasure that exists in losing because the chances are most of us learn more from our losses than we do from our wins. We grow more in our pain than we do in our pleasure. We come to understand better in our failures sometimes than we do in our successes. It’s just the way we human beings are.
Does it mean anything at all for me to say to you that there is tremendous value and great knowledge to be gained in suffering and in pain? That it’s of tremendous value to us? When a man or a woman dies, all that wisdom is lost to us and all the love is gone. And it isn’t the great men, it isn’t the great women, it’s the true of the least of us as it is of anyone. Do you suppose that God wants in his family people who know what it is like to live without the use of their legs? Would God want in his family people who know what it is like to live without the use of their legs? You do understand, don’t you, that people who do not have the use of their legs know things that you do not know. They understand things that you do not understand.
I remember well a young, a youngish couple, both of them in wheelchairs, a man and his wife, and it was interesting to talk to them and how they would explain things and how they reacted to the world and I began to understand that they knew things that I did not know. People who are suffering from the ravages of cancer and the pain, who are trying their best to stay off the pain medication as much as they can because they want to have the contact with their family with their mind still intact and they grit their teeth against the pain and go on, do you understand these people know things that we don’t know? They understand things that we don’t understand. They see things that we don’t see. And when they’re gone, we don’t know and have no way of accessing what it is they learn.
People who have to fight their way out from under the curse of alcoholism know things that we don’t know. You only have to be around a few of them time to time when they talk about this sort of thing among themselves to begin to realize that you’re an outsider in their world. You don’t know what they don’t know. You have never experienced what they have experienced. You’ve never gone through that fight and known the agony and have no idea what it means to win that battle or to lose it.
When we lose these people, whoever they may be, we lose all the wisdom and all the experience that they have paid so dearly to attain. Now, that’s not to say, none of this is to say that God causes these losses or causes these pains. What it does say is that God allows us to suffer them with a goal in mind, with a purpose in mind. He’s going somewhere. He has something he is trying to get done in all of this.
God does not want divorce, but he wants people in his family who have gone through a divorce. Strange thing to say. The reason is that only they can tell us how important it is to marry well. They have the experience of one who did not, and they have things to tell the rest of us. Only those who have been through it know the terror of the abuse in the night when a drunken husband comes home. They know these things. You and I have heard about them with the hearing of the ear. We don’t understand it. And only they know the crushing, crushing pain of having someone they loved with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength become an enemy, betray them, turn away, and leave. You know, it’s not altogether dissimilar to what Jesus experienced when he was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. And many of you here, I know, have gone through such a betrayal and you know things that I don’t know.
I think God wants in his family people who have finished life in a marriage of 50 years, 60 years, 65 years. And the reason for that is that these people understand love in a way that none of you newlyweds do. And by newlyweds, I mean anyone who had 25 years of marriage. There is in this world of ours, this old world of ours, an incredible reservoir of love. But when the people who carry this love are gone, have we lost that love for good? Is it just gone? Will it never come back to us?”