How Can I Have Faith: Pivotal Circumstances

Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!
John 11:43

In 1991, at the height of his television acting career, Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. For the next seven years Fox struggled privately with the implications of this progressively debilitating disease. He went public with the news in 1998 and retired from his popular television show Spin City two years later. Fox went on to be a passionate advocate and fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease treatment and the search for a cure. He’s since returned to television.

In his memoir, paradoxically entitled Lucky Man, Fox writes:

Coping with relentless assault and the accumulating damage is not easy. Nobody would ever choose to have this visited upon them. Still, this unexpected crisis forced a fundamental life decision: adopt a siege mentality or embark upon a journey. Whatever it was–courage? acceptance? wisdom?–that finally allowed me to go down the second road (after spending a few disastrous years on the first) was unquestionably a gift. Absent this neurophysiological catastrophe, I would never have opened it, or been so profoundly enriched. That’s why I consider myself a lucky man.”

This is my final reflection in a series, How Can I Have Faith? I’m exploring what pastor and author Andy Stanley calls “faith catalysts,” the means through which God seems to strengthen our faith.

Pivotal circumstances are those things that mark our lives forever. One way to recognize pivotal circumstances is by the sense of “before” and “after” about them. We’re going along and then something happens. “Later that summer, my father died;” or “One sunny Monday morning a soldier in uniform knocked on our door.”  “The doctor walked into my hospital room and couldn’t meet my gaze.”

Pivotal circumstances can also be joyful: “Then I saw her across the room.” “My acceptance letter arrived in the mail…” “When I first held our son in my arms…”

What makes a pivotal circumstance a catalyst for faith is the experience of grace, an encounter with God as a source of healing, strength, or love; with Jesus as a loving savior and friend; with the Spirit, as a power working in and through us or through someone else for our sake. When the experience is one of joy, we sense a greater purpose and direction for our lives. With suffering or loss, we often experience despair or a sense of abandonment at first. The grace, when it comes, is what brings us to a place of gratitude–not for the suffering itself, but for who we’ve become through our suffering.

I read Michael Fox’s memoir over 15 years ago, but one sentence has stayed with me:

If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal – with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever – in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before – I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike.”

I know that feeling. And even in circumstances for which I can never give thanks, both for myself or others, I am grateful for the promise at the core of Christian faith: that nothing that happens to us can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that suffering, even unto death, will not have the final word.

This Sunday in church we’ll hear of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whom Jesus calls out from his tomb. It is, in the Gospel of John, the pivotal moment when Jesus’ own fate is sealed, as the religious authorities decide that he must be put to death. It is also the pivotal revelation: that in Jesus, we, too, will rise from death. And that experience is not only waiting for us when we take our final breath. It happens throughout life, in those pivotal circumstances. Of those life-changing, faith defining moments the poet David Whyte writes, “You can feel Lazarus, deep inside even the laziest, most deathly afraid part of you, lift up his hands and walk toward the light.”


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