Yesterday I stopped to smell the roses. Literally.
A precious lady named Caroline who took me in as a daughter at my church in the Northwest of England last year came down South to visit me and a friend of hers, Elaine, who also lives in London. They’re both doctors and had been roommates at university.
We met up at Hampton Court Palace, what was the favorite of King Henry VIII’s palaces, which is situated on the Thames. As the three of us walked along the palace’s rose garden, the two women stopped every two feet to “find a good one.” Apparently most of these roses had lost their fragrant smell.
“When we were roommates at university,” Elaine said, “and Caroline was off adventuring in Israel, I went to America. My mother bought me a bar of soap that smelled of roses. So I’ll always remember that the whole time, I was abroad, my room was filled with the smell of England.”
She paused as Caroline apparently hit the jackpot. “Come, Shelby. See what you think of this one.” She was cradling a thick white blossom. As I pressed my nose to it, my head was swimming with the richest rose aroma.
Elaine made her way over and said, “Ahh yes. That is what my room smelled like.”
Elaine had already intrigued me. Aged 61, she had just last month canoed much of the Thames for two days straight, making camp on the river bank with friends. She had a lightness of step, a fit frame, and an obvious zeal for life.
We entered the café beyond the rose garden and sat down for coffee, snacked on almond Bakewell tart, and Caroline and I had a bit of a catchup as it’d been months since we had seen each other. She asked about my new placement, how my new church was. I answered excitedly that I was loving my new church, that they were lively and so passionate about the Kingdom.
Elaine interjected, “I’m an agnostic. What exactly is the ‘Kingdom?’ I’m assuming something about the gospel?”
It was then that I realized I’d never explained what the Kingdom of God is to someone who didn’t necessarily believe in the Kingdom. I did my best to explain that God’s Kingdom is where everything is as He intends it to be, where people see and feel His love, where He is made known, where people are a part of His family. She nodded contentedly and said that that makes sense.
She then hit me with an age-old stumbling block. “That’s all quite nice, but what I just can’t get my head round is how a loving God would allow such suffering. I know that some people suffer for just a short while, like someone having a surgery and having to go through the recovery process. But that person knows that they have to go through the suffering to be well again. People with chronic illnesses and such lots don’t have that luxury. They suffer and know that it will only get worse. Did God just give them that lot? To suffer?” Elaine, a doctor, worked with kidney patients for years.
I took a deep breath and told Elaine that her question was fair and was indeed one of the hardest questions to come to peace with. “The person who suffers with the worst of lots is like the surgery patient, in a way. If you believe in eternity, which I do, and you believe that Christians spend eternity in heaven with God after death, which I do, then it’s easier to see the hope. They suffer now, but they can endure it because they know that this life is like a second compared to eternity. This gives them the strength to face another day, and unexplainable joy and peace. Even further, they have a Savior who has walked this earth, become a human, and suffered the worst of lots. They have a God who has known their suffering, because he suffers alongside them.”
I took another deep breath, feeling my face flushed, wondering if this answer would make the slightest difference. She smiled and said, “No one’s ever explained it like that before. That makes a lot of sense. I’ll think about that.”
We dove deeper into discussing other religions and humanism and good works. My friend Caroline works with older people with dementia and spoke of how she sees her work as sharing God’s love with those people. Elaine said that many people do good works, which is great, but that most people work out of their own power and can only give so much. “Christians, though, it’s like you guys have an external power source that charges your batteries and gives you a turbocharge when you run out of energy.”
We gave a laugh and said that that’s exactly what it’s like.
“The thing is,” Elaine said, “You need faith to go either way. Many people think that you just need faith to put your trust in God, but I think it takes a lot of faith to decide He’s not real, too. So I’m one of the cowardly people that stand on the fence without making a decision.”
It was a beautiful conversation, and spoke deeply of Caroline’s friendship with Elaine. I could see how Caroline had invested in this friendship for something like forty years, and had shown God’s love throughout.
We spent the rest of the afternoon light-heartedly exploring the centuries-old rooms and grounds of Hampton Court Palace. It was a joy and a delight to spend time with the two of them, doing something we all loved so dearly.
When we got to the extraordinary gardens, we stumbled across a greenhouse with the world’s largest vine. It had sprouted centuries ago, and had become hundreds, if not thousands, of branches! It was an incredible picture of John chapter 15, when Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. He commands us to remain in him as he remains in us, for the branch cannot bear fruit on its own. I’ve struggled picturing this allegory until I beheld this plant, when I saw the huge base of the vine with all the branches sprouting from it and covering all over. Were I to sever one of these branches, it would cease to bear fruit. Yet here they are, producing grapes for centuries. And I even ate some grapes from this vine a few weeks ago, when someone brought them to our house.
It was so similar to what Elaine had said earlier, that we get our power from something else–an outside source. This is precisely the message Jesus conveyed. To remain in Him is to be a part of something much bigger than yourself and to bear much fruit. To be a part of Him is to be a part of His body, His church, His bride. Then even beyond your normal life span, your impact remains, because really, it’s His impact.
I pray that my new friend Elaine sees God’s goodness and recognizes His deep love for her. I pray that she enters into it, and is grafted gracefully in, like a branch into a network of branches, a rose blossom into a sweet-smelling rosebush. I pray she comes to know this power that sustains and bears much fruit.