Epitaphs make for intriguing reading.
They range from the darkly humorous - such as Spike MIllican’s ‘I told you I was sick’ and W.C. Field’s ‘I’d rather be in Philadelphia’ - to the frankly disappointed.
The poet John Keats was unsure of the his place in literature, and his headstone in Rome’s Protestant cemetery bears his own line, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’
Over the grave of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak one of his own lines was defiantly recited by an admirer. Pasternak’s place in the pantheon of great Russian writers was secured through his novel ‘Doctor Zhivago’. He pursued his literary career in the midst of stifling Soviet censorship, and his novel, chronicling the events of the Russian Revolution, provoked calls for retribution.
When he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, in 1958 the Soviet authorities did not permit him to attend the presentation ceremony in Stockholm. When he died almost a year later the Soviet-controlled press largely ignored his passing. At the graveside, a fellow-poet recited a verse of Pasternak’s ending with the deeply-personal line, ‘Life is not a stroll across a field’.
While some born with a silver spoon in their mouth may see life as ‘a bowl of cherries’, others recognise that life is a struggle, with untold challenges and hardships. Many are born in grinding poverty, shut out from privileges and opportunities; others condemned to grapple with handicap and disease. While some appear to glide though life, others face one calamity after another. Why this disparity should exist is a challenge to a biblical faith, as countless Psalms and the Book of Job testify.
One small part of the answer is the insight that strong and noble character is only produced through struggle and challenge. The Arabs have a proverb which says, ‘All sunshine makes Sahara’; and a Scandinavia proverb asserts the converse of that truth when it says, ‘It took the north wind to make the Viking.’ In the days when English military power rested on the impact of their archers, it was said that they took the wood for their arrows from the sides of the tree which had been exposed to the north wind. It is the strain that brings the strength.
The New Testament writers teach the same truth. ‘We rejoice in our sufferings’, wrote Paul to the Christians in Rome, ‘because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’(Romans 5; 3,4) . Peter was addressing an audience that had suffered all kinds of trials, and explained ,’These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine’( 1 Peter 1;7). Such things are not achieved by ‘ a stroll across a field.’