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How Well Do You Deal with Affliction?

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Brian Sternberg

Over the Father's Day weekend Turner Classic Movies (TCM) played a repertoire of films celebrating fathers. One of my favorites, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), showed up on Saturday morning (see the original trailer). It stars the great Edward G. Robinson and the wonderful child actress Margaret O’Brien who plays his seven-year-old daughter Selma. The movie is based on the novel by George Victor Martin about the residents of a small Norwegian farming community in Wisconsin. The title comes from the Song of Solomon (2:15, KJV): “Take up the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”

Two scenes in this outstanding film struck me. The first one is when Selma is distressed when she learns that “Editor” (James Craig), the name she gives the editor of the local newspaper, has joined the military. She asks her father why he would do this. Her father gives an understated but profound explanation of freedom. Selma understands the point he is making, but she doesn't not like the price that has to be paid for it.

The second scene comes at the end of the film. When lightning strikes the barn of neighbor farmer Bjorn Bjornson and sets it ablaze, everything is lost, even his pure bred cattle. His livelihood goes up in smoke. The realities of the fire are real, and the decision to shoot the disoriented cattle is heart breaking as you hear the shots ring out over the roar of the fire. Selma faints at the scene.

A meeting is called to help the devastated farmer. The plate is passed, and the townspeople drop only a few coins and some dollar bills into the collection tray. Selma shames everyone by generously donating her pure bred calf Elizabeth. She placed a great deal of value on the calf. You have to see the scene to appreciate it.  Her donation inspires the townspeople to give more to help Mr. Bjornson. In the midst of farmer Bjornson’s affliction, the people of the small town work to relieve it. But sometimes relief from affliction does not come in ways that we would like.

That scene from Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and a sermon I heard yesterday (June 20, 2010) by Joel Beeke on “How to Cope with Affliction” brought to mind a book I read in the late 1970s by Philip Yancey with the title Where is God When It Hurts? It has been a perpetual bestseller, and I have never forgotten its stories. It was a personalized update of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. [1] Instead of being purely or even mainly philosophical, it dealt with real people who were struck down in the prime of life by unforeseen tragedy. (Is there any other kind?) There were two particular stories that I vividly remember. One recounted the life of Joni Eareckson. Most Christians have heard of Joni and the diving accident that made her a quadriplegic. In fact, all you have to say is “Joni,” and most Christians know who you’re talking about. She became known by being able to sketch while holding a pencil with her teeth. If that’s all she did, her life would be remarkable enough but not very noteworthy. In her autobiography Joni [2], she recounts how she suffered with bouts of despair and even contemplated suicide. My memory’s dim on this point, but I believe she asked for help from others to assist her in suicide.

Joni is recognized today as a person who has faced the hardships of the life, a life that changed in an instant, trapped in a body that won’t do her bidding. She has become a one-woman testimony to the power of the gospel to heal and make all things new even in a condition of brokenness. Physical healing never came, but this did not stop Joni from putting her faith on the line to demonstrate the power of Christ. Some have said that Christianity is a crutch. It’s more than that. Joni Eareckson-Tada demonstrates it every day. Those of us who don’t need a wheelchair don’t know how handicapped we really are.

There was another story in Where Is God When It Hurts? that caught my attention. Brian Sternberg was a world class pole-vaulter in the 1960s. In June of 1963, he cleared 16 feet 8 inches which set the world record for the third time that year. Sternberg and John Pennel were friendly rivals competing against one another to be the first man to clear 17 feet (see progression chart here). It all came to an end for Sternberg when he suffered a dislocated cervical vertebra in a trampoline accident on July 2, 1963 (see here), two weeks before he was to travel to the former Soviet Union to compete in an international meet. Like Joni Eareckson, he is paralyzed from the neck down.

Sternberg and Eareckson had something to live for after their accidents. Their combined lives—shackled to wheel chairs and dependent on others for so many things that we take for granted—have touched millions. While many were shockingly entertained after watching Million Dollar Baby (2004), the quick exit of Hillary Swank’s character because of a similar accident will transform no one expect maybe to prompt viewers to go home and write a living will. If every tragedy is snuffed out as an enduring inconvenience, then there is nothing to struggle for, nothing to strengthen us, nothing to improve upon in time of affliction. The only thing that was important to Swank’ character was boxing, success and glory for the moment. With this now an impossibility for her, what was there to live for? This is the world’s dilemma. Yancey writes the following after his interview with Sternberg: “As I drove away, what struck me was not pity for Brian. It was a thick, lumpy realization that I had met strength. Strength that would endure, even if the specifics never fell into line.” [3]

Brian’s life changed nearly 50 years ago. Sternberg he is still enduring and inspiring others with his story (see here). Back in 1963, I followed the leap-frog record breaking of Sternberg and Pennel. As a thirteen year-old budding athlete, I went out for track in the pole vault because of their efforts. It was not my event—too heavy in the legs and too chicken to hang upside down on a pole. Along the way, I picked up an iron ball called the shot put and spent the next few years mastering the technique that would lead me to a state championship in 1968 and also a state record that year. Much of what I am today is the result of those formative competitive years. I have Brian Sternberg to thank for that. I’m sure a lot of young people today can say the same thing but for different reasons. As the Bible says, “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

How would I respond to tragedy? To be honest, I don’t know. I pray that God would give me the same grace that He’s given Joni Eareckson and Brian Sternberg, even though I’m sure I would need more.

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948).[]
  2. Joni Eareckson with Joe Musser, Joni (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976). []
  3. Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 110.[]

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