I sat in the back of a darkened sanctuary this morning for the Celebration of Life service for a young mom I never had the privilege of meeting. A dear friend lost her sister-in-law, Christina, to stage 4 colon cancer a few days ago. She was 33. She left behind a husband, two very young children, family and friends who obviously loved her passionately. By all accounts, she was a wonderful woman whose primary passion was Jesus. And I believe it.
You know those storms that come where the sun bursts out of the wet, grey dimness in bright, bold, golden streaks? That’s what this funeral was like. In the weighty silence, when just the sounds of the breathing of the people nearest me and the rustling of papers were present, music began flooding the room. And in the blue-lit darkness at the front of the sanctuary, feet from the box where his wife’s shell laid before us…he stood. Her groom. Hands stretched out to the heavens in worshipful surrender to the will of God, the God that called his beloved home so early. He was the only person on his feet as the melody drifted through the room, a medley that flowed from “It is well with my soul” to “He gives and takes away, blessed be His name”. He worshiped. He just worshiped. I will never forget that moment.
This life, friends. It is so wretched and so beautiful. Grief and hope mangle together like a freshly spun spider web sprinkled with the morning dew, shimmering and beautiful in the light, but menacing all the same. Where there is a web, there is most often a spider, after all. Such is life to death. Spectacularly lovely in the sunshine, but always with that predator nearby, often unseen but waiting still. Not one of us escapes the death of our bodies.
On the drive home, I couldn’t quit thinking about what death is and is not, about what it actually means. Somewhere along the way since September, someone told me I didn’t understand cancer because I had called it a “precious gift”, and that it is this terrible, horrific thing to live alongside and to watch ravage someone you love. This person meant no harm, and I understand how perplexing a statement it is that something that destroys so many could be labeled a gift. But let me explain.
I know that cancer is a terrible disease. It kills people. It robs people of beloveds every moment of every day. It is a vicious predator that does not take into account the life of the person it is attacking. It’s not a gift in that sense.
It’s a gift in the sense that it keeps death always at the forefront of our thoughts. It reminds us daily of the fleeting nature of our lives, causing us to seek out stability in something other than what we can achieve and acquire here. It’s scary to look at humanity as this unlasting sort of thing that doesn’t need any one person in particular to keep on going. I know. I feel it just the same as you. The real reality here, though, is that death, though a gruesome thing to our humanity, is the constant reminder of our finite-ness and the deliverer of our souls from the entrapment that complacency in the expected longevity of our lives produces. When the threat of death toddles knowingly, menacingly, alongside you always, it is hard to believe you will go on living this life forever and easy to remember you will not. And that recognition that death is always coming provokes a person to live more fully the life God intends them to live. That is what makes this cancer thing a gift.
In light of eternity, if my body becomes wrecked with illness, if my children don’t survive to adulthood, if I lose my home, my financial stability, my spouse, my ability to think and do for myself. . .all I’ve really lost? All I’ve really lost is nothing. This is the glory and the grace of Christ in me, friends. I have been wasting away from my first breath. So have you. This human form is so very temporary. Not one of us has been born into earthly permanence.
The encompassing, never-ending, always sustaining peace and hope of Jesus that has carried me through these many months of struggle is this. . .no matter what happens in my life, no matter what (or whom) I lose. . .all it really costs me is nothing. I was reminded today at the celebration of a life lived in surrender to Jesus, that there is no truly good thing that can be taken from me here, -there is NOTHING that can be suffered or ransacked-, that will be missing in eternity with Jesus. There. is. nothing. The only thing I carry with me into death is the Hope that is the wrath-of-God-satisfying blood of Jesus Christ. And that is enough.
I get asked a lot what I would say to someone at the beginning of living with a life-altering illness, if there’s some magic something that can be said to make something so horrific feel worth the pain. I don’t think such words exist; but today, while I listened to the life story of a woman named Christina, I thought that if I could push you to do one thing in this life, perhaps it should be this:
Remember that it is merely the end to the temporary and the beginning of the eternal. Thank God for the gifts of suffering and despair. Don’t be afraid to walk closely alongside grief and loss. Let the knowledge that those things aren’t forever pour hope into your soul and remind you of this one never-shifting reality…
Whether you live 3 seconds, 3 years, 3 decades, or 130 years, your time of struggle is just a single, rapid, gasping breath when compared to a forever life of peace. Whatever you must endure here, endure it with the joy that springs from Hope eternal. Find freedom in knowing that, if you know Jesus, you will never lose anything of true value here that will not be restored to you in the death of your body, because you will never lose Christ.
Later in the service, the music began again, and from my position, I was able to watch the people there praise God for the life of Christina and for the complete healing of her sickness. I stood alongside them, unable to make my mouth form words, tears of gratefulness trickling down my cheeks as I watched hands extend into the air while voices sang out:
“You split the sea
So I could walk right through it
You drowned my fears in perfect love
You rescued me
And I will stand and sing
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear”
No longer a slave to fear, to death, to this temporary life. What a marvel!
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls…
knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
‘All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.’
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
1 Peter 1:3-9;18-25
*For those of you wanting to help the Shippey family tangibly as they learn how to live this life without their beloved wife and mommy, here is a link to an account set up to help them along. You can give even after the “goal” is reached.