I recall a colleague of mine dying of cancer. I remember the day when the prognosis came through: the cancer had already spread to his liver and to his lymph nodes. He was given about 6 months to live. It was devastating news for us all.
Well, Tom didn’t have six months. In the end, he only had four. But it was four months that Tom lived. He struggled with his fears about pain. He dealt with his grief for what he was losing. He had always been a very independent person but now he was learning to allow others to be there for him, but he found the process of accepting his powerlessness the most difficult. And most importantly, in those four months he learned the purifying truth of what it means to fully surrender one’s life into the hands of God.
As the writer Joyce Rupp wrote of another situation, my colleague’s days were full of “autumn leaves.” But he also spent the d=nays readying himself for the harvest. Autumn is traditionally a time that we associate with its quieter, mellower mood. And so, Tom reviewed his life, recalled treasured people and events, and often wept tears of gratitude. He was allowing his spirit to ripen, to mature, to become what he was meant to be.
On the day of his funeral, amidst the sorrow of the moment, I was also filled with a sense of profound gratitude. Tom had given himself to the journey. He had taken a giant leap of faith and entered the painful process of choosing to be vulnerable. He had faced his fears and deepened his trust in God’s promises. And all of us knew of his serenity and inner freedom.
This serenity and inner freedom, born of a certain surrender, shine like light in the darkness. More significantly they speak of the power of life even in the face of death. Indeed, death presents itself to us as either an intense threat or as full of possibility. In so many ways, how we imagine death determines our living. We live according to the way we think about death. And we will die according to the way in which we have lived.
The story of Jesus transforms our understanding of death. Death still presents as an unknown to us, but its silence now is the silence of love, as Tom knew, rather than the silence of emptiness. And this makes all the difference to our living. Knowing death in this way, frees us to live – to live fully, to live without pretence and without defence, to live without grasping, without fear and without guilt.
The cross of Jesus is raised above us to remind us that the human experience of death is no longer the same because of him. His experience changes ours and opens out altogether new possibilities of life for us.
May the life which his death frees in us course strong and vibrant in us even as we face what darkness there might be in our life. Free to live, may we also be free to die knowing the life that is given to us forever.
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