Terminal. Palliative care. Hospice. The end of life. The delicate and often postponed subject of our mortality. If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t anticipate the end of life, we think we will live well into our 80’s maybe even the 90’s. We never consider life ending earlier than our expectations. At least I didn’t.
Living in the world of cancer, we are on the roller coaster ride of our life, literally. I have never experienced such ups and downs. First, you never even consider you could be diagnosed with the beast and, second, once you are, all you can do is sit down and hang on ‘cuz you don’t know . . . that’s it, you don’t know.
“You have cancer.” The three most dreaded words that no one wants to hear. They are unexpected, they are shocking, they are mind numbing. As the doctor mumbles on with what comes next, our mind races with unanswerable questions, as in “How bad is it?”, to the mortal reality, “I could die.” Some of us simply move into denial and others of us move into panic and then after our mind regains the ability to think rationally, we settle down and begin the process of annihilating this disease. (Annihilate: to reduce to utter ruin or nonexistence; destroy utterly)
So who thinks this way? The non-believing, non-religious person? The born-again, believing Christian, the religious person? I think I can safely say, every human responds this way regardless of belief or future hope. After all, we are human and it is our nature strive to live and outwit a premature death; striving to live is the common ground of humanity.
If you have not had to face the reality of a terminal illness and possibly an “untimely” death, this probably sounds like a foreign language to you. That is what is was for me. Cancer was like a foreign language and something other people had and my response to another person diagnosed with cancer was I felt bad for them, that was about as close as I could come to empathizing with their pain.
Anger verses hope. Despair verses peace. Fear verses promise. I think we all want to have a hope, but what are we putting our hope in? Is our hope in the medical team? Is our hope in the chemotherapy? Is our hope in pursuing the holistic approach? Is our hope in finding that miracle cure that is purportedly out there? Is it in yourself? Or have you relinquished all that and turn to Jesus as your promised Hope?
This last week the “circle of life” ended for a woman in our church who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer one year ago. We are left with a sadness and a sorrow for her family at her passing. She wasn’t cured but lost her battle with this unrelenting beast. But did she lose?
Our pastor wrote the following in our Sunday bulletin and after last week’s tightrope walk balancing between anger and hopelessness and hope and peace, I couldn’t have written anything more poignant.
The Circle of Life or Christian Endings
by Pastor Hal
We are familiar with the term “circle of life” or “succession of cycles” coming into our vernacular from the East and associated more with Hinduism and Buddhism. In the “succession of cycles” or reincarnation, absolute perfection cannot be attained in one life. A person must have many births and each birth adds a little more to his merit until eventually immortality and freedom are attained. (Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda)
In Christianity we are not dealing with a “circle of life” or a “succession of cycles.” In Christianity, we are always pushing toward endings. The Bible doesn’t tell of a circle; it tells a story of hope, directed to an ending. The Christian faith is not so much like going around the block; it’s more like finding a home at the end of the street. To the Christian, the final home isn’t simply a return to how things were, but to a universe remade, to what the last book of the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” As the old spiritual says, “We’re on our way to glory.”
Is this hope pure “escapism” or what Bruce Cockburn calls the “sweet fantasia of the safe home” – a fantasy or naïve optimism? The philosopher Nietzsche warned us long ago about the people who hold our long-term hope.
Death is the reality hovering like a vulture over everything – the ending of all endings, the reality that threatens every hope. But there is an ending which we do not create, but which God gives. John 11:26 says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Every Christian lives with a sense of God’s ending!”
(acknowledgement due Jeremy S. Begbie, Professor Systemic Theology at Duke Divinity School)
To all of us who call ourselves Christians, our hope is not in our horizontal circumstantial “realities” but our vertical gaze upward to the Resurrection and Life. If we place our hope in this life we are bound to be let down and in defeat we may feel anger, despair and fear – hopeless as we face our mortality. When our life ends it is an ending indeed and what awaits is the promise of Jesus Christ, life eternal. This is our hope, our peace and our promise.