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March 10, 2019

“Cancer, Suffering, Death, and other Fun Things”

March 10 * Deuteronomy 26:1-11 * Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 (UMH 810) * Romans 10:8b-13 * Luke 4:1-13

As you probably saw in the news, the actor Luke Perry died this week after suffering a stroke. Every week it seems we read about famous people dying, some we care about, some we don’t. I wasn’t exactly a fan of Luke Perry, but his passing caught my attention because he shared the same birth date as I do. Not just the day, but the year, also. Now I don’t have any of the “why him but not me” feelings, in fact I’m not exactly sure what I am feeling, it is just strange to have someone with your birth date die. It makes you think about life, and how much time you have left. As we live, we seek to find meaning in death as well as in life, and we question our priorities.

I have thinking a lot about death this week, and how the reality of it should make us strive to live our lives as best we can. Too often, we get caught up in the daily routines of living and forget that some day this life will come to an end, or maybe change into something very different at a moment’s notice while we are still here. When I first became a pastor, what I feared the most was losing church members when they died and having to perform their funerals. But now that I have lost track of the number of funerals I have done, the thought of death brings a strange sense of completion, of certainty even. Most of the funerals I have done were for people I didn’t know, especially at first, but even later when they were for people I deeply loved, there was a sense of comfort mixed with the pain of loss, for in most cases we could celebrate a life that had been lived well. I have yet to do a funeral for a young person, or a suicide, so my feelings about such things may change if I ever do, but there is a profound sense of sacredness when we say goodbye to someone for the last time. It reminds us to seek the sacred while we are still alive. Our death date becomes just as important as our birth date.

I have also come to realize that there are many things worse than death. Many things drag on, taking their toll, such us conflict, suffering, war, addictions, and the daily horrible things we do to each other. During our lifetimes we suffer in so many ways and try to find meaning from that suffering, as we look to God for comfort and protection. We are not told that living as Christ’s disciples will bring an end to our suffering in this life, but we are given the strength to persevere to the end. The Bible says many strange things about death that are hard to understand, and about how we should die to certain things. We are to join Jesus in his death now so that we can live into eternity. Even though we are still alive, we are to die to such things so that we can have new life in Christ, not just after we physically die, but now. We die several times, we also experience rebirths. Certainly, this is something we can hope for, but do we really understand what it means to live this way? This is essentially what Lenten practices are about, as we deny ourselves certain comforts in the hope that by such temporary sufferings, which are essentially meaningless little things anyway in the grand scheme of things, we will be better prepared to persevere through greater suffering and help to set our sights on what truly matters. In real life, too often we take the easy way out. When we are dealing with a difficult situation, we deny its reality, seeking comfort in food, alcohol, and other forms of self-medication. In dealing with difficult people, we often treat them like they are dead to us, ignoring them rather than doing the hard work of seeking compromise and understanding. Ignoring people is easier than going without chocolate or donuts for a few weeks. We can do better. We are promised eternal life, but we are not to wait around for it to begin. We are to live our lives fully right now, for Jesus has brought us into eternity within this life we are currently living.

When we look at Jesus’ temptation in the desert, we may have trouble identifying what he went through. We would fail in a second. However, his answer to each temptation is one we should follow, and that is to act in a selfless manner. He is offered three things that we all want: power, protection, and possession. Even though he is able, he declines to use his power. Certainly he is hungry, but he declines the short-term safety of immediate consumption so as to maintain God’s long-term plan. And instead of choosing to possess temporary, material things, he chooses to possess the Kingdom of God. He always chooses God over the devil. All these things God promises to us also, in varying degrees, we must be patient and wait for him to provide what he has in mind for us, at the time that he thinks is best. We may say we worship God and defy the devil, but we can’t see things as clearly as Jesus can. Too often, we chose the versions the devil offers of these things, when we are selfish and impatient. Lent is a time when we practice little acts of self-denial so that we can refocus on the eternal promises of God, and hopefully learn to be patient. Each of us has our own temptations and suffering, but anyone who calls on the Lord will be saved. We often look to Jesus as our model of what to do when we are under temptation, but this story is not about us. It makes clear that Jesus is superior to us in so many ways. None of us would survive what he went through, for we are easy targets of the devil. We are deceived without even recognizing his presence. We can only stand in awe of Jesus’ victory over the devil here and later.

The main reason I have been thinking about death lately is because I am reading a book called “The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After” by Julie Yip-Williams. The author was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer while in her mid-thirties, and wrote the book knowing that she most likely was going to die in the very near future. She died in March of last year, and the book was published just last month, her only book. She tells the story of her life with the knowledge that her life will soon come to an end. She was born legally blind in Vietnam, shortly after the fall of Saigon, and from the very beginning had a life of hardship and suffering. Her greatest suffering though came from knowing that she will never get to see her two daughters grow up, and that she is not the only one suffering, her anguish is intensified by seeing her husband and others suffer because of her impending death. Being so aware of her death gives an intensity to her life and allows her to draw meaning that would be outside of the awareness of most of us. At the begin of her book, she includes a letter to her daughters. Here is passage from that letter:

Dear Mia and Isabelle…

Although I did not grow up motherless, I suffered in a different way and understood at an age younger than yours that life is not fair. I looked at all the other kids who could drive and play tennis and who didn’t have to use a magnifying glass to read, and it pained me in a way that maybe you can understand now. People looked at me with pity, too, which I loathed. I was denied opportunities, too; I was always the scorekeeper and never played in the games during PE…For a child, there is nothing worse than being different, in that negative, pitiful way. I was sad a lot. I cried in my lonely anger. Like you, I had my own loss, the loss of vision, which involved the loss of so much more. I grieved. I asked why. I hated the unfairness of it all.

My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life. But I do know that there is incredible value in pain and suffering, if you allow yourself to experience it, to cry, to feel sorrow and grief, to hurt. Walk through the fire and you will emerge on the other end, whole and stronger. I promise. You will ultimately find truth and beauty and wisdom and peace. You will understand that nothing lasts forever, not pain, or joy. You will understand that joy cannot exist without sadness. Relief cannot exist without pain. Compassion cannot exist without cruelty. Courage cannot exist without fear. Hope cannot exist without despair. Wisdom cannot exist without suffering. Gratitude cannot exist without deprivation. Paradoxes abound in this life. Living is an exercise in navigating within them.

I was deprived of sight. And yet, that single unfortunate physical condition changed me for the better. Instead of leaving me wallowing in self-pity, it made me more ambitious. It made me more resourceful. It made me smarter. It taught me to ask for help, to not be ashamed of my physical shortcoming. It forced me to be honest with myself and my limitations, and eventually to be honest with others. It taught me strength and resilience.

You will be deprived of a mother. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you.

Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways. Rejoice in life and all its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me. Be grateful in a way that only someone who lost her mother so early can, in your understanding of the precariousness and preciousness of life. This is my challenge to you, my sweet girls, to take an ugly tragedy and transform it into a source of beauty, love, strength, courage, and wisdom.

Many may disagree, but I have always believed, always, even when I was a precocious little girl crying alone in my bed, that our purpose in this life is to experience everything we possibly can, to understand as much of the human condition as we can squeeze into one lifetime, however long or short that may be. We are here to feel the complex range of emotions that come with being human. And from those experiences, our souls expand and grow and learn and change, and we understand a little more about what it really means to be human. I call it the evolution of the soul. Know that your mother lived an incredible life that was filled with more than her “fair” share of pain and suffering, first with her blindness and then with cancer. And I allowed that pain and suffering to define me, to change me, but for the better.

In the years since my diagnosis, I have known love and compassion that I never knew possible; I have witnessed and experienced for myself the deepest levels of human caring, which humbled me to my core and compelled me to be a better person. I have known a mortal fear that was crushing, and yet I overcame that fear and found courage. The lessons that blindness and then cancer have taught me are too many for me to recount here, but I hope, when you read what follows, you will understand how it is possible to be changed in a positive way by tragedy and you will learn the true value of suffering. The worth of a person’s life lies not in the number of years lived; rather it rests on how well that person has absorbed the lessons of that life, how well that person has come to understand and distill the multiple, messy aspects of the human experience. While I would have chosen to stay with you for much longer had the choice been mine, if you can learn from my death, if you accepted my challenge to be better people because of my death, then that would bring my spirit inordinate joy and peace.

You will feel alone and lonely, and yet, understand that you are not alone. It is true that we walk this life alone, because we feel what we feel singularly and each of us makes our own choices. But it is possible to reach out and find those like you, and in so doing you will feel not so lonely. This is another one of life’s paradoxes that you will learn to navigate. First and foremost, you have each other to lean on. You are sisters, and that gives you a bond of blood and common experiences that is like no other. Find solace in one another. Always forgive and love one another…

And last, wherever I may go, a part of me will always be with you. My blood flows within you. You have inherited the best parts of me. Even though I won’t physically be here, I will be watching over you…

I have often dreamed that when I die, I will finally know what it would be like to see the world without visual impairment, to see far into the distance, to see the minute details of a bird, to drive a car. Oh, how I long to have perfect vision, even after all these years without. I long for death to make me whole, to give me what was denied me in this life. I believe this dream will come true. Similarly, when your time comes, I will be there waiting for you, so that you, too, will be given what was lost to you. I promise. But in the meantime, live, my darling babies. Live a life worth living. Live thoroughly and completely, thoughtfully, gratefully, courageously, and wisely. Live!

I love you both forever and ever, to infinity, through space and time. Never ever forget that.

-Mommy (Julie Yip-Williams. The Unwinding of the Miracle. Random House)

Being a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey, sometimes through green meadows beside still waters, but often through the valley of the shadow of death. As disciples of Jesus, we should not be afraid of death, but then we shouldn’t just wait around for it either. When our death day comes, we want to leave knowing that we have been good and faithful servants, and that we have had full lives. We are here today because we know that Jesus provides the way to a full life now, he grows us through the good and the bad, and leads us into a complete life with him in eternity. And so we ask ourselves today: What is the next step on the journey?

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