Saturday morning was a service of thanksgiving. It was a wonderful time, with around 150 friends and family members joining together at All Souls to thank God for all his goodness. I'll write more about the service at some stage, but for now, I thought I would post the text from my reflection. A number of people asked for a copy and so I thought I'd make it generally available. Many of the ideas were taken from posts on my main blog over the last few months.
It’s great to be here today.
It’s great to still be here today!
Our church signboard just out here on the corner recently caused a stir with a message of just two words. Tim and I were called up by the local paper, The Glebe, which ran a short article on the sign. Numerous parishioners were asked about it, or overheard animated conversations as people walked past. It made it into column 8 of the Sydney Morning Herald. It even attracted the attention of a local graffiti artist, who wanted to express disagreement. The two-word message was simply this: Death sucks.
When I first received the diagnosis of cancer back in December, this was precisely how I felt. Life is a good gift from God, and so death, which ends that gift, sucks. I had no desire to die. And as my situation developed and my symptoms got worse, it was not just death, but all that led up to it and anticipated it, that also sucked. The loss of good things in life, the loss of easy breathing, the reduction of strength, the decline of my voice, the coughing, the compromise of physical comfort, the loss of a full night’s sleep - these too were all causes of grief. And even once treatment began and progress was being made in reducing the tumour, I still regretted the side-effects of treatment: the constant needles, the lessening of mental concentration, the confusion of memory, the swollen feet, the suppressed immune system, the burned and itchy skin, the painful swallowing, the perpetual tiredness. And this is before I mention the social effects: telling people that you have cancer means that for some people you become a walking symbol of their fears and regrets, a constant reminder of their mortality.
All these things have been part of my experience over the last few months. And now that they’re gone, and the possibility of imminent death has retreated somewhat, I am very thankful to God. Just like the psalmist in the passage Celia read (Psalm 116), I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, save my life!” and the LORD dealt bountifully with me. For he delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I still walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
God healed me. Through the doctors, through the chemotherapy, through the radiotherapy, through the prayers and love of many here, through his design of a good human body, through his life-giving Spirit, God healed me. Why? Like the psalmist, all I can say is our God is merciful.
Why me and not others? It would be tempting to give all kinds of answers to that question. But the truth is, I don’t know and don’t think anyone does. I know this, however: it wasn’t because I had more faith, or because I deserved it. Life is an unmerited gift. We can only accept it, and give thanks.
And so I thank God. I also thank God for all those through whom he has loved me over recent months: Jessica, my brothers and sisters here at All Souls and also at Barneys, all my relatives by blood and marriage, our friends, and even many whom I don’t know well directly, but who have been praying for us and generously giving love and support in all kinds of ways. Jessica and I thank God for all of you. I thank God that I’m alive to enjoy knowing you and being known by you.
It is a good thing this is not a funeral today. Death sucks. Life is a gift and for that we thank God.
But wait, there's more
But there is more to be said that this. It would be a shame to leave our reflections there and not dig deeper into this experience I’ve had and which so many of you have shared. Because what might we say if this was a funeral? What might we say if I go for my next scan in another month, or six months or six years, and the tumour is back, worse than ever?
The great taboo
Our culture doesn’t seem to know what to do with death. People seem to oscillate between denial and obsession. On the one hand, for most of the time, we live as though we won’t die: we arrange things so that the dead and dying are kept out of sight, out of mind; we stay busy and avoid silence in order to minimise reflection; we politely change the topic after an awkward silence if death does come up - as though we were trying to fool ourselves that it just might be possible to get out of this life alive. Yet, on the other hand, we’re obsessed with death: we spend billions of dollars each year on crisis healthcare, we demand doctors do everything in their power to keep us alive. To my mind, both denial and obsession seem to indicate that deep down, we’re terrified of death.
We pursue riches partially so we can try to insure ourselves against dying. We try to chase away terrorists with ever-tougher laws because we’re happy to pay any price to avoid the possibility of being killed. And when we do think about dying, we want our death to be quick and painless, we want a sudden death, to not know that it is coming so that we need not live in fear. Sometimes, it feels like this is almost the only thing left uniting our fractured society: we all share a fear of death.
Worse than death
But there are things that are worse than death. There are things more important than simply staying alive. And so while I have always wanted to do things that help me survive, I don’t want that effort to dominate my life and thought.
Why do I think there are things worse than death, things better than life? Because Jesus seems to have thought so too. He loved life as God’s good gift, but for Jesus, trusting and obeying the giver came before preserving the gift. When faced with the choice of obedience or survival, he prayed ‘not my will but yours be done’. He could have run. He could have kept his head down. He didn’t have a death-wish – he knew that death sucks. But he also knew there was something worse than death: a life that failed to trust God.
Death is bad, but untrusting anxiety, apathetic lethargy, bitter regret, faithless betrayal: these are the real enemies of God and humanity. These will blunt and bleed the soul, poison the spirit, and stop the heart more surely and grievously than the cessation of brainwaves and breath.
Bitterness, fear, apathy
For me, this was brought home sharply a day or two after getting the results of my first scan back in December. I clearly remember travelling home and realising that the more sinister danger facing me was not the wayward growth of cells in my chest, but the potential growth of bitterness or fear or apathy in my heart.
I could see myself becoming so fixated on my problems that my grief might sour into resentment, blinding me to all the good things with which life is filled, many of whom are sitting here in front of me. I could be so scared of what might happen, of pain that might come, of losing more abilities, so scared of missing out on the rest of my life that I could fail to live that life. Poisoned by bitterness, paralysed by fear, I might then give up and sink into apathy, losing the will to care about anything beyond my immediate physical needs.
These were the real dangers. To shrink into bitterness, fear and apathy would have been to lose part of my self.
Thankfulness, hope, love
But there was another option. Instead of bitterness, I could give thanks for all of God’s gifts. Instead of fear, I could place my hope in the God who raises the dead. Instead of losing myself in apathetic self-centredness, I could discover who I really am by loving and serving those around me.
God has given me so much: not only life and breath, but new life by his Spirit; not only a loving family and wonderful in-laws, but brothers and sisters who share the same Father in heaven; not only the best wife I’ve ever had but a saviour who gave his life for mine. I am blessed and double blessed. How can I not be thankful?
Of course, all these good gifts and many others don’t mean I don’t grieve. I do. One of the saddest moments for me was back at Christmas, when my two and a half year old nephew asked me to sing with him ‘Jesus loves me this I know’. I tried and nothing came out. I’m sad that my voice isn’t able to sing as I’d like to. I’m sad that plans and dreams have been put on hold. I’m sad that many others - including many of you here - have suffered far worse for far longer than I ever have. Yet avoiding bitterness doesn’t mean minimising or ignoring the darkness. The thanks and the grieving go together. This is because giving thanks is already an act of hope. I can give thanks even in the midst of disappointment and heartache, not because I think the pain is good, but because I know something of God’s future.
God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, as we heard in our second reading (Luke 23.50-24.9). Jesus overcame death. To speak of this resurrection doesn’t mean Jesus or his spirit went to some afterlife with God. This would simply be as though death were being redefined – you think he’s dead, but really he’s in a better place. No, the tomb was empty – why seek among the dead for one who is living once more? God didn’t rescue Jesus from death; he rescued him from out of death. He was given life again after the grave. Bodily life. Life in every sense of the word that we mean – and more.
Jesus’ resurrection shows that God hates death, and his solution is not transferring us to another world, but to renew this world, to resurrect dead bodies to new life beyond even the possibility of death. God’s promise is that those who find their lives turned upside down by Christ will also experience a resurrection like his. In fact, God will renew his entire world.
And because of this – why fear? God is thoroughly committed to his world. He has demonstrated his love for us in that Jesus died to reconcile us. He has demonstrated his power in raising him from the dead. He given us a taste of this in pouring out his Spirit upon those who belong to Christ. His project of renewing creation has begun. So I live in hope, not fear. Not hope that God will rescue me from death, but hope that he will rescue me – and all his good creation – from out of death. Hope that he will finish the job he began in Jesus’ resurrection. Hope that death will not have the last word. Hope that I will not be overcome by evil, but that evil will be overcome by our good God, who raises the dead.
And not only does this hope make sense of being thankful, despite all that is wrong with the world, it also highlights just how wrong the world is. If death was the end, we mightn’t like it, but we’d just have to get used to it.
Instead, being hopeful makes me less content with how things are now. Paul talks about groaning and yearning for the day when God raises the dead. Jesus himself said blessed are those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for things to be right. During the most painful parts of treatment, I would repeat to myself these beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they belong to God’s rule; blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for things to be right, for they will be filled. Jesus is basically saying that if you don’t like how things are now, and so join God’s protest and renewal movement, then you are blessed, because renewal is indeed coming. The dead will live again.
And this is why love makes more sense to me than apathy. If God’s project of life wins over death, then every life really counts, every person is of inestimable value, every act of service is divine. I can pour myself out for others, enjoying them without needing to protect myself.
Thanksgiving, hope, love: none of these are about cutting myself off from the world or ‘being philosophical’. None of them are about just trying to be positive. They all rely on what God has done in Jesus and on his promised future.
Theology and experience
When I was thinking about what to say today, a good friend suggested I talk more about my experience and my feelings than theology. The more I think about it, the more I find the two can’t be separated. How we feel, how we experience adversity and prosperity, how we react, are all inseparable from who we think we are, and ultimately, who we think God is.
And so every day each of us faces this question: Will I look back on the past with bitterness or thankfulness? Will I face the future fearfully or with hope? Will this moment be one for uncaring self-indulgence or joyful loving service?
Thank you Lord for you are good, your steadfast love endures forever. This is the day that you have made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.