…every life needs a hope of glory.
-Roo Panes, “Land of the Living”
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance… Ecclesiastes 3:4
I wept a lot that day. It started early, just after eight. He is always there early, usually before I come in bleary-eyed at 8:05. The first day I met him he was in his “spot”, drinking a Coke and reading a well-worn New Testament. Today he came in at 8:15, his wife rolling him in a wheelchair. He didn’t look good, hasn’t looked good for some time. He got up and then settled in a clinic chair. I wasn’t his nurse for the day, but I sat next to him. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Okay. Last week they gave me three weeks.” I looked at him, eyes wide. “To live?” He nodded.
He’s not young, but he’s too young for this. He has a five-year old great-granddaughter that lives out of state; every time she comes over he hides “treasure” and gives her a treasure map to locate it.
I asked to pray with him. It was quick; tears were welling in my eyes. I looked up, and his eyes were shining too. His wife came back with his coffee. She was crying.
I was teary-eyed throughout the rest of the day. And I ran after work and listened to a song and it was like water to a thirsty soul. I know our sweet man has nothing to fear. But I still hate this. I told God so. I started thanking Him for the man’s life, for his faith, and then I just started praying, “I hate this. God, I hate this.”
And in my journal, place of things that should be sacred and holy, uncensored thoughts flow out: “Damn it. Damn cancer.”
It’s easy to stay here, in this place of death. So many of our patients are headed that direction. It’s only when I get the chance to work with physicians and see the yearly follow-up patients that I remember, oh yeah, people kick this thing. But in the chemo room, it’s easy to meditate on the end of things.
Because he did die, two and a half weeks later.
And for that man, it feels like we walked with him to a doorway, one from beyond which no one has returned. And he passes through it and we stand at the doorway and cry and cry.
The girls and I have been reading through the wisdom books this past week. Ecclesiastes is strangely comforting as it sets forth the rhythm of life – “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”
It is strangely comforting- this is life and this is how it goes. Death isn’t new. And because of Jesus, the next stanza is more precious and poignant to me than ever.
“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”
For I live on this old tired earth and I am in the time of weeping, the time of mourning. There is laughter and dancing here too, but it doesn’t last. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is also great at pointing out that everybody dies. We laugh and dance and sing and play, but we are under death’s shadow.
But what if there is something better ahead, what if there’s another time coming? What if C.S. Lewis is right: “There are far, far greater things ahead than any we leave behind”? What if there’s a time for laughter and a time for dancing that won’t end or be marred by cancer or depression or tears or the drip, drip of the chemotherapy?
Jesus talks to the sister of a man who has died. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
“though he die, yet shall he live.” That doesn’t sound like living in death’s shadow…
What if we walked my sweet patient up to the door of death but just past that, just beyond where we can see, there is unending life and joy and kindness of a father and dancing and hugging? What if?
And praise God, I am most comforted, and shoot, downright joyful, when I remember this: through Jesus, God has made the passage of death simply an instant, a gateway, into the true land of the living. Because Jesus Christ himself walked right through that doorway of death, and then came back. He took the worst thing we know and literally made it untrue.
And there it is, the old catechism of the church: “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but should have everlasting life.” “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” “the thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”
We believe in death, the death of Christ for the iniquities of the world. We believe in our death, the death of our sinful selves upon the cross, and the death of the physical body on the earth. But we believe in life, and life eternal. Both his and ours.
And a friend posts this verse everywhere the day after the man told me he was dying, and it’s worth it to read it slow:
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
And so, with tears in my eyes, I anticipate the day that we’ll dance with Jesus. And this precious man, the one who came in the clinic every day and read his worn copy of the New Testament, he’ll be there too. And we’ll dance, for the joy of it all. For the glory of the lamb who overcomes the serpent and death. For the love of God that rescued us from the domain of death and darkness and brought us into the brilliant, whirling kingdom of his beloved Son. There we will learn a new rhythm, the one of life unto life. Of joy unto joy in the presence of the risen King.
And the tears are still there, but I can say with confidence: “O, death, where is thy victory? O, grave, where is thy sting?”
Because Jesus lives and because he loves us, we live. Friends, we live. Praise God.