Today is World Cancer Day. This morning my social media streams contained a steady drip of reminders about it. Some were stories of hope and healing, but more were of battle and bereavement.
Even the word “cancer” is difficult. As a descriptor of illness it’s so incredibly general as to be practically semantically empty, but simultaneously its utterance has an almost unparalleled power to conjure deep fears about our mortality and the inescapability of death. Of course, not all cancer stories end that way, and I’m glad to know many who have battled and won. But the fear reaction still prevails, doesn’t it?
Everyone seems to have a personal cancer story of some sort. Mine is of the loss of my father. He died of the disease after several years of illness, when I was six. In those days, people didn’t talk about death with children as we might now. I have vague memories of medical paraphernalia and hospital car parks, but little else, and a quick return to school after his funeral was accompanied only by a comment from a classmate that the class teacher had told the other kids to “be nice” to me.
We dealt less well with childhood experiences of bereavement in those days than I hope we do now. I came to terms with my father’s death later in life, and alone. By contrast, though, in ministry I am regularly alongside people in the midst of suffering: those battling disease; the dying; and the grieving. In recent times I have been fortunate to be alongside some people whose end of life experiences have been characterised much more by intimacy, tenderness, care and peace than by the sense that there is unfinished or badly done business.
There are no easy answers to human suffering. And really, if we are honest we have to say that sometimes we have no good explanations at all. Nevertheless, there’s a stream of literature within the Christian tradition that explores the ‘art of dying’, and what it might mean to die “well”. It’s rooted in the conviction that to achieve such a death is the work of a lifetime, and proposes that the best way to prepare is to live well. For Christians, that means seeking to become more like Jesus, by living day by day as a disciple, trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in us to make us more like Christ. In the end, this “looks like” our developing (even – or perhaps especially! – in ways we don’t see in ourselves) virtues and growing fruit that help us and others to cope with human finitude: love, patience, peace, self-control…
I’ll say it again, though: achieving a good death is not an easy thing, and I think when we see it, it’s a clear instance of the grace of God and the work of the Spirit.
Coming to terms with our own mortality and that of others is important but difficult. Even for Jesus it was a struggle: praying in Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the knowledge of his impending death. He asked God to make things different, but was prepared to be obedient (“remove this cup… yet, not what I want, but what you want…”). It was a huge step of trust, though, and it didn’t result in him avoiding suffering; quite the opposite, in fact. Yet for Jesus death was not the end. This of course is the Good News: death is not the end.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15:51-58)