Tag Archives: cancer

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

attachmentOnce one of the most beautiful women I knew, her glory is fading. Cancer has sealed her throat, stopping the ready laughter and stilling the spry step that I knew her by. Pain is her constant companion, cutting her off from food, from sleep, from being able to enjoy much of anything. My soul revolts at the thought of her bright eyes dulled with pain, her pretty jaw clenched with suffering. And though her spirit fights on, her body is wasting away.

This is so wrong.

Flowers aren’t supposed to be crushed mid-bloom. Beautiful symphonies aren’t supposed to be cut off mid-note. Exquisite works of art aren’t supposed to be ruthlessly defaced.

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

It insists on corroding beauty, on stealing away the final remnant of God’s image in human flesh. And as I watch it do its nasty work in my friend, my soul cries out in protest.

I feel like I am watching glory depart from a temple.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…”
Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection.
Ezekiel 24:15-16, 21

Ezekiel bore the burden of this agonizing process twice over, both times helplessly watching the delight of his eyes being snuffed out. His wife’s premature death was more than a personal loss—it was a tangible enactment of the bigger story he was a part of. That story was one that he was chosen by God to witness and proclaim: the departure of God’s glory from His temple.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 9:3; 10:18-19

Carried up in a vision to see it happening, Ezekiel could hardly bear the sight of God’s Spirit leaving the Jerusalem temple. Like the worst kind of death, the fading glory of God’s presence lifting out of its physical dwelling tore at his heart, bereaving him of his most beautiful treasure. What had been a magnificent structure, befitting the glorious Spirit who filled it, was left behind to decay and crumble.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.
I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Ezekiel 37:5-6, 26-27

But in the midst of his overwhelming grief, Ezekiel was assured that both of these losses were a gruesome step in an otherwise glorious process. The Spirit would return; the glory would re-ignite. But it wouldn’t look the way it had before. The destruction of one beautiful structure was making room for another.

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
This season we celebrate the return of God’s glory to its temple, the coming of His Spirit to a new physical dwelling. Expected and yet not, the birth of Jesus was the reunification of Spirit with body. The glory of heaven returned to earth. The fullness of God contained in one physical space. And yet it didn’t stop there.

The destruction of that temple gave rise to another. The desecration of that sanctuary sanctified another. The emptying of that body gave fullness to another.

This is the reality in which my friend is now participating. Body and soul, she is an integral part of that majestic dwelling, the earthly temple of the Heavenly Spirit. Her life on earth has been a glorious reflection of the Spirit in whose image she was created. The beauty of her face has mirrored the beauty of her spirit, full of joy, of love, of life.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-6

And now as her physical beauty fades, the beauty within shines all the more brightly. She has spent a lifetime gazing on the beauty of God, and the beauty of His Spirit has settled deep within hers. Even as her bodily temple is being destroyed, her truest beauty remains unscathed, radiant for all to see.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:36-37, 42-43, 54

As much as it breaks my heart to hear of her suffering, to know of her slow, painful demise, I look forward through my tears to the end of her story. Her magnificent temple is crumbling, but it is making way for another. The beautiful form by which I have always recognized her will depart, but the spirit it has housed will one day return to its dwelling. I don’t know what that new version will look like, but I do know it will be even more gloriously beautiful than the old.

Death may win this day. But it will lose that one.

Unfading glory.

As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

The Gain in Pain

“What is the benefit of my having this cancer?” My mother voices the question we have both been struggling with over the past few days together. I look over at her weak, post-operative body and wonder why she has to go through this. What is being accomplished through her pain? Where is the value in her suffering, or for that matter, in the suffering of the abused, the poor, the sick, or the relationally miserable?

Suffering deepens our bonds with God and with each other.

When I consider the suffering of the young concubine who was tossed out the door by her cowardly husband, gang-raped to death by a violent mob, and then carved up and distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel, I want to shake my head in disgust over such horrific, unnecessary suffering. What was the point of her going through all that? And yet God’s response to her suffering compels me to take a second look at its significance.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 22:7, 15-16

Jesus entered into her experience. Hundreds of years later He completed her story, walking through the same experiences of rejection, betrayal, physical and sexual abuse, and brutal, unjust death. But the night before He was slaughtered as the Passover Lamb, He explained the significance of His own death with a ritual that re-enacted hers.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” …
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”
Luke 22:19-20, 28

Body broken into pieces and distributed to the twelve. Blood poured out in the place of others’. A solemn charge to remember His sufferings. A sacred call to walk with Him through them.

Jesus communed with that unloved woman by sharing in her suffering. In turn, He invites us to commune with Him by sharing in His sufferings.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…
Philippians 3:10

Each time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we relive His experience, and in so doing we enter into deeper relationship with Him. Each time we ourselves suffer, we are afforded the opportunity to walk a mile in His shoes, to be further bonded to Him through shared experience.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
2 Corinthians 1:5, 7

Temptation. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Rejection. Physical pain. Emotional distress. Each time we experience these, another layer is pulled back in our understanding of Jesus, in our ability to truly know Him. And as His sufferings overflow into our lives, so does the comfort of increasing intimacy with Him. We share in His sufferings and He communes with us in ours. But the cycle of fellowship doesn’t stop there.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
Colossians 1:24

Our suffering becomes a bridge that spans time and space, connecting Jesus’ past ordeals with others’ current misery. As we live out His experiences, we incarnate Him before the people around us. Through us they witness His sufferings on their behalf, and through us they receive His comforting love. And in the process we bond with each other in a deep, meaningful relationship, one that we will share with Him and each other for eternity.

So as I watch my mother hunched in pain, as I witness the scars on her body, I see a bitter-sweet story playing out in front of me. Pain leading to comfort. Agony leading to glory. Her suffering is connecting her to Christ. His suffering is being completed through her. This doesn’t downplay her struggle or alleviate her pain, but it does infuse it with a profound significance. Her suffering is allowing her to participate in the divine, to be brought into perfect unity with God. Sacred suffering. Holy communion.

What to Expect When We’re Suffering

I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!

But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?

What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.

So what are we to expect now?

The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.

…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8

But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?

Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5

Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57

As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.

He is risen. Our turn is coming!