Finding Life in a Death Sentence
- Tuesday, September 23, 2008
"Dead Man Walking" is an award-winning movie about a death row inmate awaiting his execution. The story line deals realistically with what's involved in facing that long walk toward death.
Last night, I met a dead woman walking. But she faces death, not from crimes against the state, but from the broken human bodies we all inherited from Adam and Eve’s rebellion.
Her elegance and style caught my eye. She wore a dramatic, flowing dress in rich shades of green. In the fading light of dusk, we began to chat as we both waited for the concert hall doors to open. In spite of the lilt in her voice, I could see the “death sentence” on her face. This lovely woman was approaching the end of a long battle with cancer. She was on a special outing with her husband to a musical performance … maybe her last public excursion.
As we got acquainted, she told her story as casually as one would talk about a change in the season. With great energy she talked about “the chemo room” and how, as a psychologist, she’d had profound spiritual dialogues with others who were facing their own health crises. She rejoiced in the way God’s kindness was so evident in allowing for her upcoming hospice care to be arranged with Christian caregivers through her HMO. “Only He could have done that!”
While she spoke, I was struck with the tragic paradoxes that cancer fighters face: What is it like to have life sustaining toxins run through your arteries? What is it like to lose the very parts of your body that exemplified your femininity? What is it like to see fear in your family’s eyes and to face your own fears at the same time? What is it like to beg God for healing and not receive it?
I was reluctant. Her story enthralled me, but our conversation felt like an invasion of privacy. Death is a topic that even close friends tiptoe around. Amazingly, here I was conversing about such things with a virtual stranger. With the guileless candor of a child, she seemed to enjoy sharing the details of her story. I had a dawning awareness that she was ushering me into a sacred, intimate place. What an uncommon gift she, a dying woman, was giving to me, a total stranger.
As I gazed into her spirited eyes, she was the embodiment of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Although her skin was pallid and lacked the rosy glow associated with health, her true self radiated a deeper reality. Her “weight of glory” far surpassed her affliction because it was reflecting the lasting beauty of her true identity. How ironic that the ugliness of death could actually show forth the transcendent beauty of her spirit, much like a ring setting shows off the brilliance of a priceless diamond.
As each of us anticipates our own end, will that be true of us? Will the “eternal weight of glory” be obvious? Will eternal truths be lived out? Or will they just remain ancient words in our Bible?
Perhaps this woman had heard this passage in a sermon or Bible study; perhaps she even memorized it. Even so, it’s not enough to simply cite Bible verses. While the scriptures are true, they aren’t a magic carpet that whisks us away to a spiritual Pleasantville in times of crisis.
Unfortunately, many of us sit in church week after week and receive a steady diet of biblical doctrine, spiritual facts and miraculous stories. Despite this constant menu of spiritual food, we might still suffer from spiritual anemia if the truth isn’t internalized into the fabric of our soul. It’s even possible that we might faithfully have regular quiet times with little more than “devout indifference.” Eugene Peterson expounds on this danger in “Eat This Book:”
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