Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

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By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

Don’t Be Brave

“You’re a wise woman; what are God’s words for me today?”

I was dumbstruck. How could Lois ask me that? I wondered.

Time seemed to stand still as I looked into my dear friend’s eyes, red and puffy from a week of tears and lack of rest. I glanced quickly around the small hospital room. My husband was quietly conversing with Rob, Lois’s husband. Their seven-year-old son, James, lay near death in the unkempt bed. He was moaning softly. The scabbed marks on his wrists and ankles betrayed the use of restraints that had tied him down during his earlier seizures. Rob had since convinced the hospital staff that the restraints were not needed if he lay on the bed with his feverish son. He stroked James’s face and arms with a damp cloth and murmured memories and endearments in an effort to keep him cool and calm. James was not only having complications from malaria and asthma, he was also experiencing heart problems caused by the differing medicines. The next morning, James would be flown on a life flight to Paris, France, from the small West African country where we all served as missionaries.

I closed my eyes and prayed. Lord, you said you would put words in our mouths. I don’t know what to say here.

When I opened my eyes, the movement of time was restored. Lois looked expectantly at me. I opened my mouth and only four words came out: “Lois, don’t be brave.” These were not words that my psychology professor would have approved, nor were they words that came from my experience as a pastor’s wife or missionary. In fact, I could not believe they had left my mouth at all, and my hand flew to cover my mouth as if to shove the unwanted words back.

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