I've finally found something I feel strongly enough about to write on.
Denise Spencer wrote a post a couple of days ago about Michael Spencer's last days and the upshot of it was that his last days were ugly and painful. His last days were not the peaceful beatific kinds of days we often hear about of Christians who pass into heaven peacefully with visions of angels and loved ones. In fact, nearly from the time he was diagnosed till his passing he never had a good day.
Denise begins her story with excerpts from several death stories she had collected where people had a kind of beatific death and how she is so tired of them because she and Michael had nothing of the kind. Here's a summary:
Where were the visions? The angels? The heavenly music soundtrack? Michael fought a hard fight and he died a hard death. And that was that.
She shares her hopes that Michael would have had a respite and her subsequent anger at God over the whole thing. It's hard to read, and yet essential to read.
I left a comment over that was started growing into one of those blog comments that is longer than the post, so I cut it a bit short and decided I would come and finish it up over here.
Denise's story opened the floodgates on many thoughts and emotions I have had over the last year and a half, thoughts that may be appropriate to share now. If you read the "death stories" that Denise has collected, then read Michael's story and then read some of the comments on that post from palliative care nurses you will see that these stories of the blessed death that we like to float in Christian circles are a tiny minority.
Indeed I have seen and heard of a few myself. My stepfather's death was relatively peaceful and I and my family were with him at the time. He had been sedated and in the middle of the night started a breathing pattern that my mom recognized as the death rattles and she called us all in. His death rattles were relatively short and he seemed to pass away peacefully. I recently heard of a friend who died who was sedated, woke up and said "he's here" and then went to sleep and passed very quickly.
On the other hand I can remember traveling from Florida to West Virginia to be with my grandfather. We were too late, he had passed away minutes before we arrived. But when I saw his body passed away it was in a twisted and contorted shape and had an expression of obvious pain. It seemed clear to me that he did not die quietly and peacefully.
I am well behind Michael in my own battle, but the stories Denise shared have a lot in common with the stories I hear, on another level. I find that very few Christians are able to accept that we live in a fallen world. Thus, we tell the beatific stories, whether they be stories of blessed deaths or miraculous healings and speak of them as if they are the norm to which every Christian can aspire and should expect.
The truth is much uglier than that. Most deaths are ugly. Very few of even the most faithful Christians are healed. In his book I Told Me So, Greg Ten Elshoff writes
Terminal cancer wards are full of patients who believe things we all know to be radically improbable. They believe that they will be one of the very, very few who fight back and win-or that they’ll be the recipient of a miracle healing in response to the prayers of friends and family. It’s not just that they believe that they could get better-that God could perform a miracle on their behalf. In this they’re surely correct. No. They believe they will get better-that God will perform a miracle on their behalf. Nearly all of them are wrong. And anyone familiar with the statistics is well situated to see that they are. But-and this is the most salient part for our discussion-nobody corrects them. In fact, they are encouraged to persist in these highly improbable beliefs.
I have been uniquely blessed in that I have only had a small minority of counselors who fit the mold of Job's counselors. Most of the people who surround me ask how I'm doing, tell me they are praying for me, stay quiet and listen and engage in normal conversation with me as if I were a normal human being.
But one Job's counselor has a multiplied effect. These are the ones who come with something to say. Most are loaded with advice on some new horrific diet I should eat or some obscure alternative theory. Then there are the spritual Jobians. My first spiritual Jobian had a story of a weird undiagnosed disease that he thought was AIDS, but when he finally got right with God in the midst of this the diagnosis came in that it was nothing significant and he moved on. His message to me was that if I would get right with God I would be healed.
All of this kind of stuff mirrors what Denise was trying to convey. She didn't put it this way, but Christians know the glory story but they don't know the cross story. The glory story is that the Christian path is one of glory, observable, overcoming, obviously seen glories as the Christian triumphs over all his enemies. Thus, the Christian has ears to hear the stories of miraculous healings and beatific deaths because those are glory stories. These people live in a world where we can practice a mechanistic kind of magic with God. For the health freaks, if I would just I would just imbibe a magic potion concocted by nutritional wizards then like magic I would be healed. In the spiritual version, a performance of certain rituals of self-exam followed by the prescribed repentance and obedience would free me from my physical ailments. In any case, whereas doctors are reticent to describe what brought on the cancer simply because the factors that can contribute to any given cancer are innumerable, the glory-story folks know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I brought this cancer on myself and it is up to me to reform myself physically or get right with God. In each case, suffering is not something a Christian should have to endure and God's only role in it His deliverance of us from it, if we will meet the conditions.
The cross story says that suffering is the path of the Christian. If you are a Christian, more than likely you will not go gently into that good night, and I am not using that phrase in its original context. In the original context Dylan Thomas urges us to rage and fight against death until the last moment. What I am saying is that if you are Christian your death and maybe even the years leading to it, may not be gentle.
That is the ugly truth I want to write about and I will try to write some more about in coming days is that we still live in a fallen world. We should no more expect an easy life and death than did the apostles who often died gruesome deaths, nor should we expect greater ease than the many Christians throughout most of history who have met Christ face to face at the end of starvation, disease, or persecution.
The ugly truth is that the fall still applies and the fall means that the Christian path is a cross bearing path - if you are a Christian expect that life will be harder than you initially imagined it would
The beautiful reality is that the fall cannot obscure God. God is near and dear to the broken hearted. Often in the midst of great pain one senses the presence of God - I know I have. It's not something that can be seen or articulated and in fact those who watch you suffer would probably conclude that God is not there. But the theology of the cross teaches that God hides Himself in suffering, He does not display Himself. I think that's one of the big differences between glory story people and cross people. The glory-storyists want God to display Himself - obviously, to the sight, publicly, in spectacular ways. The cross people believe that God is a God who is quiet, hidden away, is masked in His creation, but is especially made known in suffering.
I'll write a bit more on this in the days to come. I would like to address some of the ways we Christians are less than helpful when we latch on to alternative healing techniques, charismatic healing techniques, falsely optimistic patterns of hope and the like. The truth is that these are distractions, not only for the suffering, but for the rest of us too.
The thing that distinguishes the suffering Christian is that Christ is with Him - nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.