Joy in Life and Death

What would change for us if we used different language for disease and death? If we stopped fighting and started journeying.

“Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes,” or so the saying goes. I don’t have much to say about taxes but I have been thinking a lot about death lately. I work in two long-term care homes where death is very evident, and as Chaplain I get asked to do more funerals than weddings and baptisms. I have been wondering lately why, since death is inevitable, the language we use around death is so often about war? We talk about someone “losing their battle with cancer” and see commercials for beauty products that “fight the signs of aging.”

Perhaps I should not be too surprised. The Bible is full of war imagery. From 2 Samuel 22:30 – “With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall” – to the Psalms –  “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle,” (144:1) – to the apostle Paul: “Therefore put on the full armour of God” (Eph.6:13). And as Christian ministers we often talk about Christ as defeating death, quoting 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Are these passages helpful metaphors that spoke primarily to the people of that time or are they intrinsic to understanding God’s message to us?

Of course, death is not only spoken about in terms of battle in Scripture. Paul writes that “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11: 25-26). Maybe we’d benefit from describing death in other ways as well. 

“Battling disease seems like a bad idea to me,” writes Jarem Sawatsky, a Christian in Manitoba who lives with Huntington’s Disease. “The idea that waging a battle against my body will someday lead to health strikes me as crazy. Why would we wish war on someone who already has a disease?” (Dancing with Elephants, 127). Sawatsky chooses to use other metaphors to describe his journey with a terminal disease, preferring to think in terms of “deep listening” and “dancing with elephants,” finding that it helps him to work toward health and living the best way he can, given his circumstances.

Changing course
I wonder what would change for us if we used different language for disease and death. If we stopped fighting and started journeying. Let me explain, using an experience our family had this summer. We camped a few nights at Chutes Provincial Park near Sudbury, Ontario. The campground is next to a river with seven waterfalls! The swimming area is at the bottom of one of the falls. While enjoying a summer afternoon, we imitated other campers: put on our life jackets, made our way to the bottom of the falls and floated, allowing the current to push us downstream. After about 260 meters, it is necessary to climb out of the river – who knows where we would have ended up if we let the current push us further? 

But suddenly it was more challenging than we realized to get out. The current had pushed us to the opposite shore. With two of our sons, I started swimming directly across the river, fighting the current with every stroke. Perhaps a strong swimmer could do this, but for us it was a lot of hard work that got us nowhere; it was scary and exhausting. Instead, my husband taught us how to use the current to our advantage, allowing it to push us downstream while angling our bodies at about 45 degrees. This brought us to our destinations, refreshed and ready to go again!

I wonder how life would be different if, instead of “fighting” aging and “battling” disease and death, we journey with it, allowing our experiences to push us downstream while continuing to go in the direction we need to go.

Christ has conquered death
This does not mean we give up on life or that we give in to disease, or ignore it. It means that we learn to live, allowing God to use every experience to work in our lives. My mother-in-law had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an incurable form of cancer. For years she lived with the disease, going to the cancer centre every few months for a check up but having no treatment. She lived with the symptoms, as the treatment would have been worse than the disease. But after a few years the disease progressed and the symptoms became worse. Then she started treatments, hoping to prolong her life and minimize the symptoms. The treatments were unpleasant and made her feel ill but they were effective for a time. Her life still revolved around family, her house, her garden and travelling. She made time for trips to the cancer centre and found ways of enjoying the time she got to spend with my husband on those days. One nurse at the cancer centre once told them she always smiled when she saw my mother-in-law’s name on her appointment list. My mother-in-law’s life was not about battling the cancer that did eventually lead to her death, but about living each experience as it came.

When one fights aging or battles a disease, the focus becomes aging or the disease rather than about life. Why give disease and death more power, more focus, than it deserves? Christ has already conquered death, and death is not the threat it once was. It is not something we need to fear. We can live our lives around what is important to us. Then, instead of leaving life exhausted, scared and defeated, we can leave life refreshed and filled with joy, ready for what God has in store for us.


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