Living even though we are dying

Some friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a serious diagnosis that takes time to come to terms with. Often there is difficult treatment to face; surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The treatment may continue over many months and there are side effects to cope with. The support of specialist nurses through organisations like McMillan and Marie Curie enables patients to be cared for at home. In a recent advert a person who was being cared for by Marie Curie nurses said, “They helped me to live even though I was dying.”

Death is the one event we must all, one day, face. Coming to terms with our mortality is important if we are to know how we should live now. Facing death makes us seek answers to vitally important questions. Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? Is there life after death? If one day I must face my Maker, how should I be living? Finding the answers to these questions enables us to live even though we are dying.

The Bible tell us about the God who created all things. Our life is a gift from God and not the result of chance events. God knows each of us personally. In Psalm 139 David says, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Everyone who comes to know God in the last days of their life wishes they had come to know him sooner.

The God who created us also sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to give us the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Trusting in Jesus we live our lives in daily fellowship him and know that, when we die, we shall go to be with him in heaven. When I was in school, we sang a hymn which is a prayer about knowing God both in living and in dying; “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in my eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at mine end, and at my departing.”

The power of forgiveness

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and her sister Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

Coming home

In the coming weeks birds, who have migrated to warmer countries for the winter, will begin to return to Britain. In recent years a pair of swallows was spotted on the last day of February. Swallows winter in Southern Africa and fly more than 9000 miles to return to Britain. Returning early has its risks, especially if we have a spell of cold winter weather and their food is in short supply.

If we have a happy home, then coming home, after being away, is a very positive experience. Familiar places, and people we know and love, are very reassuring. Home is where we belong and find security. When we are at home we can relax and know we are accepted. When we arrive at our home we don’t knock the door so that someone can let us in, because we have a key to the door. However enjoyable a visit to another place may be, there is nothing quite like coming back to our own home.

Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son asked his father if he could have his share of the inheritance. When his father gave it to him, the son left home and went to a distant country. He wanted to be free to enjoy himself and do what he wanted to do. It wasn’t long before he had spent all the money and was alone in a strange place. He realised that there was only one place to which he could go, so he set off on the long journey home. He knew he would have to admit to his father that he had made a big mistake, and had done many wrong things, and ask for his forgiveness. As he got near his father’s house, his father saw him and ran to him and embraced him and kissed him. He experienced his father’s love in a way he had never known before, because he had been taken up with himself and the pleasures the world offers. Now he had truly come home.

We all need to know where we belong and to come home to God. Like the son in Jesus’ story, we may feel we have failed and be sad and lonely. We need to experience the love of God in Jesus as we have never known it before. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”