posted by Amy on May 14
This is inspired by the comments on cancer support sites, and in other places. When someone dies they say she “got her wings” and “there’s a new angel in heaven.” When someone shares that she is struggling they say to “stay strong” and “stay positive.” When someone asks, “Why me?” there’s usually no response, though sometimes supposedly religious people point out how unfair it is that good people suffer when so many bad people seem to do well.
No, Virginia, people don’t turn into angels when they die. Angels as depicted in the Bible are a separate class of being. We don’t even know what they look like, despite all the artists’ conceptions showing human forms with wings. Read Isaiah 6 for an interesting description of seraphs, another class of heavenly being. All we know is that angels are messengers from God and they must be scary. The first words out of their mouths are always, “Don’t be afraid.” I personally like the idea of God sending somebody scary to tell me not to be afraid. Maybe cancer is that kind of messenger.
The idea that God rewards good people and punishes bad people, and that if you are suffering you must have done something to deserve it, is reflected in the Bible, but the book of Job refutes it. Job’s friends try to get him to repent so God will quit punishing him, but Job insists he did nothing wrong. I once heard a sermon on Job that said it meant God gave the Adversary permission to hurt Job, so nothing bad happens unless God allows it. That made me cringe. Some people find that idea comforting, but I don’t. I believe God is always with us in whatever befalls us, but I do not believe that God is the author of evil, nor do I believe in a dualistic universe involving forces of light and forces of darkness battling one another.
God is also not like Amazon.com. Prayer is not a matter of saying the right words in the right way so God will fill your order for you. I do believe in intercessory prayer, and no, I can’t explain why, or what good I think it does, apart from this: when people tell me they are praying for me, I feel loved and remembered, and that’s good. When I pray for others, it’s the same thing. It’s not knocking on heaven’s door. It’s not nagging God to give us the result we want. Millions of children die every year in this world, never having had any kind of life at all. Pray for them (or, better yet, pray for the wisdom and will and strength to do something concrete about that situation.) I’ve had a great life, and the road ahead looks amazing, even if it ends up being shorter than I expected. Don’t ask God to “save” me. Nobody’s life is ever “saved.” We might be cured of a disease or fixed up after an accident, but in the end, we are all going to die.
St. Paul offered the idea of strength in weakness. You don’t see enough of that in popular theological reflections. Jesus said he could have brought down an army of angels to defeat the Roman Empire and prevent his own execution (by the most shameful, disgraceful, painful, humiliating method the Romans ever devised, signalling that he was a “bandit,” perhaps what we would now call a “terrorist”) but he chose not to do that. He submitted to death on the cross. He suffered, died and was buried, and then he rose from the dead. Christians believe that death does not have the last word, that God is bringing about a “new heaven and a new earth” which, in some way we do not fully comprehend, all creation will live to see.
Sometimes it’s not “strong” to deny that you’re dying. Sometimes it’s just bullheaded, arrogant and narcissistic. What makes you so special that you don’t think you should die? My brother essentially cursed his son and daughter not long before he died. He drove them away with an act of gratuitously selfish, destructive meddling in something that was none of his business. Maybe he thought that would do some kind of good. Maybe he thought he’d have time to make amends. Maybe he lived to regret it, and to realize the damage he had done, not just then but in a lifetime of, at best, “mixed” parental behavior. I think it’s better for all of us to realize that we can’t cheat death. It’s a good starting point for the choices we make.
When you know, really, really know, that you are mortal, it changes you. It inspires you to take stock. If I were dying tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now, would I be doing this? What would matter to me? Who would I call to say, “I love you?” What could I just let go of, saying to myself or to anyone within earshot, “Never mind.” In that sense, death is a gift. I think most of us would be selfish, lazy, irresponsible jerks without it.
Everything dies. Bruce Springsteen is a much better theologian than 90% of what I read on cancer boards: “Everything dies, Baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”
You play the cards you’re dealt. You do the best you can. You will die sooner or later. But God will never abandon you. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. That’s what I try to convey when I post on cancer support websites. God is love. Love is stronger than death.