It was an incredibly uplifting conversation. It's clear that God really can bring something wonderful out of the most depressing and ominous of circumstances. The cancer was stage three - it had spread to lots of lymph nodes and the doctors have no way of knowing whether it has crept further on still in the bloodstream. Time will tell.
Isn't that the human condition? Time will tell. We don't know. Technology doesn't know. Modern medicine doesn't know. The best that we can offer is 'time will tell.' And we think we're really clever.
And yet, in that inexplicable way that we hear about occasionally, it's not all bad news.
The cancer has brought this lady closer to her family. She understands her body more than she did before and has learned to listen to its needs with more care. She has been forced to reassess her priorities; both in terms of tasks that need doing with limited energy, and also on a larger scale, not knowing what the rest of her life looks like; what is really important? She has been in receipt of such care and kindness from the people round her that she now knows that she is loved after years of doubting it.
All these things are precious gifts. I wonder, is it possible to receive these gifts without the imperative of grave illness?
I found myself nodding in agreement as she spoke of priorities, of understanding the important and the trivial and learning to tell the difference, and yet I wonder if it's really possible to see such things as they are from a position of full health (as far as I know; time will tell).
Is it? Is it possible?
We spoke of those moments where something that you've always 'known' becomes real heart knowledge - the moment that the penny drops. The eyes widen slightly; something falls into place. You turn to another person and tell them of the mini-revelation you've just had and they look at you, bemused, because yes, they've known that too, but they don't see like you do. It's obvious... and yet it suddenly means something wholly different and more profound.
The realisation that this is not all there is.
This life can be full of joy, or full of pain, or a mixture of both and many other things, but when you're in a place of grief and loss and fear and helplessness, it's a tremendous comfort to know that this is not all there is. CS Lewis said in his Narnia book 'The Last Battle', I think; this life is only the cover and the title page of the story of our experience. It's only when we reach heaven that the real story begins. A lifetime seems long (though only time will tell) and yet it is just fleeting in comparison with eternity, where the story will begin in earnest, and each chapter is better than the last...
The realisation that any sense of control we have in this life is an illusion.
When all is well and life is trundling along uneventfully, we think we have everything sorted. All is well. I know what today is like, what tomorrow is likely to bring. I have plans. I know what I'm capable of, and I am full of hopes and dreams and expectations. I want to be in control more than anything. I want to be able to decide what I do, what will happen and when.And then... I am not well. The doctors will do their best and my body will do it's best to handle the medicine that might be worse than the illness itself, but suddenly tomorrow is not guaranteed after all. Suddenly the hopes and dreams might have to be shelved. Suddenly I can do nothing about any of this. I am even too weak to climb the stairs unaided.
When I open my hands to Jesus because there is no-one else, and nothing else to do (because I've looked around for something else - anything) I find that my hands are empty. They've always been empty. I've been grasping tight in my fists... nothing. Holding on to something that never existed.
My hands are empty.
I am trying to be fit. I am trying to lose weight, to eat healthily, to get exercise to feel and look better. I think it's working a little bit - last night at swimming I paused at the end of my lane to catch my breath and I put a hand on my heart and felt it beating so, so fast - and I thought to myself how grateful I am that it can do that. I ask it to pump oxygen around my body faster, faster, more, more.... and my heart rises to the occasion. That is a miracle, and I can't do a single thing about it. One day it will stop beating completely, and I can do nothing about that either.
(I hope I'm not in the pool at the time.)
I'm not trying to be morbid or focus on the inevitability of death, though I imagine perhaps that's how it sounds. As we had our coffee and my friend told me how different the world looks when you have a diagnosis of cancer, it was not a pathetic, frightening thing, though both fear and sadness were things we discussed. The 'penny-drop' moments that she described made me realise one thing, and it's a good thing, a reassuring thing, a very, very precious thing. Really, it is.
Our lives are in His hands.
In His hands, and there is no safer place. They are not our own, and we take every breath because of Him.
I read somewhere one of those pictures with inspiring words on it that someone created, and it said, 'When Jesus is all you have, that's when you realise that Jesus is all you need.'
When you have no certainties left - when your very life is threatened, none of the things we chase after in our affluent western world; wealth, position, influence, comfort... those things don't seem important. Not even the good, wholesome things like health, family, love. None of them will help when we glimpse death, and told that he might be coming soon. No, only one thing comes into clear focus, and that is Jesus.
The only decision we make that truly matters is this. To open our empty hands and lift them to Him. And, as my friend testifies, the treasure that He fills them with makes us realise that we have never before known true riches.
That's what's real.