Kathleen Norris tells a story of two women she knew, both of whom were diagnosed with terminal cancer. The first woman said, “If I ever get out of this hospital, I’m going to look out for Number One.” Despite the diagnosis, she survived, and went on to live only for herself—and, as Norris writes, “it made her mean.” The second reflected on the blessings of her life, despite some acute early losses. This woman read the Psalms, and said to Norris, “The one thing that scares me is the pain. I hope I die before I turn into an old bitch.” And that’s exactly what happened.
So the first grabbed at every medical treatment available, enduring months and years of intervention and pain and expense—and she lived. But at what cost? For her life shrunk down to nothing more than her health, her needs, her desires. And as she turned inwards, I suspect that the woman’s friends and family began to avoid her: that mean and querulous and demanding woman who sucked the life out of every conversation, and thought only of herself.
The second woman accepted some treatment but, when it proved ineffectual, prepared for her death. I imagine that she told her family and friends that she loved them. Perhaps she also offered and accepted forgiveness; perhaps she did some meaning-making; perhaps she shared some stories which needed to be told. I suspect that she prayed for people, and blessed them and their future without her. Then, before the pain became too excruciating, she died: gracefully and well. And I reckon her family and friends continue to share stories about her, and remember her with love.
So, which woman’s choices bore more love and life into this world? The woman who lived? Or the woman who died?
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Even as I tell this story and ask this question, do not judge the woman who lived. She is normal. For we are bombarded daily with the message that we need to look out for Number One; that we should prioritise our own lives at everyone else’s expense. In our society, recreation is all about consumption; work is all about personal fulfilment; spirituality is all about individual well-being. We live in the biggest houses in the world, and enjoy cheap consumer goods at the expense of exploited workers, both here and abroad. And we do this because, in the words of one famous advertising slogan, we’re worth it. We’ve all been trained to put our needs—our lives—ahead of anybody else’s; we are taught to protect them and nurture them and hold onto them forever. And, for the most part, our medical system collaborates, and so many of us live and live and live well past our use-by date, until we’re wrung out and strung out and everyone’s exhausted and there’s almost nothing left.
But Jesus offers a different way: a way which embraces death, yet leads to life. This way is paradoxical: it goes against every other message in town. For this way says that our lives become worthwhile only when we relinquish our grip on them and entrust them to God; this way says that we truly live only when we are prepared to make sacrifices, even die, for others. This way is not about our own worth, but about other people’s worth, particularly the most vulnerable in our midst. It is a life of service, and a life which does not shy away from the realities of suffering and death—not our own, nor anybody else’s. Even so, Jesus promises that this way leads to a deep and Spirit-filled fruitfulness.
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Every one of us is going to die. Whether we die fighting at every step, exhausting all our resources and draining the life from those around us, or whether we die resting in God’s presence, blessing others, and grateful for the life we have been given: well, how we die will probably depend on how we live. For we all have choices. We can live for ourselves alone, or we can live for others. We can hoard money and possessions, or share them to create community. We can work on our personal status, or work on our personal relationships. We can hold onto knowledge or we can share it freely. We can prioritise cheap, or we can prioritise fair. We can rely on ourselves, or we can rely on God. We can avoid pain and suffering and death, or we can enter into them, journeying with others and learning what this living and dying business is all about. Every day, we make choices about what sort of life we lead; every day, we are practising what sort of death we’ll probably have: whether we will end as lonely shrivelled seeds, clutching at the smallest shreds of life; or whether we will go with hearts wide open through suffering and death, and into fruitfulness beyond imagining.
Whichever way we choose, John tells us that Jesus ultimately draws every one of us to himself. But while this is happening, let’s not shrivel up. Instead, let’s choose the way of engagement, of wholeheartedness, of mercy and meaning, of surprising strangers and wedding banquets and street restorations and community building. Let’s love God and other people; let’s engage in willing service; let’s journey with others on the way. For when we live like this, we will journey beyond the cross, into the mystery and wonder and joy of resurrection life.
The first woman with cancer knew that one small life is never enough. We know that, too. But don’t make her mistake: don’t clutch onto your life; don’t protect it at all costs. Just hand it over to God: just let it go: for then you will know life without limit. Ω
A reflection on John 12:20-33 given to Sanctuary, 18 March 2018 (B22) © Alison Sampson, 2018. The story is from Kathleen Norris Dakota. A Spiritual Geography. Boston/New York: Mariner, 2001: 76-77. Photograph: Ryan McGuire, gratisography.com. Used with permission.