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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


Even Though They Die

February 23, 2015

Cancer sucks. And I don't mean that in jest like when our best-laid plans simply go awry as they often do, giving way to hasty frustration and inconvenience. No, even as slang, there is some ferocious malcontent that accompanies this particular thought. Fully and truly, cancer sucks. If six degrees of separation haven't yet familiarized you with this potent disease, consider yourself fortunate and take my word. It's a killer and deserving of all vitriol sent its way accompanied by sackcloth and ashes and tears. Bullets, vehicular trauma, and whatever else brings about the cessation of life are no doubt also horrifying in their own right, but no less so than cancer.

Unforgivingly relentless, it has decimated countless families. My maternal grandparents succumbed to it. In battling it head-on, one of my aunts has lived to fight another day while another did not. A dear parishioner of mine is engaged in guerilla warfare with it right now. Chemotherapy and radiation, or surgery can help at times, but still come with their own unique blend of complex risks and side-effects. And with no guarantees, in certain circumstances they amount to simply postponing the inevitable. Always the unwelcome guest with cloak and dagger powers, cancer is the Sun Tzu of disease.

It seized the beloved Tony Gwynn and Stuart Scott, and most recently Columbia Theological Seminary's president emeritus, Steve Hayner, at the age of 66. Through the years he always made time to return my phone calls and e-mails, or meet me on campus to listen and drop wisdom like only those who have truly lived can. Dr. Hayner definitely was "scary smart," as his good friend John Ortberg said. Thankfully, however, he wasn't some cloistered academician or nonprofit profiteer. Rather, called to word and sacrament, he was the faithful shepherd of a rich theological institution and clearly valued people more than projects. He possessed an uncanny ability to not make a business of busyness. I surely can testify, as I'm sure his students and co-workers can, that he was personable and caring, forever concerned more about others than himself. I sent him a get-well card and then called his cell phone last fall after hearing of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Now, here I was stammering to find the right words of thanksgiving and hope to share, which he graciously endured, and all he wanted to know was how my family and ministry were doing. He encouraged me while I tried to comfort him. That was Dr. Hayner.

I suspect that much of what paints this pattern of thought and practice on anyone is them having come to grips with the idea that the faithful among us are simply wanderers, traveling the roundabout road of obedience to wherever the Lord leads, however the Lord leads. This is scary stuff, of course, responding to God's call, often at the drop of a time, even at times, especially at times when you don't understand the plan. And let's not even get into when you don't like the plan. But this is the life of faith. Dr. Hayner knew that and wanted to help you know it too. Once in a sermon at National Presbyterian Church, Dr. Cleophus LaRue said: "...humans, at their best, are some odd mixture of dust and divinity...some strange assemblage of treasure and trash...in all of us there is a healthy smattering of gold and garbage." Fueled by sin, this unavoidable push/pull is what plagues women and men in selling themselves to death. Oh, we don't want to just be liked. Being well-liked is our ultimate aim. We all have a bit of Willie Loman within and the soundtrack of our soul begins with Guns N' Roses screaming: "Welcome to the jungle."

People like Dr. Hayner inspire you to keep fighting the good fight of faith, constantly surrendering to the main thing in life being to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing, or person rather, is God. These people help to deconstruct Christianity from spiritual computation or obscure emotionalism to something more tangible and intimate. Their promotion of both human agency and divine providence offer an understanding that to follow Jesus through the raging inferno that is life takes grit and grace. It is one thing to debate catechisms, confessions, and creeds in a vacuum, but quite another when peering over the ledge about to return to dust. In such circumstances you learn of your limitations and of God's limitless love no matter how the cookie crumbles.

With their friend Lazarus in a grave some two miles away and with Mary grieving at home, in explaining to Martha the finer points of his resurrection power, Jesus said, "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." But the dialogue doesn't end there. He asks, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:17-27) Our individual reply to this inquiring refrain separates good and bad fruit in the farmer's market of eternity.

Dr. Hayner knew that death's bell would soon toll for him. And he didn't gloss over or ignore that reality, but he nevertheless chose to focus on the life to come in Christ whose eternal fulfillment was also on the horizon. During an interview, published in Christianity Today, in the months leading to his death, Dr. Hayner said, "We have gotten good news, which is that the cancer is being managed. I probably have months rather than just weeks. What it means is that, again, I have to rethink my expectations, realizing I have all kinds of expectations about how things are going to go. Now that set of expectations, too, needs to be modified according to the new circumstances."

Even though they die, those who believe in Jesus will live. Live to someday stress and toil no more because the mêlée has already been won, and they are resting before the Lord. I was once told that most often people die how they lived. If they lived with faith, hope, and love driving their identity, then life is likely to conclude with them and those they knew entwined with that same sense of purpose. And if cynicism, corruption, and conceit were their calling card, odds are slim that they will exit life differently than how they'd chosen to maintain it.

Rooted in grace, the beautiful thing about Christianity is that though we die, and die we must, we know that this isn't our final curtain call. There will be an encore when, with other saints throughout the ages, we ask death: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) Cancer sucks big time, but for those who succumb to it in Christ they will indeed live even though they die.


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