Years ago now, just before Christmas, one of my best and closest friends died in his 20's from cancer. We had prayed and hoped for months that there would be a cure, or even a miracle. But as Randy got weaker and thinner, one by one we began to give up on the hope that he would live. It was clear that our prayers were not being answered the way we wanted. I began to pray for his future "life" in terms of the mystical beyond, not physical healing. He had been an aircraft engineer, and loved flying. Sometimes he used to talk about his fantasy that he could fly with God through the universe, looking at the stars and planets. I began to think that was a good metaphor for the timeless, spaceless sinking into God that death might be like.
Sometimes I think the waiting of Advent - waiting for God to break into our world with salvation and redemption - can, if we aren't careful, turn into a fixed idea of what it is we're waiting for. We gather ideas and images of what the redemption will look like, what needs to happen in order for our salvation to be complete. And sometimes when redemption comes it is not at all in the shape we anticipated. Sometimes it doesn't even look particularly redemptive. Sometimes a redemptive moment is disguised under moments of shock and grief, and we have to wait a while. Only when the shock of events begins to recede do we begin to understand that redemption is hidden in the shadows of current events, waiting to dawn on us when the right moment comes.
Death seems pretty bleak as an answer to prayer. But even a shortened life still has its impact. Even now, years later, I still sometimes think I see Randy's extraordinary clear blue eyes looking into mine, searching for honesty, looking for the answer I'm afraid to articulate. Even now, his legacy to me is to make me brave enough to tell the truth, to myself most of all, regardless of whether other people approve.
Earlier this year I collected up a lot of poems and prayers about death while I was planning a memorial service. I came across this one, which was originally written for Jonny's father . It fits the theme rather aptly of transforming our idea of what we are waiting and praying for. Sometimes our prayers get answered, but not at all in the way we've envisaged.
it was a marvellous healing;
after the months of asking,
after the desperate, slow deterioration,
the warring tides
of faith and doubt:
to be released in an instant,
from every pain.
it was as if the very molecules of his flesh
had been infused, invaded,
with the life of God,
until he was filled, fit to burst,
with the Shalom, the peace,
of the Father's rule.
limbs that had fallen flaccid with weakness
waved and danced with joy;
lungs that had so utterly failed him
sang out with strength and boldness.
through the unfamiliar sunlight,
drinking it in,
experiencing all at once
the thousand and one feelings
that for so long had been denied him.
it was a marvellous healing:
to be so totally restored,
it had just surprised him,
that he had had to die
to receive it.