I once interviewed a Canadian who had twice summited Mount Everest. “I wasn’t trying to get to the top,” Dave Rodney said, remembering the most perilous portions of the climb — crossing ladders placed as bridges over almost bottomless crevasses. “…Just to the next rung on the ladder.”
Everest climbers surround us. Friends and beloveds facing devastating diagnoses: pancreatic cancer, lymphatic cancer, bowel cancer. MS. ALS, or its nearest kin. People just like you and me, who imagined they had years left under the sun. Time to love their family. A bit of travel. A new home or a project they intended to complete. A long career and retirement.
Those people aren’t springing up the mountainside. They pray for healing, but meanwhile peer through clammy mists, searching for the next ladder, then the next unstable, frail rung that will support them across treacherous gaps in the mountain. A chemo treatment, a stormy drive to a specialist’s office, radiation, a necessary move. Events uninvited. Unexpected. Undesired. Unpleasant. The seeming deconstruction of an unfinished life.
“We’re trying not to fear what’s ahead or regret what’s behind,” said a pair of dear friends facing the husband’s grave diagnosis. “We’re just taking one day at a time.”
One day. One rung, one crevasse. On the physical Mount Everest, eight to ten thousand foot drops plunge below each side of the ladder. Traversing the processes that accompany disease feels like that sometimes. At least it did for the Preacher (and me) during his battles with colon cancer and West Nile Disease. Unexpected fissures still lurk below frequent mountain fog. Unrelenting pain. Encephalitis. Insomnia.
Two evenings ago I talked long on the phone with a sweet writing colleague diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “Two to six months,” the doctors told her, no doubt shocked themselves at the alarming rise of the brutal peak in an otherwise reasonably healthy woman. “My friend,” I asked, “what’s next for you?”
She mentioned a few things. Chemo to slow the disease, give her time to wrap up her affairs, say her good-byes. (She has fewer loved ones to farewell these days. In the last several months, she has lost her husband, her father and her beloved cat.) But, her voice clear as a mountain stream, she added, “Heaven is looking better all the time.”
I’ve heard that theme often from friends facing devastating diseases. For those who love Jesus, the dying process — our climb up Mount Everest — feels far from a party, but our faith says we can be confident of a party at the peak. But we also cherish the certainty of the abiding power and constant presence of our Lord; the One who gave his life so we could have everything we most need in our darkest moments, plus the promise of eternity with Him.
“The proper epitaph to write for the Christian believer, said author John Stott, “is not a dismal uncertain petition, ‘R.I.P.’… but a joyful and certain affirmation ‘C.A.D.’ (‘Christ abolished death’)” Alleluia and Amen.