Six years ago I received a phone call from my dad telling me that his cancer had come back. It had now made its way from his lungs into his brain. At first I was in shock—was this really happening? In his previous six years dealing with cancer, it had always been confined to his lungs. Dad explained all the symptoms he was experiencing and all the tests the doctors had run, confirming it had returned. My second response was, “Is there anything we can do about it?” I believe those two responses are pretty common for someone who receives a cancer diagnosis, and also for the loved ones of that person. Almost everyone today either knows someone with cancer, or knows someone who knows someone who has cancer. The initial shock is common, but it quickly turns to a fighting stance. After the initial bewilderment, subsequent discussion becomes, “How can we beat this?” rather than, “How long do we have left?”
But for my family, after my dad explained everything that was going on, our emotions turned to, “How long do we have left?” He chose not to go through treatment because there was no effective treatment to kill this kind of cancer. The available treatment would only prolong his life a few more months. With the help of family, I flew out to New Jersey the following weekend. I spent the next week with my dad in the rehab center. Three months later, my dad passed away.
When you lose a loved one there is a period of wondering, “What’s going to happen next?” and “How is life going to continue without them now?” Through lots of prayer and support from my husband Mike and other family and friends, my family was able to make it through this time.
As humans, we don’t like to experience anything outside of our own plan for life. We crave being happy. When we receive bad news, we try to dismiss it or pretend we didn’t hear it. Most of us will react in shock and denial that we could potentially experience something so life-changing.
A similar situation happened when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to suffer and be killed in Matthew 16:21-23: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”
At the time this was all happening, the disciples were contentedly following Jesus and learning from him. Then he shared something with them that they weren’t expecting. He was going to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament by dying and then rising on the third day. After receiving this news, Peter rebuked Jesus and tried to convince him that what he had just told them wasn’t necessary. Jesus knew God’s plan for him, that his death would save people from their sins and reunite them with God. Peter had trouble hearing that because he didn’t want to lose his friend. When we are told something we don’t want to hear or weren’t expecting, we don’t always think clearly. We don’t always react the way that we should.
Later, after Jesus was arrested, the disciples went into hiding for fear that they would face the same fate. They worried more about how to protect themselves and not about what Jesus had promised them would happen in the coming days. Think about what they must have been going though on Good Friday when Jesus was journeying to the cross to be crucified. Imagine the heartbreak when those at his crucifixion witnessed Jesus’ last breath on the cross. In our own experiences, we can feel that same hurt and pain. The disciples, like us, were not perfect. So their reaction to the loss of a loved one is similar to how we respond in difficult times of loss.
Today our encouragement comes from knowing how the story was resolved. On that Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. Death could not hold him. The Scripture tells us that Jesus bore the sins of the world on the cross. In Jesus, we have a Savior who came to save us from the day of judgement—the day when people will be held accountable for their sin. In Jesus, we have a Savior who calls us by name and tells us that we are forgiven.
In that truth, we are filled with hope, peace and joy. Joy, that in Christ, we can now stand before God. Nothing can replace the joy that we feel when we know that our heavenly Father is looking down on us and saying, “I called you, and you are mine; I love you, and my Son has paid the price for your sins.” Oh, Glorious Day!
Lindsay Natale serves as secretary for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren’s Eastern Region. She is a member of Faith Chapel Lutheran Church in Cranston, Rhode Island where her husband, Rev. Michael Natale, serves as pastor.