Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gratitude, Generosity and Terminal Cancer

Yesterday was one of those rare and special days in ministry when I had the honor to be in the presence of someone truly impressive. Her name is Renee and she’s dying. For two years she’s battled cancer, and recently the doctors told her that any treatment she receives will be to help the quality of her life rather than the length of her life. She’s planning her passing and understands that her number of days is short.

Until yesterday, I had not met Renee. She had requested the pastoral staff come to her home to pray with her. We are always willing to do this for folks, but honestly, I always feel awkward and anxious as I enter these situations. I never know what people are truly hoping for in these moments of prayer.  Would Renee hope we could bring God’s miraculous healing of her cancer? Would she or her family be in an inconsolable emotional state? Would she have questions about death, heaven, and her spiritual state? All of these were possibilities and we needed to be prepared and willing to speak into them by God’s grace and the Spirit’s power. What would Renee need from us? But as Dan, Cindi, and I walked into her front door, we all knew immediately we were in for something completely unexpected. We were in for a rare treat.
As we walked through the door, Renee greeted us with a radiant smile and a warm, prolonged hug. She was truly excited to see us, though we had never met. Immediately, I felt at ease. As we talked with Renee in her kitchen, we could see physical signs that cancer and chemotherapy had ravaged her body. She introduced us to her sister Mimi, who helped arrange our visit and to her daughter and son-in-law who came for the day. “Can you believe that they drove all the way from Kalamazoo just to clean my house?” she exclaimed.
As we moved into her living room, we could hear a vacuum cleaner running in a back room. Renee began to talk about her family as we looked at a picture of her four daughters on a shelf in a prominent place in the room. As I understood her, only one was a biological daughter. The other three were girls that she and her husband had taken in over the years. They had come to be their daughters through love, care, and an open home. She explained that the daughter who was cleaning her home was a girl they took in 18 years ago when she was 15 years old. Her life was riddled with pain and abuse and Renee and her husband opened their lives and home to this girl in need.
Renee talked about her husband who had passed away a few years prior. She looked forward to seeing him again in heaven. She joked about the things she wanted to say to him and hoped that heaven had been a good place for him the last few years. Renee told us stories of her life while using words like “blessed” and “grateful” throughout. It was obvious to me that this woman is traveling the final days of her life with joy, contentment, and uncommon peace.
Cancer was stealing physical comfort from her, but it could not steal her love for each moment she had breath. Inwardly, I asked myself, “What prepares a person to face their death with such ease and comfort?” I’ve concluded that Renee must be a person who lives in constant gratitude for the blessings God gives her. Her gratitude spills out into generosity. She knows that God has blessed her with the purpose of her being a blessing to others. Living with that heart-perspective has led her to finish well with joy and dignity.
As we go through this series on the Jewish festivals, I’ve wondered about the lives of those who celebrated these holidays faithfully. What principles did they live by as a result of these celebrations? Well, I think Renee helped me answer that question. Think about the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. This was another festival that celebrated the harvest. The principle that God wanted to instill in his nation was to give thanks to the Giver who had again provided for their needs. He wanted the people to then share some of that provision with the poor and those traveling through their region. In Leviticus 23, God lays out an elaborate way for them to offer their sacrifice of gratitude for the harvest. It included them offering to God wheat, bread, lambs, bulls, and goats. It appears to be a generous offering back to God their provider. But, there was more.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 23.22

Interesting thing to add to the end of a festival description, isn’t it? God wants his people to experience his provision and blessing with grateful hearts, gratitude that spills over into generosity to God, and to others in need.
Renee became of hero of mine yesterday in that regard. She’s a woman who has lived these principles for a lifetime. She can now pass into the arms of the Giver with joy and ease. I’m grateful for that hour with Renee and hope she can encourage and minister to me more in her final days. It was a pleasure to learn a lesson about gratitude and generosity from this special lady.


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