This post has been bubbling away inside me for many months. Today it is one year since my oldest friend Helen passed through the door of death just shy of her 55th birthday, so this is surely the day it must at last come out – as yet another memorial to a much-missed sister. I could do with some of her common-sense kindness right now – in her inimitable, direct and humorous fashion I’m sure she would be able to help me see things a bit straighter and more objectively. With her combination of counselling skills, life experience and knowing me well since I was 12 years old she would get straight to the root of my present discomforts and dilemmas… but she isn’t here anymore.
All we have now are our memories of old ‘Flewbag’ and all the times we laughed and joked and sang together since girlhood and into the years of my marriage to Martin, who loved her like a sister too. We shared in the momentous times when she and her belovèd husband Dave went to work in Zambia as missionaries and then marvellously conceived Matthew after trying for 12 years; we mourned together and prayed together as she bravely faced the hard times too, notably when Dave died suddenly at only 40 years of age – and in more recent years as she was forced to leave Africa due to poor health and later underwent various bouts of chemotherapy for resistant breast cancer – one of which nearly killed her – until there was nothing more that could be done… and she stood with us in all our struggles too. Among the most memorable times, still very fresh in our minds and hearts, is the extraordinary way she finally took on death when he came looking for her.
At her memorial thanksgiving service last September a comment was made by one friend that has stuck with me ever since. Someone had called to commiserate on Helen’s death, saying how sad she was to hear the long-suffering lady had at last ‘lost her battle with cancer’. The friend responded straight away, ‘But Helen didn’t lose – she won!’ I wholeheartedly agree and that really sums it up: this post is called ‘overcomers’ because she was one!
How can that be possible – to see death as a victory? Cancer is the foe that by a war of attrition so often seems to get it’s way and death itself is universally feared as ‘the ultimate enemy’. When our time arrives, the black breath comes, we have no choice but to submit as our life is taken – we go under and it’s all over. It comes to everyone, this moment of surrender – a subject we ignore because we are afraid – of pain or nothingness or punishment perhaps, or the unknown…
I’m sure Helen’s faith in heaven – that she would see her Lord and Dave there – helped her prepare… but that is not why I say she didn’t actually lose the battle in the end. It was the way she died – the serenity and ready joy with which she willingly gave in to what was happening to her body, accepted it – and continued to be a friend to all those around her until the very last: she made a massive impression on us all with her courage and love. In dying she demonstrated life somehow, with death an active process being worked out over those last weeks of goodbyes and plans for Matthew’s future, honest talking and willing dependence on her carers and friends. Helen Flew, my friend – a life well-lived and well-died – and what was overcome was fear! She made a positive choice and nothing could be robbed from her – her time had come and she was ready to go – a bit like Jesus saying, ‘It is finished’ and giving up His spirit to His Father.
Too often we’ll take ‘we are more than conquerors’ out of context and think we’re only overcomers when we come out on top, ‘get healed’ or recover, somehow escape the worst… Jesus did the work and I get (what I think are) the benefits! But that can be no more than fear or denial operating in us, not true dependence and trust. Rather, the Bible verse that comes to my mind is from the book of Revelation:
‘And they overcame because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death’ Revelation 12v11.
We know about the ‘blood of the Lamb’ because Jesus’ death ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ has bought the lives of everyone who turns to Him, when really we deserve punishment; it’s like Aslan standing in for Edmund in the analogous ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ to cancel the legal loophole hanging over us. And ‘the word of their testimony’ is important too, because what and Who we confess in this life really matters (Romans 10v9; Luke 12v13) and the telling out of our story has power – as I was trying to say in my last post… But we can forget the 3rd part, the ‘not loving our lives so much as to shrink from death’. That is a much deeper call which really tries our attitudes to what is my ‘right’ and whether I believe what Jesus said about losing my life in order to gain it (Matthew 16v25). Helen had all 3 parts – and that’s why she was an overcomer and a model to us all.
And looking at more of the promises in Scripture for those who attain that ‘overcoming’ condition – this is what she gets in return:
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God…He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death…To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it…To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations… I will also give him the morning star… He who overcomes will be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels…Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it; I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven – and I will also write on him my new name. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches! From the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation, 2&3
To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. The end of the story in Revelation 21v6-8
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8v35-37