On near death

I gave a friend a hug today. Nothing that unusual there because I like to hug and (mostly) like being hugged; but it was a more heartfelt hug than normal. He’s a few years older than me, and will soon be leaving this country to go elsewhere. It was the first time I’d seen him for a while. He took a journey recently; a holiday. During that holiday he took a walk – which was also nothing unusual. He was in excellent physical shape; but on the walk he had a cardiac arrest which nearly killed him.

He spent 3 days in an induced coma, and was lucky to escape with his life. Today he told a few of us the story in detail, touching on feelings and implications and changes which will have to be made as a result. He pointed out that he saw no tunnels of light, no departed relatives beckoning to him from the other side. He woke up, asked what day it was and took it from there.

These things change you. We all know these things happen but to hear an ‘I’ you know well say it as he sits next to you is hard. It’s much harder to live through, of course. He’d hadn’t changed, but he had changed. There was nothing visibly wrong with him. He was the same man as I saw him last time, if a little slimmer. He looked well. He spoke, though, with even more authority than before; had a bearing and sense of the urgency of God’s call on his life which shone.

It’s made my friend thankful too, as one may expect. It made me thankful also. Thankful that he’s been restored to us.Thankful, too, that I have an awareness of my mortality. I’m 40 later this year, but for years I’ve lived with pain  – at times debilitating, so bad I go into shock. My rheumatologist once told me that on a very bad day I experience a level of pain somewhere in excess of a normal experience of childbirth; telling me that was her way of getting me take my pain seriously and acknowledge it for what it was (at this point I always feel compelled to point out that this rheumatologist was a woman and a mother). Living with an incurable, chronic, painful disease at a relatively young age (it doesn’t affect my life-span and is now well managed with a cocktail of medication) leads me to many challenges but also gives many gifts. It makes me aware of my dependency  – on others, on God. My inability, my limitations, my frailty. Not so much that I’ll run and not grow tired, soar on wings like eagles and so on, as not have to run at all if I can’t. There’s been a significant grace in learning about and accepting what I can’t do, and in not needing to tire myself out trying to do. That I am, somehow, fearfully and wonderfully made not despite my illness, but because of it.

Do I still want to be healed? Yes. If people offer to pray, if words are given in church that seem to hit home, I let people pray for healing. God can heal me. He may yet do so. I see no contradiction in accepting the limits of my condition as well as believing in and allowing other people to seek the possibility of God healing me. I tend to let others do the praying for healing because I’ve run out of energy for it myself – it’s been a long time, and others are better at it than me. I do ask, but I let faithful friends and co-journeyers do it for me more often. That’s one of the blessings, actually – the love people shower on you sometimes. I know my friend has experienced that too.

Some people have called this sort of thing God’s ‘severe mercy’. It’s a clever attempt to express something almost inexpressible to a culture bent on distraction and misdirection from ultimate realties. That in even the darkest, most difficult places, grace does something bizarrely inappropriate which also makes perfect sense. I don’t believe God causes these things; but the God who specialises in raising the dead can make beauty out of ashes. Being near death, conscious of it, peering over its precipice at your own vulnerability can make you almost perversely alive, on an almost annual journey from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day.

It’s a journey worth taking; so find your limits.

My friend gave my full permission to write about his experience.