Birth is Like Death is Like Birth

What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?

That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on Tuesday.  Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home.  She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God.  At least that’s what we thought.  On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:

“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down.  It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer.  It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end.  What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost.  What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house.  What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna. 

“When that happens you sometimes start to re-define your understanding of God.  You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving.  Why didn’t he heal a woman like this?  But what if, instead of re-defining your understanding of God you re-defined your understanding of death?  What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as “losing”? 

“I think about my daughter Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl.  She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something.  And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep.  She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed.  She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.

“If we could see death from God’s perspective we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night, we might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would—in fact—wake up the next morning.  But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, “from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.”  I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child.  But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love.  And even though it’s a little frightening at first I don’t know of any child who—after getting used to the world—wants to go back to the womb. 

“The world is a good place to be and we know it.  With all its problems and imperfections it is still the best place we have ever been.  It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known.  We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.

“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life?  And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb?  It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is.  It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts.  It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning of a whole new life.  Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain.  Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.   

“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of death and resurrection.  He says that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul.  He has an eternal perspective.  He can see things from the other side.  And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of birth.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3: 3, 5).

“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God.  And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth.  It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying.  But it’s not the end, not for Anna.  Not at all.  She has been delivered.  She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven.  And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.

“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”

10 thoughts on “Birth is Like Death is Like Birth

  1. Wonderfully written, Jim! And what an intriguing, eternal perspective. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Several years ago a weather pattern came through this area which left the lungs of some people, mine included, badly irritated. One night, hardly able to breathe,I turned the oxygen concentrator I had, at the time, higher than prescribed, propped myself up in an arm chair and read the Book of Job including some verses which had been read at my father’s funeral. I finally had to say to God, “Your Will be done” and just let go. He did heal me, finally, yet, someday, at my last hour, I will again have to just let go yet, as on that night in the past, I will do so knowing that God will keep me in His eternal care. I had the privilege of living near Rob and Anna Reinstein for a few years. They have been great members of First Baptist Church. When they moved, a few years ago, I knew that I would see them again someday. Anna has just moved and I know we will see her again, someday, when we all move to God’s eternal care. In the meantime, I pray for God’s peace that passes understanding for her family. until they, someday, are rejoined with her.

  3. Jim,

    Thank you for posting this on your blog. I have never thought of death in exactly these terms before. I have always thought of death as something that is sad for the family and friends of the loved one who has died. However, becuase I have always been caught up in the feelings of grief for those left behind, I have not given much thought to the perspective of the person who has died. When my mother died in May 2008, I came to realize just how liberating death is to the one who has been suffering. At my mother’s funeral, I asked the pastor conducting the funeral to announce that my family wanted my mother’s funeral to be a time of celebration. My family and I were sad that she was gone, but I was celebrating the fact that now she was beyond the pain and suffering that this world could inflict on her. Now whenever a family member or friend dies, I feel sorry for the person’s family because I know that they are grieving their loss, but I am happy for the person who has gone on and no longer have to suffer whatever they were suffering from.

    I did not know Anna Reinstein, but I grieve for her family as they have to adjust to her not being physically a apart of their lives. I know that she will always be emotionally a part of their lives. However, I do not mourn for Anna Reinstein because I know that she has moved onto another level of existence where the suffering of this world cannot reach her. To follow through with the theme of your blog, she has been born into a new existence and I am happy for her.

    Ron Smith

  4. Mmmmm. My wife is a 12 year survivor of breast cancer. Her sister died of breast cancer at 32 leaving behind 2 children and a husband. I could “feel” again all those hours of sitting with my wife through 12 rounds of chemo treatments. Please be sensitive to all those who have been the caregiver……cancer never goes away. You are good Jim.

  5. Jim,
    Thank you for allowing us to read and re-read this. It is a beautiful and quite exciting way to view birth and death, for me. I attended the service and was mesmerized with your thoughts of birth like death, so am delighted you penned your message in your blog so it can be read and shared.

    Beverley Massey

  6. A friend emailed your article to me at work. This Sunday will be the one year anniversary of the loss of my younger sister Meri. She was diagnosed with advanced agressive pancreatic cancer on Thursday and died on Saturday. I was blessed to be at her side when she took her last breath here. Still it is hard, very hard to lose someone you love.
    Your words painted such a beautiful picture and I have shared copies of it with the rest of my family. I have never added a comment to a blog before but I just had to thank you for the comfort your words gave. With a grateful heart,
    your sister-in-Christ, Sue

  7. That analogy is nice but she’s only sleeping…the dead know nothing. However, when Jesus descends with a shout, it will be a whole new life for Anna and the rest of the righteouss dead and righteouss living. We wil all get there at the same time:)

  8. I agree death is like a birth. When my dad was about to die & I held his feet & it was so odd because afterwards I told my family that this felt like a birth.

  9. From a Hospice nurse perspective….Beautifully said, well thought through. I plan to share this with my fellow co-workers. We often blame God in times of death, and loss. Our thoughts of healing are often earthly not eternal.

  10. I went to the memorial service of my coworker’s daughter who passed away from cancer at the age of 38. The Pastor read this as his sermon and I was deeply moved. As soon as I arrived home, I wanted to find this. This is beautifully written. So many of us are afraid of death, but for me after hearing the sermon and re-reading this, I’m no longer afraid. I will pass this along Pastor Jim. Absolutely beautiful!

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