On Thursday of last week, the news I and countless others had been waiting to hear, dreading to hear, came through. A woman we had come to know and love had finally lost her eight year battle with breast cancer. Some had known Jan a short time, others a lifetime. For me, it was thirty six years, earthly years that took only the blink of an eye to pass. Since Thursday, I have looked though the mementoes of friendship collected over the decades. As a thank you for being her bridesmaid when she married the love of her life, Rob, Jan gave me a small crystal swan, which has travelled with me for over thirty years, through all the changing scenes of my life, and I have always placed it where I can see it. These past few days, it has been right in front of me when I have sought solitude, catching the sunlight and throwing rainbows round the room as I have wept and cried out with the agony of loss, as I have replayed memories like a favourite film I haven’t watched for far too long. And as the swan refracts the sunlight, I am again reminded of the Jan the world has lost, a woman who became more radiant with each year.
The first time I met Jan, I was dazzled by the sparkling young woman who fizzed with love for others and welcomed me into her heart and life with arms that never grew tired of gathering, never failed to be full of love. As I sit today, once again wondering how I could begin to write a tribute to this remarkable woman – where can I start? – the sunlight hits my little swan and I know: Jan has left this world a lighter place because of her life.
Rob’s calling as an Officer in the British army meant that they led a somewhat nomadic existence: at one point they had nineteen house moves in twenty years. That sort of nomadic life resulted in hundreds (and hundreds) of lives that crossed Jan’s and witnessed her radiance: not for Jan the life of a lamp in the corner of a carefully co-ordinated room, but the life of a beacon on a hill, one that illuminated a path for the lost, the lonely, the heartbroken, the simply broken. The lamp of Jan’s life was not a perfect vessel, over the years it was knocked and dropped and bashed. The years she learned to wait, to lay aside personal ambitions, the years of struggles and pressures she couldn’t skirt, the final years of failing health and the prospect of missing the joys so many get to experience – retirement, grandchildren – have been the very means by which she discovered her greatest treasure: the goodness of God, which springs from His love that endures forever.
We spoke several times over the past few months about that goodness, laid out like a feast, the grandest of picnics, right in face of the final enemy, death. The goodness of God that sends fear fleeing back into the shadows of the valley. The goodness of God that brings peace and rest when our hearts would have us despair. The cracks and fissures and dents that shaped Jan’s life created a lamp so intricate, so beautiful that there was little left of any hard veneer that would limit the light it radiated: there was nowhere for the light that filled Jan’s life to go other than to spill out into the world from the depth of her surrendered soul. And now, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever, she stands before the throne of the heavenly father she adores, the days of knocks and cracks behind her because: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever … And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city and the Lamb is its light.’ (Revelation 21 verses 2 and 23)
There are things in life, circumstances, choices, people, that knock us and wound us and break us. And there are people in life who stand with us, who give us their arms and hearts and help remould us. Jan was one of my shaping-people: she was light and salt and a channel of God’s grace and love. Jan taught me that there is a love, there is a grace that has no limits, no depths, no sides, no heights that can ever be scaled, and she walked in the mystery of the goodness of God in the face of her enemies, for her the cancer that finally destroyed her body. I am ever grateful that I had the privilege of knowing this radiant woman.
Jan in her own words:
29 June 2016 ‘…My journey of surrender is not one of believing that somehow the bad things that happen are ok, but that in the midst of the bad things I am ok, because God can take care of my heart and provide all I need to be at peace and to live a godly life, and also knowing that God is doing all he can, working for the good to surface. Sometimes the good is so amazing that we think God wanted the bad to happen, but no – it is his amazing surrendered self to winning us back that is his work. He is utterly, utterly good …’
New Year’s Eve 2016: ‘… Hope means the confident expectation of goodness and I believe in hope for us both this coming year. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives …’
Rest – Matt Maher