Just about everyone I know has them: dates on the calendar that come with a wave of remembrance and a quake of emotion. March 5th is one of mine, and now it comes with a double gut punch.
A little over 4 years ago, at the end of February 2015, my parents and I took an unplanned trip to Florida to check on my Grandad. A phone call told us that he was in the hospital and the “C” word, cancer, had been thrown at him and my Mammaw, but they couldn’t seem to explain much of what the doctors had said. It was all a bit mysterious so south we drove the very next day, a Saturday morning: February 28.
The next few days were a whirlwind. On Sunday morning, the news was confirmed to us that he had terminal cancer, excessive fluid in his lungs, and he was warned against leaving the hospital despite his insistence on busting out of there. By Sunday night, my siblings had flown down too- a tearful rescue mission coming together to bring Grandad home to Carmi, which was his final adamant wish. After a multitude of preparations, a fitful night’s sleep, and on the spot training on running a feeding tube, we were loading Grandad onto his beloved motorhome and headed north, to Carmi. The group of us ran on sheer adrenaline as we drove through the night and arrived safely home, not knowing how much time we had left. It was Tuesday.
Wednesday, my brother drove a couple of us to Evansville to hear more disheartening news from his local doctor- there were truly no options left. It was a hauntingly quiet drive back home in an ice storm. My sister and I stayed that night with my Mammaw and Grandad in the old twin beds we used to sleep over in as little girls. We wanted to help out and to be near my Grandad. Around 2am, we took our turn at my Grandad’s side in his favorite chair so my Mammaw could rest. We nervously talked to him about life and death and we asked him if he thought about heaven. So many prayers and so much courage had to be bolstered up to have those sacred conversations with this patriarch of our family.
These are moments etched in the muscle memory of my mind and heart. I can replay the reel of each day, each moment, like a childhood home video.
The next morning, my brother brought over Grandad’s office chair so he could potentially do some work from home- our attempts to make a death sentence feel more normal somehow. I was in the kitchen preparing the next round of meds when Grandad breathed his last breath. It was unexpected and expected all at once.
The date was March 5th. It had been less than a week since everything had seemed normal.
“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14
Fast forward just a couple of months and that nasty “C” word lodged itself again in my daily thoughts and emotions. My dear friend, Rachel Short, had just discovered that her cancerous enemy had returned with a vengeance and the medical team at Mayo predicted she had maybe 6 months to live.
I want to tell you what I saw happen in that woman. As the fiery trial nearly engulfed her, she was not consumed; instead, she let it refine her. Those 6 months turned into almost 4 additional years by the grace of God. 4 years to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. 4 years to grow as a godly wife and sister in Christ to Zach. 4 years to pour her whole heart, soul, and mind into precious Tenley Claire. 4 years to shine the light that was growing inside of her to a world that could not see what she could see.
Most people that you encounter want the glory. They want to be the ones that glow in their world. They want to be the sun in their universe. Rachel knew she wasn’t the sun. I think cancer has that effect on people- you more easily recognize how little control you actually have over your life- and it brings humility. Rachel knew she was a mirror with opportunities everyday to reflect back His glory and His goodness to the world around her. If I had to guess, this is how cancer really refined my friend Rachel. Her gaze was up at the Lord Jesus and then out toward the people in her life that she was able to love and serve. She took the time she was given and she let the days burn brighter and more full with Him.
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
I knew Rachel before cancer made a home in her earthly body. I had the privilege to teach with her and my daughter Ellie was blessed to have her as a kindergarten teacher the year she gave birth to Tenley Claire. We both just adored Rachel. She always had a smile, something to laugh about, and kept things light for me at school. I relished our visits at lunch, in the hallways, and especially on inservice days.
The Rachel I knew after cancer: she had a deeper, more abiding joy. The tidal wave of suffering had eroded away any superficial layers of who she thought she was and what she wanted out of life and beneath it lay a deep well where life in the Spirit bubbled up in contagious joy and peace. Christ had made a home in her and she had found an abiding home in Him. I think it was on the road of suffering where Rachel became her truest self, the one who people were drawn to only to find the irresistible grace of God shining through her.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Cancer was like an enemy of the soul, that came back time and again to “steal, kill, and destroy” the life and light that was growing in Rachel (John 10:10). In that way, she was constantly carrying around within her body the death of Jesus, and yet she was becoming more and more alive to the eternal things of the Spirit of God than ever before. Death was at work in her, but it was displaying the gift of life to those around her and even those watching from afar. The one whom I am certain Rachel fought the hardest to show life was to her daughter, Tenley.
I remember talking with Rachel many times that summer of 2015 about the ticking clock and some of her hopes and dreams. She wanted more time to make memories with her daughter. She was always willing to undergo any option of treatment or clinical trial just to have more time to sow seeds of love and life into Tenley’s young life. It was a gift to watch Rachel treasure both the mundane moments at home with Tenley and making memories on vacation getaways with her little family. Death may have been a threat, breathing down the calendar pages, but life was abundantly blooming in its midst as joy overflowed even in times of hidden struggle against the beast of cancer.
Just like the rest of us, Rachel was just a jar of clay. The thing that set her apart, though, was that she let her afflictions continuously grow her insides deeper into the love of God. Her endurance in suffering demonstrated the power of God working in her earthen vessel and life radiated from the brokenness. As she relied on Christ Jesus to be her strength to keep fighting, more and more people were able to see the grace of God on display in this broken world.
“For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
2 Corinthians 4:15
If the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever (Westminster Catechism, Q1), then Rachel fulfilled the purpose in her alloted “mist” and even blazed a trail for others to follow, if they so choose. As she beheld the glory of the One who created her and saved her and loved her, Rachel’s short life glowed like a comet shooting across a dark sky. No one is left to wonder where her light came from, even as we miss the temporary glow of her smile and laugh. She left a bread-crumb trail through her years of living in suffering to point each of us to the only One who can sustain us through our days of toil and in our darkest of nights.
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
2 Corinthians 4:6
The one I’m most excited to watch follow the crumb trail? Tenley Claire. Rachel fought for more time to point her beloved mini-me to her Savior. God granted her more time than we ever expected back in 2015- 4 more years to plant seeds. Then, just like Jochebed surrendered the life of Moses as a very young boy; and just like Hannah surrendered the life of Samuel- Rachel ultimately had to entrust the life of Tenley to the eternally good & sovereign plan of God.
Recorded in the gospel of John 12:24, Jesus was trying to explain His impending death to His disciples by using a farming illustration. He said that if a kernel of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it will bear much fruit. I believe that we watched Rachel follow the pattern of her Savior in this way. And the one in whom I believe we will see the most fruit come from that kernel of wheat-Rachel’s life- will be that precious little mini-me.
I hope I get to watch Tenley grow up and be a Mommy one day, too. When I think about Tenley, I often think of another dear friend who has a few things in common with Tenley. As a child, she also suffered the loss of her Momma to cancer. It was painful for her to walk through the valley of death and loss of such an instrumental person in her life, but it was also enormously fruitful. My friend has an unbelievable gift of grace, perspective, and eternal wisdom now as a Mom that most women just can never find- her deep treasure gained through loss. When Jesus reigns over suffering and death, we can expect a rippling out of glory through the legacy to come. Somehow I just expect that Tenley’s life will be used in the Kingdom of God to echo the same glorious refrain that her Momma’s did: Glory to God in the Highest! He is worthy to be praised!
On March 5, 2019 Rachel’s earthly tent completed it’s mission and her eyes opened to the One in Whom she trusted through her pain and suffering. It was unexpected and expected all at once.
since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
1 Peter 1:23-25
Unfortunately, but maybe also fortunately, calendars are cyclical. March 5 will come for many of us again and again, reminding us of the “mistiness” of life. The past 4 anniversaries have held reminders of the sting and suddenness of cancer and death, but possibly from now on it will be a reminder to live….to really live for the things that are imperishable. Whether we are a great grandparent or a young mother or anywhere in between, death is a guarantee. But so is life, today. Cancer and death can be defeated when ordinary, broken jars of clay are committed to carrying around the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus can glow from the inside out.
Because of the fall of Man, we all feel the sting of death. For each of us it will come. Death will be unexpected and expected all at once. Let’s choose to live in the courage to honor Christ in our body with the honest expectation that death is coming. We can joyfully carry around the death of Jesus so that our mist will leave behind a reflection of the life of Jesus too.
“it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”