Death is a great sadness in this world, but not the greatest. We lost a dear friend, like many others in life, but we will see her again.
It was a beautiful morning at the state campgrounds at Lake Anna, near Richmond Virginia. Several families from our church, and one family that had recently moved away to pursue new job opportunities, had come together for a Labor Day getaway. We were busily preparing breakfast, assembling fishing tackle, and drinking coffee by the crackling fire. As the only physician in the group I was in unfortunate demand. One girl from a different party had had a bike accident, a man splashed some chemlight fluid in his eyes, and a little boy hurt his arm. After my quasi-clinic Mary, a dear friend and breast cancer survivor, asked me about some back pain she had been having. I tried some spinal manipulation with little result. Chagrined by the lack of improvement but without the opportunity to investigate further, we moved on. Our group had prayed for these problems, and Mary had a medical appointment a few days later.
Mary died yesterday. Only a couple of weeks after our trip, her husband Eric sent word that the cancer was in her liver and spine. Mary, 42, fought hard. She seemed to respond well to the chemotherapy and still managed to move in to her new house, meet new people, and care for her husband and two children, ages 11 and 8. Friends from church prayed for their family and did everything we could, tangible and intangible, to help them. On Christmas Eve they stopped by our church enroute to visit with family in New Jersey. I last saw her, exhausted and frail, walking down the aisle to take communion at the service that night. Her condition deteriorated and she spent her twelve days of Christmas in hospitals. Her liver having been wholly devoured by cancer, Mary slipped away, surrounded by family, in the ICU at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A pall has fallen over our family and church. Questions about why such things happen are inevitable. “Why do people die?” “Why wouldn’t God save her?”, “Did our prayers do any good?”, “How will this affect her family’s faith?”, and “What more could we have done?” reverberate in our minds. They echo in the minds of all people who suffer such loss and live through such dark hours. When people ask these questions, they expect answers, or at least honesty.
Man was made for eternity. We would not even ask why people die if God had not made us personal beings and written eternity into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The fact that death doesn’t seem right to us proves that He did not create us to die. Something is awry in the universe and we feel it in our bones. That something is man. We have rebelled against our Creator and the universe as He has made it, and we continue our revolt. So we die.
I do not know why God did not defeat the cancer and prolong her life on this earth. Her mother had died of breast cancer when Mary was but a teen, and Mary had done everything to avoid the same outcome. I do not know how good will come out of my friend Eric losing his beloved wife and his children growing up without their mother. I do not know how the Church will become stronger despite the loss of this faithful Christian woman. I do know that God is great and God is good, and that He will somehow bring hope and healing out of doubt and despair. The Lord will bring good out of this tragedy – He promised (Romans 8:28).
Our prayers did do good. The Bible promises that every righteous word spoken and every good work done by the people of God, no matter how small they seem at the time, will endure. The Magi never knew the result of their mission to Bethlehem, and yet their work has endured through the ages. Every kind word, every meal, every well-timed visit, and every impassioned plea in the prayer closet shaped time and eternity on behalf of this beloved family, and to the glory of God.
Each thought, word, action and event shapes our faith, for better or for worse. How this will shape the faith of Eric and his children remains in the dim glass of the future. The same is true for all of us. We are not alone, however, because we who are truly indwelt by the Spirit of God know that He is continually shaping us into the image of Christ. Once the Spirit of the Living Lord has captured us, He will never let us go. Using friends, family, the Living Word, and the Church, God will continue to steer Eric and the children safely towards heaven (Philippians 1:3-6).
No doctor who has ever cared about a fallen patient has failed to ask what more he could have done. Except for a few moments on that cool September morning, Mary was not my patient. Rather she was a friend and sister in the Lord. Her friends, her family, her husband, her church, and everyone who cared has asked that question of themselves a hundred times in the past four months. We will all have ideas, and some regrets, but none of us will find the answer. The better question now is “what can we do for those who remain?” How can we care for those we meet now, and in eternity?
Mary is safely in the arms of God. This is not a vague hope but as an established fact. Only One has defeated death, and that One is Jesus Christ. He arose from the dead, the first among a mighty throng of Christians who will follow after Him (1 Corinthians 15:1-26). Mary stands today experiencing the rapturous glory of the Almighty God and receiving her well-deserved reward. Eric, his children, and all of us will follow. Her worries, her tribulations, and her pains have faded forever in the glory of God. Ours will as well.