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Refuge

My friend Mindy died of breast cancer yesterday.  She was 36 years old.

I found out on Friday evening that she wasn’t expected to make it much longer.  In October, the doctors discovered that her cancer had spread to her brain and lungs and liver and bones.  She was told she had 6-12 months to live. But only eight weeks later, she was on hospice and she was dying.

When I got the text from her husband on Friday evening that Mindy was inching toward heaven now, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, sat there in the dark and cried.

God, I don’t understand.  Why Mindy?  Why metastatic cancer?  Why are you taking her so suddenly?  Why would you take a mom with a 4 year-old child and a husband?

I also cried because I had an aggressive form of breast cancer seven years ago, and I still take medication every day to keep it from coming back.

Does this mean I’m going to die at a young age, too? I asked God.  Is the monster that’s killing Mindy lurking in my body, too?  

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I cried because the past year has been really hard, and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning how to press into God.  I’ve been learning to find solace in his silence, learning to lean in instead of pulling away.  And then I found out about Mindy and suddenly God didn’t seem like a safe refuge, but like an ominous, unpredictable threat.

Where is the love in terminal cancer?  I asked him.  Where is the compassion in suffering?  Where is the hope in a little girl losing her mom?  Where is the goodness in it all?  

In the past, I’ve sometimes compared my singleness to solitary confinement.   And now, with Mindy’s news, it was like I’d discovered that the Jailer I’ve been talking to through the bars all this time is not the sympathetic, gentle man I thought he was, but someone capable of involuntary manslaughter.  I wanted to to cower and hide.  Or, better yet, to escape.

But if I fled God, where would I go?

I cried for a long time on the side of the road, and then I felt like God was whispering to my spirit, “Go find Jack.  He’ll help you remember the truth.”

I drove over to my friend Jack’s house.  He made me a cup of spiced plum tea.  We sat side by side on his couch with a cushion of distance between us.  We talked about the situation, and then I started to cry.  I cried for Mindy and her family, and I cried for how difficult times make us doubt in our hearts what we know in our heads is true about God.

Our doubts make us want to flee from him.  But if we abandon God in these times, where else is there to go?  If we left his love, we’d be in a bleak, cold, lonely void.  We would be outside of his presence, which is to say, we’d be in a living hell.

The tears kept coming.

“Can I hug you?” Jack asked.

I nodded.  He pulled me in closer.  I put my head on his chest.  He wrapped his arms around me and whispered prayers over me. While Jack was holding me, I remembered a line from Psalm 46 I’d learned when I was little.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.

And I prayed to God, I don’t believe you right now.  I can’t see your love, and you don’t feel like a safe refuge.  How do I find shelter in someone who terrifies me?

The worst part was, not only did God not feel loving or safe right now; he didn’t seem Good.  sand

When I’ve heard the phrase God is Good in the past, I’ve thought of his goodness as ice cream. A comforting, fun, refreshing, delicious extravagance that goes down easy and smooth.  Goodness like that seems like it should come to us easily and whenever we want it — just like a child can leave her sand castle on the beach and run up to the ice cream stand on the boardwalk and ask for more when her cone’s empty.

But in dark times, God’s goodness seems fierce, and it’s a fight to move toward it.  It’s as if a tsunami has wiped out the sunny beach and now there is a raging storm.

And the scene is no longer a child playing on the beach, but a sailor thrown overboard who nearly drowns several times before he’s able to swim to the Rock of Gibraltar.  Once he finds the rock, he desperately scales it on hands and knees, ending up just outside of the storm’s reach with seaweed in his hair, sand in his ears, water in his lungs, and blood dripping from his shredded palms and knees.

I realized as Jack was holding me and God was speaking to my heart, that God’s goodness is absolutely solid and secure, just as he said it was.  But sometimes we have to fight through a storm to get there.   And even when we’ve discovered that his goodness is real, we still struggle to scale it, enduring wounds and pain and fear as we find our refuge from the storm in him.

I think this must be why, in life’s hardest moments, we cease to believe in God’s goodness.  Because we’ve been looking for an ice cream stand on the boardwalk, when all the while God’s goodness was the rock in the middle of the stormy sea.

In dark times he calls us to come to him, not as a child asking for another scoop, but as a drowning sailor swimming for his life.   We come to God not in surety but in doubt.  Not in calmness but in crisis.  Not in ease but in agony.

I think Mindy got this better than any of us.  She endured pain and chemo and radiation and surgery and loss, all the while pressing  into God, trusting him for whatever the outcome would be, hoping in his goodness and the promise of heaven.

And the God who sustained Mindy until the end is the God who sustains her daughter and husband and the rest of us now.  He is as merciful as he is good, and he gives us the grace to keep fighting our way through the torrent until, battered and bloodied and worn, we find ourselves just outside of the storm’s reach, our weary feet firmly resting on the Rock of Ages.

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Thanks for sharing!

19 thoughts on “Refuge

  1. I thank you for sharing this (and I will pray for Mindy’s family and friends (and you)). I have “filed” it away for the tribute post I eventually need to write for my mother in law who passed away in November. She had had a LOT of trials in her life — the deaths of two adult children and (prior to that) a very very dark time for her when she considered killing herself. She told me once, “I never doubted God when Ann and Chuck died” but when she had had her own crisis in the mid 80s, she felt like she HAD been reaching out to those around her and no one understood or heard her. She wasn’t looking for ice cream I don’t think :-) but in the years that followed (and the years I knew her) she was such an example of the wisdom of knowing God is there … somewhere amongst the crashing waves. THANK YOU.

  2. Beautiful, tragic words you share. His grace is sufficient isn’t it, even as we are ruined. I’m sorry for this loss of a sweet young friend, mother, wife. We cannot make sense of it in this lifetime.
    I was the wife with the dying husband of 29. Our baby growing inside me, waiting for her first breaths as her dad was struggling with his last. There is no sense in that, but God is somehow still good….
    Blessings to you and health from Him this day.

  3. Sarah, When I lost my firstborn son years ago I screamed out at him in anger and I screamed out at God. God must be very tough skinned (figuratively), Once the grief was to a point that I was less angry, I asked God when I was weary and humble, “God, why did you take my son from me?” Years have passed and the answer he whispered to me has become very clear and did come to pass. For now Sarah, cry for your loss and find a soft place of shelter till God makes it clear to you. My prayers for you and all of her family. I never met her but I wish I had.

  4. Thank you, Sarah. As Mindy’s “little mama”, I have shockingly, (to me), echoed these same sentiments over these past few days. Prior to that, I was CERTAIN Mindy was ‘in line’ for God’s miraculous healing. For hours, each day, I would review this very sound reasoning with God- God’s character, His loving kindness, His words, God’s grace and mercy. I reminded God of Mindy’s unflinching faith in Him, of the lives she has touched with her unconditional love, her missionary work, her uncompromising devotion to Lana and Jordan. I would continue on in this vein for hours, using scripture to bend to my plea, reminding God that Mindy was, to me and many others, an ‘earthly resting place’. However, and this was troubling to me, God’s response was never one of affirmation, but simply to trust Him. And so the cycle would continue.
    And on that Friday evening, as I lay next to my beautiful daughter, struggling for each breath, and I am silently screaming my plea unto God, kissing her forehead, holding her hand, Mindy gives me the Answer I did not want to hear. “You’re going to be alright, mama. God is in control.” Damn Cancer is ugly, and vile, and cruel to those it attacks, ripping the heart out of loved ones left behind. But, Damn Cancer, your pathetic in your vile arrogance! You may have taken Mindy’s temporal, earthly body, but you never came close to touching or damaging her impenetrable Spirit. Mindy wins!

    1. Karlene, thanks so much for the note. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to lose a child. I will continue to pray for consolation and peace. Lots of love to you and your family.

  5. I have read so many beautiful words in the past few days. These are no exception. Sarah, such honesty is honored by our gracious God. He sustains us. Thanks for being such a good friend to Mindy, Jordan and Lana.

  6. Sarah what beautiful and very hard words to write, you poured your heart out and I think we all have been in those shoes, thankfully God is bigger than any of our fears and provides His love always even in the darkness when we are blind to see. Thank you for sharing your heart

  7. My heart was touched by this blog. I have been searching for someone who can express the pain of loss and the hope that in The Lord at the same time. I have worked in the Christian Music Industry for 26 years and have become so jaded with people that sing about pie in the sky with no mention that pain here on earth is a reality. My husband died 11 years ago at the age of 57 which is still to young and I had/have friends that don’t understand why I am in pain now. They always say “but he is with The Lord and in no more pain” to which I say I know that but this is about me not him. I MISS him more every year. These painful days are less now but they are still there. And with the death of my mother in August all the pain has intensified during this season. My hope for your friends family is that they will feel the Peace that only God can give and move forward day by day. And that The Lord will surround them with friends like you who will allow them to grieve and not judge how that grief manifests itself. I will be looking for your Book and let Jim Chaffee know that I appreciate his posting of this blog on his FB. Made my day

    1. Sheila, thank you for taking the time to write. I’m so sorry to hear about your husband and mother, and how difficult this year has been for you. I wish you lived closer so I could give you a hug. I hope you experience Christ’s presence with you this Advent. Prayers for hope & healing.

  8. Sarah, I am Mindy’s “uncle-in-law”, brother to her mother-in-law. I’m a pastor. Thanks very much for these well-expressed words of healing, so honest and insightful. I admire what you have written, and it helps me. I will share them with colleagues here who also walk through pain and grief with others.

  9. Sarah, thank you for writing this beautiful piece! Would you consider sending it to Dom and Katie : domandkatie@gmail.com? They are making a memory book for Lana and are asking for peoples stories of Mindy. I feel like it would be a gift for Lana to read this message of truth. It’s obviously up to you…I found great encouragement in it and I think Lana would too. Love to you-

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