(From a talk by Tara at Autumn Ridge Church on November 14.)
Life is like a puzzle. There are many pieces, and until they are all in place, we can’t see the full image. The pieces are our stories. And just like pieces of a puzzle they connect to each other. Tonight, I will share with you some of the pieces in MY story and hopefully we can start to see part of the image.
I didn’t see her last breath, but I watched my grandmother Esther die at the young age of 59. I always enjoyed going to her house, spending time with her, and learning how to sew. Okay, if you know me you know that I can’t even thread a needle, much less sew. Sorry Grandma! But she DID teach me about faith. Not by preaching to me, or reading Bible stories, or helping me praying a special prayer to accept Christ. She taught me about faith by living her whole life committed to serving her family, husband, and friends. To this day I say it was her that led me to the Lord. In looking back, I realize the main thing she did was suffer well.
My brother was a teenager in the 1970s. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was treated here at the Mayo Clinic. Through his sickness my parents’ faith was tested. God spared his life and left lasting change in my family. God has truly held my parents hands.
“But there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24b) or as I would say, sister. I had the privilege of meeting a girl named Angie when I was still in my mother’s tummy. You see my mom took over her mom’s hospital room right after she was born. She moved next door when we were 4 years old. We were best friends, neighbors, and college roommates and now we live in the same town. She is the friend that refines me, calls me out when I choose wrongly, prays with me through hard times, and laughs at me when I ask how long to bake rice crispy bars. For those of you who don’t cook, I hear that you don’t actually bake those.
In the fall of 1989, there was a cute blonde haired, free-spirited boy who captured my heart and became my soul mate. We met at Bethel and he decided to transfer to the University of Missouri to finish his degree in Forestry. It took him leaving to realize how much I loved him. After 3 years of being apart we decided that we simply couldn’t be apart any longer! Juli Fischer would confirm our desire to not be apart as she was with him in Africa for 10 days. Evidently he talked about “wanting” me a lot. This man had the hardest job this past year as he cared for me, our family, and ran our business! He completes me and is truly refining me daily. I cannot express in words the depth of love I have for him today!
In college I had the privilege of rooming with a girl named Kris Peterson. In 2010, after a 3 1/2 year battle with breast cancer, Kris passed away. I was able to be with Kris on her last days and it was amazing to see how God gave her peace with the knowledge of imminent death. She was not one to complain or have pity on her situation, even with leaving a husband and two-year old son. It inspired me to watch her suffer well.
During thanksgiving this past year we had a great opportunity to visit our friends in Haiti. This was the best vacation we had ever had! The Lord showed us how to live with little and opened our eyes to the larger body of Christ. I was blessed to meet an amazing mother there named Ma Jill. I’ve been told that I’m the first American she has ever met that has “problems!” There are many prayers lifted up from Haiti. How amazing is that?
Each of these are little, individual stories. They are pieces. I show you these pieces because they are all part of my puzzle. God has the puzzle-box and He knows how it is supposed to look at the end He is just giving me a few pieces at a time. This last year, however, I found where a lot of the pieces fit and the image is becoming more clear.
On January 3rd and 4th of this year, Jay and I spent a weekend at the Elizabeth . We thought we were planning for our next few years. Instead, god was preparing us for the months that lay ahead.
Within a month of our time at the lodge, on January 30th, my story climaxed. I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. I remember vividly that day in the doctor’s office. The news was horrible. But even then, God provided a friend from church, who was our nurse that day, and she held us up in prayer and encouragement.
My cancer was diagnosed as stage 4 because it had already spread through my lymph system and into my lung. I intentionally did not look online to learn more about this cancer, but I am told, based on statistics, that my chance of survival for more than 5 years is about 15%. Boy, I sure wish I could get out of this part of the story.
Jay and I couldn’t believe it. This kind of thing happens to other people, not us. We lay in bed for the first few nights and just stared at each other. We didn’t even know what to say. I honestly don’t remember much about that now. I think I was just in survival mode. My belly was stuffed full of fluid and I just laid in bed.
Surgery happened on February 8. I was opened up from sternum to pelvis. They removed bulky tumors, 8 liters of fluid from the cancer, a few organs that I didn’t need and some of my girl parts. The skill of the surgeons was on display as they remove small tumors from small spaces in my abdomen, including some behind my aorta. They ended up going into my thoracic cavity from my abdomen to get the tumors on and around my lungs. I mean, who does that? They are heroes.
For weeks after, I laid in bed, either in the hospital or at home. I remember not feeling part of the family. The kids asked someone else for the things they used to ask of me. Our parents took care of the things I used to do myself. I physically couldn’t be there and daily felt like I was failing. And that was true for the next 6 weeks. In the midst of all that, I became more broken. That brokenness led to dependence on God, and to my surprise, resulted in peace, contentment and joy. We can talk about the miracles that happened around the surgery, but the greatest miracle of this entire journey was the peace, contentment and joy that God gave me.
I’m a confirmed mutant. BRCA 1 is a gene mutation that my family carries. I sure wish I had known that I had the possibility of having it. It predisposes us to ovarian and breast cancer. Like 25 times more likely. I have other family members who have died, like Grandmother Esther and others who are battling it now. I wish I had been told. The information was available. But what would I have done if I had known? Would I have had all 5 children? Would I have lived in constant fear? But could I have avoided this cancer? These questions I wrestle hard with. But it boiled down to one question that I had to answer, “Is – God – Sovereign?”
Sometimes I feel like saying an “S” word. Now I want to leave you with 6 “S” words. The first is story. That is what I have been telling you. Pieces of my puzzle.
My second “S” word is Suffering. I honestly don’t think I had really suffered before this. There have been trials in my life, but suffering?…I don’t think so. Facing death is hard. The main suffering I endured is realizing that I may not grow old with my husband, or see my kids get married one day or be a grandmother; stuff like that. The physical suffering wasn’t easy either. I remember Jay having to read to me because I couldn’t even do that myself, much less anything else. I couldn’t do many things that I wanted to do.
But it wasn’t all bad. My feelings weren’t of depression or hopelessness. In fact quite the opposite. I realized I was being refined. And in fact, just like Grandmother Esther, who led me to The Lord by suffering well, I have the chance to do the same for my children. I am so thankful I was able to see that, through all of the physical pain I was going through. That was a blessing from God.
The lyrics of a song describe it best. I played and sang this song over and over through the trial and it gave me tremendous perspective. It is called “Blessings” by Laura Story.
My third “S” word is scripture. Strangely enough, I started praying regularly for steadfastness in the year previous to my diagnosis. My friends thought it was strange and I didn’t even comprehend at the time. I thought it was just because we were starting to parent teenagers. But God knew that I needed to rest in His Word. “Therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not loose heart!” (II. Corinthians 4:1) Oddly enough, I’m memorizing this chapter in my bible study this year!
My whole life I’ve counted on God’s Word to change my heart, give me wisdom, and help my fears. I have studied it and it has been part of my daily routine for years. But I have never NEEDED his Word for mere survival. This suffering left me with no hope other than what God’s words offered. It was my food day and night. The words came alive to both Jay and I and things we had read for years took on new meaning.
I remember moving here to Rochester in 2000 with a 2-month old and living in the country. I can now look back at those years of complete isolation with the little ones as training time to be in His Word! It was what I clinged to then and what I wished I had committed to memory. His Spirit had captured me and enticed me to daily put my trust in Him.
My fourth “S” word is stillness. Okay there’s a reason I chose stillness and not quietness; mainly because it starts with an S. But also it seemed more attainable in our house of 7. I remember many days just locking the door in my bathroom to get some well-deserved alone time. So finding time to be still was nearly impossible. After surgery though there was a lot of time to just be still whether I liked it or not. It was in these times that I was able to remove myself from the situation at hand and rest in His loving arms. Sometimes this stillness brought about action with a clear mind. Other times, it was a removal of pity that had easily crept in.
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; “(Psalm 37:5-7)
My fifth “S” word is sanctify. The day of surgery was one of the hardest days of my life. I really did not know what the outcome was going to be. I had said my goodbyes to my children in as much as they could grasp and it was now time to be present before The Lord. I knew I was not worthy to have this encounter and I became very restless. In fact that was my prayer the night before. “Father, sanctify me…”
Thankfully, I was surrounded by pray-ers on surgery day. My husband had solicited his brother and a couple of friends to fast and pray for the day. And a couple girlfriends prayed over me before they took me into the surgery room. One physician friend stayed in touch with Jay throughout the day to update him and interpret all the surgical procedures as they occurred. What a blessing this was to my husband and family. Another friends’ husband was in an adjacent room performing surgery and told me that he prayed as he felt led to do so. Even a meal was brought to my family in the waiting room. The Lord provides through His people.
The sixth and final “S” word is sovereignty. God is good, all the time, in every situation, and even in my situation. I look back at the pieces and see that God had prepared me along the way for such a time as this. God was faithful to give me what I needed then and will continue to do so as time goes on. I’ve come to realize that my desire for comfort, order, and happiness is not what God intended for my life. He cares too much for me to allow me to be self-sufficient and not lean on Him every moment of the day.
I’m not going to say that I have it all figured out on how to suffer well, or that I’ve been given any extra wisdom in this area. I simply wanted to share my story. And this story included many people. So what am I trying to say? We all are called to suffer. But God will not leave us alone for He Himself suffered and knows what we need before the trial comes.
I remember the generosity of his people and the care they displayed for me and my family this past year. I cannot express in words how much this helped. From the beginning, I’ve known that this momentary affliction was not about me but about God’s faithfulness through His people.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4