On Sunday night, a woman that most of us never met, but who we felt like we knew, lost her brave battle with cancer. Over the past months, we’ve watched and we’ve cried, and we’ve wished it was different. It’s not supposed to be like this, is it?
Kara Tippets left this world with her family by her side. She faced her suffering head on, and she welcomed all of us into it. We watched, and we silently wondered how we would respond if her story were our own.
Would we hide, run, leave on our own terms, or would we, too, show the world what it means to die well?
Cancer sucks. There isn’t a nicer way to say it. It is a nasty, unforgiving disease. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re a 68 year old grandfather of eight, thirty-eight year old mother of four, or a twenty-nine year old newly married with the future at your fingertips. Cancer is the great equalizer. It’s ugly, and the suffering that comes from this disease is cruel and devastating.
On Sunday morning, before I learned of Kara’s death, I sat in a room at church while my husband taught on the topic of dying well. Our pastor had just eloquently covered the topic, and Lee was asking the follow up questions. When he got to 2 Corinthians 5:8 everything in my flesh screamed out.
“…we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.”
It was Lee’s statement following the reading of that verse that gave me pause. “Of course, we prefer heaven,” he said, and I shook my head.
“Do I have to?” I asked. I’m known to play devil’s advocate on occasion when he teaches. I can ask the hard questions, because I’m the one sleeping with the teacher. It gives me a little license to push.
“What do you mean?” he asked me.
“Do I have to prefer heaven? I mean, do I have to? Because I’m not sure I do. Not right now.”
The room grew silent, and I wondered if maybe I’d said too much. Maybe I’m wrong. I should prefer heaven, right? I should prefer to be absent from this broken world where pretty young women die and leave loving husbands and young children. I should prefer to be with the ones I love who’ve gone before me. And I do look forward to that. The prospect of heaven brings comfort and excitement.
But right now? In this moment, do I prefer it?
I don’t know. Because what I’ve got is pretty good. Maybe it’s too good. Perhaps this life I live is too comfortable. Maybe the suffering isn’t great enough. Maybe my surroundings are too Western, so easy that they make the prospect of heaven seem like a punishment rather than a reward.
Truthfully, if I had my choice, I’d choose to be raptured. I’d choose to enter heaven’s gates with my family by my side. I’d happily choose heaven over earth if it didn’t mean I had to leave people behind.
But I don’t get to choose.
And neither did Kara Tippetts. A few weeks ago, a short documentary was released in which Kara offered a most poignant statement. “I feel like I’m a little girl at the party whose dad’s asking her to leave early, and I’m throwing a fit. I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to go.”
What Kara understood better than I can understand is that a preference for heaven, and a desire to remain in the flesh, are not mutually exclusive. We can feel both at the same time.
I believe with all of my heart that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phillipians 1:21) What waits for us is the presence of God Himself – the full Glory of our Savior revealed. It’s better there. I know that it is.
But leaving means heartache for those who remain. Is God sufficient to care for, and minister to, the loved ones left behind? Yes. He is more than able to hold them in their grief, and walk them through their own suffering. But I don’t want my children to face that fire.
So do I prefer heaven? Yes. I prefer it someday. But to just out loud claim to prefer heaven? Right now? That’s my very real struggle.
Am I the only one?
I’ve had this dream since the day my first child was born. It was a prayer whispered many nights as I rocked him to sleep, and it continued through the years, more sporadic, but still always there at the surface, pushing me to pray for something I knew to be a rather lofty hope.
I prayed that all four grandparents would be at Sloan’s wedding.
I knew it was a far fetched notion. How many people are fortunate enough to have all of their grandparents still living when they walk down the aisle?
Still, it was my dream, so I held onto hope.
Last week that dream was crushed, and I’m so sad. Just so, so sad. I wish this wasn’t the new reality.
I was 12 years old the first time I felt the sting of death. I remember the day vividly, right down to what I was wearing. I’d woken up early that day and showered, then styled my permed hair and put on a white t-shirt (sleeves rolled) and pink flowered jumper with a pleated front, which I tight rolled just above my white Keds.
I said I remembered what I wore. I didn’t say I was proud of it.
I remember walking into the kitchen and my mom bursting into tears as she told me that my aunt was in a coma. When I got off the school bus that afternoon mom was gone, and dad was home.
“She passed away,” dad told me as he enveloped me in a hug.
You don’t forget that sting. Ever.
A few months later we buried my grandfather, and the emotions of that time are equally raw. This week will be forever etched in my older three children’s minds. In some way, shape or form, they will be marked by this. It’s okay – I know that. It’s a privilege to know the reality of heaven so young.
But death will leave a mark.
Annika won’t have a memory of this. She will have no memories of her Papa. Only stories, and a precious few photos. She’ll be okay, but that’s not a reality I like.
I am going to miss my father-in-law so very deeply. It’s so strange to think of him in the past tense. Even though I knew I was saying goodbye to him when I left after Christmas, it still feels like a shock to know he’s gone.
Herb made me laugh. He was so dry, and always so even. But when he started laughing, you couldn’t help but join in because he laughed with his whole face. Sometimes, if the story was just right, tears would stream down his cheeks as he laughed.
The summer after I turned 21, I lived with my future in-laws while I worked at their church. My intentions were not completely noble. Mostly I wanted to impress them since I had a crush on their son.
Funny thing, though. I could have relaxed because Herb knew as soon as he met me that I was going to be Lee’s wife. It was instances like that that earned him the not so official title of “Family Prophet.” The Lord gave him an extra portion of wisdom, and we all learned to listen close when he spoke.
I have so many memories of Herb that make me smile. Laughter is my favorite, and he knew that. He always made me laugh. I think the thing I will miss the most is rolling into town and finding him in the driveway waiting for us. He was always there, big smile on his face, hand waving.
As Christians, we often hear that we don’t mourn as the rest of the world mourns. We mourn with hope, because we know with confidence that our loved ones stand before the throne of grace. Their faith is made sight. It’s real. We quote 1 Corinthians 15:55: “Oh death, where is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
We hear these things and speak of them, but sometimes I wish that we were given more grace to mourn. I rejoice, indeed, that Herb is now living in the fullness of all God created for him, but I’m also desperately sad. I feel both emotions. And the truth is, death has no sting for the believer who has died, but for those of us left behind?
We need time to mourn and grieve. We need to embrace the heartache and the joy. Because they are not mutually exclusive feelings. Together, they make up the roller coaster of emotions that each moment brings.
I wasn’t there the night Herb died. I was the only one not there, and truthfully I am struggling with that. I wish I could have been there. There was nothing that could be done about the situation. I know that. I don’t feel guilt, because I was doing what I needed to be doing in that moment.
I was shepherding the hearts of the children placed in my care.
At the very moment Herb was taking his last breaths, I was peeling back more layers of the young girl who has spent the last two Christmases with us. She was unveiling more of her story, a story filled with more heartache than I’ve ever known. I needed to be here, listening and pouring into her. Herb would have told me to stay if I’d asked.
But I do wish I had been there. I wish I could have held his hand one more time. I wish I could have whispered “I love you,” just once more while he could still hear it.
Herb and I sat and talked one afternoon over Christmas break and he told me that he was ready to see heaven. The veil between heaven and earth is so very thin in those final days. It’s truly a beautiful thing to behold.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the men who I’ve read about for so many years,” he told me. “I think it will be fascinating to hear their stories. And I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like to stand face to face with God. It’s more amazing to me with each passing day just how much God loves me. It’s hard for me to conceive.”
No more imagining and wondering what that moment will be like. He’s there. He’s free of the pain. The beauty of eternity is it’s unfathomable mystery. While we mourn what we’ve lost, we also offer applause, because he’s there.
He has heard the “Well done.”
What an honor it is to be known as Herb Stuart’s daughter-in-law. I will miss him every single day.