Each year during Holy Week, I ask friends to share a mourning story from their own life as a way to help us see Christ in the midst of suffering. My friend Nancy tells our first story this year. We've gone to church together for almost 5 years, but it wasn't until we were on a ministry retreat a few weeks ago, that I heard about Nancy's friend Liz. I knew this story belonged in our blog series this year. May we all receive the ministry of Liz's suffering grace.
“You have cancer,” my friend Liz was told by her physician in October 1996. The suspicious lump was indeed malignant, and suddenly Liz found herself thrust into the dreaded world of the cancer patient. A world of anxiety, uncertainty and fear. A world of hospitals, surgeries and chemotherapy. A world of waiting, wondering and wigs. My independent, vibrant, elementary school art teacher friend who was following hard after Jesus was embarking on what would become a seventeen month journey of both sorrow and joy, of pain and pleasure, of fear and peace.
I, too, was beginning a journey to a place I’d never been before. It was a journey alongside my friend into the unknown world of the terminal cancer supporter. It was a journey that raised fear in my heart. It was a journey that was full of tears and treasures, of both heartache and hope.
Liz was hospitalized in November 1997 to have lung surgery. The prolonged radiation treatments had caused fluid to build up on her lung, and surgery was indicated to correct the problem. She was hospitalized in the medical complex where I worked at the time, so I took advantage of my lunch breaks to visit Liz and her Mom while they were there. I’ll never forget visiting her in the Intensive Care Unit the day after her surgery. “It’s the right thing to do, probably more for her Mom than for Liz,” I convinced myself. “But don’t wear her out by staying more than a few minutes.” I found Liz sitting in a surgical chair at the bedside, groggy from the anesthesia and in pain from the surgical wound and the chest tube in her side. She smiled warmly at me when I entered, her smile crooked from the dry mucous membranes. She reached out her weak hand, tender from the IV taped to it, to hold mine and look me in the eye. We chatted and even laughed. During the few minutes I was there, she drifted in and out of the conversation. As I left, she smiled again, thanked me for coming, and said with all sincerity as she often did, “God bless you.”
Those few minutes are still so vivid in my mind. They were remarkable minutes. I had gone into that room with hopes of being a source of encouragement and love. Yet, I left as the one who had been loved and encouraged. Amazing. Amazing love. “How can it be that my heart feels lifted?” I asked myself. Because I saw the love of God in a new way through my suffering friend.
Some few weeks later in Liz’s home, another unexpected blessing occurred. Her condition had worsened, and desiring to minister to her, our singles pastor called together a group of friends to meet at Liz’s home and pray for her. After the dozen of us gathered, Neil led us in a time of worship, using a Psalm to focus our attention on the attributes of God – His love, His presence and His goodness. Since not everyone knew Liz well, she recalled the recent events surrounding her treatment, her condition and her hospitalization. She then gave what I have come to call her “soliloquy of grace.” She said that over the 13 months since her diagnosis, she had never felt alone. She felt loved in a deeper way than she had ever experienced before. Ever, in her whole life.
She recalled the countless expressions of love she had received – cards, letters, telephone calls, meals, a maid service, people showing up to plant pansies in her yard, to put a fresh coat of paint on her white picket fence, to decorate her house for Christmas, the student who had given her a lamb beanie baby, symbolizing her favorite passage of Scripture, the 23rd Psalm. She spoke of feeling “fortified” (she often used that word) by all the prayers. And then she dropped the golden nugget. She said, “On the outside my body is deteriorating, but on the inside my spirit is blooming.” (2 Cor 4:16) Neil ended the evening by leading us in a time of prayer for Liz. Among other things, we prayed for her healing.
That evening is still so vivid in my mind. It was a remarkable evening. I had gone into her home with hopes of being a source of encouragement and love. Yet, I left as the one who had been loved and encouraged. Amazing. Amazing love. “How can it be that my heart feels lifted?” I asked myself. Because I saw the goodness of God in a new way through my suffering friend.
WHAT ABOUT DEATH?
As I saw how peaceful and joyful Liz remained despite the hardships associated with her illness and its treatment, I began to wonder, “Is she in denial about the seriousness of her condition, or is it that she is experiencing God’s grace in a way that I just can’t appreciate?” One Friday after work in February 1998, I arranged with Liz to stop by for a visit. The first hour we caught up on life in general. It had been some time since we’d been together one-on-one.
Then the subject changed to more serious matters. We began to discuss the question: We are all praying that God will heal her. That is our heart’s desire. But suppose the Lord doesn’t intervene and heal her as we have asked Him to, but rather allows her to continue on this course? What is she feeling about that? She openly and willingly verbalized two thoughts. First, she made it clear that healing was still the desire of her heart. There was so much more she wanted to do. Then she said that although she is not afraid of death, she had two fears about it. She wondered if it would be painful; she wanted it to come quickly. And she was concerned about the hardship it would be on her family – her elderly parents, her sister, three brothers, nieces and nephews. Through tears, she said again that she felt so loved. As I was leaving, I expressed concern for keeping her for so long. She smiled and said that it felt good to talk about it.
That Friday afternoon visit with Liz is still so vivid in my mind. It was a remarkable afternoon. I had gone to her home with hopes of being a source of encouragement and love. Yet, I left as the one who had been loved and encouraged. Yes, I left as the one who had been loved and encouraged.
Amazing. Amazing love. “How can it be that my heart feels lifted?” I asked myself. I saw the goodness of God in a new way through my suffering friend.
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
A VALUE IN SUFFERING
In January 1998 some of Liz’s teacher friends came up with the idea of developing a community-wide event to show their appreciation and support for Liz. The Liz Beighley Art Run was born. Since Liz taught art, and the race was scheduled to occur during Youth Art Month, the run became part of the annual Art Festival. The idea grew, and soon it was a full-fledged race with brochures, T-shirts, race awards, corporate sponsors, and a web site. It involved students, teachers, parents, community members and friends.
As race day approached, Liz’s condition continued to deteriorate. Her participation became doubtful. She died peacefully on Monday, March 2, just 5 days before the race. Out of town family and friends gathered for the funeral on Friday, March 4, and many stayed over for race day.
Those planning the event had hoped for 500 to 1000 participants. Over 1600 people turned out to show support for Liz and her family. Along the 3-mile race route, people had decorated their mailboxes with pink balloons and put signs of support in their yards. Neighbors sat out in their yards together and watched the people run by. I heard colleagues speak of the courage and faith Liz exhibited, of her loving spirit that reaches out to all with whom she comes in contact. They spoke of her dependence on God to carry her through each day, and how her strength, faith and testimony are so real and have touched the lives of so many people.
There was value in Liz’s suffering.
Brought glory to God,That the works of God might be displayed;
Gave evidence of her faith in God;
Showed the love and compassion of God;
Promoted ministry within the body;
Helped us realize our dependence on God.
This is really a story of how a dying friend ministered to me.
Nancy is a retired healthcare professional (nurse), Stephen minister, friend, wife, sister, aunt, outdoor enthusiast and daughter of her Lord Jesus Christ.