The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms… —Deuteronomy 33:27
Natalie was one of my deaconesses. I say "was" because she passed away in January. One of my first memories of Natalie was at a funeral, actually, one of the first of the many I have officiated in my five years in Middletown. I don't even remember who it was for—it was not a church member but a townsperson—and I was doing my normal introverted, new pastor on the job thing, being young and shy and scared hanging out in the kitchen at the fire hall. Natalie comes walking in. "What are you doing in here? Go out there and meet people."
Excuse me? Who does this lady think she is?
One of my best critics and greatest friends, actually. As I've thought over our friendship the last several months, it occurs to me that Natalie was the person from the church I talk with the most. Several times a week we exchanged emails. We volunteered together at the local food shelf. When I had to meet with a woman alone at the church, Natalie was the one who will come and hang out in the room next door. Natalie was the one who, when she's at the table, I knew things would get done. When she says something is doable, dangit, it was doable. Natalie went from my shrewdest challenger to my fiercest supporter and encourager.
On Easter Sunday 2014 a friend said, "Natalie, your eyes look yellow." She went to the doctor that Monday, where they did blood work. Tuesday they called and said "Go to the ER." She was in the hospital over a week. They found problems with the bile duct, but in that process, also, pancreatic cancer, which, they say, nobody survives. But they also created all kinds of complications in the bile duct procedures which left her feeble and wounded. Talk of air building up, of bile building up, of perforated this and that. And even if that stuff could be fixed, there was still the cancer, which again they say, nobody survives.
Natalie refused treatment. She could not endure any more surgeries. Every thing the doctors did only created three more things to do. She wasn't going to fool with all that.
She and her husband moved into a long-time friend's guest room, and hospice took over. They gave her a few days to two weeks to live. She lasted nearly ten months but all of it in incredible pain. We all hoped the perforations and the air and the bile and everything else would get sorted internally, by the body's great design or God's great miraculous way. It seemed like it did. But there was still that cancer untreated. And nobody, they say, survives that.
I read a lot of Scripture to her. She asked for Revelation—with its whores and dragons and plagues and beheadings—and for Ecclesiastes—with its vanities and meaninglessnesses and chasings of the wind. This tells you something about Natalie.
I said, "Why Revelation?," as I'm reading Jesus' letters to the churches. "This is what I have against you!" he declares over and over.
She said, "He's not talking to me!"
I said, "Why Ecclesiastes?"
She said, "Because I see that having a bunch of stuff and money and fame doesn't do anything. It tells me I didn't waste my life."
Some people told Natalie they were mad at God about the whole thing. She'd get mad about their getting mad. "God's the reason we have anything in the first place."
One day she pointed to the collection of cards she'd received. "I almost wish you'd take them all away," she said.
"Because they go on and on about how great I am and how I've done all these wonderful things for them. And they don't know how selfish I am. Anything good I've done wasn't me."
Her three grown kids, including Sam, the son who lives in Sweden, came through on routine visits. Sam said, "Wouldn't it be something if of all the things the doctors got terribly wrong, it was also this diagnosis about the bile and the air? Maybe, if she starts feeling better, she will change her mind about fighting the cancer."
But, they kept saying, nobody survives pancreatic cancer.
Natalie was upset one day that she didn't know when she was gonna go. "They said 'a few days to two weeks' eleven days ago. Now they won't tell me how long I have." She paused, eyes closed. "God knows."
We didn't know when Natalie would go. I don't know when I will go. None of us knows the when, really.
I preached on Psalm 1 at a conference while Natalie was sick, and this line from verse 6 struck me in a special way: "the Lord knows the way of the righteous." There is nothing more precious than to be known by God, all our days and all our ways.
It was extremely difficult watching Natalie, a fit, healthy, thin giant of a woman, shrink down in body and energy, especially after losing two other friends to cancer (both brain tumors) within a couple of months of each other the year before. And yet, one thing I learned over the course of our church's afflictions is that when a saint's body gives way, their spirit builds up. They get smaller, and God gets bigger, as if their passing is itself a foretaste of the day Christ will put all things in subjection under his feet. And we are not annihilated on that day but redeemed, resurrected, restored. When we die, we get smaller and God gets bigger, that he might be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
The day before my friend Richard died, I stood in his bedroom while he lay in his deathbed. Another bed had been pressed up against it, where his wife slept by his side in the night. I was told I could speak to him, although Richard was not conscious, heavily sedated. Because of that other bed parallel to his own, I could not sit near him. I had to actually lay down next to him. So I did. While his sister and aunt watched, I crawled basically into bed with him, lying on my side to face him, and we laid there, inches from each other, while I looked into his thin face. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open. I could feel and smell his breath, slow and labored on my own face. I said to him, "Richard, God loves you and approves of you." (These were the words the Spirit spoke to my heart in my moment of gospel wakefulness years ago.) "Richard, the Lord is proud of you and ready to welcome you because of your faith in him." Then I said something that has been a meaningful exhortation to me ever since Ray Ortlund said it to me over plates of enchiladas at Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. "You are a mighty man of God."
The words sounded weird given our intimate, vulnerable, tender positions.
In the ordinary, in the mundane, in the boredom. In the throes of suffering, in the pangs and numbness of depression, in the threats to life and safety. Christ is all.
Richard passed early the next morning. His body finally gave way to the brokenness and the curse. Few people survive brain tumors. And yet—he did. He really and truly did. Thinking of him standing in the presence of God in great glory, presented blameless by virtue of the righteousness of Christ, he was swallowed up into the divine kingdom in which he was already seated with Christ, into the very God in which he was already hidden. Richard was—is—more than a conqueror.
Jesus looks right into the eyes of Lazarus' sobbing sister and says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live. Do you believe this?"
I do. I really do, by God's grace.
So did Natalie. Nobody survives pancreatic cancer, "they" say. But the blood of Christ speaks a better word. Natalie survived.
Everyone who is in Christ will survive—prevail, even, overcome.
He must increase, but I must decrease.—John 3:30