By Cindy Barr
(Editor’s Note: Adversity is a part of every church planting family’s experience. While few match the depth of adversity faced by the author below, all will be challenged to overcome such obstacles, as Cindy has, through faith in our loving God. Read on…David Jackson)
“Yesterday’s faith is not enough for today’s challenges,” said my former pastor, Harold Bullock. That has come to mind often over the years and certainly proved itself true over the last four years. Faith is not simply a bank account into which you make deposits regularly and hope it is there for you when you need it. It is a daily commitment to trust God, no matter what.
We walked out of the airport into the bright sun of a beautiful September Maryland day. “I love this place already,” I thought. Our first stop, Fort McHenry, brought out the red, white, and blue goose pimples all over my skin. Battles of times past…the faithfulness of men and women dedicated to a cause greater than themselves…hmmm, I thought.
Settling in to life here seemed easy enough. Figure out how to afford to live here. Connect electricity. Make some friends. Start a church. All good things on a “To Do List.”
And then life happened. My parents, still living in the west Texas town in which I grew up, had become increasingly fragile. My mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at only 65 years of age, had lost more and more of herself. Every time I returned, which was often, I didn’t know if I would catch a glimpse of who she really was. Sometimes I was rewarded with a smile or a pat.
My father, faithful caretaker of my mother, had battled cancer for 15 years. Doctors said that what kept him alive was taking care of my mom. He wanted so badly to outlive her even if by just a little. That was not the case. He entered the hospital to bad news, a blood clotting disorder. He was released long enough to paint the front porch and returned to the hospital for more than thirty units of blood and no good news. We found a wonderful place for my mom to live. She didn’t even understand when we told her that he had died.
Cleaning out their lifetime of memories, having misunderstandings with family, selling their home, praying for a glimpse of hope for my mom, all took up a great portion of my thoughts and feelings. And then, within a few months, good news! A new baby! I couldn’t wait to tell my mom. But I miscarried. I cried and cried for the lost opportunity of knowing that wonderful child and for that baby not knowing my wonderful family.
My mother was hanging on, more withdrawn, recognizing no one. And eight months after my dad passed away, my mother joined him. I celebrated that she was whole, but I couldn’t repair the hole in heart from so much loss. I was mired in grief, but able to have hope. I loved the moments with my kids that brought the shimmering reality of the present and future into focus. I was crawling out of the hole.
Then 15 months after I lost my mom, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Wow, I thought, I am beginning to feel like a punching bag.
Many authors have taken on the subject of suffering, adversity, where’s God when I hurt, and other versions of the life’s-not-fair theme. But when it’s happening to you, what do you do? Many scream at God, read the Bible cover to cover, talk to friends, consult a doctor, take anti-depressants, phone a therapist. All are valid choices. I did some.
After a cancer diagnosis, you spend a good amount of time with doctors. Chemotherapy left me very sick with a lot of time to think. People would lovingly suggest I read Job. But I didn’t feel like Job; truly, I didn’t. I didn’t want to think of all the other things that could go wrong!
I was reminded of wisdom from another former pastor of mine, Al Meredith, actually from—of all places—the book of Job. We were living in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time, when a gunman entered a church to the songs of praise of students at a “See You at the Pole” rally one September evening. When he was finished, eight people were dead, including the gunman, and seven others wounded. One of the students killed was a girl in a Bible study I led. “Where is God in all of this?” everyone wondered. To a city wracked in grief, the pastor said that a look into Job tells us not “Why” these things happen, but “Who” is in charge.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks Job. “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?” God continues.
It is not that God doesn’t care about the why, but He wants us to focus on the Who. And the Who is He, the One that did the unthinkable and suffered greater than any of us. He sent His Son, Jesus, to this earth for us and watched Him die. God did not remove Himself from that pain. He entered it and allowed it for a greater good. He that asks us to focus on Him is not one who watches over us with detachment and indifference. Instead He is the One that enters our pain, knowing better than we how this broken world in which we live hurts all of us…how sin and death cause separation and brokenness and grief beyond our deepest hurt. He lifts us from that pain because He understands like no one else can. And only He can bring good from all that the evil one would want to use to destroy us.
As I sat on the couch last fall alone, looking out the window at the beautiful color changes around me, beaten down not just from chemotherapy, but from loss and pain, I was reminded of a call and response that I heard at an African-American church I attended. The leader says, “God is good.” The congregation responds, “All the time!” “All the time,” the leader calls out. The people resoundingly cry “GOD IS GOOD!” And that is the truth of faith. God is good, all the time.
We live in a broken world, broken by sin, death, disease, pain, grief. But God goes with us, before us, after us. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist asks. What can separate us from the love of God? “Nothing!” writes Paul to the Romans. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Cancer survivors often mark time with a B.C. (before cancer) and an A.C. (after cancer). That is not how I want to mark my time. I want to look back on my life when my history was altered by the work of Jesus in my life. I want my time marked by the fluidity of a faith, scarred by struggle, tested and true. Not that it is my work at faith, but it is the work of a loving God through Jesus in me.
I was at a survivor’s weekend a few months ago, when I admitted to the group that I was scared at the onset of my diagnosis that I would be found lacking in the faith department. You know, I was. But He that is in me is greater. And my hope lies not in my ability to conjure up a faith that will get me through the hard times, but a trust in the One who gives the very faith I lack.
Cindy Barr and her husband, James, are planting Grace Mill Church in Hanover, Md. She can be reached at email@example.com.