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The School of Dying GracesA journey of extraordinary intimacy with God
By Richard Felix Rob Wilkins
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Richard Felix
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBRINGER OF HOPE
Give me a new name, Lord: "Bringer of Hope." Let me through my experience bring new and living hope to those who have no hope. Lord God, I prayed two years ago, "Change me," and you have. Now let me help others to live the abundant life in you.
My wife wrote these words from her personal Gethsemane, a place of great suffering that became holy ground for her most intimate encounters with God. I could not follow her there, though I longed to do so with every cell in my body.
I write these words from my own Gethsemane-a garden bereft of her presence, where I have anguished with God and against God. It has become for me the holy ground on which I have tried to retrace her steps along a journey that led her figuratively and literally to the heart of God.
I could not enter with my wife into her school of dying graces. She cannot accompany me now as I harvest these graces for living.
Vivian died after an epic struggle with cancer. I had been certain that God would heal her, but God did not answer my prayers for her physical recovery-nor those of my family, our beloved friends, and a vast Christian community who loved us and supported us.
One early morning on a very warm day in Southern California, a year and a half after my wife's death, I attended a funeral for the mother of one of my friends. As I was leaving the cemetery, baking in the heat of my car, I pulled off to the side and stepped out of the car to shed my jacket. I folded it carefully and placed it on the backseat. As I shut the back door and turned around to get into the front seat, I found myself looking at a man about fifteen feet away.
He was kneeling at his wife's grave-weeping, calling out her name, telling her how much he missed her. As he fiddled with the flowers in front of him, he occasionally wiped the tears away from his face with the backs of his hands. Then he wailed some more. I stood there like a deer frozen in car headlights. The man suddenly turned and stared at me, and I saw my own face reflected in his. Pain and anguish cut to the core of my heart as I fell into my car and started the engine. But after driving a hundred feet or so, I stopped and crumpled over the steering wheel for several minutes. Grief came roaring into the front room of my very being, routing me from every room of my soul.
I later wrote to a friend:
I know that God is working at a deep place in my life. I am trying to understand each and every thing that is happening to me. I still journal daily. I will not be the same person at the end of this journey. Life in the future will be more about being than it will be about doing. Someday when Vivian and I rendezvous with Jesus, I am sure I will give God thanks for this season of my life. From a human viewpoint I cannot comprehend that truth, but through faith it will be so.
In the war against my wife's cancer, I had been given a job to do, eventually assigned to me by Vivian herself: to pray for her healing, while she prepared herself for dying. During the thirty months between the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer and the day she took her last breath on this earth, I abandoned myself to the task of fervent prayer. Until her dying breath-and, strangely, for many weeks after-I believed God would intervene with a miracle of healing for my wife. The more the miracle seemed delayed, the greater I imagined God's glory when the doctors, with puzzled smiles on their faces, would report that Vivian was free of cancer.
Inexplicably, nearly two months after my wife's death, I was still praying for her healing. To this day, it is something I occasionally catch myself doing. I once read that after the invention of the polio vaccine, fund-raising to battle the disease continued even though the threat had been eradicated. Once set in motion, with so much at stake, the charity machine took some time to shut down. Likewise, I had been fighting the Beast for so long that it was difficult to relinquish the struggle.
Our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary came in August, following Vivian's death in June. I believed I had failed at my task. Had my faith been greater, had I prayed more consistently and with greater fervor, then Vivian and I would have been celebrating our anniversary together, planning for our next year of ministry at the helm of Azusa Pacific University and future retirement. At that time, my only option besides blaming myself was to blame God.
Since then, on my better days, I have come to see glimpses of God's deeper and mysterious plan. But on that brilliant blue day, my sky was dark. That August afternoon I received a card with a photo of a woman's hand on top of a man's hand. Inside were the words:
God made our hands fit for each other.
Lower, in her own handwriting, my beloved wife had added:
Until our hands will meet together.
Before her death, Vivian had given the card to a friend, who promised to mail it the day before our anniversary. That was like her. She loved gardening, and she understood that a good harvest required loving consistency. I looked out over the garden that she and I had planted and tended together that spring, now overtaken by weeds. I remembered the love Vivian had for the process of growing living fruit: the nurture, the pruning, and the daily care.
With our thirty-fifth anniversary card lying on a nightstand by our bed, I fell asleep, and a terrible, recurring image returned: Vivian's discarded gardening tools, lying on top of the dirt in a careful line-spade, gloves, sunglasses, knee pads, and watering can. I awoke cold with sweat, startled anew: Vivian is gone.
As part of my grieving, I read and reread a series of journals that Vivian kept during her illness. Over and over, through my tears, I was struck with the spiritual passion that had been seeded in her suffering. In reading her journals, I felt as if I were watching it take root, grow, and blossom into an otherworldly beauty. I began taking notes. In an effort to duplicate Vivian's spiritual growth in my own life, I simply retraced her steps-read the books she read, prayed the prayers she did, and followed the spiritual disciplines she had developed.
I had a double purpose in mind: to write a book detailing her experiences, using excerpts from her spiritual journal, and to heal my own heart. In the summer of that same year, I spent nearly every day in the library-reading the desert fathers and mothers, taking notes on prayer techniques, exploring solitude and silence, and imprinting the Word on my heart.
For a long time, for whatever reason, neither the healing nor the book came to me. Despite my best efforts to seek God, I felt incapacitated by an unmoving despair. A good deal more time passed before any light interrupted the darkness that surrounded me. Like rays bent into the colors of a rainbow after a terrible storm, my periods of healing have come slowly, unexpectedly, as pure gifts of God's grace.
In the days leading up to her death, Vivian had been wearing a necklace I gave her on our thirty-third wedding anniversary. It had been specially made as a heart in two pieces-one half for her to wear, the other for me, symbolizing the never-ending wholeness of our love. After she passed away, we realized that Vivian's necklace had mysteriously disappeared. In the coming months, I found myself searching desperately for the necklace. Over and over, I pleaded with God for the grace to find the jewelry.
On the first anniversary of her death, I was exploring one of the closets in our old home, trying to find a place to store some boxes of baseball cards. As I stepped behind one of the boxes, I noticed a small dancing light from the corner of my eye. I looked down to discover Vivian's necklace, its pendant cut to the shape of an R. In haste, I reached for the necklace around my own neck-its pendant cut to the shape of a V-and put the two halves together. Once again, it fit to form one heart.
Now, four years after my wife's death, I have begun to understand how my own broken heart can begin to mend as I live a new season of life without her. I can see the impact of Vivian's life and death in the faith and lives of hundreds-perhaps thousands-of people. In the way she faced adversity with faith and died with grace, she planted seeds that were already ripening into a great harvest.
Two of Vivian's favorite verses were John 12:24 and Romans 8:28.
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Through the eyes of faith, Vivian came to grips with the paradox that in the process of our suffering and dying, God's greater purpose of life in full can be revealed. Through obedience unto death, Vivian began to catch glimpses of God working through her to accomplish purposes far greater than her own physical healing. More and more, she understood her faith was influencing others and weaving threads of God's present redemption into his eternal plan:
I don't know why I am dying of cancer when you could have healed me at any point during treatment, but I know I can live for you today. Lord, make me beautiful of soul, and then let others see into my soul. Let my mind constantly be on you. Let me play the game of minutes and utilize my time to pray for others. Expand my life outward, Lord. Let my life have ultimate meaning. Allow me to bring hope and your love to others.
Vivian lived longer-and better-than anyone could have imagined. Second Corinthians 4:16-5:1 paints the picture:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
Beyond the inevitable, devouring, and pain-filled path of a terrible enemy, in circular lines of communion, my wife increasingly entered into the presence of the Eternal One. Through private prayer, immersion in the Word, obedience, and heartfelt worship, she was able to learn eternal lessons of God's power and goodness.
Lord Jesus, I have prayed again and again for you to give me new eyes to see you ever present. And you have. You have allowed me to see beyond the visible to the Kingdom that connects and overlaps with our present world. I have seen you in power and might. I pray your presence would be so real to me that I might live and rejoice as one transformed into your image.
My wife became a bringer of hope to thousands of people-hope that suffering can teach us how to live well, hope that while evil can ravage the body it cannot conquer the soul, hope that God will come to us in the very place where we are certain we have been abandoned.
Could my wife, after her death, become a bringer of hope to me? The question tortured me during the most intense phases of my grieving. I had been dealt the blow of losing all my hopes. My heart waited by the gate for her return, intent only on the sight of her coming back to me, while I tried to move mind and body forward without her.
This story is, in a sense, my answer to that question. Yes, it is possible to find hope beyond the death of all earthly hopes. It is possible to stand on the cusp of our very worst fears, endure the nightmare of their coming true, and find that on the other side we have been transformed rather than destroyed.
My turning point came as I gave myself to the graces of living that were forged in my wife's victorious dying:
The grace of letting go-to hold with open hands what we are most afraid of losing, and to cling only to what we cannot lose.
The grace of seeing with the eyes of faith-to be willing to see the greater miracles God may have for us.
The grace of dependence-to give up control and embrace brokenness as a path to greater intimacy with God.
The grace of surrender-to embrace suffering as a friend rather than fearing it as an enemy.
The grace of gratitude-to be thankful for the beauty at the heart of life, even in the horror and disfigurement of disease.
The grace of transformation-to cling to the transforming power of God's love.
In death and in life, I am learning, we are offered grace upon grace. The lessons may be costly, but the wisdom is priceless.
Excerpted from The School of Dying Graces by Richard Felix Rob Wilkins Copyright © 2004 by Richard Felix. Excerpted by permission.
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