The following is the written text of the message I delivered at Sarah’s Celebration of Life Service on September 17th, 2017.
I want to thank everyone who is here today and for those watching on the live stream. Sarah and I were so grateful for the incredible outpouring of support and prayers this year. I felt compelled to tell some more of Sarah’s story and share many things that she would want you to know. In her final weeks she took the time to plan much of what happened here today. Her desire was that everything that is done in her Celebration of Life service would ultimately bring glory to God so I’m thankful for all who have worked to help make this service possible.
Sarah would be among the first to tell you that God had ordained health issues to be a theme in her life. From having a dangerous blood clot as a newborn to thyroid cancer at the age of 21 to the progressive health issues she dealt with over the past several years as she became progressively homebound, God had a specific path for her to walk. Sarah often remarked that outside of her salvation and her marriage and family, that cancer was one of the best things that God ever gave her because of what it helped teach her at an early age. She learned about full dependency on God and to long that much more for heaven. From the time she came to know Jesus Christ as her personal savior when she was 20 years old, God led her on a unique journey of faith. One very special friend and brother in Christ, referring to 2 Cor. 4:7, described Sarah’s condition as God having created her as a special jar of clay purposed to bring Him glory in unique ways through her health.
Over the course of the 5 years of our marriage, Sarah’s health continued to decline until the crisis event this past March after which she spent more time in the hospital this year than out of it before finally coming to her home in Idaho for hospice care in August. Along the the course of Sarah’s life and then through our marriage God exercised and grew our faith through challenges like 3 miscarriages and other trials. As this year wore on we realized then that God had been preparing us for this biggest trial and an opportunity to shine brighter for His glory than ever before.
When we rested in God’s love and sovereignty in the past during our trials or other major health challenges, it grew our faith each time. We made a conscious choice then just as I do now to preach the truth of God’s Word to ourselves and to reject the fears and worries that inevitably come. That doesn’t mean we didn’t struggle to do that; we certainly did at times. We would then call to remembrance all the blessings God has shown us and His saints throughout history. God has and will continue to provide for all my needs because my greatest need isn’t even having Sarah here, as much as I miss her, or anything else in this world; it’s becoming more like Christ and bringing glory to His name. In our case God was and is orchestrating that through these trials to which we both submitted to with joyful obedience resting in God’s perfect love.
Trials often shake people’s’ belief that God is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, and all-sufficient. Yet, I know each of those to more real today than ever before. Paul said in 1 Cor. 15 that if Christ is not risen then our faith is in vain and we as Christians ought to be pitied. However, Christ has risen again so we have absolute assurance of His promises of our eternal home and our own resurrection one day. As Christians we can view death very differently. 2 Cor. 5:8 reminds us that when our soul departs our body it is present with the Lord. Because God saved Sarah from her sins, she faced death confidently knowing that her citizenship was in heaven where she now is with her Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil 3:20) 1 Peter 1:4 also describes it as “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [her].”
Sarah wrote a year ago in September 2016, “The Lord has been at work in my heart and life, and I can truly say, that feeling my real desperation and utter need for Him alone, is truly a gift…even in the midst of great physical suffering – it is a blessing to be drawn so very close to His precious side. Affliction makes us feel our real desperation for God, and we cry out for him. That’s why Paul boasted more in his weaknesses than his strengths. He knew that when he was weak, he was strong — because when he was weak, God was his strength (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). In all our proneness to wander astray from the God we love, we don’t need to ask our loving heavenly Father for affliction. Instead, let us ask Him for the merciful gift of desperation, for that is what we really need. We do not need to be afraid to ask him to make us desperate for Him, because our Father loves to give good gifts to us (Luke 11:13). We can trust Him to do for us what we need most. Therefore, we can make this our prayer: Whatever it takes, Lord, decrease my proneness to wander from You by keeping me desperate for You.”
Sarah and I had an amazing marriage over 5 years that truly were the best years of our lives. We truly sharpened each other and our personalities were so well matched to draw out the best qualities in each other strengthening each other in the Lord. One of the things we talked about in the last month of her life was how we got to experience the full range of our wedding vows in our marriage that some couples don’t get to in an entire lifetime. Through the continued health trials that we experienced, God grew us in so many ways. As Sarah’s health had worsened over the last few years she began to wonder if it was God’s plan for her to have a shorter life so she began to refocus her efforts on the few ministry opportunities she could still do. She always wondered why she had to cancel going on several mission trips, serving in more ways at church and to her friends, and slowly being able to have less and less people over for the ministry of hospitality that she so loved.
It was only in early August when we posted about entering hospice, that the hundreds upon hundreds of messages start flooding in about how many people’s’ lives our testimony had touched over the past year and the way in which God was getting all the glory! We both broke down in tears as we realized that Sarah’s sickness unto death was truly giving glory to God in a way that Sarah had never thought she would ever be able to do. I am so thankful that she came to that realization and what peace is helped give her in the last 4 weeks of her life. Trials have a way of helping you focus so clearly on that which is most important in life and for us that was and is to seek to bring glory to God in every way possible. Sarah and I both knew that her sickness unto death is a way to shine His glory even brighter. Her impact runs so deeply in this world in just a mere 32 years and yet has an eternal impression that only the infinite wisdom and knowledge of God can now understand.
The sweetest comments we got were from healthcare workers who asked if we were newlyweds for the loving ways we interacted and how our joy was undimmed by our circumstances. Others called us “special people” at the way we could talk about death and our testimonies compared to the ashen-faced fear of so many those around us. There’s nothing like imminent death staring you in the face to help people strip away the unimportant and we’ve seen that so many times when people would look at Sarah as only a 32 year old woman and imagine themselves in the same shoes or those that they loved. We are so thankful for the hundreds of people we’ve been able to share the gospel with and boldly point to our faith in Christ.
Many people ask how I am doing and how can I endure joyfully in the midst of a trial like this? I can tell you it’s because the Lord has been gracious and merciful to allow me to grow my faith over the course of my life and my marriage. Having now walked through this experience for the past year and especially the last few weeks, I know so much more deeply the truth of 2 Cor 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Trials are defining times because they reveal things about us sometimes that we either didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Just as when tea sits in hot water, it reveals its content and flavor that was already present in the tea so to does our hearts reveal their true content when we are placed in the hot waters of trials.
Faith grows strong with use and yet dies with disuse. And the use for which faith was primarily designed was what? In my case it’s a new life of joyful obedience. Sarah was an amazing gift that God entrusted to me during her time here on earth. This trial has not shaken my faith – it has deepened and strengthened as a refining fire as 1 Peter 1:7 describes. My grief and sorrow of loss is strong, but God’s grace is far stronger than any loss.
The Lord’s mercies are renewed each day and I rejoice in knowing that these momentary challenges pale in comparison to the infinite grace of our amazing God! He is mighty to save and ready to show Himself strong to everyone else around as they look at the testimony of our lives. We walk through these momentary valleys ever cognizant of an eternal perspective and say as James did in 1:2-4, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” You see, when I truly believe that God wants my best and as Romans 8 reminds me that He is working all things for my good, then I truly can thank Him even for the things that are hard and even harder to understand.
I am reminded of my all-time favorite Bible study of Dr. Jim Berg’s study in Ecclesiastes where he described how much easier it is to go through life as the fool who never reflects, never taking the time to stop and think. Although the wise person is better for reflecting, for thinking deeply, it is also not without its own troubles as we reflect on a fallen sin-cursed world filled with sinners of which we are one. With wisdom comes knowledge that is often more challenging to bear than ignorance would be. Not to say that wisdom is bad … far from it! Yet, because we are limited in our understanding as mere finite humans, that level of reflection can be heavy. We ask why did Sarah have to die? Yet, we realize we cannot yet know that answer this side of eternity. Thus, we have the two paths we can choose: the way up as we humbly turn to the Lord and fully depend on Him for everything or the way down as our worry turns to anxiety, despair, and hopelessness.
I can be joyful in the midst of all circumstance because I do not draw my satisfaction from them. What a difference from the world’s perspective that is as it’s easy to run to every distraction hoping to dull the pain of this life. As Solomon talked about in the book of Ecclesiastes thanks to the effects of sin, we will get dissatisfied, hurt, weary, bored, angry, frustrated, or grieved in this life. God in His mercy allows those circumstances to remind us of the temporal fleeting nature of this life and to in turn compel us to seek Him! He loves us so much that He’s not willing to let us be satisfied in this little mud puddle of our self-controlled life when the unimaginable splendors of His glorious majesty offer an incredible palace for us instead! That thought to me is mind-blowing! God loves ME and YOU so much that He won’t let us even come close to be satisfied with anything in this life, but instead uses the circumstances we are in to guide us closer to HIM!!! Every time I want to be frustrated, tired, upset, or unhappy with what is going on, I remember that truth. That perspective reminds me of that which is eternal and only that which matters!
The peace, grace, selflessness, humility, kindness, and complete lack of complaining that Sarah exhibited in these last 6 months as she dealt with these health trials, but especially the last 4 weeks of her life, exhibited true Christlikeness. She is and always will be a shining testimony to us all! I rejoice in the sure promises of God’s Word and Sarah’s complete eternal security. She faced death boldly confident in her salvation. Her life verse was from Galatians 2:20 which says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” She lived this reality in her earthly walk and now perfectly in her eternal home.