Friday, December 6, 2013

Nancy Larsen - Remembering Her Death, and Her Life



Nancy with the rest of my family


Ten years ago today, Nancy Larsen died.  Nancy was the wife of Jim, the mother of Stephanie and Doug, ‘grandmamma’ to our two girls.  A year earlier, she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive brain tumor.  She had surgery, underwent experimental chemotherapy.  But the brain tumor came back with a vengeance in October.  A stroke left her paralyzed on the left side.  Stephanie and I were with her the last month of her life.  We were astonished and grateful for the outpouring of love and care from her circle of friends, from the church, from her colleagues and former patients/clients (she was an occupational therapist for children with physical and mental challenges). 

Nancy with my daughters, two of her grandchildren.

But most of all I was astonished at Nancy.  I had by then known Nancy for more than twenty years.  Expansive, cheerful, always something to say, always thinking and busy about this or that, her energy filled a room.  And yet she could also rein it in to a tight focus, and ask the right question, and listen to what I had to say.  A strong Christian, Nancy also had a big heart for younger women and children, for the church, and for her two children, over whom she fussed and loved, and for whom she interceded.

That last year of her life was lived under the sentence of death.  Almost nobody lives much more than a year after being diagnosed with this form of a brain tumor.  And yet Nancy was determined to wring every last bit of life out of whatever time she had left. 

Nancy and Jim came to visit us when we were living in Ethiopia

With enthusiasm, she helped with our 'Harvest'/Halloween party.


She was an honorary judge for the different costumes.  And though Roxanne, to the right, was not allowed to enter because she was a mom, we all thought that she should have won!

Time with Grandmamma becomes rare when one is a Missionary Kid.

We had come back to the States for our first, and what would be our longest furlough – 6 months from June through the end of the year.  We stayed with Nancy and Jim for a good bit of the summer, using their home as a base from which to launch out and speak at churches and meet with supporters.  Nancy was as she always had been.  Had I not known better, I would never have suspected that she was six months out from serious brain surgery and undergoing rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  Except for the wigs, which all of us enjoyed.  But she was still going to church meetings and prayer groups and Bible studies, still going for water aerobics, still keeping house and cooking, still working in their garden.

Yours truly, with wig.

In fact, one of the last memories I have of Nancy while her health still held was of her working in the garden on a warm early September evening as the sun was going down.  She was sitting down working at something in a back yard bed with her back to me, and I just sat on the deck and watched.  And I thought to myself that she would probably not have many more moments like this.  And so I thanked God for such gifts that she (and I) could enjoy, and wiped away a couple of tears.

The back of Jim and Nancy's house.  So many good memories.

We left for a long trip to Pennsylvania, which was to include a special ordination service for Stephanie at the church in Reading where both of us had served.  While we were in Reading, we got the call from Stephanie’s parents saying that the tumor had come back.  They were trying to be upbeat, but we all knew what it meant.  They came up for Stephanie’s ordination.  Her mom was starting to lose function.  On their way home, Nancy suffered her stroke.  Rather than take her to a hospital, Jim took her home.  We dropped what we were doing and came home, too.

So far as I know, the only picture of Nancy with my mom, Donna Wheeler.  Taken at Virginia Beach, VA.

Although she was unable to communicate verbally, Nancy communicated with her eyes and with her hand.  She let us know when she heard and understood.  She would blink yes or no.  Many people came to help, turning her, bathing her, massaging her, bringing food for us, giving us a break.  We tried to realize that just because she couldn’t speak, it didn’t mean her mind wasn’t there.  It was – she was sharp as ever.  But her body was failing.

Grandparent love.

After a month she was sleeping more and more.  And then, she developed a slight fever and some congestion.  It was too much for her weakened body.  We stayed up as late as we could on the night of December 5.  Exhausted we went to bed, leaving Jim to sit with his wife of 47 years.  At about 5 AM he came and woke us.  Nancy was going.  We shook sleep off and stumbled into their room where Nancy lay.  We were not there five minutes when she took what would be her last breath.  And then she was gone.


At our language school graduation program in Addis Ababa.

I thank God for Nancy.  She blessed me with love, with her laughter, with her passion, with her wonderful meals and holiday celebrations.  She defined exuberance.  I was not ready for her to go.  But that’s what death does.  It stops a good story.  It ends the conversation.  It puts someone I love out of reach.  However much we try to prettify death, it is the last enemy.  It not only robs us of life and all we know, it steals us from those around us who know and love us. 


So Nancy, I want to remember you as we pass the 10th anniversary of your death.  And I want to remind myself that the reason our Savior came was not just that our sins might be forgiven, but that this last enemy might be destroyed and undone, that death’s grip over us would be loosened, that we might hear the voice of the risen Savior say to us who lay in the grave, ‘Arise my beloved, and be made new!’  The day is coming when Nancy will hear that voice, and will rise again, on that Day of the Lord, when all things are made new.  I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.

With Haile, their adopted Ethiopian graduate student

In the meantime we who remain behind walk what the Puritans rightly called this vale of tears.  Hoping that one day, all that is wrong will be made right, when all quarrels and strivings will cease, where pain and shadow will pass away, when all these tears will be dried.

I was asked to preach the sermon at Nancy’s funeral.  We had the service on December 9, 2003.  This is what I said:

‘To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain’                                                              J. William Black
Philippians 1:18c-27                                                                                  9 December 2003

18Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.  20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.  21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.  Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  23I am torn between the two:  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.  27Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

            I have my own remembrance of Nancy.  It’s of the first time I met her.  Twenty-two years ago, Stephanie and I were friends and colleagues working as InterVarsity staff at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Stephanie invited me and another friend named Molly to come home for the weekend.  We drove up after all our Friday night meetings were done, so we didn’t get to Stephanie’s house until 3AM.  I took the guest room in the hall, and I don’t know where Molly ended up.  The next morning about 10, I got up and took a long hot shower in the bathroom across the hall.  When I was done, I was wrapped in my towel and was just going to dart across the hall.  But right when I opened the bathroom door, the smoke alarm above my head went off.  It was really loud.  So I dashed across the hall into my room and closed the door and then had a decision to make.  Do I run for my life wrapped in a towel, or do I put some clothes on and take my chances from there?  By this time there was all kinds of commotion outside my door.  So I pulled on my trousers and stuck my head out of the door into a hallway full of people.  And there was Nancy, laughing and getting everyone organized.  Somehow she had already pulled in a neighbor from the street to help get the smoke alarm turned off and she was busy introducing everyone.  And without skipping a beat she turned to me and said, ‘And this young man I’ve never met before, but you must be Bill Black, this is our neighbor so and so from across the street.’  She was that kind of person.  She had a way of drawing you in and making you feel right at home.

Back in September, Nancy was the speaker at a women’s discipleship program here at the church.  Many of you were there for that.  A day or so before she spoke, she came and asked me if I would read her talk and give her some feedback.  She said, ‘I really don’t know why they want me to talk about my experience this past year.  Everyone has already heard my story.’  And so we talked about what this past year had been like for her.  I asked her if she had ever been afraid of what might happen, if the tumor recurred.  And she said, ‘No, I’ve never been afraid.  I know it could happen, but I know the Lord is in control, and so I just don’t worry about it.  I’m not afraid of getting sick.  I’m not afraid of dying, and that has set me free to really live.’  I told Nancy, ‘I think I know why you’re supposed to give this talk.  You’ve got something that most people would give anything to have.’

Back a year ago, Stephanie and I didn’t know what Nancy’s prognosis would be, so our family came back from Ethiopia to spend Christmas with Nancy and Jim.  And we would have these conversations with Nancy that made us wonder if she was in denial or something.  Here she was, she had just received a crushing diagnosis and had undergone brain surgery.  But she was cheerful, optimistic, eager to leave all that behind and get on with her daily routines with her family and friends, her quiet time every morning, her aqua aerobics, her bridge group, her care group and church.  It took us a while, but we began to realize that Nancy was not in denial.  She understood what was going on.  You know, Real faith is always startling when you meet it face to face.  It’s like a light in a dark place.  It’s counter-intuitive to the values and responses of the world around us.  That’s why we’ve gathered here today.  To celebrate a woman—a wife, a mom, a grandmamma, a friend—whose living and dying bore the tell-tale signs of real faith, and to remind ourselves of the secret to really living that she knew so well.

The apostle Paul lived his life under the same reality.  Here is a man who was a prisoner in a Roman dungeon, awaiting a trial that could result in his execution.  He had faced one hardship and difficulty after another, from beatings to deprivation to persecution and danger.

And yet his letter to the Christians in Philippi is so full of joy, of rejoicing, of buoyant confidence that God was at work and that he would bring to completion the work that he had begun in him and in them.  You could hardly call it a secret.  Paul mentions again and again why he feels the way he does.  ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,’ writes Paul in Philippians 4:12-13, ‘whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.’  Or in Philippians 3:7-10, 7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him…  10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.  12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…  13Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ 

This is why Paul can say, as he does in our passage, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’  Do you hear what keeps coming up again and again?  It’s not some religious duty, it’s not some vague postmodern hope that everything will somehow be OK, it’s not somehow trying to be a nice person.  It’s Jesus.  The grace of Jesus touches and awakens our hearts.  The death of Jesus forgives our sin.  The resurrection of Jesus gives us a hope that will never be disappointed.  The life of Jesus shows us what’s really important.  But it’s the love of Jesus, more than anything else, that will turn our hearts into fire.

There are so many things that we can celebrate today.  The children and colleagues whose lives she touched as an OT.  The friendships and comraderie she knew as a Navy wife and mom.  Her work with MOPS and Kindred Hearts and the presbytery and the national EPC women’s conference.  Her ability to make a stranger feel at home.  Her skill as a mom. Now, raising two children might not seem like a big deal to some of us, but then these were—how can I put this?—two special kids!  And there was how she cared for her own mom for more than a decade.  Or the different ways she made each one of her grandkids feel special.  And then her dear, dear friends and all the things you went through together—she was there for you and you were there for her.  We really saw the fruit of those friendships this past month.  When she could no longer come to you, you came to her and loved her and sat with her.  Watching many of you care for her this past month was really wonderful to see.

But the thing about Nancy was there was a solid core to who she was and what she did.  There was a rhyme and a reason to her life.  I really saw this last week when it was really, really hard for her.

This past week I was sitting with Nancy, listening to music.  Most of you know that this last month was a real trial for Nancy.  She was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak.  But as many of you who came to see her know, she figured out a way to communicate, with her eyes, a nod or with a squeeze of her hand.  And when we really got what she was trying to tell us, she would do this (OK).  So on Sunday afternoon, I had put on a  Matthew Ward CD, and he was singing these words from the Lord, ‘Even now, though darkness falls and you cannot find your way, I will love you with the love of the Father, and I’ll never leave your side, my child.’  And as Matthew Ward was singing these words, though her strength was beginning to fail, I watched her lift her left arm and with her hand she did this (OK).  For those of us with eyes to see, I think Nancy has been teaching us how to die.  And in doing so, she has really been teaching us how to live.  No fear.  No regrets. Trusting the Lord.  Having a hope that she knew would not be disappointed.  I’m not saying that she was perfect.  She knew she was a sinner saved by grace, but this, I think, was the engine that powered her life.  I think we could all tell stories of the different ways that Nancy welcomed and loved us, but in doing so, she was simply doing for us what the Lord had done for her. Because when your heart has been touched by real love, something happens.  We’re changed, set free.  ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ writes John (1 John 4:18). ‘We love because He first loved us’ (4:19).

But still, it is hard to lose someone you love.  Death is a terrible enemy.  It destroys something precious.  And whether sudden or lingering, it separates us from loved ones who are dear to us.  Jim, Doug, Stephanie, We went with her as far as we could go.  And whether it’s losing your wife and companion and partner of 46 years, or your mom who was always there for you, or your aunt or your sister or your grandmamma who thought you were the sunshine of her life, or your friend who was just fun to be with, we’ve all lost something, someone precious, and our grief is real.  But as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we grieve, but not like those who have no hope.  Nancy’s Jesus knows all about pain and suffering and death.  He went to the cross for us, he tasted death for us, he endured the grave for us.  But he rose again from the dead.  And because He lives, death will not have the last word in Nancy’s life or in your life or in mine.  ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ says Jesus.  ‘She who believes in me will live, even though she dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?’  (John 11:25-26)  For Jesus has dealt with our sin and with our dying.  We will see Him with our own eyes, and he will wipe away every tear.  And as it says in Revelation 21, ‘there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away… Behold I am making everything new, says the Lord.’  Do you believe this?  Paul did.  That’s why he could say, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’  That’s why we can have hope.  That’s why we can celebrate.  I think Nancy would want us to.  Don’t you?