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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One year later

It was a year ago today we lost Amy. I say "we" because even though Weston and Peyton and Maddie bore the brunt of the loss, Amy was part of an extended family that goes beyond the Harbaugh and Foell clans. This group of people for me has been the fulfillment of Jesus' words to his disciples in Mark 10:29-30 -- "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life." Amy lived at the heart of a family united not by the blood of human descent, but by the blood of Jesus. For many of this family, Amy's death was a first deep draught of grief, a first peering into the abyss of death. The evening of May 17th a few of us were gathered around her bed in their living room and we shared communion and prayed for her healing. Amy looked that evening like she was floating. Powerless and wracked by cancer, she closed her eyes and lay back in the gentle grasp of so many hands touching her body as we prayed for her. A few hours later, in the early morning, her body stopped working and she went to be face to face with Jesus.

I have thought many, many times about Amy since then. Members of that extended family -- as well as members of her natural family -- have told stories, shared memories and tears and laughter and hope and anger and grief. In various ways, we have tried hard to move on, to process our own grief, without losing a sense of Amy's presence, her influence, her gifts, and her humor. Grief is hard.

Many times since that day I have thought of the words of Psalm 116. One verse of this psalm -- the whole thing bears reading -- says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

A year and a half ago I came close to death myself. I had a "subarachnoid hemorrhage" which means that a blood vessel in my brain gave way. Many of you know this story as well -- they airlifted me to North Memorial Hospital and I spent fifteen days there staring the prospect of my own death in the face. Weston, Amy's husband, was among the many people who visited me there.

I spent a lot of that fifteen days looking headlong at the prospect of my own death, and during that time I thought again about these words from Psalm 116. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. I took that then, and I take that now, as a promise. If it worked out that I didn't survive that ordeal, I believe God counts my death precious and he will do good things through it. That's his word. That's his promise. Every fiber of my body and soul and mind rebels at the thought of being separated from those I love most. I hate that thought with all my being. But I trust that if God allows it, he will do good things through it. He will count my death precious.

I know he has counted Amy's death precious. I can't begin to tell you how many conversations, how many ponderings, how many holy tears have come from losing Amy, both for me and for many others. There are several songs since her funeral that have become immediate gateways for me into a place where my emotions are raw and I am vulnerable to deal with them instead of stuffing them away as I did for so much of my life. That is one small gift out of many her death has brought.

I am not saying, "Oh, look how great it is that Amy died." God forbid. I am saying that in the face of the tragic evil of a 32-year-old woman dying of cancer, separated from her husband and children and extended family and ministry family, that God has counted her death precious. That he has worked good out of evil. That he has brought life -- abundant life -- out of her death.

During my stint at North Memorial in the fall of 2009, I worked through the agonizing process of writing a letter to my daughters in case I didn't make it out. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I will certainly not share the whole letter with you -- that is for them, for someday. But I want to share a little bit of it that is poignant today as I am thinking (and many others are thinking) about Amy.

Speaking of grieving, here’s my request: Tell stories that include me. Tell the ones about stupid stuff I did, and some of the good things too. Listen to the music that takes you back to riding in the car with me. Visit the places we loved together. Keep each other honest about who I really am, not some idealized version of me. Share those stories and experiences with your Mom, too. She is going to need a lot of help working through this, unless I am very much mistaken. Look through the photo albums -- what a gift those are! Remember.

And forget. When a day comes where you don’t cry, or don’t feel at a loss, or don’t think of me, be happy. It means you’re healing, and that’s what I want for you. But recognize that the time for crying will come again. Grief is weird. But Jesus has been there, and he knows grief from the inside out. He holds me close now.

Final thought. Erica, you and I shared a conversation once about what hope is all about. I don’t know if you remember. I want you both to get hold of this. The hope this world offers is a pale, diaphanous thing that is just wishful thinking dressed up in nice clothes. It is NOT the same as the hope that Christians have for those things we have been promised but do not yet see. Our hope is rooted not in wishful thinking, but rather in the experience of Jesus’ resurrection. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, the hymn goes. It is because Jesus has already conquered death that I can trust him going into my own death. Trust and hope are inextricably linked in this. Because I have tasted his resurrection, I know his power and the truth of his promise. Because I know his promise, I can trust he will carry it out. I can let go and -- to use Chris Rice’s phrase -- “kiss the world goodbye.” I don’t know all the particulars of life after this life, but I trust the one who bought me that life, who promises to create me new, who promises that in him, we are bound, united, family not just through our blood but through his. I trust him not only for myself but for you as well, and for your Mom, and for my parents and for all those I love who know Jesus. I trust that the love we share is an overflowing of the love he bears for us. I trust that the power of his resurrected life will sweep away whatever barriers and boundaries want to separate us, and that in him we will share eternity together. I love you all so much and I can’t wait to be with you again. Take care of each other. Love each other, and hold on to that hope.

Death is hard. Grief is hard. We are right to rebel against this separation, because we are not created for this. We are created to live in perfect, uninterrupted relationship, both with God and with other people. But the reality is that sin has broken into God's original plan, and with sin comes separation and death. At the cross, Jesus himself became subject to sin, to separation, to death, in order that the power of sin might be broken and conquered. Someday, God promises, he will undo that invasion completely and defeat sin and death once and for all. Until then, he promises that the death of his holy ones is not something he takes lightly. Precious in his sight is the death of his saints.

Amy and so many others, we miss you. But we trust, and we hope.


  1. Pastor Jeff, thanks so much for everything. For always being there for each and everyone of us. Today has been a very hard day for me. Your message brought a fresh round of tears. The knowledge and (re)assurance that Amy is with our Lord and Savior and that one day we will be reunited again, has gotten me through the last 365 days and I'm holding onto that promise for all the days to come. I know she is celebrating with so many other loved ones too. I would like to share this story from Piper, Wally's oldest girl. 2 Sunday's ago she joined our speaker, Caroline, for Children's sermon. Caroline was talking about always holding our Mom's in our hearts (Mother's Day) and asked who else did Piper always have in her heart...she answered "Aunt Amy" then when asked again..."Grandma Margie"..then when asked again..."GOD" These were the 3 most important ones in Heaven in Piper's mind.
    Again, thanks.

  2. Just when I thought I could not cry anymore I read this. It helps with the "whys". I have told so many that the greatest gift Amy gave us was the reassurance that she is in Heaven. One of my paras said to me "Do you realize how important that is? I hope that my children are headed there but don't know for certain". A part of both Kim and I left with her the day she died but we know we will be reunited and become whole one day. It certainly takes the sting out of our own immortality. Thank you again for all you have done for our families.