Lessons Learned Loving Carrie into Heaven Sermon Audio
Sermon January 26 & 27, 2013
Good evening/morning. Some of you here today may not know me. Around the Cedar Street Church family I’m known as Pastor Jeff Johnson. I’m also known as dad to three young men, uncle to two of the cutest nieces, and grandpa to two of the smartest young boys the world has ever produced. I have another title; one that no one really wants but many will obtain. My new title is widower.
You see up until about 55 weeks ago I was also known by the title of husband. Many of you knew my late wife, Carrie, and of our story but I realize that some of you may be visiting or have come to the Cedar Street family in the last year so I would like to briefly share my background.
The story of Carrie and me began about 30 years ago when we met in the Mrytle Lake Baptist Church in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. We married then I pursued an education to help me to prepare to fulfill the calling God placed on my life. We moved to Northern Michigan in 1990 to pastor, church plant and start a counseling center. Then, a little over 16 years ago, we came to Cedar Street Church. Fast forward a few years to 2010. Carrie was experiencing some gallbladder problems and through the course of trying to deal with that issue it was discovered she had pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer does not have a cure expect through surgery to remove it. In January 2011 surgery was performed but it was discovered that her cancer was inoperable. We were left with a small hope that some treatment would shrink the cancer sufficiently to try the surgery again but we knew that is was an uphill battle. After about 10, we left the hospital to begin the last leg of our earthly journey together.
During our last year we experienced 2 or 3 rounds of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of daily radiation treatment, several blood transfusions, and on top of all of that fun we spent about 70 days in the hospital battling 4 bacterial blood infections and other ailments. Then a couple days after Christmas 2011 we learned that the cancer had spread all over her body and there was no longer even a small medical hope of a cure and that Carrie’s time was very limited. On January 8, 2012, Carrie succumbed to the disease.
With this backdrop I want to share with you Tonight/This morning some Biblical truths God taught and reinforced in my life during this experience of loving Carrie into Heaven.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (NASB)
The other night the temperature was around zero degrees outside. I took my son onto the back porch and I threw boiling hot water up into the air. The hot liquid met the frigid air and in spectacular fashion turned to vapor and dissipated into the wind.
The book of James tells us that our life is like that vapor appearing for a little while then vanishing away. The first lesson of loving through Carrie’s illness and death taught me is that
Life is short.
It seems to be only a few months ago that I stood at the front of the Church with my best man and a preacher anxiously waiting for a beautiful young woman dressed in a flowing white gown to appear in the doorway at the back of the sanctuary….. It does seem a very short time ago. Today I realize it has been a lifetime and it has been far too short.
So here is a truth: Because life is short: we should learn to live life today even while planning and preparing for a future.
In the Gospel of Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells a parable of The Rich Fool. In the parable the rich man decided he would do this and that with his fortune not realizing that his soul would be required of him that very night. One of the many lessons from this parable is recognizing that we do not know how long we have on this earth.
When Carrie and I married all those years ago we didn’t know how long we would have together, we certainly thought it would be longer but a small part of us knew we had no guarantee.
In my experience of life and death with Carrie I have learned that believing that we have a future can rob us of today’s pleasures, rob us of things we should experience today, rob us of memories we should make today. The belief that we’ll be able to do this or that tomorrow, next week, or next year is a false belief, the belief that we’ll be able to make up for today’s shortcoming tomorrow is a myth. We cannot, must not bank on our tomorrows. Let me offer some practical suggestions:
Fathers, stop believing you’ll build a relationship with your children after you get that promotion, have a bigger bank account, a nicer house, a newer car. Make memories; build relationships today because life is too short.
Mothers, stop believing you can do this or that thinking you’ll have time later, give your children the appropriate attention starting today because life is too short.
Husbands, stop believing you’ll be the man your wife needs after this happens or that happens, be that man today because life is too short.
Wives, stop believing you’ll build a great marriage after the kids are a little older, start a happier marriage today because life is too short.
Christians, stop believing you’ll learn more, serve more, give more faithfully after this or after that, be faithful now because life is too short.
If you are not a Christian, stop believing you still have time to become a Christian, follow Jesus this moment because it may be this very day that your soul is required.
Learning to live today, live in the here and now, will make tomorrow, if it comes, more joyful, meaningful, and memorable.
There is another lesson I would like to explain:
I mentioned earlier our wedding day, it was the day we vowed our love, devotion, and exclusivity to one another until death. The love verses we read earlier were part of our ceremony. At that time in our life the application of these verses about love focused on the internal interactions our relationship. When I thought about patience, I thought about being patient with the process of Carrie and me working out our differences. When I thought of not keeping track of the wrongs, my thoughts were on not keeping a laundry list of all the things Carrie did to me. When I thought of “bearing all things” and enduring, I thought of putting up with Carrie’s shortcomings. When I thought of hope, I thought of hoping Carrie would become a better wife. NOW I hasten to add that she did. … in fairness AND I know that this will surprise some of you…. But I must point out that I have not always been this nearly perfect specimen of husband material that you see before you today! Trust me when I say that Carrie, RIGHTFULLY, had the same thoughts and hopes toward me. In time we did come to embody the truth of these love verses.
However, I have learned they also apply to the external attacks on a love relationship. In the Gospel of John 16:33, Jesus warns us that in this life we will have troubles. When the troubles of life invade the marriage relationship the marriage gets squeezed. When it is squeezed that which is on the inside comes out, becomes visible. The true state of the internal workings of the relationship become known.
When life’s troubles attack, the love verses take on new application. Patience, kindness, hope, endurance all take on new meaning.
Cancer is one of life’s troubles. The ravages on the body as cancer progresses are troubles.
My character was tested. Crisis revealed if my vows were meaningful when they were spoken on our wedding day. The character of my love—its patience, kindness, its ability to bear, believe, hope, and endure—was on full display.
All of these questions came to a head one day. It was during the last two or three months of Carrie’s life. Between the disease and the treatments there were side effects that left her largely immobile. Without my assistance she could not go up or down stairs, get in or out of bed, bath or toilet herself. One afternoon I found her crying. She told me how sorry she was to be such a burden on me. Her words caused physical pain in my chest. I tried to comfort her and assure her that she wasn’t. After a few moments she went to sleep. I took this opportunity to run a quick errand. While walking through the store I bought Carrie a card. When I returned home I wrote her a message and left the card on the bed so she would see it as soon as she woke from her nap. This is what I wrote:
“My dearest, I am sorry there are times when you feel that you are a burden. I am sure that I contribute to this feeling at times. You know me far too well that even a slight facial change reveals a “not now” thought. Forgive me. Also understand that this momentary and fleeting thought is fatigue talking and not my heart. All that you are enduring my heart wants to take on in your place. Please know beyond a shadow of doubt that I will do all that is in my power to meet your needs. I will engage you emotionally to support you, I will engage you physically to care for you, I will engage you spiritually to ask God’s favor. I will endure any hardship to be with you. This circumstance is not a burden, it is THE journey—our journey together. Fatigue may momentarily win out from time to time but my love for you will win out in the end…every time.”
I share this intimate detail of our relationship with you, not because I hope you’ll think highly of me, but because there is a truth imbedded within this experience.
So let me sum up the 2nd lesson I learned loving Carrie into heaven, in this way:
(Lesson #2) When Crisis Strikes Character Is Revealed.
When times are hard character or the lack of character will show up. When something goes amiss, what one really believes comes out.
However, within this idea of Crisis and Character there is terrible and damaging myth—and men, we may be the biggest perpetrators of this myth. The myth that so many believe is that when a crisis strikes we will simply “rise to the occasion”. The truth, the myth buster is this…. One cannot act outside one’s character development.
My ability to “rise” to meet Carrie’s needs in love did not happen the day we discovered she had cancer. My character had been honed over nearly three decades of loving her for who she was in spite of troubles—internal or external. When small things occurred, I learned to respond in love. When big things occurred I learned to lovingly meet the needs. When the huge trouble hit —a terminal illness—my character had already been prepared to respond in love.
This evening/morning I’m asking “how is your character development?” Are the responses in love? Or something else?
When something happens in your marriage does it draw you closer together or push you apart?
When troubles hit do you come closer to God or run farther away?
When life doesn’t meet your expectation or when God doesn’t do something your way, do you honor your commitments or is it easy to abandon them?
Consider your responses to the various crises which have already been present in your own life. Ask yourself what needs to happen to develop your character to meet the challenges of life and to express love more fully. Give Pastor Dave or Pastor Brian a call; they’d love to share in your character development!
There is another lesson I learned that is closely related to the one we just talked about:
(Lesson #3) Love doesn’t know a burden….
During the months before Carrie’s death there were many, many hardships. I already related some of the demands of care I was called upon to give to Carrie. Beyond this we endured what seemed like endless travel for various treatments. I once calculated that from the end of July until her death in January we never slept in our own bed more than two consecutive nights. Yet, as I reflect back on all of the experience, I do not recall feeling as though I was burdened.
I’ve learned that when love is behind the actions to meet needs, the actions are not a burden but an expression of love.
So here is the thought: no matter what you may be experiencing today, whatever you may be called upon to endure, whether hardship or heartache, if you will act out of love you will lessen the burden. If you find that you can not act out of love for the person, then you can always act out of the love for Christ. Love will sustain you.
Let’s look at another lesson:
Lesson #4: Carrie’s death has given me a clearer eternal perspective.
With this clearer picture I better understand the phrase from Matthew 6: “lay up your treasures in heaven”
I have long recognized that as I give money to support God’s work on earth that I am laying up treasure in heaven. Similarly, the service activities to help and care for others build up my heavenly treasure. When Carrie died I began to think about the eternal value of our earthly relationships. I am convinced that our Christian relationships are our greatest asset. As we grow and deepen our relationship and spur one another on to good works, help each other become more like Jesus, there is a tremendous accumulation of value…. A healthy, God-honoring marriage relationship offers the greatest opportunity for this type of growth.
Let me try to paint this picture for you another way. As a Christian Jesus is my best friend. As a wife Carrie was my second greatest best friend. Today, they are both in heaven, thus, my greatest treasures are in heaven. Because of this fact I now have a better understanding of the words of the Apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Philippi: Chapter 1 beginning in verse 21:
21”For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.” (NASB)
I now more fully understand Paul’s desire to see heaven. That’s where what he treasured most resided. Yet, because Paul knew it was more beneficial for those here on earth, he was content to remain with them while longing for heaven.
Like Paul, I have a longing for heaven like I have never had before but I know that as long as God leaves me here it will be to lay up more treasure in heaven, specifically, you. You and the relationship we are building here as we work to live out God’s purposes here on Earth together.
I recognize that for some of you, especially the younger crowd, I will reach heaven before you. It is my prayer that when I do, my presence in heaven will increase your treasure and longing to join me but, at the same time, that my example will increase your desire to work out God’s purposes here out Earth.
Carrie’s death has given me a clearer picture of eternity as I better understand God’s sovereignty.
Isaiah 46:10 explains that from the beginning to the end God’s purposes will be established. In other words, God is sovereign over life.
A few weeks ago I was reading somewhere and, in the context of poor choices of the past, the author asked a question something like “if you had a time machine would you go back in time and change your life”. I remember thinking for a moment and answering to myself no, God has use my life experience to shape me into the person I am today.
Then my brain asked, “If you could go back in time and change Carrie’s outcome, would you?” All of a sudden the question became very hard. Would I change Carrie’s death? There is a part of me that screams “YES!” but then I think about God and His sovereignty.
I know that He did not give Carrie cancer—that was a result of the fallen world we live in. A world were disease and death entered at the fall. But God also choose not to heal Carrie through medical treatment or direct intervention. He COULD have but chose not to. Embracing an eternal perspective, I understand that God has something greater for His purpose through Carrie’s death than through her healing. So in full trust of God’s purpose, God’s sovereignty, I must say, “No, if I had a time machine I would not change Carrie’s death.”
As I mentioned earlier there are many troubles in life. God, in His sovereignty, will use each to mold us if we will let Him.
Personally, I have found a great comfort in recognizing God’s sovereignty. When Carrie was ill and now after her death, I am comforted knowing that a sovereign, loving God is ultimately in charge of my life.
My words alone are not enough to express to you the peacefulness I encountered as the stress of her illness intersected with my life. Was it hard? Yes. Did I feel fatigue from the stress? Yes. Was it emotionally draining? Yes, yes, yes.
Likewise, it is difficult to find the right way to express the calmness I have experienced after her death. I believe it all begins with an understanding of God’s sovereignty.
All of these lessons:
Life is too short
Crisis reveals character
Love doesn’t know burden
And a Clearer eternal perspective…
Lead me to ask you a few questions:
If trouble were to invade your life would you have a foundation that would endure and carry you through?
Is your character strong enough to face life’s challenges in a Godly manner?
Is your love deep enough to offset the burden’s of life?
Do you give sovereignty over your life to God?
I don’t believe it is possible to answer “yes” to any of those questions without a personal relationship with Christ.
Tonight/this morning I urge you to become a follower of Jesus.
And for those who already follow Jesus but recognize areas for growth, will you make a commitment to maturing in Christ, seeking out a spiritually mature believer to help?