by Pastor Dan Miller
Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. It appears here verbatim.
On Palm Sunday, 1996, a young couple visited our church. That was the first day in a seven year saga no words could justly recount, but let me try.
Brandon and Jennifer were perfect together. They were full of life: energetic, focused, self-disciplined, in great physical shape and in love.
Contemplating marriage, they had determined to do things right, which involved the sticky business of finding a common religion. Hailing from different backgrounds they began an earnest study of their childhood religions. But after nearly a year of investigation they had accumulated more questions than answers.
Following that Palm Sunday service, they asked if I would be willing to meet with them to answer a few questions. Two days later we met at my office. According to Jennifer’s later recollection, I held a Bible in my hand and assured them at the start of our session that in this book we could find the answer to every spiritual question.
Brandon then laid out before me a sheet of questions no cleric to that point in time had been willing to tackle. But as I began to read those questions, I got a major case of the goose-bumps! The couple before me may not have fully realized just what they were asking, but their questions made it clear that God was steering their hearts toward something very special.
We read passage after passage from the Bible that spring evening, seeking to probe the mind of God. They responded with a degree of reserve, but also with enthusiasm, and returned the next Sunday eager to learn more. They were so intent on discovering truth, we were soon meeting weekly to study the Bible together.
Eventually Brandon and Jennifer entered a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. While they already knew a lot of facts about the Bible, they came to understand its core message and embraced Christ as their personal Savior. They then identified with him in believer’s baptism according to the biblical pattern (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:41).
From the very start, Brandon and Jennifer were intense students of God’s Word. Week after week, service after service, year after year, they would listen to the preaching and teaching in our church with rapt attention. They were forever enshrined in the folklore of our church when they attended a discipleship Bible study while Jennifer was experiencing mild labor pains! In a heroic effort not to miss even one study, she entered the room, sat down on a chair, immediately stood up again, and instructed Brandon to rush her to the hospital. She gave birth a few hours later. (As you might imagine, we still get considerable advertising mileage out of that story when promoting our discipleship Bible studies).
Their spiritual growth was rapid and deep. God was clearly preparing this couple for something unusual.
After the initial grounding of their relationship to Christ, we turned our attention more specifically to marriage. They were awed that I would spend the time with them to prepare them for matrimony. I was mystified they did not understand their eager pursuit of God was an exquisite delight to me. And so we continued to fuel one another’s joy.
I don’t mess around in pre-marital counseling. I tell couples right up front that the decision to marry someone is a call to die to self-orientation and to live for another. It is a call to unflagging fidelity, “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live,” period. It is a lifelong calling only in the permanence of which genuine love can truly flourish. They received that exhortation with characteristic zeal.
I will never forget the day Brandon and Jennifer exchanged wedding vows in front of family, friends and a church that had come to love them deeply. They left the church building that February day with high expectations and lofty dreams. We all shared their hope. But none of us could possibly know just how violently those marriage vows would be tested.
For some time, the newlyweds seemed to lead a charmed life. They purchased a home. A son was born, then a daughter (the Bible study baby). Jennifer left her job to stay home with the kids and Brandon’s career soared.
But in September of 2000, just three and one-half years after their wedding day, Brandon began feeling numbness in one of his arms. A visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnoses of brain cancer. Jennifer was pregnant with their third child. We were all stunned.
It was then that the intensive spiritual formation that had taken place over the past four years was understood to be divine preparation. I met with Brandon and Jennifer the day after they received news of the cancer. With open Bible we considered anew the doctrine of God’s sovereignty (1 Samuel chapters 9-10). We spoke together of the undying love of God, on account of which he conforms us through suffering to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:28-29, 31-39).
And as we spoke of these precious truths around their kitchen table, the spirit that filled the air that evening was not one of anger, panic, anxiety, self-pity or depression. The aura that prevailed was one of peace and quiet confidence in God. In the face of bitter providence, we shared the bread of Scripture together and found it satisfying.
A few weeks later, Brandon and Jennifer spoke to our church and assured us of their faith in God. He would be true to his word, and they desired to be true to theirs. The words that echoed through our auditorium from their mouths that evening were stunning. They spoke of mercy, privilege, joy, faith, confidence, and peace. They expressed their desire to honor God’s instruction: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
Following the diagnosis, the next three years were a living nightmare at times: surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, physical rehabilitation, fledgling attempts by Brandon to get back to work, financial struggles, and perhaps most significantly a decided personality change in Brandon. Following the surgical removal of a portion of his brain, he frankly was no longer the man Jennifer had married. The change was not always pretty.
I’ve seen people divorce their mates for half the suffering Jennifer endured. But her devotion never faltered. During Brandon’s last hospital stay, I watched Jennifer put her arms around Brandon’s neck and look into his eyes. I listened as she assured him she would honor her wedding vows and remain faithful to him for better or for worse, in sickness and in health until death parted them. It was time for Brandon to come home. There was no more the doctors could do. But she promised she would be at his side to the very end, come what may.
For Jennifer that meant half carrying Brandon over her back to the bathroom several times during the night. It meant changing his soiled sheets. It meant somehow lifting him off the ground in the middle of the night when he managed to fall out of bed. It meant patiently discerning his nearly inaudible whispers and caring for his innumerable needs day and night, all the while caring for three young children.
In the end, it meant watching the man she loved waste away. It meant holding his hand while he took in his last breath, his eyes fixed upon hers. It meant courageously releasing her husband of six and one-half years, and the father of her three young children to God.
We realize now that indeed God was preparing Brandon and Jennifer all along for something special. He was preparing Brandon to meet God much sooner than anyone imagined. He was preparing Jennifer to help her husband die well. And God was preparing our church to see in Jennifer’s faithful devotion to her husband a living demonstration of the power and love of God.
I know not what the future holds for such a young widow and her little children. But I have confidence that a woman who stood by her husband’s side “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part” will discover that God will stand by her side with no less fidelity. Sometimes his ways are inscrutable to us, but his love never falters and his promises are never broken (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 8:31-39). In this we confidently rest, while weeping.
|Dan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.