Through the Valley
by Kristen Patterson
November 1, 2017
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death—a compounding of various conversations I’ve had, books I’ve been reading, the beginning and ending of lives I see all around me. I know as a Christian I should have a glorious hope in death. But mostly I feel fear, a desperate clutching at people whom I hold close knowing I cannot take them with me when I go.
Shortly after I turned 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were a harrowing four weeks between my diagnosis and surgery when I had no idea how far the cancer might have spread, and a few more weeks awaiting results from genetic testing that would dictate the scale of “drastic” my treatments would take. Those weeks of waiting stretched over Christmas and the New Year, and in some ways I already felt like the ghost of Christmas past, wandering bleakly through the holidays wondering if this was a season of lasts for me, and believing that everyone around me was silently wondering the same thing. My life window narrowed, I felt a loss of innocence as I was confronted with my own mortality. My life no longer stretched out in a long open space.
That confrontation with my own transience propelled my life in several new directions: toward God (whom I had been trying to hold at a distrustful distance), toward having children (about which I had been ambivalent), and into the whole new world, language and culture of cancer. I was aligned now with the people who had received bad news on their scans, a patient and not just a supportive friend in the cancer and surgery centers. During this time, I experienced God’s love and grace and peace in ways I had never known possible. The doubts that had hovered around me for years about God’s character and goodness were overshadowed by my experience of His care and comfort, lavished on me at a time when I was so undeserving and had done nothing to earn them. In some ways, it felt like I was in the very eye of the storm . . . the questions and fears raged around me, but God gifted me with a peace beyond all understanding.
My foray into this world of cancer was much briefer than the experiences of many others . . . surgery, radiation, hormone therapy and a clean bill of health. For a while I waited for the other shoe to drop, but as the years pass and the scans continue to come back negative for cancer, I slide into an uneasy truce with death: I will ignore it and it will stay away. I’ve learned that after our lives return to normal, it’s easy to forget our journeys into the dark places where we met God so intimately.
As I watch cancer, mental illness and other tragedies ravage lives around me, my primary reaction always is to pray for healing, for release, for the trial to pass and leave my friends and loved ones (and me!) unscathed. But as I study Ephesians this semester, I’m captured by Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesus, that they would comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. And how do we ever know that, except for when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, with only God beside us? How often do I try to block the path to redemption and war against the very thing that God may be using to save me or others?
I’ve been encouraged to pray, “Lord, prepare me and the ones I love for the things that You have for us.” And honestly, it makes me nauseous . . . because I feel the full range of terror life can throw at me and my family, and whatever knowledge I lack is made up for by anxious imagination. And the tension between freewill and determinism, what God allows in contrast to what He actively appoints, threatens to unmoor me. I am so tempted to lose faith in His love! But I persist . . . “Lord, strengthen me, prepare me . . . help me to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is Your love.”
Kirsten Patterson grew up in our church, is a wife, mother, writer, and was a member of the Search Committee that brought us Darin McWatters.