Daily Dependence

Down the hall from where I sat on the hospital floor, my knees drawn into my chest, a medical team worked diligently to save my son, Bill.

My daughter-in-law turned to me and said, “Bill always tells me ‘Amy, God will sustain us.’” She repeated words that he’d used to encourage her: “Manna for today, Amy. Just manna for today.”

Often, in the days that followed, my husband, Dave, said, “We have what we need for today, let’s just be faithful and rest there.”

It is all too easy to believe in a God based on my own warped and self-centered thinking. But, I want to know God accurately and intimately as he reveals himself in Scripture, because what I believe about God completely influences how I behave and how I hope.

As I surrender to who God truly is, I have learned to ask daily,

LORD fill me with your Holy Spirit, from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet and the full extension of my arms.  Teach my mind, control my emotions, and direct my will.  I want to know you; to be conformed to the image of your son; to be used by you to bring light and life. It’s your work LORD; I’d be honored to join you in it.

But, there are days and even seasons that I do not feel like God is using me to bring light and life to the world around me. Honestly, there are days that I do not even feel his presence. During those times I have learned what it means to fight for faith, to actively cultivate a daily dependence, and to know truth.

This truth undergirds trust.

The years leading up to the worst November of my life were full of loss. Both of my parents and the sweetest-mother-in-law-ever died, leaving Dave and I with no living parents. One of my sisters lost her struggle with drugs and alcohol. We unsuccessfully fought to save our business. We walked alongside dear friends as they lost a 21-year-old child to brain cancer. Close friends moved away.

There was so much loss.

Then we lost our son, Bill — a pain like no other.

A year later, on the very day that Dave was to speak at a close friend’s funeral, we were told that he himself had cancer which they described as inoperable, metastatic, high-risk, and aggressive.

I have feared that someone looking in on our lives would think that somehow, we had fallen out of favor with God — that surely, we were being punished by God for some major wrongdoing. But, I prayed that God would make himself look good to those watching. That they would see, as I know, that he is perfectly good and so very faithful.

God is sovereign and he knows and loves me personally.  There is tension in believing these things. But it is in this tension where trust is developed and dependence is practiced. It is here that I fight daily for my faith:

  • Study Scripture: I carefully and humbly seek to know truth with the help of the Holy Spirit and a community of other believers who are brave enough to be honest with me when my thinking gets skewed.
  • Reject False Gospels: I actively weigh my thoughts and beliefs, rejecting false gospels and recognizing old voices in my mind, seeking to replace lies with truth.
  • Pray as if it Matters: I trust that God the Father loves to hear his children pray, believing that God the Son makes every prayer pleasing and leaning on the Holy Spirit to help me as I pray.
  • Focus on the Eternal: I remind myself that temporal events are momentary; eternity is forever (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Daily dependence is simply trust in action.

Throughout my day, I verbalize a particular concern and then look at it squarely and say, “Am I going to trust you with this, God?”

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives me confidence that God loves me; therefore, I can focus on just taking the next right step. As I walk with Jesus, I trust that he is present, aware of every detail, and actively working to fulfill his purposes. He can be trusted. God is my loving father who takes great delight in his children and is completely dependable.

As much as I seek to avoid pain and trouble, I find it easier to cultivate a real daily dependence on God when I am desperate. The ugly truth is that when life is easy, happy, successful, and prosperous I tend to take credit for all the good and forget my need for the indwelling life of Christ. 

But, in daily dependence, I find intimacy with Christ. As I set my mind on him, I find hope, joy, and contentment.

My prayer is that you will also find abundant life in Christ and trust in him daily.


 

George Floyd, Racism, and Grieving with Those Who Grieve

Last Tuesday afternoon, one of Clear Creek Community Church’s pastors informed our Executive Team of the developing news concerning a man named George Floyd. According to a bystander video, Mr. Floyd, a native Houstonian, died as a result of treatment by some Minnesota police officers. The next day gave way to further details of the tragedy. I was heartbroken and posted to my social media accounts:

Grieving with our fellow black Americans who feel like this is the same horrible, deflating, despairing song that’s still stuck on repeat. Grateful for a better kingdom that comes. Come quickly. #GeorgeFloyd

In 2017, Clear Creek did a sermon series on race and racism where, on one of those Sundays, we spent time listening to a panel of four black pastors who shared their experiences of racism in America. It was an eye-opening, sobering, and needed conversation for the people of our church to be a part of. Since then we have preached other messages with applications addressing the sin of racism, but nothing has stood out to me as much as listening to those friends share their stories of heartbreak, despair, and disenfranchisement (as well as their hopes for the future).

I needed those voices.

Their experiences of racism, which they confirmed were generally the rule instead of the exception, are ones for which I have no personal context. I have never had rocks hurled into the windows of my childhood home with messages of hate attached to them. I have never been detained by authorities with weapons drawn as I was simply retrieving something from my car trunk. I never had families quickly scatter to the other side of the street when they saw me walking toward them going to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Once again, my black friends patiently remind me that this is par for the course for those in the black community.[1]

That’s why when the recent events of Ahmaud Aubrey and now George Floyd occur, the emotional dam breaks and all the pain and sorrow flows once again from people of color. It’s not just about the details of one event or another but what they represent: the relentless injustice of what daily life in America feels like for the black community.

My social media feed was a cascade from my black friends of sorrow, anger, and cries of “How long, O Lord? How long?”

How long will a people endure injustice? How long can followers of Jesus outside the black community be inattentive to the cries of their Christian brothers and sisters of color within it? How long will it be until believers live out the kingdom of the gospel as it respects race regardless of what it costs them politically, relationally, socially, or financially? 

There are many places to learn how followers of Jesus can better live out the gospel as it concerns race. I encourage you to figure out which steps the Spirit might lead you to better love your neighbor in this endeavor. A good place to start is by simply grieving with those who grieve (Rom. 12:15). Add your voice of support to the despairing masses who feel the crushing sorrow of what feels like another brutal, gut-wrenching reminder that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It could be as simple as dialoging with your friends of color about how they are doing and how you can love them well.

We, the leadership of Clear Creek Community Church, grieve with our black brothers and sisters within our church and also our black friends outside it. We hope that swiftly there comes a day where the stories of hatred and brutality come to an end, and we also hope Clear Creek Community Church can be a partner toward that end as it glorifies the kingdom and King Jesus who brings it.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

– Matthew 5:14-16

[1] I use the term “Black community” instead of “African American community” because of some conversations with my black friends who believe the former term to be an inaccurate descriptor of the origins for many black Americans today.

*I wanted to write this because Clear Creek recorded the elements for the May 31st service before the events of George Floyd had come to the surface nationally. Because of this, we intentionally addressed the racial tensions of the nation in our pre-service “lobby time” Sunday morning. However, those who didn’t participate in that time would likely think we went the entire day without addressing this important, national issue. We did not, have not and, God-willing, will not.


 

Lighthouse: Navigating the Waters of Grief Together

Their friendship began at a party. 

Meredith Harris once sold a gift-products line called Thirty-One to a house full of laughing women. The events were always upbeat, and Meredith delighted in hosting her friends for a light evening of fun. 

After one such event, Meredith was packing up and talking with an acquaintance, Allison Swenson. The two were shooting the breeze when Allison abruptly changed the direction of the conversation. 

“Allison said, ‘I haven’t really shared this with anyone, but I just had a miscarriage,’” Meredith recalled. “I remember feeling very special that [she] would share that with me. That just fast-forwarded the depth of our friendship because [she] had shared something that was very painful.”

Meredith and Allison both recognize that conversation over a decade ago as the first of many times each would walk the other through loss. 

“Allison and I’s friendship is very intertwined with grief,” said Meredith.

Allison Swenson with her husband, Brad, and their two sons, Bradley and Cole.

“So, several years ago,” said Allison, “I started a pregnancy journey that began with a miscarriage and then two live births. One little guy lived for 30 minutes and the other little guy lived for 20 days.” 

Allison, her husband, Brad, and their two young sons have experienced other losses, as well. Hurricane Harvey devastated their home, and, most recently, Allison’s father passed away. 

Meredith’s grief journey began as one grieving alongside her friends. 

“My journey [began by] walking with friends who lost two of their children to unforeseen heart issues within one year,” she said. She then walked alongside her friend Allison as she grieved the losses of her two children. 

“And then my seemingly very healthy brother died unexpectedly of a cardiac event when he happened to be at our lake house,” Meredith said. Her only brother, Bill, left behind his wife, pregnant with their second child, and a very young son. 

As these two friends have journeyed through their own losses, those of each other, and other friends, they have gained unique perspectives on navigating friendships and loss and how to hold steadfast to their faith through grief. They have waded into the challenging and overwhelming waters of grief and come out stronger. 

From left to right: Denise Ward (Meredith’s mom), Meredith, Brad and daughters, Amy Ward holding son, Bill Ward (Meredith’s brother), Dave Ward (her father).

 

 

On being the best friend you can be

Both Meredith and Allison noted the many ways friends cared for them in their grief. One friend who loved fashion hand-selected outfits for different occasions Meredith would need to attend. Allison recalled how, while she was on hospital bedrest, Meredith and another friend “drove inside the loop” every week to inject much-needed laughter in dark times. There were friends who delivered groceries and friends who cleaned their houses, only asking that they leave the door unlocked. 

And it’s here that they have advice for the person grieving: allow your friends to serve you. And to the friend: serve the way you feel led, not how you think it should look. 

“We cannot put our friends in a box of one way to love and care for us,” said Allison. “Allowing my friends to serve me and love me in their gift sets is really valuable.” 

As Meredith grieved the loss of her brother, she saw that sustaining friendship with a grieving person equates to simply being present. Meredith’s parents’ house became the hub for visitors, family staying over from out of town, and gatherings. People brought food to their home for over a month, so they kept an ice chest on the front porch for deliveries. One friend stopped by to put fresh ice in the chest every day for a month. 

“It was just the most wonderful [thing],” she said. “No words were used, but it communicated, ‘I love you. I thought about you. I took care of a need today.’” 

Ultimately, those acts of service done by people uniquely created by God to serve in specific ways helped Allison and Meredith, in their respective situations, grieve well, and it displayed the body of Christ in action. 

“If you have that calling and feel truly led, just go do it!” said Allison. “Send the card, go to the funeral, make the phone call, drop toilet paper on the front stoop… because when those things don’t happen, that’s when you feel alone, lost, and forgotten.”

Meredith added that, as a friend, your duty is to “say with your words, ‘God has not left you’ and then communicate with your life that you have not left that person either.” 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Allison and her husband were not able to get back to their home in the first few days and had to allow friends to begin the process of gutting their home and removing their possessions to curb the growth of mold. 

“During Harvey,” recalled Allison, “that’s what I felt like the Lord was screaming at me: ‘You are known, you belong, and you are okay.’ And that overshadowed every single thing we lost. Everything was out on our front lawn, but people were waiting there for us to drive up.”

 

On how to love a close friend who is grieving

Meredith and Allison both talked about a deeper kind of friendship —  “safe” friends who allowed them to be honest. These were the life-giving friendships that helped them to walk in a healthy place as they grieved. The sometimes difficult part was discovering that not all of their friends were able to give this kind of friendship.

“For me it’s just trust,” said Allison. “Without that trust, I would not be vulnerable. Vulnerability in grief and trauma is important because I need to feel safe, loved, heard, and seen in my most raw state… Having permission to be true and unashamed and allow myself to feel in front of someone else is life changing.” 

Brad and Meredith Harris, and their two daughters Charlotte and Camille.

Meredith added that she began to clearly see a distinction between “people that can handle deep pain with you and people that are not ready or have not personally experienced any deep pain.” The latter, she says, “still want to keep [deep pain] at an arm’s distance.” 

“And you have no choice when you are in the pit of grief other than to be really raw,” Meredith continued. “And so if there are people that cannot enter in with you — and that just looks like sitting with you and letting you snot cry — if they can’t handle that, it’s almost a natural thing. They kind of just stay away because it’s too much for them.”

Meredith came very close to being stunted by her fear of dealing with a friend’s immense grief. When she and her husband, Brad, arrived at a hospital to be with their friends whose son had been rushed to the ER after collapsing at soccer practice, they arrived at a scene that turned out to be much more complex and difficult than they had imagined. 

“We walk up to the hospital doors and [our friend’s father] comes out screaming to God, not screaming at God, but in a fearful way,” Meredith recalled. “And then I stopped dead in my tracks, and I said ‘I can’t do this.’ Brad had his hand on my back and said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ And he lightly shoved me, like we’re gonna do this together.’”

Meredith looks back on that as a defining moment for the kind of friend God calls all believers to be: one who wades into the waters of grief alongside their friend. 

“God calls you to go,” said Meredith. “To make the phone call. To show up at their door. To be uncomfortable.” 

 

On pointing a grieving friend to God’s truth

Staying connected with biblical truth is absolutely essential for a grieving person, and they need friends grounded in the truth of God to help them navigate their grief.

“Before it gets to that point [of tragedy], I would encourage people to be known,” said Allison. She emphasized the importance of being connected in community no matter what is going on in your life “so when something happens you can allow yourself to be counseled.”

“You know [the truth] in your head, but there’s this incredible disconnect with your heart,” said Allison. “What’s in your head keeps you grounded. Staying connected, pursuing community, pursuing truth always – every day – can prepare us for this life-altering moment.”

Meredith agreed, “Being immersed in the truth in everyday life prior to the grief is really key. If you have this beautiful foundation when things are pretty peaceful and have this steady peace in your life… [you remember] the God who loved me in a steady time has not left me now.” 

From left to right (standing): Lindsey Lehtinen, Meredith Harris, Allison Swenson, Brigette Swafford. From left to right (seated/crouching): Nicole Haas, Erin Funke, Christie Frodge, Laura Sherman.

This concept can sometimes be fleeting, even for seasoned believers, when faced with tragedy. 

“I have one brother. We both love Jesus and are in the middle of actively trying to serve God. And God just takes him,” said Meredith. “I think there is something in us that thinks that there are some things that are off limits.”

“So you need people who are brave enough to tell you ‘That’s not true’,” said Allison. “There are so many people going through really hard things and won’t allow themselves to be vulnerable or people to know how they’re really doing. I just want to encourage that pursuit of finding that person [or] people… and not to give up when you get burned.”  

These are the friends that offer a lighthouse of guidance when those around them cannot find their way. 

 

On finding strength in grief

As Meredith and Allison have allowed God to heal them over time and allowed friends and family to speak God’s truth into their lives through serving them, they have both recognized a subtle change in the way they approach life, faith, and others. 

And that is a work of God. 

“I thought I cared well for people before Bill died, but once I experienced it for myself, I [realized] I had no idea what they were truly feeling,” said Meredith. “I wanted to care for them, but relishing in their pain with them — I had no clue.” 

Carrying the burden of another’s pain might seem weak or problematic, but it is actually a source of strength. It is a quiet strength, they now see, but it has emboldened their faith. 

“Strong is not defined by ‘I don’t hurt or have pain,’” said Allison. “Strength is not defined by how many tasks I get done or whether I can push my emotions aside. If you can survive, if you can stay present for your family, I think there’s strength in that. I think there’s strength in staying married in grief, staying in friendships, getting out of the house. All of those things are strong.”

Ultimately, only God has provided the strength Allison and Meredith have needed to endure the overbearing storms of grief. 

“Strength is continuing to have hope”, said Meredith. “I haven’t lost hope. Being rooted in hope — that’s where I have found my strength. And I have learned so much about God’s sustaining power in this. Less miraculous, flashy Jesus and more the steady hand of the Holy Spirit. He is preventing me from feeling crushed. I am broken, but I am not crushed.” 

Allison also felt God’s miraculous work in her life to bring her peace in the midst of devastation. 

“The closest I have felt to the Holy Spirit,” said Allison, “was washing [my son] William after he had passed and dressing him. And I long to feel that connection that I felt in that moment.  I should remember that as one of the most devastating moments of my life, but I remember it as this beautiful peace that I have not felt again. I think that’s the miraculous part.”

 

On their friendship

These two women have endured much devastation and loss in the first decade of their friendship. But they count all of it toward setting a firm foundation that they’ve relied upon for safety, accountability, and truth in their darkest days. 

“Allison was one of the only people I shared the depths of how ugly it really got,” said Meredith. “I was really transparent with her, and she could totally handle it. She was not freaked out by what I said. She validated my feelings, but then pointed me to truth.” 

Allison agreed. We don’t pull any punches. We can speak some pretty deep truth and trust that it’s okay.”

This is what Allison and Meredith believe is the most needed type of friend when you are going through the worst experience of your life. One who is present. One who will hold steady. And one who will point you to the only one who can truly offer hope and healing in the midst of the storms of life. 

 

10 Things to Consider When Talking to Someone Who is Struggling

Even the most well-meaning person can hurt someone who is struggling more than help them if they aren’t careful.

We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to find solutions to every problem. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply show up for someone who’s hurting.

Here are ten things to keep in mind when you do:

 

  1. Engage them as a helper, not as a fixer. You are only a partial knower, you can only ever be a partial fixer. Jesus is the only perfect fixer.Remember it is possible God providentially arranged for your involvement with the suffering person to grow you as you watch someone else go through suffering.

 

  1. Remember, God is in control. But very often a person who is struggling needs time and space to remember and accept that he is. Gently and patiently point people to Jesus.

 

  1. Be careful not to assume you fully understand what they are going through. You don’t. If you think you fully understand you will tell them what worked for you and when it doesn’t help, you will blame them. Remember the impact of tragedy is different for everyone and so is the process of grieving.

 

  1. Don’t minimize the suffering and difficulty a person is experiencing. Tragedy and suffering are about more than the source event. Tragedy destroys normal expectations and experiences for life and changes a person’s worldview. The best gift you can give is to take time to understand their story and talk about the roots of the emotions they express.

 

  1. Be very careful about identifying specific purposes for the evil and suffering someone is experiencing. Too often we say things in an effort to help someone feel better but what we actually communicate is that they shouldn’t be as upset as they are.

 

  1. “Speaking the truth in love” does not mean you unload all the truth you know in the moment. Context matters. What is the most gracious and appropriate truth right now? Give them that one.

 

  1. Understand that suffering people often speak “felt truth” as if it is true. In other words, hurting people often say heretical things. Don’t feel like you have to correct their theology in the middle of their pain. Weep with those who weep.

 

  1. Be careful not to offer false hope by saying what the Bible doesn’t say. Often suffering people need to loosen their grip on promises God never gave. Too often they have a grip because some well-meaning person told them an untruth trying to make them feel better in the beginning of the situation.

 

  1. Trust God’s character and the hope he has given. A person’s willingness to trust God is anchored to what they believe about his character. Give appropriate truth and appropriate time and space.

 

  1. Presence is powerful. Words are dangerous. Engage them, pray for them and with them, use words with care to “give grace to those who hear.”

 

**Adapted from a seminar hosted by Andrew Dealy and Jason Kovacs at Austin Stone Church


 

A Prayer of Lament

In week 2 of the Good Grief message series, I talked about the essential elements of lament:

  1. Turn to God
  2. Tell him how you feel
  3. Ask him for help
  4. Declare your trust in him

As I’ve been processing and trusting in God in this season, I wrote this prayer of lament about the loss of fruitfulness as a church. In it, I express with honesty how I feel and not necessarily what is true. We can be encouraged that God meets us in our honesty.

If you are experiencing a season of sadness or lament, try writing your own prayer of lament to God expressing how you feel.

Dear God,

You sent us on a mission and now you have distracted us. You have sequestered us and made us wait. Just before the harvest, the storm has taken our crops. You have given us work to do and taken away our tools.

Help us, O God. Open the doors to your truth that we can’t personally walk through. Show us how to love people without being with them, to be your hands and feet while staying at home. And heal us, Lord. Kill this invisible enemy.

I know you have not forsaken us, O Lord. The cross of Jesus was dark, Jesus died and the disciples were scattered. But up from the grave he arose. You turned the darkness to light, the death to life, the dread to hope.

 


Good Grief Week 1 (Full Service)

This is the online service of Clear Creek Community Church located in the Bay Area of Houston, TX.
For more ways to participate in our online service in this season, go to www.clearcreek.org/covid19 To find out more information about or church, go to www.clearcreek.org.
Links mentioned:
Follow us on social media:

Forgive

Physically, I’ve been somebody who, since I was in high school worked out every day. I was a college athlete. Played sports my entire life.

I stopped working out, I stopped training. Things didn’t get to me. I could really feel my heart hardening to a lot of things that would previously affect me, and that was when my wife really knew that something was wrong.

When people are going through depression for whatever reason, they don’t necessarily recognize it at that time. And I didn’t either.

So, my brother had a child with my sister-in-law, my wife’s sister. And he just up and left. He abandoned the family, took off. And whenever all of that happened, because of how tight-knit both of our families are, it created a lot of animosity and thrust me into that middle man role. With that came a lot of expectation and things – the way other people wanted me to handle the situation. And it created a lot of tension within my marriage. And we were still a very young marriage, at that point we hadn’t even been married a year.

When I would come home from work, I would eat dinner and go to bed because the last thing I wanted to do was have a conversation with my wife.

I was a coward to the point where I was going to try to push her away.

In my mind at that time, that was the only way I was go get the resolution that I wanted, which was to get everybody away from me so I could get a fresh start, and I could go out and be alleviated of this situation, because I didn’t want to live that way for the rest of my life.

Everything I was doing was dictated around trying to get rid of that sense of stress in my life to the point where it actually pushed me to commit adultery. That was the lowest I’d ever sunk in my life. I didn’t know how to come back from that.

At that point, I fully anticipated coming home, her having my stuff waiting outside. I could pick it up and hit the road.

And I was wrong.

When I got home… Well, I didn’t go home. She met me at a church. And, she sat there and I expected her to chew me out and to want to know why, and to hate me, to just throw me out. And she didn’t. She sat there and she looked me in the eyes, with tears coming down her face and she told me that she’s not giving up on me, she’s not quitting on me. And it made me so angry. I was so mad at her! How can you respond that way? That makes no sense to me.

So initially, I just fell deeper into that depression and started struggling even more, and tried to push her away even more. Then it was just a slow battle of redemption.

It wasn’t me.

Because at that point, there was nothing that I wanted to do that was going to bring me out of that. I wanted to get away from it, and that’s what was going to bring me out of the depression in my mind. It was God working in certain ways. Everybody thinks about the way that God’s going to work within them. But what you don’t understand, and you don’t anticipate, is the way that God works in people around you.

That was the thing that I guess affected me more than anything, was I got to see it in my wife. I got to see the people who I expected to be the angriest, and the most disappointed in me, not be so. I got to experience things that were total God moments, where people that, for no other reason than God being in that place at that time, were pouring very specific messages that I needed to hear during that journey into my heart. That was kind of how it happened. It was gradual, it wasn’t just overnight I flipped a switch, but there was that moment of clarity for me where I realized I do love my wife, and God brought her into my life for a reason. And she’s the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.

For a lot of that entire process I didn’t want to know necessarily the answer for forgiveness because I didn’t feel like I was forgivable. I felt like what I did was the most heinous thing that anybody could ever do. For me, there was no excuse why my wife should stay with me. I didn’t deserve to be with her. Just kind of painting this pity party, so to speak, of why I didn’t deserve to be forgiven. All the while, I’ve got people who are showing me the entire time what it means to forgive, what it looks like to forgive. I didn’t understand that God is a forgiving God, that he is a redeeming God, and he forgives us and allows us to be able to have these opportunities at redemption.

So, understanding that, and learning exactly what the gospel teaches us about forgiveness. Because in our world, when people do things as heinous as what I did, you don’t forgive them. You don’t ever lose that sense of being angry toward that person, that just doesn’t happen. You don’t see that happen unless God is truly working in somebody. So, learning what that looked like, and seeing it firsthand from my wife, that was the lesson that I learned. It wasn’t a particular verse, but it was seeing the lesson of forgiveness being lived out through the people around me. You know, the way that she was handling things with sending me prayers, and sitting there and actually seeing her go through and revert back to Scripture to pull her through the situation, because, obviously, she was struggling as well. And so, she’s finding Scripture to pull herself through it, she’s finding Scripture to pull me through it. And then from there, it was just, you know, we had a very intentional sense that the Gospel has to be at the forefront of our lives.

So, we got plugged in at Clear Creek [Community Church], and really started to grow, and continued to push each other.

I mean, obviously, since I got baptized last year, there are things that I still struggle with.

When you get baptized and you come to faith in Christ, it’s not easy. I tell people oftentimes, it’s a lot harder. Walking this way and living your life by faith is a lot harder than not. But there’s no better way to live it

Comeback

People often ask George and Carrie Sutherland and their family, “Does it get easier?”

“It changes,” their daughter, Jessica says. “You take it breath-by-breath, and then step-by-step; day-by-day, and then week by week. And then some days it is back to step-by-step.”

***

One Sunday in October 2014 at the Clear Creek Community Church Egret Bay Campus, the pastor invited anyone in the congregation who had a relationship with Christ to take the next step of baptism that very day. George and Carrie Sutherland had already been attending CCCC for several years, but had never been baptized. It was their 20-year-old daughter, Clare, who spoke first.

“Mom, I want to go. Will you come with me?”

“Of course, I will,” Carrie said. “I’m right there with you, baby.”

Leaning over to inform her husband, George too said, “Okay, I’m in!” And the three of them got in line to publicly express their faith in Jesus Christ.

Clare being baptized at an outdoor baptism at Clear Creek Community Church’s Egret Bay Campus.

About two weeks later, Clare’s headaches began.

During one particularly debilitating episode, Clare was driving to class at nearby San Jacinto College. She pulled her Jeep Liberty to the side of the road and called her mom, in tears.

“Mom, my head hurts so bad, I can’t stand it.”

“Okay, I’m on my way.”

Unable to get a doctor appointment quickly, they headed to the emergency room. After a CAT scan, the doctor delivered the news.

“We need to do an MRI. She has a mass — a tumor.”

The week of Thanksgiving, doctors performed brain surgery to remove the mass. But, they weren’t able to remove it all.

Carrie, a sonographer in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, shared Clare’s pathology report with one of the oncologists she worked with. The co-worker gave a very direct response: Clare had 32 weeks, maybe 52. That was it.

“We knew that we could lose her,” George admitted. “But at the same time we didn’t knowthat. So we didn’t live there until we knew we were out of bullets. The statistics were not good, but statistics are just numbers, you know? Maybe we’ll be an outlier, we thought. We weren’t ready to give up hope.”

In January 2015, Clare began her first round of chemo. But shortly into treatments, her doctors realized there was little, if any, progress being made.

“Each time, we thought, Okay, this is bad news, but maybe it’s not,” George said. “And through the whole thing, it was a lot of prayer — a lot of faith. It was always, we can’t control this, but we know it’s in God’s hands. What can we do? What’s the next step?”

Doctors began talking about targeted therapy and clinical trials.

“It felt like to me that step 1 didn’t work, so ‘Let’s see what the latest emerging research is that we might be able to throw at itit’s not proven, but let’s go there,’” George recalled. “And I just thought, Oh, dear God. It’s too early for a Hail Mary.”

“I knew that the only way that Clare would survive would be God’s miracle,” Carrie said, fully understanding the medical realities. “And I knew that was possible, but that it might not be what he wanted. He had already given her back to us once.”

At birth Clare had an Apgar score of 1 on a scale to 10 — a score of 7-9 being normal, and a score of 0-3 requiring immediate resuscitation. So Clare, with a heart rate of 40, received CPR upon first entering the world. Yet, she breathed. And she breathed on her own, as though making the bold statement, I’m okay! A statement Clare went on to live her life by, even throughout her fight with cancer.

“We knew that if God was going to call her to him (which is kind of what it felt like he was doing), we had to say, ‘okay,’ too,” George said.

As George and Carrie walked with their daughter through her suffering, Clare trusted that they would let her know the things she needed to know, but there wasn’t much that Clare really wanted to know. She didn’t want to be over-informed.

“Clare’s comment through the whole thing was, ‘I know God’s got me,’” Carrie said. “You could really feel that the Holy Spirit was holding her… it was like a presence.”

Clare completing chemotherapy.

“She wanted to wrap her faith around it,” George explained, “and she had such a peace around her. She knew where it was going, there was no misplaced hope, she just didn’t know the statistics. So she just kept life as comfortable as she could, and wanted to do the same things that she usually did.”

Clare didn’t want to make a bucket list. Instead, her mantra became Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” In a time when the wrecking balls of doubt or fear inside her brain could have potentially destroyed all belief, Clare faced her fight with this song and an impenetrable shield of faith. At times, even when others felt like unraveling, it was Clare’s faith in God that held them up.

“Her walk with God through the whole thing was beautiful,” Carrie said. “It was beautiful.”

“She was magnificent,” George added.

***

Clare’s older brother, Clay, was living in Baton Rouge at the time of her diagnosis. He was running a restaurant and church was not a part of his lifestyle anymore. Over the years, he had grown a distaste for organized religion and “church people” and had fallen away from any relationship he once had with God.

“When my sister was battling cancer, she called me one day and challenged me to ‘just go to church, any church,’” Clay said. “At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about or why she would even ask such a thing of me.” Clare would even text Clay’s girlfriend, Candie, “Can you make sure Clay goes to church?”

“Clare kept saying, ‘Mom, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s that Clay comes back to church,” Carrie said.

While Clay wasn’t ready to go back to church, he did find a way to shift his schedule so that he could split his week between Baton Rouge and League City. He and Candie began spending half the week in Louisiana and half the week with Clay’s family in Texas while Clare underwent chemo treatments.

Clare (right), with her sister, Jessica.

Clare’s older sister, Jessica, remembered how normal Clare made it seem like to be going through chemo. She would drop her off for her treatment and afterwards Clare would suggest a trip to Starbucks before heading home to play with her nephew, Luke.

“She truly remained herself through it all, including her everything-is-going-to-be-okay mentality,” Jessica said.

But there were many times Jessica and her mom longed to say more.

“We wanted to have conversations about faith and where we were, and where Clare was, and how we were feeling,” Carrie admitted. “But Clare would just say, ‘I’m in a good place, Mom.’ I think it was harder for us to not have those conversations than it was for her. We needed that.”

“I remember feeling kind of a guilt that we didn’t have those deep detailed conversations to try to help her understand it, but she didn’t want that,” George admitted. “So that was me feeling guilty for me. As a parent, I kept wondering, how do I best help lead my child through this?”

Some of Clare’s college friends visiting her during her battle with cancer.

In those last days, as Clare began losing her eyesight, she was still cracking jokes with her eyes closed, as she laid in the hospital bed in her parent’s bedroom.

“She kept her phone near her playing Christian music, just looping; just kind of resting in it,” George recalls. “Her faith in God held her, and she just relaxed in it, like a hammock.”

***

“I honestly never believed she was going to die until the minute that she did,” Jessica said. “I kept thinking Is this really happening? Did she really just die? Are we really picking out flowers for her funeral?”

One of the things Clare wrote about in her journal was that she was most concerned about her family. I’m worried about my family — if they’re going to be okay, she wrote.

“I told Carrie a long time after Clare had passed that my faith felt kind of wooden,” George said. “I had no interest in picking up a Bible or learning. Didn’t feel like picking up [the guitar] to play music. I was in this place where I was just spent. And that lasted several months.”

“I can’t say that I was angry at God. I knew his decisions were all good, but it wasn’t what I wanted, so I just needed a time out,” Carrie admitted. “It was like, I love you, Lord, and I know that you love me, but I don’t know what to say to you right now.”

“And I still believed that God was good, but I was numb, and it was hard to pray,” Jessica said. “It was hard to accept that he chose not to heal my sister.”

“How do people who have no faith deal with something like this?” George wondered. “For many of them it’s a bottle of whiskey in the fetal position, which I have to admit was tempting, but when you sober up — and you invariably do — that problem is invariably there.”

The Sutherlands began to find healing joy in even the smallest reminders of Clare, like eating chicken curry.

But, they remember, while Clare loved the Indian cuisine, she had a love-hate relationship with one of its most prominent spices, cumin.

“She hated the smell of cumin, because she thought it smelled like body odor,” George chuckled. “And you know, she’s kind of right. But it sure makes your [food] taste good.”

It’s impossible to separate the odor from the flavor.

“The pain and the joy [of loss] are the yin and the yang,” George realized. “They are so inextricably interwoven. And so, you can’t have one without the other. If you try to numb out the pain, then you also lose the joy.”

Clare (center) with her father, George, and mother, Carrie.

“You know, I just saw, through the whole thing, so many answered prayers,” George said. “From the time this thing started, we had people jumping in to help and support. And where did all those people come from? It was a cumulative experience of the past 20-plus years of our lives. It’s like God was saying, ‘The Sutherlands are going to need some help — not for about 21 years, but let’s get started now.’”

Some of the same people who they befriended in the bleachers at their kids’ YMCA sports games, were the people who just showed up with groceries and started cooking.

“You can’t see God, but you can see where he’s been, like leaves blowing through a tree,” George explained. “That’s how it felt for me. I could see God just kind of working on this whole thing, sort of orchestrating our lives. So God was at work bringing people into our lives over the years long before we knew we would need the help.”

The key was letting people in.

“A lot of people, when tragedy strikes, they close their doors,” Carrie said, “But I knew from having lost a family member already, that people want to love on people, and that those people need closure, as well. So I don’t think our front door was locked for months. People just came on in.”

Their small group, in particular, had committed to work together to provide consistent meals and keep the house stocked with tissues. Since the door was unlocked, they quietly came in and did what they thought needed to be done without disruption.

“The funny thing now is that friends will come over now and I’m like, ‘Why did you ring the doorbell? Didn’t you learn anything?” Carrie joked.

***

“Towards the end of Clare’s battle with Cancer, it got really hard,” Clay admitted. But these ”church people” he had never even met before, approached him, hugged him, and told him they had been praying for him for a long time.

“It was such a stark contrast from our community back in Baton Rouge,” Candie said. “We did not have that group of faith and love and support because the way our friends dealt with difficult things was by escaping or avoiding dealing with them.”

“That’s when it really started to hit me” Clay said. “I was seeing two different worlds.”

“We watched people wrap their arms around George and Carrie,” Candie recalled. “People were there all the time and just loving on them. And I had never seen that. People were living out the Word and not just talking about it.”

“I spent most of my life justifying not going to church because of the people,” Clay said. “But I watched these people who had a faith that can weather really hard storms versus people who didn’t. And we decided that we wanted to be closer to people like that… I really wanted to see what it was all about.”

Clare and her brother, Clay.

After Clay proposed to Candie the Christmas after Clare passed, they both started job hunting in Houston, and by spring they were packing up their lives in Baton Rouge and moving to League City.

“Moving [to Texas], I was still dealing with a lot of really dark things,” Clay said.

It was then that Candie finally got Clay to go to church. Through a couple of sermons that he says spoke right to him, Clay became more open to seeking out this tangible faith he was witnessing in his parent’s community, which was now his community. Clay and Candie did their premarital counseling through Clear Creek Community Church and eventually joined a small group.

Roughly two years after his sister passed, Clay became the first person baptized at the East 96 campus. But, as George and Carrie Sutherland reveled in their son’s newfound faith on that June Sunday in 2017, it wasn’t without the shadow that Clare couldn’t be there to celebrate with them.

“I get it now,” Clay said, about Clare asking him to go to church. “Through dealing with a faithless grief, I learned about that ‘rock bottom’ thing that people frequently reference. Thankfully, the good Lord placed some amazingly patient and loving people in my life that helped me to experience Christ’s love and my need for him as my savior.”

Clare got her wish.

***

On the first anniversary of Clare’s death, George penned his reflections in a letter to close friends and family.

“I wrote that the loss is like a hole in your heart that you can never fill in,” George recalled. “But surrounding that hole there’s so much joy, and love, and laughter, that you learn to love the hole. There are a lot of bad experiences in your life that you can just put a box around, and just, you know, put in the back of the closet — a bad relationship, a bad job experience, a bad this, or a bad that — and just forget about it, and get past it, and never worry about it again. But this is something you have to hang on to, and it changes you forever because you can’t let go of the hurt. You just can’t… It always becomes a part of you.”

People still ask the Sutherlands, “Does it get easier?”

“We’re all still pushing through it,” Carrie said. “It still stings, but it’s going to sting. So you own it. And actually, in a way, you don’t want the sting to go away.”