When our daughter Jamie was born in 1986, she was healthy, bright and happy. Our firstborn was a boy, and now he had a beautiful little sister. What more could we ask for?
Jamie progressed normally for the first year of her life. But shortly after her first birthday, things changed. Her muscle tone decreased, she stopped talking and walking, and at 18 months she lost the use of her hands. By age two Jamie had withdrawn into a silent world of her own. She responded to no one – not even her mother.
We spent the next two years desperately trying to find a solution, a cure. The medical profession seemed baffled by her illness. It was not until she was 4 years old that doctors diagnosed her with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects mainly girls. It can cause severe mental and physical impairments. Suddenly our future looked bleak.
God knew Jamie would bring much pain into our lives, but he also knew she would bring much blessing and spiritual maturity. But on March 29, 2022, Jesus called her home. After 35 years of loving her deeply and caring for her night and day, she stepped into His glorious, radiant presence, free at last from her earthly limitations.
Jamie could not walk without assistance and she had no purposeful use of her hands. She had to be dressed by us and fed by us. She had regular appointments with her family doctor, other medical professionals and various therapists. She could not speak. She rarely slept through the night, waking several times. She had one surgery to fuse her back and correct a severe case of scoliosis, a second surgery to insert a feeding tube and a third to remove an ovarian cyst. Each time, she landed in the Intensive Care Unit with serious complications. All this was compounded by a seizure problem that was difficult to control. Life was hard for her.
Our precious girl had very little ability of her own, but she was an agent of God to change lives. Hardened and bitter people softened when they met this unique messenger from heaven. When we planted The Gathering Church in Windsor, Ontario, in 2014, Jamie became our mascot and our hero.
In our deepest pain, and in the midst of planting a church with the Send Network, God taught us how to empathize with people who are going through really tough stuff in their lives, and empathy is critical for church planters. The Father of Compassion and the God of All Comfort comforted us in our trouble so that we could comfort the broken people God brought into our lives through planting The Gathering Church. Because of the grace of God, we could point them confidently to our Heavenly Father and say he is trustworthy. Jesus is worth it.
What is it like to plant a church for the glory of God when your family hurts inexorably, when it demands so much of your time and attention? How did Jesus use Jamie’s precious life and differences to mold us? What did the Holy Spirit teach us?
1. We learned not to be surprised when life goes from bad to worse.
Along this line, Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Church planters and their families will certainly experience suffering and sorrow. We learned not to be shocked or dismayed by it.
2. We learned to cherish God’s purposes.
The Father used Jamie’s disability and our church planting challenges to develop our understanding of how He works in the world and in the Church.
James said the testing of our faith develops perseverance (James 1:3). Maturity comes with a price. We know there are times when the Lord puts us to the test to give us a deepened sense of endurance in our personal spiritual adventure and our corporate church planting ministry. Is God perhaps doing something like that in your life?
3. We had to bear in mind that God often chooses suffering to cure indifference.
He uses suffering to obliterate complacency in us and make people bold for Jesus Christ. It happened in Philippi. “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:14). Strangely, Paul’s imprisonment inspired them!
In our church planting experience, many people were inspired by our pain and Jamie’s silent, but determined testimony of love, devotion and perseverance, in spite of her differentness.
4. Our Father taught us to rejoice in His design.
We learned from John Piper that the glory of God shines most brightly, most fully, most beautifully in the manifestation of the glory of his grace. Therefore, this is the ultimate aim and the final explanation of all things – including suffering. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God” (Isa. 61:10).
Piper has pointed out that suffering is an essential part of the tapestry of the universe that reveals the weaving of grace for what it really is. The suffering of the utterly innocent, infinitely holy Son of God in the place of utterly undeserving sinners, to bring us to everlasting joy, is the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace that ever was or ever could be.
As a church planter or pastor, don’t be resentful in suffering. James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds …. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” Hang in there, friends. God is at work!
5. We saw the importance of learning to live with Mystery.
Peter Kreeft says we love easy, fast answers: “The devil has sold as many cheap and instant answers as McDonald’s has sold hamburgers. We are impatient with Mystery, especially with a capital M. We read a fathomless profundity like the book of Job and we say, ‘But what’s the bottom line?’” (Making Sense Out of Suffering, p.27).
Yet, some things in our lifespan may be totally unexplainable. The bottom line maybe invisible to the human eye, even one trained in the Scripture. So there is a sense in which we must live with mystery (Deut. 29:29). Church planting is full of glorious, gospel mystery!
6. We rediscovered that we could bank on God’s character.
If God is your Father and Jesus is your Savior, you can be certain He will not fail you, or your church plant, regardless of the circumstances. He is faithful, dependable, trustworthy and true. He is God.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Published January 9, 2023