“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
Her Story this week is one of faith that has been refined by the fire. Her Story is one of continuous trial and yet expectant hope in the One who is to come. Her Story has the name of Jesus written all over it.
At nine months old, she was adopted into a loving, Christian home. Her parents were unable to have any children of their own, so she was raised as an only child, knowing not only the genuine love of her parents, but also the love of Jesus. From an early age, church, Sunday school, youth activities, and the like filled her days. Her parents were very involved in their church teaching Sunday school, leading the youth, and consistently modeling their faith for her to see. Her parents’ friends were all Christians, resulting in a tremendous amount of godly influence in her life. Although she didn’t notice it as much as a child, when she was older, she was able to see how significant her upbringing was.
Perhaps the beginning of the separation between her and her faith was when she went away to college and stopped going to church. Being away from home, her church, and all the godly influences that she had there, she no longer made it a priority to be in church regularly, but even so, she can see how this was the time in her life when God really began His work in her.
When she got married and had kids, she began to see the importance of raising her children in the church. So, she went back and had them both baptized and eventually confirmed in the Lutheran church. It was shortly after her second child was born that they moved from New Jersey to Arizona. Up until that point, her parents were her sole source of strength. She relied entirely on them. She was so worried about making new friends in a new place, but it was during this time that God really began to pursue her. Her mother suggested that she join a church in Arizona and sign up for a women’s Bible study. Although she saw the importance of raising her children in the church, faith to her was not much more than religion at this point, just a “busyness” in the name of the Lord.
She found herself living the life her parents had, as far as being active in the church. She was involved in everything, consumed in doing, doing, doing. Her son remained involved in the church until he was about 16 years old, but her daughter stayed beyond that. The faith of her daughter was something she always admired. Even from a young age, her daughter was never afraid to share her faith with others and witness to those who didn’t yet know Jesus. In some ways, her daughter’s faith supported her own. God was at work in her life, pulling her towards Himself. She decided to attend a weekend Bible retreat with other adults from the church, a weekend away dedicated to knowing Jesus Christ. This is where her faith changed forever. She had always believed in God, but never really took Him at His Word, never really let Him have complete control of her life. She had spent her life making lots of deals with God – “God, if you do this, if you come through for me in this way, then I promise…” But, it was this weekend that she met Jesus as a person, in a tangible way, and she committed her life to Him. It was this weekend that she realized that God was right there beside her, and He always had been. From that moment on, she chose to walk with Him no matter what life would bring (little did she know). She learned that it wasn’t about making deals with God, it was about receiving His grace. There was nothing she could do to earn it; she just needed to receive it.
For the majority of her life, she struggled with severe health issues. Many of these issues went untreated for years, as doctors were simply unable to correctly diagnose her. Not only has she constantly faced sickness in her own life but also in the lives of her parents. When she was just 8 years old, her mother developed breast cancer. She can remember praying to God on her knees, begging Him to not let her mother die. There seemed to be so much emphasis on death, which instilled great fear in her heart. What if she did something wrong, would God then take her mother? Her mother survived the breast cancer, but her breasts did not. She had a double mastectomy and ended up developing skin cancer at the site of her breast cancer. Her mother beat that cancer as well, but eventually developed lung cancer. All she could think was how unfair this was. Her mother had never smoked a day in her life. How could these horrible cancers continue to find her mother? She visited her mom every single day in the hospital, often times spending the night there. Her mom didn’t want anyone to know that she was dying, so they carried that burden alone. Even extended family didn’t know, but a few days before her mom died, she decided that she wanted to see her brother. Completely unaware up until this point that his sister was dying from cancer, her brother flew out, and they were able to spend her last days together. Looking back on this loss, she is able to see how God truly gives you the knowledge that it’s your time to go, that He’s coming to bring you home. Her mother was at peace when she passed. Difficult as it was to let her mother go, she was able to see how God brought good from it. God was at work in the lives of those around her even through this tragedy.
Her father lived for another 10 years before developing lymphoma, and they only gave him 6 months to live. As she thinks back to this time, she can remember how amazing her father was through all of this. He never complained once about his illness or his diagnosis. He moved in with them, and continued to attend church with them every week. He enjoyed being with his family. He lived life well to the end. But watching her father’s health slowly decline was one of the biggest tests of her faith thus far. She was an only child. She had already lost one parent. How could God possibly ask her to now let him go too, all she had left? She remembers the final days of his life through tears. Their pastor came along with another friend to pray for him. Her friend told her that she needed to let him go, that she needed to tell him, “You can go.” She knew she needed to, but it was the last thing she wanted to do, the hardest three words she would ever have to say. Saying those words, though, released her father back to the Lord. They had a few more days to spend together, sharing stories, and growing close to each other even in the end. She learned more about him in those final few days than she felt that she knew before. She listened to stories that she had never heard. Those final days were so precious, so treasured.
Although confident that her father was now with the Lord and no longer suffering, she couldn’t help but feel so alone. Grief overwhelmed her. Who was going to be there for her now? She fell into a depression, slipping further and further away from God and her faith. She began drinking to numb the pain. She couldn’t sleep at night, so she slept during the day. It was a relentless downward spiral. In the midst of this overwhelming darkness, a close girlfriend encouraged her to seek help. She needed a support group, people who would understand what she was going through.
The group was comprised of a mix of people who had lost someone in their lives, but mostly those who had lost a spouse. There was a man there who looked just like her dad, making it almost impossible for her to stay…but she did. Over the weeks that she attended this group, what really struck her was hearing the stories of these people who had lost the loves of their lives. Many had been married for 50-60 years, leaving them with such an incredible void in their hearts over the loss of their spouse. Listening to them share allowed her to see that she never thought in those 10 years how much her dad must have missed her mom. They had had such a loving marriage, and she never acknowledged the pain he must have been in. He was always so optimistic. That showed her that she had hit rock bottom. She knew she had to look up, and when she did, God was reaching out to her.
Her mom was a really strong person, but she never saw it in herself. She went through so much hardship, but her strength was rooted in her faith in God and her time in His Word. As she reflected on the life of her mom, something changed inside her own heart. Why wasn’t she relying on God like she had seen both of her parents do? It took awhile, but through the love and support of her friends, family, and her pastor, she was finally able to see that she was God’s child. She was just on loan to her earthly parents, but ultimately, God wanted her to see that He was her Father. Feeling like an orphan in this world but finally seeing that she was adopted by her Heavenly Father allowed faith and freedom to flood her heart. God had blessed her with so many friends during this time, and although they didn’t share the same blood, they shared the same Father.
One might think this is where Her Story ends, but God wasn’t through with her yet. Despite having faced the loss of both of her parents, trials would continue to penetrate her life at every turn, proving her faith genuine and causing her to learn what it means to fully rely on the Lord. Her life was flooded with numerous health issues, surgeries, and regular hospitalizations. She had several knee surgeries leading to both knee replacements, a hysterectomy, kidney stones that sent her to the hospital taking three months to heal, and she was diagnosed with lupus and diabetes. Then, when it seemed like things couldn’t get much worse for her, she contracted MRCA. The doctors feared that it would spread to a vital organ, so she was immediately hospitalized and forced to undergo more tests, scans, and medications than she thought humanly possible. She remembers the fear she felt and wondering if she was ever going to make it through this. Sometimes she wondered if she would ever leave that hospital. She almost lost her life in this fight, but every day, God met her with His presence and gave her strength. She faced a long road of physical therapy and intense pain, but she emerged from that fight realizing that it was nothing that she did to make it out on the other side. It was God’s hand of mercy and grace that pulled her through. She never stopped trusting in the Lord. He had already brought her through too much for her to walk away now. Convinced that God was not through with her yet, she clung to her faith in Him. She didn’t know His plan, but she trusted His plan. The unknown can be frustrating, but she wouldn’t be afraid of it.
Finally on the road to recovery, she was given the opportunity to take over the prayer chain at her church. People would submit prayer requests, and she would reply to them with Scripture verses and words of encouragement. She poured over God’s Word for the three months that she led this prayer chain, unaware of how God was using this time to prepare her heart for what would come next. The last day of her physical therapy from her MRCA recovery, she came home to a prayer request from a woman at her church whom had just been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She immediately began searching through the Bible to find verses to encourage this woman when the phone rang. It was her doctor calling with the results from her recent mammogram. “You flunked your mammogram.” What timing? And what a delivery?! They told her that she needed to find a surgeon right away. So, she hung up and called her daughter right away. “Pam, I think I have breast cancer.” Her daughter, always the voice of reason, encouraged her not to worry but to trust in the Lord. Despite this new blow, her response was one of faith. She was going to do everything she could and leave the rest up to God. She went through chemotherapy for 6 months, ending in a double mastectomy the following September. Although this was an extremely difficult end, she really was in a good place. She wasn’t even shaken. Most people were mad for her, but she was so steady in her faith. Her response was always, “I will take as much as God gives me.” God had lovingly prepared her for this trial through her prayer chain. She was daily devouring God’s Word, in hopes of offering encouragement to others who were struggling, but it was that time in His Word that God used to give her the strength to make it through this too. As she battled the cancer, God would remind her of the promises in His Word that she had dug out to share with others:
“But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Deuteronomy 4:29
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Romans 12:12
Her unwavering faith would almost offend people at times, but she had already faced death 3 times just through the MRCA, and God continued to see her safely through. She trusted God’s hand. The hardest part was after her mastectomy. She had to take off the bandage, and see herself for the 1st time. She was not prepared for that, how could she be? She looked at her scars and said to God, “This isn’t how you made me, but this is how I am.” At that moment, she thought back to her mom and how she must have felt after going through the very same thing. She realized that God had chosen them to be her parents in a grand plan that started long before she was even thought of. Her mom had shown her what faith looked like. Her mom had taught her the power of prayer and the love of Christian community. They weren’t even biologically related, but she experienced the same things her mom had. If her mom could do all that by the grace of God, so could she. In the midst of this storm, blessings flooded her way. How could she complain about her plight when God continued to bless her through it? She was surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She was covered in constant prayer, perhaps the greatest blessing of all. This year in September, she will celebrate 5 years cancer free, praise the Lord!
All of this, and she has still had several scares since her cancer. She contracted another severe infection that almost resulted in losing her leg, but her faith remained. Her response: “If I lose my leg, I’m going to have a heck of a shoe sale!” She meets each challenge with her resilient faith in the God who saves. Every illness, every surgery, every scar is a reminder of where she has been with the Lord. Just as Jacob wrestled with the Lord and walked away with a limp to remind him, she has numerous physical reminders of God’s grace on her life and what He has brought her through. It’s the standing joke in her family, “How long can mom go without being in the hospital?” 2011 was hospital free! January 2012 led her back into the hospital with a mini-stroke. Yet, she awakes each day to God’s mercies that are new. She trusts in the Lord. Each trial has confirmed that He is all-powerful, and that He is in control. He is the Great Physician, and her life is in His hands. She will never stop praying. She trusts that this is part of his plan and so is the outcome. She seeks to glorify Him in between by sharing her story – her story of resilient faith in a faithful God. She swore she wouldn’t live past 30. She will be 59 this year. If life was always smooth, we could never grow into the person God wants us to be. There were times when she thought she must have the worst luck in the world, times when she wrote goodbye letters to her family and friends, but now she sees how God was pursuing her through it all. If we have faith, we don’t have to worry. If we worry, we must not have faith. She won’t question God anymore. Her faith will not be shaken!
Sitting across the room from her, listening to her share Her Story, I was moved to tears. The faith she possesses could only come through much refining in the fire of adversity, yet her faith remains through each and every trial. She is a treasure! It is a blessing to be in the same room with her because her faith is contagious. She exudes faith. She models it. She is Linda Hartig, and I am blessed to call her my sister in Christ.