Dying with Grace

Kara Tippetts, 38, was the wife of PCA church planter Jason Tippetts (Westside Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado) and a mother to four young children. She passed away on March 22, after a long battle with cancer.

Not long after receiving her initial diagnosis of breast cancer, Tippetts started a blog called “Mundane Faithfulness,” where she chronicled her daily battle with cancer and her fight for joy in the midst of pain and probable death. Her rawness, sense of humor, and spiritual clarity particularly connected with women, with close to 30,000 people who subscribed to her blog. In late 2014, despite plodding through three weeks every month of chemo treatments, Tippetts published her first book, “The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard” (David C. Cook). This past Thanksgiving, while Tippetts was in Indianapolis, Indiana, speaking to a group of more than 700, byFaith writer Zoe Erler had a chance to talk with her about the book and what kept her going in the face of death.

You arrived in Colorado Springs in 2012 with the dream of planting a church. Instead you were welcomed with a shocking diagnosis of  breast cancer. What did church planting look like then?

We had only been in town six months before I started chemo, and so the church started out basically not having a pastor’s wife. If they wanted to be a welcoming church, they had to be the ones to do it. I didn’t have the strength. I was often sitting there slumped sick in a chair. I would show up, but I didn’t have any pastor’s wife abilities to host other people. Our church plant was really born out of brokenness. But it has created this safe environment of “we don’t have to pretend that we have it all together here.” And then it created a warm community where the people understand it’s their job to capture the new people and to embrace hospitality where we can’t.

For you “the hard” has been endless treatments, a series of negative prognoses, talking with your children about dying, the potential releasing of your husband to marry another when you pass away.  Most people would look at this list and shudder. How do you cope?

There are days when I certainly do fall apart. When I speak, I often tell people who are in a season of being healthy, “Are you a student of your faith? Are you being mentored? Are you growing near to Jesus in ways that will carry you if you get a story like mine eventually?” And so I feel like my years up to now have been spent being that — being a student of my faith, being mentored as much as I could, and knowing God’s Word. So now, as it’s hard for me to read, it’s hard for me to have time with a mentor, the energy I spent then is what carries me now. As I’ve been asked to receive this story, God was gracious to grow me to where He did before the story came.

You share a lot of insights about your desires as a mother. Would you talk about that—your relationship with your children?

My greatest prayer is just to have more time with them, and to focus on their hearts and shepherd them while I’m here. It’s easy as a parent to want to press them beyond where they are. There are things I want to talk to them about, things I want to nurture in them about godly relationships. Well, a 5-year-old doesn’t understand that. I’m realizing I get to open my hands and nurture them now and let them know me, really know me. In the absence of me, they’ll know the essence of who I am and my longings for them even if they can’t hear me verbally saying it. I get to leave my voice behind and shepherd them. And I get to trust in a covenantal God [who’s] bigger than me, bigger than my story. And so as I grasp for moments, I know He has their moments perfectly planned.

In the quantity of time that we spend together, God is the one who nurtures the quality of who He is into our children. When you enjoy your kids, you have a lot less time to try to control them. When you begin to become a student of who they are, you get to celebrate that. You see yourself in your kids. You see your own struggles that God’s even worked through in your own life. You want to help them learn the lessons you’ve learned. Now I realize God’s just got to do it. He’s got to work in their lives. I just get to love them, but still I’m here to shepherd and correct them and discipline them in kindness.

One woman who comes often to take care of the kids — “Nanny Mickey” — she’s just been my mentor for years and she says, “Kara, I will come, I will love, and I will protect, but I will not discipline your kids.” She says, “No matter how sick you are, you get out of your bed, and you discipline your own children.” I know that that’s still my job while I’m here. So I have to show up, even if I don’t feel like it.

It sounds like having children is a great mercy in this “hard.”

You know, I say that the pull of the fetal position in a dark room is very great, and it is for me some days. And some days I’m so sick, that there I am — in a fetal position in a dark room — or I’ll be there all day so that I can join my kids for dinner at night. I can see many people in this battle shutting down. It’s so hard. But there is a grace in having little kids. I’ve got to get up and help pack lunch. I’ve got to find socks that kind of match.

You talk about being jealous of the elderly — of the longevity they’ve been given. How have you come to view long life in light of the Gospel?

Jason — my husband — and I are now really starting to look at heaven. We’re really starting to look at heaven in a different light. The Puritans spent so much time talking about heaven. Everything was focused on heaven. Jason recently heard a sermon that said the reason for so much materialism in our world right now is that we’ve taken our eyes off of heaven and we’re looking for this place to be the comfort that it is not. I think somehow I expected — because I still have grandparents who are alive in their 90s, and I had great-grandparents who lived to 104 — that I would not have this story. And yet we’re not promised tomorrow. I’ve got today.

It was a place of jealousy of “Do you appreciate what you’ve got? Have you lived this life in appreciation of each breath that you’ve got?” And now I realize that I’m getting heaven. I told my son, death is not natural, [but] it’s inevitable. So there’s something that’s always going to feel unnatural about it and broken because it came with the fall and we’re created [to be] eternal, but it’s inevitable for us all. And so, I remember telling my son about how in 2 Peter, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day, and I said, “It’s gonna feel long, but I’m going to see you tomorrow.” And every once in a while, my son will come in and say, “Mom, I’m going to see you tomorrow.” It’s like he just captures it and knows it. He understands at his young age, he has a hope for heaven that I’ve never had. The closer that I get to the end, I am growing in my imagination of heaven and my longing for it.

When you think about heaven, what do you long for?

I think just to see Jesus, just to see Him face to face. And to see in His face how He feels toward me. I know I’m a daughter cherished. I know I am loved by God, but I wonder what it looks like in the face of Jesus. I know what my face looks like when I look at my children. What does His face look like towards me? He doesn’t have a record of my wrongs. He’s not disappointed with me the way I get disappointed with myself and my failings.

You’ve encountered several people in the midst of your journey — including Brittany Maynard (the young woman who recently ended her life because of a similar diagnosis and to whom you wrote a public letter) — who don’t understand suffering the way you do. What do you wish they understood?

Grace. The grace of God that takes our brokenness and makes it beautiful, and isn’t afraid to look at brokenness. I think if you look at Jesus, how He accomplished our salvation, it was on a cross. We don’t want to look often. We want to glamorize it or sterilize it somehow.

We as believers say we don’t practice “health and wealth gospel,” but we practice it. My husband has said, “I want to be the pastor who brings you the meal. I don’t want to be the pastor who needs the meal.”

Philippians says that as we know Jesus we also partner with Him in suffering. And we don’t want that part of the Gospel.

Most of us expect to live long lives. You don’t. What does that do to your faith? To your thoughts about God’s love?

[Someone] asked me the other day, “Do you doubt God in this?” No. I’ve been kept by God so much in this that I don’t. Though [if I did] He wouldn’t be disappointed in my doubting. My union with Christ is not based on my feelings or my doubts or my strength. It’s based on the fact that I’m united with Christ, and this union will take me from this life into the next.

So far, He has been gracious to let us be broken and not angry. And we’ve had to fight for it. Anger is a natural and almost easy response. We often say we’re choosing to walk through this pain, not around it. And there’s a certain amount that you just want to pretend this isn’t happening. And then there’s a certain amount that you do [pretend]. I recently told the kids they found more cancer in my brain and then said “let’s put on a dance song and dance all the way home.” I think people just expect us to be gnashing teeth and crying all the time at our house, and we’ve just got to live. I’ve still got to pack lunches and take care of fevers and wash clothes.

You talk about a moment when you and your eldest daughter were reading Proverbs 1:33: “Whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster” —  and how you found this comforting. Clearly, you have faced disaster. How do you understand this passage?

It doesn’t say there won’t be disaster. That verse to me says that if you’re listening to God, He’ll take away the dread. He doesn’t take away the disaster. It’s like this litmus test for our family: If I am living in dread and anxiety, it’s a sure sign that I’m not spending time listening to God and His word. And it’s simple as just opening the Bible and reading and reading and reading until God’s peace is returned. And God’s Word gives that perspective of what it’s about. It’s not about longevity, really. It’s about Jesus.

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