Editor’s Note: This article will appear in byFaith’s summer issue, but the interviews took place in October 2018.
For someone with 30 tumors squeezed into his skull, Andrew Allen exudes surprising coherence and clarity. But the malignancies have magnified one inescapable fact: Save for a miraculous healing, Andrew, age 48, is going to die. Very soon.
When Andrew learned in October 2018 that his lung cancer had spread to his brain, he initially thought he had only hours to live. And before he died, Andrew wanted to speak with his friend Ed Hartman.
The friendship between the two began with Ed, 57, encouraging the younger church planter shepherding a congregation in the wilderness of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. But as Andrew’s disease appeared and progressed, Ed helped guide Andrew and his wife, Amy, through the wilderness of terminal illness. And the wilderness journey gave Ed an opportunity to mourn and learn once again from his own cancer story.
When Getting Lost Is Part of God’s Plan
Ed, minister of mission and outreach at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, loves the Alaskan wilderness. He spends weeks there each summer enjoying world-class fishing and escaping the South’s sweltering heat.
In July 2016, Ed was driving on Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna when he realized he was lost. As he turned around in a parking lot, he noticed the sign: “Redeemer Church Meets Here.”
Suspecting Redeemer could be a PCA church plant, Ed wrote down the phone number and called. Andrew answered the phone and agreed to lunch with Ed and his wife, Emily, the following afternoon before the Hartmans returned home.
At the time Redeemer in Soldotna was a fledgling church reeling from the death of a teenager in the congregation. Andrew and Amy were isolated and unsure how to best handle such immense tragedy in a small congregation they had served less than a year. The Hartmans listened with compassion and offered wise insights. It was the start of a deep friendship.
“Emily and I felt real compassion for Andrew and Amy and the real challenges they were facing,” Ed said. “I wanted to figure out how we could help them thrive in their roles.”
An Early End
The Allens stayed in touch with the Hartmans, and the Hartmans planned to visit again the following summer. But five months after their initial meeting, the younger pastor called Ed with devastating news. Andrew had cancer. Tumors in his lungs and throughout his spine meant that without treatment he would be dead in months; treatment might give him three years.
Andrew began treatment, but his disease progressed so rapidly that by the time the Hartmans returned to Soldotna, Andrew was losing strength. His targeted cancer treatment had failed, and the cancer was raging. A doctor from Redeemer told him the hard truth: he likely had only a few months to live.
“We’re in the valley of the shadow of death, but it’s not just that I fear no evil; this valley is laden with God’s presence.”
A faithful shepherd, Andrew committed to staying in Soldotna as long as possible. He did not want to abandon his congregation, even if he was too sick to lead them. Ed stepped in and helped him consider the consequences that choice would have for Amy. She would have to experience Andrew’s death without nearby family support, decide burial and funeral arrangements, sell a house and relocate as a grieving widow and single mother.
At Ed’s urging, Andrew relented. The leaders of Redeemer Church released Andrew and Amy to return to their hometown of Tacoma, Washington, so that Andrew could finish his race near family.
“I have deep compassion for Amy as the one who will stand at a casket and a grave and respond to a lot of people who will want to express their compassion to her loss and bereavement but don’t really have the words to say,” Ed said. “Amy will have to put words in their mouths to help them process their grief as she processes her own. It’s a heavy place and yet there’s real sweetness in it all. For a believer, grieving and rejoicing are not mutually exclusive. The living hope of the gospel gives us room for both.”
A Tale of Two Amys
Ed speaks from experience. He had his own Amy once.
In 1986 he married Amy Hogan, and together they started their family and life. Ed completed seminary and had begun serving as a pastor, when in 1995 Amy was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
One year later Amy died, leaving Ed with four children ages two to eight.
Ed hired a nanny to care for the children as he continued to serve as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kosciusko, Mississippi. In 1997, he married Emily, the former nanny.
During Amy’s sickness and after her death, Ed preached every Sunday and taught his congregation about trusting God’s providence, but he hid his grief from his flock. For years Ed kept his sorrows private as he worked as a pastor and missionary. But walking through the valley of the shadow of death again — this time with Andrew — allowed him to learn once again that grief and faith go hand in hand.
“[When Amy died] I found myself grieving privately, but in front of other people I felt like I had to be filled with hope and confidence and even joy. I felt like grieving robbed me of the credibility of being a man who trusted God. I didn’t realize that grieving and trusting could take place in the same space. No one taught me that you can grieve beyond words and still walk by faith. The celebration and weeping — because of Jesus — they go hand in hand.”
As Ed watches Andrew grieve and simultaneously express gratitude to Amy, he has the opportunity to once again walk his own grief road and pick up lessons he missed 22 years ago. And Andrew has learned about grief and gratitude from Ed, too. Andrew said Ed encouraged him to talk about death, sorrow, and cancer with his congregation, to teach the congregation how to grieve.
Even while Ed and Emily have remained happily married and experienced the joys of raising four children and welcoming grandchildren, Ed admits he still grieves the loss of his Amy. He has learned that his grief now forms a part of his identity. He doesn’t love Emily any less because he loved another woman first. He says he and Emily have had to learn to live in a space where grief and gratitude coexist without diminishing each other.
Grief, Gratitude and Joy
Reflecting on their friendship, Ed confesses he initially expected that he would be to Andrew like Jonathan was to David in the wilderness of Ziph, strengthening Andrew’s hand in God (1 Sam. 23:16). What he didn’t expect was how Andrew would strengthen his hand in God.
Andrew’s time left on earth is achingly short, and his primary mission is to spend every moment possible with his wife and their three-year-old daughter, Katherine.
Andrew is grateful for how his friend has helped Redeemer through its transition. Redeemer has given Ed an open invitation to its session meetings, and he has helped with pulpit supply, too.
“Ed is kind of a grounder for me. I’m much more grounded because of Ed and his wisdom, but he also gives me great life,” Andrew said.
They remind each other of God’s nearness to the brokenhearted.
Andrew’s time left on earth is achingly short, and his primary mission is to spend every moment possible with his wife and their three-year-old daughter, Katherine. He wants them always to remember how Christ’s love met them at their darkest moments and God’s promises have never failed. Though they have plenty of moments of tears, Andrew says they feel God’s presence in powerful ways — and God’s presence brings them immense joy.
“Scripture tells us the Lord will draw near to us in our trouble, and God has drawn near in intense ways,” Andrew said. “I have never in my whole life had such a sense of the nearness of God. Right now Amy and I are having the time of our lives, [even though] I’m dying. We’re in the valley of the shadow of death, but it’s not just that I fear no evil; this valley is laden with God’s presence. We are stunned, and I’m having so much fun. Yes, there is sadness here and lots of crying, but we’re having so much fun.”
In March 2019, Andrew Allen entered hospice care at his home in Tacoma, Washington. He passed away on April 25, at 11:19 p.m.
Despite their sorrow, Andrew’s family members do not grieve without hope. “Lord Christ, I love you,” Amy wrote in a CaringBridge update shortly before Andrew’s death. “I am yours – do with Andrew as you will. Be glorified in us!”
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants. (Psalm 116:15)