Last February I preached at a church in the Chicago area and afterward a group of friends came for lunch. Don and Nancy Hoy came late, and when they came in, Don shook my hand and Nancy hugged Marlene and me and said how good it was to see us again. But really it was the other way around. How good it was to see her and Don again. After the meal, when we posed for the group picture, she and Don were at the far right, and Nancy was almost completely hidden away behind someone else. She is smiling and to see her face again this weekend when I found the picture made me smile all over again.
The bad news came in July that colon cancer had spread throughout her body and the prognosis was not good. A few weeks later when we were in Chicago again, we went with Dave and Lynette Hoy (Dave and Don are brothers) to spend some time with Don and Nancy. She greeted us with hugs and said again how good it was to see us. We talked about this and that, Don did his best to make her feel comfortable, and we had a wonderful visit. At that moment they did not yet know what course of treatment they should follow, and there was some discussion about the options, none of them very hopeful. Finally, I asked the only question I could ask at that moment. I asked her about the state of her soul. That’s an old-fashioned question, but I have found that people respond to it immediately. Nancy talked openly about the cancer and how she and Don had prayed together and found new strength in the Lord. I think the ordeal brought them closer together than ever.
Nancy knew the truth, knew that she was not likely to live a long time, knew that soon her earthly life would be over. “I am trusting in Jesus Christ,” she said, with a resolve that no cancer could ever shake. When we prayed together at the end, I think all of us felt shaky, I know I did. Cancer is so powerful and the specter of death so large that prayer does not always come easily. But we all prayed as best we could, and then Nancy prayed. This much of what she said I remember clearly. “Lord Jesus, I have trusted you all my life, and I trust you now. I pray that you will be glorified in whatever happens to me, in my life or in my death.”
The last few months were difficult for Don and Nancy. Once this sort of cancer spreads, it usually wins in the end. But the word “wins” has a double meaning here. Cancer finally won the last earthly battle on Saturday. But cancer did not, finally, win at all. Nancy’s final prayer was answered, and when she closed her eyes on earth, she opened them in heaven. Death could not steal from her the eternal promises of God.
Years ago, when a dear friend died, I was greatly comforted by the words of a hymn written in 1681 by the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter. The hymn was published after the death of his wife with this notation: “This Covenant my dear Wife in her former Sickness subscribed with a Cheerful will.” I have never actually sung this hymn or heard it sung, but the words are profoundly biblical:
Lord, it belongs not to my care
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.
If life be long, I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To welcome endless day?
Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.
Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet
Thy blessèd face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet
What will Thy glory be!
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.
I write these words on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, on a beautiful fall day in Tupelo, Mississippi. Where is Nancy Hoy this afternoon? She has graduated to that place where the Lord himself is the sun and where no clouds will ever dim the sky.
I have in my files an email she sent last February. It was short and sweet and the sort of note that makes you smile. This was her final sentence. “We’ll look forward to our next visit with you.”
I take that as a benediction on her whole life. She lived and she died as a Christian, full of faith in the Lord. The end of the story has not yet been told. Death shall not have the final word. What Nancy said to us, we now say to her. “By the grace of God, we’ll look forward to our next visit with you.”
Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.