“For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
In a world where skepticism, fear, hate, pessimism, doubt, despair, depression, relativism, pragmatism, grief, sorrow, pain and arrogance abound, how is God’s greatness and glory made most powerful? How can this broken world see the power and wonder of God in the most impactful way?
For 60 years, my beloved bride, Karen Preston McDaniel, embodied many of the themes mentioned in this text, and I believe these gospel truths hold the key to helping us see how a fractured world can see the beauty, wonder, compassion and glory of God today. These truths, separate and forged together, create a picture of biblical beauty and sweetness the world does not understand, but the world pays attention to it, for these qualities and acts awaken the God-consciousness that is implanted within them. This God-consciousness points them to Jesus Christ as the only permanent source of meaning, joy, satisfaction, comfort, peace and hope in this torn-apart world. I want to talk to you today of 7 great biblical realities:
1. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through character (Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”). There was a pureness of heart that Karen exhibited all throughout her life. She had no personal agendas or vendettas, only what was best for the other person. She was constantly putting other people ahead of herself. She had the purest of intentions and as her husband, I saw that repeatedly in the way she cared for me, my children, grandchildren, and other family members, and especially for our mothers when we were entrusted with their hospice care from 2008-2013. There was a sweetness of spirit that exuded from Karen’s character, a gentleness that made so many people call her “sweet Karen.” I am persuaded that God called her home early because her spirit was so pure that He wanted her to see His brilliant glory. In her character, so many people saw a glimpse of God’s greatness and glory in her life. Her character caused many young mothers to seek her counsel and help.
2. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through humble servanthood (Philippians 2:5-7a: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”). Augustine once wrote: “humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” In a world where arrogance and the “blame game” abound, humility is one of the most cleansing virtues that can be shown, and without question, Karen exemplified humility in her life. I believe she understood the words of Scripture that said: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b). Certainly, she showed it in her desire to work behind the scenes, caring not to be noticed by anyone for her acts of service. She was just as happy to be in the church nursery as she was in the kitchen or anywhere in-between. She was more than happy for me to be in the spotlight, and she served humbly in whatever she was asked to do.
3. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through the centrality and embodiment of Scripture in daily life (Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”). In her childhood years, Karen learned the value and power of Scripture memory. She was a part of the Bible Memory Association ministry that was at Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, and she committed herself to hiding God’s word in her heart in order that she could know Him more. She carried that tradition through her life as a mother, and as a co-author with me of my second book, The Life-Brighteners Series (Waterbrook Press, 2004). I can vividly remember when our children were in their school-age days how Karen would write out Scripture verses on scraps of paper and tuck them with a personal word of love in their lunch sacks, and I know they cherished reading them each day. In fact, they would often put those scraps of paper on their night stand and read them before they went to bed at night. Karen was a student of applying God’s word to her life, and it showed in her character, her attitude, and her outlook on life.
This understanding of the power and value of Scripture enabled her not to take herself too seriously. In fact, most here will readily agree with me that she had one of sharpest wits around, plus one of the most infectious laughs you could ever hear. She loved laughter and life as a whole. In fact, I remember when the time was nearing her death, I didn’t know if she was going to wake up again, but she did about 30 hours before her passing. Now, when I saw this, “ole preacher-me” went into my “liturgical posture” and started pronouncing a benediction over her life as I placed my hands on her head, when suddenly, she opened her eyes and said to me, “I’M STILL HERE!” God’s word helped her understand her place in this life, and in the life to come.
4. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through love (1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”). Augustine once wrote: “Beauty grows in you to the extent that love grows, because charity itself is the soul’s beauty.” I find it fascinating that of the hundreds of Facebook comments that were posted about Karen, the two most popular were these: “sweet Karen” and “beautiful Karen.” What made her sweet? What made her beautiful? Housed within her soul was a loving, caring spirit. She was overflowing with love for everyone, most notably me, her children, grandchildren, family members and close friends. But I want to take a moment to highlight the special group that she had a passionate love for as the apple of her eye. She had a deep, abiding heart-fire for special needs children, and wanted them so much to live a happy, fulfilling life despite their disability. For over 25 years, I saw this love for these children evidenced so many times in so many ways. Many years ago, she helped me and others see that these are not “disadvantaged children.” NO! They are “deserving children!” And all this was possible because the love of God was poured out upon her, and she poured it out on others.
Karen certainly invested love into the hearts of all three of our children, for they adored her. All the many things she did for them in childhood—the beautiful, creative birthday cakes, the hand-sewn and smocked outfits, the Easter Egg hunts, the heirloom queen-sized bed quilts that she made for each of them at the beginning of their adult life, the many happy Thanksgiving meals and Christmas mornings enjoyed in our household, the adventurous spring break trips and happy family vacations—all these and many more, were done in love by her for them and for me. We were blessed to have 2 days at the end to pull out those family photo albums, and to relish all the happy memories as a family together before she slipped into unconsciousness. Those happy tears washed and cleansed us to close properly this major chapter in our lives.
5. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through sacrifice (Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship”). Sacrifice is a major theme of the Christian life and journey. It models the pattern seen in the example set by our Lord before his disciples when he washed their feet in the Upper Room, and in his humiliation to put others ahead of Himself when He willingly became obedient to His Heavenly Father’s plan to fulfill the mission of the redemption of mankind. Sacrifice is all about surrendering your rights so that others will receive love. In many ways, and throughout the seasons of her life, my wife showed sacrifice. She was more than willing to take the shoes off her feet and to give them to someone else if she knew they needed them. This caused her to adopt a somewhat frugal lifestyle where I found her always giving to others so that they were cherished and valued. So many examples could be cited here, but none are better than the many outfits Karen sewed for other children in our broader family and in the church, plus the quilts she made for not only our children, but also for others who were having happy occasions in their lives, such as the birth of a baby. When I first met her in St. Louis, I quickly learned that she was sewing outfits for the pastor’s wife! And she was even buying the material! Alongside my mother’s example, she had one of the most giving spirits of anyone I have ever met. There are many family members here who will tell how they are the beneficiary of some of Karen’s sewing for them. She was willing to put others ahead of herself so that they would be blessed.
Each of these qualities are great and significant, and together they paint a formidable portrait of the Christian life. But I have saved the last two qualities, for I believe they are the greatest, and together with the other five, they paint a masterpiece of profound biblical beauty and sweetness.
6. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through suffering (Romans 5:2b-3: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us”). In the tapestry of Karen’s pilgrimage, there were threads in her life quilt that were marked by suffering. Some threads were noticeable, others were narrower as she grieved with others over their plight in life (especially the families of many special needs children). Some of the most notable threads of suffering appeared when her father died suddenly in 1979 at the age of 58. That changed the trajectory of her family for the rest of her life. She suffered from that deep loss, and I heard about it regularly. When her mother came to live with us and with my mother in 2008, both of us watched the deterioration of two people we loved dearly, and there was a sense of deep emotional and spiritual suffering that we experienced. Then, on the day just after Karen’s mother died (October 28, 2013), she received word from the hospital that her biopsy done one week earlier revealed that she had breast cancer.
For close to four years, Karen suffered through the horrors of cancer: chemotherapy treatments that made her sick and weak, radiation treatments that burned her skin and scalp making her lose her hair twice, and numerous doctor visits and travels out-of-state for clinical trials. She did all this with the hopes of getting healed and well. She wanted to live and to continue to be the wife, mother, grandmother and friend that she was to so many. I was with her about 95% of the time for all of these medical matters, and I can tell you without hesitation that she suffered—immensely. But you would never know it. She always had a smile to bear, a picture of her soul that simply said: “things may not be good with my body, but praise the Lord, anyway, all is well with my soul.” In this four-year journey, I often pled with the Lord as to why He permitted this to come to her life, and the only thing that makes any sense to me is this: I believe suffering is an essential part of life in this fallen world, and God was looking for someone who would be a prime example of what it means to suffer as a Christian so that the world could see the beauty and love of Jesus, whom the Scriptures call the “man of sorrows” acquainted with our sufferings. Karen met that bill about as succinctly as any Christian could. She was a true soldier of the cross, and she bore the pain and misery of living in a fallen, broken world: a world filled with sin, disease, decay, and sorrow. But through all this travail, she pointed many people, especially those she learned who had breast cancer, to Jesus. Through her suffering, she shined the light of Christ.
7. God’s greatness and glory is made most powerful through faith/trust in Him (Hebrews 11:1,2,6: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for…And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him”). One of the greatest marks of the Christian life and journey is faith. Without it, we cannot please God, nor see Him. Faith is often most visible when suffering is present, and this was the case in Karen’s life. But in actuality, her entire life is a testimony to a simple childlike trust and dependence upon God. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey” was a song she and I both learned in childhood, and it marked the way for her life, and in many ways, it anchored our marriage. We were soul-mates. We didn’t have a perfect marriage, but everyone in the house knew that at the end of the day, we were deeply committed to each other with a spiritual, covenant love that was said in our vows that we memorized for our wedding. In our earliest married months when finances were tighter than anyone could imagine, Karen encouraged me to trust the Lord for provision. And God provided time after time. Keep in mind that most pastors don’t make triple-digit salaries and bonuses, and PTs weren’t paid extravagantly in her times. Yet we chose to trust the Lord and live by faith. That faith enabled us to live practically debt-free and it catapulted us to put all three of our children through undergrad and graduate school, and each of them walked into adult life with their master’s degrees without a penny of debt. I have heard our children say to me and to Karen that next to the Christian heritage and training that they received in our home, the most profound blessing in their lives was starting their adult life without the heavy load of debt on their shoulders, like many of their school friends. This would not have been possible without Karen being a help-meet to me and modeling a simple faith and dependence upon the Lord.
But I think in the final days of her life, she reminded me of faith in one of the most riveting ways possible. Several days before she lost consciousness, I became emotionally wrenched over the reality that she was not going to be here much longer, and I felt like I was being ripped in half. Added to that was the fact that I am currently unemployed, having finished serving my last interim Sr. pastorate in May. You could say that a few days ago, I was staring at a “two-headed monster”: Karen’s death, and no guarantee of a future job ahead of me. I felt like I was looking at a black hole. So, in all my anguish, I went to Karen’s bed in our great room and found her wide awake and alert at 5:00am, so I buried my head into her chest and cried like a baby. As soul-mates, we knew each other’s hurts and pains, and shared them often and openly. She simply held my head up to hers, and tenderly said these words to me: “Curt, you have now got to do what I have tried to teach you all my life, and that is to trust the Lord. When you surrender your life to Him, and really trust Him to take you by the hand and to lead you into that dark hole as your good shepherd, He will be with you and will show you the way. You have got to trust Him.” When she said these things, I felt a waterfall of grace wash over me, and a renewed sense of faith and hope filled me. Yes, this rich, 36-year chapter of my life that I have cherished immensely with her walking by my side has come to a close, and I am deeply grieving this closure. At 58 and 60, we had hoped that we would have had another 25+ years of marriage where she could see grandchildren and great-grandchildren born. But she reminded me that God’s ways are not our ways, but we must trust Him through this broken, winding wilderness, depending on Him to get us home.
That leads me to say in conclusion that this process of grieving—something all of us either has done, is doing, or will do in life—is meant to show us one primary thing: this world is not our home. Suffering and brokenness reminds us that we are to trust the Lord to lead us through this journey in order to get us home to heaven. Just seconds after her earthly departure, her Savior’s eternal arms embraced her. After He said to her: “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of the Lord and heaven,” she then embraced her father, her mother, my mother, my father, and all those saved loves who have gone ahead of us. I envy her right now, but rejoice to know that in my current and forthcoming times of deep grief, these 7 legacies of her life—biblical character, humble servanthood, the embodiment of Scripture, the power of love, the demonstration of sacrifice, the endurance of suffering, and a simple childlike faith and dependence upon God—will guide my (and I trust my family’s) journey for the rest of my life. And I believe they are the great biblical qualities that make God’s greatness and glory most visible in this world. And I will be forever grateful to God that for the last 36 years of my life (34 ½ of them in marriage), the greatest gift next to my own salvation was the gift of this wonderful person, my beloved bride, Karen Preston McDaniel. May God hallow her memory and bless her legacy for generations to come.
Rev. H. Curtis McDaniel, Jr., Ph.D., D.Min.
October 14, 2017