By Nancy Slack
I used to go to a small country church. The wood floors gleamed; morning light streamed over the fifteen or twenty people sitting in the pews. “Please get your hymnals,” the song leader would say, “and turn to Standing on the Promises, Hymn #335.” The piano thumped out the notes and our voices, straining, wandered after it.
Standing on the promises that cannot fail
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail;
By the living word of God I shall prevail
Standing on the promises of God. (Carter, 1886)
I liked the song. I didn’t want to be smug about it, but I stood on God’s promises all the time. I was a new Christian, and I often prayed for other people. I recorded all of my prayer requests in a book, with a column labeled “Prayers” and another labeled “Results.” I liked to mark the dates the prayers were answered, and I never had empty spaces. In the short time that I had been a Christian, God had sent wonderful, miraculous, heaven-sent answers to prayer. I felt like an orphan who’d been adopted by Daddy Warbucks, and every day was Christmas.
I figured that those “storms of doubt and fear” assailed Christians who didn’t trust God. Personally, I had faith. I read the promises of the 91st Psalm as if they were written right to me:
“Because [she] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue [her];
I will protect [her], for she acknowledges my name.” (v.14)
God would never allow anything really bad to happen to me. He would protect people I loved from misfortune, too.
“[She] will call upon me, and I will answer [her];
I will be with [her] in trouble,
I will deliver [her] and honor [her].
With long life will I satisfy [her]
and show [her] my salvation.” (v.15,16)
Of course, that was before my mother died.
Fran Slack was a funny, brisk, organized kind of person, and she was my mother. She looked up information in encyclopedias and kept a running list of conversational topics next to her phone. She centered her life around her friends, the church, and her family. We were all shocked when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.
The prognosis for people with multiple myeloma is bleak, but we were hopeful, trusting in prayer and doctors. Mom was a good patient. She possessed a great belief in systems and rules and had the self-discipline to follow through on a plan of action. She researched multiple myeloma, organizing information into notebooks with dividers and charts.
People were very kind. They put her name in prayer chains and sent her herbs and vitamins. One of her friends prayed for her every morning with the 91st Psalm, using her name in the verses. It became Mom’s favorite, an anthem of trust.
[She] who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
[Fran] will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust. (v. 1, 2)
I prayed for her, too. I read books about healing, lots of first-person accounts of people who were miraculously healed. In books, people always got better. I guess Mom wasn’t the only person in the family to trust in systems and rules.
Once, a friend called after hearing the diagnosis. She said she was sorry to hear about my mother.
“Well, we’re praying really hard,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said and paused. “When my mom got cancer, we all prayed a lot. My mom died anyway.”
Hah! I thought to myself. You probably just didn’t have any faith. I remembered the 91st Psalm. I was beginning to read it as a list of rules God needed me to keep in mind.
“He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”(v. 4)
My mom’s going to be all right, I thought to myself. My mom’s not going to die.
But Mom had an aggressive form of cancer, and she grew worse. She began to forget what medications she’d been given.
“Where’s your notebook?” her brother would ask, concerned.
“I don’t know,” she’d say. She left her notebooks with their neat charts half-filled.
It seemed like Mom was trying to rest under the wings of a God who didn’t know she was there. And in the third year of her illness, the treatments designed to kill the cancer began to kill her. One morning Dad called. “You’d better come now,” he said.
By the time we got to the hospital to see Mom, she didn’t know us anymore. She was covered with bruises, incoherent, and confused. She didn’t recognize my father, my brother, my husband, or me. She was wearing restraints that tied her to the bed, and she moved restlessly back and forth across it, like a caged bird.
“Help me,” she said to us, these strangers around her bed. “Oh, help,” she said. “Someone help.”
It was terrible. I read Psalm 91 aloud to her.
“A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.” (v. 7)
But my voice was tight and anxious and seemed to have no effect on her at all. “Help me,” she said. “Oh, help.”
God, I thought. God, please do something. We untied the restraints, and they flapped from her wrists, like jesses on a flightless bird.
“Oh, help,” she said. “Please help.”
The four of us gathered around her bed. Then her head snapped to the side, looking to the right, her blue eyes as big and clear as a child’s. She stared, wide-eyed and still.
After a minute someone said, “She hasn’t blinked.” Dad picked up her hand; it didn’t move. That was the first time we realized that she was dead.
Her death seemed to slice into my mind and traumatize it. But she was asking for help, God, I thought the next day. We asked for your help. I thought of her psalm, and all its beautiful promises of refuge and protection – how did that work for Mom in her sterile hospital room, dying confused, and anxious and calling over and over for help? God, I thought, where were you?
As relatives filled the house for the funeral, I asked my Aunt Nancy the same questions. Where was God? Why didn’t He answer? Nancy led me into an empty room to pray. At the end of the prayer, she looked up.
“I think that God just gave me a picture of your mother’s death,” she said. “I saw her in the hospital room. Jesus was standing next to her bed. He had His hands held out to your mother.”
Maybe that’s what Mom was looking at when she died, I thought. Perhaps she had been looking at something we couldn’t see.
But whether the vision illustrated spiritual or physical reality, I found, didn’t matter. The vision helped me because it showed me something I’d forgotten. Just because I couldn’t see God with my eyes didn’t mean He wasn’t there. God hadn’t abandoned Mom in her illness. He was with her the whole time. And Aunt Nancy’s vision wasn’t only a picture of Mom’s death; it was also an illustration of the Christian life. Jesus is always with us, and His arms are wide open.
Death itself was the answer to our prayer for Mom. In dying, she was freed from a dark cage of illness and endless medical treatments and released to a life of unimaginable freedom. I think that at the end, my mother was able to see much more clearly than we can, for we see through a glass darkly, but she was seeing Him face to face.
Months later, as I was clearing out Mom’s piano bench, I found sheet music to the 91st psalm. Here, though, the writer had added other verses from the Old Testament, lines that showed how God fulfilled the promises in Psalm 91.
“And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of his hand.”
All of the promises of the psalm are met in the very presence of Jesus. I like to think of Mom now with God, raised on eagle’s wings, shining like the sun, shining, perhaps, in a funny, brisk, organized kind of way.