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Lessons I Learned from Marilyn’s Cancer

By August 21, 2017Discipleship14 min read

“And behold there was a loud voice saying ‘Come out to meet your bridegroom.’”
On June 16 that was one of the verses in her morning’s devotional reading. June 16, 2016, Marilyn Gibbs went out to meet her bridegroom, out of this world and into the next.

Marilyn was a 20+ year veteran of the mission field, a beloved sister, friend and faithful servant of the Lord. There wasn’t even enough time at the two memorial services held for her (in Hungary and CA) to say all the good things about her. Her life was full of purpose. From the time she met the Lord, she squeezed every drop of usefulness out of the time she was given. Marilyn was not one to dilly-dally. And as her life was a channel for God’s glory to shine, so was her death. Marilyn would have wanted me to get to the point, so here it is:

Things I Learned from Marilyn’s Cancer:

I had the honor of being with Marilyn the last nearly three months of her life. Marilyn loved to teach people about God, and her last days were no exception to the rest of the pattern of her life. This is what I learned.

It always looks better on the flannel graph. The first Sunday after Marilyn was admitted to the hospital in Debrecen, with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia having invaded every blood cell in her body, I went to church. Pastor Bodi there at CC Debrecen was teaching on the story of the five loaves and two fish.

Many of us have learned this story from Sunday school and remember the picture we saw on the flannel graph of a young boy gleefully holding up his last two fish and five little loaves, offering them to Jesus to help feed the multitudes. But that’s not really what the text says. It says, “then one of the disciples noticed a young boy with five loaves and two fish.”

“Now,” Pastor Bodi went on to clarify, “It’s unlikely that they just ripped the fish and bread out of his hands and took it.” Everyone laughed, but I sat there holding back tears and thought, ruefully, “Oh it happens. Believe you and me, it happens.”

I had not wanted to be the one to stay and take care of Marilyn. I am unorganized; Marilyn was very organized. I do things off the cuff, flying by the seat of my pants, and Marilyn always liked a well-laid-out plan. I throw things together in the kitchen, and Marilyn had great tested recipes, filed logically, specifying what kinds of ingredients (not just any olive oil, Spanish, gracias), kitchen tools to use, etc. We were different. And more often than not, I felt like I wasn’t enough.

And now… now my “not enough” was needing to be her “everything” (or so I thought. Yes, it was pitifully “all about me”). No, I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. But (thankfully) others saw that my “not enough” – put into the hands of Jesus and broken – would be (HAD to be!) “just enough.”

Just enough to keep us both desperate, dependent on God to make it through each day. Just enough to be able to glorify God in every little answered prayer (“Oh good! The difficult nurse is not working tonight! Thank you, Lord!” or “Praise God, the housecleaner that spoke English came through right as we needed translation to be able to speak to the nurses! Thank you, Jesus!”).

I would love to say that my serving Marilyn always looked like the boy in the flannel graph, beaming like an angel as he gave up his last fish and bread.

No, sometimes I was scared. Often I was tired. Sadly, a few times I was even resentful. But like that boy in the Bible story, as Pastor Bodi further pointed out in his sermon, “However it happened, one way or the other, he agreed with Jesus’ plan and gave up the last that he had. Jesus was glorified. People were fed. And it was more than enough for everyone.”

Because God doesn’t rob from one of His kids to bless another of His kids. If it’s a blessing for one, it will be a blessing for the other, sooner or later, also.

1. Don’t Get Hung Up on How You Get to Where God Wants You to Be; Just Be Grateful He Gets You There and Cooperate with His Plan.

“…And your camels, too.” Remember that story about the servant finding a bride for Isaac? How he stood at the well, and Rebecca approached him and – seeing he was thirsty – offered to draw water for him, “…and your camels, too.” That story has been romanticized, extrapolated and sometimes made to be something that I don’t know if it was ever intended to say. But bottom line, we see a generous heart in Rebekah. Beyond the obviousness of that, think about it. After traveling across the desert, his camels were probably stinky (camel sweat…ewww). Camels are not the most endearing creatures to begin with (in my mind) and tired, stinky camels…well, we’ll just leave that there.

Often I think of serving as giving someone what they need…water for their camels. But (even after years in ministry) I’m sometimes caught off guard what that really entails once you get up close and personal with desert, weary camels, let alone world, weary people. (First and foremost, yourself!)

We all have our “specificities,” (as we say in Russian). Things that are odd, or annoying or just wearisome for others. Not sin, just the lovely little “uniqueness” that makes us who we are. We all have our camels. And when we’re serving others, those things need to be served and accommodated, as well.

Marilyn was amazing, and she had her camels, like I do, like you we all do. Sometimes drawing enough water for her and her camels wore me out. (And I can only imagine how mine were for her!) But you know what? When she went to be with the Lord, one of my many thoughts was, “Wow. None of those things make any difference now. “ Not my camels or hers. Silly, I know. Maybe you’re really struggling with how basic this is and how in the world could I not realize it. I get that, but bear with my camels.

When Jesus welcomes us home, He won’t say, “Well done thou good and faithful servant…but let’s have a talk about those camels.” No. This corruption will put on incorruption. Halleluia!

So if they weren’t offensive to Jesus (not now and not then when He receives us), why shouldn’t I hesitate to humble myself, like Rebekah, and bring them water after a long, dusty journey? When I love someone, I learn to love their camels, too.

2. God’s Love is All Inclusive.

Gratefulness makes a difference. If I initially didn’t want to be there in the hospital with Marilyn as she received chemo, imagine how much SHE didn’t want to be there?! But you know what? She never resisted God’s hand.

I’m tempted to say she never complained… because that wasn’t her nature. But she did express her pain, discomfort and overall frustration at different times. But complaining is different from sharing your heart. Complaining springs from a heart of perceived injustice in light of what we “deserve.”

Marilyn never saw herself as a victim. She trusted her heavenly Father. She once said, “I would never have chosen this path that He is taking me on, and it is hard, but He is leading me.”

Every night, as I would have to leave her in the hospital and go to our rented apartment, she would say, “I love you very, very, very much, and I am so thankful for everything you are doing for me. I couldn’t do it without you. Thank you so much.” It still humbles me to my core. What was I doing? Not much except battling my selfish, weak flesh to try and give her the most basic comfort and encouragement that she needed. She could’ve done it without me, other patients were there without any visitors. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. She could have too. But that wasn’t God’s plan. And I’m so thankful for that.

Marilyn understood her condition and where she was. If you don’t know, hospitals in Eastern European countries are quite different from those in the United States. Although we were in an excellent, clean, modern facility…friends or family of the patient still need to provide their own towels and toiletries, toilet paper, drinking water (which she was downing at almost three liters a day!), etc. She knew she was very sick and that, along with her specific medical care, all but for a very few of her most basic needs she was dependent on others.

Do I realize my condition and how much others do for me? Did the lights go on when I flipped the switch today? Thank the power company. Did I have hot water to take a shower? (My personal favorite, because as I write this, our home is on it’s second month of no hot water!) Did I eat something today? Do I have a church that I can go to freely – with no fear of bombings, police raids, etc. – and worship God? Was there a sermon, worship team, Sunday school that I let myself criticize? That means they were actually there, and not still just needs being prayed for, as in so many parts of the world without churches, let alone various ministry leaders.

Marilyn regularly said, with her impish grin and “So Cal beach girl” voice (that she could turn on when needed), “Jesus loves me so much.” Whether it was that we finally got the Wi-Fi working just as it was time to listen to CCCM’s Pastors’ Perspective online, or that instead of the questionable hospital’s Hungarian mystery meals, they brought her a yummy pastry (that she would be able to eat a whole two nibbles of), Marilyn saw the world through the filter of God’s love for her. It wasn’t rose colored glasses that denied reality. No. Cancer was horrible. But God, in His love, was leading her there. She would not resist. She hated being hooked up for sometimes up to 11 hours of chemo. But God, in His love, was using this too as part of His plan. She would not resist. It was the reality of His love that she knew so well that simply put everything else in a different light.

I want to be more openly grateful. I want to value others in my heart so much so that it pours out of my lips freely and regularly. I want to swim in the deep water of God’s love so that even the hardest things can be received as part of God’s love for me.

3. Gratefulness Lived and Expressed Makes Things Easier.

Any empty vessel will do…Sometimes, (not often) as a single missionary, the enemy of our soul can start to attack me with thoughts like “when you’re old and feeble, there will be no one to care for you since you have no family of your own, and you’re far from your birth family and your homeland.” Ridiculous, I know. God always cares for His own. Still, sometimes these thoughts would swirl around the periphery.

But through this experience, I powerfully realized that although people (who were only seeing the – shall we say – “flannel graph” online version of my caring for Marilyn) thought that I was an “angel,” etc. I knew that I was just an empty vessel that God had chosen, filled with His spirit for just this task. A cracked pot, at best. A jar of clay carrying great treasure. So, when I thought about it, what an encouragement! I know for a fact that there are plenty of empty vessels running around on this planet! God can easily find one of them and call and fill them as He did me so that there will be help for me (and for you!) when needed.

4. God is still in the job of creating “ex-nihilo” (something from nothing )and is not limited to the resources I see.

“I’m sinking.” There were times while I was caring for Marilyn that I began to think – “I’m sinking.” Whether it was being in a completely foreign country (as opposed to the other foreign country where I serve) where I didn’t speak the language or know many people, or simply that God was using Marilyn’s sickness to begin to pick away at a scab over my own unhealed wounds, or just utter sadness at seeing my friend so sick… I don’t know what….but there finally hit a point where I really thought I was sinking. I felt like I was about to go under and never come up.

I cried out to some trusted pastors and godly friends, and the Body of Christ came to my support. I was blessed and humbled at their care for me. And I learned a really invaluable lesson.

What sinks? Among other things, anchors. And what is an anchor’s job? To keep things afloat and stable. That‘s what I was trying to do with Marilyn – keep her afloat and stable during a really hard time. So it was completely understandable that I felt like I was sinking. That’s what anchors do. They sink.

But I wasn’t created to be Marilyn’s anchor. Jesus was. I am only called to be a compass. A compass that points people to the only true anchor in life – Jesus. Jesus is the only anchor that can keeps us afloat, instead of being crashed by the waves, and keeps us stable in the midst of the storms. And I am not Him, nor are you.

So often we try to keep the people we love, our church, our ministries, our nation, ourselves (!?!) afloat and stable, and as a result, we feel like we’re sinking under the weight of it all. I think AA had it so beautifully right when they said, “Let go and let God.” We aren’t anchors. We were not created to be.

But we can shine a light. We can mark a path. We are called to be compasses in stormy seas, pointing the way to safe harbor and the anchor of our souls, Jesus.

5. When I feel myself sinking, it’s probably because I’m trying to be an anchor and not a compass.

Heartbroken…As I write this in a few hours, it will be exactly a year ago today that Marilyn went out to meet her bridegroom. I really am happy for her. Happy that she’s with Jesus. Happy she is not fighting cancer anymore, and all the discomforts that came with it. Happy that she’s where she always longed to be – with Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still sad. A few months after her death, someone was concerned that I was still mourning. Not long before that, I had been concerned too. The voice of our enemy was whispering in my ear that, “You are too broken; you can never be fixed.” I knew it was a lie, but I just couldn’t seem to pull myself out of it.

Then one day, in a conversation with a dear sister who had tragically and instantly lost all her family in a car accident years before, she mentioned (simply as an aside) that during the aftermath of that tragedy, she was so afraid that she couldn’t hear God’s voice because she was so broken. Of course I leaned in.

“But of course that was wrong,” she went on to say, “Because we know that God is near to the brokenhearted.” Oh! In an instant the lie was broken! Oh, for the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony that defeats that old dragon, the devil!

I was in the perfect place for God to do what He needed to do in my life. He wanted to heal. He wanted to restore. He wanted to refresh and strengthen. And being broken was drawing me near. Being brokenhearted was exactly the diagnosis I needed to bring me into the doctor’s office. And He was ready.

I know this is Christianity 101, but sometimes we lose sight of the most basic things when our hearts are overwhelmed. So if your heart is broken, know that you are in the exact right place for God to work. Do not resist His hand. Don’t get hung up on how you got where you are. Simply be grateful that you are where He wants you to be, and He is faithful. Don’t worry about the camels. He has living water enough for you AND all your camels. HE is your anchor. He is close to the brokenhearted. He loves you so.

So thank you, Marilyn, for teaching me even still. I’m rejoicing you’re with your bridegroom, and I look forward to seeing you at the marriage supper someday soon.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

After 20 years serving in Ukraine, Cara now serves in Hungary. You can read more of her writing at