Stories Behind Women Of Extraordinary Faith
Catherine Booth, Catherine, Anne Hutchinson, Marguerete Smith, Harriet Tubman, Fanny Crosby, Laurie Prange, Daisy Low, Dr. Anne Brooks, Mother Teresa, Sarah Clarke, Reba Smith, Lottie Moon, Kay Yow, Sophie Scholl, Marilyn Meberg, Mahalia Jackson and Mary Dunham Faulkner are included in these pages. Yet the one story I picked out for the preview is about a close friend of mine. She was remarkable and everyone should know her story. It has inspired me for almost half my life.
Introduction: Nancy’s Faith For Living Each Moment To Its Fullest
Twenty years is a long time. My oldest son was not even in school two decades ago, and now he is a college graduate. My youngest had not been born yet, but enough time has passed that he is in college now. And how my life has changed during this passing of time.
Twenty years ago I lost a good friend. At the time she died she was thirty-three. Just thirty-three years is not much time to make a mark on this earth, but she did. And she did it without writing books, starring in movies or even being elected to office. She made that mark without anyone really knowing her name. Yet the way she lived, that special spirit that could be easily seen in her vitality, joy, enthusiasm and faith, has served to inspire me each day since she passed on. And I am not alone. A lot of people are better for having known her and some might just be alive because of the incredible example she left in her wake. So I think there is no better place to begin a book on women who possess extraordinary faith than with a personal story of one incredible woman who impacted my life. If you read this introduction, then I think you will find that Nancy will make a huge impact on you as well.
I had a big crush on Nancy when she and I were students at Baylor University, a private Baptist college in Waco, Texas. She had spunk and style that went beyond that of most young ladies in the mid 197Os. Even then I must have realized that all people are special. But Nancy was more special than most. For some indefinable reason, I know that she was a winner. In every college trial, she proved it over and over again. She was not a person to just play a game; she always played to win. I remember the way she would bite her bottom lip when she was hurt or mad. This would happen if she made a bad grade on a test, struck out in a softball game, or had a fight with a boyfriend. When she stuck that lip out, I always knew that she would bounce back.
Fact was, Nancy was no more talented or gifted than other people I knew. She just had more guts, more spirit. In a room filled with people, she stood out. When other people sparkled, she glowed! Yet, whenever you were with her, even in a large group, she always made you feel like you were the most important person there. When I graduated from Baylor in 1975, Nancy was the one person I knew would take the world by storm. Whatever wall she faced, this five-foot-one-inch dynamo would climb. Whatever goal she set her bright blue eyes on, she would reach. I never had a doubt.
As is so often the case when graduation takes you away to the real world, I lost track of this spunky little lady from Houston. One college homecoming, my wife and I saw Nancy for a few minutes at an alumni coffee. I remember thinking she looked thin. But the moment she turned my way, greeted me with a fire in her eyes and that huge smile, I knew that my college predictions about Nancy must have been right on track. As we talked, I discovered that she was teaching first graders. I couldn’t help thinking that those six year olds would learn more from Nancy than just how to read. She would make them feel special, fill them with dynamic optimism, and teach them how to be winners.
Were it not for a chance meeting with her father in the summer of 1985, I might never have made contact with Nancy again. Listening to her father, I began to understand just how high life’s walls had been for my college classmate. It was at this point that she began to teach me a profound lesson about living. In that conversation, I discovered that Nancy had spent several weeks at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Hospital having a cancerous tumor and infected kidney removed. Weeks of intensive radiation therapy followed. As I listened to her father explain the battle for life and death his daughter had to live through, a mental picture came into my mind of her biting that bottom lip, gritting her teeth, and facing this painful ordeal with the same determination she had exhibited in college. I could see her encouraging the doctors, telling her mother not to worry, and asking her brothers if they didn’t have something better to do than hang around a hospital. Then I found out that there was more to her story than one surgery.
Seven years earlier, Nancy and cancer had battled. That war had not been an easy one. Cancer had taken from her an opportunity to have children, but it had proved no match for her strength and spirit. She beat it, knocked it down for the ten count. Cancer had tucked its tail and ran to find a safe hiding place. She had won the battle as much with her faith, as with her strength. Faith was what Nancy was. It was what she always had been. She believed that God was with her and she found each test in her life a chance to prove it. If Norman Vincent Peale had needed a poster girl for the power of positive thinking, Nancy was it!
After that first battle, cancer hid for more than six years, long enough for Nancy to get the all clear from her doctors. During this time she fell in love, married a wonderful guy, continued to teach and settled into an active life in the small community of Ennis, Texas. Her energy and enthusiasm for life filled her classroom, her church, and her home. And then, just months before she and her husband, Joe, were to adopt a child, cancer cruelly hit her again. It was after this attack, after that chance meeting with her father, I once again began to visit with this remarkable lady. Lots of our visits were by phone. But on those rare occasions when we weren’t running in five different directions at the same time, we would get together face to face.
During the course of rebuilding our friendship, Nancy lost weight and gained maturity. In personality and determination, she was still the same as she had always been, a person ready to fight the odds to win. She simply knew she would. To her, there was never any question. And just like Nancy had always been, she seemed unimpressed with the courage she had already shown. In her own mind, the way she had responded to cancer was just a part of living, a part of who she was. She seemed much more concerned about being at her best when the school year rolled around than she did about the pains caused by cancer and its treatments. In fact, she didn’t care if she was weak; she had a job to do and nothing was going to stop her. As she told me, “I’ve got kids to teach, so I have to get well fast.”
Teaching those kids and starting the school year were the goals that focused her battle. She knew she had been called by God to teach and she felt she had to be in the classroom. No one was surprised when on that first day of class Nancy achieved her goals. She was weak, frail, and probably constantly worn out, but no one would have guessed it.
Over the course of the next few weeks Nancy had energy in her step and an enthusiasm in her voice. In the other teachers’ minds, she was simply unstoppable Nancy. This was the way she had always been. Even cancer could not change her attitude. Knowing that she was battling short odds without as much as a single complaint, none of her coworkers could complain about sinus conditions or late hours of grading papers. In this way, she inspired everyone around to do better than they had ever done before. Never had the Ennis school system worked so well. For a while it seemed like this would be the best year ever in Nancy’s young life. Yet for reasons I did not understand or could not comprehend, she simply could not catch a break.
Nancy was able to teach for only a few months when she received another round of bad news. The radiation treatments that had stopped the cancer had damaged some of her internal organs. More operations were needed, surgery that would alter her diet forever. Most of the foods she loved, she would never get to taste again. Yet she just tossed it all off, and readjusted her lifestyle. “No big deal!” she told me. And even though all of us should have known better, we tended to believe her words because she said them with such authority.
Even as her faith stood firm, I began to doubt God. Why would He do this to someone like Nancy? Why did she have to suffer so? She was one of life’s winners, a leader and a person who inspired everyone around her. Therefore, in my mind, Nancy’s lot in life should have been given the right for an easy road, not the path she had been forced to travel.
As my own faith wavered, I asked her if she ever wondered, “Why me, Lord?” Her simple reply will serve as an inspiration to me for as long as I live. She told me, “I used to ask that, but then I began to take stock of my situation and began to ask, ‘Why not me?’ If this hadn’t happened to me, it might have happened to someone I love. I wouldn’t want anyone I know to have to deal with this. God made me strong, so I’ll take it. I’ll fight it. And I’ll beat it.”
Her words blew me away. I suddenly realized how much I had been blessed. I immediately began applying Nancy’s faith and hope to my own small problems and challenges. Through her example I quickly discovered that life doesn’t really have any bad breaks, only opportunities for growth and learning. The more I took this philosophy to heart, the more success I had.
Over the next few months I stayed in close touch with Nancy. I wanted to watch her handle the rigors of the new treatments. I knew I could learn a great deal simply by watching her make each new step. During one visit, she asked me, “Do you remember in college all those times you asked me out and I always had other plans?” I laughed and said yes. “Well,” she continued, “if I die before you do, I’ll make you one of my pallbearers. Then you’ll finally get to take me out!” Yet even as we laughed about that, it never dawned on me that she might actually die. After all, in my mind, Nancy was indestructible. I honestly believed that after this battle Nancy would bounce back and assume the breakneck pace she had always maintained. She almost did.
In late 1986, she took a new test required by the state of Texas for the recertification of teachers. She passed with flying colors. But her celebration was short lived. She was forced to put off her dreams of teaching for a while longer. Cancer had come calling for a third time. This time it hit her liver. Though she did not admit it, this time I think she knew her time on earth was short. Yet I was still not convinced.
As soon as I found out she was taking on the Big C for the third time, I telephoned
Nancy, as always, made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. It was a gift she still had. Nancy and I joked for a while on that visit, talked about how much we looked forward to things that were coming up. She even told me she wanted to write a book about her life. I assured her that to be a bestseller she would have to beat cancer and then do something incredible to celebrate, like run a marathon. Even as I said those words I knew that Nancy’s marathon had already been run, and she had won. I ended our conversation that day by telling her how much my wife and I loved her. She just quietly giggled.
A week later, on a beautiful spring-like day, my college crush kept her promise by allowing me to take her out as a pallbearer at her funeral. As I looked around at those in attendance at her funeral, I knew I should have felt sadness, but I could not. Maybe it was because her life of thirty-three years showed all of us how to live, but her funeral was a wonderful celebration of her wit, her love, and her faith. And because Nancy had made each of us feel singularly special, she had passed on to us the secret of her winning edge. Through her selfless example she had given us a recipe to make others feel as special as she had us.
Not long before she died, Nancy had shared with a college student who was battling cancer these words, “Take advantage of everything that cancer has to offer you. It will give you a chance to challenge yourself and find the limits of your strengths and your beliefs. You will have an opportunity to get to know a whole new group of people whose lives are filled with trauma and sadness, and you can bring hope and joy to them by sharing your Christian faith. By getting the chance to fight this disease, you can find out just how special each moment and each person is. Because you will know firsthand what it is like to have it threatened, you will come to a complete understanding of just how sweet life really should, and can be. Remember, you can carry the load you’ve been given, and by doing so, you will help someone else carry his or her load. You have been given the rare privilege, put in the wonderful situation, of being an inspiration. Latch onto this responsibility, and give it everything you’ve got. If you do, you will win!”
Nancy was such a winner. She possessed more life, more heart, and more soul than anyone I have ever met. But more importantly, she didn’t selfishly hang onto these possessions; she freely gave them all to everyone she touched. Each student, each friend, and each family member felt like Nancy lived only for them, and so they gave back their best to her. She proved that a winner’s love never runs out, and a winner’s touch never ends.
It is hard for me to fathom that twenty years has gone by since she died, but I have no problem understanding why people are still remembering Nancy. By and large they are not talking about the events of her life; rather they talk about her spirit, and how it seems fresher and more alive with each passing day. As a Christian possessing more faith than anyone I knew, Nancy believed that everyone could touch every moment of life in a good way or in a bad way. She chose the former. I now realize that the sparkle in her eyes, the energy in her step, even the glow of her personality, came not from within, but from on high. As she once told me, “I want everyone to be able to see a little bit of God in me.” And we all saw a lot.
To be an extraordinary woman of faith, you don’t have to be famous, you just have to live like Nancy lived. And my how she lived!