My 5-year-old granddaughter lost her battle with cancer. We returned from a family vacation, where Ava was her usual playful, exuberant self, and the next day she complained of a headache. Within 24 hours, the neurosurgeon had removed a tangerine-sized tumor from her brain. The pathology report came back: GBM, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, extremely rare in children.
Our family has learned what it means to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Every thought, from the first dawning in the morning to the last prayer at night, was haunted by the awareness of her mortality. Our breathing was deeper but never relieving; aching is part of life still. But every moment with her was a treasure, and the deep sense of God’s care was and still is almost tangible. We would be distraught if it were not for the rest of that fourth verse of the 23rd Psalm: "I fear no evil, for Thou art with me ... "
It is startling to experience how present God was (and still is) through those who God sent to love and encourage us. We were being carried on the prayers and sympathies of those with us in spirit. Our family is very close, but it seemed like we could not take another step without the care of friends and strangers.
These days I wonder: Who has to go through things like this without ever seeing that kind of support?
I keep thinking about other people who live in the valley of the shadow of death. Every day millions of mothers and fathers watch their children wasting away from preventable and curable diseases. There were no effective treatments for Ava's condition, but other children are dying from malaria and dysentery and parasites -- all of which could be stopped if Christians (and others) cared enough to act. Families are watching their children die of hunger and thirst, when simple and available resources could save them. Families live in the shadow of slaughter and rape in Darfur and in Congo, and they wonder daily if their children will survive, or if they will even want to. Mothers and fathers and grandparents who live in Israel or Palestine know that any day their children might be victims of a terrorist or a military explosion.
These are not people who are just walking through the valley. These are people who live there. Do any of them feel the nearness of God extended by fellow believers outside their valley? Do we feel enough compassion to carry them on our prayers and solve their practical problems as we’re able?
You learn in the valley how precious life is. You learn that you only get one day at a time and there are no guarantees of tomorrow. And while you never want anyone else to have to go through what you are going through, you also learn something you never could have known outside the desperation: how much love matters. And you begin to understand how much power you may have to help someone else.
If you have ever wondered if acts of kindness really make a difference, take it from a minister who has walked through the valley with others for 40 years and now with his family: Compassion is never wasted. It has the power to give us hope, but also somehow to remind us that goodness and mercy do follow us all the days of our lives and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Dr. Joel C. Hunter is senior pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Florida. His granddaughter, Ava, passed away Sept. 4.