Gise J. Van Baren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
(Alice Van Baren: b. .August 12, 1935; d. March 24, 1982; after suffering for two years with ALS. She was a life-long member of the South Holland, IL. Protestant Reformed Church. The last two years of her life she spent at the home of her brother John in Grand Rapids, MI.)
We tell this story, not so much of a sickness, a terrible and fatal sickness—though this too—but of communion of saints. Even that must be told but in part, for words can not express the whole, with .the prayer that the “part” may be of great encouragement and help to others.
One could show a sizable box, still in our possession, filled with cards: sympathy cards, birthday cards, Christmas cards, “I’m just thinking of you” cards sent to one grievously ill—all sent within a span of less than two years. One could mention many visits, many gifts, many flowers, many prayers during this same period of time. Truly the wonder of communion of saints is known in affliction. Here we must limit ourselves to one set of cards—cards which came almost daily during the last three months of Alice’s life. It’s the story of cards which uniquely comforted and assured—and we present them here for the comfort of many others.
It was at the end of June, 1980, that the call came to my study. A cousin from the Chicago area was on the line. She had accompanied Alice to the doctor’s office that day to hear the diagnosis of tests Alice had recently taken. The doctor informed Alice that she had ALS; it was incurable, but (so he assured her) she would not die of the disease. This cousin was very sure that Alice didn’t fully understand yet the seriousness of the disease. It was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” The prognosis: a two-year average life span with increasing debilitation—resulting finally in complete helplessness.
Certainly, then, with such an incurable and terminal illness, cards and letters, prayers and visits, from saints of God take on a wonderful meaning. It’s the expression, “We know. We care. In a little way, we are suffering with you.” The special set of cards Alice received totaled 98, and each wonderfully assured of God’s nearness and great love. Later, about a year and a half after the diagnosis, these cards began to arrive daily. None identified the writer. The cards were simply signed, “A friend.” We first joked about this “friend” to Alice. We examined with her the postmark—trying to make our guesses who would be sending these comforting messages. But Alice never had any idea who the person was—and we believed that she preferred it that way. In a real sense, the cards did represent, as the writer expressed, all of her many friends who were thinking of her and praying for her. How she looked for the next card each day! The first three cards were ordinary greeting cards, signed simply, “Your friend.” The fourth and later cards differed. The fourth card had a Scripture text written on the bottom: Isaiah 40:27-31. The next card, received the following day, revealed the reason for the text. It was a personal note of hope and encouragement based on that Word of God.
Dear Alice: I hope you were blessed by reading
Even though I have never faced a trial such as yours, these verses speak to me in my life too.
Sometimes in raising our children, and battling my own flesh, it seems my way is hidden from the Lord. But oh how true: that when I “wait upon the Lord, my strength is renewed.” Ah, but then why can’t I, or won’t I, wait more upon Him . . . .
We heard Alice complain of a numbness in her left hand and later also in her left leg as early as March 21, 1980. In April, she had fallen as she walked up a flight of stairs at the office where she worked. She had cut her lip in falling—requiring a number of stitches. At the time, none thought this was anything but a “normal” tripping. In retrospect, we realized that this fall likely was caused by muscle weakness at that time already. But by May, Alice increasingly mentioned the growing numbness and weakness of her arm and leg. We also noticed that she could never mention this without becoming extremely upset. Obviously, she was concerned that something was wrong—perhaps a tumor somewhere? Only later we realized that one of the symptoms of ALS was an inability to control one’s emotions well.
What a comfort, then, much later, was the card that came:
Good morning. I hope and pray that it is a good morning for you, and that you are feeling God’s nearness. I guess that’s why I wanted you to read
“They that seek the Lord shall not want any good.”
Seek the Lord! That’s the answer. The “good” is always there, but it’s when .we seek the Lord that we understand that we lack nothing.
The good I desire may be one thing, the good you desire may be another. But when we live seeking the Lord with all our hearts, He gives us the peace that His way for us is good and lacking nothing. May you experience that peace in this day, Alice.
Love, Your friend
It was at this time that Alice was scheduled for an annual physical at her regular doctor. The father of this doctor had, years before, died of ALS. And her doctor, shortly after diagnosing Alice’s disease, himself came down with it. Although he said nothing at this time, he surely suspected the diagnosis—and sent her immediately to St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago for tests.
The next note, then, was particularly encouraging under those kinds of discouraging circumstances. Oh, to have the reminder of fellow saints in time of need:
Good Morning, Alice:
I know it may not be morning as you read this, but it
as I write this to get it in my mailbox and off to you—so—I’ll say: “Good morning!”
Before I started writing you, I had wished there was something I could do for you. You don’t know me at all, and I’ve only seen you twice, and yet I had a desire to help you somehow; maybe read from God’s Word to encourage you.
I’m going to continue to be just “your friend” because I want to represent all the “friends” of yours who don’t know you well, and yet often remember you in prayer to God.
But you know, Alice, now that I’ve been writing you, (and the first couple notes were not easy) I think I’m continuing it just as much for myself as for you! I look forward to saying “Hello” and I look forward to finding a verse in Scripture for us. So you see, God has used you to bless me.
really “fits” today. It has always been a favorite verse, but this morning it hits home a little more. Only my God supplies all my needs out of His boundless riches only through Christ’s sacrifice.
May you feel God’s blessing today, Alice, and fill all your needs out of His riches.
“See” you soon, “Your friend”
Several of the family took Alice to St. Luke’s Hospital on Sunday, June 8, 1980. Alice was hardly able to answer necessary questions at the admitting office—she would choke up and tears copiously flowed. Finally, with great effort, and much patience, the forms were filled out, and Alice was taken to her room. Alice had difficulty talking about her fears—but she nodded her head in agreement when we discussed the grace of God that is sufficient for every need—whatever God’s will for us might be. We read together from Psalm 46 and prayed for that necessary grace now.
What a beautiful sunny morning!
Although I haven’t seen the little bird on this card, our pine tree is “home” to many, many birds; and I’m hoping the cardinal stays here this year too.
I’ve read over and over again Jesus’ prayer in
It is really hard for me to comprehend what I know is true—that Jesus here is praying for me.
Jesus loves us so, that He desired us to be with Him everlastingly, and willingly suffered to make that possible.
And more, He makes it known to us so that His love may be in us.
Hard to understand, but wonderful comfort!
In His love, Your friend