Against All Odds

You Are Mine

I met Stephanie and her husband Michael while singing in the choir together at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton, VA back in 2014. Not only was it a joy to welcome other 20-somethings to our choir, but the two of them could sing. I mean, really sing. Although they would move to Florida about a year and a half later, in that short time I witnessed them become a staple of our church community, bring the beauty of their voices to our choir, and have their first child, Sarah, baptized. Their family radiates joy wherever they go, as evidenced in our Ash Wednesday photo together from 2015 (above).

Earlier this month, I learned that doctors had found a tumor in Stephanie’s brain. This wasn’t just any tumor, but a Grade IV Glioblastoma Tumor that’s inoperable, leaving her with just 15 months to live. This news took me weeks to fully process and bring to prayer. “Just how do you pray when the odds are like that?” I found myself asking. It’s easy to just say that we always pray no matter what. In practice, it isn't always that simple. It can be far too easy to feel defeat and avoid prayer or stop altogether. With Michael and Stephanie, though, this was not the case. My prayer did not come at first with words, but instead through music—in particular, music that we sang together in the choir.

Advisory: All of these songs make me cry. If you're a cryer, too, you’ve been warned.

When I think of hymns of comfort from my Catholic upbringing, nothing does the trick quite like, “You Are Mine” by David Haas. Whether it’s singing these words, or just reading them slowly to myself, it’s this first verse that cuts through all the noise in my mind and reminds me what I imagine God sounds like:

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

Tears. Every. Time. 

The day I heard about Stephanie's tumor, this song came to mind. I went ahead and recorded it a cappella and sent it to Michael and Stephanie. A text didn’t make sense. My own improvised prayer wasn’t working either. This song was my prayer for them that day.

Faith, Hope, and Love

A few weeks later, more details emerged and Stephanie began posting them to a blog, called “Faith, Hope, and Love”. Immediately, a song came to mind that we sang with the choir each year on Holy Thursday: “Faith, Hope and Love/Love One Another” by Ricky Manolo. Clocking in at over 10 minutes in length, it is a meditative hymn, and a reminder that love involves sacrifice:

And for the ones who need our care.
that we may show them God is always there...

And for the ones who are in pain,
that through our kindness healing may be obtained.

Since Stephanie began her blog, things progressed quite quickly. A post about her diagnosis spread like wildfire reaching 18,000+ people. I never had to go out of my way to check the blog for updates because I would find them everyday on Facebook from friends and family who have also been praying. The community of prayer surrounding this family is truly extraordinary—I’ve never seen anything like it.

It was Stephanie’s invitation to pray a novena that sparked discussion amongst friends and family about how to pray. Novena = a 9-day prayer to Mary as intercessor, often accompanied by praying the Rosary, and very much accompanied by Catholics. Praying the novena with grace at dinner one night started a discussion with my mom about Stephanie. After admitting my struggle to find the words to pray, she offered a prayer that their family simply enjoy and savor their time together. That day, Stephanie and her family had gone to Disney World (because why not!), and sitting at the dinner table with my mom, we both looked at that as a beautiful act of living in the moment and appreciating family.

Later, in a group text message amongst some mutual friends from the church, one friend offered another pieces of advice for prayer: “Just want to encourage you to NOT present your prayers as a way for her to "beat" or "fight" the cancer. That takes away her energy and makes the body think it has to battle. Rather pray that the cancer reveals to her what it intended to reveal or teach her, then pray that it "moves through" her body because the spiritual lesson has been revealed.” It’s hard to be grateful when time may be short and a diagnosis is this severe, but both of these prayers presented alternatives for looking upon both the love surrounding Stephanie and even the pain inside her as a gift from God. 

How Beautiful

After these conversations, I felt the need to process all of this on my own with God. On my to Williamsburg one day, I visited my old stomping grounds at William and Mary, and sat in the Catholic Campus MinistryChapel.  It was in this space that I had first heard and sung the words to a song called, “How Beautiful,” traditionally sung at Easter with our folk group (see video), and later with Stephanie in our choir in Hampton. 

The song speaks of the body of Christ, literally in His body at the Last Supper, in the Passion, and in His resurrection. Simultaneously, it speaks to the figurative body of church, of all who believe in the sacrifice, “that we will live, just as he died, willing to pay the price.” It is a trial that comes with both love and pain. It couldn’t have been clearer in this past week just “how beautiful is the body of Christ” that has surrounded this family in prayer and support. We give so that others may live.

How beautiful the radiant bride
Who waits for her groom with His light in her eyes
How beautiful when humble hearts give
The fruit of pure lives so that others may live

His Eye is on the Sparrow

Later that day, the news of Stephanie’s diagnosis changed drastically, and for the better! A brain surgeon in Oklahoma, one of the 18,000 people who saw Stephanie’s blog post, claimed he could operate on her "inoperable" tumor. Having heard of the specifics of her tumor and where it was placed, he was confident that it could be removed. After their day in Disney World, Stephanie and Michael made their way from Florida to Oklahoma for surgery last Friday.

Praise God! Hallelujah! Sing it, Whitney.

Praise God! Hallelujah! Sing it, Whitney.

When it was all said and done, the doctor removed 95-98% of the tumor, saying that it “peeled off.” Incredible. But for those who know cancer well, that doesn’t mean the battle is over. With even one cell left, cancer can reemerge and take over. So, there will be chemo and radiation in Stephanie’s future to remove the rest of the cancerous cells. All said and done, though, a great, big, hopeful step was made just weeks after receiving impossible odds. That is prayer at work, my friends.

Peace washed over me as I sat in the pews at Mass this past Sunday at St. Vincent de Paul in Newport News. The responsorial psalm sung was, “Rest in God alone, my soul.” These words were repeated over and over, becoming meditative... and then tears started pouring from my eyes. The beauty of the music brought a relief to my worries for this family, coupled with relief of my own day-to-day worries (of which there are, selfishly at times, too many to count). Indeed, “how beautiful” was the choir that sang, and the body of Christ that was gathered there.

Then, as if one round of tears wasn’t enough, God threw out the old 1-2-punch on me, as the choir began singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” after Communion, in full Gospel fashion a la Sparkle!

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for heaven, heaven and home,

When, when Jesus is my portion,
My constant Friend is He;
Oh, oh-oh, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watched, watched it over me.

I sing because I’m happy (happy)
I sing because I’m free (free free free)
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know, I know He watches over me.

Relief. Joy. These emotions washed over me next with this song. “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.” I often find that in life, I worry, and likewise in prayer, I worry. I compensate by planning and exhausting all the possible outcomes in my head, but that is never enough. There is no true relief in planning because planning is never enough. Trusting in God, believing in the happiness He wants for us, embracing the freedom that we have on this earth (not planning every second!) ... that is truly enough. This I believe. And so, I pray that Stephanie and her family continue to find happiness, and be freed of all worries.

It's these songs that enabled my prayer over the last month, that at times gave me the voice to sing, at other times the ears to listen attentively, and at other times still, the eyes to weep. God works through us in these ways in our emotions and how we respond to the world before us. Prayer is our space to communicate with God. Like sitting with a friend for coffee, sometimes we speak and sometimes we listen.

I take these songs and these prayers with me as we enter into Lent today. It is in this season that we look ahead to Easter as a promise that through God, suffering may find relief and distress may find hope. We walk into this season with burdens, with worries, and we sacrifice a part of our time  to make room for Christ. I invite you to pray for Stephanie, Michael and Sarah in the weeks ahead, and to follow her journey on her blog. And may we all find faith, hope and love in this season, when we look to this family and hopefully, as we look to those around us each day.


For Reflection...

  • How do you pray in the midst of suffering?
  • What healing do you seek in your own life?
  • How would you define the word “hope”?

For more on Stephanie...