Hope from the Ashes

The background photo on our website speaks hope to me. The vibrant flowers catch your eye at first, but behind them in the distance towers the remains of Mount St. Helens, a volcano which erupted in May 1980, covering the area in lava and filling the air with ashes. I recall as a child witnessing on TV the devastation caused by its powerful eruption, and in 2017, my family visited the site to see it for ourselves.

As we stood facing the volcano, we could see where a large part of one side had been blown out. Along the path of the eruption were gray lava trails, sprinkled with new vegetation. Behind us, on the distant mountainsides, we could see what looked like toothpicks lying on the ground – these had been massive trees before May of 1980 – evidence of the powerful impact of the volcano on the surrounding area.

While we were on this family vacation in Washington State, my mother lay at home in North Carolina on her deathbed. She had brain cancer and was nearing the end. My dad and sister urged me to travel with my family since we were celebrating my daughter’s high school graduation with this trip. The Hospice nurse assured me Mom was stable and should be fine until we returned ten days later. So, I went.

About halfway through our trip, Mom took an unexpected turn toward death’s door. Day by day, my sister texted me updates. Day by day, I was faced with the question of whether to abandon my daughter’s celebratory trip to return to the East Coast. Day by day, I felt I needed to stay. It was one of the hardest situations I had ever faced. My body was on the West Coast, but my heart was being tugged from the East Coast.

What gave me peace about the matter was God. He spoke to me through His Word. I had brought a Bible study with me called The Power of Knowing God by Kay Arthur, which focused on knowing God more intimately by listening to what He tells us about Himself in the Bible. On this trip, I learned through personal experience that His Word is true. He is omnipresent. He is omniscient. He is omnipotent.

I experienced His omnipotence right there at Mount St. Helens. Looking at the barrenness caused by the volcano’s blow, my mind reflected on the power of the God who made the volcano. Seeing the far-reaching impact on the surrounding mountains reminded me of the infinite reach of God’s power. He spoke this universe into existence. Man has not been able to reach the end of God’s creation. His power is beyond our understanding. He had the power to remove the cancer from my mom. Nothing was too hard for Him. But He doesn’t always do what we want Him to do; He always does what is best for us.

God truly knows what is best. He knows all things. He is omniscient. This characteristic of God’s nature was obvious to me on our first night in Washington State. We drove up to the top of Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. God knew there would be a special opportunity for us that night. The visitor center was closed by this time, but there was a science teacher outside with a huge homemade telescope. He was inviting everyone to look through it, and he was calling the stars by name. The Bible tells us God knows the names of every star. Psalm 147:4 says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” The science teacher told us about how predictable the stars are – he knew exactly where to find them in the sky. This is because of God’s knowledge of the stars and His great power! Isaiah 40:26 says, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” He also knew we would be there to enjoy His starry creation!

Indeed, God is powerful, and God knows all things. But He also made it clear to me on this trip that He is omnipresent – He is everywhere. While I was vacationing in Washington State, God was with us. He was teaching me about Himself through His Word and through the grandeur of His creation. He was putting people, like the science teacher, in our path to enhance our awe of Him. He protected us when we hiked up mountains to see waterfalls and snow-topped volcanoes, and He brought whales near our boat while we watched in amazement as they leaped out of the sea in what I truly believe was an act of worship on their part. Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, my mom was nearing the door which takes us from life on earth into the very presence of our magnificent Creator God. He was with her too – at the same time. He was with my sister and her family, with my dad, with Mom’s friends who were by her side. This incredibly huge and powerful God, whose knowledge and wisdom surpass all understanding is simultaneously a very personal God. Not only is He everywhere, seeing everything, but He is with me. Not only is He totally sovereign over every part of the universe, keeping the planets and moons in their orbits, but He has power over the situations I personally face. Not only does He know each star by name, He knows my name. Although I was thousands of miles from my dear mother, peace and joy filled my heart because I knew God was with her and also with me. I told my sister to tell Mom she didn’t need to wait for me. It would be okay if I didn’t get to see her before she left this earth. But Mom waited.

We took our scheduled red-eye flight home from Washington State on July 9, 2017, and arrived in North Carolina early the next morning. I texted my sister when we landed, and she said to come quickly. Mom was still alive. We dropped off part of the family to take care of things at home, and the rest of us went straight to my parents’ house, about an hour away.

We arrived at their house at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, July 10, 2017. I left everything in the car and rushed into the house to see Mom. She was lying very still in her hospital bed in the middle of the family room, with friends and family nearby. They had kept vigil with her all night. Her right foot was blue and cold. Her breathing was labored. I took her hand, but she could not grasp it. I leaned in close to her ear, “Mom. It’s me. Sheri. I’m here, Mom. I love you.” The Hospice nurse arrived shortly after I did, and she explained the signs of death; she thought it would happen that day. She told me the hearing is the last thing to go, so even though Mom did not respond to me in any physical way I could observe, she probably heard me.

About thirty minutes after I arrived, Mom left. She simply exhaled and breathed her last. It was incredibly peaceful.

Day after day during her illness, we read her Scripture to encourage her—a few verses in particular became our prayer and hope. They spoke of what she would experience when she died. We read them aloud after her last breath and pictured what was happening in that very moment: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 1:24-25). Mom was blameless…because of Jesus. Mom was being presented with great joy in His glorious presence! How could we feel sad? This is the most joyful thing that ever happens to us! Being presented blameless before the presence of His glory!

The nurse had left the house a few minutes before Mom died, so we called her, and she returned. Her words to me were something like this: “You see? Your mom did know you were here. She was waiting for you to come home before she left!” Mom could not open her eyes, nod her head, or even squeeze my hand. But she demonstrated her love for me by waiting for me to get home. God is so kind! By His power, He gave her strength to wait. By His knowledge, He orchestrated every detail of our trip. By His presence, He comforted us. Yes, God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.

When I look at the photo on our website with Mount St. Helens in the background and the beautiful flowers in front, I see the hope Jesus gives us. When we leave the devastation of earthly life behind, we will be presented blameless in the presence of His glory to experience eternal life with Him. I agree with the Psalmist who wrote: “I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8). My hope is in Jesus, and because He is always with me, because He knows all things, because He is all-powerful, I shall not be shaken. This is unshaken hope.