I met Nancy in 1999 in the Jamba Juice located inside the lobby of Webb Tower at USC. My dorm room was located in Webb and I would exit through the lobby to head to class and mysteriously I would see Drew Pryor there, more often than not. He did not live in that building, but he was always there. I just thought he really liked overpriced smoothies.
I went back to that Jamba Juice last week to prepare for this moment. They’ve ruined it, of course, and turned it into a Starbucks. I went there because she loved to talk about the day we met. We were in Mongolia two months ago and she would introduce me to these really important ministry leaders and for some reason she would tell this story. Maybe it’s because I’m a solid head taller than most Mongolians, but she would pull me out from behind her and say “This, THIS is my daughter-in-love. I remember the day I met her, I said, “wow! You’re so tall! Not like some of these waify chickadees, I said to myself, ‘here’s a real woman’!” Why she thought the Mongolian Campus Crusade staff leaders cared about her first impression of me I have no idea. But as with most things, nothing could stop Nancy. She wanted me next to her at all times on that trip and in every scenario she would say “She is mine- this is my daughter”. By the end of the trip she even began to drop the ‘in love’ part. I didn’t correct her.
Part of the reason we travelled to Mongolia, was to celebrate 20 years of the teacher’s ministry there- something Nancy was a part of almost from the inception. They rented out a giant auditorium and thousands of Mongolians from all throughout the providences who had come to faith through this ministry were there. The man who organized the first ever trip to Mongolia was asked to give a charge to the next generation of Christians. He got on stage and asked them to think and dream about where God might be calling them to go- where God might want to sendthemto share the gospel. “North Korea?” he asked, and I could see the audience start to mutter to each other. He continued, “you have to remember- when we first came to Mongolia back in the early 1990’s- it was not considered a ‘safe’ place to go. But it was where God had called us to go. We counted the cost, and went where God called.”
Nancy pointed at the stage when he said that and elbowed me. That was a theme she came back to over and over again on the trip, as if she finally had the language to express what she had been feeling. “That’s right”, she said, “that’s absolutely right. We counted the cost.”
Toward the end of her life, Nancy would have these moments of sharp clarity. Maybe she had rested enough and the medication would have worn off enough, but when the conditions were perfect we would get these moments of lucidity from her, moments where she was absolutely herself again. They were gone quickly so you had to take them when you got them. My oldest son got a good one. She fixated on the topic of girls and since he was the only unmarried one in the room, locked into him and downloaded all kinds of advice about how to pick a wife. I think he may have been mildly traumatized, but hopefully some of it stuck.
She had a moment like this with me a few days before she died. She got locked in, and said, “I never thought of myself as an evangelist. That’s was a label other people put on me. People love to say ‘God gave me this gift, this is my calling, this is my purpose’ but all of us have the same purpose, to love God and other people. I never thought I was especially called to evangelism, I still don’t. I don’t think I was especially equipped or gifted. I just loved the next person God put in front of me to love.” This is what it meant for Nancy to count the cost for Christ. She loved God and loved the next person God put in front of her to love.
I think a lot of people in this room might be tempted to put Nancy on a pedestal. She went on all these amazing adventures, she had people on every continent of the world praying for her in illness. She has a picture of herself and her walker on top of the Great Wall of China. But the uniqueness of Nancy was not in these big trips- those were easy for her to do. She loved different cultures, she loved a good adventure, and she really loved people. She said to me in Mongolia, “Can you see how wonderful these trips have been for me? I feel like they were always my honeymoon with Jesus”. I wrote that down in my journal right after she said it, because I was afraid I would forget it.
We might be tempted, especially in death, to elevate her to sainthood. I don’t think that does her justice. I don’t think it’s fair to put her in some kind of separate category, like she was somehow more spiritual than the rest of us- like she was a Super Christian. As if she was more called and equipped than any of us. She told me very clearly that she was not. And even if she hadn’t- I lived at their house for almost a year. I did life day in and day out with her in my family for over 16 years. She could be difficult, she had flaws, she was wonderful and maddening and loving and drove us crazy. She was unique and special and talented but also an absolutely ordinary human being.
She asked me, right after her diagnosis to speak at this celebration. She didn’t say what she wanted me to say, only that it was important that I talk about her. A couple of weeks ago, lying on her hospital bed, she broke the news that she wanted me to share the gospel. “What?!” I exclaimed. “I have to be the one to evangelize at the evangelist’s funeral?? No, Nancy, I can’t.” You know what she did? She shrugged at me. That’s the breaks, kid.
What kind of gospel can I share with you in the context of Nancy’s life and death? It cannot simply be an altar call. It is not enough for me to stand up here and tell you God loves you and has a plan for your life, or that you are separated from God and need the saving work of Jesus Christ. Or even that you need to repent and believe.
Those things are gospel, but it’s not a presentation that will do in this space. Because, the gospel Nancy preached she preached with her actions. Her whole life was a sermon. Nancy did something very few people actually do. Nancy took Jesus at His word. When He said “This is it, everything in the law and commands boils down to these two central, super important things: Love God and Love people” She actually did it.She didn’t go to seminary for it, she never wrote books about it, I never heard her preach a sermon with power points on it- she just actually did the things Jesus said to do.
The beauty of the gospel of Nancy’s life is how ordinary it was. When her MS flared up, she still Facetimed with Khongorzul in Mongolia to encourage her. When her muscles weakened she made herself ride her stationary bike, to keep up what muscle strength she had. When her fridge was empty she made trips to Costco. When her toilet was dirty she scrubbed it. Even when she received the cancer diagnosis, she kept up with her many discipleship appointments. If anyone had a free pass to sit on the couch the rest of her days and watch Netflix- it is her. But, interestingly, very few things about her life actually changed after her terminal diagnosis. I wonder if that would be true for any of the rest of us. She had already built an entire life around doing the only thing that mattered- so what else was there to do in the end but keep pressing on?
The gospel her life preached was never an altar call or ‘one-time decision for Christ’ it was a minute-by-minute decision to take God at His word that He was who He said He was. Her entire life was oriented to that reality. She believed that God was not satisfied to have one slice of the pie of her life. She knew God wanted all of her. Many of us hear the call to love God and love other people and think, well yeah, that’s Christianity 101. That’s the basics. But the truth is, if you give yourself over to that way of life it becomes the most advanced level there is. It turns out loving God and loving people is simple but very, very difficult. Because people are difficult. They take us for granted. They abuse our kindness. They gossip about us and hurt our feelings. They take our time and energy. And God! We say, “here God, you can have Sunday morning” and then He tries to take over our whole week. We give Him part of our money and He tries to weasel into the rest. God is never satisfied to stay contained in the places we make for Him. Nancy counted that cost too: She gave God an inch and He took a mile.
If there’s anything you admire about Nancy it was that she counted the cost and paid what many of us are unwilling to pay. We want a gospel we can tuck in our back pockets so we can keep living the lives we want. We cling tightly to our pride, our sexuality, our time, our bodies, our energy, our sleep, our goals and dreams and our precious money. We are unwilling for God to get His grubby fingers all over what we think belongs to us. And God has no room to move in us- we are stuck and stifled. Nancy counted the cost of giving her whole self over to God day-by-day, minute-by-minute and the payoff was that God was able to have free reign- to move and live and act freely in her life.
And I had a great seat. I got a front row view to watch her life play out. I watched her live simply: no fancy cars, almost no expendable income. Instead of being self-sufficient and self-assured where every paycheck was coming from, she spent her energy fine tuning herself to the movements of God. She would feel called to do something or go somewhere and then she’d say “well, if God wants me to go- He’ll provide!” She spent her life giddy and expectant for how God would show up. Not if God would show up- but how. I was blessed with the vantage point to witness with my own eyes God come through and provide for her over and over again. (I asked her for 24-hours to pray before saying ‘yes’ to Mongolia. When I texted her the next day and said ‘I’m in’, she wrote back, ‘good. Because I already raised all the money.’) I watched her serve her husband faithfully, and I watched him change her diapers at the end of her life. I watched her count the cost of forgiveness- and it is a high price to be paid for sure- but she trusted Jesus’ words that the call on her life was to walk in forgiveness and peace. I watched a life defined by built bridges instead of burned ones, of reconciliation and peacemaking. I watched her spend her life being about the gospel and I watched thousands and thousands of people who didn’t know Christ a few years ago, worship with their hands raised high. I watched her count the cost and I watched her reap the reward. And I only got to witness her earthly reward, the smallest part.
I’m only up here right now because YOU are the next person God put in front of Nancy to love. You are part of her final wish- that the name of Jesus would be proclaimed in her memory. And that perhaps, new life would come out of her death.