Walking Through the Valley With Joy
About the Guest
Whether by beating an illness, outliving a spouse, or just staying strong in the face of an unexpected crisis, we all will become survivors someday. But what kind of survivor will you be – a bitter one or a joyful one? Popular author and psychologist Gary Oliver fondly reminisces about his early days of marriage to his wife, Carrie, and talks about the unwelcome guest – cancer, that showed up in their 24th year of matrimony.
Gary Oliver fondly reminisces about his early days of marriage to his wife, Carrie, and talks about the unwelcome guest – cancer, that showed up in their 24th year of matrimony.
Walking Through the Valley With Joy
Bob: Yes. “Romans is over, amen.”
Gary: I said, “Here’s a set of cassette tapes on Romans, and I’ll be seeing you guys later.” Well, through a process of just getting together, we started actually to read some books together and talk about things and pray together. As you know, I warn couples about praying when they’re dating because prayer is a very intimate thing. I just, again—this will sound cliché—I just really saw an amazing heart in her and a love for the Lord, and I decided I’m going to break my rule. Or, I guess I just called it amazing grace.
So we started dating, it was amazing, I was surprised. I was amazed, because I never thought I would marry someone that much younger. I thought maybe I may never get married.
Bob: Did her parents have any concerns about this guy who was eleven years older than their daughter?
Gary: Oh, they had real concerns. They weren’t believers, and they didn’t know if she was part of a cult at the University, but once they met me, we became friends. We have a great relationship to this day. But they were a little concerned, this guy with longer hair and a mustache from Southern California of all places, and I was in Nebraska. What could be going on here with their daughter?
Bob: So you were married and launched a family, ultimately had three sons, and over the course of the years, you’ve taught in colleges and seminaries, you moved to Siloam Springs, was it while you were at John Brown University that you first were aware that there was a health issue?
Gary: Yes. We’ve been married for 27 years. In our 25th year, Carrie got her cancer. I had cancer four times already. The last time it was stage three. I’d had heavy chemotherapy for three months. I could barely walk from my bed.
Bob: This was cancer of the tongue, is that what you had?
Gary: Cancer of the tongue, yes. I had radiation and I couldn’t talk, I wrote a note to the oncologist and said, “When will my voice come back?” He said, “Well, Gary, there’s a 50-50 chance that your voice will never come back, because of the chemotherapy and the 36 radiation treatments.” By God’s grace, my voice did come back.
Carrie had always been healthy and athletic. There were only two cases of spouse abuse in our marriage, and both times she hit me, and that’s when we were playing racquetball, because she was very competitive. I had a serve that sometimes would just die in the corner, so the only spouse abuse was when she hit me twice on the racquetball court.
But, she was very healthy. She started having stomach pains, and we did a lot of testing for six months, and finally they sent us up to Kansas City. They said that she had metastatic pancreatic cancer. Away from her hearing the Doctor said, “Gary, you probably have less than three months.” He said, “Quite frankly, this is the largest tumor that in 26 years of being a pathologist that I’ve ever seen.” So, I knew it was serious.
Bob: What’s that moment like for a husband?
Gary: You know it’s hard beyond words. There just aren‘t words for it, first of all. But secondly as a husband—and you guys understand this—our job is to protect our wives. Our job is to protect them…
Dennis: To fix it.
Gary: Yes, take care of it, and to make sure they are safe. And when this happens, there is nothing you can do. So it’s—you know, breast cancer, her family had that, her mom and sister and stuff, but pancreatic cancer that’s metastasized, it can be a matter of weeks or months.
But the amazing thing is as we sat there in Kansas City, we left the office and went out to Kansas City Plaza, got some coffee we had been there many times before, held hands, and I said, “You know sweetie, God is not surprised at this.” She squeezed my hand and said, “I know.” She said, “This is not an accident. God is not walking the balcony of Heaven saying ‘Oh my goodness! Why did I take a day off? How could this happen to Carrie?”
Somehow God has allowed this to happen. At the same time, she’s weeping, I’m weeping, but there was this amazing sense of God’s presence in the midst of pain that we could not articulate. And shock. We had no idea it would be this devastating. Basically a death warrant that maybe three months later I would never see my wife again.
Bob: Did you start to think, “How do I fill the next three months if that’s what I’ve got? How do I jam the rest of life that I had imagined into this three month period?”?
Gary: Absolutely. We had gotten to a place where we almost had an empty nest. God was letting us speak around the country for marriage seminars. We were both writing. God was opening wonderful doors for us as a couple. So it’s “Lord, what about that? What about your call on our lives?”
Then I thought about my boys. None of our boys were married. We’d talked about, of course, about having grandchildren, going to our kids weddings, and seeing them graduate from school. So, I was just flooded, as a guy, with thoughts. And of course Carrie as a mom, wanting to be there for her sons’ wedding, graduation, walking the kids down the aisle when they get married. We sat there probably Bob, for about three or four hours and just wept and cried and prayed.
This may sound funny at times, but we also laughed. Some listeners may not understand this but, several times during that conversation, we made comments about God’s grace and goodness. I remembered a story I had told Carrie. When I was in Promise Keepers, I had my diagnosis of cancer, Bill McCartney; “Coach Mac” told the board. They came around me and prayed for me. When they left, Dr. Howard Hendricks was sitting on my left. Howie had just had, I think, an eleven hour surgery for cancer on his face. His face was still sore and pussy and he had a bandage.
As the guys left, Howie turned over, put his hand on my knee, leaned in and said, “Gary, when they were taking me into the operating room, it’s like I heard God say, ‘Hendricks, your whole life you’ve told people I’m sovereign. Well, either I am, or I’m not.’” And there was a sense that God is sovereign, He’s here. He’s in the midst of this. That’s in the midst of the tears and the shock, and “How are we going to do this?” and “What if it’s not three months, what if it’s a week? What if it’s two weeks?”
Dennis: Undoubtedly there are a number of our listeners who are facing—maybe it’s not health issues, but perhaps loss of a job, maybe a prodigal child where they’re going through a deep valley. Barbara and my daughter Rebecca wrote a book called Symphony in the Dark. In the book, they quoted someone that, I just want to read this to you because, I think it has to do with what you just said.
The quote reads: “Only we, who have been washed in the blood of the lamb, can both weep and laugh at the same time. And with the hearts that are breaking in pieces scattered all over the floor, say with sincerity and honesty that it is well with my soul.” Who said that, Gary?
Gary: That’s familiar. I believe I said that.
Dennis: You did. You know, you just mentioned it; you can laugh and weep at the same time because of who you know in the midst of a profound dark moment.
Gary: We are the only ones. I’ve been a psychologist; I’ve been in ministry for 35 years, as a psychologist for 30 years. We are the only ones who can do that. Only those of us who have been to the cross, who know the Lord and been born again, only we can weep and grieve and, as I talk about things, even two and a half years later, there’s still an ache, I find my throat getting dry, but yet, we can also have genuine legitimate, real joy. Not just happiness, because happiness depends on what happens to us. But real joy goes above circumstances and situations.
Dennis: Yes, and it’s because of the gospel. It’s because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, and defeating death, and ultimately being resurrected and seated at the right hand of God the Father. He’s got a plan for us. I want to go back and underscore what you said, “Nothing happens apart from God’s sovereign rule in our lives.”
Now, there are some Christians, who don’t believe that. I hope we’ll get a chance to talk more about that later. But I don’t know how you’d live if you didn’t believe that. That there is one who is in control and it’s not me.
Bob: Well, Job’s wife didn’t believe it. She said, “Curse God and die.” Job said, “You know, I came with nothing, I’m going back with nothing, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Even in the midst of what had gone on.
You are one who has studied how people grieve. Now here, all of a sudden, you are in the midst of it. You know Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. Did you find yourself going, “Oh! I’m in denial now, I’m in anger.” Did you identify yourself going through all of this?
Gary: Oh yes. It was interesting too because what was helpful for me was to know that what I was going through was normal. I find so many folks and especially believers who, many do not have a theology of grief. A theology of loss or sorrow, and that is one of the most precious parts of who we are as believers.
Dennis: I agree
Gary: I’ll come back to that. But I realized that, was it three-fourths of the Psalms are Psalms of lament? Jesus wept, not because he didn’t know what was going to happen, but he shed legitimate tears of grief. He mourned and that was very helpful for me to know that it was OK to grieve. It was OK to cry, and OK to tell God that, “God this doesn’t make sense. This isn’t fair. I didn’t sign for this.” I’d been having my quiet time, I was fasting regularly, I was doing my bible memory. These things should happen to those who aren’t doing all those things. Don’t you think?
Yet, there was a very clear sense that circumstances don’t determine reality. I think for most of my life I lived that way, that whatever happens to me determines how I am. But we can rise above our circumstances. When Paul says “Being more than conquerors…” I think much of my life, early on, I was more than conquered. Because I let my circumstances determine my reality. Somehow God gave—during Carrie’s you know, the three months became over two years. That was a miracle given the nature of her cancer. And during that time, we had times of great joy, and great laughter.
In fact the morning of Carrie’s last morning, which we didn’t know it was going to be the morning that she was going to graduate and enter His presence. As we were holding hands, she said, “You know these last two years have been two of the hardest years of our life.” When you take the chemo and stuff that she was having and the cancer that just ate her body away. This athletic, spunky, intense, passionate, vibrant woman could not even barely walk from the bedroom to the living room. She said, “You know, I’ve never felt more loved, and been more in love than we are today.”
That was true. People think, you become impaired physically your body deteriorates and how can you have love, how can you express love? I tell you what, in all honesty, during those last two years, God taught us ways of loving, and we experienced a depth of love that we didn’t experience the first two years of our marriage.
Bob: As it turned out, you and Carrie were going to face another challenge together that neither of you anticipated. We’re going to unpack that as we continue this conversation this week. But, Dennis, I guess the message for listeners today is that in the midst of the valley of the shadow, God is still walking alongside you.
Dennis: He is. As I started out talking about the storms of life, when they hit, they do reveal what you’ve been building your home on. If you’ve been building your home around the scriptures, around a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, about walking with God, being obedient to Him, then yes there’s grief, yes there’s a sense of loss. Yes, there are difficult times, but you didn’t get ready for the day you got the news of pancreatic cancer, that morning.
You had spent the previous quarter century getting ready with Carrie, to be able to withstand what came your way. That really is the message of today’s broadcast. Today is the day to build your home upon Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s word, and make him the Lord and the builder of it.
Bob: Yes, what Gary talked about here, about this phenomenon of he and Carrie weeping and laughing simultaneously sounded to me like something you and your family went through as your daughter Rebecca and her husband Jake welcomed in a new baby girl named Molly, almost two years ago now, only to learn that Molly would not live long.
Rebecca tells that story along with your wife Barbara in a very compelling, very moving book called A Symphony in the Dark. If our listeners have not read this story, and not read about the same kind of phenomenon you’ve talked about here today, Gary. How you meet God profoundly in the middle of some of life’s hardest moments.
I want to encourage you to go to FamilyLifeToday.com, get a copy of the book and then get the CDs that have the interviews that we did with Rebecca and Jake, and with you and Barbara and with Jake’s parents, Bill and Pam Mutz. It’s a moving series of programs and a very moving book. Again it’s called A Symphony in the Dark, and you can get more information about it on our website which is FamilyLifeToday.com.
There’s also information there about a book that I know you’ve recommended, Dennis to a lot of people in the midst of grief. A book called A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. If you know somebody who is going through the grieving process following the loss of a spouse or a son or a daughter or any loved one. This is a book that will minister to them profoundly. Again it’s called, A Grace Disguised.
You can order all of these resources from us by going to FamilyLifeToday.com. Again our website FamilyLifeToday.com, order online from us if you’d like, or call 1-800-FLTODAY,
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Now, tomorrow we’re going to continue our conversation with Dr. Gary Oliver and hear more about how God met with him and with his wife Carrie in the midst of a very difficult season. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of Familylife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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