Words are inadequate. Even the best words seem to fall like rocks on the ground. When you know that someone you love is gone, it’s hard to put into words the memories and emotions that swarm your heart. You’ll have to forgive my rambling thoughts as I try to find the words to express the deepest places in my heart.
On Monday, July 20, Terri and I had the privilege of flying to Oklahoma City to see our dear friends, Tom and Jeannie Elliff. Jeannie battled cancer, off and on, for nine years. Yet she marched through this battle like a graceful warrior. Terri and I tell folks that watching Tom and Jeannie on this journey was an experience in watching how believers are supposed to live life, face death, and overcome it.
Tom is my pastor, which made Jeannie my pastor’s wife. We had the privilege of breathing the rare air of a remarkable couple that modeled marriage and family in ways that can only be explained by their surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit. They were two peas in a pod – joined at the hip – a picture of Paul’s directives in Ephesians about Christ-centered marriage.
Several times over these last nine years, we all thought the cancer was gone. We prayed for healing or at least an extension of quality life. But God didn’t do it our way, and never did the Elliffs complain. Yes they, like all of us, cried their tears, but they didn’t whine their way through this valley.
Jeannie was not well-known by the world like other notable women whose names people immediately recognize. But for the tens of thousands that did know her, she rises to a level of honor reserved for very few. She is one of whom the world was not worthy. Jeannie may have been short in stature, but she cast a giant shadow. She made all of us want to be better. She made Tom better. She made her kids better. It wasn’t magical or mystical; it was just Jeannie, full of the Holy Spirit. The triumph of Christ was evident in her daily life. If you’ve read Tom’s thoughts on this journey, you know they have walked in a victory that a lost person or a carnal Christian could never understand.
Terri and I have probably cried more tears in the last 36 hours than we have in a long, long time. They were tears of joy and tears of sadness. Walking into Tom and Jeannie’s bedroom yesterday was like walking into a holy place. You could sense the presence of God in the atmosphere. To pray for them left me with groanings that I cannot communicate. I have stood by many bedsides of the dying, including my own parents and many church members, but this one was unique. It was holy in a different way.
Just being able to tell her we loved her, to hug Tom and spend those few moments together, was a blessing we will always cherish. We said goodbye to a wife, mom, missionary, prayer warrior, grandmother, eternal friend, encourager, and counselor. Many a time, at just the right moment, Tom and Jeannie have stepped into our lives and lifted us up in prayer or encouraged us through a valley of our own.
The DNA of the Elliff family is in the veins of Sherwood Baptist Church. Tom has spoken here almost ninety times. Most of the time, Jeannie was singing in the choir. To watch Jeannie sing praises was to see a true worshiper. Today, she is in a heavenly choir. Tom would probably say, “She’s the prettiest little singer they’ve got up there.”
Terri and I traveled to Israel and Hawaii with the Elliffs and spent many a day at the IMB ReFRESH® Conference or at ReFRESH® in the Smokies and Albany with them. Often Tom would call us aside and they would sit and speak great truths or words of caution into our lives. Their wisdom was received like pure gold.
Terri and I and our girls, Erin and Hayley, have been the recipients of countless prayers and deep intercession by this precious couple. They have been in our inner prayer circle – our “Garden of Gethsemane” circle. They have not fallen asleep; they have watched and prayed and bombarded heaven to believe God at times when we were struggling to believe Him ourselves.
These last nine years have been a lifetime for Tom and Jeannie – nearly 50 years of marriage, pastor, president of the International Mission Board, and encouragers to people of all walks of life…and all in the midst of cancer battles. There’s stamina and steel in their backbones, coupled with a holy resolve to live with no regrets and no work undone.
God’s soldiers and saints are gathered in glory. They’ve welcomed a new saint and a faithful soldier of the cross. I can’t find one person that ever heard Jeannie whine. She always looked forward; she didn’t drive through life looking through the rearview mirror.
Yesterday will always be one of the sweetest and saddest days of my life. As we were lying down to sleep last night, after four flights to get to Oklahoma and back, I got a text from Tom: “Jeannie is Home! Hallelujah!”
I noticed yesterday, by Tom’s side of the bed, a copy of Vance Havner’s Though I Walk through the Valley. Tom and I talked a couple of times about how Vance dealt with the death of his wife Sara. I’m reminded that God is the God of life’s valleys, setbacks, disappointments, and all the days when the sun fails to shine or where the journey is painful. You can’t read the Bible without knowing that God is in charge of the hills and the valleys. He was with Job as well as Paul. He reminded His chosen people,
“The land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11:11, 12)
Tom and Jeannie have taken a post-graduate course in getting acquainted with the God of the valley. There is a fight of faith as well as a rest of faith. Jeannie’s fight is over. Death did not win. Cancer did not win. Christ has overcome. The Bridegroom welcomed Jeannie home in the late hours of July 20. She now breathes the air of heaven. We can grieve, but in many ways we are all jealous. So until we meet again, “Thanks Jeannie, for countless ways you showed the Catt family that you loved us. We will never forget you.”
Michael, Terri, Erin, and Hayley