March 18 of this year would have been Inheritance of Hope co-founder Kristen Milligan’s 40th birthday. Though something about that number creates discomfort for those reaching it, Kristen was not the sort of person to be bothered by a number. I know I am not alone in wishing that she had reached that milestone and many more. Some people joke that they are “39 and holding” rather than acknowledging the reality of their 40th birthday. In Kristen’s case, 39 and holding is actually true.
This year Kristen’s birthday falls within two weeks of Easter Sunday. This is fitting, because Kristen’s life cannot be understood apart from Easter faith, faith in the living God. Kristen’s faith in this God was not merely a matter of belief but was grounded in intense experience. Through her nine years of cancer, she had many moments of weakness. Her testimony was that God’s presence was most real to her when she was most weak. In fact, as her life neared its end she wrote an extensive Bible study titled Allowing His Power to be Perfect in Weakness. At the moments of her deepest weakness, Kristen felt God’s presence so strongly that she described herself as being “God’s favorite.” It was as if she had God’s undivided attention. Those times with God were so sweet for her that she would actually miss them when her health and strength recovered. Imagine that – longing for the presence of God more than physical health.
Philippians 1:29 is a verse that sounds odd to our culture. “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake …” The first verb in the Greek is literally “graced,” so this verse tells us that we have been graced not just to believe but also to suffer. Graced … to suffer. I do not normally think of grace and suffering as going together, but apparently the apostle Paul did. How can suffering be grace?
Kristen’s experience was that suffering brought her to the presence of God in ways beyond what she knew otherwise. In moments of her most intense suffering, she felt God’s most intense love, to the extent that she felt like “God’s favorite.” If I may indulge in some creativity, I think that “God’s Favorite” would be a good title for the story commonly known as “The Prodigal Son” (found in Luke 15:11-32).
The basic plot is that a child takes his inheritance before the father dies, goes far away, squanders everything, and eventually returns home where he is embraced by the father. The element of suffering in this story is clear; the child was so ruined that he craved pigs’ food, and even that was denied him. Such depths of suffering prompted the child to remember the father’s goodness. The element of grace in this story is equally clear. While the child is still a long way from home, the father sees him and sprints to him, then wraps him in an embrace followed by kisses, new clothes, jewelry, a feast, and a party. This child has God’s undivided attention; it is as if he is God’s favorite. Grace in suffering.
I love the image of God sprinting to a suffering child. Kristen knew this God. She felt God’s embrace many times, through many sufferings. I think the tremendous, almost contagious peace she radiated in her final weeks showed her confidence in God running to her. God had always come to her in her weakest moments; of course God would come in that moment of ultimate weakness – death. Why would death disturb her? It was just another opportunity to be hugged as God’s favorite.
This brings us to Easter. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses at length the truth, importance, and nature of the resurrection. Near the end of this magnificent chapter, he poses the questions since made famous in song, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For years I assumed that these two lines were synonymous, simply saying the same thing twice. Recently I realized that their difference is important. Death’s victory is gone because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first fruit of the resurrection of all God’s people. But what about the sting?
Death could still sting, even if it is not the last word. Indeed, we all know the sting of a loved one’s death. Paul gives us a clue in 1 Corinthians 15:56 — death stings because it is connected to sin and law. But the God Paul knew through Jesus is not a god that coldly assigns death that is deserved because of sins against the law. Meeting such a god in death would indeed sting. No, the God of resurrection is the kind of God who runs to suffering children, hugs them, and floods them with grace. Meeting this God in death has no sting.
Jesus Christ shows us the God who not only has power over death but also removes death’s sting. Through Jesus, death is neither ultimate nor dreadful; it loses both its victory and its sting. God’s life is greater than death — and God’s love is greater than sin’s sting.
Hallelujah for Easter! Hallelujah to God who runs to suffering children and hugs us! Hallelujah for the life of Kristen Milligan, a suffering child who reminded us of the grace of being held by God in weakness!
Kristen is not 39 and holding. She is 39 and being held – held in the embrace of God.