No one plans to be a widow at twenty-three.
Tomorrow I will preach at the funeral of Elliott Preston Orr, a young man from our congregation who died of cancer last Friday. Elliott grew up in North Branch, a small town in Michigan’s Thumb. He came to Michigan State University in the fall of 2010. At the end of his freshman year he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer in the bone. After months of chemotherapy and radiation, he was cancer free.
For a time.
In the summer of 2013 doctors discovered the cancer had come back, and was worse than before. Not knowing what the rest of his life would be like, except that it would almost immediately include another battery of grueling treatments, Elliott and his fiancee decided to move up their wedding so they could find out together what “for better, for worse” really meant. On July 18, 2013 Elliott married his childhood sweetheart Christina Skelton.
I got to know Elliott and Christina as college students in our campus ministry, Spartan Christian Fellowship. In a church our size, there are lots of students I don’t know very well and some I never meet. But I’m glad to have known Elliott. He and Christina were in our home many times. Along with the rest of our church, we prayed for them often. They were (and are) easy people to like and to love. Elliott was smart, friendly, funny, un-anxious, warm-hearted–a good friend and a godly Christian.
We’ve had people die in our church before. Every life has been precious. Few have been so young. Few have been the object of so many prayers. We prayed for Elliott for years–special services, congregational prayers, elder visits, and a near endless supply of petitions for friends and family. God did not give us what we prayed for, at least not everything we prayed for, at least not now.
Hundreds of people–maybe close to a thousand–will gather in The Thumb tomorrow for a funeral they prayed they would not see. And yet, mingled in the midst of much sorrow, will be brilliant sights and sounds of joy. Not only to remember a remarkable young man, but reflect on the faith he so powerfully displayed and to worship the one he so fully trusted. I wish you could have met Elliott. You would have been better for it. Despite the mouth sores, despite the excruciating pain, despite the paralysis, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20-21).
Tomorrow will be about Christ. Those were Elliott’s wishes. During his illness, he wrote a poem which is a powerful reflection of who he was and who Christ is.
People say with albeit good intentions
That if God heals me then His glory will be shown,
But people often hesitate to mention
The other side of His omniscient throne.
For God to show His power through healing
Would be glorious if it were His will,
But it would also be maybe too appealing
For perhaps my faith would stand too still.
For in truth I want all to realize in whole
That I care not what this ailment does
Because I truly believe in full
That God knew it all before it was.
And in trusting Him I would gladly endure
One thousand years of agony and strife
In order to witness the most glorious cure
Of Christ coming into just one more person’s life.
Elliott fought the good fight. He finished the race. The last time I spoke to him–a few days before he passed away–he talked about caring for his dear wife and longing for heaven. I asked him what song we could sing. He said, “In Christ Alone.” Very fitting. That’s how he lived, and that was the comfort in which he died.