I can still remember the day my friend, Karen, told me she had cancer.
It was early in 2004. She had just returned from a holiday in South Africa with her husband, Martin. While she was there, she’d discovered that all was not well. Symptoms that she’d ignored in recent months just wouldn’t go away. She kept gaining weight. She kept throwing up.
The doctors had diagnosed a huge abdominal tumour, which had wrapped itself around the artery to her heart, and entangled itself with her other vital organs. Surgery was going to be needed, and urgently. The prognosis was not good.
Karen was kind. She was warm and welcoming, generous and gracious, full of humour, full of life, full of faith. She made everyone feel special. She made everyone laugh.
She was also young. Too young to have a cancer diagnosis.
I remember the shock, the numbness, the sense of unreality.
It made no sense. How could this be?
Confidence and courage
I first met Karen in the spring of 2001. It was at an international ‘children at risk’ conference in the Netherlands. I was there because I was contemplating a career change at that time.
I remember Karen standing out from the other delegates. She had an unusual air of confidence for one surrounded by people predominantly twice her age.
Karen had just returned to the UK from South Africa, where she had pioneered a network for people working with children at risk in Cape Town. This had not been an easy undertaking. Working out of her little office in a shed at the end of a friend’s garden, she had helped abandoned children to find shelters with spare beds, and childcare projects to track children who had gone missing. She had even managed to strike up a deal with a businessman from her home back in south Wales, which had released funds to support the work. And she had replicated the model in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where she helped set up a similar network for people working with children at risk in Harare.
Karen was a person who embraced danger and difficulty as part of her Christian responsibility. I remember her recounting how, on one occasion, her car broke down whilst driving through a notoriously violent township at night. She knew that she would become an instant target if she stayed in her car, so she hid in a nearby bush until dawn.
If she believed that God had given her a word of knowledge for a complete stranger, she would happily walk up to them and tell them. She was the kind of person who, depending on your perspective, might be either a dream or a nightmare as your neighbour on a long-haul flight.
Comedy and compassion
Karen was someone who managed to find herself in the most ridiculous situations. She would regularly have us doubled up with laughter. Her humour was as much wrapped up in the straight-faced way that she told the stories as in the stories themselves. It was the way her dead pan expression combined with her soft Welsh accent, which always had us in stitches as she told her tales.
We heard about her job washing the outside of aeroplanes with special extra-long mops, on a runway in south Wales. About the time that she was interviewed for a job by the Port Talbot Mafiosi, and asked if they minded that she was a Christian. About the time that she was perusing a china shop and saved an entire shelf of porcelain from landing on the floor, only to watch the man behind her knock it all down and smash it. About the time she offered her services as a driving instructor, only to watch with horror as her sister ploughed through a barrier and drove over an occupied manhole cover. About her holiday in Pembrokeshire, when she got followed around by a magician who would occasionally cut his assistant in half.
We heard all her crazy stories about men proposing to her in unexpected places, and then we came to realise that one of them wasn’t going to give up. Karen and Martin met on a train in South Africa, the romance blossomed, and they married in 2002.
One of the things that Martin loved best about Karen was her kindness. She was kind to everyone. She didn’t know how to be anything else.
After she and Martin moved to the UK, if they weren’t housing one of Martin’s South African security-guard-friends, they were providing a roof for a waif or a stray, an orphan or an outcast who had nowhere else to go.
It made sense when they signed up to start fostering. I remember her recounting how, on one occasion, they had taken in a troubled teenage girl for foster care, only to have her angry father turn up at their house one night. Apparently, he fled when he saw Martin’s enormous silhouette in the doorway.
Faith and fearlessness
And then came the cancer.
Karen’s attitude was typical. Determined as ever to fight fiercely for what she believed to be right, she was having none of it.
“It’s not of God,” she kept saying, “I don’t believe He wants me to die.”
In the days leading up to her emergency operation to remove the tumour, Karen and Martin mobilised their friends to pray. Many agreed to fast as well. People from places as far apart as Cardiff and Cape Town got on their knees and pleaded with God for Karen’s healing.
It was during this time that three separate people sensed God give them a word of knowledge. Located in different parts of the world, they all contacted Karen independently to say they felt God had spoken to them: Her cancer had been caused by a curse from a witch doctor during the time she had lived in Zimbabwe.
What they said resonated with Karen and she knew immediately which incident they were referring to. She recalled what had happened, what words had been spoken, what had resulted. She repented of any part she had played and asked God to forgive her.
Above all else, she declared that, if her cancer had a spiritual cause, then it could be confronted with a spiritual solution.
Armed with this revelation, Karen’s Christian faith kicked in. “I belong to God,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit in me is greater than the spirit who lives in the world,” quoting 1 John 4:4 from the Bible. “We need to command the cancer to go, because the power and authority we have in Jesus’ name is greater than the power behind a demonic curse from a witch doctor.”
Somehow this clarion call spurred us on. All of us. Even those with wafer thin faith. It was as if Karen’s faith buoyed everyone else’s. Her deep down conviction carried the rest of us: God was going to heal her.
It was the kind of theology I had read about in books and rarely encountered, but I mustered up faith and joined in the praying and fasting.
“In the name of Jesus,” I prayed out loud, “I speak to the cancer in Karen’s stomach and I command it to go by the authority I have in Jesus.”
When Karen’s stomach began to shrink in front of our eyes, we couldn’t quite believe what we were witnessing.
I learnt a profound lesson that week. A lesson that has remained with me ever since. A lesson that was simply this:
– When Christians call on the name of Jesus, and claim the authority they have in the name of Jesus, God gives them immense power through the Holy Spirit.
– That immense power is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
– Because Jesus was raised from the dead, everything demonic has already been defeated, including curses from witch doctors.
A medical miracle
On the day when Karen was wheeled into the operating theatre, although the surgeon had agreed to operate, he admitted that he expected various secondary complications to result from the operation. He and his team quietly doubted that Karen would come out alive.
When he opened her up, he couldn’t quite believe what he found.
The tumour in Karen’s abdomen had shrivelled and died. It had unattached itself from the artery to her heart and untangled itself from all her vital organs.
Weighing in at more than 9lb, it was heavier than most newborn babies, but it was relatively easy for the surgeon and his team to lift it up and out.
To say the surgeon was astonished was an understatement. He had never encountered anything like it.
Karen was so impacted by the role that her Christian faith had played during this gruelling time that she told anyone and everyone who would listen that it was Jesus who had healed her. Her testimony was incredibly powerful and it led to two of the medical team, her mum, and one of her sisters, all becoming Christians.
During her recuperation, Karen sensed God telling her he was giving her two more years of life and that she was to use those two years to complete the Quality Improvement Scheme (QIS). She’d had the vision for QIS while she’d been living in South Africa but, at that point in time, it was incomplete.
Karen was a fierce protector of standards. She knew from firsthand experience that the vast majority of Christian childcare practitioners had no formal training in organisational development, and their projects and programmes were run using very basic standards in areas such as governance, financial accountability, fundraising, child protection, and staff care. Based on evidence from pilot schemes she conducted, she discovered that there was enormous demand for the type of assessment and training that QIS was designed to provide.
Using her amazing academic aptitude, she delved into the quagmire of international quality frameworks, and produced a set of criteria and standards appropriate to the Christian childcare community, while negotiating funding deals with international donors to pay for QIS to be rolled out.
The significance of this piece of work cannot be over-stated!
Karen’s dedication to fulfilling the vision for QIS was second-to-none. Today, it is being used by thousands of Christian childcare projects and programmes, which together are benefiting millions of children at risk.
In some small way, it’s testimony to what God can do when someone gives birth to a vision that He has planted in them.
Learning to let go
Throughout this time, apart from some back pain, which originated from muscles that had been displaced during her operation, she seemed well. She became an advocate for enjoying the simple things in life, especially the people around her.
Her relapse happened quickly.
A scan towards the end of 2005 suggested that there might be some minor problems, but did not propose any immediate action. By the end of that year, Karen was in hospital with breathing problems. A tumour just as vigorous as that of the previous year had invaded her lung.
While many believed that she might be healed again, she pointed out that God had given her the two additional years of life that He had promised her.
Her last few days were spent in a hospice. Her deterioration was sudden. Nobody had expected her to go so quickly.
Towards the end, Martin asked her whether, when Jesus called her home, she would like him to ask Jesus to bring her back to life. (Being South African, he had seen people raised from the dead, in the name of Jesus, so this wasn’t an unusual request.)
Karen’s reply, amusing as ever, was that she’d want Jesus to show her around so that she could see if she liked it first.
The next day, when she died, Martin marched round her bed praying, African-style, asking God to bring her back to life.
And then he heard Jesus whisper, “I’ve shown her round now Martin, and she likes it here.”
He knew what this meant and it enabled him to surrender and let her go, switching instead to marching round her bed and praising God for her life, much to the bemusement of the hospice staff.
Leaving a legacy
This year marks a decade since that fateful day when Karen was told she had cancer. And this week has seen the anniversary of her death. That’s why it feels timely to write about her.
Few lives have left so much fruit for those who follow after.
The seeds that Karen planted through her work will result in Christian children at risk projects and programmes which are better organised, which better support their staff, and hence which offer the hope of better lives for the children under their care. Although Karen never had children of her own, through QIS, she has brought life to more children than she would ever have dreamed possible.
At her funeral, Martin gave an altar call to all those who had gathered to pay their respects. Many of them had no faith, and couldn’t understand how, if there was a loving God, why He had called Karen home so young. But Martin knew that Karen would have wanted those guests to hear the gospel message. That’s why he did it.
And who knows what seeds were planted that afternoon? Who knows how God has watered them in the subsequent years?
Of all the Bible readings from Karen’s funeral that day, this one from Hebrews 11: 13 spoke to me most, and it seems fitting to repeat it here: “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.”
Karen knew heaven was her home. She knew where she was going.
For those of us who knew her, she was, and she remains, an inspiration.