If I Could Have Met Anyone in History, It Would Have Been…
Betcha weren’t expecting that, huh? 😉 Right now you’re probably scratching your metaphorical head, muttering to yourself, “The teen writer-chick chose some random girl named Karin Swenson as the number one person she wishes she’d had the chance to meet? What about C.S. Lewis or L. M. Montgomery or e.e. cummings or some other double initialed literary genius?”
The truth is, L. M. Montgomery rocks my world. I would love nothing more than to sit down and have tea and raspberry cordial with that woman. Maybe gush about some epic puffed sleeves and name some local lakes. That would be sweet. But, truth be told, I really am being honest when I say that if I could have had the pleasure of meeting and talking to anyone who has ever lived and died, I’d pick Karin Swenson.
Which is ironic, because technically I have met Karin Swenson. She went to church with me when I was little. In fact, I’m sure I saw her dozens of times and there’s probably a good chance I even talked to her once or twice. But, she was at least twenty years old when I was a little girl, and rarely caught my attention. I was focused on Sailor Moon and Kraft macaroni-and-cheese, and arguing with my parents about whether I should be allowed to own Bratz dolls. So when we moved away and left that church when I was seven, Karin was the last thing I remembered.
And, to be honest, I never thought about her after that. I totally and completely forgot about her. If you’d asked me, I might have recognized the name, but I had no idea who on earth she was or anything about her. That’s why I was shocked when one evening, over a year ago, my parents announced that they were taking us to the funeral of Karin Swenson, a young lady that we used to go to church with.
At first, this kind of put a dent in my calendar. I hate funerals, and I always feel like we go to them all the time. We don’t, obviously, but that’s what I remember thinking when my parents first mentioned going. Oh, great, I thought. More sobs and sniffles and itchy black clothing and singing cheery hymns when everyone really just feels like crying. Not to mention it was for someone I didn’t even know, much less care about.
[This is is how I view funerals]
Nonetheless, we all went. And, let me tell you what, that funeral home was packed. Like, standing-room-only, high-school-homecoming-queen-killed-in-a-freak-accident kind of packed. We sat near the back and looked through our little programs at all the photos. I was surprised at how pretty and happy Karin looked in all the photos. I didn’t know much about her, but my parents had mentioned that she was young (28) and that she’d died of some kind of disease she’d had for a long time.
By the time her brother got up to speak, I was getting a pretty good vibe for what was going on. Beautiful young woman; dies of painful illness; everyone’s devastated; her whole life was cut short and she didn’t get to do much. Yeah, I was right. It was going to be pretty depressing.
But, actually, I was wrong.
I learned that Karin fell sick when she was seventeen, as a senior in high school. It was a strange disease. Her body couldn’t digest food properly anymore. Eventually she was put on feeding tubes because unable to keep anything down. Over the next eleven years, Karin battled this sickness. She grew weaker—visibly thinner–and her body just continued shutting down until she died in February of 2011. Karin’s brother Jim, a missionary, conducted the memorial service. The tenderness in his voice as he described his sister’s life and love of the Lord spoke of the unique bond between the two of them. He spoke of Karin’s faithfulness. Of her quiet and calm assurance.
“To the rest of the world,” Jim said, “Karin’s life may have looked like a raw deal.” And, from what it sounded like, he was right. I mean, she suffered. For almost a third of her life she was sick. Every time the feeding tube sent nutrients into her body, it felt like knives stabbing her. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t behave like a normal twenty-year-old girl.
“And yet,” Jim continued, “Karin saw her life as a blessing. She saw her sickness as a gift.” Karin saw joy in life, and loved everyone around her. She cared more about her neighbor’s suffering than her own. Jim described one time he thoughtlessly complained to her about food sickness he suffered from in Asia. He shook his head as he remembered Karin’s response. Concerned for her brother, she sympathized and said she was earnestly praying he wouldn’t be sick any longer. It was only then that Jim realized the foolishness of complaining about a mere case of food poisoning from the sister who hadn’t eaten a single meal in years. And yet, she showed him sympathy.
Jim admitted that he had struggled with his sister’s illness more than anyone. He confessed that he had stressed and worried, praying that God would take away his sister’s illness and heal her completely. And yet Karin’s perspective of the sickness couldn’t have been more different. Jim read e-mails he received from his sister only a few short months before she died. In the e-mails, she pleaded with her brother to stop praying for her life and instead be content and happy with the will of God. She reminded Jim that if God wanted to heal her the next day, He would. But if not, she knew that He had a greater purpose for her because of her sickness and death. She described it as a gift, a blessing, in that it allowed her a chance to share the Gospel with those around her and minister to others’ needs.
After the service, there was a time of sharing when anyone could stand and tell a special memory of Karin. I sat in my seat, tears pulling at my eyes, as I listened to friend after friend stand and tell Karin’s parents how much of a blessing she had been in their lives. Some had voices thick with emotion, others smiled through glistening unshed tears. One after one, they shook their heads and basically said the same thing: “Her life was a gift and I am a different person because of her.”
One young man in the back stood and said that he’d known Karin since middle school, before she was even sick. He shared that he had been a special-ed student, and that he spent lunch sitting alone, because no one would talk to him. “Karin talked to me,” he said, “She took me under her wing and was my friend. And I know I’ll never forget her because you don’t have very many friends like that.”
Another woman stood and revealed herself to be a nurse, one who had only ever met Karin once face-to-face. “I never broke through professional barriers,” she admitted, “Until I met Karin.” The nurse described Karin as possessing a joy that she had never seen before, and that she had come to love Karin through the e-mails they exchanged and the assurance Karin possessed.
As the minutes ticked by and I sat in my seat, stuffy in my black dress and suffering from puffy eyes, I began to think about this young woman that I had never met before. At first, I wondered what kind of things Karin would have accomplished for God if she had never gotten sick. She had a Latin and Greek major from the University of Richmond. Maybe she would have been a great teacher, or missionary, or done so many other wonderful things for Christ.
But as I lay in bed that night, the Lord finally laid upon my heart what would have happened if Karin had never gotten sick. Nothing. Or at least, not much. Because, through her suffering, she became an example of Christ that resounded with more people than she’ll probably ever realize. We may never know what path God would have led her on if she had lived fifty more years, but I do know this: Karin had the right view of God, the right view of sickness. She knew that through her suffering and through her death, more people would be able to see God than through her life. And that was a possibility that excited her. It didn’t fill her with self-pity or bitterness or anger. It was just as her brother said: “Karin’s life was a test from God. It was the worst, most painful, most difficult kind of test. And she passed.” And now, because of her sufferings and her pain and her death, Karin is enjoying a life that is far more wonderful than anything she could have experienced on earth.
Few sermons I have ever heard have been as powerful and convicting as the simple testimony of this one woman’s life. Let me tell you that I thanked my parents with tears in my eyes for taking me to that funeral service. When I think back on moments that have changed my life and my perspective, I hope that I’ll always think of sitting in that cold, hard pew, listening to the voices speaking up one by one in praise of this humble, amazing woman. And I hope I’ll always remember how those testimonies created a yearning in me to give my life, my talents, my time, and my everything to serving God and helping others. I may not always be as effective a witness as Karin was, but I’ll always have her example showing me the way.