The Life and Death of Lynette Hoppe

Whether We Live or Die, We Belong to the Lord: Lynette Hoppe’s Gift and Witness to the World

By Father Luke Veronis

 

“Now we have to live whatever we have ever preached to others,” Lynette Hoppe wrote in her diary. “I have been classified as having Stage 4 cancer (of 4 stages), and my prospects are rather grim. Nonetheless, I remain cheerful and hopeful and want to spend what years God grants me in joy and thanksgiving, serving as and wherever I can.”

Lynette wrote this entry shortly after discovering the severity of her cancer, and began an incredible journey of faith with her husband Nathan, through which she touched the lives of countless people. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; and if necessary use words.” Well, Lynette and Nathan often preached the Gospel with many words over the past eight years, serving as long-term missionaries in Albania. With the unexpected news of her cancer, however, God called them to offer a unique and unforgettable type of witness that used few words!

A Suffering Witness

Although Lynette strived to live her life in Christ as a faithful Christian, missionary, mother, wife, daughter, teacher, mentor and friend to so many, she probably never realized that her greatest witness to the Lord would come from a 20 month journey with cancer, suffering, and death. She witnessed her life in Christ throughout this saga with a deep faith, an inner peace, a radiant joy, a courageous love, and an undying hope. She exemplified the words of St. Paul, “For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom 14:8)

Many people often wonder why a loving God allows any type of illness, suffering, and death to attack people, especially those who are in the prime of their lives and in the midst of a fruitful ministry. Lynette even had two young children, Tristan (age 8) and Katherine (age 6) who face their future without a mother. Yet, it is precisely the witness of God’s faithful children during such times of tragedy, difficulty and darkness that His light shines most brightly.

In the Old Testament we read, “But the righteous person, though he die early, will be at rest. For old age is not honored for length of time, nor measured by number of years; but understanding is gray hair for people, and a blameless life is ripe old age. There was one who pleased God and was loved by him, and while living among sinners was taken up. He was caught up before evil could change him….Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord, therefore He took him quickly from the midst of evil. (Wisdom of Solomon 4:7-15) These words aptly describe Lynette’s full life of 46 years.

Lynette exemplified how such a path of illness and even death, when experienced with faith, can lead one into a fuller union with her Lord and even offer a witness more powerful and memorable than many lifetimes on earth. She became a contemporary witness of what saints throughout all ages have given to the world - a genuine, Christ-centered life of divine love and invincible faith in the prime of her life.

The saintly Bishop Gerasimos of Abydou once said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Lynette embraced this divine, yet harsh mystery of life, and allowed it to hone her faith, deepen her love, and increase her compassion. She experienced the presence of God like never before through this inexplicable mystery.

Praising God for His Love

I had the very special and blessed privilege to experience this journey from an intimate perspective. Not only are our families dearest of friends, but throughout her illness, I spoke with Lynette almost weekly. I also saw her six times over the past 20 months. From such contact, several aspects of Lynette’s journey and final witness brilliantly stand out as a light and example for all of us.

First, Lynette embraced an authentic Christian perspective of life, a view which never lost sight that God is present and in control. “In general I am very much at peace,” Lynette writes. “I do accept what God has given to me and do not view it as something “bad” that has happened to me. Already I see the beauty of suffering and how it can give birth to humility, thankfulness, compassion, a clearer vision of what is important, and a deeper love for Christ. These are blessings that I did not expect… I take comfort in so many beautiful words in the Psalms and other passages of Scripture. I remind myself often that “His strength is made perfect in my weakness,” and I am seeing just how weak I am and how desperately I need God’s strength.”

Her Christian worldview also gave Lynette the ability to radiate joy and gratitude throughout her illness. St. Paul advises us to “Rejoice always… and give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess 5:16,18) Well, I’m not exaggerating when I say that at each stage of Lynette’s illness, and especially when the medical news went from bad to worse, her first words to me would always be, “Well, although the news isn’t good, still I thank God…

She possessed the rare, yet divine, ability to see God’s hand at work in the midst of any and every situation. She held a deep rooted attitude of gratitude, incarnating St. Paul’s words, “Neither death, nor life… nor things present nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38) I heard Lynette thank God shortly after she discovered her cancer. She thanked God after her cancer had metastasized. She thanked God after the cancer entered her bones. And even in the last days of life, when she informed me that the cancer had entered her liver and the doctors gave her a few weeks to live, she still thanked God for His abundant grace and the love she felt from so many.

“I am so grateful for my own pain. Now I can have a much deeper sense of compassion for the suffering of others…[In fact], these are very happy days for Nathan and me and our children, perhaps the happiest we have ever known as a family. Nathan and I continue to delight in each other’s company… He is helping me to focus on the blessings of today and not on the uncertainties of tomorrow… Living in the present is a moment by moment effort. I still find my mind wandering off into the future on occasion, but I try to pull it back. I want to live fully today, being patient with my children, helpful to my husband, attentive to my mother [who is also dying from cancer], and rejoicing in my Lord!”

Along with learning to live in the present, Lynette also thanked God for other lessons of life – lessons about God’s love, about herself, about her relationships with her husband and others, and about so many other things. She even thanked God that He gave her the strength and grace to return to Albania, her adopted motherland, during her final three months of life, where she actively ministered in the youth camps up to her final days. To be honest with you, if I had not talked with Lynette so frequently, and witnessed the authenticity of her gratitude, I’m not sure I could have believed that it was so sincere.

Feeling the concrete presence of God, and living with this spirit of gratitude, gave root to one of the most visible signs of a true, living relationship with our Lord – that of deep, spiritual joy and peace. In the midst of illness, suffering and dying, with the temptation of fear and doubt ever lurking nearby, Lynette never lost that sense of deep, inner joy. Mother Teresa once said, “Never let anything make you forget the joy of our Risen Lord.” Lynette lived by this principle, which she often expressed, “Both Nathan and I feel ourselves overwhelmed by the amazing grace that God has given to us.  We could not be so joyful without his help….I am happy and feel a great sense of joyful anticipation at my home-going.  God is with us and will continue to be with us until the end.”

Overcoming Despair

Of course, her journey included various moments of discouragement, darkness, and even despair. She described how traveling through the “valleys of the shadow of death” often humbled her. In following the path of the saints, though, she astutely learned that the closer she drew to her Lord, the clearer she would see her own fears, faults, weaknesses and sins. And through these moments of darkness, she humbly learned invaluable lessons. 

“A shadow fell over me. It drifted in with the New Year, following on the heels of departing family members, who had come to celebrate a last Christmas with mom… An existential angst gripped me, something foreign to me, as I have never struggled with God’s existence. God had always been real to me, and so to face the question of His existence now seemed to me a kind of failure, a sign that here, at the end, I would fall from faith. All day, every day as a sort of desperate mantra, I would cry, “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.” My prayers were those of the abandoned: “Lord, don’t let me go. I cling to You.” For several weeks I struggled under this black pall… I was afraid I would never recover the joy that had marked most of my days since my diagnosis.”

“[Then] I went through a dreadful period in February and March, probably the worst time I have had in all the months of my illness… These were completely different from the down period I experienced after Christmas. They were overwhelming and dark and frightened me immensely… I still do not know what caused the depression, but several very good things have come out of it. One is that I learned that I must press on regardless of how I feel…I have since come to realize that faith is not about how I feel, it is an act of the will. I believe because I know something is true, not because I feel good about something… The other thing that came out of my depression was a great sense of humiliation… I would have said all along that it was only by the grace of God and through the prayers of people that I was managing to plod along, but I might have been giving myself a great deal of credit at the same time. Now I can say without a doubt that it truly is the grace of God that holds me and sustains me because I’ve been there on the edge, wondering if I were going to fall into some abyss. Thankfully, God was there in the darkness. It is very humbling to recognize how truly great is our need for God. He gives us these terrible moments to find that out, and so we must be thankful for them, but we must also live every day with that sense of total dependence on him, whether or not we are aware of our need.”

Even from her physical suffering, Lynette exemplified the saintly virtue of divine learning. “God has given us suffering so that we might see his love and goodness. It is His way of wooing us and we are honored that he seeks us so unrelentingly… I am so grateful for the opportunity to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. I don’t think I could have understood what that expression meant before experiencing pain myself. Now I try to picture myself in the garden with Jesus, sharing in his agony as he asks to be released from the cross. I weep with him, then bow my head with him as he humbly submits himself to the will of God. Jesus could have gotten out of his sufferings at any moment simply by calling upon his Father to send forth the armies of heaven. But by his strength of will he chose to endure the cross for us, and I love him for this.”

 “I find myself very grateful for each stage of this new part of the journey. Getting worse rather than better has been exceedingly humbling, and I have so needed to have my pride exposed and ripped away… This has led me to realize how much I need just as much discipline in the area of my heart and soul and mind – a detachment from all those material things I had thought so essential to life and comfort.”

Throughout this journey, Lynette and Nathan understood the priceless value of the Church – the Body of Christ that encouraged and nourished them along the way. Through her journal and the website “www.prayforlynette.org,” both Nathan and Lynette invited others to join them in her final journey. They reflected a genuine understanding of Christian community by inviting others to share their experience and walk with them – both by inspiring others through their example and lessons learned, while not hesitating to ask others to pray, visit, and help them in their moments of darkness. Lynette constantly gave credit to this cloud of witnesses who pounded the gates of heaven with their intercessions and prayers.

Death Is Not The End

A final sacred attitude that Lynette held was her paschal perspective on death. St. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21) Throughout her sickness, Lynette repeated this phrase. Shortly before she died, she shared with me, “Although I cry at the thought of leaving my dear husband and precious children, I simultaneously realize that our heavenly homeland awaits me, and I look forward to dwelling in the continual presence of our loving Lord.” This life is but a brief sojourn on planet earth. God created us for eternity, and Lynette understood that eternal perspective so well. She had a passionate love for Christ, which filled her with the joy of going home. She mourned that she would not be physically present with her husband and children for many future events nor be able to continue her ministry among her beloved Albanian co-workers and friends, but she truly believed that she was “going home” to that heavenly dwelling place, which is in the loving presence of our Lord.

“When I think about my own suffering, I am consoled deeply by the thought that I will not really be alone on that final journey. My Lord will be with me, but that consolation doesn’t turn the valley into a bright, happy meadow… I have been greatly comforted by the fact that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for me so that where He is, there I can be also. I feel that Jesus awaits me with gladness, that my death will be “precious” to Him. My thoughts about heaven linger on the joy of being with Jesus, not on what the place will be like. It is enough for me to know that He will be there… I am consoled by the fact that heaven will be a place full of mercy and grace.”

During one of her final days of life in Albania, my wife Faith and I sat around her bed, together with Nathan, her siblings and father, and other dear friends, singing hymns and reminiscing about Lynette’s legacy. In those final days and hours, Lynette radiated divine peace. At times, she would open her eyes and struggle to smile. Yes, she was dying, but simultaneously she dwelt securely in the peace of her Lord.

Nathan reflected upon his dear wife in these final hours, “My eyes are full of tears as I write but I also have a strong sense of joy. The jewel which I have been privileged to hold a short time is slipping away from me, but I know that she will be held in far more worthy arms until we are reunited.  I am so blessed in these days by her joy and her faith and her love.  She is truly an icon of Christ to me.

Lynette did pass away and join our Lord on August 27, 2006, but her funeral was more of a celebration of life and faith, than a funeral of death. Many Albanian friends told me that they have never witnessed such a death and funeral like Lynette’s. For two days following her death, Lynette’s body lay in repose in her home. Her Albanian students and friends, along with the missionary community, kept vigil day and night around her coffin. Psalms were read. Hymns were continuously sung. And crowds came to visit, seeing her beautiful body in front of a large Resurrectional icon of our Lord.

When the body was finally laid in the ground, following a moving ceremony led by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, along with two other metropolitans, a host of clergy, and hundreds of friends, Nathan greeted everyone who came to console him with the words, “Rejoice! Christ is Risen!” People told me that it seemed Nathan was comforting others, instead of the other way around!

Although Nathan, Tristan, and Katherine will sorely miss their wife and mother during the days and years ahead, as will all her dear friends and family, still we all can find great comfort in the incredible witness she offered to so many throughout her life and death. She is not gone and dead. She is just physically absent. She now dwells with our Lord, watching over us and interceding for us with her motherly love.

Lynette may truly repeat the Apostle Paul’s final words, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  There is now laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have loved his appearing.”  (2 Tim. 4:8)

May her memory be eternal and everlasting!

 

Excerpts taken from the book “Lynette’s Hope: The Life and Death of Lynette Katherine Hoppe” Conciliar Press, 2008

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