Mother faces God through her grief
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
NASHVILLE — Here is what Job looks like in 2002:
A tiny brunette whose black eyes smile back from a heart-shaped face, whose voice ranges from hymn-singing heights to a low urgency, like water over stones. Like tears might sound.
She's Nancy Guthrie, and she has call for tears.
She has buried two infants in three years, both born with the same fatal genetic disorder. A flaw written into every cell formed both babies deaf, blind, unable to suck, to grow, to learn, to reach for her breast or a bottle.
They were stricken with seizures that seemed to scream out "I'm dying!"
Like the biblical Job, cruelly afflicted, Guthrie's response was fierce, questioning — and, ultimately, accepting.
It's not the book you'd expect. Holding on to Hope: A Pathway Through Suffering to the Heart of God (Tyndale, $11.99) is a meditation on Job, more about God than about Guthrie.
"I'm not a bereaved mother writing about the death of a child. That book's been done," she says.
"I wrote the book not to exploit our babies' lives but to use our experience, like Job, to address the question of suffering: 'To what purpose? What is it God wants to do in you and through you that could possibly cost you this much?' "
She wrote it "for anyone in pain," the freshly divorced, the financially devastated, the abused and the agonized, struggling to survive the tragedy of Sept. 11.
It concludes with unflinching testimony to salvation through Jesus, an offering ripped from her heart to a nation that largely prefers to sip on spirituality like a skim cappuccino with extra foam on top.
"I suspect a lot of people will be disappointed, and some people will be offended," she says.
"I had no choice."
Hope Lauren Guthrie's pink leather-bound baby album goes from birth certificate to death certificate in 22 pages.
It's packed with joyful color photos recording 199 days with a black-and-white diagnosis: Zellweger syndrome.
Zellweger is so rare that only 20 such babies are born in the USA each year. Their cells are missing compartments, called peroxisomes, that carry out a variety of essential biochemical functions. Most die within six months.
There's no test to determine if someone carries the recessive gene for Zellweger, says Gerald Raymond, neurologist and geneticist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
When two carriers have a child, there's a 75% chance it will be born healthy, like the Guthries' 12-year-old son, Matthew.
"We all probably carry 10 or more such recessive genes we are not aware of. We all play the genetic lottery," Raymond says.
Gabriel Johnson Guthrie's blue album makes the same journey as Hope's but more quickly. He lived 183 days.
From the day Hope was born, Nov. 23, 1998, Christian publishing publicist Nancy Guthrie, 39, and her husband, David, 45, a vice president with Word Entertainment, specializing in church music, opened their pain — and joy — to the world. Nancy wrote in Christianity Today how Hope's brief life clarified their lifelong faith like a refining fire. Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of Billy Graham, gave her memorial message after Hope died June 9, 1999.
But, for the sake of Matthew and their own aging parents, the Guthries chose not to play the genetic lottery again. David had a vasectomy. They didn't know it failed until Nancy was pregnant. Fourteen weeks after conception, they knew their baby's future.
Geneticists don't know exactly how many pregnant women, told by prenatal tests of a serious health problem in the fetus, still choose to give birth. They estimate 75% to 90% choose abortion.
The Guthries say it never crossed their minds. "We knew," David says, "something bigger than we are is going on here."
Evangelical Christians read their own lives in the Bible. They enter into the stories, and it reshapes their destiny. Sit down on the front porch of this idea for a while. If you believed this way, then you could, like the Guthries, write a letter telling 400 friends and associates you are carrying a baby who will die before he says your name — and sign it "Resting in Christ."
The story of the Guthries' rare choice, their "struggle to be both Christian and human" was in Time magazine when Gabriel was born, a year ago today.
"They were always sharing these blessings, passing these babies over and just letting us all hug on 'em," Lotz says.
"The impact our babies had wasn't anything mystical or magical. They had a sweetness to them that overcame people's fears. We shared them so others could love them," Guthrie says. "And so, their names will not be erased."
Hope, the promise of redemption. Gabriel, the angel who always said, "Do not be afraid."
"The opposite of faith isn't doubt," says David. "It's fear."
"We learned to pray for God's will, not our own," Nancy says. "We wanted to love them richly and not waste the precious short time we had them."
With Hope, she celebrated every one-month birthday — all six. With Gabriel, she traveled from his grandparents' in Oregon to business trips in New York. He died the night before a party for his six-month birthday, a fundraiser for special-needs children at their church, Christ Presbyterian.
Nancy still lies on the snowy white bed in the pale yellow nursery her children never used, looks up at the sky mural painted across the ceiling and sobs. And submits.
It is the lesson of Job. God allows suffering, she says, but not meaningless suffering. By choosing God, even in the darkest and most inexplicable times, our faithfulness is rewarded with his own. God offers a pathway to his heart, to heaven.
Still, she deliberately kept her family's narrative brief. "People who are hurting never believe anyone is hurting as much as they are. I didn't want to one-up my readers. I wanted to respect their pain and let them put it in the forefront.
"I can say with almost absolute confidence that none of my readers will have a Zellweger baby. But something deeply painful will happen to you. Then you have choices.
"I wanted my book to read like an invitation, 'Come with me. I'm a worthy companion.' " she says, crooking her arm. "We can walk in Job's footsteps toward God."
Job, in the Hebrew Bible, calls God his redeemer. Job, in the most fundamental Christian reading of that text, the way Nancy Guthrie reads it, is foreshadowing the "Redeemer" — a name for Jesus Christ.
Holding on to Hope goes on sale today. The epilogue is the call to Jesus she gave at Gabriel's January memorial service.
Guthrie intended the book for non-believers, methodically building on Job's experience of God and redemption "before I introduced something that might be a hurdle for them," she says.
The hurdle is this: no heaven without Jesus.
Anyone who doesn't stand on a relationship with God through his son — regardless of their religious or spiritual label — is shut out.
"If sincerity, no matter what you believed sincerely, were enough, then there would have been no need for Jesus. If you could get to God just by being a 'spiritual' person (whatever that means) or by going to church, then certainly Jesus would not have had to die," she concludes in the book.
It's a tough call in a society where most Americans, polls say, see many paths to God.
"I know that sounds exclusive and narrow and intolerant and perhaps even simple-minded to some," Guthrie writes. "But ... it's the truth. And if you have missed reckoning with Jesus ... you've missed the very purpose for which you were created."
Guthrie says she is compelled to speak, to write about faith in Jesus as the pathway to glory. It is, she says, the purpose and the privilege of her suffering. "If I'm going to talk to people in pain, I have to be honest. I've paid a terrible cost for this right. What else could I say on the day I put my son in the grave?"
Alexandra Morris, a marketing manager at Random House in Manhattan, received an advance copy of Guthrie's book. It arrived on the birthday of Morris' friend Johanna Sigmund, who was 25 when she died in the World Trade Center attack.
"I read the book in one night. I know what it's like to work when you are so upset, the sense of overwhelming loss, of questioning your beliefs," Morris says.
She and Sigmund, both Catholic, had been friends since kindergarten. Morris found great comfort in Guthrie's book, even if she disagreed with the ending.
"I don't believe Jews or Catholics, or any other good people, don't go to heaven," she says. "But I admire her honesty.
"So, I filtered out what is not helpful for me and took solace in knowing I am not alone in my pain."