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Celebrating a Christian life truly lived to the fullest

By Jenni Parker

In His Feathers
Edited By James Calvin Schaap

The opening of Erich Segal’s novel Love Story asks the question, “What do you say about a girl who died?”—a question that came back to me as I tried to come up with a way to describe a very different kind of love story I recently read. Instead of some fictional soap opera of lost love and remembrance, In His Feathers: The Letters and Journals of Sharon Bomgaars (Dordt College Press), tells a story of how one Christian wife and mother dying of cancer confronts her fate, not with “rage against the dying of the light,” but with thankful celebration of the glory of God’s creation, His gifts of life and love, and every bit of light His grace affords until her final sunset.

In His Feathers, edited and introduced by Christian author and Dordt College professor James Calvin Schaap, paints a poignant picture drawn from the journal pages of a Jackson, Mississippi, woman of faith, of how her own faith and the love of God and family helped sustain her during the tumultuous journey from a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 1999 to her death three years later. This important compilation details, in Bomgaar’s own words, her thoughts, fears, and hopes; her pain, sorrows and joys, as well as her prayers and praises.

Sharon (Wagenaar) grew up in Iowa, where she married Dennis Bomgaars, and where the two attended Dordt College However, Sharon gave up her studies to become a mother; and after her husband graduated, they and their two children moved to Mississippi, where he attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, and she gave birth to two more children.

A devoted mom and homemaker, Sharon home-schooled all four of her kids through high school. She enjoyed her family, tending their healthy growth and development. As an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast, Sharon loved the outdoors and was almost fanatical about proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, which was one of the reasons her cancer diagnosis at age forty-three struck her as such an ironic surprise.

Not one to indulge in self-pity, Sharon faced her doctors’ ominous prognosis with realism and determination. While not ruling out the possibility of a miracle, she saw the importance of teaching her kids how to accept whatever the Lord decides with humility, grace, and a thankful spirit. “When God’s will seems so clear,” she observed in her journals at one point, “I cannot dig in my heels and drag my feet. It seems best to me to talk with my children of my death, to prepare for it."

During her three-year battle with the disease, Sharon experienced the highs and lows of life with terminal cancer and chronicled those highs and lows with unstinting honesty. Through her journal, she posthumously allows others to accompany her through it all, from the moments of remission and well-being to the agonizing experience of fighting the painful regrowth of tumors with what were often equally painful surgical and chemotherapy treatments, and her increasing weariness and debilitation as the deadly cancer advanced inexorably upon her waning life.

Although Sharon’s faith never failed, at times her upbeat disposition and cheerful outlook did. Yet, throughout her story, Sharon’s journals reveal a heart neither bitter nor filled with regrets. She repeatedly expressed gratitude that God allowed her to live to raise her children to adulthood and even to see two sons marry before she died; and at one point she noted that she had received plenty of “little treats” from God. “I can’t have the big prize (life),” she said, “but He sure gives me lots of little ones.”

At the end of In His Feathers, Sharon’s own final remark—typical of her—ascribes goodness and faithfulness to her maker. “God is gracious,” she wrote. “He has sustained me through cancer.” And although I confess I was weeping as I closed the book, I do not think of this account of her life, ultimately, as a sad story.

What can you say about the woman whose story is told in the pages of In His Feathers? I would say she was someone who lived a beautiful life of faith and selflessness. And she is someone who, faced with imminent death, delighted in the Lord and His gifts in a way that made her death beautiful as well. She didn’t live like she was dying, so much as she died the way she had lived—gratefully, graciously, all the while giving honor to God and thought for how to make every moment of the journey meaningful.

Sharon’s life and death are a challenge to those of us whose lives may or may not be threatened by anything so relentless as cancer, but who are nevertheless compelled by circumstance, as she was, to answer some of life’s hardest questions. Among those questions are how will we accept the path God has ordained for us, and what will we do with the time we have left. How now shall we live, always ready to die but without ever ceasing to live the abundant, full life to which we have been called?

The answers Sharon Bomgaars offers us through her journals will undoubtedly inspire and challenge many to celebrate life with all its vagaries, tragedies and triumphs alike. Her story will also remind many, as it did me, to be grateful for the lives we are given and the fact that we live each day in the shadow of God’s wings—or, as Sharon would have put it, “in his feathers.”

Jenni Parker is an associate editor for AgapePress, a Christian news service based in Tupelo, Mississippi, and a contributing writer for The Banner.