Three years after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer at the age of 21, OneWay team member Sarah Lindsey reflects on her lifelong desire to be a missionary. As her cancer spreads and treatment options are limited, she is drawing closer to God and who He made her to be. In her powerful blog post, she shares her realization that her worth is not in how much she can do for God as a missionary, but how much she desires to be with Him and like Him.
OneWay missionary shares cancer journey
By Sarah Lindsey
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a missionary. When I was seven years old, I remember sitting on a colorful rug during story time at AWANA on a Wednesday evening when I heard a story that changed my life forever.
The pastor’s wife, Marcia, expressively told the missionary tale of Bruce Olsen, also known as Bruchko. She described how he left everything he knew in America at the young age of 19 and went to a tribal village in South America to preach the Gospel. I was amazed as she went on to tell about his adventures and his radical faith in Jesus each week at AWANA.
“That’s what I want to do,” I thought to myself. “I want to be a missionary just like Bruchko and preach the Gospel to people who have never heard about Jesus.”
From that point on, my life wasn’t the same.
I don’t recall the exact day or prayer that I prayed to accept Jesus as my Savior, but I do remember that on that day, I told Jesus that He could do whatever He wanted with my life — that I was His, and that I trusted Him, I loved Him and I gave my life over to Him. Before that day, I truly loved Jesus, but I didn’t know what it meant to actually surrender your life to Him.
For the rest of my childhood, I remained devoted to my goal of someday becoming a missionary.
I began reading stories about missionaries who were martyred for their faith, and the playground was my mission field. I used every opportunity I had to tell my friends about Jesus, and I would even occasionally bring my Bible out to recess with me.
In middle school I went on my first short-term mission trip to Chicago. It was my first real exposure to life outside my suburban hometown of Naperville, IL. I didn’t want to live a comfortable life. I was grateful for what God gave me, but I prayed that He would challenge my faith like He did for the missionaries I read about.
God answered that prayer in a way I didn’t expect.
In high school I went on mission trips overseas to the Dominican Republic and Moldova. I was enamored with their cultures, and my desire to serve people cross-culturally deepened. Jesus captivated my heart during those years, and my desire to serve Him continued to grow.
Looking back at my journals from high school, I read my prayers, where I continually pleaded with God to use me and send me to the places no one wanted to go, to share the Gospel with unreached people. It was the deepest cry of my heart.
After I graduated high school, I went to Moody Bible Institute to pursue a degree in Intercultural Studies. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, theology and cross-cultural ministry, and Moody was the best place for that.
While there, my love for Jesus deepened even more and my faith was refined. I loved living in the city and volunteering with various organizations and ministries. I especially loved my time living in Albany Park and working with World Relief, where I tutored refugee women in their English studies and helped them navigate their new world in Chicago.
During my four years at Moody, I was confronted with the realities of suffering and injustice in the world. I grappled with how best to love and advocate for "the least of these" in my own community and country, as well as abroad. My eyes were opened to the racial injustices in my community — immigrants and refugees being mistreated and neglected by those inside and outside of the Church, women being sold as slaves (seeing this first hand in the Philippines), people living without food or shelter, and the list goes on.
I sought to learn what it truly meant to love people as Jesus did.
“I want to go to the people that are forgotten, that are neglected,” I wrote in my journal on April 12, 2016, after coming home from my life-changing trip to the Philippines. “Places that nobody else wants to go to because of fear. This has been my passion and desire. I just want to see people come to know Jesus, and to see lives transformed.”
While at Moody, I met my best friend and lifelong partner, JP. The foundation of our relationship was always Christ, and very early on we surrendered ourselves to His plans. We prayed that God would use us to preach the Gospel to the unreached and that He would send us overseas.
But we also knew that God’s plans were better than our own, so we let Him have His way. The night before we got married I wrote in my journal: “Even though there are plenty of uncertainties in our future, I trust in the unwavering and ever-constant faithfulness of God. In His Word He promises to never leave me, to hear my prayers, and to love me eternally. He promises to come back to us again! That is a promise I can stake my life on.”
We got married in June 2018, and just two weeks later we were off to Europe and the Middle East for the rest of the summer. In order for me to graduate from Moody, I had to do a six-week internship with a church or organization overseas. JP and I wanted to get an idea of what kind of work we would do and where we'd want to live after we graduated, so we partnered with OneWay Ministries and an organization based out of Switzerland called AVC Father's Heart to go to Athens, Greece and Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
When I was growing up, my church supported a particular missionary couple whose work I always loved hearing about. The husband (OneWay’s “Equipping Evangelist”) traveled all over the world, telling Bible stories and training people in the “Heart Bible” method. I was captivated by his ministry and loved how he faithfully went to the places God called him.
When it came time to choose where I would go for my internship, I asked Equipping Evangelist if JP and I could tag along to wherever he was going that summer. That’s how we ended up going to Athens and Kurdistan.
It was the most amazing summer, and we fell in love with the Kurdish people. When we returned to Chicago after the summer abroad, we started our preparations to go back after graduation.
We had the opportunity to go to Kurdistan again in March 2019, where we felt even more confirmed that it was the place and the people we wanted to serve. We graduated from Moody in May 2019, moved out of our Chicago apartment, and started fundraising with the hopes of leaving for Kurdistan in August.
I knew my life was about to change forever, but I had no idea in what way.
“I struggle a lot with change, but I know my Savior holds my hand and He will go with me,” I wrote to God on May 21, 2019. “What an amazing journey ahead! I’m trying to trust God in every situation we face, and lean on Him because of His great faithfulness. Guide JP and I as we go forward. Direct our steps and give us confidence as we walk out onto the ocean in faith, keeping our eyes fixed upon You each step of the way. Christ, go with us!”
After graduation, JP and I traveled to a friends’ wedding in Texas and celebrated our first anniversary by camping in the Smoky Mountains. The entire time we were there, I had extreme pain in my abdomen, and I was finding it difficult to eat. But I was stubborn and wanted to finish out our trip, hoping that the pain was temporary and that it would go away.
Once we got back to Minnesota, where we planned to spend about a month fundraising in JP’s hometown, I was jaundiced and couldn’t take the pain anymore. I was admitted to the hospital for extremely high bilirubin levels. After lots of tests, I was diagnosed with bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) on June 12, 2019.
It completely shook our world.
I was 21 years old and had just been diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer. We found ourselves with questions and fear. But at the same time, God flooded our minds and hearts with peace.
His peace was overwhelming, and we trusted His plans fully. I wrote a slew of questions for God in my journal the next day, but at the end of it I said, “I still believe God is gracious and good, and I will praise Him. What else is there to do? Where else is there to go? God is my only source of comfort and strength. It is now more than ever that my faith needs to be fully in Him.”
Following that fateful diagnosis, JP and I had a lot of decisions to make.
I was scheduled to have a major surgery, a Whipple surgery, to remove the tumor at the end of July at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. But in the meantime, all we could do was wait. After the surgery, my oncologist at Mayo came into the room and said that I would have to undergo chemotherapy since the cancer spread to a few nodes near my bile duct.
We had to decide where we would live and have treatment. We had already packed up our Chicago apartment with plans to go overseas, and we were technically homeless.
I spent two months in Naperville recovering, and God made it clear that we should move to Minneapolis and receive treatment at Mayo Clinic. We assumed we would be there for a year, finish up chemotherapy, and then be off to the mission field again. But that was not God’s plan.
Since that initial diagnosis and first round of treatment, we held tightly to the hope that we would return to Kurdistan as soon as we got over this “hurdle.” Without going into every detail, we went through stretches of time where I was in remission, and then the cancer would return again. Back and forth, I found myself jumping from hopefulness to devastation with each new diagnosis of metastasis.
I’ve learned many lessons and seen ways God has shown His beautiful character to me.
He has literally walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, through seasons of deep depression, times when I felt he was silent as I cried to Him in anguish, periods where my grief was so burdensome, and I saw how graciously He lifted it off my shoulders onto His. As I’ve considered my calling and desire for missions, I’ve learned that my identity and worth is not in being a missionary. God is not concerned with how much I can do for Him, but with how much I desire to be with Him and to be like Him.
From the time I was a young girl in AWANA, I made my identity around what I wanted to do for Jesus, and my desire and call to missions. So much of what I considered was my identity was taken away from me: my ability to be active, how I look now that I’ve lost 35 pounds and all my hair, my capacity to work and go overseas.
So much of myself was lost, but in losing that, I found who I was in Christ.
It isn't what I can do for God that gives me worth, but my worth is in who He has made me to be: his daughter, redeemed, servant of Christ, chosen, image-bearer of God, and disciple.
Being the daughter of the King means that I want for nothing; He supplies all my needs and is my perfect provider. To be redeemed is to have all my sins wiped clean, and to be forgiven for no reason other than that God chose to pour His all-surpassing grace and love onto me. Being a servant of Christ is the highest calling in the world: To love Him and be loved by Him.
I am chosen by God as His own, for His glory and for my joy. I bear the image of God, in my vastly imperfect and broken body, and He makes it good and beautiful. I am His disciple. Loving and serving others brings me more joy than anything else I could spend my life doing.
Today my health is at an all-time low, and we are running out of treatment options.
I plead with God everyday that if I could just touch the hem of His cloak that I would be healed. But I am also fully aware that this cancer could take my life. Whichever way this goes, I trust in God no matter what the outcome.
I know that He is sovereign and that His plans are good; I fully trust that. I gave my life to Him when I was young, and He’s always been worthy of my trust. Where else would I go?
My confidence is in Christ, and I know that I am His. This is the story He is writing, and I will put my faith in Jesus.
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