WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. Four years ago today, Kara Tippetts, passed away.
Kara’s life is now being remembered with the new movie, The Long Goodbye, that releases on DVD and streaming platforms also today. We remember her life and mark the release of the new movie with an encore performance of a conversation I had with Kara Tippetts just a few months before she died.
Kara Tippetts died on March 22nd, 2015. She and her husband Jason, had four beautiful children, a thriving new church that Jason had started and served as pastor. But soon after moving to Colorado Springs to start that church, Kara discovered she had breast cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, the cancer spread throughout her body.
Kara described herself as a terrible sick person. She said she hated being sick, so it might’ve been easy for her to retreat into self pity. Instead, she started blogging about her experiences with a remarkable transparency that immediately won her readers, 10 to 20,000 page views every single day. A publisher discovered the blog and the result was her first book, The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard.
But despite intense prayer and all the efforts of medical professionals, Kara eventually did succumb to cancer. Hundreds came to her memorial service in Colorado Springs and nearly 20,000 people watched the service online from all parts of the world. Before she died, Kara Tippetts wrote another book, Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together. And a year after her death, yet a third book appeared, And It Was Beautiful: Celebrating Life in the Midst of the Long Goodbye.
Now on the four year anniversary of her death, we have a new documentary of her life, also called The Long Goodbye and it’s out on DVD and streaming services. I had this conversation with Kara Tippetts just a few months before her death at her home in Colorado Springs
Kara, your book is called The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard and whenever I read that, I want there to be a hard…
KARA TIPPETTS, GUEST: Something.
SMITH: Yeah, but it’s for hard, whatever hard.
TIPPETTS: And that’s what I say in the introduction. I am not trying to win at having the hardest story. I’m trying get us all to look for God’s grace in the midst of any hard ’cause though my hard is cancer. Each of us face hard every single day and where we had an expectation of what life would be and yet it comes unmet.
SMITH: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about those expectations about what life was going to be. You and your husband Jason live here in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but you came here originally to plant a church. Talk about that journey and arriving here in Colorado Springs is also about the time you found out you had cancer as well.
TIPPETTS: Well, the first day in town I actually fell on my face. I passed out from dehydration and altitude and fell on my face and broke my nose. And my teeth went through my lip and my heart went into AFib. And then six months later, that was reconciled. And then we moved here to the west side of town and we’re ready to plan a church and the Waldo Canyon fire came screaming down that ridge that you saw driving up.
SMITH: For people that don’t know, I mean, the Waldo Canyon Fire, it was…
TIPPETTS: The largest in history.
SMITH: Largest fire in the history of Colorado, one of the largest in the country. And it was for folks that didn’t live in Colorado Springs, they just don’t know how, what a defining moment that fire was for this city.
TIPPETTS: Our entire zip code was evacuated. We had just moved in 10 days before. Over 330 homes were burned. And it was just a wind. They thought they had it and there was a wind change. And you know, everything changed in a moment. In a split moment. But that was where we had chosen to… the side of town that we’ve chosen to do the church plant. And it was very clear to us that it was a door opening. People came out of their doors, sat on front porches talking to each other about what happened. It was really a beautiful moment of God opening the doors for community in the brokenness of that. And then 10 days after that is when I found the lump and found out that I had breast cancer.
SMITH: So you found the lump in your breast and you’ve written that even before you got the diagnosis you knew?
TIPPETTS: I knew. I simply knew. I said, I just knew. I really just knew that I was going to be asked to walk this. We had no family history of it. I just felt sure that it was cancer and that I was being called to do something really hard.
SITH: And it turned out that it was cancer.
TIPPETTS: It did.
SMITH: And what happened next?
TIPPETTS: So we got the diagnosis and I first started with chemo, then went to a double mastectomy, reconstruction and then radiation. And then in the midst of that, the mother church that hired us is a large church here town. We were supposed to start our church plant in October and they allowed us to stay with them until March. So in March we started the church plant in the midst of radiation. And God has just been blessing that work. There’s just a real sense of brokenness in our community. So we have this really beautiful church of people who know that we need Jesus. And there are seven of us in our community with cancer and in our small little community — we have about 200 now. And then we went away for the summer. We went away on vacation and enjoyed the best of Colorado. And then…
SMITH: That would have been 2012?
TIPPETTS: That was 2012. The summer of 20… No, at this point it was 2013. The summer of 2013 we ran away to enjoy Colorado and I came back in the fall and my last optional surgery was to have my ovaries removed. And when I went to that… he was a GYN oncologist. When he did an exam, he found tumors. And so at that point I got the diagnosis of stage four metastatic cancer, which means the cancer has then gone into my blood and moved to other organs. And so I had a radical hysterectomy and it has since just been growing and growing and growing. The story of cancer growing and then Jason and I just looking for Jesus in the midst of it.
SMITH: And what has that been like? So that was a little over a year ago and stage four cancer is, I mean, forgive me for putting it so…
TIPPETTS: It’s incurable.
SMITH: But, yeah, it’s incurable and for many people it’s a death sentence.
TIPPETTS: It is, it is. Well, you know it is that. Tt’s true that there is no cure. But when you have the horizons of your days shortened, you can either a curl up in a ball and count yourself out and just wait to die or you can begin to really live. And so the grace of having very small children is every day I have to pack lunches and deal with cuts and sibling rivalry. You know, I have to still keep going. And so while I still have this breath, I’m praying I use it faithfully.
SMITH: And in the midst of all of this, you started a blog as well, is that right?
SMITH: Tell me about that blog.
TIPPETTS: So it’s called Mundane Faithfulness. I started it from Martin Luther’s quote, “What will you do in the mundane days of faithfulness?” And my husband had preached that very often and I really felt like as a mom, most of our days are like Groundhog’s Day: every day the same laundry, dishes, dinners. How do you see Jesus in the midst of it? And how do you not just get through it but live well in the midst of it? So I really started it thinking it was going to be a mom blog, just encouraging moms to love their kids well. And I didn’t realize it was going to be my journey on cancer and loving kids well and my husband well.
And when I first got the diagnosis, I went to our elders as they prayed for me and said, my heart is that I would not use illness as an excuse to be unkind to my family. And that has just really been my prayer that even though, and I’m a horrible sick person, I hate being sick. But I just really ask God to help me in the midst of my heart to be kind and loving to my family.
SMITH: So you’re a horrible sick person. You hate being sick. What’s the worst part about it?
TIPPETTS: You know, it’s just the constant, a lot of chemo is just a constant, almost carsickness. And then some of the drugs they give you to help rapidly grow your white blood cells cause great pain. So, you know, Jason and I will be going out to an event at night and he’ll say, “Do you feel good?” And I’ll look at him and say, “Nope, let’s go.” So it’s just a constant feeling poorly, but I’m not sick with a virus, so I’m not contagious in any way and I just have to learn to live even when I feel horrible.
SMITH: In the midst of that living when you feel horrible and then starting to document it on your blog, that’s when you came to the attention of a publisher. Is that correct?
TIPPETTS: Correct, correct. David C. Cook. It was right after my hysterectomy when I got the new diagnosis. And they approached me and said, “We love your writing. We love the honesty with which you write. Would you be willing to write a book with us?” And at first we didn’t know if I’d even have the time to write the book. If…
SMITH: You mean…
TIPPETTS: The time living. Yeah, we didn’t know. We weren’t actually sure how long I had at that point. And so they just came very gracious and wanted to work with me and said they would use some of the writing I’d already done. But I said to them, “My heart is if I want my blog readers to read this book, I want it to be new to them.” So they gave me a very short deadline and we just worked really hard. I had a wonderful editor who did a lot of work with Brennan Manning, one of my heroes, and he’s a poet and he very gently got this story out of me.
SMITH: What do you want the book to be and do?
TIPPETTS: I just want, you know, I think so much of our culture is about winning and winning, being the best mom. You know, social media makes us all compete. And my heart is that we would stop competing and start living honestly and in the honest living, help each other love each other better and Jesus better. And my hope is that we wouldn’t be afraid of hard things in our life, but allow those hard things to be the things that make us see how much we need God. And so in the losing, by this world’s standards, I’m seeing how kept and how loved I am and I want other people to see that because everyone, everyone, everyone has hard in their life. Mine, like I said, mine is cancer, but everyone has something and some people are hiding it and not realizing that God can use it in a unique way.
SMITH: Kara, there are going to be a lot of people who hear your story and say, you know, she had a great husband, great marriage, great kids, a calling on her life — you and your husband planting this church — meaningful work, and you were being successful at it by the world’s standards. The church was planted, the church was growing and then this. God must be a real you-know-what to allow this sort of thing to happen. So even if you can somehow reconcile the character of God in the midst of all of this, which it sounds like you have in very powerful ways, what would you say to the folks outside looking in at that situation?
TIPPETTS: It is hard for a lot of people on the outside looking in and, you know, I often say hard is not the absence of God’s goodness. Look how our salvation was made and it talks about in Philippians that we then get to partner with Jesus in suffering. And so it’s a calling of us all. I think we forget that. I think somewhere we have blended this American culture into our faith and forgotten that suffering is very much a part of what we’re all called to.
SMITH: There’s also, though, I would think on the other side of that coin, a danger to be glib about this too, right?
SMITH: And I mean, because you know, it’s not just your suffering, but it’s your families as well.
SMITH: The possibility that you’re going to leave them without a wife, without a mother. How do you as a family deal with that? I know some of that is probably too personal to talk about.
TIPPETTS: No, not at all. I talked very honestly and openly about that. You know, I don’t discount how incredibly hard it in. In my writing, I mean, I have desperately low days and days where I forget and I need my community to remind me of the goodness of God. And I’m really honest about that. That today I can’t see the gospel. Today I can’t see this. Will you all help remind me?
And for my kids, we have a very large age range of kids and so we have just been very open with them and answer their questions as they come. And we tell them, you know, last week I found out I have cancer in my brain in three new places. And the kids got in the car. And I said, all right, kids, you know, mommy, you know, we’re struggling with cancer. We found three new spots in my brain. Now let’s just play the music really loud and dance on the way home from school and go home and make dinner. And you know, with our diagnosis it’s just going to keep coming like that. And so they get in the car. It’s like, all right kids, mommy has to do more, go to more doctors. And you know, it does sound a little glib, but it’s kind of our story.
SMITH: Well, you know, it’s funny when I walked up here, you and are sitting on your front porch right now with the Waldo Canyon Fire remnants there in the background and I guess Pikes Peak over there as well.
SMITH: Beautiful sight here. On your front porch, though, you’ve also got a sign, a chalkboard sign that says “Immune suppressed. Please wash hands before entering.” And you’ve got some hand sanitizer there. Your daughter came to the door, whenever I knock on the door and she just looked up at me and said… and I said, “Do I need to wash my hands before I come in” And she said, “Yeah, you need to wash your hands because my mommy has cancer.”
TIPPETTS: Does she say that? Wow.
SMITH: It was just very straight forward.
TIPPETTS: Yes. Yes.
SMITH: I mean, when you hear that right, does that…?
TIPPETS: From a five year old? Yeah. I mean, that’s her reality. And it’s hard, you know, last week I shaved my head and my hair is now about to fall out, so I’m going to look like you pretty soon, Warren.
SMITH: It’s not all bad.
TIPPETTS: It’s not, well, you know. And so for the kids they know, I mean, I appear as somebody sick. They know I’m somebody who is sick and it’s our story. You know, my youngest daughter’s name Story and she knows this is our life. She probably doesn’t realize that cancer is deadly. There will be the time that that unique conversation will come to her, where my oldest, they do know. They do know. And so in the book I talk about my second born saying, is mommy going to die of old age or cancer? And we just laid in bed and cried together and I said, “Harper, well Jesus will be good to us in either answer.” And we just cried that we want to believe that truth. It hurts.
SMITH: Kara, a few minutes ago you talked about your community and how they have walked with you through some of the times at the very bottom. Since you’ve had that experience with people around you who stood with you in the midst of this, what’s helpful and what’s not helpful?
TIPPETTS: You know, that’s an excellent question. I really, you know, I really love hearing the stories with cancer where people have grown in faith or grow near to God. I struggle when people need to tell me the horrible deaths from cancer. Those really discourage me and sometimes will leave me just broken-hearted for a couple of days. That has been unhelpful when people tell me really hard deaths with cancer.
What is helpful, too? We have asked our kids along the way, what help do you want in our home? And my children specifically love when I cook and they just like watching me cook. There’s something very normal about me cooking. In my first year of cancer, people brought dinner every night and this time we’ve asked for freezer meals so that the kids watch me put it together. And even though I’m not the one actually cooking, it appears to my children than I am.
And so we just are very careful season by season, you know, right now I have moms that help me come and clean on Mondays because we’re trying to save my energy for the kids when they get home from school. And I think it is for a community it’s a constant asking, especially when somebody with has a chronic disease, you know, we want suffering to be like pregnancy nine months and it’s done. But my story isn’t like that. So we have to keep re-looking at my story, what new help do we need and what new support do you need as I get weaker and weaker?
SMITH: You know, when I hear you talk about the story of your church and the fact that you and Jason have planted this church and it has grown, its thrived. I mean, it’s now got over 200 people in the church and several folks with cancer in the church. Again, the temptation is to be glib about this and to say that well, to look for the happy ending, to look for the moral in the story. And to say things like, well, you know what Satan intended for evil, God has turned into good by giving you guys such a powerful and compelling story that it’s drawing people to your church. And there may be some truth in that.
SMITH: But how do you sort of process all of that?
TIPPETTS: You know, at the end of the day, my heart’s desire is for more time and to be a mom longer. And so I can say in my mind that God is good even if he takes me early, but in my heart I scream, Lord, let me stay. And, you know, somebody once told me a story of she was in the season of great blessing. God was blessing her ministry, her book. And she had a friend who just lost her husband and she was in the midst of great suffering. But the hard thing for both of them was to trust God. And I listened to that and I said, I’m both those women. I’m in the midst of great blessing and getting to share my story, getting to ask people to look for God’s grace and I’m also dying. And so the struggle is to trust God every day. To trust God and walk in faithfulness with him. And it is not a simple journey.
SMITH: You talk about being tired. I gotta imagine that hearing impertinent questions from guys like me has got to be a part of the draining. It’s got to be a draining part of this process. Yes or no?
TIPPETTS: No, not for me. I’m highly extroverted. I don’t think that’s often true of writers, but I love people and getting to share this story and meet new people, it is one of my greatest delights. And I have enjoyed this process of getting to share my story and answer hard questions and that in some way maybe it would encourage just one person even.
SMITH: Well, this is a question that is not normally a hard question, but maybe in this context it takes on a little bit of a different dimension. Almost always whenever I interview someone, I asked them what do they want on their tombstone. Usually that’s a question that is more academic or intellectual or something that they’ve never really thought about.
SMITH: I am wondering now whether you’ve thought about that question more tangibly, more specifically.
TIPPETTS: Warren, that’s a great question. I’ve never actually thought of that question probably because I don’t actually want a tombstone. You know, Jason once said to me years ago that if I had a tombstone and he was called to move away, he’d have a hard time leaving a place that symbolized where I was left. And so, I know for my story I won’t actually have one. I know that I am going to be cremated and left at a place that our family and I have loved together as a family, that has special meaning to us. So I don’t know. I’ve never thought that, but that’s a very interesting question that I’ll chew on, I’m sure, after this.
SMITH: Well, okay. Given that you’re not going to have a tombstone. I mean, and you, of course, have written this book and one of the things about books as a writer myself, I’m both, maybe there’s a part of my ego that says after I’m gone people will read this whenever maybe no one will read it, right. Because you never know. And on the other side of that coin, there is this, whether people read it or not, it is in, you know, every time I write an article or a book, it’s kind of like my best effort to leave something behind, whether they read it or not. What do you hope people get out of the book and your life in general? What, even though you’re not going to have a tombstone, what’s that message?
TIPPETTS: Well, I think when I think specifically to my family with this book and with my writing on Mundane Faithfulness, I want the essence of my heart to be left behind. That when my kids go to find me, they won’t find me, but they’ll find the essence of me and they’ll know me by these words. And by the countless words that I’ve left behind. And not even know me, they would see my dependence on Jesus and that that would be what would lead them. Okay. Mom might not give me advice, but she would have said to me, well, what’s the Holy Spirit saying in your life? And so, and then for the reader’s abroad, I mean, I hope it would challenge people to live and kindness to one another. That kindness matters and it shows others the gospel in a way that nothing else does. And that looking for God’s grace, that unmerited love that we did not earn, but that is lavished upon us each day of our living, that they would begin to see that.
SMITH: Kara, in closing just a couple of things. First of all, and forgive me for asking this so bluntly, but what are the doctors telling you right now?
TIPPETTS: Yeah. You know, I was raised in the Love Boat generation where it’s like I’m on the boat because I have six months to live. It’s not so much like that anymore. Basically, I think the time will come when they say we’re out of treatment options. And at that point, we’ll know I’m to the end. We’re not there yet. I’m not out of treatment options. It’s moving through my skeletal system quite rapidly, which is discouraging at best. So, I have never been told any type of timeline. I know people are very curious of that, so that’s a great question.
SMITH: Are you curious?
TIPPETTS: No, I don’t want to know. I mean, there’s part of me, with each new diagnosis, I know I’m getting closer to the end. You meet people who just can’t wait for Heaven, that talk about it all the time. I am not one of those people. I love heaven. I am sure that is my destination. I am 100% sure that’s where I’m going. But I’m not a person who pines for it because when I look in my kid’s faces, I want to stay, because it’s what I can see, feel, hear, and touch.