“I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot slip, He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you, the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm, He will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
~ Psalm 121
HE GIVES and TAKES AWAY
by Mark Hall of Casting Crowns
Laurie Edwards watched her little girl gasping for air and wanted to breathe for her. She wanted the Maker of breaths to swoop in and fill her child's lungs and dissolve every tumor with His mere glance. She wanted another miracle.
It was the early morning of Saturday, October 30, 2004. Ten-year-old Erin Browning lay in a hospice bed in her home, in such pain and shortness of breath that, in fear and exasperation, she could manage only one request of her mother.
"Just read the Scriptures!" she said.
So Laurie began reading the Scriptures. She included Erin's favorite passage, Proverbs 3:5-6. From 1 a.m. until 5 a.m., loved ones took turns reading aloud the Word of God over a child in the last, cruelest stages of cancer's grip. Little Erin had battled for more than three years.
And now the end was near. Laurie tried to refuse to believe it, but her trust in the Lord remained steadfast. She was frightened and faithful all at once. She prayed for an eleventh-hour miracle. And she kept reading the Scriptures, as Erin had asked.
At one point, Laurie placed her Bible on the floor and stood on it, literally standing on the Word of God as she read over her child. Finally, after the long night of reading Scripture followed by another long night of hopeful prayer, Laurie consented for a hospice nurse to administer an IV with medicine that essentially placed Erin in a painless coma on Sunday afternoon. There would be no more gasping for breath.
I met Erin Browning on Valentine's Day, 2004 at Westover Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Erin loved Casting Crowns, and, after six years of dance lessons, had choreographed a dance to our song "Here I Go Again." When Laurie initially contacted us, we made arrangements to meet their family before that concert. Three months later, Erin danced for the last time as her mother and two sisters joined her for a performance of "Here I Go Again" at The Carolina Theatre.
I was gripped by the imagery of Laurie's standing on her Bible and quoting Scripture over her sick little girl. After all the e-mail updates and prayers, that moment melted my heart and sparked the lyrics to this song.
I kept up with Erin's condition through Laurie's e-mails detailing the family's wrenching ordeal. Every e-mail described a change in Erin's condition. One e-mail would offer hope: "There is a new treatment, so please be praying." So we'd pray, and then the next e-mail would report, "It's not working."
Sometimes Laurie had questions: "What's going on? I feel like I'm all alone in this." But her love of Jesus remained fervent even though she questioned what was going on and didn't really understand the reasons. It was raw, rare faith, and it was inspiring.
On June 21, 2004, I e-mailed Laurie to tell her that I was writing a song for Erin entitled "Praise You in This Storm." Upon the news, Erin screamed so loud that it hurt Laurie's ears. Erin never got to hear the song, but Laurie heard it for the first time when her mother bought the CD on the day it was released and took it to the school where Laurie works. The two women sat in the car, listened to the song, and "cried and cried and cried."
"Erin would be so happy to know that other people were being touched by something written for her, because she was never about herself. She was about other people," Laurie said. "Other kids at school would say 'I want to be like Erin.' And she would say, 'No, you don't. You want to be like Jesus.'"
I was impressed with Laurie's faith, but Laurie will tell you how much she was impressed with Erin's faith. Erin was six years old when she prayed to receive Christ. She was diagnosed with cancer when she was seven, and by the time she was eight she was visiting area churches to give her testimony.
Four months after Erin was first diagnosed, a second bone scan revealed that the cancer was gone. Doctors called the results remarkable. Laurie and Erin called it a miracle. Emboldened by the Lord's clear hand in her life, she began regularly sharing her faith and giving her testimony.
"She had a desire to reach people to let them know there is no hope or joy without God. And even though she had reason in her life not to be happy, she was joyful because she had Jesus in her heart," Laurie said. "She wasn't afraid. She let the Lord speak through her, and when she would get up and speak it was like I wasn't listening to my own daughter. He would put words in her mouth, and it was just awesome."
But the cancer eventually returned, and this time, it didn't go away. The tumors grew so large that they displaced organs and created a visible bulge in Erin's chest. They pressed down on her spleen, pushed her heart to the right, and deviated her trachea, straining her breathing.
Near the end, Laurie's e-mail updates were desperate. Her last one before Erin's death was a simple request in all caps: "PLEASE PRAY FOR ERIN!" It was the night in which Laurie stood on her Bible during the four hours of Scripture reading. The weekend crept into Saturday, when at 1:15 a.m. the hospice nurse told Laurie that Erin's vital signs and statistics suggested she had only approximately 20 minutes to live.
Fifty-one hours later, [she] finally gave up her fight. Erin Browning went home at 4:24 a.m. on November 1, 2004.
Laurie still doesn't fully understand what happened next. She remembers only a tremendous peace and describes it as being under the shower of the Holy Spirit. She held Erin's body for 90 minutes while her daughter played in heaven.
"It was not like how I expected her last minutes to be. I thought I'd be hysterical, but I wasn't," Laurie said. "But she was where she always wanted to be. She told me when she was six years old that she couldn't wait to get to heaven. She said she had felt an emptiness in her heart, but when she asked Jesus into her heart she never felt it again because Jesus had filled her and would never leave her. For the 10 years she was on this earth, God used her in a remarkable, powerful way.
"I've learned that He can use an average, ordinary family to do extraordinary things and that He continues to use us despite ourselves," Laurie said. "How He has done that is beyond me. But He has a plan and purpose. A lot of times I may not like His plan, but I accept it. I'm just honored that He chose to use Erin and this family as He has."
Through it all, I was captured not just by Laurie's faith but also by her worship. She had the worship of Job:
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
I have a son and two daughters, and I was amazed at how Laurie faced a parent's greatest fear. It doesn't mean that she wasn't angry. It doesn't mean that she wasn't sad or doubtful, but at the base of it she was leaning on God even if she was angry, sad, or doubtful. I was reminded once again that just because we cannot see God's purpose does not mean He doesn't have one. I was reminded that God is faithful, regardless of the circumstances. I was reminded that God is sovereign, and we're not.
Finally, I was reminded that we cannot control how long our lifesongs last. We only can control how loud we sing them. Little Erin lived out loud for Jesus.
Were I to designate a "Godline" for this song—a lyric or message that seems to come directly from God—I would have to write every lyric. The whole song is a Godline. When it comes to writing, I wasn't there for this one. I can't think of anything for which I should ever take credit. There are so many lines that gripped me as this came together. The first one was:
For You are who You are, no matter where I am.
And the first line that came to me concerning Erin's battle with cancer was the first verse:
I was sure by now, God, You would have reached down,
And wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day.
But once again, I say "Amen," and it's still raining.
It took me a while to be able to sing that verse aloud. I was too emotional over Erin and Laurie. The bridge also is special to me. In remembering Laurie's update about reading Scripture verses over Erin, I added Psalm 121:1-2 as the bridge to try to capture the cry of a desperate mother:
I lift my eyes unto the hills; where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
I remember when the second verse came to me:
I remember when … I stumbled in the wind;
You heard my cry to You, and raised me up again.
My strength is almost gone; how can I carry on,
If I can't find You?
I'm saying, "God, I remember when this happened before and You pulled me out of it. But right now, my strength is almost gone and I don't know how I'm going to make it through this when I feel so alone and can't seem to find You."
What is so remarkable about this song is how God already has used it. His reach extends beyond just those struggling with long-term or terminal illness. Somehow, God's providence made this song also apply to Hurricane Katrina.
The second verse especially fits the circumstances perfectly. Obviously, that wasn't me. That was the Lord. Now read the channel:
As the thunder rolls, I barely hear You whisper through the rain,
"I'm with you."
And as Your mercy falls, I raise my hands and praise the God who gives,
And takes away.
Now consider that this album was released the day after Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. Amazing, huh?
While I wrote the song from my exposure to one family's battle with cancer, I realized it would apply to many people who are dealing with tragedy and heartbreak. We've all been there, so I figured it would touch a nerve. But how could I have known it would have anything to do with a national disaster?
Unbelievable. You think you know what God is up to, and then He takes a song you wrote four or five months before and unveils an entirely new purpose for it.
Behold, He indeed makes all things new. That's what He did for this song. And that's what He did for little Erin.
I hope you all are enjoying a wonderful weekend. Thanks for stopping by.