Eric Huffman: On this episode of Maybe God, of all the questions you hear the most, what's the most difficult one to handle?
John Hopper: Well, I think the most difficult one is the question of pain and suffering.
Eric Huffman: We take a deep dive into the problem of pain by hearing the heart-wrenching stories of two families whose lives were turned upside down.
Lauren: It's crazy because I feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye. Literally overnight.
Leanne: I remember going out on my patio and I was screaming at the devil saying, "You cannot win this. You will not win this. Come fight me."
Eric Huffman: Why do bad things happen to good people, and especially to innocent children? And how can we hold on to our faith in God when life feels unfair?
Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman.
Hey everyone. Welcome back to Season 5 of Maybe God. Now it's been a month since the release of our last full episode, Are We All Getting High? And we're back today with this month's in-depth thematic episode. Now, if you're not already, I encourage you to follow us on Instagram and Facebook and to share all the video clips and content from all of our episodes that we're putting out there with your friends and family, and followers.
It's a season of real dramatic and important growth for the Maybe God team. So we need all of your help and support getting the word out about all the work that we're doing. So thank you in advance. We're just getting started here and things are really getting exciting.
Now if you've been a Maybe God listener for any length of time, you know that we are aiming to inspire doubtful believers and hopeful skeptics to boldly seek answers to their most challenging faith questions. And not just through debate or confrontation, but by telling uplifting and powerful stories, stories that are real and raw and honest.
Believe it or not, I'm still faced today with big faith questions, even though I'm a pastor, question that I have no idea what to do with. And when that happens, I have a good friend that I reached out to for help. His name is John Hopper. He handles questions from skeptics like me better than just about anyone I've ever seen in person.
In fact, he just released an amazing new book called Questioning God: Answers to Questions Worth Asking. He also helped lead an organization called Search Ministries here in Houston, Texas, a group that helps people have deeper conversations about faith and God. So John Hopper, welcome.
John Hopper: Eric, it is great to be with you today. I've loved listening to Maybe God. And what a privilege to be with you today!
Eric Huffman: So there's 40 people, just like you, with Search Ministries working in 23 different cities across the country. I'm curious, what are y'all finding are some of the biggest questions and challenges that people are having when it comes to belief in God?
John Hopper: Well, without a doubt, it's gonna be different for every person. So it may have been at a time, Eric, where the biggest questions were like, how do we know God exists? Or Why should I trust the Bible? And it's not that those questions aren't there still but there's some questions even sort of around that, I think that are kind of becoming bigger.
Eric Huffman: Really? What are those?
John Hopper: For example, the question might be, well, why should I even be concerned about whether there's a God or not? So not even concerned about looking at whether there is a God, because even if there is like, what difference does that make?
Eric Huffman: Wow.
John Hopper: That question kind of comes up, for example, when you hear people say something like, "Well, you know, your religion is good for you, but I'm fine. I'm good without it. Thanks. If you need a little God in your life, great, but I don't need it." So I think that's a question there.
And then I think, like, say, in terms of the Bible, is the Bible reliable? Or should we trust the Bible? But I think a question around that that's becoming even bigger is, well, even if there's some things in the Bible that seemed to match up with history, isn't an outdated? We're sort of past that.
Eric Huffman: Maybe it was true before.
John Hopper: Maybe it was true before. Haven't we evolved beyond that?
Eric Huffman: Yeah, interesting. I hear that a lot, too. Of all the questions you hear the most, what's the most difficult one to handle?
John Hopper: Well, I think the most difficult one, because it's not just an intellectual question, it's wrought with emotion, it's the question of pain and suffering. Of course, it's not a new question. It's a question for the ages. Why are we experiencing pain and suffering? And if there is a God, how does God sort of work into that? If God is loving, if God is all-powerful, why would God allow this pain and suffering in my life?
Eric Huffman: And it's also important to remember this is a question people who are Christians and non-Christians, like hardcore believers and hardcore unbelievers, everybody's asking this question.
John Hopper: That's right.
Eric Huffman: And I think that's important to remember because the pain and suffering people go through that raise this question, what impact that can have on their faith. Because I can't think of any other question or issue that has led more people away from deeper faith in God or done more to harm that relationship than the question about pain and suffering.
John Hopper: I agree.
Eric Huffman: Before you and I attempt to answer this question the best that we possibly can, as you know, Maybe God likes to start by sharing real stories, often stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, to help us really examine how God works in our daily lives.
Eric Huffman: Today, we're hearing the stories of two women who have experienced suffering in ways that most of us pray that we never have to. Strangely enough, there are many similarities in these women's stories. Both women were born and raised in the Houston area around the same time. They both belong to Christian families.
Leanne: I had a really sweet Sunday school teacher and now I can't even recall her name, but she loved me. I was excited to see her every week. I remember that.
Lauren: Grew up going to church, believing in Jesus and the Bible.
Eric Huffman: Both mothers have four children.
Leanne: Our first child is Allie. Next, we have Lizzy.
Lauren: Lily is 11. Mary Emma is 10.
Leanne: Jack is our third and Jack is 8.
Lauren: Landon is seven and Miles is 6.
Leanne: And sweet Charlie is our fourth child, the surprise baby.
Eric Huffman: And both mothers received some news in 2018 about their then three-year-old sons that turned their worlds upside down overnight.
Lauren: He just started complaining of knee pain. Like severe knee pain.
Leanne: I took him to the doctor because anytime you Google that, it can be scary.
Eric Huffman: That last voice you heard is Leanne. Leanne and I met in January of 2021. And what struck me from day one was her astounding strength and faith even in the waking nightmare that she was living at the time.
Leanne: I was given an extraordinary measure of faith.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Eric Huffman: Like the gift of faith?
Leanne: Like the gift of faith. Because I just have always been like, "It's gonna work out." And I mean it.
Eric Huffman: The gift of faith that you're talking about is often chalked up to a Pollyanna kind of naivete. But that's not what you're describing.
Leanne: Mm-mm. Because God always showed up. Even when things were bad, He always showed up and blessed me in some way that was only Him.
Eric Huffman: In addition to being a mom and wife, Leanne is a high school cheerleading coach.
Leanne: I was always coaching. I was always teaching. I was the kid that would invite people over to play and then I'm like, "Okay, we're gonna play school and I'm the teacher. Sit down." Just bossing people early.
Eric Huffman: Leanne's two oldest children are girls, Ali and Lizzie. They were followed by two boys, Jack and Charlie.
Leanne: I'll never forget when I had Jack, and they were moving me from one room to another, literally just a thought came into my mind and I was like, "Man, the girls have each other and I wish this little dude could have a brother." And Charlie came 21 months later.
Eric Huffman: And your pregnancy with Charlie in his early days were a little different.
Leanne: Yeah. So it was that 20-week scan where they do the baby's anatomy scan. So I went in just thinking, you know, regular fourth baby, had all these ultrasounds. I could practically read it myself. So I go in for the scan and the doctor kept going over the heart and kept going over the heart. And I said, "What's wrong with this heart? I know there's something wrong."
On an ultrasound, the heart looks like it has a cross in it. And that's just where the four chambers are. And Charlie's looked like you could see very defined the upper two chambers, but the bottom one looked like one big open space. You couldn't see the definition between the two bottom chambers.
And it wasn't my doctor, they sent me to somebody else. He was like, "There's definitely something abnormal about his heart, and this is what I think it is." So he, you know, sends me on my way.
Eric Huffman: Leanne left the doctor's office and sat in her car in a state of shock. Her unborn son had a rare condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, which is a rare combination of four major heart defects. And he would need immediate heart surgery after birth, followed by additional surgeries as he grew older. It also meant that he might never be able to play sports or to participate in other physical activities.
At this point in our conversation, Leanne shared with me that over the years and all of the toughest times of her life, God had always reminded her that she's not alone by sending her butterflies as a sign that He's with her. Just a few days after the ultrasound when Leanne was leaving a friend's house-
Leanne: I was like, "Lord, I just so feel your presence. I feel you. I feel like you're right here. I'd love to see a butterfly but I really don't even need one because I can feel you right here." And the next thing I know, a butterfly literally comes and touches my nose and flies off.
Eric Huffman: In the middle of winter.
Leanne: In the middle of winter. It made me stand there, probably look like a crazy person because I start hysterically laughing because He just showed me the side of Him like, "Girl, do you not think I can have a butterfly and land on your nose right now?" It was this moment of just like, "Oh my gosh, He's so good and He has the funniest sense of humor," you know? It was just like this reassurance.
Eric Huffman: Over the next few weeks, Leanne opened her Bible and began praying for a miracle.
Leanne: Now, I have to tell you about one amazing thing that happened. So I'm sitting there at this little ballet class with my daughter at a church and they have an amazing bookstore in this church. So I had walked up to the bookstore and I was like, "I need to look at your healing section. I'm want read a biblical book about healing." So I just went kind of like this, you know, randomly looking at the books. I was like, "That one." Pulled it, bought it and I read it all in one night. It's called Under Healing Wings by Jack and Anna Sheffield.
Eric Huffman: Leanne read the book in one sitting, then she looked up Jack and Anna Sheffield online. The couple has a healing ministry that takes them all over the world. And in an amazing twist, the Sheffields were scheduled to speak at a church just 30 minutes away from Leanne, just days after she finished the book. So she and a friend drove out to see them in a little church filled with people hoping to witness miracles.
Leanne: So this line starts to form. And so I go up, and Jack puts his hand on my shoulder and this other man, elder from the church puts his hand on my other shoulder. And Anna Marie, she says, "May I touch your belly?" And I said, "Absolutely." So she starts praying over Charlie and prayed over things that she did not know were wrong with his heart. Like, heal this hole, open this artery, fix this valve. The prayer was so specific and so on point, I was like, "Wow."
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Leanne: I start to feel an actual electrical current in my body. And I've never had that experience again. I hope people don't think I'm crazy. But the Holy Spirit was moving in my body, that it was like you didn't want to move away, but I could feel something energetically happening. And so when she finished praying, she said, "Well, do you want to know if it worked?" And I said, "Well, I have an appointment next week, and so we'll see. They're gonna do another ultrasound. Thank you all so much. It was great to meet you."
Eric Huffman: And a week later, Leanne went in for her scheduled ultrasound.
Leanne: Everybody there knew that I was the lady praying for the miracle. It was just well-known. And so the tech says, "Excuse me one second." And she goes in to tell the doctor, "Are you seeing these numbers I'm seeing because they're measuring things?" You know, she's taking these pictures and measuring different things. And my doctor says, "Yeah, tell them I'll meet him in the next room in a minute."
So we go into the next room, the doctor walks in and she says, "Well, I don't know how to explain this and I don't know why this happened but his pulmonary artery grew 16 percent. And there's really no reason why that would happen. There's no scientific reason to explain that." And so she said, "This change right now... I don't think he's going to have to have that initial surgery. I think he's gonna be fine." And then grow big enough and we'll know when the right time is to have the full heart surgery." That was a miracle. That was what was happening. I know it. I mean...
Eric Huffman: When they prayed over you?
Leanne: Yes. I know that's what was happening.
Eric Huffman: Wow. What's the first thing you remember about when Charlie was born?
Leanne: It was really exhilarating because we had this really fast natural birth. And I think it gives you an endorphin rush, I'm sure. But I do remember thinking because when they took him, typically you have a baby and then they clean them up a little bit and put them right on your chest. But they took Charlie for longer because they were listening to his heart.
And then I could hear him cry a different kind of cry, and it's because they immediately put an IV in his hand. This gives me emotion. The picture that I have of Charlie when he was born right when they handed him to me, he has a little IV in his hand already. And when I looked back at that, now I think he came into this world and the first thing he knew was pain. And it just hurts me so deeply. But these big eyes just staring at me, like, "All right, kid, here we go," you know.
Eric Huffman: Charlie never needed that initial heart surgery just after his birth. But when he was about six months old, a routine checkup with his pediatrician revealed that his oxygen level had dropped 10 points from 100 to 90. The doctor told the end that it was time to bring Charlie in for heart surgery.
Leanne: Anytime you hand your kid over for surgery, whether it's for tonsils or anything, I mean, it's hard for a parent. This was just extraordinary, because, you know, they're going on heart and lung bypass machine. And it's an unbelievably hard experience to hand them over for that. But he comes out and he's hooked up to all these machines. So there are wires everywhere. And then the next day, there were a few less wires.
So we went in on a Monday. By Wednesday, he's basically hooked up to nothing. And there's this one picture, when he kind of comes off of all the sedation that they keep him under for the first couple days, and he just gives me the biggest smile. And I was like, "Oh, my God, he's fine." By Friday, he was in our kitchen, in the little wheelie thing that they wheeled around the kitchen and it's like the most incredible recovery and the most incredible thing. It was just perfect. I mean...
Eric Huffman: A strong little kid.
Leanne: So strong. And so at that point, John and I just were like, "Wow, God showed up. We got this miracle. He's gonna be fine."
Eric Huffman: Gosh! What did you learn about your boy, and the kind of young man he was becoming, and his character?
Leanne: Right after the surgery up until just over three, he was just as lively and fun and energetic and feisty as any of our kids. I mean, he was just amazing.
Eric Huffman: Did any part of you think at that point that in the back of your mind that the other shoe could drop at any moment? Like did you live with a constant anxiety or did you think you were out of the woods?
Leanne: I think we thought we were out of the woods.
Eric Huffman: Let's meet Lauren, the second woman in our story today. Like Leanne, she grew up in the Houston area and was raised by Christian parents. But she says it wasn't until college that she really started to understand what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus.
Lauren: I was in the thick of college and parties and not making the best decisions. And for the first time, I realized, "I can't do this on my own. He needs to be the one to give me these new desires for my life." I feel like that's my first memory of really being like, "I need You, Lord."
Eric Huffman: After college, Lauren married a man that she'd known since high school and started working in public relations and eventually in the development office at Texas Children's Hospital here in Houston.
Lauren: I will say, that is hands down my favorite job. It just felt so purposeful and meaningful everything we did. And part of my job was to find these patient families, and learn their stories and get to know them. I mean, meeting these family, I mean, the kids and the parents, I just was blown away. Just everything they were going through and enduring, but yet just such kind and good people. I couldn't imagine at the time as a parent, as a child going through this.
Eric Huffman: Sure.
Lauren: Could not.
Eric Huffman: Eventually, Lauren left her job at Texas Children's to stay home full-time with their kids. When she gave her notice, she had no idea that the job had prepared her for the most difficult season of parenting she would soon experience. Landon is Lauren's third child. She describes him as the most intense with a big personality and also with a very kind heart.
At some point along the way, you started to realize that Landon might have a little bit of a different journey in store for him than the rest of your kids.
Lauren: It's crazy because I feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye. Literally overnight. We had been to dinner and we came home that night and he just started complaining of knee pain. Like severe knee pain. And really no other symptoms. Nothing else but just this severe knee pain. I slept with him that night. And finally in the morning, I was like, "Okay, we just need to go to the emergency room down the street and get an x-ray, see if anything's going on. He hadn't fallen and so I didn't think they were going to see anything on the x-ray. And they didn't.
So we came home and he started running fever but they gave him little ace bandage. There was something about having the ace bandage tied around his knee it gave him some relief. But it did not go away.
By Monday, we went to the pediatrician. And our pediatrician thought may maybe it was a bacterial infection. And so he wanted us to go get his blood taken so they could look at his blood. So they took his blood and they came back and they said, "We didn't find any bacteria in his blood." Which I don't know right away I kind of knew that wasn't good.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Lauren: That that meant that there's something else going on. Leukemia came into my mind at that moment.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Lauren: Yes. And I feel like that was God preparing me. He knew this moment was gonna come. They proceeded to tell me that they didn't find bacteria in his blood, but that all of his counts were low. I said to the nurse, "Do y'all think this could be leukemia?" And she was like, "Yes, that is definitely one of the possibilities. The only way we're going to know for sure is if we do a bone marrow biopsy."
Eric Huffman: Gosh.
Lauren: So we stayed at Touchstones Hospital that night. And he then, the next day, went under anesthesia for the first of many times that he was going to.
Eric Huffman: This all happened back in early 2018. Around the same time, Lauren and several doctors were trying to figure out what was going on inside Landon's little body. Leanne started noticing that something was off with Charlie.
Leanne: He was incredibly bruised, and I took him into the doctor. Because anytime you Google that, it can be scary. But they did a blood draw and then said, "You need to go to Texas Children's immediately." And I said, "We haven't eaten lunch, can we eat lunch?" And she said, "Get it to go."
Eric Huffman: Oh, my gosh.
Leanne: And that was really alarming. And I had a doctor friend who sat with me that whole day. John was out of town. It was like an eight hour day in the ER before this darling fellow and this new young resident came in to tell me the news. And it was just devastating.
Eric Huffman: What did they say exactly?
Leanne: They just said, "Your child has leukemia." And then they take you upstairs to the hospital and you check in on this floor and they literally start a treatment that night.
Eric Huffman: That's mind-boggling. It has to have been... it seemed like a bad dream. It must have just—
Leanne: It's horrific.
Lauren: We immediately reached out to friends and family and just said, "Look, we're at the hospital, the doctors and nurses potentially think this could be leukemia. Will you please join us in praying that it is not?"
Eric Huffman: Are they responsive?
Lauren: Oh my gosh, I'd never been in a position where I had literally had to ask people like, "Please pray for us." And that moment and throughout our entire journey God revealed to me just how incredibly powerful prayer is. When you know people are on their knees out loud praying for your child for your family, whatever you have going on, you feel it in it and it is the most powerful, amazing thing. It makes you feel powerful and it brings you peace. I feel like that's how God wants us to be there for one another.
Eric Huffman: Amen. What did the biopsy reveal?
Lauren: The doctor who had done his bone marrow biopsy came in and right when she walked in, I just knew... I don't even think she said it. I think I said to her, "It's leukemia, isn't it?" And she said, "Yes."
Eric Huffman: Gosh.
Lauren: And she went on to tell us that there are many different types of leukemia. He was diagnosed with A L L Leukemia B-Cell.
Eric Huffman: And your baby was how old at the time?
Lauren: He was three.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Eric Huffman: Charlie was also just three years old when doctors told Leanne that he had B-Cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Leanne: I don't know what rage feels like but when I was sitting there, and just the whole process to in particular of blood cancer, so many pokes. Seeing your child get poked, it's just like, "I wanted to put my fist through a wall. I was like, "Poke me." And he doesn't know what's going on because he's so little. It is horrific. And that's just the first night.
Lauren: You know that verse that says, "When we don't have the words to pray, He hears the groans of our hearts, something like that?
Eric Huffman: The Spirit intercedes, groans too deep for words.
Lauren: Yes, yes. I know that prayer. That is—
Eric Huffman: From that night?
Leanne: From that night. It was just so raw.
Eric Huffman: So just the shock of it must have taken time to—
Leanne: Oh, unbearable. And for all he had already been through, I was like, "No, Lord, not this child. Why?"
Eric Huffman: He's already fought his battle.
Leanne: Yeah. I just knew that he had this great life ahead of him. I just knew that was gonna be the outcome.
Eric Huffman: I can't imagine the feeling of injustice or unfairness for your baby that come over you as a mama.
Eric Huffman: I often find that these are the stories that either lead people away from God entirely or convince people that if God is real, He must not be the good god that Christians claim He is. Why else would He allow suffering in innocent three-year-olds like Landon? Why would he allow Charlie to face a deadly condition not just once, but twice? Is there any point at all to this kind of human suffering, especially to the suffering of children? This is where I asked my friend John Hopper to chime in.
John Hopper: One of the reasons might be to alert us that something's not quite right in the world. I think we can kind of move along in life when things are really going great for us and sort of be maybe oblivious to the difficulties or the hardships or the evil that's even in the world, and then suddenly, we're confronted with pain or suffering. And I think it's a way of God sort of waking us up.
Now, certainly, we can look at some situations to say, "Well, that's too strong of a waking up." Like I could have just used a subtle alarm. I didn't really need somebody yanking me out of bed and throw me to the floor, right?
Eric Huffman: Right.
John Hopper: So I think one of the reasons why God allows pain and suffering in the world is because it alerts us to the fact that something's not right, something needs to be attended to.
Eric Huffman: Right. I've heard it said, I think, the worst thing to be is numb. It's better to be in pain than oblivious to pain. Because, as you say, pain might be a warning sign or a presenting symptom-
John Hopper: That's right.
Eric Huffman: ...that something isn't as it should be.
John Hopper: And ultimately I think the biggest problem is that we get away from God. So He's kind of saying, "That's not good for you." It kind of wake you up.
Eric Huffman: Yeah, we see that pattern in Scripture a lot, right? And it's really an interesting idea that takes a lot of humility, frankly, to buy into. I think, medically in the scientific fields, it's obvious that pain is a trigger, and a sign of something going on that shouldn't be. And so if we look at that, physically, it's one thing. But to look at it emotionally just seems like the greatest injustice or the most painful thing.
And the reason why it feels that way in part is because we don't think it should be that way. And that "should" word is where I always perk up in these conversations. It's like "should" should have a capital S because it's a big word. Because what" should" implies is that there is some objective right or just thing that should happen. And when it doesn't, it's an objective injustice.
John Hopper: Right. Because if there is no God, then where do we sustain that should?
Eric Huffman: Exactly.
John Hopper: Because if we're just here as chance creatures sort of spit out by the cosmos through this random process, then we're just like Scrabble pieces that have been thrown to the floor. There's no real meaning or purpose to anything that's spilled out. There is no right or wrong at all. So our cries for justice or injustice are... They're just preferences really. It's just how we sort of are chemically responding to a situation but there is no real justice or injustice for us to even call God fair or unfair.
Eric Huffman: Yeah. Everybody expects life to be painful on some level, but when pain is mixed in with injustice is when people really raise these issues and have these doubts. But as you're saying, this is a clear sign that we have some sense objectively of what justice would look like.
John Hopper: That's right.
Eric Huffman: How frequent were the treatments and what were they like?
Leanne: Well, the first month I feel like you're almost in there every day for a while, and then you start off on steroids. He literally gained six pounds. And on a little, tiny person-
Eric Huffman: It's a lot.
Leanne: ...that's a ton of weight. And it's really hard because they have these very hard mood swings, and they can't sleep and they're hungry all the time, like irrationally hungry. There's several different phases. One of them involves spinal chemotherapy every week for a month or six weeks. You know, another phase is really, really tough, harsh red-colored chemo.
Lauren: That's the kind of the main adult chemo. It's definitely the strongest, the harshest. I mean, they call it the red devil because it really is like bright red.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Eric Huffman: And it's a devil.
Lauren: It's a devil. It can make you feel the worst and the sickest. And the doctors have to give you the longest list you could possibly imagine of every potential side effect. "Oh, he could stop breathing or he could have a seizure." So every time your child receives chemo...
Eric Huffman: It could be the last one.
Lauren: I just remember praying. And it's just out of your control, and you just have to surrender it to Him. Because at the end of the day, you just want to save your child's life.
Eric Huffman: Charlie and Landon both went into remission after the first month of treatments, which meant that the drugs were working and their prognoses were really good. After receiving the most intense treatments, which lasted for about six months, the boys were expected to endure another two and a half years of what's called maintenance chemotherapy. We had a whole community of people praying alongside of you. How did you see God showing up during that season?
Leanne: Well, I would just say that his whole journey through it seemed like everything was just gonna be okay. He just handled it all so well that I think I felt like God was just carrying him through it. Like He was just protecting him through this fire, you know?
Eric Huffman: Because God is who He is. And He's got us.
Leanne: Definitely very scary. And you could let your mind go to really dark places, but we didn't think like that.
Lauren: When you're given the worst possible news, you have a choice of focusing on all the negative things, or you can focus on Him. And if you do that, He just shows up in the most incredible ways.
Eric Huffman: And you think faith is the difference maker?
Lauren: It definitely is. You have to have hope. And our only hope is in Christ.
Eric Huffman: What was the worst of it in terms of side effects?
Lauren: There were periods where I would have to carry him up the stairs, his legs were too weak to go up. He didn't want to run or play. I mean, I think just being in the hospital so much he was so traumatized, and just was not himself. When your child is bald and you go places, it's just like such a sign and a reminder of how sick your child is.
Eric Huffman: Seeing people's reactions and...?
Lauren: Yes. I remember I just had to turn off Instagram. Not that it mattered at all, but our lives were so on hold.
Eric Huffman: Why did you have to turn off Instagram?
Lauren: Because it was just hard to see that everybody else was carrying on their lives in a normal way and going on family trips or just even seeing kids and pictures of them at school and Landon wasn't able to go to school. I mean, they told us that we were not going to travel for three and a half years. They told us all these things that we were not going to do.
Eric Huffman: Both Lauren and Leanne and their entire families were forced to put their lives on hold while Landon and Charlie underwent treatment. Eventually, the two moms both at Texas Children's Hospital at the same time met and became allies in the fight.
Leanne: Through mutual friends I'd heard about this family, two girls, two boys just like us, their youngest son, Charlie had just been diagnosed with Landon's exact diagnosis.
Eric Huffman: The same type and everything?
Lauren: Everything. I couldn't believe how similar their stories were, how our families were. So yeah, we connected. And what's interesting is I felt like Leanne ended up being the greatest gift God ever could have given me on this journey with cancer.
Leanne: We would just sort of commiserate about the treatment. "Have they told you this? Have you read about this? Have you read about that?" So comforting to know she was a believer too and we were praying for each other's kids.
Lauren: So I remember at first it was maybe just like a short text back but we ended up seeing each other at Texas Woman's hospital. The boys were up there at the same time for treatment, and we got to talk and meet each other. And then shortly after that, they decided to finish their treatment at MD Anderson.
Eric Huffman: You talked about faith together?
Lauren: Oh my gosh, all the time. No matter what your struggle is, no matter what you're going through, to have somebody that you can literally pick up the phone and they're going through the exact same thing, they believe and you can pray together, it was amazing.
Eric Huffman: As a father, it broke my heart when Lauren told me about the port in Landon's chest that reached the vein in the back of his neck, and how doctors and nurses had to access that port over 300 times. And when she described how little Landon would sometimes hide under the table to avoid another treatment, I couldn't help but think of my own little boy, and how it feels to see him afraid or in pain.
Lauren says she compared her role as a mother to God's role as a parent. She didn't want to put Landon through all that suffering but she knew it's what had to be done to save her son's life. About halfway through their treatment, the protocols for treating boys with B-Cell leukemia changed. And doctors told Lauren and Leanne that their sons could safely stop treatment about a year early.
Lauren: On one hand, you don't want to give your child toxins for a whole other year. The thought of having your child getting to kind of start living a normal life, I mean, it's amazing, right? Why wouldn't you want that for your child? But then on the other hand, you just want to be 1,000% sure this research is right. And so you kind of have to weigh these options in your mind. And I feel like Leanne and I did that a lot for months and months just really were a sounding board for each other.
And then we both after all of that just felt like the research really did show that the boys did not need this extra year. And then Landon and Charlie ended treatment completely in July of 2020.
Eric Huffman: Oh, at the same time?
Lauren: At the same time.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Lauren: I mean, maybe they were like early August and we were late July, but we just were so happy and celebrating for each other. It was amazing. I mean, they got the ports removed. And just we were so hopeful and excited for the future.
Eric Huffman: So you get Charlie home, the treatment's behind you. And then you have a little sweet spot there where it seems like things are getting back to normal.
Leanne: He was going to school, he started kindergarten. And I'd like to say loved school. He loved parts of school. He was so easy to love. He made friends so easily. Loved recess and loved art and all that. But the hard stuff, you know, you'd be like, "Do you like school?" Charlie's like, "Maybe. Some of it." And he would say cute things to me like, "Mom, I think I'll go for just a couple hours tomorrow and then you can pick me up after lunch or something."
Eric Huffman: And you said?
Leanne: And I was like, "Wow, that's kind of not the way it works. I think you have to go the whole time."
Eric Huffman: I figured you'd go racing to him whenever he asked.
Leanne: Oh, no, I actually would.
Lauren: Had a front yard party where I got a bunch of bells and we invited our friends and family and neighbors, anyone who had done anything, brought a meal, or prayed for us.
Eric Huffman: Did you have a feeling at that point that it was all behind you and that you were free finally, and he was gonna have like a normal childhood?
Lauren: Yes. And no, I knew it was such a huge accomplishment that he had made it through these two and a half years and everything he'd gone through. Oh my gosh, it was incredible. But I always kind of had PTSD knowing the fear of coming back is always going to be there.
Leanne: During those months off treatment, you start going in for a blood test every month, and then it spaces out.
Lauren: They're checking to see if the cancer has come back. Which is so confusing for Landon because here we are telling him he's done and we're celebrating that he's done. But then every month we have to go back.
Eric Huffman: Every month?
Lauren: Every month.
Eric Huffman: They draw the blood again?
Lauren: They draw the blood again. So more perks and pokes but it really is so stressful and so fearful. And thankfully his blood was all clear.
Leanne: One month was fine, next month, doctor calls and says, "I've looked at this with my own eyes because I thought the lab was wrong but it's back." And I just remember I was standing in my kitchen and the kids were all around and I just hit the floor and I started running to John. And I'm like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no." Because relapse is a thousand times harder to deal with than initial diagnosis.
Eric Huffman: When Leanne learned that Charlie's cancer was back, she also learned that the doctors who originally diagnosed Charlie had missed a particular gene that made him more likely to relapse.
Leanne: I remember going out on my patio and I was screaming at the devil saying, "You cannot win this. You will not win this. Come fight me." It was such anger, such anger, and such injustice. mean, just nothing you can do about it. And then you begin that fight all over again.
Eric Huffman: Did you feel your faith waning toward God?
Leanne: No. Only because I needed Him. I was like, "You could change this in a moment. You could change this in a moment. I never gave up hope in a miracle. I literally had a vision of myself in a hospital room praying to God to save my child. But I kept thinking God is going to show up so powerfully that it is going to rock all of these doctors and these medical people and so many people are going to be brought to Christ by hearing this incredible, miraculous story." Like that's what I had bought into in my mind.
Eric Huffman: One of the first people to find out about Charlie's relapse was Lauren.
Lauren: Leanne texted me saying they found blast. I read that and it's almost like I'm speechless because it was so shocking. I never ever in a million years would have thought that would happen.
Eric Huffman: How did you feel getting that message from Leanne, while also still riding high from your own good news?
Lauren: I really felt like it was if Landon had been told he'd been relapsed. I still can't believe that that happened. I mean, that never crossed my mind. And if I'm being honest, I started thinking, "Is this going to happen to Landon?" And it's such a testament to the person Leanne is, is she's found out her child is relapsing and again, your world is turned upside down. I'm sure they're making plans to go to the hospital and figure out things for her other three kids.
She called me to tell me that Charlie did not relapse because they took away that extra year. Because she must have known that I would have been thinking that and I would have been so afraid that this was going to happen to Landon. And she was thinking about me and reassuring me that this was not going to happen to Landon.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Lauren: I will never ever forget that. Never. I thought that was the most selfless, kind, considerate thing she ever could have done.
Eric Huffman: Charlie was five years old when he started the relapse treatment for leukemia, which is even more aggressive than the initial round of treatment. In October 2020, Charlie and his mom spent 21 days in the hospital. During their stay, Charlie's doctors hoped that he would go into remission to show that his body was responding well to the treatment. But at the end of his regimen, Charlie's test results showed no improvement.
That's when doctors at MD Anderson told Charlie's parents that he'd be a great candidate for a new therapy called CAR T. MD Anderson didn't offer this treatment at the time so Leanne and Charlie left for Philadelphia where CAR T was first developed.
Leanne: The plan was, I would live there for basically a month, Charlie undergoing this treatment.
Eric Huffman: This new therapy called for doctors to remove Charlie's T cells and then send them to a lab where they were altered, trained, if you will, by biomedical engineers to attack cancerous B cells. Then doctors reinjected his reprogrammed T-cells into his body to do their worst against Charlie's cancer.
Leanne: The treatment induces a cytokine storm. It's supposed to. We kept being reassured that we can control with medications, you know, worst case scenario, they're in the ICU for a little bit. So even when he started to not be able to breathe well and they moved to an ICU, they were like, "You know, this is under control" basically is to how they made us feel. But he ended up having to go on life support on an ECMO machine.
Eric Huffman: Were you there alone?
Leanne: I was there alone. Because they didn't prepare us for any of this honestly.
Eric Huffman: How quickly did everything unfold?
Leanne: We're talking like hours. I mean, like a day. There was a moment when he looked at me one night in the middle of the night before that next morning when he had to go on life support, he was having trouble breathing and looked at me and he said, "Mommy, I just want to survive." And that moment just stays with me because I hadn't even talked about it. I said, "You're gonna servive. Don't talk like that. What are you talking about?" How does even know that? He was taking in so much more than I realized at the time. Because I tried to shelter him. We never talked about anything like that.
Eric Huffman: Right. "Survive" is a big word for-
Leanne: It's a big word. I don't even know how he knew that word. I mean, I just... the sweetest moment happened that night too because he loved to play with his friends Roblox and the sweet friend Henry. So at one point, I'm talking and just forget that he's falling asleep, but I hear something on his computer. And I said, "Oh, my goodness, Henry, are you there, sweetie?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "Oh, sweetie, Charlie fell asleep. You can go to bed." And he goes, "No, I'm gonna stay on. I want to stay on the phone. If he wakes up, I want him to know I'm here." But just that tenderness that this little boy knew how to be there for somebody else, it's beyond words.
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Eric Huffman: During their entire journey, Leanne wrote a series of blog entries updating her community of family and friends who had been praying for Charlie through it all. Her eternal optimism was evident throughout their more than two-year ordeal.
On January 26, 2021, she wrote from Charlie's hospital room in Philadelphia: "I will tell you this, God has amazing plans for Charlie in this world. The reason I know this is because his precious life has been challenged since he was in my womb. The Lord has shown up for Charlie at every challenge and saved him and He will save him again."
Looking back now at those entries, her faith reminds me of a passage from the Bible in a book called 2 Corinthians, where it says, "We are hard pressed on every side, but we're not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."
Leanne: There were two chaplains who had come by, and one of them was an older man. And he came to me and he was like, "Witnessing your faith this week has changed me."
Eric Huffman: Really?
Leanne: Mm-hmm. And that was really special moment because, I mean, think about what he does every day.
Eric Huffman: What did he witness?
Leanne: I don't know. He just witnessed me never giving up on my kid, and never giving up on God and petitioning Him and asking Him to save him. And there was a moment, it was on the 27th of January actually. Philly is really gray, like it's just a gray place weather-wise and all that and that time of year. And there was this moment where they were bringing in an MRI because they didn't see any brain activity, you know, on life support, but your brain is still supposed to be doing this little movement. So they didn't act overly concerned at the time.
And before that MRI, there was one beam of light, like a ray of sunshine. They came into the room and shone on him. Just on Charlie. And I took that as a sign from God that he was okay. Like, I'm going to be okay. I'm here with you. But I think at that moment is when he left.
Leanne: I wish I would have known because after that I said, "Lord, I want you to save Him. I want that more than anything I've ever worn in anything. But if you don't save him, I will still praise you."
Eric Huffman: You said that.
Leanne: It's the hardest thing I've ever prayed in my life.
Eric Huffman: Charlie passed away the next day on January 28, 2021, with Leanne holding his hand.
Leanne: I wake up every day knowing that I made that promise. So when you asked me earlier if I was ever angry at God, I have been angry and I have wrestled with Him and I have questioned Him and I have had a crisis of faith but I go back that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. I don't know who am I to even question what His plan is. As much I'm suffering, He's not going to let any of my suffering go to waste. You know, it will have not been in vain.
Eric Huffman: Clearly.
Leanne: A lot of times I think I'm acting out of faith, and I'm acting out of obedience really even when I don't feel it. It's easy to praise when life is good and He's blessing me, and things feel good, and I feel this big love for God, and I feel this big... it's so easy then. But it's so hard when you're like, "Did you forget me? I can't hear you. I don't feel you now." I mean, He says in Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." That is me. So He says He's there. So I know He's close.
Eric Huffman: Right. What you're describing is, I think, the highest form of faith, which is believing and obeying when all the feelings are gone. And when you have been given all kinds of evidence to do otherwise as any objective listener could say you were given through this ordeal with Charlie.
Eric Huffman: What are you thinking and processing as a Christian, as a theologian? How do you conceive of a God who would allow such things?
John Hopper: My first response would be, I don't know. But I think it is really valuable to see that just because we don't know reasons for something doesn't mean that there's not good reasons. I think there's a lot of times, for example, with children when we were growing up and our parents told us to do this or that, we're like, "I just don't get a what mom and dad is saying." And then later on we see the value of impact, we start teaching our own kids to do this or that, right?
Eric Huffman: Yeah.
John Hopper: So I think that could be the case here, too. We can say, "I don't know why God would heal Charlie once, but not twice." But that doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't a good reason behind it. Okay? That's not a proof that there are good reason. It's just that when people sometimes see that this is hard or this is painful, they automatically conclude maybe that there aren't good reasons or there can't be. And that's just not necessarily true.
Now, that's uncomfortable for a lot of people. And I get that, that that can be uncomfortable. But if I want there to be a God who is all-knowing, I have to assume there's going to be moves that are made that I cannot understand or grasp. So if I'm playing chess with a Grandmaster, they're gonna make moves, this first column moves that like, Why did they move that piece there and move that there? Okay, a couple moves later, checkmate, right?
Eric Huffman: Right. Right.
John Hopper: So there was good reasons behind it but I just didn't know what they were. Now, if that Grandmaster was playing for me, let's say there was some bet on that was going to determine the destiny of my family, and they're making moves and I'm gonna, "I don't know. Why did they make that move?" But in the end, they win so my family is saved, I'm looking back on that and go, "I didn't understand those moves but I'm sure glad they were made because it all worked well in the end."
And I have to believe that if God is really the Grandmaster of the cosmos, of all things, that there will be moves that He makes that I don't understand in the present but that in the end will be for my well-being.
Eric Huffman: We have such a limited view of the bigger picture. And it's not satisfying always to say, well, there's just a lot that we don't know.
John Hopper: Yeah. I mean, I think in a situation like this, the loss isn't necessarily Charlie at all. I think from a scriptural standpoint, Charlie is with his heavenly Father. For Charlie, it was an upgrade. And we don't really know what the future would have held for Charlie here and his life. So it could have been a great mercy, even in sort of this temporary sort of small picture view of things to take Charlie from this life to the next life.
Eric Huffman: Mercy is always new.
John Hopper: Mercy. So, well, again, we don't know what could have happened sort of going forward in his life, the hardships, the struggles, the difficulties. And God could have spared him from those to be with Him. So for Charlie, it's not necessarily a loss. It could be an upgrade to be with his God.
Eric Huffman: Charlie's the lucky one-
John Hopper: In some way, he's the lucky one.
Eric Huffman: ...in that upside down. You're not saying that's absolutely the case. You're, again, opening our eyes to the possibilities.
John Hopper: Possibilities there. Yeah, absolutely.
Eric Huffman: Though, both of their sons' outcomes were very different, Leanne and Lauren still wrestle with the same big question, why?
Lauren: I firmly believe that God has a reason for all things and I firmly believe with everything I've gone through in my life that if you give it to Him, He will make it good. God taught me so much through Landon having cancer and everything that we went through and he went through. And I feel like I've never been close to the Lord and just my faith became something so much more real. Because before he was diagnosed, I felt like I was just very much going through the motions.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Lauren: Yeah. But then I look back and I'm like, "Lord, did Landon have to have cancer for you to like wake me up?" That's something I do struggle with.
Eric Huffman: Sure.
Lauren: Because there have been so many blessings that have come through this cancer journey. So many. And that's just how God is. He's so good and He's so faithful. But I have to look back and I'm like, "Lord, Landon had to endure cancer for You to wake me up, for You to make me see what's important, and how much I need You." I've prayed like, "Lord, don't ever let me get complacent or don't ever let me lose this feeling of needing You." Because I'm scared of that. Because that's how it was before. And it took hearing that my child has cancer for Him to rock my world.
Eric Huffman: Right. Yeah, that's profound.
John Hopper: I do think that God often has to reshape our view of what He's really like. That sometimes we come to the table with a view of God that's incomplete. And I think a lot of times, we come to a table with a picture of a God who would really never allow anything that bad to come into our lives. It's actually not the picture that we get in Scripture.
So if we look to the Bible, we see God oftentimes allowing for evil even at times being the instigator of suffering, right? We see that from the garden. Right? So with the curses that are there in the garden, and so this pain and suffering that would come, God sort of unleashing that really in that. Right?
Eric Huffman: Right.
John Hopper: I think it's maybe wrong for us to think of God in this Santa Claus perspective. That He is a God that will allow hard things in our lives but it's never without purpose and it's never without hope and it's never without a way. I think that's what we're all sort of on a journey to learn.
Some glad morning when this life is o'r
I'll fly away
To that home on God's celestial shore
I'll fly away
Leanne: Charlie was an expert negotiator and I'm not exactly sure where he got that. He was always negotiating with doctors and his nurses. The nurse was trying to get him to go into this scary MRI machine, and she said, "How about $1?" It took about 20 minutes negotiating. And he looked at her and he said, "How about 10?" And the nurse looks just like, "I don't make that much money." I said, "I'll support her with nine." I'll support her with nine. Just do it."
Eric Huffman: Charlie's funeral was held on February 9, 2021, his sixth birthday. Both Leanne and her husband spoke at the ceremony. And the words they shared that day and the courage and strength with which they spoke continue to resonate with me as well as everyone else who was there.
Man: Charlie also chose to always be happy. He made this decision early on. Even against the backdrop of some of the most challenging circumstances for anyone, he chose to be happy. But what you noticed about him was his happiness was different. It had something deeper to it. It was a joyful, selfless happiness. They made all those around him smile and laugh.
Eric Huffman: The other thing that struck me that day was how Charlie's community, the one that had been praying for him all along showed up for him and for his family in their hour of greatest need. As Charlie's grieving parents and three siblings drove down a large Houston Boulevard on their way to the funeral, hundreds of people lined the street holding red balloons, a sea of red balloons, representing Charlie's favorite stuffed animal, Winnie the Pooh.
As I was reading through your blog posts and the gut-wrenching one that you wrote to your friends and family after Charlie passed, you quoted from Winnie the Pooh. And I don't know if you remember this, but I read this and I just broke because the quote was Piglet asking, "Where are we going, Poo?" And Poo responded, "Home, Piglet. We're going home because that's the best thing to do right now." Which was your way of saying that for Charlie, going home with Jesus was the best thing, the best thing he could do, or any of us could do, really.
And that eternal perspective, it's what's lost on us in our little earthly life here. We think that we're somehow owed 70 good years on this earth because this life matters that much. And when you have the faith that you have in Jesus, it's eye-opening, to see that, you know, maybe it's not that great of an injustice to go be with Jesus even sooner. I know, it's wild to even say it because we don't think of life this way. But what if Charlie's looking at us going like, "You guys have no idea."
Leanne: But where were we taught that a good Christian, the biggest blessing is a life of old years and little troubles? Where were we taught? Is there somebody in the bible? Tell.
Eric Huffman: No. No.
Leanne: Is there somebody that had that?
Eric Huffman: Nowhere in the Bible.
Leanne: Because I don't know why we all think that that means that you're totally blessed. And then people who have all this hardship are not blessed.
Eric Huffman: You can't look at Jesus and make sense of that. Because Jesus said actually to be blessed by God doesn't look like what the world calls a blessing. You're blessed when you're persecuted, and you're blessed when you suffer, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness. That's when you're blessed. Then He embodied that. He was Son of God, fully blessed on a cross. And so it's an upside-down world that we live in as Christians. It sounds crazy to people that don't believe what we believe about God, about Jesus and about eternity. So I think we let the world influence us instead of the other way around.
Through all of this, though, did any part of you worry that because things didn't work out for Charlie and his physical healing like you had hoped and declared over him, did you worry that people might lose faith?
Lauren: Yes. Because I thought that that's what builds your faith, is when you get the miracle you asked for. And I think that God was putting down crumbs, saying, "I can show you a butterfly. I'm real," I think along the way in all those prayers that were answered... I mean, this is like the tip of the iceberg of my whole life of like this is obviously the most poignant, but there were things and He's blessed me along the way the whole way.
Eric Huffman: You said earlier that most people think you grow in your faith by having your prayers answered. What have you learned in all of this about having unanswered prayers, seemingly unanswered prayers, and yet your faith is still grown? Like how's that happened?
Leanne: Well, because I like this verse. It's John 20:29. It says, "Then Jesus told them, because you've seen me, you have believed, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." That's why. Because I think now I'm not necessarily seeing but I want to be faithful, I want to be used for His kingdom. It's just a deeper level, I think.
Eric Huffman: It is a deeper level. That's right. I'm glad you see it that way.
Leanne: I don't know that it feels better.
Eric Huffman: It doesn't feel better.
Leanne: I don't know that I think-
Eric Huffman: But it's truer.
Eric Huffman: It doesn't feel better, but it's a truer relationship when you say to God, "I will sing your praises in sunshine and in the darkness." The reason I know it's a truer relationship is because I know if I'm that way toward my wife, then I'm being a truer husband than just singing her praises when she's meeting my needs.
So if it's a relationship than what real love looks like from one person to another, is I sing your praises when I'm with you, when I'm not, when things are great, when things are awful. My affections for you don't change. That's true love. That's why you know in your bones it's the truest form of love you could have for God is to say, "Answer my prayers the way I want or not, I'm going to praise you the same." That's the love you, I think by the gift of God, you've been given this faith since you were a little girl. And that faith just lets you love God truly in ways that most people struggle to honestly.
Eric Huffman: My conversation with Leanne left me wrestling with two questions. The first is, how would your life be different if you live more like Charlie? Instead of allowing a season of inexplicable pain to lead you into isolation and self-pity, what if you followed in Charlie's footsteps and chose to find joy, even through your darkest days?
Stay lost with me
Sitting here in the stillness and quiet
Losing track of the time
Oh, this memory will burn the brightest
Leave it be, let it shine
Just stay lost here with me
Eric Huffman: The second question is similar to the first, how would your life be different if you live more like Leanne? What if even when your struggle seems overwhelming, you chose to say to God, "I will sing your praises in the sunshine and in the darkness the same"? It may seem unthinkable that you would keep on praising God while experiencing a loss as deep and painful as Leanne's. But her unshakeable faith points to a deeper reality.
Leanne knows that God is still not done with Charlie even now. And her story has inspired thousands of other people to find hope and the eternal promises of God, including Lauren.
Lauren: I think his legacy is going to be forever. And I think because of Charlie and Leanne and their family, so many people are going to get to learn about the Lord. And when they're going through the hardest thing they ever could go through that they're not alone, that Christ is with them and loves them and they can get through it.
Eric Huffman: The Maybe God's team and I hope that this episode serves as a source of inspiration and hope to anyone listening right now who happens to be in the midst of a struggle, overwhelmed by pain, maybe even suffering in silence or isolation. I believe that in God you have a reason to keep hoping and believing that this pain you're in will not be in vain and that someday, somehow God will redeem your suffering and heal your wounds, and you will be stronger for having endured the season that you're in.
Thanks for listening to Maybe God.
Just stay lost here with me
We don't have to say anything
Just let ourselves get lost in between
Announcer: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois, Andrea Gentle, and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our talented editors are Shannon Stefan and Justin Mayer, and our social media guru is Kat Brough.
For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to maybegodpod.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening everyone.