An Uncommon Friend

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I met Shelly Carvan when my heart was in shreds, soon after our family came home battered from the mission field in France. We attended the same Life Group at church, and I distinctly remember talking to her in the hallway outside of class, knowing immediately that I wanted to befriend her. She, I sensed, was unusual in a quiet, compelling way.

Patrick and I deepened and continued our friendship from that moment onward, and we had the privilege of sharing life (and meals) with her on many occasions. The more we knew her, the more we loved her, and the more we saw something akin to a diamond shining from her soul–sparkling all the more because of the pressure and pain of life. Some folks shrink from that kind of refinery, but trials seemed to refine her instead.

Like all of us, she endured hardships, but her uncanny grace in persevering through them surprised us. Every time we left her presence, we felt like we had been touched by the light of Jesus. That’s what diamonds do–they capture light and reflect it back in a prismatic dance.

Shelly is the kind of person who would scold me for this post. She didn’t like to bring attention to herself, after all, but I can’t help but praise her publicly as I grieve. Because she was beautiful. Flawed like us all, but lovely, lovely, lovely.

The word that comes to me in this moment is uncommon.

Shelly exhibited uncommon devotion. She loved her family fiercely, prayed for them, and walked alongside them. In a world full of splash, she quietly discipled and loved the people God entrusted her with. She spoke life into the desperate, cried alongside, and stuck to you like glue when you walked your own trail of tears. She did all this understated, away from fanfare, content to serve without being noticed. I think that’s why many would say, “She was my best friend.”

Shelly practiced uncommon compassion. Her heart broke at the things that bothered God’s heart. When her kids reached the teen years, she opened her home and her heart to junior high and high school girls. She spent years loving and caring for HIV-positive residents at Hillcrest House in Dallas, laughing, engaging, dining alongside, and playing games with the residents. Later when she moved to downtown Dallas, she aligned herself with Cafe Momentum, a restaurant that helped at-risk youth get back on their feet. She mentored girls there, too. Shelly taught me what ministry was, stripped of all the decorations we add to it. Ministry, to Shelly, was loving others where they were and adventuring with them through life’s difficulties and joys.

Shelly had uncommon truthfulness. If she said she would be there, she would be there. If she said she would pray, I know she would pray. Though conversations laced with truth are easier to avoid, she faced those with authenticity and candor. I never felt she was hiding something from me, but she also didn’t overshare. She told you what needed to be said, and she seasoned those words with faith, trusting God to do what only he can do.

Shelly displayed uncommon lightheartedness. She was funny and very fun. She didn’t take herself too seriously, though she was a serious person. She understood the power of laughter.

Shelly demonstrated uncommon fidelity to Jesus. Through her battle against cancer, she didn’t shake her fist heavenward (though she was honest with God about it). Instead, she kept taking the next step of faith, one small step after another. The journey she walked pointed many to the kindness and love of Jesus because she learned the truth that her weakness allowed more of Jesus in her heart. It was stunning to watch his strength sparkle through her weakness.

Shelly embodied uncommon humility. She was not the kind of person who tried to make a name for herself, but she delighted in taking the lowest seat, something Jesus talked about with the disciples. “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests” (Luke 14:10). Some may grudgingly take the last place, but Shelly understood that humility demonstrated her trust in Jesus, and she seemed contented to take the less-noticed spot.

Shelly practiced uncommon gratitude. As I think of her, this memory sticks out the most. The church elders had a special time of prayer for her, where they anointed her with oil and prayed for her healing. She reminded me of the three sent to the fiery furnace in Daniel 3. They said God could deliver, but even if he did not, they would still praise and follow him. I had the privilege of being in that room as her friend, and I remember thinking, wow, she truly trusts God–even if he does not deliver her from this disease.

A few months later after a successful surgery and some rounds of treatment, she was doing really well, and she requested a second meeting with the elders. She thanked them for their prayers and gave a praise report of what God had done. I remember one of the elders saying something to the effect of, “We seldom hear back from people.” Full of gratitude and graciousness, she wanted to publicly praise God and thank these people for praying for her. The story of the ten cleansed lepers in Luke 17 flashed into my mind. Ten were healed. Only one returned to thank Jesus. Shelly was like the one–uncommon in her desire to give God the praise and glory.

Shelly was an uncommon friend. Her friend Twilla Fontenot, who died six years ago, was her closest friend. She, too, battled cancer. The picture below was taken during one of our Seder meals where Patrick assigned us to wash the feet of our loved ones. This is Shelly, after washing Twilla’s feet. She faithfully walked the cancer journey alongside her friend, researching best avenues of treatment, arranging for meals, and often sitting with her through treatments. She loved Twilla well, and she often sacrificed for her. The loss of Twilla for Shelly was a tremendous blow, and I can only imagine the fear she must’ve felt when, five years later, she heard the same C word. Even so, in the midst of her treatments, losing her hair, and suffering, she often reached out to me to see how she could pray for me. I don’t know many people like that–so uncommon in their love for others.

Shelly, I love you. I am crying as I write this. I miss you already, and it’s only been a few days. I am humbled that you chose to pursue me when I was at my weakest. You leave behind a hole in this world that cannot be filled–because, my friend, you were utterly uncommon. Your family is mourning your loss and will miss you forever. Your friends are brokenhearted. Those you discipled and mentored and befriended are grieving–because who can replace Shelly Carvan?

You were a beautiful, rare diamond of a person who spent herself for Jesus and the people Jesus loves. I am a better human being because of you. And I am grateful you are whole now, no doubt rejoicing alongside Twilla and your dear Daddy as you all worship the One you loved so well on this earth.