Revive Our Hearts Radio

Recognizing Widowhood as a Gift

Leslie Basham: After her husband died, Anne Ortlund often prayed and said this to the Lord:

Anne Ortlund: I can hardly wait to be with You and Ray. Then I realized it struck me one evening that I couldn’t put Ray and the Lord on the same pedestal. That was idolatry.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Tuesday, March 1.

Each married woman needs perspective on widowhood since it’s a possibility she may face. Nancy’s introducing a guest who will share a lot of wisdom in this area.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: It’s been a privilege over the years to have my dear friends Ray and Anne Ortlund on the Revive Our Hearts broadcast. Today Anne is with us. Anne, thank you so much for taking this day to come and share your heart with our listeners.

Anne: Oh, Nancy, what a privilege for me. I’ve known you since you were college age.

Nancy: You have. I went to the University of South California, and your sweet husband, Ray, was the pastor—Pastor Ray—at the Lake Avenue Church there. I arrived there at USC when I was 17 years old.

Anne: You began teaching Sunday school right away.

Nancy: Yes—the third grade children.

Anne: I can see on the blackboard: Today the neighborhood; tomorrow the world.

Nancy: That’s right. That was our little motto there. You have a good memory. God did some sweet things in those children’s lives, but He did many wonderful things in my own heart during those two years I was at USC. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I got into that church and just experienced the worship and the teaching and the body life. It was a sweet time.

Anne: God was good. God is still good. Your parents and my parents were good friends before that.

Nancy: Yes, and now my dad and your parents are in heaven, and I don’t know that they aren’t watching and praying for us today perhaps.

Anne: I have a feeling.

Nancy: Yes, and along with your husband Ray. The last time I saw you and Ray was at the funeral home of a dear mutual friend, Mrs. Joyce Johnson. We sat and talked. Your husband Ray had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis at that point, but he was still in pretty good health. You didn’t know what God’s timing or the script would be for your lives at that point.

Anne: We were so surprised because we had this deal with the Lord . . . which shows us that you can’t make deals with the Lord. He has His own plans. But we had always said that we were going to go together because we had just loved living together. So we said that we were going to get bad colds and lying there in bed, holding hands and kissing and reinfecting each other, and that would go from flu to pneumonia, and we would just die holding hands, go to heaven together.

Here I am, and he’s been there since July 22 of ’07, and oh, God has done some wonderful things. I would not have him back for anything. He’s breathing perfectly now. Pulmonary fibrosis takes your breath away. It’s like drowning. It’s not fun, but sometimes, Nancy, in the end when he would struggle to breathe, and he would have 10 or 15 minutes of just panting—just couldn’t get enough air—and when it would finally subside, he would say, “This is God’s gift to me.” He so totally trusted the Lord. It was just beautiful to see.

Nancy: And yet you had to walk through that season with him as a wife. You’d been married how many years?

Anne: Sixty-one years, in love 63.

Nancy: And many fruitful years of ministry together as Ray pastored and then through the Haven of Rest ministries—many of our listeners remember hearing Ray for years on that program—both of you writing books and traveling around the world speaking, doing ministry and missions work. You were just Ray and Anne Ortlund, together, a team. As you faced the loss of Ray in those months when the breathing became difficult, how were you processing that?

Anne: Well, Ray had proposed to me with Psalm 34:3—“Oh magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together!” So through the years that’s what we were doing; God helping us. When he died, that’s what we were doing. We were magnifying the Lord and exalting His name together.

This sweet brother in Christ who was a male nurse was with him to the end. He was monitoring his medication. If he gave too much, he’d go to sleep, and if he gave too little, he’d be in pain. He’d be asking the Lord that he would make it exactly right, and Ray sat there in bed with his family all around him and was as alert as he’d ever been in the pulpit.

He really pastored the situation, sitting up there in bed, leading us in singing hymns and in Scripture reading. Like Jacob, he went around the circle and gave a benediction to each one and also an admonition. Then we said together in unison the Aaronic benediction, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you,” and so on (Numbers 6:24-25). He finished it by himself, “Amen and amen,” and his head went forward, and he was with Jesus.

The nurse said afterwards it was the most beautiful home going he’d ever seen, the most glorious, he said, and it was.

It’s interesting, Nancy, as his head went forward, his eyes went up. He was looking upward, and he raised his hand. I said to Patrick afterwards, the nurse, “What do you think he was doing?” He said, “I think he was greeting the Lord.”

So he just went from one life to the next life as smoothly as beautifully as that, and that’s been a great comfort to me ever since.

Nancy: It was a Sunday morning . . . am I right about that?

Anne: Resurrection Day. It couldn’t have been better.

Nancy: The Lord’s Day. And thinking of Ray joining the choruses in heaven, the citizens of heaven, joining my dad and others . . . your parents . . .

Anne: Yes, and his parents. It was bittersweet because it was on Sunday morning. Because several of the dear family were ministers, they weren’t there. They were in their churches, so they were not with him through that, but their wives were, and all the rest of the family was. The ministers came right afterwards and then were able to be with us the rest of the day.

Nancy: I wasn’t able to be at the memorial service. Tell us what that was like.

Anne: Well, there were two. He had one in Newport Beach because we had discipled there for so long and had such dear friends, and he had pastored Mariners Church there for a couple of years. There were over 700 there at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. Then the next day we had a church at Lake Avenue in Pasadena, and there were over 1,000 at that one.

Both were remarkable because the fact that he died on Sunday, you couldn’t get the word out. There was no way to tell churches that he had gone or when the services would be. He died on Sunday, and they were the next Friday and Saturday. It was vacation time, and still there were just hundreds and hundreds there. It was very sweet.

Nancy: He had invested in so many lives over the years and was really just dearly loved as Pastor Ray.

Anne: One of the sweet stories about that, I think, was at the second service—at Lake Avenue Baptist Church where he’d been pastor for 20 years there in Pasadena. Ray Jr. was preaching. He preached both services, and he was admonishing Lake Avenue to go back to renewal days because we’d had revival for about 7 years, just a slow-burn revival.

Ed Fisher had been our director of music for so long, and Ed was dying at the time of Ray’s memorial service. He said to the people there in the home where he was staying, “I have to go to the service.”

They said, “You can’t. You’re too sick.”

“I must go; I must go.”

So they carried him on his gurney. He was in the back of the church.

Ray Jr. didn’t know this when he was preaching, but he reminded them how that revival had begun. When Ray finished preaching that Sunday morning at Lake Avenue, he didn’t give an altar call. Once in a while he did, but he didn’t that morning, but Ed Fisher (and he named his name) came out of the choir and knelt at the front. Then others began coming and kneeling at the front, and the service went on and on and on. It started with Ed Fisher.

There he was in the back, lying on that gurney, listening to that. He died that afternoon. You know, Psalms say, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15). He does such beautiful things in the going as well as in the living while we’re here that you just see that’s His plan. It’s not death, really, it’s from life to life, and it’s graduation. It’s better yet.

Nancy: And death did not come as a surprise to Ray. He had thought about how he wanted to live and how he wanted to die, and he had made preparation to minister to his family even after his death.

I know that your son Ray Jr. came across a letter in Ray’s desk that Ray had written years earlier to give to his family after his death. Do you remember when that letter was first read?

Anne: It’s a mystery to me how he got that letter into his desk drawer because he couldn’t get to the office. He was too sick. I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know he’d ever written it. But Ray Jr. was rummaging around through his desk after his death, before the funerals, and here was this letter from Ray to the children and to me.

It’s a beautiful letter. He admonished each one then. He said, “It’s strange for me to write this when I’m not dead yet, but I will be when you read it.” He encouraged us all to just walk with Jesus all the way. He said how much he loved me and that we would sing a duet together in heaven. I’m looking forward to that.

Nancy: Anne, he gave such assurance of the fact that he would be with the Lord. He knew it was not because of anything he had done but because of what Christ had done for him. He said, “I’m actually anticipating this new adventure, and at the time you read this, I will be with Christ in heaven.” He had such assurance of that, didn’t he?

Anne: Let me just say to those of you listening . . . maybe some of you haven’t received Christ yet. Death may be sooner than you know. That’s not a morbid thing if you know Jesus. Let me just urge you right now to do what Ray did, to do what Nancy’s done, to do what I’ve done, and to simply say, “Oh, Lord Jesus, I take You into my heart. I believe that You forgave my sins by dying for me on the cross, and I want to be Your child. I want the Father to receive me because of that forgiveness You offer.” He’ll do it this very moment, my dear friends.

Nancy: Ray had done that and had such a peace. In fact, reading again from that letter, which your children gave you freedom to share, he said, “Now my life on earth is over, and I go to meet the Lord face to face. I trust in Him as my sure Savior and rest in His grace at this momentous time of my death. I do not fear death.”

Only Christ can give that kind of assurance as Ray knew that he would soon go to be with the Lord.

Anne: Yes. Oh, I feel the same. I can hardly wait to get there.

Nancy: So God gives grace at the point of death, and you saw that in Ray. But Ray left, and you, having been his wife for 61 years, were left behind here. You needed God’s grace at that point of physical separation from Ray. How did the Lord minister to you in those early days of being a widow?

Anne: It’s interesting. When I went home from the hospital at the end of that day and walked into our condo (I still say our, I think I always will), I picked up my Bible and just flipped it over. The Lord gave me Psalm 119:68a: Lord, "You are good, and what you do is good” (NIV). From that moment on I thanked Him for Ray’s going because I knew He had done a good thing, and Ray would never suffer again from lack of breathing. He was comfortable and happy in the presence of the Lord.

About a year later, I went through a real crisis, Nancy. I realized that for that year I’d been saying, “Oh, Lord. I can hardly wait to be with You and Ray.” Then I realized, it struck me one evening, that I couldn’t put Ray and the Lord on the same pedestal. That was idolatry. I was saying, “I want to meet You and Ray.”

It was like Abraham laying his son Isaac on the altar. I had to let Ray go. I remember saying, “Lord, if I am on this far side of heaven, way over here, and Ray is on the opposite of heaven way over here and we never see each other but we both love and worship You, that will be enough.”

That gave me a new release and a freedom that I didn’t know was possible. I felt released from the strain of longing to go. I was willing to go whenever God wanted me to. And, as Paul said in Philippians 2, I want to be here and serve You as long as You want me to, and then when it’s Your time, I’ll go to be with You, Lord. And, incidentally, I think He’ll let me see Ray, too.

We had always said, “We know we won’t be married in heaven, but we’re going to be dearest friends.” So I think maybe the Lord will let that be.

Nancy: That’s really a powerful lesson. Your husband, whether he’s living or not, can’t take the place of God in your life. Christ wants our first love. The married couples who do place Christ first in their lives find then that their relationship is more healthy, more wholesome, and there’s more freedom and release to trust your husband to the Lord whether he’s here or not. You and Ray lived that way when he was here on earth, making sure that Christ was first in your lives.

Anne: Nancy, as 1 Corinthians 7 talks about being married and not being married, it says that if you’re married, you’re kind of divided because you want to please your mate and you want to please the Lord as well. If you’re single, you just please the Lord. God has let you be single, and that’s a sweet thing that He’s given you. And now He’s let me be single, and I’ve discovered that’s very sweet in my heart, to just be focused on the Lord and not have the distraction of Ray. As much as I miss him, husbands are a distraction.

Nancy: Really?

Anne: Yes. It’s a very sweet thing, a very special privilege to be single as we both are these days and to just focus on, fix our eyes on Jesus.

Nancy: You have embraced this season of your life as a gift and a calling. You didn’t stop ministering to others when Ray went to heaven. You have continued to invest in the lives of others and to serve and to believe that God has a mission for you in this season of your life as well.

Anne: My life verse is Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shines more and more to the perfect day” (KJV). Ray and I had a love life that was fabulous, but this is the more and more. God is giving me sweet, sweet years.

Nancy: Has there been anything, as you look back on three years of being a widow, that’s been particularly difficult or challenging—something that’s been hard about that?

Anne: Yes. I have cry times. It will just overwhelm me sometimes that he’s really gone, for now. Then I think, “Well, the fact that he said, ‘Let’s magnify the Lord with me, and let’s exalt His name together,’ he’s magnifying the Lord; he’s exalting him. So am I." So we’re doing it simultaneously even though we’re not side by side. That’s a comfort. But you don’t stop having those cry times.

Nancy: Has God used other believers to be a means of encouragement or grace to you in this season?

Anne: Oh, I just can’t tell you. The fact that I’ve discipled a lot of gals, as Ray discipled many, many guys, they’re my best friends now. We had a party three nights ago. We not only had a wonderful dinner together (30 of us), but also we just told what the Lord was doing in our lives—these husbands and wives together. Then we had a long, long season of prayer. Those are so sweet.

My friends are all in their 30s and 40s, and they’re all married and raising their kids. I think the Lord uses me to show them what a happy thing a widow can be when they get to that place in life.

Nancy: How do they encourage you?

Anne: Oh, they tell me over and over how much they have grown in the Lord since I’ve been sharing the Word with them, praying with them, and so on. They don’t realize that they pour into me more than I pour into them. Every day there’s somebody phoning me saying, “Let’s have lunch,” or “Come over to our house for dinner with the family.” That’s good.

Nancy: So you’re not seeing your life and ministry as over. You’re seeing that God continues to use you, and you have this heart to keep investing in the lives of others. I think what is keeping the joy and the peace and the perspective in your life is that you are not just looking to be served, but you are seeking to serve others.

Anne: I thought for years that the only way my life would go on after I was gone was through my books. Now I realize, no, this is something anybody can do. Give your life to the children, to the next generation. Share Jesus with them, pray with them. When you’re gone off the scene, they’ll still be walking around on this earth loving Him.

Nancy: God has a great heart for widows. You see it all through the Scripture. He gives these great warnings to those who would take advantage of a widow or an orphan. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow. Repeatedly we’re told to have a heart for those who are widows.

Share a word from your heart, Anne, as to how we as God’s people can minister to and care for widows. What are just some ways that we can be an encouragement and a blessing to those who are widowed?

Anne: Oh, take them to a clean movie. I went to see Up not long ago. That’s a cute one. My friends took me. All of you listening to this know widows. They need you in their lives, not only your prayers, but your fellowship, your reminding them of all of God’s goodness, and all the ways that He is with you more than ever.

Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven meant a lot to me. He says that—and he shows from Revelation 9 and other places—how those in heaven are looking down on us, he believes, and I do, too, from Scripture. Since they have access to the Lord, they pray for us. They talk to the Lord, so why wouldn’t they pray? It’d be a natural thing that they pray for us.

I have felt more encouraged by prayer than almost anything else, not only Ray’s prayers, but I know that my friends pray for me. That’s what we can do for widows.

Nancy: Today I would encourage you as you’re listening to this, to ask the Lord to put on your heart a widow—maybe somebody in your family, maybe someone in your church. Right now, just lift up a prayer and ask God to minister to that woman’s needs, to bless her, to meet her practical needs, and perhaps to stop today and give a phone call or stop by and have a visit and say, “How can I serve you? How can I encourage you?” Reach out and include, invite out for a meal, or in some way minister to a widow that God has placed in your sphere of influence.

And for those widows who are listening, what a beautiful reminder from the life of Anne Ortlund that God’s work for you on this earth is not over. God has a plan for you. There are younger lives, other’s lives that He wants you to invest in and to cast a long shadow that will outlast and outlive even your time here on this earth.

Thanks, Anne, for sharing with us. We want to talk over the next few days about some other topics that have been on your heart, I know, for many years, and just hear some of the wisdom and insight that God has given you through your experience. Thank you for joining us here on Revive Our Hearts.

Anne: What a privilege. Thank you for letting me.

Leslie: Nancy Leigh DeMoss and our guest, Anne Ortlund, have been providing an important perspective on widowhood and embracing all seasons of life for God’s glory.

I’m thankful for this chance to hear from a godly woman who’s gained a lot of wisdom through study and life experiences. I hope you’ll learn more with Anne Ortlund and get a copy of her book Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman. This book will show you how to glorify God through practical areas: your schedule, your approach to clothing, your goals, and your relationships. She’ll cover many other topics as well.

We’ll send you Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman when you send a donation of any amount to Revive Our Hearts. Just call us at 1-800-569-5959, or visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Growing old: It’s a dreadful prospect for a lot of people, but God can give you grace to give Him glory in all seasons of life. Learn how to embrace old age with joy tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. 

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