LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church

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When the Bottom Drops Out: Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment

Rob Bugh, Senior Pastor

When Rob Bugh came to be pastor of Wheaton Bible Church in September 1994, he was joined by his wife, Carol, daughters Shannon, Kyle, and Alissa, and newborn son, Ryan. Following their move from Memphis, Tennessee, the family settled smoothly into the life of the church and the community. Here, the Bughs put down roots, grew friendships, and enjoyed what Rob calls an “uncommonly good” marriage.

Rob and Carol were partners, he says, both in life and in ministry—a partnership that helped Rob deal with the tragic loss of one of his closest friends, Dr. Tom Williams, to a rare and deadly cancer in the spring of 2005.

Tom, a dynamic individual, was what Rob calls “a man’s man.” A highly respected general surgeon, Tom was president of the medical staff at Central DuPage Hospital. He and Rob shared a love of active sports, including barefoot waterskiing.

Their friendship began shortly after Rob came to Wheaton Bible Church, and led to shared family vacations, and even more significantly, to a shared passion for seeing others come to Christ. Tom was, Rob recounts, a gifted evangelist who was consumed with telling people about Jesus. “Tom and I,” Rob says, “were passionate about the Kingdom and about life.” Their friendship, forged over the years, made Tom’s death a devastating blow.

But even as Carol supported Rob through his grief over the loss of his friend, her own cancer diagnosis was lurking just around the corner—a second crisis in less than a year, and one that struck within Rob’s own family.

Discovered during a routine colonoscopy in August of 2005, Carol’s malignancy was first diagnosed as colon cancer, but was later identified as an extremely rare internal melanoma. What followed was a year of medical battles, an odyssey Rob relates in the first chapter of his new book—When the Bottom
Drops Out: Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment.

Receiving very little in the way of good news from the doctors, Rob watched as the bride of his youth, the mother of his four beloved children, his “biggest fan and most helpful critic,” slowly and painfully succumbed to a horribly aggressive disease.

Even so, Carol’s last year of life was marked by a clear sense of God’s love. In spite of painful tumors and a failing body, she was, Rob writes, “a pillar of faith, grace, and even joy.” During those months, it was clear that they were fighting a losing battle. “On Friday night, August 11, 2006,” Rob writes, “Carol died in her sleep at home, surrounded by her four children and me.”

Near the close of the first chapter of his book, Rob reflects on that day and the days that followed:

Five years later, I still find it hard to believe all we went through. (I am a pastor—other people’s wives die, not mine. I take care of sick people, but our family doesn’t get sick.) How did we get through it? We had to trust God as never before. On the one hand, that sounds so simple. After all, we realized early on that we didn’t really have any other choice—we were in way over our heads. On the other hand, trusting in God seems counterintuitive when the news keeps getting worse; when you feel helpless to stop the suffering of the person you love most; and when you can’t imagine any good that could possibly come from the loss you’re facing. I mean, what good can come from a fifth grader losing his mother?

And yet trust is really all we have. I’m convinced that the difference between Christ followers who seem to transcend their circumstances and those who do not is that the first group focuses on and lives in light of divine realities and the other doesn’t. The first group isn’t made up of stronger people with a greater tolerance for pain; it’s made up of hurting people who choose to look up, honestly pouring out their pain and their petitions to the One whom they know is sovereign and loving and faithful.

Those men and women in the second group may start out well spiritually, but as trials, disappointments, and difficulties crop up, they become angry. They may be angry at others, angry at life, angry at God—or angry at all three. Sometimes they are too “spiritual” to admit it, but the truth is, deep down, they are really disappointed and frustrated with God. In the end, your view of God will determine how well you cope with adversity. And that is really what this book is all about. In the coming chapters, I will share stories about how I have seen God at work, even in our family’s darkest moments. I’ll also unpack scriptural truths that have become richer and more personal to me over the past several years. By the time you finish this book, my prayer is that you’ll have a better understanding of how you can turn adversity into advantage, navigate change and grief, and persevere through the hard times into the “hope and a future” God has promised you (see Jeremiah 29:11).

A 1994 snapshot of the Bugh family. Standing: Alissa, Shannon, Rob, and Kyle. Carol, seated, holding Ryan.

I have a long way to go on the compassion continuum, but I am at a very different point now. Just getting Carol through the airport in her wheelchair with all her IV chemo stuff was life-changing. I’ll never forget watching her try to smile, even as she winced each time she was bumped in O’Hare Airport’s crowded hallways.

Sitting in waiting rooms day after day next to very sick patients, including horribly ill children, gave me a whole different perspective on what life becomes for way too many people. I hate cancer and I hate what it does to people. Now, however, I am aware and care in ways I never imagined before.

Your disappointments will transform you in different ways from the way I’ve been changed. But you will be changed. The grief that Tom’s family and my family feel will never go away completely, but we have experienced an unbelievable amount of God’s blessing, strength, and joy.

Disappointment isn’t antithetical to the abundant life Jesus both promised and secured for us—it’s central.

Rob knew—and experienced at a whole new depth—what it means to place one’s trust in God. But in the book he also relates some of the hard realities of how a loss like he and his family suffered plays out in everyday life.

A couple of months after Carol died, I stood in our laundry room facing a significant pile of laundry. It had been a long day at work—not the best day—and I had just made dinner. (Actually that is an overstatement. I don’t cook, so I had simply reheated a dinner someone had brought to us.) I was tense, and I broke.

I looked at the mound of clothing and towels and thought, I can’t do all this; I don’t want to do all this. Where did Carol go? She always did the laundry! Why has this happened? I don’t want to cook. I can’t run our house and take care of the kids. I don’t want to be a single parent. This is impossible!

Raw fear swept over me as my mind darkened and my stomach tightened in one big knot. Then God intervened—right there in my laundry room! Immediately the laundry room became a symbol of everything I hated and everything I needed. There was no audible voice, but I distinctly heard God tell me, Rob, you can do this; I will get you through this. Immediately I was flooded with a sense of peace that, remarkably, has largely continued to this day. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

There’s no getting around it: deep pain brings us to the end of ourselves and, more times than not, face-to-face with overwhelming fear. This struck me again not long ago when I spoke at a funeral for a twenty-six-year-old man who had committed suicide. I had conducted services for suicide victims before, but this one was off-the-charts sad because this young man had off-the-charts potential. He had simply lost his way. That afternoon I shared some of the bedrock truths God had been teaching me about disappointment and loss. Truths that helped my laundry room become a sanctuary. Truths that gave me peace in the midst of my nightmare.

In the following seven chapters of his book, Rob shares more of the journey that God led him through and his journey back from that sorrow. It’s a story that will strike some familiar notes with those who have witnessed the public side of Rob’s life through Carol’s illness and her death, as he showed up on Sundays—in good weeks and and in some when his personal pain was evident.

There is also a chapter in the book—and a chapter in Rob’s life—that brought joy to those who know him and love him. It was the story of God’s provision for two of His children, who had each been through so much. Here’s how Rob shared that gift from God with the congregation of Wheaton Bible Church on September 2, 2007:

As I have sought over the last several years to love God, to grow together, and to reach the world around me, God has done some unusual things in my life. Because you have loved me and wept with me in my suffering, in my pain, I want you now to rejoice with me in what He has done. It was over a year ago that my dear wife Carol died of cancer. We had been married for 27 wonderful years. Just a year before that, one of my very best friends in the world, Tom Williams, also died after a battle with cancer. Tom and Carol had brutal forms of cancer; they died brutal deaths.

Tom and his wife, Rhonda, had been married for 25 years; they also had a great marriage. Our two families were very close. We vacationed together. Through the years, Tom and I owned three ski boats together. But most importantly, Tom was my accountability partner. We met together regularly and prayed. We prayed for the church. We prayed that people would come to Christ. We prayed for our kids. We prayed for our marriages.

As Rhonda and I began rebuilding our lives following the deaths of our spouses, we didn’t see each other much. Both of our spouses had encouraged us to remarry, but we were focused on just getting through life. What we didn’t realize, and what we underestimated, was the power of people praying here at Wheaton Bible Church—that’s you. What we discovered, and what we continue to discover, is that many of you were wondering about, hoping, and praying that Rhonda and I would get together. The stories some of you have told us have been amazing.

Rob and Rhonda Bugh at their 2007 wedding

Rob and Rhonda Bugh at their 2007 wedding, surrounded by their children.

Some months ago, Rhonda and I were invited out to dinner with some very good friends of both families. At this dinner, as I was sitting next to Rhonda—I will never forget this experience—it was like God opened my eyes. We’d been friends for 12 years and suddenly, I saw Rhonda in a way I’d never seen her before, and I felt like God was speaking to me and saying, “Rob, this is it!” So, I want to tell you, I am thrilled to tell you, that last Friday, just two days ago, Rhonda and I got engaged. And, Lord willing, we plan on getting married in a small ceremony in mid-December.

Now, I want to offer some perspective. We believe God has done something amazing. Our stories are surreal, and we often talk about the surreal nature of what has happened in the past and what is happening in the present.We were both married to wonderful people. Tom was a surgeon; he was the president of the medical staff at Central DuPage Hospital. The large garden in the middle of the hospital is the Tom Williams Memorial Garden. My wife was an extraordinary woman; when our church relocates, we will dedicate a portion of our building to Carol. Tom and Carol were extraordinary people. We in no way, going forward, want to do anything to dishonor or diminish their memory. Actually, we want to do everything we can to keep the memory of these two wonderful people alive.

Now, for some of you, it may appear that I have moved fast, and I have. But here’s the truth—we have been surprised at how quickly we lost our spouses, and we have been equally surprised at how quickly God opened our eyes to each other and how quickly we believe God led us together, after these last twelve years of friendship.

Lastly, as many of you know, Rhonda is a wonderful pediatrician. She has been my son Ryan’s pediatrcian—he’s 13—his entire life. But Rhonda has never been a Senior Pastor’s wife, and she’s just a tad nervous about this. So, please, I want you to be nice to her. And, please, please join with us in praising God for bringing us together, and don’t stop asking Him to continue to guide us on this incredible journey.

Today, Rob and Rhonda are the parents of six young adults—three of whom have brought in-laws into the family fold—and one teenager. Find more of this story on www.whenthebottomdropsout.com.

One comment on “When the Bottom Drops Out: Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment

  1. Nancy Menditto
    November 10, 2011

    I have really enjoyed this series by Pastor Rob. I am new to your church. Can you please provide me the schedule of your weekly services? Thank you.

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