Carrying On

On October 2, 2016, the world lost a treasure in Jenna Henderson. Having turned 30 only a few months earlier, Jenna succumbed to cancer after her fourth bout with the disease. Brave and selfless to the end, she embodied Paul’s declaration in Philippians 1:21 – “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (NIV). This is the story of how, while Jenna now enjoys “the gain,” her husband, Scott, perseveres in living.

Jenna was always vivacious. Her love for life, however, seemed to find its true fulfillment when she turned 15. That summer she went to see her brother off at the bus as he prepared to go to Young Life camp. Fresh off her cancer treatments, Jenna stood in the parking lot and commented, “I wish I were going.” Some leaders overheard this comment, conferred for a moment, and told her mother, “If Jenna can get packed and back here in 20 minutes, she can go on the trip and we’ll pay for it!”

That week at Saranac Jenna fell in love with Jesus and joyfully began a relationship with Him. The decision changed Jenna’s life, and in a way no one could have foreseen, thousands of others.

It was during this same time, after her second bout with cancer, Jenna went into complete remission. Having been given “new life” twice over, the spirited teenager’s focus was clear. A living, breathing billboard for Christ, Jenna was a tenacious lover of people for the second half (literally) of her life. Through Young Life she cared for her high school peers, served on work crew at camp and became a volunteer leader in college, a role she embraced until her death.

She also modeled the love of Christ at work. Her career choice? Pediatric nurse at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, where she provided care for children battling cancer — fulfilling her teenage dream.

At 28, after 13 years in remission, the cancer returned. For the next two years, she exhibited remarkable grace in the face of death. Quick to confess her doubts, struggles and fears, she nonetheless found strength in the One who would soon call her home.

Jenna’s story continues to change lives by pointing many in the city of Batesville, Indiana (and beyond), to her beloved Jesus. Her final two years have been captured in a book entitled Worth the Suffering. Along with Jenna’s thoughts, prayers and blog entries, Scott has also included tributes from friends and family. Today, he carries on the dream by sharing the book with others, while wrestling with life on his own.

Hard Questions

“When Jenna passed away, my life shattered,” Scott said. “Pieces of my life once whole and good were broken and uncertain.”

Seeing his darkest fears realized, Scott asked himself numerous questions: “What does life look like now that I’ve lost the person who meant the most to me? What do I do when life isn’t at all what I planned? Is life about getting everything I want? Is it about what Jenna and I had planned — do I still hold to that?”

Scott struggled with the idea of continuing on as a Young Life leader. “That was hard. It’s the one thing Jenna and I thought we were going to do together forever.”

Seeing this uncertainty, Sean Boyce, the area director in Batesville, quickly stepped in. Knowing Scott’s need for routine and ability to help coach basketball, Boyce invited him to help with the high school freshman team. “Sean said, ‘Hey, why don’t you start coming and we’ll go from there. You love basketball, just show up and help.’ I needed to do something to keep life going, because my plans were all gone.”

Scott soon sensed a connection with one particular player on the team. “God pushed me toward him. He was looking for more. I felt God was telling me to be consistent in his life.”

After the freshman accepted Scott’s invitation to Young Life camp, Scott envisioned a life-changing encounter, like the one Jenna experienced at Saranac. “I thought, he’s going to have an incredible week (which he did), and he’s going to hear about how Jesus came to die for him. He’s going to realize what he’s been looking for in life hasn’t been fulfilling, and ultimately Jesus is. Everything’s going to be different.”

At camp, Scott and the young man talked about what the gospel means if we receive it. By week’s end, however, he decided not to follow Jesus.

“It broke my heart to the point where I came to realize what anguish felt like again, wanting someone to know Jesus so badly,” Scott said. “What I love about Young Life, though, is there’s more to the relationship than a kid’s response to Jesus. If he says ‘yes,’ we celebrate, but if he says ‘no,’ we don’t stop loving him.

“Knowing how my heart was in anguish for this one kid made me realize Young Life is something I need to be doing.”

Serving Sam

That same year, Scott received a text that Sam, another high school student, had been in a car accident and airlifted to Cincinnati for severe head trauma. Scott, by this time all too familiar with hospitals, felt the emotions rushing back.

“I didn’t know how to respond, but I had to do something. One thing I learned through Jenna’s cancer was how to love and serve someone in need. I could do that with Sam and his family. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be; whether he’d fully recover or not. But along the way, I was by his side as he learned how to eat, walk and talk again.

“That’s what Young Life is: it’s showing up day after day, no matter what’s going on in the lives of kids. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s being consistent in their lives, and loving them in the situations they find themselves in. It’s the privilege we have as leaders.”

For the next two years, Scott lovingly walked alongside his friend. Sam is now fully recovered, attending Ball State as a freshman and ministering to other kids through his role as a Young Life leader.

Ultimate Healing

Scott continues to honor his wife’s memory through the Jenna Henderson Memorial Endowment Fund Scholarship, which he established to help financially disadvantaged kids attend a week at Young Life camp (as well as kids like Jenna who decide to go last minute and therefore haven’t fundraised). Scott gives every recipient a copy of Worth the Suffering. “I want to make sure they know the person behind the gift, and what this scholarship represents.”

As he teaches others about Jenna, Scott’s still learning about God’s heart in the midst of suffering.

“After Jenna’s death I questioned, ‘How could God allow this to happen to someone who loved Him so much and wanted to further His Kingdom?’ I looked at every passage in the Bible where Jesus encountered someone crying out for help. I couldn’t find one place where Jesus didn’t help them.”

But Scott also noticed something else. “As I looked at Lazarus and the others Jesus healed, I realized every one of them still died; this wasn’t the final healing. Healing was secondary to Jesus, in my opinion. What’s the main purpose when Jesus heals? It’s always the heart; and Jenna’s heart was already good in that regard. The greatest miracle is when someone’s heart changes. That idea probably took me a year to unpack.

“Jenna often prayed, ‘Jesus, I want to be healed, but if You and Your Kingdom get more glory if I’m not, then I want that instead.’”

Sometimes Scott wonders what a miracle would have meant to the many who love Jenna.

“I think of everyone at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Jenna’s friends and family, how great it would have been for them to see this miracle happen. And when it didn’t, I thought, ‘Well, how is this good?’ I’m still wrestling with this idea, but most people don’t get a miracle — that’s why it’s called a miracle! God’s glory shines through Jenna’s story, because it speaks to how God is still good when a miracle doesn’t happen. I think you see that in her faithfulness to Him and His to her. Jenna is healed, just not in the way we wanted.”

Far More Important Things

Today, Scott spends a lot of his time relating to kids and their suffering. “As a Young Life leader I can share about what it’s like to walk through a life that isn’t perfect, yet still be excited and have this joy for the Lord.”

Several kids on the basketball team are struggling with the recent deaths of family members. Scott simply continues to walk with them. “One kid lost his mom, and a lot of people don’t know how to talk with him about it. So I just rebound his free throws and ask him, ‘Hey, how are you doing with the hurt?’ There’s not a lot I can say, but I can at least be in the mess with him as he’s processing.”

Another kid asked Scott if he had kids. Scott said no and then shared his story. “He immediately started crying,” Scott said, “and we’re in the middle of watching a basketball game. I didn’t know if something was going on with his family or with cancer, but I don’t shy away from it. It gives me a way to jump into real conversations with kids.”

At times, though, Scott still finds himself in a fog.

“Honestly, there are days where I’m excited about what’s to come and others where I just want to go to bed and start a new day. It comes and goes in waves — the days of wanting to spend time with Jesus versus the days of waking up to a hard heart.

“What makes my heart joyful, though, are moments where you see the Lord moving in a kid’s life. There are far more important things than what our culture says to chase after. This reorients my focus on what’s important with the time I have left.”