So much of today’s technologically advanced world is designed to remind us of what we don’t have. Advertisements for everything under the sun – including peace, if only I would buy the organizing package, flood my inbox daily. My eyes are constantly bombarded with all kinds of enticements, for things I don’t even know how I would use them if I owned said item, but mostly the constant deluge is a persistent reminder to be discontent. The reverberating message -the grass is always greener somewhere – is disheartening, but more so has the underlying intent to choke out life and spread discontent in every corner and crevice of my existence.
Oh, I have fallen into the trap one too many times, because on days where the only prayers I have to offer God are tears, just buying something to brighten my corner of the world seems so appealing. As does anything that helps me deal with the clutter of my life. Numbing the pain in retail therapy is very alluring as deep in my heart I wish for Calgon to take me away. But time and again, I have learned that it is not now nor never will be material items that soothe all the hurts or that take away stress or pain in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a little purchase, like flowers in the gray days of winter, brightens my world. And I can never discount a glass of sweet tea with extra, extra ice to remind me of the far away place from where I came.
What I have learned about contentment and joy and comfort comes from a place of deep gratitude. I was once asked if I wanted to draw a line in the sand and tell God I had had enough. My honest answer was “No”. I do realize that as bad as things have seemed in my life, there is ALWAYS somewhere in the world some who have it worse than we do. Just being thankful for what I have helps me find contentment and rarely comes from counting blessings of material things. Admittedly, I am incredibly thankful for comforts that much of the world doesn’t have.
Often times from the outside looking in, others marvel at my family’s story, but I know the truth behind the mask of strength. There is one unshakeable and unfathomable truth – we are loved. God’s amazing love flowing down in creation and in acts of kindness by friends and family and sometimes by strangers, who become friends.
Every day we have a chance to repay these kindnesses, not in the physical sense, because we would never be able to do that, but by living lives deeply rooted in gratitude. Every day we choose to be thankful despite the hardships that come our way. No matter how awful a situation looks, we have all received the greatest gift of life in Jesus Christ. No one in my family forgets that. It simply cannot be diminished. Life can be hard and full of struggle, but Jesus is so much bigger than all of that.
Just the other day I was reminded of how much gratitude can reframe everything. The last few years have been incredibly difficult for our Sister, as she has had to deal with injuries, health issues, and lack of support and understanding. On the latter, I have been dismayed and disgusted. Being disappointed in the actions of others is a greater blow to my heart’s contentment than not having the latest new gadget. I have learned too that this is a ploy to isolate rather than to bind hearts together. Then something happens and my eyes get a realignment focused on the God who has seen it all. In those moments, a heart that chooses gratitude always finds a way to do the right thing even in a tempest tossed.
Sitting quietly, without fanfare, on my desk was a letter seeking a stamp. Our Sister took time to write to her ligament donor to just say thank you. Melt this momma’s heart. In the sea of discontent, her words reminded me of all the ways we have been loved. It was a heartfelt letter to the family of a stranger, who like her brother gave the gift of life. The words she carefully chose were uplifting and honoring. After sharing a bit about herself, she wanted them to know how much their gift meant as she was able to play basketball again, while also acknowledging how incredibly hard it is to lose someone you love. Somewhere in the world a family will receive this letter. Who knows? Their hearts might be needing a little boost, a sign of God’s love that they nor the loved one has been forgotten.
When they receive that letter I hope they know that there is one family, particularly one girl, in Minnesota who is filled with nothing but love and gratitude for the gift they chose to give her. Because there isn’t a time that she laces up her basketball shoes, or any shoes for that matter, that we don’t remember the incredible and agonizing gift they gave. We know the taste of that particular pain, but we take comfort knowing that out in the world there are others who received the gift of life because of our choice to honor Reed’s wishes.
Pain and comfort co-mingled, light in the darkness always shines the brightest. In the quiet moments even amid the chaos and trials of life, those broken but not beaten hearts remember choosing gratitude leads to a road paved with joy unleashed.
*Special thanks to Roger Schroeder of phot*agape for the amazing photos, but mostly for his unending friendship to our family.
“Do not be bitter or angry or mad. Be kind and loving to each other, and forgive each other just as God forgave you in Christ.” Ephesians 4:31a, 32 (NCV)
As I sat outside the government center with my preschooler watching her favorite machine do its job, my thoughts were anything but constructive. Secretly, I wished the crane operator would drop the large preformed concrete wall it was lifting onto the building below. Tears streamed down my face as the darkness of my thoughts surprised me. Never before in my life had I wished physical harm on another soul, but housed inside the jail was the woman who killed my child.
While she sat in safety, I was trapped in a world of surgeries, therapies, sleepless nights, and bills we could not pay. Anguished, I cried out to God. We did nothing to cause this, but there is absolutely nothing we can do to fix it!
Although God was present in so many ways, that moment in the parking lot he appeared silent.
In the months following, well-intentioned souls tried to remind us of “a thing or two” about forgiveness. I am surprised I still have a tongue. The taste of blood on more than one occasion was an acrid reminder that none of those advocating forgiveness had ever walked in our shoes.
There was no reprieve from our darkest day because no matter where we went, every conversation, newspaper story, television or radio broadcast had some new detail of the school bus crash we wanted to forget. As if enduring exhausting days wasn’t enough, we were also thrown into the middle of a media firestorm exacerbated by the immigration status of the woman driving the van which hit the bus. There were many words said in anger for and what felt like against us. It was heartbreaking to watch our personal tragedy diminished to politicized soundbites.
We chose not to attend the trial because doing so wouldn’t change our reality. Our son Reed wasn’t coming back, and our other two children who had been injured on the bus would not be miraculously healed.
The tentacles of sadness and bitterness tangled into a chokehold around me.
When, God? When will this nightmare be over?
Although the trial led to a verdict of guilty, the conviction brought no solace. I poured my heart out to God and scoured every promise in his Word, never allowing myself to linger at any mention of forgiveness. Guilty was also a fitting description of my heart; I wanted her to hurt as badly as I did.
Is there no balm in Gilead, Lord?
Eventually the day of sentencing came, and we were to give a family impact statement. I wanted her to look into my eyes and see the pain she had created. With such intense media coverage, I had allowed my imagination to make her a larger-than-life creature rather than one of God’s children.
Sitting in the crowded courtroom, the nervous anticipation made me want to vomit. I would soon be face to face with the woman whose poor decisions shattered my family’s idyllic existence. Suddenly there was a commotion outside the guarded door. Before I realized what was happening, there she was – a tiny woman, heavily shackled, escorted by six armed law enforcement officers.
Is all this really necessary? Even I could knock that slip of a person down, and I know those big men could easily contain any threat she might offer. It seems almost cruel.
The thought was there before I had to time to process for whom my heart was feeling.
Like many others impacted by that day, we shared our story. She said hers, which only added salt to our wounds because there was no repentance, no apologies given. Yet despite it all, God used that one moment of humanity to thaw my icy reserve.
I have heard it said many times that God’s light shines brightest in the darkness. After that day, in the dimly lit corners of my broken heart, I continued to seek him. One day, God placed a persistent thought on my mind.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day she met Reed?
No, God. It would not.
Like Jacob of the Old Testament, I continued to wrestle with God. My heart conflicted with what I saw as God’s crazy idea. Yet, the thought of forgiving her so she could meet Reed was never far from my mind. In my quiet times of devotion, the thought would pop up again and again. While driving one day, I heard a sermon on people who were reluctant to trust Jesus. The pastor’s words cut straight to my heart.
How many of your sins were in the future when Jesus died on the cross?
I sat sobbing in my car just a few blocks from the place where I had wished the cement wall to drop. I realized that the twelve-year-old boy who had loved God with all his heart would probably be one of the first to think God’s “crazy idea” was actually a good one. As the sadness, bitterness, and exhaustion which had punctuated my days ripped my heart apart, I felt a lightness as God’s words poured through that radio show. All my sins were yet to transpire on the day Jesus died. Yet, my hope lay in his sacrifice because through it I live confidently, knowing I will see my son again.
Hope and bitterness, light and dark, cannot coexist in a heart. In that tear-filled moment, I realized I could no longer live clinging to the hope of all that Jesus promised while simultaneously living with an embittered heart. In that moment of revelation, the image of my red-headed boy sitting down with her in heaven made me smile through my tears. I prayed, asking for God’s strength and comfort as my soul wrenched by forgiving her. While she was still behind locked doors, I learned that the imprisoned heart was actually mine. God melted my bitterness and transformed it into airy lightness the moment I chose forgiveness. My heart and my days had never felt so free.
This post was originally published in the Minnesota Bridging the Gap Ministry annual Fall Thrive Conference Devotional. The theme this last year was iChoose. Normally, I don’t provide devotional responses in my personal blog, but given what I have seen occur in our country in the last few days, I am going to go out on a limb and say that we can all use a big dose of forgiveness. Please do not misunderstand my words to mean that God doesn’t call us all to action for what he stirs in our heart. I believe he does. I additionally believe that for any group, organization, and yes, country to succeed we have to be willing to look past our differences and love. Sometimes in that loving, we will be asked to forgive and many times we will need to ask to be forgiven. By taking that step, maybe – just maybe – we can have conversations to realize that while our approaches might be different, many of us want the same things – to live and to love. I am a sinner in need of a Savior and every day, I try to live a life of revolutionary love because I have been loved extravagantly by all of you in the midst of life’s trials.
The last time I shared about the very personal and private side of my family’s story, I took some body blows of hatred and meanness. I am going to state that while my first reaction was shock (I mean, really, who wants to spew awfulness at a grieving mom?), my next reaction was wanting to hug the person who sent the nasty messages. Because in my heart, I believe that anybody who would beat up on the grieving must be hurting pretty badly to begin with. I am definitely not perfect and have many downfalls, but to anyone who wants to use this post for ugliness, I may get knocked down, but I am going to get right back up and love – even those with whom I may disagree.
And who knows maybe some day God will reunite Reed and the woman who took his life. If he does, I can only imagine that in that moment there will be nothing but love.
Reflect and Respond
Is bitterness, anger, or hurt clouding your heart? God wants to share your burdens. Spend time in his Word, soaking in his promises to carry you through the storms of life. Take time to pray and ask God if forgiveness can help your heart heal.
I’ve been there. Home alone and feeling kind of lonely. When my husband was still serving in the Army National Guard, there were weekends and summer training when I was a party of one. Sometimes there is comfort in solitude, and other times, it is a terrifyingly isolating experience. My heart holds a special place for those military spouses and anyone who is lonely.
For years now, I have attempted to make Christmas presents for our family members. I say attempt only because sometimes when you have four children under the age of nine all you can muster is a half completed scrapbook. Let me use this moment to support all the mommas doing the best they can. If someone gives you a half completed scrapbook, don’t look at that as the glass is half empty. Look at all the love (and probably hours of sacrificed sleep or a less than picked up house) it took to give you that much even if it is half full. This doesn’t get better as they grow and get involved in activities. Do not judge these mommas! Just don’t. Every mom I know is doing the best she can and is probably her own harshest critic. Why add to that?
My other reason for using the word attempt is that my gifts haven’t always arrived on time. My gift list totals over thirty people (twice that many if you count teachers), and sometimes there are only so many hours in the day. More than once I have ordered my glass of sweet tea with extra, extra, extra ice and if they would be so kind to throw in an extra hour or two for this day, I would appreciate it. So needless to say, I have the best intentions, but not always the time nor energy to see them to completion on time.
But the one thing that never fails is that when I am making something for anyone is the item is well prayed over. While I am sewing or knitting or crocheting or crafting, every second my hands are touching that item, my heart and head are praying for the recipient.
So it was for our niece this year for Christmas. Having recently moved, and her beau traveling away from home for long stretches at a time, I knew I needed something extra special for her. My family’s story of triumph over tragedy has been punctuated by the people who have buoyed our spirits when we didn’t even know how desperately we needed comfort. Many were sweet souls who had endured life’s hardships and they were sharing from a deep well of love and support from the comfort they had been given. My heart felt that maybe our niece needed just a little more love and support this year.
She has often tagged me in crafting posts, dropping hints that she might really, really, REALLY enjoy said item. So this year knowing that while she does have people in her new community who adore her that this might be the year of comfort.
It took a village and a bit of persistence because once I set my mind to making an afghan out of gigantic yarn there was no looking back. Skeins of yarn flew in from Florida, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota because apparently the yarn I chose is discontinued – of course, it would be – requiring personal shoppers around the country. Let me just take a moment to say that knitting this blanket on size 50 circular needles (yes they make those) was akin to wrestling an octopus. Often, the octopus won and I had to put it away for a bit. Add to that the fact that I have hit the stage of life where I need a turbo fan wherever I go, there were moments that I considered knitting this treasure in my bathing suit. Love knows no limits . . . unless of course, you have to break it to the puppy that the blanket is not for her.
I couldn’t be more proud of the final product as it is beautiful, but more so, because I hit it out of the park with our niece. Along with the blanket, we gave her a soup cookbook (which turns out is her favorite comfort food). Totally auntie win-win! But even more importantly is every stitch was knit with prayers that whenever she is wrapped in this warmth she feels the love of the hands, hands that know days of loneliness needing comfort, that made it for her.
Had it not been for a blizzard it would have arrived right on time, too. I guess we can’t win them all. But who’s sweating the little stuff? Wherever you are today, I pray that God is wrapping you in His arms of comfort!
There is something so refreshing about starting a New Year. It is a time of new beginnings, reinvigorated dreams, and fresh starts. For some it is a continuation of traditions, like my family’s last sunset of the year viewing. New Years are full of hope and possibilities. Yet for many grieving folks, the flipping of the calendar page is a reminder of yet another year to endure without their beloved family member or friend. The New Year can be a poignant reminder that the “new normal” – a life with a hole in the heart, an absence in the fabric of day to day existence is still real and painful.
One of my people who has gone on to heaven before me is one that I miss every day, but feel her absence profoundly on New Year’s. My Nannie, my Floridian grandmother, loved a good New Year’s Day celebration complete with her big family dinner. There was every kind of Southern favorite imaginable but my favorites were the ham, her signature Kraft mac-n-cheese which only she could make the way she did, cornbread, Hawaiian salad (mine taken from the end without coconut for me and my Aunt Nernie) and black-eyed peas. Although on that last one, you might have been putting your life at risk, because my Nannie was nothing if not superstitious. Walk around a pole differently than the rest of the group and you would need a chiropractor adjustment after she was through with jerking backwards to walk on the other side like everyone else. Some families have pineapple as a sign of good fortune, but Nannie’s specialty was the black-eyed peas with their own special seasoning – a dime in the pot of legumes.
Trust me, you might want to swirl your fork in your pile of peas before chomping down.
As we turned the calendar to a New Year this year, I was having a rough start – only it wasn’t from grief. My children had a bout with the stomach flu, my parents arrived in town and to prevent the gift that keeps on giving we had to send them to a local hotel. When the coast was clear, we gathered together to celebrate the holidays. We had planned a pork roast and mashed potatoes, but no black-eyed peas (my Dad despises them). As we were gathering our grocery list, I remembered something that I have held onto for the last four years waiting to give it a whirl.
The science teacher in me considered the cryptic recipe written in my Nannie’s handwriting an epic experiment. When Nannie passed, I stayed with my parents for a week to attempt to help them begin the journey of their new normal as caretakers of her estate. As I was going through her purse sorting through items for my Mom, I found a little notebook and the only thing written in the notebook was this recipe. If you had known my Nannie, you would have chuckled just like I did, because this scribbling would have been very clear to her, but to the rest of us it was somewhat intriguing. I asked my Mom if I could keep it because someday I would like to attempt to piece it all together.
That someday was just last week. After some online culinary sleuthing, I deduced that 2 cans “c” had to mean corn and the unnamed recipe was for a corn casserole. Of course, it took a little guesswork to decipher the rest of her notations, but in the end, we (my Mom, Daniel and I) came up with a pretty good finished product. If the fact that the casserole dish was scraped clean in the end was any indicator of our success, I think we would have made her proud.
Nannie’s Corn Surprise (Translated Recipe)
2 cans corn (we used one drained whole corn and one creamed corn)
1/2 cup milk (notice Nannie’s notation for a 1/2)
3 tbsp sugar
2/3 cup flour (we decided that the recipe needed more flour)
1/2 tsp salt AND pepper
2 tbsp bubbly (which since Nannie wasn’t a drinker we decided was Sprite)
Bake at 325 for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Ours was set somewhere right in between the two time frames.
At this point, we were saying to ourselves, hoping this works, but if it doesn’t at least these weren’t the most expensive ingredients.
Adding the bubbly was a lot of fun. Some great food science going on here!
I will admit we might have uttered something like, “Nannie, we are about to put this in the oven. If we missed anything, please help us out.” Since nothing came to mind or fell out of the cupboards, we guessed we were about as close as we could be. I absolutely love this casserole dish purchased in Valle Crucis, NC direct from the potter when my dad was coaching and teaching in Banner Elk.
It wasn’t her signature black-eyed peas, but with our little experiment, it felt like the woman who to me was larger than life was right there with us in my cozy kitchen on a frigid Minnesota day. She didn’t seem so far away as we tried to piece together her writing. There were many memories shared at the table that night and even though the people gathered all have holes in the hearts waiting to be plugged by the joys of heaven, on that night seated together, we felt whole.
After a somewhat harrowing drive, I arrived a few evenings ago in the college town I hold dear in my heart. The next day started a new journey for me as I had an official (pinch me) book signing and talks. I walked the hallowed halls and shared with the current scholars and community members about my journey to become an author. Although achieving a new found passion is as idyllic as it sounds. Trust me, the road of my dreams of becoming an author was paved with the sadness and tears of the greatest heartbreaks in my life.
This was illuminated for me as I stood in line at the post office last Saturday waiting to ship a large order of books to my uncle who behind Mom and Daddy is probably my biggest fan. Like Rick Bragg says, “Your first critics should definitely be ones you have in your pocket.” But while I stood in the long line (yes that happens in small towns) proud of my accomplishment, I suddenly realized the gentle soul who entered in behind me belongs to a friend who had recently endured the loss of a son.
My friend, who is one of the most amazing teachers I have ever met, was the same one for whom I sent many little prayers on Thanksgiving Day asking God to wrap him and his family, another set of dear friends, and the families of the Chattanooga bus crash tightly as they dealt with the first of the holidays without their precious children.
And there he was. The man I had prayed for.
Those that know me personally know exactly the first thing that came out of my mouth.
Can I give you a hug?
We shared the small talk of the grieving that only the bereaved truly understand. I was blessed to be in his presence because we acknowledged the unique journey of grief and how it comes with its own blessings and curses and blessings that feel like burdens. I agreed that I don’t subscribe to the sentiment that had been shared with their family that “it” gets better with time. I shared that for me the all the firsts (birthday, Christmas) were hard, but the seconds and the understanding there would always be an empty chair were intensely more difficult. In the conversation, I shared how much I had prayed for his family for the first Thanksgiving without their son and brother. And he imparted his own wisdom regarding loss. His words touched me deeply and helped me to process this bittersweet feeling with which I have been struggling for the last week.
Pride and sadness had co-existed, intermingling with every beat of my heart all week.
From the moment my book was released, I was elated that the stories God placed on my heart would be able to help others who are grieving or to assist those who want to comfort those who have experienced great loss. And lest we forget, the writing of this book was a part of my personal mending of the holes which will be my lifelong scars.
But please don’t misunderstand that I have never forgotten that the reason this book exists is that my son had to die for me to speak grief fluently. It is the one literacy skill that I wish I had never developed. Every time I share (even though I know I am helping others), I have to relive the thing that I thought would kill me. It is a delicate tightrope balance to revisit the pain of yesterday’s memories while remembering the hope that carried us through those darkest days.
With the holiday season upon us, existing (and I mean that in every nuisance of the word) are those among us who will attempt to celebrate for the first time with an empty chair. There also those like me who cannot, simply cannot, remove the extra chair from the table because it seems disloyal, and then there are those who want to take that same chair and smash it into a million pieces. The pain is real and universal and yet unique to the bearer. It is debilitating and exhausting.
Be kind and gentle to grieving people always . . . but especially during the holiday season.
As for me, with God’s strength, I am going to keep on acknowledging my empty chair and my broken heart that has been supported and, at times, filled with the incredibly amazing, wonderful, grace-filled, completely undeserved, and restorative hope that has come from family, friends, and strangers alike. Although it hurts, I will keep telling my story about our boy and his empty chair and God’s enduring faithfulness as long as our story continues to touch the hearts of others.
Perhaps it was the perfect storm of emotions that left me feeling elated one minute and deeply grieved the next on Sunday, which happened to be my birthday. I was happy to celebrate with friends and family and was ecstatic that my book is published as I had a book signing in church earlier that day. But perhaps the sharing of the story of my life and how grief has created its scars left my heart aching for the boy who can no longer be here to give those sneaky come from behind bear hugs.
My book is hopeful and uplifting, but the education of love through loss centers on our son dying at only twelve years old.
I miss him.
For life’s celebrations, there will always be the empty chair. On that day, I was riding the high of friends loving my book, but my heart trembled with sadness still because no phone call from college would come from the boy gone too soon.
I’ve been asked a few times about the title of the book – the redbird sings the song of hope: and other stories of love through loss and why I chose that title. Simply put, the redbird is our love note from God. I am not trying to be cheeky, but the rest of the story is in the book.
But I do know the redbird and a friend helped wipe away the tears of longing of what will never be on Sunday night.
To start the story right, here are two things you must know:
1). I love birds.
2). I have never met a stranger.
Many years ago, a dear friend asked if a friend of hers could come to my house to photograph cardinals. In one text message her friend (whom I had never met) became my friend. Bill had fallen on some hard times and he like me discovered solace in the winged friends of God’s creation. From the moment I met Bill I adored him. He was genuine, sincere, and oh so real. I love people who have endured life’s scars and are willing to share them with the world. These are the people who embody hope and I admire them. They give me strength to take the next step and on some days to get out of bed. Our littlest thought he was the greatest guy ever because he has many tattoos and a kind heart and she was enamored with his ink and his realness.
Bill was welcome at our home, or more importantly for his career as a photographer, our backyard any time. There would be times, he would quietly come and park on the street then set up to photograph the birds in our backyard. His presence became a staple, and when the timing was right we would quietly ask if he would like to stay for supper. Those were blessed days of hearts intertwining – especially over the redbird he was so hoping to photograph.
We have remained friends and despite his moving a couple hours away, we stay in contact. A message here or there and an occasional in person meeting always leaves me wishing for more time.
And yet it was time or rather timing that filled my heart with a birthday greeting that seemed divinely appointed.
Sunday evening, I received a message from Bill not realizing it was my birthday. He sent me a sweet message, remembering the times spent in our backyard, with two of his pictures attached. My tear filled response thanked him for sending what appeared to be birthday greetings straight from heaven.
His response filled my heart with such hope and such love. Through tear filled eyes, I told him that he was the messenger of Reed’s birthday greetings for me.
Wow! Happy birthday! Crazy! I walked around for 4 hours with a friend at sunrise and we didn’t get any photos then he left and within 5 minutes the male cardinal was literally sitting 15 feet from me and never left. Closest and most patient they have ever been, the female perched as seen in this photo at about 20 feet. I knew there had to be a reason for their friendly demeanor this morning.
My friend, Bill, reached out because he was remembering a lovely time in our lives we shared, but I believe that God divinely orchestrated that birding moment. He put the right person in the right place at the right time and then he stirred my friend’s heart at exactly the right moment to send me a message I so desperately needed as I rode the roller-coaster of joy and sadness. It was the greatest birthday present ever.
As I write this, my heart is again reeling after learning of the news of the Chattanooga school bus crash. While I don’t know the depth of their personal pain, I know what it is like to lose your child and to have your children severely injured on a school bus. In an instant, the world changed forever.
Some might wonder how you can survive a pain so deep that the scars will always be a part of your existence. For me, my answer is a whole lot of faith, a bunch of amazing friends, all kinds of prayers, and one redbird singing the song of hope.
Note: If you live locally, I have copies of my book I would love to sell and personally sign one for you. Otherwise, my book about my journey through grief and healing (and the redbird’s part in all that) is available thru Amazon and Barnes & Noble.