Have you ever taken the time to really look at a family photograph? As I have been praying about this talk and what God would have me say, I have realized just how unfinished our family photo really is. Pictures of my kiddos together appear incomplete and a couple of them seem to bear reflections of light in just the right places where their siblings might have been. The picture of our three children taken at the Antiquities fundraiser last June bears the resemblance of light spots, one in front and one in the back where there looks to have been shadows. I know these shadows are a reassurance of God’s promise that I will one day see the babies I did not have the chance to know here on this earth. As most of you know, I have had two babies born still in the last two years. Look back at your picture of the ‘all American family’ and if there are spaces you lost children to stillbirth or infant death I want to encourage you with the comfort I have been given. One day I know that the eight of us will stand together before our Faithful and Loving Savior and on that day our picture will be complete.
Let me back up to February of 2008. Our family of five was becoming more ‘normal’ as Grady was nine months old and we were gliding along enjoying one another. We had become distantly involved in the church and were irregular attendees of a small group. Our family gathered together to dedicate Grady, the youngest of our three living children. As we walked up to talk with the pastor and show off our cute little family, a strange feeling came over me. I decided immediately after the dedication was complete that I should go home to rest instead of staying for the remainder of the church service. After a very long trip to the emergency room, I was placed in ICU and given the ‘endearing’ terms: septic and total isolation. I was not one to get sick and had never really had anything serious. Apparently I was pretty bad and as I joked with the nurses and doctors about not needing my belongings where I was going when I died, they didn’t laugh at all and I looked to my mom and dad, searching for a smile. They called Chad to the hospital, because they did not think I would make it through the night. No one else was cleared to come in. I couldn’t see my three children, of which Grady was still nursing and very much attached to mom at nine months of age. People who came to check on me had to stand at the door of my room. Through all of this, I had peace. I figured I had caught something and would get some fluids and head home, not so much. God proved faithful and despite lots of pain and reactions to medication that nearly killed me, He brought me through. I spent days in a secluded hospital room joking with nurses and spouting sarcasm about having said I needed a vacation. Each person that came to visit had to ‘gown up’ in a mask, gown and gloves to keep from bringing any contaminants into my room. Ten days later I was released from the hospital, shaky at best, but ready to face whatever this world had to throw my way. Not only had God chosen to continue my life here on this earth, He protected me from the severity of what had gone on in my body during the course of those ten days. He spoke to me through Joshua 1:9 saying ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ God was there with me and He covered my eyes to how sick and near to death I was.
Two months later I was diagnosed with lupus. At 25, I was told I would not be able to do many things I loved and enjoyed just weeks before. As the doctor listed the activities and hobbies I would most likely never participate in, I questioned God‘s purpose for me. Why would He leave me here when I was nearly dead two months prior, only to be diagnosed with a chronic illness and autoimmune disease now? My life had been spared for this? My dear friend Janelle went to the first rheumatology appointment with me because I was afraid to go alone and I figured it was a good excuse to hit some sports stores in Lincoln. After the appointment I think I was in shock. I didn’t cry or yell or really react at all. I was told I would not be able to interact with people the way a normal person would due to my lowered immunity levels. I am not real touchy, so no big trouble there. My mom cried as I told her the results, my sister hugged me, and as I sat there witnessing their response, I felt lost and confused. What’s the big deal? I remember thinking. It’s just lupus. So I won’t be around sick people or touch anyone. So what? I can still do some of the things I love; I will still run and play with my kids. I am stronger than some diagnosis, I thought. I won’t let some doctor tell me what I can or can’t do. Yet something deeper was nudging me to pay attention. Sort of without notice my thoughts twisted as if Satan was beginning to wring out a towel. I didn’t have a lot of people who knew me all that well and now being sick would make it harder to find deep relationships. No one I talked to shared hope for what I could still do and I cried myself to sleep most nights wondering what God would have me do, since so much was no longer within my ability. I remember pleading with God to let me be stronger than this. Help me to prove them all wrong. God was faithful to His word in Isaiah 40:31 that says ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ I found the diagnosis to be more of a reason for my hospital stay than a need for a life-change. I was going to get myself back on the volleyball court and play like I did before. I was going to get involved and run like the other ‘all-American’ moms out there and keep the kids involved and get them more involved so no one missed anything because of lupus. I started to focus on what I could do outside myself instead of the disease that was having a hey-day inside.
God gave me another glimpse into a completed picture of our family, when we found out we were bringing baby #5 into this world. Draw strength from Me, I heard God say that sunny somber afternoon. It was as if God wrapped his arms around me before the Dr. could tell me what had happened. I looked at the ultrasound of my tiny little champ and thanks to that mother’s intuition, I just knew. God had chosen to take Josiah David to heaven and spared him the struggles of this earth. Tears fell and the pain came, but the promise of Christ didn’t leave my mind. I had begun to spread my wings a bit, in terms of involvement in church and other ‘planet mom’ activities. Close friends took me out to supper that evening to celebrate my birthday, and though I cried through most of the evening, I felt surrounded by the love of Jesus and was able to experience joy in the midst of the worst fear of my life, come true. I delivered Josiah on August 7th and after three priceless hours with him, I handed his perfectly complete, yet still little body to the nurse. Pictures of his precious little body show the resemblance of his brother Grady’s peaceful yet curious grin and his oldest brother Gabriel’s skinny little legs. When everyone had gone home and I was alone in the hospital room that evening, I wept and cried out to God, asking why. I rejoiced for the pain that our little Josiah would never endure. I searched for a reason I might be responsible and not finding one, wondered if it was the lupus that made me too weak to carry a baby. For hours I remember sitting there in that room staring at the walls as I recalled the births of our three older children and grieving the plans we had made that would never be. I was crushed, but determined. God held me and comforted me as Psalm 56:8 says, ‘You kept track of all my sorrows, You collected all my tears in Your bottle. You have recorded each one in Your book.’
Last February, as we celebrated the one year anniversary of God’s faithfulness to prayer in sparing my life and allowing me more time on this earth with my family, we celebrated the expectation of baby #6. It’s funny in a way because when Chad and I got married, I told him I wanted six children. As his eyes glazed over, he stared at me blankly and stuttered the words of a newly wed husband, “ok hun, if that‘s what you want” as if I had just told him we were expecting septuplets and he had no say in the decision. The promise of this new child completed my desire for being mommy to six children. Baby looked healthy and heartbeat was strong. My blood levels had checked out and for the first time since my diagnosis, the disease did not seem to be attacking with such severity. My white cell counts were normal and I was feeling great. I began developing a cold and figured it was sinus infection so I went in to see our doctor, not wanting it to turn to pneumonia as it often does with lupus. She smiled and said I had some allergy stuff going on and I was looking really good. I asked if we could listen to baby to be sure things were ok. She got the sonogram out and we started listening for the heartbeat we had heard just two weeks prior as strong and as quick as ever. Yet, it never came. She sent me straight to the hospital to see my trusted friend and former obstetrician Michelle Krieger. She put her arm around me and smiled and said we’re going to figure this thing out so you can go home and rest without worry. As she looked at the monitor of the ultrasound machine, and watched our little peanut, her eyes filled with tears as she whispered the words, “I just don’t see it, hun. It’s just not there.” Just one year ago this month, on April 8th I delivered our angel Cadyn and again was given just hours to spend with our youngest daughter. Hours that are more precious than words will ever explain. As those hours preceding her birth crept on, dear friends sat with me in the hospital, prayed with me and smiled through tears of their own as we awaited the eventual arrival of our heaven bound angel. God challenged me last fall to step out and accept the invitation to come to a special memorial night put on by MOPS to honor children who had died due to stillbirth, miscarriage, early infant death, etc. I had gone to the evening event and then began attending MOPS meetings not long after. Some of you MOPS moms were there to experience the stillbirth of Cadyn Jo. And through yet another valley in my life, God was faithful and spoke to me through James 1:2-3, “when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.” As the anniversary of Cadyn’s birth recently came and went, I looked at this verse with a smile. When I was given this verse just one year ago, I threw the Bible and scowled at my dear friend and mentor. Real comforting, but no thanks. I would rather have my baby than endurance, I told her. Yet looking back I am grateful to God and thankful to friends for His truth spoken to me, hard as it was to swallow.
As I share this with you, it sounds like I have accepted each struggle over the last two years with patience and trust. Well, ask those who have sat beside me or listened to me over the phone as I doubted and cried and screamed out to God. It has not been and is not easy, yet God continues to bless me and carry me through each memory and each experience. I have listened and ignored. I have cried in fury and pain, while experiencing peace and joy. I have pouted, yelled, inflicted pain upon myself and had pity parties like you wouldn’t believe. Yet each time, God has pulled me close to Himself and allowed me to feel the pulse of His heartbeat.
I went to a retreat last winter and listened to author and speaker Carol Kent. She wrote a book called When I Lay My Isaac Down. For those of us who didn’t grow up in Sunday School, her book is based on the story in Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord. Abraham obeyed God and led his son to the place the Lord showed him and placed his son on the altar. At the moment Abraham was about to kill Isaac, an angel spoke to him and told him not to kill his son. Abraham had proven his fear of the Lord and God had provided a lamb in the bushes to sacrifice on the altar.
I want to read you a bit of her book as it describes the pain and hurt, the hope and promise more clearly than I am able to explain it myself. “There are some tragedies that are too big for a heart to hold, and defy any description that makes sense. Time weaves its way through the shock, the hurt, and the inexpressible feelings, and one day you discover that in the process of daily survival, you have instinctively made decisions (good and bad), defined your theology, formed an opinion about God, and determined that you will either curl up and die emotionally or you will choose life. The terrifying and truthful fact is that, in choosing life, you realize it will never match the kind of life that was in your carefully thought-out plan for your future. It will force you to view the people around you differently. The brokenness will challenge you to new levels of personal compassion. It will melt your pride, diminish the importance of your carefully defined agenda, and it has the potential to develop an unshakable faith that defies rationality.”
“There are times in life when all of us are called upon to make heart sacrifices. Some of those sacrifices are things we choose because of a cause we believe in or a desired end that makes our decision worthwhile. However, most of us will face an ‘Isaac experience’ when a crisis is thrust into our lives without warning and without survival instructions. Our ‘Isaacs’ are the heart sacrifices we make when we choose to relinquish control and honor God with our choices even when all seems lost. We have to decide if we will let go of our control over a person, situation, or event, or if we will hang on for dear life and refuse to relinquish something we cherish.”
As much as I don’t like the process and in many cases have fought with all my heart to hold Christ at arms length, I am learning that the very same loss and hurt can also be the cause for joy and peace. All of us have experienced loss, pain, heartache, and devastation. Will we strengthen our grip on hope in the sight of worldly defeat? Or lash out in pain letting loose of the only grip that can stand the pressure? Will we live our lives with passion and purpose, even if we never know this side of heaven why something has happened? Will we choose unshakable faith, or will we give up on God? I believe God’s greatest invitation is to include us in His process of discovering the power of choosing faith when it makes no sense. When God seems most absent, He is the most present. He is in the center of our circumstances whether we recognize His presence or push Him away.
OK, now think about your family. Not just your husband and your children. Think of all the people you have in your life that you consider family. Friends as dear as sisters, parents you are blessed to be close to, long-time friends who know you for you and love you anyways. Think of those people who have seen you at your ugliest and in the greatest weaknesses you can remember. Many of our circumstances over the past two years have not been mountaintop experiences. The pastor here often says you are either entering a trial, in a trial, or coming out of a trial. Girls, I am ready to come out of the trials! However, in the valleys of this life, I am learning to cling to the Lord and hold onto promises of our unfailing Savior. It is in the fearful and heart wrenching experiences that I feel the presence of God most clearly.
I want to close with scriptures God has used to speak to me through my children in the midst of these valleys. Some of you may be wondering as I talk about being a mother of six, when you are adding up the number of children I have talked about and it is only five. I became pregnant with my oldest, Tyrell before Chad and I were together. I made the regretted decision to end the life of my son while I was still in junior college and before I accepted Christ as my Savior. After I gave my heart to God, we memorialized Tyrell and Chad spiritually adopted him as his own. Very early in our marriage, we conceived and gave birth to Gabriel. He has been my promise of a second chance since the moment we knew he was coming. II Corinthians 5:17 tells us that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old has gone; a new life has begun!” Gabriel’s life is a constant reminder of the promise God has made to make all things new. I may look in the mirror and see the face of someone bruised and beaten up by life‘s circumstances, but God has made me new and for all of us who know Him, He has made us beautiful.
Next, there is Grace. How would I ever begin to describe Grace? Many times I describe her as God’s way of showing me I would need more grace than ever to raise a daughter. But in truth, she is a lot like me and in many ways, God fulfills the promise of His word in II Corinthians 12:9 reassuring me that His grace is sufficient for me for His power is made perfect in my weakness. Many times when I feel the weakest, God’s presence and plan for my life are most clear. As for our almost three year old son Grady, nothing brings joy to my face like seeing the character and joy of Christ through his eyes. Psalm 139:17 says, “How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!” He will walk up to me, wrap his fat little hands around my leg and say, ’I love you so much’ and I know that God’s promises are as pure as Grady’s precious little words. As for our babies, Josiah and Cadyn, God has radiated His promises through song lyrics and glimpses of heaven. Music has always spoken to me, but for the past two years I have felt the arms of God wrap around me each time I hear the power and passion in the words of a song and the sentiment of a musician totally reliant upon the Lord. We have the promise of Romans 8:28 that He who began a good work in each one of us, will be faithful to complete it and God did after just 17 and 15 weeks gestation for our precious babies. They are finished and complete in heaven with Jesus.
So, now you are all asking yourselves, what does all this have to do with Planet Mom and celebrating the end of the year meeting? In a nutshell, here it is…I surrendered my heart to Christ nine years ago and though I faced ups and downs, nothing in this world could have prepared me for the past two years of peaks and valleys. If it weren’t for MOPS and the connections I have made here, I can’t honestly say I would have chosen to continue walking this journey with Christ. Maybe I would have, maybe not. What I know as an absolute fact is this…I would not have witnessed the peace of Christ and the reassurance of His grace without all of you. You have challenged me to journey with Christ and inspired me to walk more intentionally with Jesus. Each of you who have accepted Jesus as your Savior is part of my complete family picture and one day we will all stand in unity before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As we finish this season in MOPS and our exploration of Planet Mom together, I pray you have been encouraged. It is my prayer, as well as each of the steering team members that you have been lifted up, exhilarated, strengthened and you have felt accepted through our meetings together. Our journey together has been exciting for me and I have so enjoyed this year in MOPS, though it has taken me time to get used to this microphone. As we leave here today, it is my hope and prayer that above all, you have experienced Christ. If you listen, you will hear Him saying the same thing He has said to me through the pain, loss, heartache, joy, elation, hope and most recently through tears. There is nothing that will ever take away my unconditional love for you. The faith that gets us through begins with being flat-out needy and allowing God’s love to embrace us, hold us and dry our tears. One day we will all discover that our cries are being transformed into life-giving, healthy tears that are rebirthing faith, hope, and joy. And the promise of His word that says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them” becomes a greater, more tangible truth as we navigate this uncharted and ever-changing planet known as Planet Mom.