Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday -- Life is Good . . .?

Continuing the Throwback Thursday theme on the blog ... Here's a post from August 8, 2010.

Life Is Good . . . ?

Have you ever seen those T-shirts that say "Life is good"? They always have some kind of relaxation-inducing picture along with those a lawn chair and a glass of lemonade, or a pair of flip-flops and a beach umbrella or something. They're nice T-shirts...they come in all different colors in sort of a weathered-looking fabric. Seems like I usually see them in sporting-good stores. I always look at them because I like them, but I've never bought one...partly because I think they're very pricey for T-shirts, but mostly because I'm not sold on the "Life is Good" sentiment. Oh, there was a time when I wouldn't have thought twice about that was good, and always had been for me. My eyes had not yet been opened to the world of childhood cancer. Sure, I knew it existed. I had seen those St. Jude fundraisers on know the ones. Of course, I always changed the channel really fast so I didn't have to look at those steroid-swollen children with no hair or eyebrows...I felt bad for those kids, but I didn't know any of them. They weren't my kids, or my neighbor's kids, or my friend's kids, so it was easy to change the channel and blithely go on my way.

When we were in Gulf Shores, Alabama, earlier this summer, we went in one of those tourist traps stores. This one is called Souvenir City, and the door is shaped like an enormous shark's mouth. If you've ever been there, you've seen it...You can't miss it! After taking the obligatory picture...

...we went in and looked around. As I wandered through the T-shirt section, I spotted a group of shirts that looked just like the "Life is Good" shirts from a distance. I walked up to them, and found that these were a little different. These shirts actually said, "Life is Crap" and had pictures like a tree falling on someone's car, or a guy hitting his thumb with a hammer. Some were kind of one that had a picture of a men's restroom and a ladies' restroom. The ladies' room had a line of about five women waiting to use it, and of course the men's room had no line. Anyway, these shirts gave me a chuckle, and then got me thinking.

Life isn't always good...but God is. Sometimes life is crap...but God is always good. In his wisdom and sovereignty, He has allowed our family to see and experience some of the more crappy parts of life. He has taken us beyond seeing young strangers with cancer on TV, to learning the names and faces and families and stories of so many cancer battlers right here in Arkansas and beyond. It is such a privilege to be able to lift these families up in prayer, and to keep up with their journeys through the storms.

In John 9:1-3, the disciples questioned Jesus about why a man was born blind, trying to determine whether it was caused by sinfulness. Jesus replied, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," and then He goes on to explain the purpose of the man's disability: "This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Did you catch the "so that"? The "so that" rules out bad luck, haphazardness, and neglect. God had a specific, divine purpose for the man's handicap. And today, some 2000 years later, I believe that is still true. In His sovereignty, I believe that God allows...might I even say ordains...the difficult times in our lives. But He will always, if we choose to allow Him, display His goodness through them.

So which shirt had the right message? For me, it's a combination of the two. Life is sometimes crap...but God is always good!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Throwback Thursday -- "But Even If He Does Not ..."

Oh, the blog has been sooooo quiet lately.

Unfortunately, it's probably going to stay that way for awhile.

Our school district is making up its snow days by tacking an extra hour to the end of each school day.  That will be wonderful at the end of May, when we're out of school and everyone else is still going ... but for now, it's making very long work days.  The remainder of the evening is spent getting caught up on While We're Waiting stuff, which I love doing ... but that doesn't leave much time for blogging.

I hate the thought of the blog just sitting dark so much, though, so I've decided to incorporate Facebook's "Throwback Thursday" theme into the blog. On Thursdays, I'm going to re-post some of my personal favorite blog posts from the past.  I hope you enjoy these, because it's probably all you're going to see on here for awhile ... at least until school is out!  :-)

Here's the first Throwback Thursday post from Saturday, March 6, 2010, just a little over a year after Hannah went to Heaven.

"But Even If He Does Not ..." 

I have such great memories of the little church where I grew up...First Baptist Church of Phillips, Wisconsin. Every Wednesday afternoon, my brother and I would walk from school to church for CYF. There were probably only about 10 or 12 kids that came, but our pastor, Arlo Little, was there every single Wednesday to play games with us and teach us a Bible lesson. 

When it was warm enough outside, we would play baseball (that's when I discovered that I was not an athlete). When it was cold outside, which was pretty much the whole school year, we would play games in the basement of the church, where we had our Bible story time. My favorite one involved a pincushion which the pastor would hide somewhere in our meeting room (it seemed like a huge room at the time, although I think it was actually quite small) and we would have to find it. He would tell us if we were hot or cold until we found it, and then we would do it all over again. I remember the excitement of getting warm, then warmer, then steaming, then boiling, then blazing as we got closer and closer to that little pincushion. 

I liked the games, but I loved it when he would tell the Bible story and get out the flannelgraph stuff. I loved the flannelgraph background, looking like it had been drawn with colorful pastels, and all those flannel-backed figures, dressed in their Bible-time robes. I especially loved the animals...the camels, donkeys, and sheep. I learned lots of Bible stories in that basement in northern Wisconsin.

Yesterday morning, I was reading my daily excerpt from "The One Year Book of Hope" by Nancy Guthrie (an excellent book for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one) and she referenced the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. I was immediately back in that church basement, seeing those flannel graph figures and hearing the story told by my pastor. And yesterday evening, I was reading "Letters from the Land of Cancer" by Walter Wangerin, Jr., (an excellent book for anyone traveling through the land of cancer) and, would you believe, he referenced the same story. And both authors emphasized a part of the story that I had never really given much thought to before. 

You may remember that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to worship a gold statue of the Babylonian king. Here's what they said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if He does not, Your Majesty can be sure that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up." Daniel 3:16-18.

I've always thought of them as Biblical heroes because they refused to bow down to an idol, even under threat of death. And while that was heroic, I've decided that their real heroism is reflected in the statement, "But even if He does not...". On the surface, it may look like they were giving God an escape clause, something to protect His reputation in case they burned up in the furnace. But I don't think so. They didn't pretend to know what God would do, nor did they try to tell Him what to do. I think they trusted Him to the point that they knew whatever He would do what was right, even if it resulted in their death. God was God however He chose to act.

This was the same understanding we came to as we watched Hannah's life slowly leave her. That "even if He does not", we would continue to trust Him. And I've seen this attitude replicated in the lives of several of the cancer patients we've come to know as we've traveled this journey. We've been asked by a friend to help her choose music for her own funeral, and this afternoon I will be burning a CD of songs for her to listen to. She has such a glowing peace about her as she contemplates her own death, which, according to her doctors, is approaching. She knows that "even if He does not" heal her in this life, He will in the next. 

What a difference it makes when we face life, and death, with this kind of attitude!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

While We're Waiting Wednesday -- Arkansas Gives!

Many of you who follow this blog have been wonderful supporters of the While We're Waiting ministry to bereaved parents.  In fact, you've watched it grow from the very first retreat we had in April of 2011 to where we are today, doing 8-10 completely booked WWW events per year in multiple locations, and on the verge of embarking on a major building project.  You can see pictures of the proposed While We're Waiting Refuge and find out how you can be a part of that project by clicking here!

But tonight I wanted to let you know about a unique opportunity to support the ministry of WWW financially.

Tomorrow, on Thursday, April 2, from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm, nonprofits from around the state will be participating in an event called Arkansas Gives. On that date and during that 12 hour period, a percentage of any donation you give to a participating nonprofit through the Arkansas Gives website will be matched by a $250,000 pool of money made available by the Arkansas Community Foundation. WWW will be one of the nonprofits you can donate tomorrow. If you've ever thought about making a donation to While We're Waiting, tomorrow would be a great time to do so, because your gift will be maximized!

Here's what you need to know:

-- The donation must be made on April 2nd between 8 am and 8 pm

-- The donation must be made on the Arkansas Gives website (not the WWW website)

-- There is a minimum gift of $25 and it must be made by credit card or debit card (Visa, Mastercard, or American Express)

-- Your donation will be fully tax deductible

-- You will receive a tax receipt by email immediately from Arkansas Gives

-- You do not have to live in Arkansas to donate

-- All funds raised that day go directly to WWW; the only fees taken out are those charged by the credit card companies

-- Click here to go directly to the WWW page on the Arkansas Gives website!

One more thing! As I said above, we are in the early stages of building the While We're Waiting Refuge ... a retreat center specifically designed to meet the needs of bereaved parents. If you donate $2,500 or more to WWW either during Arkansas Gives or at any other time in the weeks and months ahead, we have some exciting incentives for you ... including the option of naming a specific area of the WWW Refuge in memory of your child, one-time use of the Refuge by your family or organization, and a few other special things. If you would like more information about how you can become a sponsor of the WWW Refuge, please click here and we'll get you fixed up.

We hope you'll choose to support While We're Waiting on Thursday, April 2nd!!  Thank you!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday -- Three Priceless Gifts

Get any group of bereaved parents together, and the topic inevitably comes up.

I bet you can guess what it is ... Yep, it's The Things People Say.  Every parent who has lost a child has been hurt (almost always unintentionally) by something that's been said in an effort to comfort them.

Sometimes it's The Things People Don't Say.  Every parent who has lost a child has also been hurt by someone who has avoided them, or who said nothing to them in an effort not to say the wrong thing.

We often discuss this topic at our While We're Waiting events.  In fact, our March WWW support group meeting was focused entirely on this topic.  We all go around and share our horror stories of the "At least you have other children", "Aren't you glad she's in a better place", "I understand how you feel, my dog died last week", and "Don't you think you should be back to normal by now" comments we've heard.  And maybe surprisingly, we laugh about them.  I mean, those poor people .. they just can't help themselves!

After we've talked about the dumb things for awhile, we always try to turn it back to the positive by discussing some of the good things people have said and done for us.  And it's very heartwarming to hear those stories.  There are many, many wonderful people out there who have been the hands and feet of Christ to us.

In light of that, I want to share three "gifts" I recently received ... all from different people, and each one from given without the giver realizing their significance.

1.  A couple of months ago, Brad and I were invited to have dinner in the home of some missionaries who are here in Hot Springs on furlough.  We went to college with this couple, but we've lost touch with them over the years.  Over a yummy Mexican dinner, we discussed lots of things ... their ministry in Canada, our daughter's wedding, their adoption of a beautiful little boy from Africa, my husband's role as a school administrator.  After dessert, we sat down in comfortable chairs in the living room, and they said, "So, tell us about Hannah", and then they settled in and prepared to listen.  What a gift!  You know, we tell Hannah's story all the time, but it's always in the context of a ministry situation ... a retreat, a support group meeting, or from a stage in front of an audience.  Here was a couple who simply wanted to know about Hannah ... who she was, what she liked and disliked, how she dealt with her cancer diagnosis.  What a blessing it was to talk about our girl freely, openly, comfortably, with another couple who just wanted to listen.

2.  A few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, our While We're Waiting team had the opportunity to speak at our home church.  It was wonderful to be able to share our testimonies and the WWW ministry with our church family.  We were able to unveil the plans for the While We're Waiting Refuge for the first time that morning ... something we were very excited about doing.  A few days later we received a note in the mail from a gentleman who is an incredibly faithful card writer and prayer warrior.  The first line of his card said, "Tears and Cheers!" and then he went on to say that he was praying for the four of us and our ministry.  But the "Tears and Cheers" statement is what caught my eye.  He was acknowledging that even though the growth of the WWW ministry is something to cheer about, it comes at a price ... the tears of missing our children.  That recognition was a gift.

3.  The third gift was given on that Sunday morning when we shared at our church.  The invitation had been given (One person gave their life to the Lord!), the offering had been taken, and the service had ended.  We stood around and talked with people for a long time afterward, and finally most folks had headed for the doors.  I began to gather up my things and get prepared to leave, when suddenly a sweet lady approached me, laid her hand on my arm, leaned in close, and gave me a gift.  She quietly said, "I still cry for you."  I was dumbfounded, and all I could think of to say was, "You do?"  She said, "Yes, I still cry for you," and then she slipped away.  Five words.  But, oh, how much that meant to me, to think that after six years ... someone still cries for me.

As I said, I don't think any of these folks recognized how profoundly their statements and actions affected me.  They don't even know how priceless their gifts were.  There's a pretty good chance they will each be reading this blog post, though, so they do now.  So let me take this opportunity to thank you for loving me well.  I will never forget the gifts you gave me.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday -- Feeling Abandoned?

Anyone who grew up in Arkansas in the seventies or eighties probably made at least one trip to Dogpatch USA when they were a kid.  Dogpatch was an amusement park which opened in 1968, and was based on the comic strip Li'l Abner.  It was nestled deep in the woods of northern Arkansas and featured a number of attractions and rides. The developers believed it would rival Disneyland in popularity one day, and though it never quite achieved that status, it drew a pretty good crowd in its heyday.  It featured hillbilly-themed attractions, such as Rotten Ralphie's Rick-O-Shay Rifle Range and a roller coaster called Earthquake McGoon's Brain Rattler. One fun feature was that instead of garbage cans, the park had "trash eaters" -- mechanical pigs and goats that would suck the trash right out of the visitors' hands. To a kid, it was a downright awesome place to spend the day.

Over the years, Dogpatch changed hands several times as it struggled financially.  It finally closed in October of 1993.  Efforts are now being made to revitalize it, but for the most part, it has lain abandoned all these years.

There's something very sad and even eerie about an abandoned amusement park ...

A place that was once known for bringing joy ... now dilapidated and overgrown with weeds and vines.  A place once filled with rambunctious, laughing children ... now quiet and still.  A place where fun family memories were once made ... now just a faded memory itself.


Grief can make us feel that way too.

Like time has marched on and left us behind.

Like we're being choked by weeds and brambles.

Like no one else "gets" us.

Like we've grown old before our time.

Like we'll never have joy again.

Like our opportunity to make good memories is gone forever.

Like even God has abandoned us.

And you know what?  If it was up to us to do life in our own strength, these things would all be true.

But here's the promise from God's Word ...

" ... We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed."  (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)

On my own, I'm a jar of clay ... just like a crumbling, ramshackle attraction at a neglected theme park. But I have a treasure within me ... the power of God.  And because of that power, I can be hard pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; struck down, but not destroyed.  And I will never, ever be abandoned.

All of the things I listed above are feelings.  The truth is that God has not abandoned us, and He will give us strength for each challenge we face.  There is still joy to be found, good memories to be made, and friendships with those who "get" us waiting to be developed.  He won't let us be choked out by briars and nettles if we continue to seek Him.  Life will never leave us behind if we remember that His mercies are new every morning.

And there's no amusement park on earth that can compare to what is awaiting us in Heaven!  What a beautiful hope to cling to on those days when we may be feeling a bit forsaken.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday -- Six Years in Heaven

Thanks to the absolutely beautiful snowfall we had yesterday, I've been able to enjoy a quiet day at home, remembering our girl who went to Heaven six years ago today.  It was a great opportunity to reflect, remember, and revel in the wonderful memories we have with our Hannah Joy.

My overwhelming feeling today at this six year mark is gratitude.  Gratitude that God chose me to be Hannah's mother; gratitude that we had 17 1/2 amazing years with her; gratitude that she is perfectly healed in Heaven today.

I spent the day posting my favorite photos from Hannah's life on my Facebook page.  I tried to post them at regular intervals throughout the day so I wouldn't totally gum up people's newsfeeds with them.  How fun it was to share these pictures and re-live some of my favorite memories with our girl.
As I shared these pictures, though, I found myself keenly aware of the moms and dads who did not have the blessing of so much time with their children.  Through While We're Waiting, we've had the opportunity to meet many parents who never had the opportunity to make the kind of memories we have with Hannah, and my heart breaks for them.  We were so blessed to have the time we had with Hannah.

As I thought about Hannah and all those we've met whose children have left "too soon", I remembered a book that Hannah "wrote" back when she was in junior high.  This was a project of her GT class, and is an autobiography, complete with photographs.

She drew the cover picture, which is a bell (her grandma always called her "Hannah Bell").  Clearly, she got her artistic ability from me!  ;-)  I love the words she uses to describe herself ..."joyful", "optimistic", "sweet", "Christian", "caring". She couldn't have been more correct in her choice of words.  The first page put a lump in my throat: "Dedicated to My Amazing Family". She begins with a chapter called "Before Me", in which she states that we were so ecstatic when she was born that we gave her the middle name "Joy", which is true! That chapter is followed by a chapter for each year of her life. It was so much fun reading all of these chapters, and looking at all the photographs she included. The one that really got to me though was the final chapter, which was titled "My Future Possibilities", and reads as follows:

"As I think about the future, I get so excited because I know my future is bright. I love to think about what is to come, and I do constantly. I plan to graduate high school with a 4.0 and at the top of my class. Then, I would like to enroll in Ouachita Baptist University with a full or almost full paid scholarship, and study elementary education to become an elementary teacher. I'd graduate with a bachelor's degree from OBU, and then go somewhere for my master's degree in teaching. I would hope to be married by the time I graduated college, so I would settle down in a small town in Arkansas and start a family (and teach). When I'm old enough to retire, I will probably move closer to where my grandkids live so I could be close to them and watch them grow up. I want to live a long, happy, healthy and content life that I can look back on someday and be proud of. And maybe someday I'll read this book and I'll think, "Wow, I did just that!""

The first time I read this paragraph after Hannah's death, especially the last part, it felt like a punch in the stomach. It literally left me almost breathless for a few minutes. How can someone so excited and full of plans for the future just be gone? How can her innocent desire for a long and healthy life be so unfulfilled?

And God had to gently remind me of something I already know. As we talk to grieving parents, one of the things we talk about is God's sovereignty...the fact that He is in control in and through every situation. As Hannah's illness progressed and it became apparent that, without a miracle, she would be leaving us for Heaven, we felt that we were being called to submit to His will for her life and for ours. Jeremiah 29:11 says, "For I know the plans that I have for you,...plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope." Hannah's future was in His hands...she had her own plans, we had our plans for her...but God had a better plan. What seemed to be a calamity to us was the best thing that ever happened to her!

I found this quote the other day:

Death is God's way of saying, "Your table is ready."  Hannah's table was ready at the age of 17.

Barbara Johnson in "Pack Up Your Gloomees in a Great Big Box, Then Sit on the Lid and Laugh" says this: "There is a finality to death that is inescapable. You can't go around it, over it, or through it. All you can do is negotiate--not for a reversal that could bring your loved one back, because there is none. Instead, you plead for some kind of understanding, some way to make sense of it all as you try to get through it, allowing your grief to take its course and let the pain eventually drain away."

We will never completely understand why Hannah's wish for a long and healthy life was unfulfilled on this earth, but she also said that she wanted to be able to look back on her life someday and be proud of it. I think that if she could see the lives that have been touched through her relatively short life (and I think maybe she can in Heaven), she would be proud.

Thank you for sharing in our life, and hers, by reading these posts, and praying for our family all these years.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

While We're Waiting Wednesday

I suppose that an update on the While We're Waiting ministry to bereaved parents is long overdue.  Honestly, we've been so busy keeping up with the day-to-day activities of the WWW ministry, the blog has taken a back seat!  Thankfully, we've had a string of snow days this week so I've got some time this evening to sit down and write for a few minutes.

There are far too many things going on with this ministry to share in a blog post, so I will just share about two of the most recent events.

This past weekend we hosted our largest parents' retreat ever at Spring Valley Anglers Rod & Gun Club in northwest Arkansas.  There were eleven families represented, one couple driving all the way from Toledo, Ohio, to participate in the weekend!  I think they get the prize for coming the farthest for a While We're Waiting event.  What an amazing weekend we had together!  Our stories were all very different, but we were quickly bonded together by our love for both our children and our Lord.

As always, the story is best told in pictures.  Spring Valley Anglers is a beautiful place ...

Set on the banks of crystal-clear Spavinaw Creek ...

During their free time, parents were able to enjoy the peace and beauty of their surroundings ...

Our sessions were filled with rich conversation ...

We talked about our beautiful children ...

Ate A LOT of delicious food ...

And made friendships that will last a lifetime.

Let me share what a few of them had to say at the end of the weekend ...

"To be honest, I was dreading this weekend and sharing our story.  But immediately I felt welcomed and at home.  Friendships were made that I will treasure for the rest of my life.  My husband and I highly recommend this retreat for parents suffering a loss.  What a blessing we received!!"  ~Dustin's mom

"This weekend has been so good for us as a couple.  We struggle to talk about our son with each other.  I was helped as well as my husband.  Thank you!"  ~Joshua's mom

"The WWW Weekend for Parents has touched our hearts greatly.  We came very timid and left forever bonded in our hearts with so many beautiful parents on this journey."  ~Eliana's mom and dad

"We feel incredibly blessed to have experienced this weekend with this group of amazing people."  ~Sophia's mom and dad

"We were very nervous about attending the While We're Waiting Weekend retreat, opening up our deepest hurt in front of strangers.  It was an absolute blessing to attend!  The support of everyone, laughter as well as tears, blessed us and took all our nervousness away.  We are so grateful for you and your ministry."  ~Colby's mom and dad

Now for Part Two of this post ...

We took the first big step today toward the building of the While We're Waiting Refuge, a retreat center designed specifically to meet the needs of bereaved parents.  Fifty acres on the outskirts of Hot Springs has been donated to the ministry for this project.  There is an existing older home on the property, which we will be completely renovating, including the addition of ten hotel-style guest rooms.  

We met with an architect out at the property a few weeks ago and talked through some ideas.  This morning we met with him again and he showed us the plans he has drawn up for this facility.  We were so excited to finally see something on paper!!

You can see the existing home in the lighter print with all the additions coming off of both sides.  This will meet our needs perfectly!  A concept drawing from the architect will be available soon, and I will share it here when it's available.  

Why are we even considering a building project like this when we can go to places like Spring Valley Anglers and Family Farm Christian Day Camp?  Because our events are filling up months in advance, and we cannot get these venues as often as we would like to in order to meet the need.  Our next retreat coming up in April has been completely booked for months, and the one we have planned for November is already nearly full.  It's important for us to keep our groups small to promote the intimacy of our discussion, so we would like to have events more often with smaller groups. (This past weekend's event was our maximum size group.)  We also offer our events at no charge to the parents to attend.  Having our own venue would help us control our costs, so we can continue to do that.

We've committed to building this facility without incurring any debt ... which means we're planning to raise all of the funds upfront.  We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit ministry, so all donations are tax deductible.  If you are aware of any individuals or corporations who may be looking for a worthy project to donate to, please send them our way!  :-)  And if you would like to partner financially, even in a very small way, with this ministry, you may make a donation online by clicking here.  And of course, we'd love your prayer support as we seek to follow God's leadership in this ministry.  Thank you!!