Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday -- A Christmas Contrast

Christmas 2008 was a really difficult Christmas for us.  Three months prior, our daughter Hannah's cancer had returned with a vengeance, with multiple tumors on her brainstem and up and down her spine.  Her oncologist had told us, with tears in his eyes, that she had less than a five percent chance of survival, but we were still in the battle, going into the clinic for platelet infusions both the day before and the day after Christmas.

Hannah was a good sport about it all, never complaining about a thing ... and she really seemed to be feeling pretty good that Christmas.  We could see the signs, though, subtle at first, and then accelerating rapidly, that she would be leaving us soon.

That Christmas was so surreal.  She was here with us, yet we knew (without a miraculous intervention from God) that she would be leaving us soon.  And we knew that Christmas would never been the same.  Yet, for our girls' sake, we had to carry on as if everything was just fine.  The only word I can think of to describe that day is agonizing.  There was such a feeling of hopelessness pervading the entire day.

Fast forward five years to Christmas 2013.  Instead of my two girls helping me decorate the tree, these two did the job all by themselves this year.  Notice the JOY all over our tree (and all over their faces)!

This Christmas, too, had a touch of the surreal to it.  Because this year, we knew that Bethany would be leaving us soon.  Ah, but it's different ... In just under five months, her dad will be walking her down an aisle, and she'll be saying her vows and changing her name.  And once again, our family Christmas will never be the same.  

But this time, there was no hopelessness, no despair, no dread of what was to come.  Instead there was excitement and joyful anticipation of the future.  

And when I really stop and think about it ... should the two Christmases really have been so different? Yes ... one is clearly very painful, and one is not.  And yet ... No.  

Both Hannah and Bethany had/have much to look forward to.  Bethany has a wedding and marriage to look forward to, and all that goes along with that.  But Hannah ... she had Heaven to look forward to! And a godly marriage, as wonderful as that is, pales in comparison to Heaven.

And the cool thing about all of this is that (because of God's gift at Christmas) one day our family will be reunited in Heaven at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Thank God, there will be no empty chairs around our family table that day.  And that will be better than any Christmas dinner we can imagine!

"Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, 'Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure' -- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.  And the angel said to me, 'Write this:  Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.' And he said to me, 'These are the true words of God.'"  Revelation 19:6-9

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Mourning -- It's Not MY Birthday Anyway

When I was a little girl, Christmas was my absolute favorite holiday.  We would always travel from our home in northern Wisconsin to visit my relatives in Illinois, and I would have the best time playing with all my cousins.  Of course, the best part of Christmas was when we got to open our presents ... I was always so excited to get a bunch of new toys to play with! 

Except for that one Christmas ... when I was sorely disappointed.  I had asked for a Fisher Price farm set.  You remember the one ... it had a silo, a hay loft, a fence, all these neat little animals ... and best of all, it made a mooing sound when you opened and closed the barn doors!  I'm sure I got some really awesome gifts that year, but the only thing I can remember is that this farm set was not one of them.

And to make it worse, my cousin did get one!  And this particular cousin actually lived on a farm, and she even had horses!  I mean, how unfair was that??  I was soooooo disappointed, and I let everyone know.  I'm pretty sure I received a hearty lecture about my lack of gratitude ... and deservedly so.

This past weekend we celebrated Christmas with the Sullivan family in Van Buren.  Yesterday morning we went to church with them, and enjoyed a great sermon from my in-laws' pastor.  He opened his message by sharing an illustration which really caught my attention.

It seems there was a little boy attending a church Christmas party.  Each child who came to the party stood in line to receive a present, and this little guy was at the very end of the line.  He patiently awaited his turn, but just as he got to the front of the line, they ran out of presents.  The pastor felt terrible about this and apologized profusely, but the little boy smilingly said, "That's okay.  It's not MY birthday anyway."

It's not MY birthday anyway.

Wow, did I need that reminder.  

When I'm feeling second-rate because my house is not Pinterest perfect ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

When I'm frustrated because I haven't had the time or energy to get my Christmas cards done ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

When I'm aggravated by the rudeness of the crowds in the stores ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

When I'm disappointed and sad that our family Christmas is not what it once was ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

When everyone else seems to have what I want so desperately for myself ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

And most of all, when I want to kick and scream and rant about how unfair it is that Hannah is not here to celebrate with us ... (Sigh) ... It's not MY birthday anyway.

No, it's not MY birthday ... it's HIS.  

Because it is HIS birthday, all of these things that are so hard, painful, sad, disappointing, frustrating, aggravating, and unfair today will one day be redeemed.  

Because it is HIS birthday, Hannah is more alive today than she has ever been.

And because it is HIS birthday, I will see my girl again, and not just see her again, but spend eternity with her.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved."  John 3:16-17

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday -- Birthday Reflections

Birthdays sure are different than they used to be.

Even just a few years back, I could go through an entire birthday without anyone even knowing it was my birthday.  Oh sure, my mom and dad knew, and my husband and kids knew ... but that was about it.  And I was fine with that.  I could go to work or church or wherever, and as far as anyone else was concerned, it was just another day.

With the way technology keeps us all connected now ... those days are over.

The birthday messages actually started on Facebook yesterday.  My brother, who lives in Indonesia where my birthday arrives 13 hours earlier than it does here, posted a Happy Birthday message on my wall, and the flood of greetings began.  Nothing makes you feel loved like 180+ people wishing you a happy birthday online.

Over the past few days, I've received a handful of birthday cards from family members and sweet friends, and I was greeted with a couple of e-cards from my nieces in Indonesia this morning.  Today, my phone was continually sending me text message alerts.  Really made my day.

And then there were the greetings some not-so-expected sources ... my dentist's office, the American Red Cross, Stage Department Stores, the University of Arkansas Alumni Association, the Arkansas Blood Institute, and even the Arkansas Speech-Language Hearing Association.  Sure makes a girl feel special.

I remember my first couple of birthdays after Hannah went to Heaven.  Honestly, every "Happy Birthday" wish at that time felt like a sucker punch to the gut. How could anybody expect me to have a happy birthday (or Mother's Day, or Easter, or New Year, or Christmas) when my child was gone?!  What were these people thinking ... ordering me to have a happy birthday?  Didn't they know that was impossible?  That I would probably never have a truly happy birthday again?  It really made me want to karate chop somebody in the neck, to borrow one of Bethany's favorite sayings.

I'm so glad that feeling hasn't lasted.  That was a miserable way to be.  Over time, God has brought healing.  I no longer spend my birthdays mourning what I've lost ... instead, I find myself in awe of what I've gained:

  • A deeper faith than I've ever had before
  • An appreciation for the "little things" in life (which are actually the big things)
  • An eternal perspective
  • A God-given compassion for hurting people
  • A fresh excitement about the future
  • A new group of life-long friends (all of whom have children in Heaven)
  • A grown daughter who makes me very proud
  • A soon to be son-in-law who we are thrilled to welcome into the family
  • The privilege of being a part of the While We're Waiting ministry

Am I still sad that Hannah is not here to share this day with me?  Of course.  There will always be a sadness in my heart ... at least until the day I see her again.  But that doesn't mean that I can't also have joy.  In fact, I think it's amazing that God created us with the capacity for both great sadness and great joy ... and we can even experience both at the same time.  Only He could do that, and I'm so glad He did.  

So tonight, I'm five birthdays closer to seeing Hannah again than I was when she left.  And that's the best birthday gift of the day.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ten on the Tenth -- Five Things that Don't Comfort, and Five Things that Do

One part of the While We're Waiting ministry is a Facebook page which is dedicated to discussions about issues that bereaved parents deal with on a day-to-day basis.  It is a truly vibrant group of moms and dads, all of whom have children in Heaven, and all of whom are seeking to live well while they're waiting to be reunited with them one day.  It's a closed group, limited to just parents who have lost children, along with a very few others who are close friends of the While We're Waiting ministry, so it's a safe place to discuss things that others may not understand.

This past weekend, one of the moms on the page, Kimberly Hughes, whose son Drew went to Heaven this past July, posted a list that drew a number of comments from those on the page.  It appears that her list resonates with most, if not all of us, who have children in Heaven.  So, with her permission, I'm presenting her list to you as this month's Ten on the Tenth ...

Top 5 Things People Say That DON'T Comfort me:

5. "Everything happens for a reason"

4. "I know how you feel, I lost my grandmother, etc" Unless you have lost a child, you really don't know how I feel and that's a good thing- be thankful.

3. "At least you have two other sons"

2. "You are so strong. If I lost my child, I'd..." and you can fill in the rest. It makes me feel like you are implying your love for your child is stronger than mine. There is nobody anywhere in the world who loves their children MORE than I love mine- just FYI.

1. By far the worst one for me is "I've lost a child, too, and believe me it never gets better. People will say it does, but it doesn't." This I think is the worst. I think it implies I shouldn't have hope and it is a LIE. I AM better than I was when I couldn't breathe, didn't want to get out of bed and was completely numb and there IS hope for joy in my life again.

Top 5 Things People Say That DO Comfort Me

5. Any wonderful memories of Drew Hughes, especially stories of when he made others laugh or smile. That was his gift and I want his memory to be shared and kept alive.

4. "I think about and pray for you and your family often."

3. Lots of scripture including Corinthians 13:4-8, Psalm 34:18 and Isaiah 41:10

2. "God loves you and He is good. Trust that He will carry you through this."

1. "Drew is safe and secure and you will see and be with him again one day."

I think Kimberly hit the nail right on the head with her list, and I appreciate her willingness to let me share it with you.  I've posted similar types of lists before, but I think she has a unique perspective, especially since she is still in the early months of her grief journey.

As you think of families you know who have lost children during this Christmas season, please take a moment and lift them up before the Heavenly Father.  No matter how long it's been since someone's child went to Heaven, it's still a really tough time of the year.  Memories of Christmases past, gifts un-bought, watching intact families merrily enjoying the season, an empty chair at the Christmas dinner table ... the presence of that child's absence is enormous, and can be overwhelming.  The best gift you can give them is to let them know that you do remember their child, and that you are praying for them.  They will appreciate that more than they can ever say.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tell About It Tuesday -- "Giving Tuesday"

So, we've survived Black Friday (no, I didn't take part in the madness!), Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday (which I enthusiastically participated in) and now it's time for Giving Tuesday.

I don't know who came up with this "Giving Tuesday" idea, but I kind of like it.  It's the perfect opportunity to update you about the While We're Waiting ministry and tell you how you can help support it.

If you're new to the blog, you're probably not familiar with While We're Waiting.  WWW is a nonprofit ministry to bereaved parents, co-founded by my husband and me and our good friends, Larry and Janice Brown.  My husband and I lost our 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, to cancer in February of 2009, and the Browns lost their 34-year-old son, Adam, in action in Afghanistan in March of 2010.

Early on in our grief journey, we found that nothing was more helpful to us in the healing process than spending time with other Christian couples who had lost children.  One Sunday after church, we had lunch with the Browns, and we discovered that we had a similar desire to help bring families who had lost children together.  Three hours later, we left that booth in Cotija's Mexican Restaurant with a God-given dream of a ministry in which we would host retreats for bereaved parents.  By the time we left the restaurant that day, we already had a location planned, dates picked out, and a name for this fledgling ministry.

Since that day in late 2010 ...

...We've hosted six weekend-long retreats for parents

...We've hosted three weekend-long retreats for Dads

...We've hosted eleven one-day mini-retreats for Moms

At these retreats we've ...

...Shared our children's stories

...Prayed for each other

...Eaten delicious food

...Cuddled baby bunnies, ridden a redneck carousel, flown down Slide Mountain, and zip lined across a pond

...Cried together and laughed together

...And encouraged one another to live well while we're waiting to be reunited with our kids in Heaven one day.

We've met parents from ...

...Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois, Florida, and Arkansas

We've seen broken hearts begin to mend and a number of lives changed forever.  And this is not due to anything we've done.  God's presence has been so evident at each one of these events, and His hand is clearly on this ministry.

And we've expanded our outreach...

...We have a vibrant, growing community of bereaved, but believing, parents participating on our Facebook page ("While We're Waiting -- Support for Bereaved Parents")

...We have a monthly While We're Waiting faith-based support group meeting, which has been a great blessing to so many

...We have sent 58 Hope Packages to newly-bereaved parents just in the year 2013

And, most exciting of all, we are in the very early stages of a building project.  We believe God is leading us to build a facility which will be dedicated just to the While We're Waiting ministry.  This will be a lodge-style building on 50 acres, which will contain 8-10 private bedrooms with baths for retreat attendees to use.

Our desire is to create a warm, welcoming, safe place ... a refuge ... for parents who have lost children to come "home" to.  

I've never been any good at fundraising.  When my kids used to have to do fundraisers for school, we'd hit up the grandparents, and then I'd buy whatever else they had to sell myself.  I couldn't stand to ask people to spend their hard-earned money for wrapping paper, or popcorn, or whatever other little trinkets they were selling.

I'm still pretty uncomfortable with the whole fundraising idea.  But especially as we undertake this building project, funds will be needed.  We do not charge for any of our events or for sending out the Hope Packages, although we do receive a love offering at our events.  We never want cost to be a prohibitive factor for anyone who would like to attend one of our retreats or receive a Hope Package.

Do not donate to While We're Waiting if it would cause you to give less to your local church, which is where I feel our first responsibility lies in our giving.  And we wouldn't want you to give less to any other ministry or missionary that you may already be supporting.  But if God has blessed you, and you have an abundance this year and would like to donate some of it to a worthy cause, we'd be grateful if you'd consider WWW.

So, if you'd like to participate in "Giving Tuesday" -- please consider making a tax-deductible donation to While We're Waiting.  You can do so by going to the While We're Waiting website and clicking on the "To Donate" tab.  If you prefer not to do online giving, you can send a check made out to While We're Waiting to this address:

While We're Waiting
c/o Jill Sullivan
307 Canon Lane
Malvern, Arkansas 72104

You can be assured that we will be good stewards, and that every penny you give will go directly to the ministry.  Thank you so much!