Tiger: Our Beautiful, Painful Sacred Goodbye

img_2007

Tiger, the day before he passed, still so handsome.

Last night, my kids got to experience a right of passage most kids do, and few ever forget. They said goodbye to their beloved pet. Tiger died in my arms as Elle, Johnny, and Brett circled around us and spoke love, adoration, thanksgiving, and blessings over him. It was sacred, it was painful and it was beautiful.

Unfortunately, my kids are not new to grief and death. They vividly remember our two late miscarriages from 2015. However, this is the first time they have watched a living being pass away and lost someone they knew well and dearly loved. As a parent, I couldn’t be more proud of them for keeping their hearts open and experiencing the grief, but I also could not be more heart broken for their loss.

Friday, we noticed Tiger was looking really skinny and hadn’t been eating well all week. He is young and healthy, so we assumed we’d have him for 18-20 years and pictured him dying after we sent the kids off to college. It never occurred to me that he could get sick and pass away now. Needless to say, the past two days have been a shock.

Saturday, we took him into the vet for an annual checkup and walked out three hours later with a terminal diagnosis of kidney failure. We could have run hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars of tests to get more answers, but the simple X-ray and blood work they did confirmed his kidneys were far enough gone that it would be nearly, if not totally, impossible to reverse. “A few days to a few weeks” was the best they could tell us. We decided to take him home and give the kids time to process a goodbye since he didn’t seem to be in pain. The doctor gave him IV fluids and a B12 shot and told us to call if/when we needed anything.

Sunday, we came home from soccer to find a weak kitty that didn’t want to move. He purred every time we pet and snuggled him while the kids continued to cry a river and process all their questions. We knew we might be looking at euthanasia in the coming days if he continued to decline this fast. To our shock, at 9:30pm, Tiger walked over to the corner of the room, laid down, and began to cry out in pain. I couldn’t bare to let him suffer so we woke the kids and headed to the emergency vet for a merciful euthanasia. As we headed out, Johnny gave his beloved baby blanket to Tiger to comfort him in his last moments. Elle asked to hold him on the drive wanting to be close enough that he could hear her profess her love. For the 30 minute drive, I watched my kids deny their fear of his death and choose to press into love and pain of loss in order to comfort their beloved kitty as he cried out. It killed my heart to see my kids and Tiger hurt that way, but it was also an incredibly beautiful and sacred moment.

I think that too often we run from pain. We numb, hide, avoid, detach and shrink back from anything that threatens to hurt. I get it. Loss and heartbreak are horrible. But when we do this, we also close our hearts to love. Last night, I witnessed my nine and eight year olds choose love. They pressed in to the very last moment and it was beautiful. Tiger took his last breath in my arms as we walked into the clinic. He was surrounded by our family speaking love, adoration, thanksgiving, and blessings. The vet swooped him up and checked for a heartbeat to confirm he was no longer suffering. As we waited I told the kids I was sorry they had to go through this. Through all our sobs, I validated Johnny that this sucked huge and I was so sorry he had to feel this pain. His response was simple but profound, “It was worth it mom. I’m thankful for the five years of love we got with him.”

Love is worth it. Opening our heart to love leaves us open to pain and hurt, but it is worth it. This morning, a sweet kiss from Jesus came in the form of a small snowfall that resulted in a late start to the school day. We went out back in the cold crisp sunshine, it was beautiful. Elle picked the spot, Brett dug a hole, we all decorated Tiger’s burial box with love notes, and Johnny carried him out to where we said goodbye forever. Johnny asked to say a final prayer and we all walked back into the house full of peace and appreciation for it all: the beautiful, painful process of having, loving, and saying a sacred goodbye to our beloved Tiger.

Mass Shootings

“What can you do today to make a change to stop mass shootings?” -K. Cheney

Wednesday evening, as Brett and I met with our team of youth group volunteers, we were informed that 17 people had been shot and killed that afternoon at a Florida High School. We chatted about it quickly, prayed and headed out to greet our teens for Wednesday night church. As the night wore on, I was continually grieved to think about how close to home this is. Our students span over six different public high schools, and multiple homeschool tutorials. Any one of them could have had this horrific shooting happen at their school that day. Thankfully, they didn’t. But what can I do about it? My aunt in Colorado posted the above question to Facebook with rules about responses needing to be respectful, specific, and personally owned. Within our team, we call this being “Solution minded, not issue focused”. It inspired me to share some thoughts I have been processing about the topic of gun violence and school/mass shootings.

I grew up hunting my whole life. My dad taught me gun safety from as early as I could hold a gun up. I was taught to respect the weapon and the animal life we took with it for our food. I am in no way anti-gun, nor am I afraid of the guns themselves. I don’t actually think guns are the problem AND I believe we should have more wisdom poured into our laws for gun ownership. Personally, I believe hurting people are the problem. We have a saying at our church that our little family lives by, “Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people.” You’ll frequently hear us asking in our home, “Are you hurting or healing people right now? What does that say about what’s happening in your heart? What are you needing right now?” My kids will ask each other, Brett and myself this, too. We have committed to checking in with our hearts and others, and doing everything in our power to help foster a safe environment to work through our heart hurts and bring healing to pain.

Personally, I believe the problem we actually have at hand is that we have too many hurting people walking around lonely, tormented, fearful, disillusioned, and filled with fantasies of revenge because they have no safe place to face their pain and are isolated from healthy community that brings love and healing. We all face hard moments in life. Everyone has been embarrassed, bullied, experienced loss or hardship. Death and sickness are no respecter of persons. We all experience these painful moments of life. But the difference is do we have people and healthy community around us to help process it? Are we given space to grieve loss, with love to help hold us? Do you have someone there to validate your pain from embarrassment or loneliness at a new school, job, etc.? Or are you left alone to let fear build up, pain harden your heart, and bitterness to take over?

Are you a hurt person who is going around hurting people? Or are you a healed person, spreading love and fostering healing to those in your community? The truth is, you are doing a mass shooting of something to the people around you already, but is it a pouring out of love, forgiveness, kindness, and blessing OR are you spewing hate, condemnation, accusation, and making everyone around you walk on eggshells? Check your facebook posts, consider your most frequent conversations. Are they building others up and instilling confident love, or spraying others with slime of gossip and pointing the finger? None of us get this right all the time, but even when you do catch yourself making a mistake, are you humble enough to apologize and seek forgiveness?

Brett and I have dedicated our lives to Christ. In doing so, He asked us to spend this season of life loving our teenagers. We spend our waking hours praying for our teens and their families, planning safe and fun events where they can come enjoy life and feel safe enough to share their burdens. We create sermons and teachings about healthy community and call our teenagers, team, and ourselves to a higher standard of loving others well, even at the cost of our own comfort. We teach about healthy grief and make space in small groups for our teens and team to share their burdens with one another and allowing them to be exactly where they are in their process. We do NOT always get it right nor are we perfect at any of this. But our dream and goal is to point people to the love of their Savior and have a lot of fun doing it. I cannot tell you how many times teens have told me that they were struggling with thoughts of self harm, suicide, etc, but then when they came to youth and realized that someone cared about them, they realized they never actually wanted any of those things. They simply needed an outlet for the pain and didn’t see any other options in the moment.

So what can you do? It doesn’t need to be a huge grandiose gesture of political change, or even something public. Maybe start with yourself. Are you healthy, considering your mind, body and spirit? What’s one thing you could do today to be kind to your own heart? Then move on to your family. Do they feel safe to share with you? Maybe ask them how they experience you and what they need from you. Be safe enough for them to share and create a policy in your home of choosing to be healed people who heal people with love (this is a process by the way, not a destination or something we master). Finally, how can you get involved in your own community? How can you be someone for somebody? Each one of us has our own unique calling and purpose. Yours does not need to look like mine, nor mine yours. Ask God, “Who is my people group?” You may realize you already knew or maybe, like me, He will surprise you completely.

I never dreamed once that I would be a Youth Pastor. However, one of my greatest discoveries this year has been that I never loved myself as a teenager. Through this position, I am coming to the truth that teenagers are INCREDIBLE! Teen years are meant to be full of joy and adventure. As teens, we should be delighted in by our parents and the world. I now look back at teenage Shailey and have a joy and love for the hurting girl that had no clue how wonderful she is/was. As I have come to a place of healing for my own teenage self, I get to bring healing to my teenagers as well. It is a honor and joy. If you have never worked with children or teenagers, pray about getting involved. Sowing health, truth, and love into the youth of today will create a healthier and more loving future for all of us. So what can you do today to make a change to stop mass shootings?

Ten Years to Hope

Ten years ago today, I woke up hung over. I had been on a nearly forty day binge of drinking to numb my pain, confusion, shame, and heartbreak. As I sat up out of bed, I audibly heard the voice of God say, “Knock it off.” The fear of the Lord overtook me as I sobered immediately. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I’d never be the same.

I realized recently that I hadn’t yet written about this part of my testimony in depth. However, I have been overcome with thanksgiving this month as I have reflected on my ten year journey with the Lord and I know it is time to be released. Our God, the creator of the universe, is the most intimate and intentional person we could ever know or come to love. Jesus Christ changed my life forever and I am delighted to share.

In 2007, Brett and I were still in our first year of marriage. We both had some serious drinking problems and spent six of our first twelve months of marriage apart. In this time, we both got into mischief and our relationship was mostly non-existent. I worked hard to keep up a facade that everything was perfect. He’d signed a contract with the Jets and had moved to New York. I stayed behind in Utah to finish my degree. Brett was out living up the single life with the other rookie players and I was at home wrestling with jealousy, pride, control, anxiety, and much more. By the time I arrived in New York at the end of the summer, our marriage was a mess. I wanted to get into Law School as quickly as possible and needed to prove my worth to the world with my accomplishments, and Brett seemed to be in the way. Within weeks of my move, I was asking for a divorce. Then, I found out we were pregnant with our first child.

I was devastated. I cursed a God I didn’t believe in for giving me a child I didn’t want. I tried to show excitement on the exterior because that was the right thing to do, but on the inside, I felt like my life was over and that this tied me to Brett even further. God, in His Jehovah Sneaky way, began to plant seeds and water those He’d already been placing in my heart. We were connected with a married couples Bible study that was happening for players and their wives and even though I felt what they taught was crazy, I was willing to try something. As August, September, and October went by, I began to get excited about the baby and saw some small specks of hope for our marriage. We talked names and decided if it were a boy, we’d name him Nathan Darrell. (I knew it was a boy in my heart.)

Then, on November 8th, 2007, my whole world was rocked. The baby I had just started falling in love with was gone and so were the tiny bits of hope I had gotten excited about. The doctor told me not to worry, that this is far more common that people think. Problem was, I didn’t know ANYONE who had had a miscarriage like this and I felt completely alone. On the drive home, I clearly heard messages of shame in my mind. My own voice turned on me and told me lies about how it was probably my fault because I didn’t want the baby in the first place. As I started texting my family and friends to let them know I’d lost the baby, shame and fear consumed me. I couldn’t breathe and I certainly couldn’t face it all. As we pulled into our little neighborhood, I told Brett to stop at the liquor store. I purchased all the vodka I could and headed home to drown out the voices that were screaming of my failure.

Back then, I was a functioning drinker. I started the day with a vodka and orange juice (mostly vodka) and could continue through my day sipping to keep a solid buzz until about three or four in the afternoon. Then I would turn it on high and drink until I couldn’t stand straight. Typically, Brett was the only one who would see me this drunk. I was a master of hiding it. I kept a strong mask on for the world, then would fall apart and abuse Brett with my words. I would yell at him if he even dared mention my drinking. I hid a lot from him too, so it took him a while to figure out just how much I was drinking. The real issue was that I couldn’t handle the pain. I had no hope and needed to numb constantly. I drank non-stop every day from November 8th until December 15th, when I sat up out of bed and the Lord said, “Knock it off.”

Sobered and shaken, I started by walking downstairs and dumping every drop of alcohol I had down the drain. I had been learning about God from the other women at the Bible study Brett initially drug me to, but I didn’t know or trust Him. I was afraid He might strike me with a lightning bolt or something, and I didn’t want to risk it. Next, I called a friend from the Bible studies who had told me she had a drinking past. She came over and I outed myself. I told her about my drinking and she prayed with me. The next ten days I spent feeling pretty ill and wondering what was next. Then on Christmas morning, ten days later, I found out I was pregnant again, this time with our daughter, Elle.

I will never forget that morning. First, I had delight and relief. I could get pregnant again! Next, I felt fear of what would happen and what if I did damage to the baby with my drinking? Then the sobering reality hit me like a ton of bricks. God stopped me from drinking and ruining this baby’s life! I had no clue I was pregnant (nor how far along I was yet) and I was drinking myself away, thinking it only affected me. But here I was, carrying the life of another, and God in His incredible mercy intervened and got me to stop drinking! I had no clue what to do with that. At that time, I lived by the law of justice. You get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. You make choices and live with the consequences. I chose to drink heavily and should have had to deal with the consequences of possibly losing another child. Instead, He spoke to me, woke me up, and saved the life of this baby. I didn’t know yet that mercy is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve- but I was fully experiencing it! That day shook every paradigm I lived by at my core. I spent the next couple of months earnestly searching, trying to find this God that was clearly interested in my life.

In early January, we had our first ultrasound and found out the baby was healthy, growing perfectly and that it was due in August. We lived in constant fear of another miscarriage and never spoke of the child we’d lost. We didn’t know how. It felt best to simply move on, but neither Brett’s nor my heart actually could. In February, another couple sponsored us to attend a Christian conference for NFL players and their wives. At that conference, Erwin McManus spoke about a man named Jesus who came to save the lost. This Jesus spent His time with the sinners and rebuked the religious hypocrites of His day. It rocked my world, and my heart shifted. I knew this was the God I wanted to live my life for. So with urgency and excitement, I grabbed Erwin as he finished speaking and told him I wanted to give my life to Jesus! He prayed a prayer with me and encouraged me to get baptized when I got home. I told him I wanted to get baptized now and later that day he water baptized me in the hotel hot tub. I truly felt like a new person!

As my second pregnancy progressed, I found my heart struggling to attach for fear of losing the baby again, but I remained silent about it. In the spring, another wife on the team pulled me aside. In a small whisper she told me she was so sorry for my loss. She told me she knew my pain because she too had suffered a miscarriage before having her children. I thanked her quietly but inside, I raged. I was so angry that she waited so long to say this. I had spent months struggling with the lie that I was the only one who knew this pain. The shame of being the one defect woman in the world that lost a baby was swallowing me up, and here she could have said something, but waited for months.

I realized that day how important it is for us humans to know that someone else can relate to our experience, that we are not the isolated issue, but that someone else can truly empathize with our situation. I decided then that I would speak out loud about our loss.

Shortly after, I went in for the twenty week ultrasound. This is the one you find out the gender and ensure that growth and development is okay. I was nervous. What if they did find a defect of some kind due to my early drinking? Would I ever be able to live with myself? As the tech counted ten perfect fingers and toes, all the organs, and every other perfect little part of my beautiful daughter, my heart was overcome with relief, love, and gratitude. God truly had saved my baby and blessed me with a princess. That night, I had a dream of Elle. In the dream, I was holding her, nursing her, and protecting her. It was the first kiss of unconditional love I’d ever really understood, and I knew I’d never be the same.

That fall, on 8/8/2008, our precious Ellenor Shai was born on Brett’s birthday. It was truly the mark of New Beginnings. I’d given my life to Jesus, our daughter was born healthy and perfect, and our journey of coming to know the Father’s love was well on it’s way. In the years since, God gave us Johnny Brett, resurrected and redeemed our marriage, and took us on a wild adventure of six teams and six years in the NFL. Next, He introduced us to our greatest helper and friend- Holy Spirit, taught us about inner healing, called us to full-time ministry in Nashville, and invited us to have more children. Jesus walked us through two more miscarriages when Timothy Luke and Evelyn Ruth graduated to Heaven (which brought us full circle to actually addressing our loss of Nathan Darrell and healing our hearts fully from these losses) and eventually gave us our sweet rainbow baby, Esther Hope.

As I close, I sit here sobbing with thanksgiving and wonder. Ten years ago, I had no hope. I didn’t even understand what hope could be or mean in my life. Today, I have suffered more loss and endured pain beyond what I thought I could ever handle, yet I am fully alive, awake to the beauty of love and loss, and completely filled with a restored HOPE that I never thought possible. In a decade’s time, Jesus has saved me from myself and filled me with His love. He is my Rock, my Comforter, my Savior, and my Everything. There was a point in 2009 that I was faced with choosing my way or seeking after His (because I still didn’t really know what it was). It was time to make a decision and never turn back. I bought myself a wedding band for my right hand and had “I choose Him” inscribed on the inside. Hands down, seeking Jesus’ presence and His way is the best decision I’ve ever made. The past ten years have changed everything and brought a beauty to my world I never could have imagined. I cannot wait to see what He has in store for the next ten years, because I am truly filled with Hope: the confident expectation of good.

Esther’s Heart

I’ve waited to post because I needed a moment to process the sanctity of yesterday. Six months ago our perfect rainbow baby was born and we thought we were closing the chapter of hardship we’d been in for 21 months. Ten days later, Esther’s pediatrician found a heart murmur and sent us to see a pediatric cardiologist. At 13 days old, Esther was diagnosed with a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD). Thankfully, hers was small, and didn’t seem to be affecting her health. However, this felt like such a joy stealer. We didn’t want to have ANOTHER issue, more medical bills, or another diagnosis to announce and deal with. 

Despite the discouragement, we chose to stand in a place of peace and hope even though we didn’t feel like it. At her 1 month appointment, the murmur was still present. Again, we chose hope and continued to take communion daily as a family declaring her healing. In late November, I was at a meeting with ladies from our church who wanted to pray for Esther. As they prayed, the Presence of Holy Spirit became tangible in the room. Toward the end, Esther manifested physically and I knew in my heart, in that moment, she was healed. At her 2 month appointment, the murmur was gone. 

We’ve had to wait until yesterday to return to the specialist to run another round of tests to medically confirm Esther’s healing. After the initial EKG, the cardiologist felt the VSD was likely closed but wanted to check that her blood flow issues were resolved. We then went in for another ECHO. The last time we had this test done, Jesus showed up in the room and held Esther and I throughout the test. As I waited for Him again, I noticed Esther began to look up and reach for what appeared to be nothing to the naked eye. Again, I knew Jesus was there, showing Himself to my baby and closing this chapter for us for good. 

We returned to the exam room and waited a long time for the cardiologist to return the second time. When she walked in, she smiled and said, “The only bad news I have for you is that you have no reason to ever return and see me again!”

Esther’s heart is HEALED!! We shouted praise and thanks to Jesus right then and there. Brett and I went to lunch to celebrate and cried as we embraced each other, the good news and our miracle. The past 2+ years has been a testing season, a refining season, a season of being broken and restored. All day yesterday I heard my Savior whispering to me “It is finished” over and over. At times, we thought we couldn’t make it through our heart break, our losses, the challenges, and deep grief- but here we are. Hope restored, hearts literally healed and full of genuine joy! Only Jesus can do that. Today, on Good Friday, I am beyond ready and fully connected to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. No matter what we’ve lost, endured, or been through- He can exchange joy for our mourning. I am so very thankful! ❤ 

Don’t Deny Me

File_000

The daffodils we planted in our back yard in remembrance of our Heavenly babies.

When we found out two years ago today that our fourth child, Timothy, had passed away, daffodils were in bloom everywhere. It was as if God was speaking to me about life in the midst of death. I cannot look at daffodils now without thinking of my three children in Heaven. Daffodils bloomed early this year in Nashville. We had an unusually warm winter and it confused everyone, including the flowers. The past month has had many thankful yet sad tears as I have continued to mourn the loss of our babies seeing these flowers everywhere, but simultaneously celebrating the sweet baby we do have.

Speaking of celebrating, Esther will be six months old on Monday! That is crazy to me. How have six months passed by already? The time has been filled with joy, delight, sweet moments, and constant celebration. All this goodness wasn’t just for our family. I have delighted in seeing our community, family and friends celebrate with us. Everyone who sees Esther loves to ham it up with her and tell us how happy they are for us. Genuine delight comes to everyone who remembers our journey of loss, life, and restored hope over the past two years. Why? Because they too experienced it all with us.

So many women do not share when they experience a loss like miscarriage. Don’t hear judgement in that statement- I absolutely understand why! It is so intimate, personal, vulnerable and comes with a plethora of emotions that take time to unfold and process. However, I can say that as we shared our journey with those around us, we found ourselves scooped up in their arms and covered in their prayers. Others cried with us, supported us, and lifted us up. After we lost our fifth child, Evelyn, I felt so broken. I didn’t want to be going through another hardship, let alone announce it! But we did. It is who we are and what we are called to. Living our lives out loud is what Brett and I do. And while sharing our journey did come with some bumps and pains, it mostly let people in to love us well.

Then came our sixth child, our sweet Esther. With her pregnancy came prayers and support like you cannot imagine. Because others knew the loss we’d endured, they saturated us in prayers and love. When we had lost our hope, others hoped for us. And when we burst forth from our season of darkness, the moment Esther took her first breathe and screamed out in that delivery room, all of our people cheered with us! We have been on one big celebration train for six months. Everyone loves to see God’s faithfulness, and when we let them see it in our lives they can delight with us.

I cannot imagine how different our journey would have looked had we decided two years ago to stay mum about our loss. We’d have walked through it with Jesus and He would have faithfully seen us through, but we would have had to hide so many emotions. The amount of stuffing would have been stifling. Even worse, we’d have had to grieve silently and alone. Then, when our moment of breakthrough came, some of the victory would have also been silent and alone.

My point isn’t that everyone has to do things my way. My point is that when we choose to walk our journey out “privately” we actually deny the people around us the opportunity to love us, support us, grieve with us and celebrate with us. I am asking that you don’t deny me this opportunity. As your friend, I would want to know what you’re going through. I want to climb down into that pit with you and cry with you. I want to love you well where you are and then celebrate big with you when Jesus comes through with your victory! Most of all, I don’t want you to go it all alone.

If what I am talking about seems foreign to you, then we humans have some room for growth. I know not all communities know how to walk through hardship together- but it IS possible! Jesus came to give life and life abundant. (John 10:10) We are not called to walk through life isolated and alone. He calls us to relationship with Him and with each other. I know for me, the most beautiful part of living my life publicly is the encouragement. I am encouraged when I hear other’s stories of breakthrough and have received so many private texts, emails, and calls from those who’ve been encouraged by sharing in my journey. I don’t have an answer to it all yet, but I know He does. And in celebration of the life of my son today, on the two year anniversary of his graduation to Heaven, I ask that you let someone in that you trust. Whatever you’re going through, don’t do it alone. Don’t deny me and others the opportunity to support you, celebrate with you, and be encouraged by His faithfulness in your life.

My Thoughts on The Shack

Seven years ago I read the book. This past Sunday, Brett and I went to see The Shack with some of our youth group students. Due to an adorable baby waking up and missing some of the show, we decided to go back again last night and really absorb the gold that is in this movie.

I’ve seen many parents post online that they have no intention to see the movie because (spoiler alert) a small girl is abducted and murdered in the beginning of the film. As a mother myself, I hear you on that thinking, but let me assure you- the girl’s murder is NOT what the film is about. The movie, instead, is about facing our pain, processing our anger, acknowledging our own sin in it, and trusting God to be a good Papa to us in all circumstances. It is all about the relationship God wants to have with all of His children, in every experience. For these reasons, I encourage all humans, not just Christians, to go see the film.

Now if you choose to see the film and you’re a Christian, I advise you to keep an open heart and mind. I’ve heard some are boycotting the movie because of theology issues. The Shack is not a Bible-based documentary, and it isn’t meant to be seen as one. It’s a creative work meant to help those who are stuck in their pain see things a new way. It means to stretch the paradigms you may (incorrectly) have about God the Father, Jesus, or Holy Spirit. Before going in, I would encourage you to ask yourself the question, “What if I’ve put God in a box and what I think about Him isn’t the whole truth?” After all, don’t we all have more to learn?

As someone who has experienced great loss the past two years, this film was golden. There were so many nuggets of encouragement and truth. As we watched the film the second time, I fumbled through tears to rapidly type out some favorite quotes to process later. One of my favorites were when the main character who has experienced a lot of tragedy is yelling at Papa (God) that He was never there for him. Papa kindly and gently responds, “When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of me.” I can absolutely affirm this from experience. As we have navigated the loss of our three children to miscarriage and the loss of Brett’s sister to murder, we have had to choose to keep our eyes fixed on Him to carry on. When we take our eyes off of Jesus and fixate on our pain, that is a slippery slope to depression, hopelessness, and worse.

If you haven’t yet experienced great loss, pain, or disappointment, you will. We are all guaranteed trials this side of Heaven. I hope you are able to remain connected to Christ throughout the journey and that it is processed quickly. But in the interim, let me advise you to check out this film. Let it stretch your paradigms. Invite Holy Spirit to speak to you as you watch and allow new encouragements and truths to invade your heart and mind. Even if you cannot currently relate to parts of the movie personally, someone you know does and knowing better ways to love them is vital to their healing.

If you have endured horrific loss like we have, take your tissues and don’t allow Pain or Fear to rob you of this beautiful healing experience. Brett and I have had major heartbreak dealing with the murder of his sister in recent months, and particularly in the past few weeks. Watching this film in the midst of losing a loved one to a violent crime led us both to ugly cry and sob out loud in the theater. We were both in a place that our spirits needed to release, to cry out loud; so we did. I am unashamed in my processing of my pain. I know that ignoring my feelings, pain, and loss won’t make it go away. Instead, I will grow hard and I will hand down my pain and dysfunction to the next generation. I refuse to do so. I pray you won’t either.

At the end of the film, in reference to his stubbornness, the main character asks God, “Why’d you keep working on me?” Papa simply responds, “Because that’s what love does.” Whether you see this film or not, I pray you know that no matter what you’ve done or been through, God is still pursuing you and desires a loving relationship with you. He is Love, and there is nothing greater.

Grit

file_000-2

Our family at Brett’s Grandparent’s property in California over Christmas.

I grew up in a small redneck town in the Rocky Mountains. We had a large piece of land and lots of animals including horses, sheep and chickens. I have three brothers and was raised to hunt, fish, camp, and do all the same things the boys could do. I shot my first elk when I was twelve and could out-shoot the guys with a shotgun any day. I was tough and taught to have value for my ability to overcome and good character.

Now, as with all cultures, there were some negative things found in this. For me, one of them was performance and another was stuffing. I had to put a brave mask on and stuff my emotions through trauma at times to avoid being labeled “weak” or “overly emotional”.

There were also many good things that came from this cultural way of thinking. For one, I knew I was capable of taking on life’s challenges. I knew I was strong and not afraid to show it. I’ve always had a firm handshake and never shied away from looking a stranger in the eyes. My yes means yes and no means no. I am dependable, brave, and able to face challenges that come my way. As was expected and taught in my small-town community, I have grit.

Grit is defined as “firmness of character; an indomitable spirit; courage or resolution in the face of difficulties.” As we have faced the hardships of continual loss and sickness the past two years, I have felt at times that my grit is in question. I haven’t felt as strong as I desire, and I haven’t always handled difficult moments as bravely as I’d like to. I have found myself more weak in the state of pregnancy, loss, and continual disappointments than I want to be and have been processing the importance of grace with Jesus.

Then came this past Christmas. As we traveled fifteen hours to California to visit Brett’s family and bury his sister’s remains, I wanted to be strong. I wanted to keep my love on well while sleep deprived and weary. I wanted to help hold up Brett’s parents and family in their time of need, but often found myself simply trying to hold myself together while holding my screaming newborn. The trip was long, exhausting, overstimulating, sad, and difficult for me and I didn’t handle it the way I hoped to in strength and love. The temptation to shame myself and be disappointed has been very real.

As I have processed the trip with God, He’s lovingly pointed out places I allowed the enemy to run rampant, but also affirmed ways I loved well and supported Brett and His parents. He reminded me that His joy is my strength (Neh 8.10). He’s lovingly reminding me that my emotions are valid and sleep deprivation is real, but also that He did not create me to be a person who shrinks back. In Hebrews 10.39 it is written that “We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” (NIV)

So, I have and will continue to validate my emotions and hardships but I will also remind myself of how strong I am because He is in me. I believe there is a fine line between being vulnerable enough to experience your God given emotions and hardships in a raw way, while also recognizing our inner God given strength to take it all on. Grit is an inheritance I received from my family and cultural roots that I love and am taking hold of in a new Godly way. I will not shrink back, I will connect to Him and continue to have courage and resolution in the face of difficulties because He is the God who can do all things and I am not alone. He is Emmanuel, God with me.

Isaiah 41.10

Tonight, while putting my older children to sleep, my eight year old began to sob. She has struggled with fear here and there the past month, but especially since we buried my husband’s sister last week. “I am afraid mommy. I feel like bad guys are going to come into my room and get me and hurt me and I’ll never see you again,” she shared through her tears. My heart was broken. How do I tell her that will never happen when someone we love so dearly was just taken from us? I can’t. The truth is that we do live in a fallen world. Evil does exist and people do horrible things. Last month we endured a horrific loss when Brett’s sister, Andrea, was found dead after missing for three days. We traveled to California over Christmas to bury her remains and say goodbye. This tragedy has been a nightmare and is very real and in our face right now.

But there is another truth at play here as well. Jesus exists. He is alive and He is good. With tears in my eyes, I asked our daughter if I could pray for her. As we commanded all fear to go, Jesus reminded me to lead her to Him. He alone can truly comfort her in this horrible loss. I told Elle to close her eyes and ask Jesus where He was in the room. In her mind’s eye, she saw Him with our three month old, Esther. I told her to ask Him if He could be with her too. She closed her eyes and said the first thing she heard was that He loves her. She continued to ask Jesus if He could stay with her through the night. He showed her He would sleep in her bed, next to her side and that she could snuggle Him the whole night. She felt His peace envelope her and she was returned to joy and able to go to sleep. It was beautiful, and far better than anything I could have done.

How often do we think Jesus can, and will, be with someone else in their need, but forget we can ask Him to take care of us? How often do we doubt He actually will? Elle could see Jesus with her sister. She had faith He was there but had to be reminded she could ask Him to comfort her too. Johnny (our seven year old son) was on the top bunk and as he overheard all of this he, was able to tell us he’d struggled with nightmares since Halloween when their librarian read a scary story of a man that turned into a werewolf. After hearing Elle connect with Jesus, he was inspired to forgive his librarian for sharing the fear-filled story then asked Jesus to come take all fear from him as well.

That’s the thing. When we experience Jesus and His goodness, rarely is it just for us. If we are brave enough to share it, it has a domino effect that inspires others to trust Him and ask to experience Him. What we’ve experienced in the loss of Brett’s sister has been horrible. It has been a worst nightmare come true. But Jesus will walk all of us through this tragedy. He will comfort us, show us His truth, and help us process our grief. And, as only Jesus can do, He will find ways to work good in the midst of it too.

‘Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’

Isaiah 41.10 (NASB)

Yes, My Kids Still Like the Baby

Now that Esther is a month old, I have people asking me if our older kids are still doing well with her, or if they still like the baby. I understand the question, but it makes my heart sad. Not only are Elle and Johnny still head-over-heels in love with their baby sister, but their love for her is growing with each day. It’s been a beautiful thing to experience, and all of our hearts are overwhelmed with joy.

When we decided we were done having kids, one of my main reasonings was that I wanted Elle and Johnny to be able to be kids. I feared having more kids significantly later would push Elle into the mother role and I didn’t want that. I wanted her to be a kid with kid responsibilities. Another reasoning was that because we’d lost our first child, Nathan, in a miscarriage in 2007 (nine years ago today, in fact), Brett had the fear of possibly having to go through another loss. Also, he loved the dynamic of our family of four and was afraid of how another baby would upheave that simplicity.

When God started speaking to our hearts about having more children two years ago, one of the biggest points He made to us was that we made the decision to not have more kids partnered with fear, not partnered with Him. I didn’t feel like God was saying I had to have more kids, but rather that He was inviting me to make decision with Him instead of fear of what could happen. In the end, we repented for giving fear space in our decisions and invited God to speak truth and life into our hearts. Jesus reminded me that He is the author of LIFE and He can teach me how to have a family filled with goodness and life for each family member. With that, Brett and I were both filled with an incredible excitement to have more children!

When we told Elle and Johnny that we felt we wanted to have more children and asked what they thought, they were super excited. Elle was six and Johnny was five, but they had some great questions about how it would affect them and our family. We processed each question as they came honestly and sometimes with “I don’t know that yet.” The more we processed it together, the more excited they became and were thrilled to make the announcement once we had conceived our fourth child!

The day we went in for our little Timothy’s routine doctor appointment, Elle and Johnny were with us. They were looking forward to hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time, as mom and dad already had, and we were all devastated when there wasn’t one. The kids were confused, we were heartbroken, the whole thing was simply awful. After we left the office, the four of us went to the parking garage and bawled in our minivan, holding each other, and listening to worship music. The kids had questions this time that I couldn’t answer. All I knew to do was to process honestly with them and surrender them to Jesus for the healing their little hearts would need.

Six months later, we had conceived our fifth child, our sweet Evelyn. When it was time for our same appointment, I journaled and asked Jesus whether or not to take the kids. He reminded me He loves them far more than I do, He has them in His hands, and I have nothing to fear for He is still on the throne. So, we asked if they wanted to come, they said yes, and we all headed in declaring life. Sadly, Evelyn had already graduated to Heaven and we went through the exact same horror of the baby having no heartbeat with Elle and Johnny in the room. They had just turned seven and six. It wasn’t fair for their little hearts to endure another heartbreak of this magnitude! I trusted Jesus and now they were hurting and confused all over again. I was angry, hurting, and heartbroken- not only for me but especially for them. I realized quickly that I didn’t know what to do to walk them through it all well and held Jesus to His promises. In an honest prayer, I told Him, “You said you love them more than I do and you have them in Your hand so now it’s Your job to walk them through this. It’s Your job to show me what to do so they don’t end up bitter and distrusting.” Jesus wept with me for weeks and then kindly showed me over time, that declaring the truth that He is Lord over them was actually one of the best parenting moves I’ve made.

As their questions rolled in, I waited on Holy Spirit to give me the answers Elle and Johnny needed. I leaned more on Him in this season than ever before for parenting. I knew I wasn’t equipped to handle this, not to mention I was hurting so deeply myself. All the fears we’d had seemed to be coming true and we didn’t know what to do with that. As a family, we turned to the Prince of Peace for our processing and He was faithful. Elle and Johnny both had encounters with Jesus in their dreams that answered their little heart’s questions and healed their hurts. Holy Spirit showed them their siblings in Heaven and spoke incredible truths to give their minds peace. Elle would get up and paint with Jesus every morning for months and repeatedly see and paint Heaven and our entire family. Johnny would have “knowings” of Heaven that we’d never spoken about. Over time, I watch Jehovah Sneaky working in our family, healing our hearts with gentleness and faithfulness. He never rushed any of us but also never left any of us alone.

Then came the day that Elle and Johnny asked us to try for a baby one more time. I was completely shocked and had no idea how to answer. The two of them pulled us aside, intervention style, and asked me to please try to get pregnant one more time. These poor kids had been through hell and back with us. I couldn’t believe they were suggesting we all go through it again! I tried writing it off that they are just too young, or too naive to understand the ramifications. But I knew that was a lie. The world would tell me they’re just kids and don’t put too much weight on what they ask because it can change in five minutes. But I could sense this was bigger, much bigger. I knew this was a pivotal point in their lives in which they’d either see me shrink back and give up for (completely understandable and valid) fear of more pain OR they’d see me put my trust back in the Lord and allow His love to guide me in my weakness (Heb 10.39).  I knew in my spirit this was something they’d remember forever and I was refilled with a supernatural strength that only a mother can understand.

ratliffweb-51

Brett and I had many conversations, cried many tears, and prayed a LOT. Finally, we gathered our courage and decided to try one more time. We conceived right away, but the battle had just begun. My pregnancies are not easy, but this sixth pregnancy was a whole new level of difficulty. From day one, we endured hardships emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Without question, this was my hardest pregnancy and many times I wondered if I’d make it through. We had to call on loved ones to hold us up in prayer when we doubted we could go on. But we made it, she made it, and now we have this beautiful little gift straight from Heaven!

Elle and Johnny have been smitten all along. Even while I was pregnant, they would talk to and pray for the baby in my belly. This isn’t to say the hardship didn’t affect them, it did. While I was in bed day after day, they missed their mommy. We had to work through more waves of grief, confusion, and lots of questions. But Jesus was faithful with each day. By the time Esther was born, the delight in our family was off the charts. Elle and Johnny, like us, have waited for this baby with hope, heartbreak, patience, and long-suffering. I knew they might need some time to adjust to the new norm of having three children, but so far it’s only been delight and enjoyment. I feared they would feel overlooked, but they are overjoyed. Brett worried it would change the dynamics of our family, and it has in the best of ways. Esther arriving has NOT been a difficulty to endure but a long awaited blessing and gift to receive for ALL of us. So yes, my children are still liking having their baby sister. In fact, her arrival and their love for her has helped to heal all our hearts even more. Our family isn’t perfect, but we are abundantly blessed and thankful. We aren’t afraid to face or process hard things, and we don’t sweep issues under the rug, but we also don’t hesitate to genuinely celebrate. This season has been fought for and prayed for and nothing is going to stand in the way of our full immersion in the joy and delight.

img_1637

img_1560

img_1602

img_1627

**Maternity Photos by Michael Wessner Photography.

Esther’s Diagnosis VS God’s Promise

Earlier this month, we proudly took our thriving one-week-old newborn in for her well check. Our Pediatrician has walked through our journey with us the past couple years so we knew she’d be excited to celebrate a healthy newborn too. The nurse weighed Esther and immediately congratulated us as she had not only gained back her birth weight, but two additional ounces. Smiles and joy were abundant in the room. It was a day to celebrate!

After examining Esther, our pediatrician smiled reassuringly and told us she needed to talk to us. She told us not to panic, but that she had heard a heart murmur while examining Esther. She told us that while there is a very common explanation for most heart murmurs in newborns that resolves on its own, she did not believe this was Esther’s case. Instead, she explained the murmur sounded more like a rare condition that would need to be taken very seriously. Because of this, she referred us to see a Pediatric Cardiologist at Vanderbilt as soon as possible. Our Pediatrician assured us again, she wasn’t panicking and we shouldn’t either, but that we don’t play around with things like this and having it checked out right away is best.

It’s hard to express the feelings we had as we left the office. We had gone in excited to celebrate our child’s health with a doctor who’s loved and cared for our family for five years and instead we left with another issue to address. It felt like someone had popped our joy bubble we’d been hanging out in. Neither of us felt devastated or super worried. Considering that while I was pregnant we were told five different times that they thought I might miscarry and yet God preserved her life, we felt certain He had a plan here too. However, we were disappointed to need to address another medical scare.

We invited our biological and spiritual parents to cover us in prayer then headed in for our appointment hoping there was nothing to be found. We were there for a full workup that would take hours. During the echocardiogram, Esther began to fuss so I prayed over her and asked Jesus where He was in the room. He showed me He was in the corner and I asked Him to come put His hand on her as He did when she was born. He immediately came over, laid His hand on her chest, and she fell fast asleep, resting peacefully the rest of the long test. During her EKG tests, she was hungry and disliked all the sticky probes they’d placed all over her body and screamed so hard she welled up with crocodile tears. I felt like screaming and crying just as she was. I was so angry we were having to put her through this, put ourselves through it, rack up more medical bills, and deal with the possibility of heart issues in our rainbow baby. I couldn’t do anything but pray. I prayed that God would fill me with His peace, His perspective, and bless Esther with perfect health. They finally finished their tests and ushered us into a room to wait for the Pediatric Cardiologist to give us our results.

As we waited, Brett played the trauma prayer over us all and we prayed as I nursed Esther. It’s such a strange feeling waiting for news like that, full of faith that God has it all in His hand, but not knowing what the journey ahead may entail. Finally, the doctor came in and gave us our baby’s diagnosis: Esther was born with what is called a VSD, or a Ventricular Septal Defect. This is where the muscular wall, or septum, between the two lower chambers of the heart isn’t fully connected yet. This allows blood from the right ventricle chamber (oxygenated) to pass back into the left ventricle chamber (non oxygenated) with each pump of the heart. VSDs come in three different sizes/severities: small, moderate and large. Esther’s is very small. The great news is that it doesn’t seem to be affecting her in any way. She is, and continues to, thrive in all the areas they would watch for problems like gaining weight, sleeping well, breathing, and more. The specialist assured us she was able to measure the VSD from five different angles and is confident it is a small one that should close up over time without any medication or medical intervention. That’s right, no surgery. Obviously, hearing that your daughter is being diagnosed with a rare, and sometimes scary, heart defect is never good. But hearing “no medical intervention is expected” is awesome! It felt like a sweet kiss from Jesus in the midst of a storm.

So now we wait. We pray, we hope, and we wait on the Lord for His incredible plan to play out. We agree with Heaven for Esther’s full and complete healing and we give this diagnosis no more attention than it deserves. Today, Brett and I took Esther to her one month well check. She weighed in at the 75th percentile and has grown to the 97th percentile in height. She is growing, sleeping, and thriving perfectly, just as we hoped (being the confident expectation of good). Today, the doctor said she could still hear the murmur. But that news won’t stop us from hanging on to God’s promises over her life. We know Esther was fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together in perfect peace.

esther-hope-0123

When we told Elle and Johnny about Esther’s diagnosis, they asked if Jesus will heal her so she will be okay. I told them yes and they asked how I knew. I waited a moment and Holy Spirit filled me with complete peace and gave me an answer that welled me up with tears and faith for what we have not yet seen for Esther but experienced with our other two: When Elle was born, the enemy came against her and tried to take her life. Her umbilical cord was around her neck three times and she required an emergency cesarean delivery to save her BUT GOD protected her and she breathes life with kindness and compassion for everyone she meets! When Johnny was born, he was premature and his lungs weren’t ready. While in the NICU, we found a bone mass on his spine and were told he had a spinal disorder that would prevent him from ever walking, running, or living like a normal little boy BUT GOD miraculously healed him and the Cleveland Clinic couldn’t ever explain it. Johnny runs with a bounce and stamina that is far beyond normal and brings joy to everyone he meets! Esther has been born with a heart defect that the enemy wants to discourage us with. He wants us to label her as the child with an issue. BUT GOD says the only issue we have is one of Hope, continuing to have a confident expectation of good. As a queen, Esther of the Bible laid down her life for her people. Our Esther Hope is also destined to have a heart for God’s people too. Her heart will be strong, courageous, and full of life. We will expect nothing less!

I recently heard that “where the snake has bitten you is where you’ll have the most authority”. So today, we declare God’s good plans and promises over Esther. She will have an incredible heart for Papa God and for others. She will have an abundant life, filled with health, goodness, and love. Esther’s heart will beat strong, God will heal her in His perfect timing, and we will sing His praises again and again. This will be yet another testimony of His faithfulness that we are celebrating now. We are choosing to remain in our joy bubble and are delighting in the beauty of the journey. So join us in declaring her healing. Please do not focus on or speak anything over her that isn’t in alignment with her perfect health. Esther is not a baby with a heart problem. She is a daughter of the Most High King with a promise for good! Partner with us and with the Lord in declaring His perfect plans for her life. He will heal her, she will thrive, and we will all rejoice in another good report of His promises fulfilled.

“And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14b NASB

esther-hope-0098

esther-hope-0065

esther-hope-0115

esther-hope-0029

Our Joy Bubble

**Photos by the incredible Teale Photography Continue reading