Fourteen years ago, on a sunny August morning, I awoke to a vague feeling of nausea.  Disappointed that it had reared its ugly head again after a two month hiatus, I gingerly sank into our stiff leather  couch beside my son.  Turning on some cartoons, I hoped to keep him occupied while I choked down a few dry, tasteless crackers.  I don’t remember what we watched, but we snuggled together and took in the show.

Examining my sizable bump, my husband remarked, tongue in cheek, that I was absolutely prohibited from giving birth within the next few weeks.  We were living in England and he was working on a PhD in theology from Oxford University.  He had a big deadline coming up and needed to focus on getting some writing done.  With a smirk, I patted my belly and told the baby that she needed to obey her daddy.  Smiling, he turned and gathered up a recently laundered comforter to be dried on the line in our minuscule backyard.

With my due date nearly four weeks away, I was confident there would be no sign of baby anytime soon.  Micaiah was not born early.  However, I was growing impatient to meet this sweet little girl.  After two devastating pregnancy losses and a transatlantic move, I was worried that we might never have another child.  Yet, on Christmas morning of 2003, we were both elated and terrified to discover that the hope we had tucked away in our hearts was growing in the silent darkness of my womb.

The discovery that I was carrying a baby girl was another gift that I did not expect.  I pictured  sweet dresses and hair bows, manicures and mother/daughter dates.  I was so close to my own mom and couldn’t imagine not having a daughter of my own.  It all felt like a dream…to good to be true.  Naturally, after two losses, I worried.  Would my baby girl be healthy?  Would the delivery go well?  I did everything within my power to ensure her health and safety but fear continued to grip me.

But as the pregnancy progressed I relaxed and allowed myself to embrace the thought that I would hold this baby girl in my arms.

As I sat on the couch that sunny morning, the queasiness increased by the minute and I decided that I might need to get up and get some fresh air.  Rising, I felt something unexpectedly “pop” inside of me and became immediately aware of the sensation of water gushing down my legs.  In a sea of questionable and confusing labor signs, this was the holy grail of certainty that a baby would be on the way imminently.

Carefully waddling out to the backyard, I attempted not to slip in the steady stream of water collecting at my feet.  Turning the corner, I told the man, who only moments earlier had insisted that the baby stay put, that he was about to be the father of a little girl.

After relaying the news, a look of confused panic crossed his face.  He accused me of joking around.  But one glance at my soaked pajama bottoms were confirmation that I meant business.  He sprang into dutiful action, questioning what we should do next.  I explained that we needed to call the midwife and the friends who had agreed to keep Micaiah for us, and pack our bags.  

The midwife instructed us to head to the hospital to have my status checked.  We were ushered into a small triage room only to discover what we already knew; my water had indeed broken and we would be greeting the newest member of our family very shortly.

Unfortunately, my body hadn’t quite gotten the message yet that the baby’s cozy water bath had sprung a leak.  I was sent to a room on the first floor of the hospital maternity ward to receive antibiotics as a preventative measure against infection and wait for contractions to begin. 

If you’ve ever been victim to the British health care system, you know that when you are told to “wait” to be seen or helped, you might as well be a fly on the wall.  As an American, I hadn’t quite come to this realization.  I lingered for nearly seven hours until I finally had a contraction.  Another hour passed and I began timing the contractions.  They seemed to be coming steadily at 5 minutes apart.  It appeared that I was indeed in labor.  After badgering the nursing staff,  I was finally sent to a proper labor and delivery room on the second floor, where the midwife on call was appalled to learn that after spending the entire day waiting in a hospital room downstairs, I still had not received antibiotics. 

Settled in my new room with the necessary medication dripping into my veins, the contractions intensified.  It was well after midnight…2:30 am to be exact.  I felt the urge to push and asked the midwife to check my cervix.  She confirmed that the baby was crowning and ready to be delivered.  The lights were dimmed and after just two pushes, Evelyn entered our world.  We waited, as all parents do, with bated breath in that second before she uttered her first cry.  And then we heard that glorious sound as the air filled her lungs and a slippery, squirmy bundle was placed on my chest.  It goes without saying that we were in love with her instantly.  She wrapped her tiny hand around our fingers as we kissed the top of her head and stroked her newborn cheeks, tears of joy trickling down both of ours.  I had dreamt of this moment for so long.  In the wee hours of August 7, 2004, as I held my beautiful, healthy baby girl in my arms, It seemed that life couldn’t be more perfect.

Just over eleven years later, I would look back at this moment and realize more than ever just how perfect life was.  In a twist of fate, I would find myself explaining to her daddy that she was leaving us as unexpectedly as she came.  I would wait in a hospital, not for signs of labor, but for signs of life.  And this time, when the air did not fill her lungs, I would wrap my hand around those once tiny fingers and kiss her forehead as tears streamed down my cheeks.  Instead of hello, I would say goodbye for the rest of my earthly life.

Today she would be fourteen.  Today, on her birthday, my arms are empty.  They ache to hold her again, to tell her how much I love her and how proud I am of who she has become.

The anticipation of this day begins well before it arrives and I often find myself on edge and extremely emotional.  I feel angry that everyone in the world seems to be celebrating their living child’s birthday and posting pictures on social media while I am trying to formulate a plan that will both honor my deceased child’s life and respect the different ways that each of my family members grieve.  I wonder why she can’t be here.  Why was her life cut short?  As a parent, you expect that there will be a lifetime of birthdays to celebrate.

But we aren’t promised a lifetime of birthdays.  We aren’t promised tomorrow.  Sin brought death into this world and until Jesus comes again to redeem it, our physical bodies will fail us.  Evelyn was an unexpected gift to me.  While she lived on this earth, I did my best to nurture her, to love her, and to prepare her for her eternal home.  She resides there now, with the angels and saints.  God has completed the work in her and my job as her mother is finished.  And even though the pain of being physically separated from her is indescribable,  our love for one another can never be untethered because it comes from the Eternal One who is Love Incarnate.  We love because He first loved us.

Happy Birthday my darling little girl.  You brought me so much joy in this life.  You radiated God’s love and goodness.  Your life was an offering to Him.   I will never stop loving you or celebrating the day that you were born into this world.  May you find rest in your Savior whom you loved so deeply.  And may God sustain those of us who miss you with an inexplicable longing until we hold you in our arms again.



Fortune Cookie Faith

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11:1

I want to begin this post by sharing an e-mail correspondence written by my husband within days of Evie’s death.  His words were published in the Canton Repository and although I could just link to the article I feel it necessary to repost them here because you really need to read it through to fully understand the impact of what I am about to set forth:

“On Tuesday morning, it had been three days since Evelyn died. I was worn down and beginning to lose the hope and the comfort that had sustained us immediately after her death. Around 5 a.m., I lit a candle, knelt before the cross that sits atop our family prayer table and began to express to the Lord (and to Evie) that I felt completely empty and abandoned – that all of this was completely meaningless.

For some time I knelt there attempting to capture in words the profound darkness that I felt inside. I then began to plead over and over with God to renew my faith, to help me to abandon myself to him and to constantly seek him even when I feel like nothing makes sense. I kept saying ‘please do something, please do something.’ In front of me, lying flat on the prayer table was Evelyn’s First Communion banner – a shield shaped piece of felt with fabric flowers sewn onto it in the shape of a cross by Evie herself.

Because I had laid my head upon the table weeping, I was able to see inside the upper portion of the banner where a dowel rod had been inserted so that the banner could be hung from the wall or a pew. Immediately after finishing my plea that God would ‘do something’ to keep me from losing faith, I noticed that a very tiny piece of paper had been shoved into the fabric sleeve alongside the dowel rod. I pulled it out. It was two fortune cookie ‘sayings’ rolled up together. I knew that these must have been put there by Evie because she habitually kept anything that had any significance to her (we called her ‘Stash-n-Dash’ since she never stopped moving and preserved every memory somehow/somewhere).

I unraveled the two quotes. The first one said, “The greatest ownership is the embracement of emptiness.” These words knocked the wind out of me. I already felt completely empty and alone. Now I felt as though I was being taunted, like there really was no hope and I just needed to admit it. Crying hysterically at this point – the lowest point of my life now that I think about it – I unraveled the second paper. The saying on it was, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”

I immediately recognized these words as God’s own words to us in Hebrews 11:1 and, in that moment, heard them as a very clear exhortation to believe even when I cannot see a thing, to hope even when I feel nothing but hopelessness. In that moment God answered my prayer. He ‘did something’ just as I had asked. In his mysterious providence, he had arranged for those two particular quotes to be placed in those particular cookies, and then for Evie to ‘stash’ them in that precise part of that particular banner (and for that banner to be taken off the wall and placed precisely where it was shortly before I knelt there) so that I would read those quotes at that exact moment.

I’m not one to interpret the divinely intended meaning in every event – not even close. As a historical theologian, I tend to see meaning over vast swaths of time. But in that very moment, I clearly heard the voice of God speaking to me, saying exactly what I needed to hear, through crumpled up fortune cookie papers that should never have been found. And in those papers, I also heard the whisper of my precious little girl, imploring me to trust and obey – the simple lesson we had taught her every day of her short time in this world.”

My last post, if you recall, was about Evie’s birthday.  As I relayed, I had been dreading that day for the past nine months.

Shortly before her birthday I discovered that the mass at St. Mary’s (our parish) would be offered for Evie on that day.  This year, her birthday was on a Sunday.

Typically, I read the Sunday Mass readings in advance but for some reason,  I did not read the passages for August 7th.  In case you are not familiar with how the readings at Mass work, they are not chosen by the priest of the parish or the deacon or any other member.  They are universal.  Everyone on earth will hear the same Bible passages at any Mass they attend anywhere.  The readings rotate on a three year cycle so as to expose parishioners to all of the Scriptures over time.

As I sat in Mass on Evie’s birthday, crying and begging God to feel close to her and to feel her with me, the lector walked to the front of the sanctuary and began to read.

The passage was Hebrews 11

I was floored.  It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that this chapter from Hebrews would show up on a tiny strip of paper wadded up inside Evie’s First Communion banner AND read on Evie’s birthday.

Not to mention the fact that as the passage progresses, it proceeds to illustrate the faith demonstrated by the likes of Noah, Abraham, Moses, King David and all the Old Testament saints who make up a portion of the “great cloud of witnesses.”

The girls and I had spent last September and October studying the Old Testament together before Evie died and learning about the great faith of these very men.  Evie loved celebrating the saints.  She expressed her wish to enter heaven around All Saints Day.  The name of our farm reflects that desire.

God works in mysterious ways.

Since then, I’ve been pondering the meaning of this.  What is the Holy Spirit trying to convey to us through our little girl and this immeasurable suffering?

The message comes back full circle to the words penned by my husband after finding those  fortune cookie papers.

Trust and Obey.

We seem to live in an evidence-based culture these days.  We want answers and we want them fast.  We want proof for everything.  We only believe and take in what we can see right in front of us.  God is for the superstitious, unintelligent, archaeic, less-evolved among us.

So we build our towers…higher than God.  We presume to know everything.  We’ve got it all under control.  We don’t need Him.

Until we do.

Until questions arise to which there are no answers.

Until something life-changing occurs and we realize that we are incapable of controlling anything.  Then we realize that trying to hold life with a clenched fist is like trying to hold water in your hand.

It’s an illusion.

Faith is stepping outside of our control, our preconceived notions, and our pride and opening ourselves up to a realm of existence far beyond our limited experience.

Men like Noah, Abraham, and Moses demonstrated extraordinary faith beyond anything we encounter on a daily basis.  They were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods, their reputations, and their families to answer God’s call.  Even more profound is the fact that these men never saw the fruits of their faith in their own lifetimes.

Yet they trusted in God and obeyed.

Can you imagine God asking you to build a gigantic boat filled with animals?  Or being willing to walk your only son up a mountain to slay him?  Or approaching a powerful king and letting him know that you’re about to evacuate half of his kingdom?

These men represent the “cloud of witnesses” spoken of later in Hebrews.  We are literally surrounded by extraordinary saints…men and women who answered God’s call to do radical things.  Think of women like Blessed Mother Theresa, who left her religious order to answer God’s call to minister to the poor and destitute living in the slums of India.  She remained faithful to this calling even through years of spiritual darkness.  St. Monica relentlessly pursued and prayed for her wayward son Augustine for more than 17 years and he eventually became a saint.  St. Louis Martin trusted God through the death of four children and his beloved wife from breast cancer and lovingly submitted when God called all five of his daughters to cloistered religious life.

These ordinary people were able to live extraordinary lives because they had faith.  Not the kind of faith that says, “Yeah, I believe in God and I go to church.”

They had the kind of faith that makes the world stop and take notice.  They didn’t exactly blend in with the crowd.  Their faith actually became “evidence” for the existence of God because nobody would live like that or do those things unless God were working through them.

In my grief, my faith ebbs and flows.  There are times when I feel close to God and hear Him speaking to my heart.  Other times, all I can see is my daughter buried in the earth and  broken hearts that cannot be fixed in this lifetime.   The mess in front of me looms large and the impossibility of what I am trying to accomplish weighs me down like a leaden vest.  Like the Israelites, I question what God is doing and trudge along wearing foggy lenses… only seeing my own misery and not the Promised Land that God has in store for me.  Sometimes I can’t imagine that Heaven could be any more glorious than the life I lived before October 31, 2015.

It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now when life is hard.  When life is good, we get comfortable and think this world has it all.

But there is so much more than this world.  There is a whole realm of which we are not even aware.  There are angels and saints.  There is a resurrected man with scars on His hands and our names written on His heart.  There is a God who is weaving the fabric of our lives into a beautiful tapestry even when we can only see the tattered threads.

Do we live like this is is true?  Are we “running the race to win the prize?”  Do our daily lives, our decisions, our relationships reflect our ultimate goal…heaven?  Or are we blending in with everyone around us, forgetting that Jesus calls us to live radically different lives…to stand out as “salt” and “light” to an unbelieving world?

We don’t need to look inside a Chinese cookie to know our fortune.  We need only crack open the Scriptures to see that  God’s promises are clear and true.  He’s preparing a place for us…if only we will trust and obey.