A Birthday Celebration Disaster

Deuteronomy 34:4
“Then the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’  I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’”

As TJ’s second birthday without him is fast approaching, I’ve been reminiscing lately about how we spent his first birthday without him.  Last year in July, we went on our first ever family vacation which included nana and papa, daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughters, and grandsons.  When all of us are together, we number 21 in total.

We found  a very large house in Salt Lake City, Utah to accommodate us.  It was nestled into the side of a mountain and had five bedrooms, one of which was a bunk bed room for all of the little gremlins; a media room with a big screen for watching movies; and a giant game room which was any child’s–or husband’s–dream.

Salt Lake City, Utah

We chose the beautiful Salt Lake City for our vacation destination last year because it was a good halfway point with our daughter Whitney who lives in Washington state.  I had never been to Salt Lake City before and was taken aback by the beauty of it. The city is located at the base of the Wasatch Mountains on the east with the Great Salt Lake across the valley to the west.  I enjoyed my morning walks along the edge of the mountain looking out across the city below to the view of the Great Salt Lake in the distance. It was breathtaking.

Our fourth day there was TJ’s birthday.  After shedding a few tears in the morning and doing crafts and baking cookies with the grand kids all afternoon, the plan that evening was to release sky lanterns in memory of TJ.  I had been imagining this event in my mind for months. I pictured releasing them by a lake with beautiful mountain scenery surrounding it. All of us would be standing together with our smiling faces turned upward and maybe some tears streaming down our cheeks as the sky lanterns all floated away together.   The kids would be cheering with joy on their faces as they watched the lanterns light up the sky. Everybody would be happy and thinking about TJ, and I imagined TJ looking down from heaven with a big, peaceful smile on his face. 

But that is totally not what happened.

Early in the day, my husband drove around the city scouting out the landscape looking for the perfect place to release the lanterns.  That evening as our caravan of cars arrived at the location he had chosen, I gave him a thumbs up and complimented his choice. It was a beautiful location.  It was a flat, park-like setting with a pond of water nearby with vegetation growing around it, and mountains were standing tall in the distance. It looked perfect…..but looks can be deceiving.

It wasn’t until we got out of our cars that we began to realize the water close by was stagnant and the mosquitoes were insane–like nothing we had ever experienced before.  Almost immediately we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. As we were flailing our arms to defend ourselves, most of the younger kids began wailing at the top of their lungs and frantically scratching their arms and legs.  We hurriedly scattered and turned our attention toward the children. In the background, while we were running, I could hear our son-in-law Matt yelling, “Why was this place chosen?!”

After tending to the screaming children, still undeterred and doing our best to ignore the bites, we proceeded with TJ’s birthday celebration.  We started lighting the lanterns, but almost immediately we began experiencing more problems. The lanterns weren’t easy to light and were catching on fire. Pockets of fire were scattered around the park.  Our son-in-law Ben, concerned about the police being called, was running around like a mad man putting the fires out with small drinking bottles of water. The lanterns that didn’t catch on fire wouldn’t rise.  Our daughters were running after their lanterns that were hovering at eye level blowing and flapping their arms wildly in an attempt to get them to fly. After the last lantern was lit and burst into flames, we counted them up, and only 3 of the 26 lanterns actually flew.  The rest were burning in a heap on the ground. We then cleaned up the mess, put all the fires out, hurriedly escaped to our cars, comforted the bawling children, and drove away as fast as we could, scratching our bites all the way home.

My deceased son’s first birthday celebration without him was an utter disaster.

To onlookers, this couldn’t have looked like a family who was honoring their son who had recently passed away.  This looked like pandemonium and irresponsibility for lighting lanterns in the hot, dry climate of Salt Lake City.  Coming from the green, rolling hills of humid Iowa where releasing sky lanterns is legal, it never occurred to any of us until the fires began that lighting lanterns in a hot, dry climate wasn’t a real smart idea…..or even legal.

In my younger years, I would have been devastated that my son’s first birthday celebration after his death was a complete catastrophe, but now in my older years, I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve learned that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, it still can be beautiful. The morning after our disastrous evening, we sure enjoyed sitting around recounting the night and laughing hysterically at our foolishness.  In the wake of the devastating tragedy of losing TJ that cut each one of us to the core, it was a much needed family bonding moment. We came to the conclusion that if TJ could have seen it, he would be laughing as well at his crazy family.  In fact, he would have enjoyed seeing our mosquito-infested, tumultuous evening way more than the tear-filled, sappy celebration I had envisioned in my mind.

What about you?  Have you had times when things didn’t turn out as you had envisioned?  Have some of your dreams ended in disaster and you just weren’t sure how to pick up the broken pieces and carry on?

During my Bible study time the day prior to the birthday celebration, I read about Moses.  Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. Numbers 20 says that in the first month after leaving Egypt, the community arrived at the Desert of Zin.  There was no water for the community, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. Moses and Aaron then went to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell face down, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.  The Lord told Moses to take the rod and speak to the rock and water would pour out. But Moses instead struck the rock twice with the rod and then spoke harshly to the community. Despite Moses’s disobedience and because the people needed water, the Lord still provided abundantly for the people and water gushed out of the rock, and the community and their livestock drank, but the Lord told Moses that because he didn’t trust Him enough, he would not bring the community into the land the Lord would give them.

Because of God’s Holiness, His correction of Moses was hard…and deserved.  Moses was a leader and leaders are judged by a higher standard. All of his life, even since he was an infant, Moses was being prepared to deliver God’s people from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land.  I wonder as Moses grew, when he heard the miraculous story about how Pharaoh’s daughter plucked him out of the Nile River while the other Hebrew babies were murdered, if he knew his life had been saved for a special purpose?  I wonder as Moses played and ran through the palaces of Egypt as a child, if he could feel God’s calling on his life and knew that there was something God had planned for him to do? I wonder while Moses was in Midian, if he came to realize that he was there so God could continue to mature him before He sent him out before Pharaoh?  I wonder how many times while bringing the people out of Egypt Moses had dreamed of the day when he and the whole community would set foot on the soil of the Promised Land? But now because of his own disobedience, Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land and another person would finish the job. How unbelievably disappointed Moses must have felt.

After leaving Egypt, because of disobedience, the community wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then the time finally came to enter the Promised Land.  The baton had been passed from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua would lead the community into the Promised Land. In the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Lord took Moses high up on a mountain and showed him the whole land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Then Moses died and the Lord buried him. A tender, loving, gracious Father allowed Moses to see the Promised Land with his own two eyes and then privately buried His faithful servant Himself in an unmarked grave.

Maybe God said no to your prayers and hopes and dreams, and life hasn’t turned out for you like you had planned.  Moses’s hopes and dreams didn’t turn out like he had planned either…..but here’s the beautiful part about Moses’s story.  A short time after Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land, God took him home to an eternal life with Him forever.  The loss of not being able to enter the Promised Land was only momentary, temporary, and for those of us who are in Christ, the same is true for us.  God will also take us home to an eternal life with Him forever as well, and these disappointments and losses that we experienced here on this earth will become a faded memory.

This year for TJ’s 23rd birthday celebration, we are headed out on our second annual family vacation, but this time to Breckenridge, Colorado.  We are minus two daughters and their families due to scheduling conflicts and distance. We are foregoing the sky lanterns this year–surprise, surprise–and are in the process of brainstorming a new way to memorialize TJ’s birthday.  You will hear all about it in an upcoming blog post in a few weeks.

Weaving a Beautiful Story

Genesis 4:12
“Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

Have you ever felt insecure or inadequate about performing a job God has given you to do?  I sure have! Have you ever made a mistake that you wanted to hide or maybe felt like a failure and wondered if you would ever be able to get anything right?  I’ve done that plenty of times too. I recently learned, though, that despite all of our sometimes botched efforts and poor choices, God does His best work with imperfect, mistake-prone people.  I would like to share with you a recent revelation I had regarding this truth.

A few weeks before Mother’s Day my friend who is also our Special Needs Coordinator at church texted me and asked me to speak at a Moms’ Day Breakfast for our Special Needs Ministry.  I’ve had dreams of being a speaker since I was young and have wondered for over 20 years if those dreams would ever come true. Without hesitation, I excitedly said, “Yes!” and knew immediately what I would speak about.  I had been preparing to write a blog titled “The Deep Water” that I posted a couple of weeks ago from the story in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on water to the disciples who are in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Much like special needs moms, the disciples were alone and afraid……until Jesus miraculously came to them walking on the water.  I sensed that the timing of my upcoming blog post and my friend’s text asking me to speak was being orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, so I decided I would just expand the blog post a little more and make it into a half-hour talk for the breakfast.

As I set out to write, because I’d had the material in my head for years, the ideas came quickly, and I had it written in a day.  I then asked my friend Melissa if she would mind looking it over for me. Melissa has been a speaker and author for many years. She is wise, seasoned, and I value her opinions.  She said, “Of course.” I told her my talk was on the passage from Matthew 14 and that I was going to read the passage at the beginning of the talk and then basically break it down verse by verse.  I then asked her when she talks, if she reads entire passages and then talks about the passage verse by verse. She replied, “No, I usually don’t do it that way. Oftentimes when speaking about a topic, I use Bible passages from all over the Bible.”  “Hmmmmmmm,” I thought. “I may not be doing this right.” So I then asked another speaker friend of mine, Jennifer, how she does it. She also said she doesn’t do it that way and does it much like Melissa does.

Well, needless to say, that sent me into a tailspin.  My mind froze, and I thought, “I don’t know how to come up with 30 minutes of material and talk about something and just throw verses in.”  Thoughts then began racing through my mind like: “I can’t do this. I’m not qualified to be doing this. I don’t know what I’m doing. Pastors do this. They read scripture and then dissect it and teach. Who do I think I am? I haven’t gone to seminary. I’m going to make a fool out of myself!”

So I apprehensively sent my talk to Melissa, and she relayed back that she would read it and get back to me in a couple of days.  Well, a couple of days came and went, and I began to climb the walls. My thoughts grew more anxious as I waited, and I checked my email multiple times a day looking for her response.  It took all the self-control I could muster not to email her with the hope of nudging her along, but eventually I resolved that Melissa was doing me a favor, so I needed to be patient and not push her.  

I then received a text from her stating that she had had a migraine for days and would be getting to it shortly.  So I waited a couple more days with my anxiety increasingly growing, and then finally the much anticipated email came.  I braced myself as I opened it. It read: “So powerful, Kelly! Very Holy Spirit led! There really isn’t much I would change.”  Oh my goodness! I was relieved, and all my anxiety melted away. Her encouraging words were exactly what I needed to hear to keep going and stand up and speak with confidence.

But after receiving the positive feedback, I also began to think about what was going on inside of me and why I was so insecure and anxious about my preparation.  God brought the story of Moses and the burning bush to mind.

In Exodus starting in the third chapter, the Lord called to Moses from the midst of a burning bush and told him He was going to send him to Pharaoh that he may bring the children of Israel out of Egypt because He had seen their oppression.  Moses was insecure about his speaking abilities and didn’t feel qualified. The Lord then said to him in Exodus 4:11-12, “Who gave human beings their mouths?  Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind?  Is it not I, the Lord. Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

I then thought about my method for planning a talk.  I have a natural bent to want to read a passage of scripture and then dissect it apart verse by verse, and this bent seems to be a little unusual for someone who hasn’t had any formal training.  “Why do I always want to do that and where did that come from?” I thought. It didn’t take long before God reminded me of a Bible study I have been in since I was in my mid 20s.

Travis and I, when we were young and newly married, were invited to be in a Bible study with some people from our church.  We have attended that study off and on now for over 20 years. All of the people who attend are older than us, and they are very wise and knowledgeable about the Bible.  Most times during the study and especially when I was young, I just stayed quiet because I didn’t feel like I had much to offer, but all the while I sat there quietly under their teaching, I was drinking in their wisdom and knowledge and learning how to study the Bible.

When they first began studying together, they started in Genesis 1.  They met every other week and slowly made their way through the Bible chapter by chapter.  At the beginning of each night of study, they started by reading the chapter and then dissecting it apart verse by verse.  After thinking about these things, it didn’t take long for me to realize that’s where I learned to read scripture and study it verse by verse.  That’s what I’ve been doing for over 20 years, and that is what God has been teaching me. It is my default button and what feels most comfortable to me.

Memories also came to mind of when I was a middle schooler.  The summer before my seventh grade year, I developed an eating disorder that I struggled with for years.  It was so out of control that during my senior year of high school, I went to treatment to help me learn to manage it better.  Day after day while in treatment, I was taught to stop and think about how I was feeling and then to write and express those feelings in a journal.  Even though that wasn’t one of the more pleasant times of my life and oftentimes was something I wanted to hide and cover up, God still worked it for my good and used it to teach me how to express my thoughts and feelings.

I also remembered court reporting school.  During court reporting school, I developed a love for the English language that I never knew I had.  I was enamored with words, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, and sentence structure. But upon graduating, I only worked as a court reporter for a year, and for many years I felt like I had failed and was embarrassed because my schooling seemed like a waste, but all the while, without me knowing, God had plans to use it later in my life for my good and His glory.

All of this Bible teaching from my past along with my successes, embarrassments and failures, God is now using to tell TJ’s story and to help others and point them to Christ.

And this is the way that God works in every one of our lives if we surrender and bring our past to Him.  Sometimes God is teaching us in ways we won’t understand until later because we can’t see the bigger picture.  And even though we’ve made what may seem like life-changing mistakes, our mistakes are not too big for God. We are never too far outside of His reach that He can’t turn us around and make our paths straight, and we can never mess up so badly that He can’t redeem us and use us for His purpose.

Because you see, dear one, God, in his great love for us, takes our accomplishments and the messy areas of our lives and weaves them together to create a beautiful story, and it’s not just any old story.  It’s His story….the story He’s writing about us.