Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One Month: September 29, 2009

A month ago Emily was born, not into the cradled arms of her expecting mother but the tender hands of her loving Savior. Each day since has brought its share of heartache and hope. It has also continued to be a time of refining in our lives.

Before Emily’s birth I wrote in my journal, “Emily is not the only one who is dying. I believe there are things that God wants to kill in my life, things that do not bring him glory. As Emily is peacefully surrendered to the will of God in her circumstance, so I want to be surrendered as well under the Lord’s leadership. Death brings life. I can see many areas in my heart that I need God to deal with.” Selfishness. Anger. Wanting to be in Control. And the list goes on and on...

These weeks of refinement have also been weeks of grace and experiencing God’s gentleness. More than ever we can see that surrender to Christ is not about giving up or giving in, but giving over. Amazingly, He wants our junk and He wants our hurt and He wants to do something beautiful with the mess.

Our first month without Emily had been a clumsy experience for us; we grieved in awkward ways and in awkward moments. We also experienced the peace that passes understanding as God, with all gentleness, showed us rough edges in our lives. It would seem a cruel season for God to refine a couple, yet it also has shown us just how much He really cares. His fingerprints are all over our lives right now and we couldn't be more thankful.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Staying in the Game: September 14, 2009

"Teach me how to live, O Lord." Psalm 27:11 (NLT)

It is incredibly ironic how the death of our daughter, Emily, has taught us more about life than any other experience.

For example, I can remember sitting in on one of Laura’s pre-natal appointments when our doctor described the idea behind the movie Click, which we have not seen. Apparently the movie is about a man (played by Adam Sandler) with an amazing remote control that allows him to fast-forward through parts of his life that are painful or undesirable. The lesson learned from the movie is that gutting out these difficult seasons of life takes away the best parts of living.

Truly, grief comes to all of us. Many of us navigate though life avoiding any situation or relationship that carries the risk for hurt. But the truth is that grief comes to us all uninvited, and is often never in a hurry to leave. It is only a matter of time before it is our "time to mourn" (Ecclesiastes 3:4). A constant challenge for Laura and I these past several months has been to be willing to engage in our season of struggle and not instinctively search for an escape. I would say we have had moderate success.

A primary motivation for staying in the game for us has been the desire not to miss out on anything God was intending to accomplish as a result of Emily's life. God led us to carry Emily full-term and not induce early, and a big part of this difficult decision was based on this desire. Yes, we desperately wanted and prayed for a miraculous healing for our daughter. Every ultrasound appointment we wondered if this would be the day the doctor would be speechless to explain that Emily was completely normal. I remember within weeks of finding out about Emily’s condition the Lord impressed on Laura’s heart that we needed to be surrendered and allow Him to define the miracle. Our faith became less about demanding a change in our circumstances and more a broken posture of surrender to Christ. For weeks we reminded ourselves of the words of Mary after her world was turned upside down with the news that she was pregnant with the Son of God: “I am the Lords servant… May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). For whatever it was worth and with whatever determination we had inside we intended to stay in the game, no matter how much it all hurt, and discover what treasures the Lord had in store. This is still our heart's desire.

“And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness- secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.” Isaiah 45:3

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's Been a Week: September 11, 2009

"It's been a week."

Laura's words this morning snapped me back to the previous Friday, the day we said our final goodbye and Emily's casket was lowered into the ground. In kindness people have often asked how we doing, but this simple question is a difficult one: how are we supposed to be doing? We manage to get up each morning and find our toothbrush so I suppose that counts for something.

In all seriousness the Lord has been our help each day. We are eating, sleeping and taking care of our responsibilities, but there are those moments- those unexpected mule-kicks in the gut when all the hurt storms back and knocks the wind out. All it takes is a quick glance at Emily's handprint hanging on our wall, hearing her name, or a flash memory of her long fingers or toes and we are right back in that hospital delivery room freshly grieving the loss of our daughter. Yesterday I (Ryan) met with a friend I'm discipling at a coffee shop and all he asked me was how I was doing. I wish he wouldn't do that... people sipping their lattes around us began to stare as two men wept.

Tonight Laura and I are going on a date and we are going to bring Emily flowers. Its been a week.
“We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” 1 Thessalonians 2:8

On another note, it has been encouraging to see how the Lord has been using Emily's brief life to make an impact. Whether from this blog or the unfolding of relationships (this person know that person, etc.) we have had incredible conversations and opportunities to minister. One example is that we have been invited to share next Tuesday our story to a group of medical students at the University of Colorado. Laura is getting her doctorate degree in a medical field and I can hardly spell anencephaly so I think she will do most of the talking. We appreciate you prayers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A New Normal: September 6, 2009

It's all over.

Friends and family have left town. Weeks of anticipation (37 to be exact) followed by a birth, a death, a burial, a service... and now it's quiet. Very quiet. Last night we found ourselves each clinging to one of Emily's blankets and rolling memories of the previous week through our minds. We were not good company- not even to each other.

I find it interesting that, as a pastor, I am privileged to walk with people through their grief. I've officiated funerals for both the young and the old and attempted to provide people with a biblical perspective and encouragement during these occasions. But now that I am the one going through the grief I'm far less certain- not in the truth of God's Word but how to move forward in life. How do I return to a normal routine? How do I move forward? When am I allowed to feel joy again (without feeling bad that I feel good)? I even carry the fear that remembering how to go about daily life again will mean the forgetting of Emily. I sense that normal, from this point forward, will be redefined. It must be redefined.

Lord, would this new normal become nothing short of a deeper love, broader dependence, sharper holiness, firmer faith, and more passionate worship of you.
"Teach me how to live, O Lord..." Psalm 27:11a

Celebration of Life Service: September 5, 2009

Laura and I want to thank the many that helped make this an unforgettable day: our family who drove or flew in from various parts of the country, our church family at Broomfield Community Church (you are amazing!), our friends, and Stapleton Fellowship Church. A special thanks also to Pastor Dean Hill, Pastor Ben Blackiston (Laura's dad), George Seitz, Fred Stricker, and Mark Cicotello for sharing during the celebration. Finally, thank you to all that came out to join in the celebration.

Below is a letter we wrote that was read during the Celebration. It attempts to capture our hearts...

Well Done, Emily

We want to begin by thanking you all for your love, support, encouragement, meals, prayers, hugs, emails, and cards. You and many others have been a major part of how the Lord has under girded us as a family to give strength for the day and peace through the night. Thank you.

Our deepest desire this morning and our entire journey with Emily is to spotlight Jesus Christ through our experience, not to spotlight us through something God has allowed to happen. We have not suffered more than most, but our time with Emily, although brief, has forever changed our lives. She never spoke a word but made the loudest statements. She brought nothing into this world and took nothing out of it, yet she has made a lasting impact.

Laura and I have been asked from time to time if we ever questioned God why this happened. Our short answer is “no” but this certainly doesn’t mean we easily accepted the fatal condition of our daughter. J. Vernon McGee offered an illustration that helped us keep our focus on the miracles God was looking to accomplish through Emily. He wrote,
“There is a custom with shepherds in the Alps. In the summertime when the grass in the lower valleys withers and dries up, the shepherds seek to lead their sheep up a winding, thorny, and stony pathway to the high grazing lands. The sheep, reluctant to take the difficult pathway infested with dangers and hardships, turn back and will not follow. The shepherd then must reach into the flock and take a little lamb and place it under his arm, then reach in again and grab a lamb and place it under his other arm. Then he starts up the precipitous pathway. Soon the mother sheep start to follow and afterward the entire flock. At last they ascend the torturous trail to green pastures.”
Our Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, chose to reach into the flock and pick out our Emily, His little lamb. We believe He did not do it to rob us but to lead us out and upward. He has richer and greener pastures for us, and He wants us to follow. And we will follow.

There were many things our little girl could not do. But one thing Emily did do better than anyone I know is worship- she brought pure pleasure to God. She was and did exactly as her Maker designed her. She has graced our lives, brought color, and provided us an example. We will miss Emily everyday of our lives; we long to see her again and when that day comes to simply say “thank you.”

We love you, Emily. Well done.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Final Goodbye: September 4, 2009

This morning we said our final goodbye to Emily. Honestly, this was the moment we dreaded most; it took a lot just to get out of bed this morning and into the car headed for Mt. Olivet Cemetary. How do you say goodbye to a daughter? How do you say goodbye when we hardly got to say "hello?"

But for all that shook our hearts and hurt to our core about this day it was a beautiful time that we will never forget.

At 10:30 am we were able to view Emily's body once more. Her little casket was so small. Family and dear friends joined us in the viewing room; a lot of hugs were shared by all. When our time was running short the room was cleared and Laura and I were able to say our final goodbye. We thanked the Lord for our Emily; we feel so honored to be the chosen parents for this precious little girl. Laura and I each wrote our own letter to Emily, which we took turns reading. After drenching a handful of kleenex tissues we tucked the letters into the casket and the lid was shut.

Laura's dad, Ben, who is a pastor from Michigan, did a beautiful job leading the brief graveside service. He read from 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 21, and Psalm 23. After a time of prayer Emily's body was committed to the Lord in anticipation for the coming resurrection.

Yesterday Laura and I went out and picked flowers at a nearby Berry Patch Farm, which we sorted and tied into five different arrangements. As the service closed Sean (6), Megan (5), and Alayna (3) each grabbed their bouquet and, along with Laura and I, we arranged them around Emily's coffin. Our kids surprised us as they each melted into tears and spoke how much they missed their sister and wanted her back. They were incredibly tender and expressive, which was beautiful to see.

Thank you, Lord, for all your gifts, big and small, and for being loving in all you do.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Strength in Weakness: September 3, 2009

Tomorrow we will say our final farewell to Emily at Mt. Olivet Cemetary. How do we say goodbye to her when we barely had the chance to say hello? We know the Lord will give the strength we need.

"My help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth." Psalm 121:2
"Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you." 2 Chronicles 20:17

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Celebration of Life
Emily Jean Whitson

Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 10:30 am
Broomfield Community Church
255 Miramonte Blvd. Broomfield, CO 80022
Questions: 303-469-5984

Live in the Beauty of Today: September 2, 2009

Emily's personality is showing up everywhere. Her impact on my (Laura) life- she showed me how to live brighter and louder. When I would normally choose something that would match my wardrobe or house for the next 10 years, Emily would say (via my complete taste change during pregnancy)...

"turn up the volume, have a little fun, spice it up, make it loud, celebrate life, make a statement that means something, and no, it doesn't have to match, you don't have to like it tomorrow-
live in the beauty of today."
She/ her life showed me that today's gifts are not guaranteed tomorrow. This was the only pregnancy that I learned to thank God for the inconvenience, the challenges, and the discomforts. There was beauty in all of them because Emily was there, her strong heart was beating, and she was kicking and growing and reminding me to capture every moment.
Today is Wednesday, and for the past 20 weeks I've been calling Wednesdays her birthday...today she would have turned 38 weeks. I miss her so much. Today I've been hanging onto Psalm 145:13 "God is faithful to all His promises and loving toward all he has made." He loves us, and this is part of his love... sometimes love says "no". I don't understand why He said "no" to us keeping Emily with us, but I know that He sees the total picture and I trust His love. I am so thankful that I know exactly where Emily is, and because God watched His own Son die on a cross for me and instead of me I know that I will see her again and that He will continue to be faithful to His promises of being my Healer, Comforter, and one who restores.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Mother's Goodbye: August 31, 2009

We asked to see Emily one last time. God kept whispering to my heart, "It's time"- a time to hang on and a time to let go. It was time to let go. I had experienced her during pregnancy, pre-labor, her birth and death, but I now had her sweet body to hold- and I only had a couple days- but now I had to let go of that.

I checked out her precious hands, knees, and feet for the longest time and then when I went to put the delivery blanket over her, my hand was on top of hers (with a blanket in between) and my heart could not move it away. The floodgates of my heart burst open and I cried so hard to have to say goodbye to her precious hand that I will never get to hold again; to those little feet that will never kick me again; to that precious body that reminded me of the power of a lightening storm. It was goodbye to our precious daughter that I've loved before conception- that I prayed for constantly- that I pleaded with God for, that I so feared losing even after she was gone.

With one call of the nurse, a final wrap of the blanket, your dad and I prayed and thanked God for you and the gift you are to us. The nurse came in and I nodded my head that we were ready- even though we would never be- and we stood as if to honor you, Emily, as the nurse wheeled you out of the room and closed the door.

It was the first time I felt like I was completely shattered and was going to crumble to the floor. You deserved a trumpet fanfare, or salutes, bouquets of flowers, and a huge angelic exit... I am proud of what a strong fighter you were: only 1 in 1,000 odds that you would have anencephaly, only 1 in 10,000 odds you would survive to the 16th week of pregnancy. But you made it past the predicted 32 week marker and went to full-term. You kept hanging on; you kept kicking. I will miss you everyday for the rest of my life.

Goodbye, Emily Jean.

The Next Day, The Next Hurdle: August 30, 2009

The morning light woke us at 6 am. We couldn't have taken in more than a few hours of sleep between nurse interruptions and memories of the previous 24 hours racing through our minds. As Laura drifted back to sleep I went to the room window and flatly stared at the parking lot below. I noticed the flags were at half-mast (in respect to Sen. Edward Kennedy) which I took the freedom to assign the honor to my daughter.

"The unfailing love of the Lord never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, 'The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!' The Lord is wonderfully good to those who wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. And it is good for the young to submit to the yoke of his discipline... Can anything happen without the Lord's permission?"

Lamentations 3:22-27, 37

Emily's Day: August 29, 2009

August 29th was an unforgettable day in our lives marked by God’s incredible provision and abundant love.

Laura checked into University Hospital for an 8 am induction still mulling questions if this was the right decision; we did not want to get ahead of the Lord and His timing for Emily's birth. To our shock Laura was already 6 cm dilated! This was such a gracious gift and encouragement to our hearts to know that this day was exactly the time God wanted Emily to be born.

A little after 9 am our doctor arrived to do an ultrasound. Humorously, Emily was swimming around the womb; she would not stay put in the appropriate birthing position. It was fun to see her again on the ultrasound screen. A few hours later Laura's new best friend, the anesthesiologist, arrived and soon Laura was feeling much more comfortable. Without the need to breathe through contractions we grabbed our Bible and began to read underlined verses throughout the Psalms. It was so encouraging to be reminded of God’s character and love. After the 150th Psalm Laura gently closed her eyes and fell asleep.

Not long after 1 pm Laura’s brother, Tim, surprised us by flying in from Chattanooga, TN. It was so good to see him. Our visit was short as the medical team jumped in at 1:30 with another ultrasound and the breaking of Laura's water. Emily shared her disapproval with some swift kicks to Laura's side; her swimming days were over. Within an hour Laura reached 10 cm dilation (all without induction) and was ready to push. God was so gracious to us throughout the day, guarding and guiding Laura at each step.

We waited a good 30 minutes before Laura began the process of pushing. During this time the kids arrived in the room for a quick "hi" to Mom. Finally, a few minutes past 3 pm it was time for Emily’s birth so the room was emptied except for 3 doctors, our nurse Christine, the Neonatologist, and myself. With our hearts focused and anticipating meeting our daughter (every parent knows this feeling) unbeknownst to us Emily gave Laura one last soft kick goodbye only a minutes before her birth. A few pushes later Emily was born (3:16 pm).

When I (Ryan) first saw her I knew she was gone; she was silent and limp. Emily was placed on Laura and, following a heart check by the Neonatologist, she was declared dead. These words and the reality of the situation hurt more than we could have ever imagined. After catching our breath we began to study her little face and body: a bruise on the left shoulder, a thick, stout frame, and the cutest little mouth. They quickly provided a hat to cover her head wound but we didn’t care when it was exposed- we loved every part of who she was.

After a few minutes I (Ryan) was able to hold Emily for the first time. All I remember is that we danced and I told her how much she is loved. After awhile we brought Sean, Megan, and Alayna in to meet their sister (as well as the photographer from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep- D.L. & K.R. you were amazing!). They each took a turn holding Emily. The kids also brought out the birthday presents for Emily and gave them to her: a duck from Sean, a tiger from Megan, and a doll from Alayna.

After a few hours we were moved to another room in the hospital. I only mention this as it was a sweet highlight for me (Ryan) to be able to bring Emily to the new room. For a brief time I had Emily away from the medical environment of the birthing room and we were able to have a father-daughter stroll. I walked slow. This was one of my moments and I took it in as a priceless treasure.

"And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness- secret riches. I will do this so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name." Isaiah 45:3