Looking Back and Reflecting on God’s Grace

Loved

Only by God’s grace is this even possible.

“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.” ~ Jesus

Here is our story of an elementary romance, jail time, unspeakable losses, God’s provision, redemption and the body of Christ. A story that is so laced with Grace only an Amazing God could have so beautifully orchestrated it. All the glory belongs to Him.

We look back to remember how God has walked with us and we look forward to seeing how He writes the rest of our story.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

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Our Story – Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

When I was a little girl, I met a cute, blonde-haired boy on the playground who would someday become the father of my children, my best friend, my hand to hold, my shoulder to cry on, my embrace to find comfort in and my better half. Here is our story of an elementary romance, jail time, unspeakable losses, God’s provision, redemption and the body of Christ. A story that is so laced with Grace only an Amazing God could have so beautifully orchestrated it. All the glory belongs to Him.

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Little Benji

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Little Stephanie

I first met Ben when we were in elementary school. We attended a small, Christian school in Cadillac, Michigan where he was two grades ahead of me. I was the new girl at school, having just moved to town. He says that the first time he saw me he thought I was really pretty. He became my first little boyfriend. (You know how it is in elementary school, you are “going out” but you rarely ever even talk to each other and there is a whole lot of giggling involved.)

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First Love Letter

Being at a small, Christian school our families knew each other well and God was knitting us together even then. However, this elementary romance ended when Ben’s family left for public school when he was starting 7th grade.

Our lives took entirely different paths at this point. I attended the Christian School through 10th grade, was home schooled in 11th grade while I attended a vocational school half days, and graduated from public school before heading to a university to pursue a degree in Graphic Design.

I grew up in a loving Christian home with lots of “religious influence”. I went to a Christian school and attended church functions all the time. I thought I had a “relationship with God”, you know with memorizing so much scripture and being such a frequent churchgoer. My family left the Christian school and church behind after I had completed my sixth grade year and we joined the ranks of public education. I really started to hang with the wrong crowd in high school and we did a lot of partying and drinking. It was all about me at this phase in my life. I saw no need for God in my life.

My relationship with the Lord has always been a big part of my life and I have been on a faith journey since accepting Christ as my savior when I was seven years old. In my school-age years, he taught me and grew me through experiences such as a back surgery when I was 15, a boyfriend who broke my heart, a volunteer position at a local pregnancy resource center, friends who faithfully encouraged my walk with the Lord and a family who loves God. I am so thankful for this foundation, because when the storms arise, it’s imperative to have that foundation secure. I didn’t have the slightest clue how stormy it was going to get.

After high school I joined the Marines and continued to party. I was involved in such risky behavior, I should have been dead. But, God showed extravagant grace to spare my life time and time again. After boot camp, I had what most people would think was a wake-up call. I partied so much and, while intoxicated, ran someone over with my truck. God was watching out for me by not allowing the guy to be injured or worse killed, but I didn’t appreciate this grace until much later in life. Not only did I not harm the guy, I was allowed to continue a somewhat normal life without any jail time.

We lived in the same, small town, so Ben and I would run into each other from time to time or our families would see each other around town. However, we had pretty much no real contact until one weekend in the fall of 2001 when I was home from college. My dad handed me an envelope that had arrived for me, hand addressed with a stamp in bold, red ink, “Mail originating from Manistee County Jail. Not responsible for content.” That seemed strange. I definitely didn’t know anyone who would be sending me mail from jail! Lo and behold, it was a letter from my long-lost, elementary friend, Ben. I hadn’t heard from him in years! I didn’t even know what he’d been up to. No good apparently! His letter was short and sweet. It was just an effort to reconnect, a yearning for friendship, a stab in the dark for a listening ear. Ben had been sitting in jail for quite some time and, quite frankly, had exhausted his list of family and friends to write letters to as he grasped for ways to pass the time.

Once again, I had taken my life into my own hands and got into drugs in the Marines. I failed a random drug test and this caused me to get kicked out and put in jail for 165 days. While in jail, I wrote letters to everyone I knew, with no responses, until I decided to write a girl I knew in elementary school named Stephanie. Much to my surprise she wrote back very frequently. This was just another undeserved grace that God was giving me, but I still wasn’t seeing it.

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We still have every single letter!

This was the beginning of an interesting relationship via handwritten letters and good, old-fashioned snail mail. Letters were exchanged daily as we opened our lives back up to each other. We caught up on the years we missed, shared dreams and confessed sins and struggles. Ben had been raised in a Christian family but had walked away from the Lord entirely. He was not associated with any Christian friends and he wasn’t a part of a church. A sweet pastor from our hometown reached out to him and faithfully visited him while he was in jail. Ben’s heart was softening toward the Lord and he clearly indicated his feelings for me were getting serious. I went with his parents a couple times to visit him in jail and we maintained a friendship across the miles. I was taking classes and working at my studies, but my heart became more and more focused on the mailbox and anxiously anticipating the letters from him, which arrived almost daily. Eventually, Ben was transferred to another jail, then to a transition house, then to his parents’ house on phone tether. All the while, we maintained letters and eventually phone calls and visits. He had won my heart.

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Our Wedding ~ July 2003

After my jail time, and about a year of dating Stephanie, we got married. Stephanie is a very godly woman that I have learned to appreciate more and more through the trials we have been through together.

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

The weekend after we closed on the house Ben came up to spend Saturday night and Sunday with us. We weren’t attending church at the time and Ben’s dad had headed off to his church that Sunday morning, March 4th. We had been up early with the kids and were having a relaxing morning as a family. I had nursed our littlest, just 7 ½ months old, down for a morning nap on the bed I shared with him in Ben’s absence, and snuggled him in between a couple pillows. I got up and got ready for the day, as we had planned to go grocery shopping as a family when the baby woke up.

Sweet Sleeping Boy

Nap time was coming to an end and I sneaked into the bedroom to grab something. I noticed the spot between the pillows was empty besides a left behind stuffed bear and stray pacifier. His blanket was pulled to the edge of the bed and I noticed he had fallen off the bed and had gotten stuck between the bed and another piece of furniture. I screamed and whisked him out of the tight space and back onto the bed. He was lifeless and unresponsive. Ben and the other kids came running. Ben hovered over his baby boy screaming and crying while I fumbled with my cell phone trying to call 9-1-1. The other kids, then just 5, 3 and 2, stood confused at the doorway while they watched our flurry of panic. Ben ushered the kids away and closed the door as I followed the instructions of the 9-1-1 technician and moved my sweet baby’s body to the floor and began to perform CPR. The mouth I had lovingly kissed so many times I was now breathing into, willing life into his tiny body, begging God to restore his breath. The paramedics arrived and rushed our sweet son to the ambulance. They left us all alone in the house to wait. The minutes ticked by and the kids, scared and worried, were asking the very questions we were thinking. “Is he going to be okay? Why are they taking so long? What’s happening?” Ben went out and stood near the ambulance and I remember thinking I needed to be strong for these kids even though I was a weak mess on the inside. I knelt down on the kitchen floor and pulled my children into a huge hug and we prayed for sweet, precious Andrew. I told them that Andrew might not survive but that God loves us so much and he has a plan in all of this. I held them close and silently begged God for Andrew’s life to be spared all the while beating myself up for leaving him alone on that bed.

After what seemed like forever, Ben’s dad returned home and stayed with the kids while we followed the ambulance to the hospital. We were terrified and knew what the outcome was probably going to be but we dared to hope. Our family members arrived at the hospital in record time and many of them sat in the waiting room with us while we dreaded the verdict. The doctor arrived and confirmed what we knew to be true. Our son was dead. There was nothing they could do. Gut wrenching agony came over us as we held each other and sobbed over the loss of yet another precious son. It seemed like a very bad dream that I desperately wanted to wake up from. Ben and I walked into the emergency room where our sweet, lifeless baby was laying on the bed being cared for by a nurse who is a family friend and a wonderful Christian woman. She turned and gave us a compassionate, sympathetic hug and assured us as best she could. We were given moments alone with him as we hugged, and kissed yet another lifeless son. We were shocked that God would have us go through this again. Mommies and daddies should not have to hold the dead bodies of their babies. Not once and certainly not twice. It just wasn’t fair. I cried my tears dry until my head ached and my throat was sore. Our family members came in to the room to say their goodbyes and share their love and sorrow. A pastor from the church we previously attended came to pray with us and agreed to meet with us and prepare a memorial service for him. We stayed with Andrew for as long as they would allow us. We held him close, wrapped in his soft warm blanket and kissed his sweet, soft cheeks, hoping time would stop and we would never have to hand him over. Before we were ready, we found ourselves again leaving a hospital without a baby, leaving a cold, lifeless son behind. The heartache is indescribable.

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Sweet Boy Brought Us So Much Joy!

Only this time, I was plagued with guilt on top of sorrow. The guilt and shame overtook me. I blamed myself. If only I had napped with him. If only I had just put him in a pack and play. If only I had heard him cry out. I remember sitting on that same bed, pumping breast milk that should have been Andrew’s but I was determined to donate, sobbing and crying out to God, “Why God?!?! Why didn’t I hear him?!?! I could have saved him!!” And, clearer than I have ever heard God speak to me, I heard Him say, “Stephanie, I could have saved him but it was his time.” It was a balm for my soul. I knew the scriptures; our days are numbered even before we are conceived. In that moment, I could feel God taking the burden of guilt from me, but I struggled to accept the freedom. I couldn’t forgive myself. I didn’t even want to face people at his funeral because I was sure they were blaming me. I doubted my abilities as a mother and felt certain I was unable to care for my children properly. Obviously, I couldn’t even keep them alive! Recently, Ben and I had been talking about maybe considering having another child or looking into adoption. Now, for me, it was completely out of the question. Clearly, I wasn’t capable and certainly nobody would trust me to adopt and care for their child! I was a wreck. I felt desperate to keep my other children safe so I could prove myself. It was a burden, no mother should bear and it was threatening to take me under.

The days surrounding his death, his funeral and his burial are such a blur. Ben and I were grieving and trying to parent our other children and trying to make sense of everything and simply trying to survive. It was such a gift to me that Ben never once blamed me. Never, even in the heat of the moment, did he breathe one word of accusation. Once again, by God’s grace, this wasn’t going to divide us. My own heart broke as I watched my precious husband break. I watched him mourn and cry and ultimately surrender. In those days following Andrew’s death, he made the choice I had begged God for all our married days. He chose to give his life to God and to lean hard on Him when he knew he couldn’t make it alone. For the first time, we leaned hard on God together and chose to trust him and have faith even when life didn’t make any sense. God showed up as we laid our precious baby to rest and He became our Anchor, our Savior, our Redeemer, our Comfort and our only Hope. Most people don’t get to see God redeem such horrible circumstances in such short order. As a huge measure of grace, I got to see my husband’s life transform just days after losing Andrew.

I’ve buried two of my children and that seemed unfair. The pain never completely goes away; it just gets a little duller. One of the visitors in the ER that horrible day was a former pastor. I kept saying, “Why me God?” and my pastor said something I will never forget, “Why not you?” That hit me like a ton of bricks.

At this point, I began to realize all of the grace God had shown me over the years. The definition of grace…the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God…rang very true. I am not deserving of any good, but God loves to show His grace even though I am very undeserving. It is still a very long grieving process, but I believe that this tragic event was used by God to bring me back to Him.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

One week after burying our son, we were scheduled to move into the house we had closed on right before he died. Once again, God’s timing proved perfect. By God’s grace we were able to move out of the bedroom that held so much pain and the difficult memories and into a brand new home. A fresh start. A place void of all family memories. A blank canvas.

Even though we were in the midst of a move, we felt utterly cared for by the body of Christ. Ben’s company was amazing and supportive in every way. For the entire first month not a day went by that we didn’t receive some measure of grace. It came in various forms such as food, cards, promises of prayer, text messages, emails, phone calls, visits, financial gifts, presents for our kids, restaurant gift cards and help with our move. We had a couple very dear families agree to help us on moving day and feed and care for us and my sister generously stayed to help us get settled. Even the family who we bought the house from blessed us with a spotless home and a meal in the freezer. God insured that we never felt alone.

Shortly after we moved, in April of 2012, a couple of dear friends offered to send Ben and me to a marriage conference. God bless them, they were concerned for our marriage as we navigated the rough waters of grief. They gave us several options of nearby upcoming conferences and we chose one called A Weekend to Remember. We didn’t know what to expect or anything about the speakers, but were thankful for a weekend away together to focus on our marriage. As only God could arrange, the speakers, a husband and wife team from Florida, shared their testimony. They spoke of God’s goodness when their 7½-month-old son drowned, when she briefly stepped away from the tub she was bathing him and his older sister in. We thought we were there for our marriage, and that certainly was a huge part of it, but God’s providence is so much bigger and more amazing then we can ever hope for. As that couple shared their story and showed a picture of their family now, 30+ years, 12 children and a strong, godly marriage later, we were filled with hope. Tears streamed down our faces in indescribable relief, joy, shared sorrow and pain. We were able to speak to the couple in private and a whole team of people prayed over us. She gave us a few books and bought us Starbucks. She spoke life into me and warned me about the guilt I was carrying. She told me it was an accident. She said, “Let’s just say it was your fault. God forgives you. You have to forgive yourself. You can’t carry this burden.” She cried with me and encouraged me. She told us that we couldn’t let this stop us from growing our family, if that was what God had for us. She was the epitome of me surviving this. She was the person I had been searching for. A person who could understand what I was going through. She was my gift from God. We left that weekend with renewed unity in our marriage and hope for the future.

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Weekend To Remember ~ April 2012

Grief is a funny thing and it rears its ugly head when you least expect it. For some, it’s anniversaries or birthdays that trigger. For me, the biggest trigger was that first Mother’s Day. On the eve of that Sunday, I laid awake in bed, mourning the loss of the sweet baby who never had a chance to call me mommy. I sobbed, real, gut wrenching tears. I struggled with the idea of my family celebrating me in a way I didn’t deserve. I felt inadequate as a mother and undeserving as a wife. The pain was raw. My sweet family blessed me that Mother’s Day with breakfast in bed, tissue paper flowers and homemade cards. We spent a quiet day at a favorite park enjoying God’s beautiful creation. They blessed me that day and provided a salve for my wounded heart. God was giving me comfort through the love of my family.

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Mother’s Day 2012

Ben and I were learning to embrace the days and enjoy every moment as though it was our last. We were feeling convicted that we were trying to control our lives in the area of child bearing. We were learning a very clear lesson that God’s plans aren’t always our plans and that we needed to relinquish whatever control we thought we had. We were afraid of growing our family but we were feeling like we needed to put it in God’s hands and not allow fear to govern our decisions. We didn’t want to deny ourselves of any blessing God may have in store. With a huge amount of faith, we put our family in God’s hands, allowing him to work as he saw fit. With mixed emotions and tenacious trust, we found out we were pregnant again mid-July 2012, just two days after celebrating our son’s fourth birthday and what would have been Andrew’s first birthday. Again, as only God could do, He gave us two sons born on the same day. He knew that day would be hard for us, and gave us a reason to still celebrate. He thinks of everything!

As we settled into our new home and our newly established family values, it was clear we needed to find a church home. Praise God, there were several great options! We visited several churches but Ben’s aunt kept inviting us to visit her church. There was one problem. Her church was HUGE. We didn’t believe in big churches. We thought big churches were just showy and superficial. We didn’t think it would be possible to meet people and form the relationships we most desperately needed. However, because we love her, we agreed to visit from time to time and it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with the teaching, the worship and the atmosphere. The stereotypes we were placing on big churches was unfounded and proved wrong. We decided to become regular attendees and visited a Sunday School class in the fall of 2012. It was a class of couples who were married and parents of children around our own children’s ages. I immediately felt a stab of pain as the class went around the room introducing themselves. Each couple was to say their names and how many children they had. With reservation, I introduced us and said, “We have three children at home and one on the way.” I hadn’t figured out how to navigate that question. How many children did we have? We had five and one on the way but I couldn’t say that without explaining our whole life story. However, I did want to share our story and tell people about Andrew and explain our heartache. On the other hand, that isn’t always appropriate so I was still trying to figure it all out. I was bursting with sorrow but couldn’t let it out. However, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t bear to hold it in any longer. Through tears, we opened our aching hearts up to those precious people and shared of our loss and our uncertainties with our current pregnancy. Those people, basically strangers, got up out of their seats, surrounded us, put their hands on us, shed tears for us and offered up prayers on our behalf. The love of the body of Christ is such a beautiful thing to be a part of! To God be the glory! We continued to dive into involvement at church through volunteering and joining a community group. God used that church, and the precious people there, to raise us out of the depths and into life.

In March of 2013, on the weekend before the anniversary of losing Andrew, our church was hosting a women’s conference called Imagine Me Set Free. I attended that conference alone, looking forward to quiet time with the Lord and full focus on healing and preparing to face March 4th. The Lord met me there and, at the foot of the cross, I was able to relinquish the guilt I was carrying. John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” I yearned for that abundant life, a life not governed by guilt and shame. I renounced Satan and the lies he was telling me, and claimed God’s gift of abundant life through Jesus. I was set free!

We joyfully welcomed Lillyanna Faith into our family on March 22nd, 2013. She was named “Faith” after my own middle name and because it was with great faith that she was conceived and brought into this world. She is God’s grace in one little face. The joy and healing that Lillyanna brought is indescribable. God knows exactly what we need and when we need it.

The birth of daughter Lillyanna Faith was just another time of God showing us His grace. Lilly doesn’t fill the gap of our loss, but she is treasured as a true gift from God.

He is our great comforter and provider and it is good to rest in his plan. It brings great comfort to know that whatever comes our way, God’s hand is mighty and capable. To know his presence in the valley of the shadow of death is a true gift and there is nothing that compares to experiencing that love.

In April of 2014, Stephanie and I traveled with our oldest son to Haiti to spend a week at a crèche to care for babies, do some construction work and encourage the missionaries serving there. During this week, God opened our eyes to the huge need for adoptive families for the millions of orphans around the world. Again, we felt fear and doubt about this journey God would have us on but again, we put our trust in him and we’re walking the road of adoption, currently waiting for a referral. We have no idea how God will work out all the details and provide the money needed but we’ve found comfort in trusting God and are thankful to see him working out the details.

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Haiti 2014

As this story proves, God is in the business of taking care of details. Each encounter, each perfectly timed event, each element of our story was miraculously orchestrated by God. We want to remember these small details as we continue to trust Him to work out every facet of our future.

Over the last 3 years, I have realized my huge need for God and I thank him for the grace he has shown me throughout my life. By his grace I have been drug and alcohol free for 13 years. He has led me to join Bible studies, Sunday school classes and a small group, just to name a few. He has placed a desire in my heart to raise my children to be godly children. He has also placed very godly people in my life to keep me accountable and to teach me how to love God more and more. My love for God has grown by leaps and bounds since losing Andrew and I seek him every day through prayer and time in his word. I’m so thankful for a church that teaches me and encourages me in my walk with the Lord.

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By God’s Grace, Here We Are

By his amazing grace, God has redeemed and rescued our family. He has graciously given us hope and healing. He continues to walk with us and provide peace and comfort. We are now unified in our goal to serve God and love others. As a family, we appreciate our role in the church and in the body of Christ. The road has been hard and the pain has been real but He makes beauty from ashes and it is a blessing to have a front row seat. We know the risk of following God, but, by his grace, we will finish the journey well. We can’t wait to see how the rest of His story unfolds. What a privilege to serve a God who loves us so deeply.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4