Testimony Tuesday: Mary McIlvaine

This testimony is going to leave you humbled and amazed.  I’ve heard Mary give her testimony a couple of times, including once this afternoon.  Mary and her daughter Shannon are two of the reasons I became involved in Community Bible Study.  And I am so grateful that God used Mary and Shannon to draw me in, because CBS has been a huge blessing in my life and in the life of my whole family!

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For the first thirty years of my life, I was happily going my own way: busy wife and mother — self-sufficient person with few serious thoughts toward the real meaning of life.  It took a tragedy in my family to wake me up.

My heart was broken and my pleasant world shattered one night when my high school age brother took my five-week-old baby daughter from me and, before my eyes, battered her nearly to death.  He was in my home because I was trying to help him recover from the heavy use of drugs.  Frustration at his inability to cope had overwhelmed him and he grabbed from my arms my most precious possession.  With all the hatred of Satan he threw her into the walls and floor, beating her in ways that cannot be described.

My husband and I grappled with him, trying to stop him, trying to get hold of the baby, but we were not able to do so.  My husband ran to the garage to get a tool to use as a weapon to subdue my crazed brother.  When he arrived back on this scene of terror, in his panic, he only added to the tragedy.  We were struggling in the unlit dining room between the table and the wall.  The confusion was great and the visibility low.  Mistaking me for my brother, my husband hit me four times in the head with the blunt end of an axe.  Only God’s intervention can explain the fact that Jim was finally able to push my brother out of the house.

Alone in the emergency room, I was desperately trying to grasp what had happened — needing someone to comfort me.  How could this have come about?  How could God have let this happen to me…to my five-week-old baby, Rebecca?  If only…what if…WHY, GOD??!  Words cannot describe the agony of my thoughts at that moment.  My feeling toward my brother was uncontrollable hatred.  Anger, fear, self-pity, bitterness took turns gripping my soul.  As my husband answered police interrogations and frantically ran between Rebecca in Pediatric Intensive Care and me in the emergency room, I was certain my baby was dead.  I thought I might die, and I didn’t care.

News of something like this travels fast.  A lot of people were alarmed, most were sympathetic, but a few were moved to prayer for us.  Without my knowing it at the time, a friend contacted a prayer chain which was activated for Rebecca and myself.  At a time when I could not pray, God raised up intercessors and the miracle began to happen.

After two weeks in Intensive Care, the Lord had healed Rebecca enough to go home with her daddy and me.  She had endured three subdural taps to relieve the blood fluid from her brain, one spinal tap, grand-mal and petit-mal seizures and brain damage.  Her head was the size of an adult’s, and her comatose state had kept me in fear of her inevitable death.

The wonderful news is that God worked the impossible and healed her.  There is no residual damage, thanks to my sweet Lord.  [Today Rebecca is the healthy mother of two]

The miracle of my new life did not happen as quickly.  Six months after this nightmare, I broke down from the strain of it all.  I still had not met Jesus as my Lord, still was was looking for answers, still had to come to the knowledge of the fullness of life.  I went into chronic depression that lasted over eighteen months.  My pride was proving to be a hard shell for the Lord to crack.

The process leading to my rebirth was one of personal suffering and mental agony.  Psychiatry and drugs were not working for me; they produced no relief.  When a friend asked me if I wanted to go to Bible study with her as a guest and told me that “Jesus Christ is the best psychiatrist,” I thought: “Why not?  What was there to lose?”

What I found at CBS was a caring group of women, and a peaceful, loving environment — a place to rest once a week.  However, the Holy Spirit was working within me.  For the first time in my life, I began to study God’s Word as we worked our way through the Gospel of John.  As I let His Word get into me, the Lord began to renew my mind and replace the despair of my soul with the life that comes from His Spirit.  I gave my life to Jesus Christ, and I have been trusting Him to be my Lord ever since.  My days now overflow with love and joy.

Today that same brother is a disciple of Jesus!  He drew great strength from the forgiveness for himself from God.  My wonderful husband has also discovered the peace that passes understanding through having been called by God to new life in Christ.

Praise the Lord, He never changes, but thank God we can and do!!!

Jackson 5 Friday: Chasing Squirrels

Today is my husband’s thirty-ninth birthday.  Obviously there are many things that I love about Will — but one attribute that I feel is quite uncommon is his utter abandon in situations others might find embarrassing.  For example, when we were in college he had a sure fire way of brightening my day.  He chased squirrels.  I don’t know precisely how this began.  I think maybe some squirrels were somewhat aggressive on campus and he shooed one away one time.  I must have laughed at my six-foot-four boyfriend chasing the itty bitty fur ball around.  But he has always been willing to go to extremes to make me laugh, and I love that.

One day long ago, well before 9/11 when you could go through airport security to meet people at the gate (doesn’t that seem like the weirdest thing to do now?), we ran into a woman who was meeting her husband.  We were making a connection in this airport, but we knew this couple that lived in that city.  Such a small world sometimes.  Anyway, we knew them, but not well.  Not well at all.  Yet when this gentleman came walking off the airplane, Will declared that he was going to hug him.  The wife didn’t know what exactly to make of that, and so Will quickly made his way over to this unsuspecting man and gave him a bear hug.  He wouldn’t let go of him, the man, who was about seven inches shorter was just stuck in Will’s armpit clearly bewildered about what was going on, and so the wife started awkwardly yelling out, “It’s Will!  It’s Will!”  I can barely type this out because the memory of it is so funny to me.

So do I love Will Jackson because he loves Jesus, because he’s smart and interesting and well-read, because he works hard and is self-disciplined, because he loves our boys and is a great daddy?  Of course, I do.  But I think my primary love language is laughter, and so I am eternally grateful that Will Jackson speaks it so fluently!

Testimony Tuesday: Sara Jackson

Sara is my fun and lovely sister-in-law.  I know you’ll enjoy hearing her story and her heart for adoption.

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In middle school, I attended a youth service at a Baptist church with a girlfriend from my dance studio.  The message was about making peace with God and it was the first time I heard that I could be saved by accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  At the end of the service there was an altar call and although I did not physically go to the altar, my heart did and I prayed for Jesus to become my Savior.

But I can’t say my life changed much.  My high school and college years were all about me — my wants and desires were first and foremost.  Being a planner by nature, I was convinced I could map out my life, and things were actually going pretty smoothly.  After college graduation I obtained a great job, had many wonderful friends and parents who loved me unconditionally.   My relationship with my Savior was on the back burner and I only looked to Him when things weren’t going quite as I had planned.

A few years later I began dating my husband, Tom.  Attending church with him helped me to understand what a real relationship with my Savior could look like.  I re-committed my life to Jesus and was excited about a renewed sense of being and purpose.  Tom and I began planning our lives together and enjoyed dreaming about where we’d live and all things we’d do.

Just sixteen months after our wedding, we were blessed with a healthy and beautiful baby girl, Olivia.  Being a mom gave me a whole new joy in my life and my joy doubled when our second daughter, Sydney, was born two years later.  Our hearts and home were full and life was good.

With two healthy biological children, we began praying for God’s clear direction for our family.  We wanted to have more children and were open to the possibility of adoption.  It was during this time I remember watching a clip of Lysa TerKeurst from Proverbs 31 Ministries on the Oprah Winfrey show about her adoption of two boys from a Liberian choir. TerKeurst’s friends and community were inspired by her actions and ended up adopting the remaining 44 boys from the choir.   Her story moved me to tears and I knew then and there that we would adopt a boy from Africa.

Our adoption research lead us to America World Adoption’s Ethiopia program.  Once we were accepted, I tackled the massive paperwork head-on, determined to get it completed in record time.  But God quickly reminded me through the ups and downs and twists and turns of international adoption that He is in control.  Our adoption would happen in His perfect timing, and I was learning to trust His sovereignty.

I remember seeing our son’s picture for the first time and being overwhelmed that this child would be joining our family.  Despite knowing we were led to adopt Silas, there were times when I wondered about the changes ahead and how the unknowns would impact our already “perfect” family.   Yet God has shown me so much through our adoption journey.  I have the gift of looking back and seeing that His timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  I am struck that submission to His will is the only way.  Silas completes our family (at least for now!), and I can’t imagine life without him.

In addition, our time spent in Ethiopia, meeting and bringing home our son, was
life-changing.  God opened our hearts and eyes to the “least of
these” (Matthew 25:40).  And as Proverbs suggests once we see the need, we can’t act like we do not know.  Tom and I recognize that we are responsible for acting (24:12).  My prayer is that I will never forget all that we saw and experienced in our son’s birth country and that God will use me to be a voice for the over 147 million orphans in the world today and encourage others to “look after orphans in their distress”  (James 1:27).

Adopting Silas has given our family a whole new perspective.  We’ve been given a platform for sharing our faith and for adoption advocacy.  When I look back on my life thus far I am continuously reminded that when I put my wants and desires aside and surrender fully to Him, His blessings always overflow.   My hope and trust remains in my Lord and Savior and I know as long as I’m seeking His will for my life I don’t need a plan.

If you’ve ever considered adoption or would like more information on adoption,
visit our blog at www.soontobejackson5.blogspot.com

Jackson 5 Friday: Loving Sammy Jackson

I realize that I am in no way objective about this child, but I really think he’s about the cutest thing I have ever seen.  And it’s a good thing too.  Because as much as he is capable of being angelic, as cute and cuddly as he is, he can also be a bad, sassy little Sammy.

For example, if you go through your day giving Sammy everything he wants, when he wants it and carefully watch your tongue to ensure that you do not utter the word “no,” you will encounter a well-behaved, grateful little boy.  But, ah, if you make the mistake of enforcing your own agenda on him, if you make him get dressed, or eat his sausage at the table instead of on the couch, or if you suggest he go to the bathroom without your assistance, if you dare to tell him he cannot watch Toy Story again, well then you will encounter a very different child.  One that yells, one that argues, one with impressive tenacity in any and all battles of attrition.  And if you attempt to get him to wear something other than an NFL jersey, most days it must be the Redskins, then you are in for a treat.  You will see theatrics that Broadway simply cannot replicate, you will see a pouting lip protrude further than you thought possible, you will see anger and fury and hurt rolled into one little expression.  You will meet Sassy Sammy Jackson.

What does it look like to love this child?  Does loving him mean giving him everything he wants.  Should I be ready to do whatever he requests, whenever he requests it?  Of course not!  That would be the opposite of loving him, that would be showing no regard for what kind of a person he will ultimately be.  The loving thing to do, and the thing I do do, however imperfectly, is to discipline him.  As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

If I discipline my child because I love him, why do we sometimes have a hard time accepting the discipline of our Heavenly Father?  Unlike any of us, He is a perfect parent.  He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” When we are disciplined we can rest assured that we need it. He’s not overreacting or embarrassed or fed up.  He has not “about had it.”  He is not hormonal.  He has not had a bad day.  He is not transferring anger from work.  He is not just a little stressed out from sitting in traffic.  He is not tired of picking up legos or crumbs or board games.  He is not sleep-deprived, caffeine deprived, or practically dehydrated.

In all things God has one motivation and one motivation only: Love.  Next time we face discipline in our lives may we recognize it for what it is: the loving direction of a devoted, holy and perfect Father.

Testimony Tuesday: Stacey Laho

The testimony below is one of God’s sustaining grace in times of unfathomable sorrow.  I know you will be blessed to know Stacey’s story.

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There is a story in the Bible telling of a man desperate for his son to healed.  When he meets Jesus, Jesus tells him, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  The man humbly replies, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9: 23-24). This passage, one of my favorites, is a picture of my Christian walk which began twenty-nine years ago.

Dr. Lew, a survivor of the holocaust and former rabbi, led a small mission in Southfield, Michigan.  My dad, who had been raised Christian, had started going to the mission on Friday nights; he tried to convince my Jewish mother to go too, but she wasn’t interested. Since I strongly sensed God’s presence in my life and yet did not know how to please Him, I joined my dad.  I remember Dr. Lew asking if I wanted to ask Jesus to forgive me of my sin.  At thirteen, I stood in front of a small crowd to declare my need for Jesus – a decision I have never regretted.

Years later I found myself living my dreams — wife to a devoted husband and mother to three exceptional children. Even with the birth of our second child, Alisha, who came into this world with multiple severe physical and mental challenges, I embraced my calling in life. I loved my family, my roles, and the challenges which allowed me to daily call on God. I really believed I was living and working out my salvation. Daily starting my day with quiet time and prayer, driving my children to their Christian school, serving in the special needs community and fellowshipping at church and with our couples’ small group gave me a sense I was doing things “right.”

And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things — I do believe God desires my full participation, obedience and attention in His kingdom work. However, living a formula never leads to an authentic relationship with God, which brings me to the “unbelieving” part of my journey.

Fall of 2002, our eleven year old son Kodey, grew increasingly ill from what seemed to be a typical virus. After several trips to the pediatrician with no answers and my usually active boy growing anxious and sicker, I found myself in an emergency room weakly convincing him he would perk up after a few hours of intravenous fluids.  Several tests and hours later, my doubts crept in, this virus was not typical.  An EKG revealed Kodey’s heart was beating erratically. Blurs of unfamiliar people filled the room. A nurse asked me if she could call someone for me and for a brief moment, I snapped back to reality to make the call to my husband telling him to meet us in intensive care.

A cardiac team worked all night trying to stabilize Kodey’s heart. A life support machine kept him alive while we waited for his heart to respond.  We were told to think about a heart transplant.

Days went by, I felt further and further from God.  I couldn’t even find words, except for “please, heal him.”  Confused by the reality I found our family in, I began pleading for answers.  I thought caring for a disabled child was enough on anyone’s plate.

People all over the country were praying for Kodey, and I felt encouraged by their prayers.  But after three days on life-support, Kodey sustained a massive brain stroke. All hope of a transplant vanished as did my encouragement. God’s plan seemed cruel and wrong.

After three more days of tests and evaluations, not one doctor gave us any hope for his heart to be restored. The inevitable choice lay in front of us: disconnect life-support. On October 17, 2002 we said our earthly goodbye to our precious son.

The next years were a painful immersion into the journey of grief with God. It took deliberate steps to enter the pain of loss and admit my anger with God, but doing so presented opportunity to be transformed from a listless existence to one of hope. Boldly I sought God in my pain. It felt like I placed my naked, beaten body at His feet and said, “Now what do you want to do to me?”  Deepening my relationship with Jesus required transparency, surrender, and an obedience born out of His love for me.

Four years had passed since Kodey’s death when our daughter Alisha required spinal fusion surgery. We knew the surgery might require time in the intensive care unit, and the thought of returning to the place where Kodey died brought enormous anxiety and depression. Fervently I prayed for God to spare all of us from going there. The day of surgery went incredibly well, Alisha escaped a stay in intensive care and I sang God’s praises for remembering us! However, twenty-four hours later Alisha exhibited respiratory difficulties. Hospital staff worked to alleviate her new symptoms but could not stop the progression of the mysterious downturn. Before we knew what was happening, intensive care doctors arrived on the scene to escort her rapidly to the unit. My husband and I, unbelieving, followed the team to the ICU floor, to the exact same pod, and the exact same bed where our son died. We were then asked to step into the exact same consultation room to wait while doctors tried to save our daughter’s life.

The surreal moment brought only one clear thought which I verbalized to my husband, “God is going to heal her. That is the only reason God allowed this.” We were paused for hours to know if this would be the reality. A doctor finally opened the door to joyfully inform us Alisha would live. He expressed personal confusion as to how five life-threatening conditions suddenly developed while we sat in the hospital.  The answer to that never was fully uncovered but something else was for me.

God revealed to me that day that He remembers us in our pain, and that to further His kingdom, He works far beyond our understanding.  His message to me was, “I remember how painful this place was, but I need to place you back here to save your sweet girl.” That day he graciously allowed me to see a glimpse into the bigger picture, while restoring my trust.  I am so thankful that He never asks us to get it “right” in order for Him to show up.

I will never control or know the outcomes of life, yet I am called to trust God in all circumstances. More heartaches are inevitable, and I have not conquered once and for all this collision of belief and unbelief.  Praise God the invitation to engage my Savior and Lord always stands.

Jackson 5 Friday: Letting Them Out of Their Box

I’ve often joked that my first born son is a clone.  Sure I gave birth to him, but he doesn’t look like me, he doesn’t think like me — there is essentially no evidence that he’s my son.  Instead, in many respects, he is a nine-year-old version of my husband.  This is fantastic news…mostly!

My second son, Nate, was not so lucky, because there’s abundant proof this one is mine. Nate looks something like me, he thinks a lot like I do, and his sense of humor is similar to mine.  Nate is much more of a roll-with-it guy than his older brother, but his roll-with-it-ness is pretty extreme, pretty slovenly really.  He doesn’t care one iota if his face is covered with chocolate or dirt or that he’s sporting a red gatorade mustache for days.  He wouldn’t think of being embarrassed about it.  He loses things constantly, his homework is often crumbled and stained, and he doesn’t throw away his trash.  And unfortunately, I have to take full responsibility for him.  We sometimes get frustrated with him (like the other day when he came strolling out of the bathroom after a rather extended visit carrying a box of Cheez-Its — yes, it’s true, and yes, of course, we pray for his wife!), but the truth is I can relate to almost everything about him.  And he is a total joy to be around.  In fact today I am taking him to an appointment while the other boys are in school, and I am looking forward to some time with just my Natey Boy.

But since my boys are all so different I could almost sort them into boxes.  Oh this one is sensitive, this one is aloof, this one is x, y, or z.  But God is gracious to remind me that they don’t fit into boxes.  At all!  Instead of being clones, they are full of surprises.

For example, Nate once surprised us in a really sweet way.  We were having dinner at the kitchen table, and a child we had all known was mentioned.  Nate’s face grew serious at the mere mention of this child’s name.  And of course this look of concern piqued our interest.  After a few questions, Nate  — easy, breezy, Nate — burst into tears and cried out, “I don’t think he had any friends!”  He was absolutely distraught about this child’s lack of friends.  Not only did it touch my heart that not-a-care-in-the-world Nate would be so compassionate about a child he only knew very tangentially, but it was a stark reminder that I cannot classify or predict these boys.

I can’t tell you how this encourages my heart.  It means that even though Nate has many of my strengths and many of my flaws.  He’s NOT me!  Thank you, Lord Jesus.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you!

Theological Thursday: Letter v. Spirit, Outward v. Inward

I’ve been studying the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount on and off now for a few weeks, and although I am struck by a few overall principles which I’ll discuss below, I am also struck by how much is really in this Sermon.  Hence, I am committing to reading Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 everyday until Christmas.  I figure this is a great way to anticipate the birth of my Lord and Savior.  Will you commit to reading this foundational sermon everyday for the next six weeks as well?  The links above are from the NIV, but BibleGateway has many different versions to choose from.  I am going to try to read from a variety of translations along the way.

Reading this Scripture each day will undoubtedly lead to some detailed lessons, but for today let’s begin with the overarching themes.   First is Jesus’ emphasis on catching the spirit of the law, instead of following the letter.  Jesus says you’ve heard it said, “do not murder” but I’m telling you having contempt for someone is just the same.  You’ve heard it said, “do not commit adultery,” but I’m telling you lusting is just as bad.  Jesus is adamant that obedience is vital in the life of the believer, and he uses extreme examples to illustrate his point.  Checking the box of obedience in a technical way is obviously not what He’s looking for.  He requires much, much more!

How odd is it then that our culture sometimes uses the dichotomy of spirit versus letter to justify breaking the letter of the law?  Certainly, the laws of mere mortals are not the Mosaic Law, but I fear this kind of rationalization may blur our thinking.  May we not forget that Jesus’ call to obedience is absolutely radical.  In fact, that is a really great word for this whole sermon, isn’t it?  Radical.

The second major tenet of Jesus’ sermon is that God looks at the heart.  Hardly a surprise, given that the Old Testament heralds the great importance of the heart throughout (Deuteronomy 6:5, Samuel 16:7, Psalm 19:14).  Yet somehow we continue to fall away from this truth.  It’s as if we have a default mode that keeps popping up telling us that outward behavior is enough.  But Jesus couldn’t  be clearer: our hearts must be pure.   All that ugly stuff in my heart like bitterness, unforgiveness, selfish ambition, materialism that I’ve kicked under the bed like a child “cleaning” his room?  Jesus says that stuff matters.  It needs to be addressed, cleaned up, wiped out.

The great news is that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to help us, because living by the spirit of the law and not just the letter would be impossible on our own.  And cleaning out the heart, purifying the inward so the outward is pure too?  Yes, the Holy Spirit is there to help with that too.

Yes, the call is radical, but our Counselor is divine.