Monday, December 21, 2020

Against All Odds - Peace (Caden & Atticus' Story)

 We never know, do we? 

 

We never know when we’ll step into those unprecedented moments that forever divide life into two categories.  

 

Before and after.   

 

One moment holds carefree, blessed normality… but with the ringing of a telephone or the knock on the door or a note on the table, everything changes.

 

Forever.

 

Leaving us never the same as we were only a moment before.  After all, we cannot endure trauma and come out the other side unscathed.

 

But I am a firm believer that hidden in the agony of trauma, there is redemptive beauty to be found.  After all, it is a well-documented fact that the God we serve has been known to bring beauty from ashes.  He restores that which is lost and brings healing to that which has been shattered.

 

Caden
 It was September 10th, when two families stepped into one of those moments where ‘before’ meets ‘after’.

 

The day started off with no hint as to what lay ahead.  Caden Owsley and Atticus Klopfenstein were heading home to Indiana after a dream hunting trip out west.  As they neared the Colorado/Nebraska border, the unthinkable happened.

 

Though they don’t remember the event itself, a witness reported that their truck left the road and began to roll.  Caden was ejected first.  Police estimated that he was thrown approximately 300 feet - the length of a football field. 

Atticus

Paramedics were on the scene in very short order and both Caden and Atticus were flown by helicopter back to Denver to receive medical attention.  In the meantime, police officers began sifting through the rubble trying to decipher what had happened, who these two guys were… and who they needed to call.

 

It was late evening before the phone rang in Indiana.  A call that every parent dreads.  Words that alter your plans, rob you of sleep and send cold fear coursing through your veins. 

 

The laundry list of injuries to both boys brought more questions than answers to their families back home.  As Caden and Atticus lay fighting for their lives in Denver, their parents rushed to book flights, pack bags and begging God to give them time to reach their sons.

 

What does a parent say in moments like this?  When we long for control but surrender is demanded?  How do you remain strong in the moments where panic and fear and memories and what-ifs swirl fast around you with no easy solution to right the wrong? 

 

And why must the night hours last so long with no choice but to live them? 

 

For Atticus’ parents, Jon and Erica, words were few as their minds reeled with the news they had just received about their firstborn son.  His injuries were extensive - a traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures to his cervical and thoracic spine, a broken sternum, broken ribs, lacerations and many bruised organs.  

 

They sat quietly on the plane wondering what he would look like. Would he ever be the same again?  Would he even survive?  

 

Caden’s parent’s, Russ and Shay, also sat in shock at the news remembering the words from his doctor. “Caden has a fractured C7 that is putting stress on his cervical spine and it’s causing him to be paralyzed,” he said.  The words felt like a punch in the gut.  But the doctor wasn’t finished.  “He also has bruised lungs, his spleen is bleeding, his kidney is lacerated, he has a bruised pancreas, open book pelvic fracture, rib fracture… and he has yet to wake up.”

 

The amount of damage to both Caden and Atticus was mind boggling leaving everyone wondering what lay ahead for both young men.

 

That first night was a blur of questions, fear, plans to be made and a trip to take.  As the sun peeked over the horizon that morning, both sets of parents were on an early flight out of Chicago willing to hours to pass quickly.

 

They arrived in Denver that afternoon.  For both parents, that first sight felt of their sons lying so still… the tubes and the wires and the machines.  It was all so much to take in.  Still so many unknowns.   

 

Atticus
For the Klopfenstein’s, that first week was met by numerous setbacks.  Results from all of Atticus’ injuries were still coming in causing plans to change as doctors studied the situation and tried to come up with a game plan.

 

Surgery was scheduled for Atticus’ spine but then cancelled the morning of the surgery when it was discovered that he had multiple blood clots in his lungs.  This surgery, which was needed to stabilize his thoracic fractures was cancelled three more times – each one bringing yet another wave of disappointment.

 

Of great concern was the uncertainty as to the extent of the brain injury Atticus had sustained.  The best doctors could offer Jon and Erica was that they would simply have to “wait and see”.  And so the questions that had taken up residence in their minds with the ringing of the telephone that Thursday night would have to remain longer than they had anticipated.  Yet in the waiting, they would come to rely heavily on the promises of God in the coming hours and days.

 

He was their hope.  He was their peace.

 

As Jon and Erica waited at Atticus’ bedside, down the hall Russell and Shay were coming to terms with Caden’s injuries as well.

 

The injury to his spine was a big one.  

 

Paralysis.

 

Caden
Russ and Shay found themselves in a world they knew little about as doctors filled them in on both the short and long term effects of Caden's condition.  They watched him sleep and asked God how they would ever be able to break the news to their son that the doctors had said he would never walk again.  The thought was unimaginable!  Caden had always been an avid outdoorsman with a passion for hunting.  How would this affect his life?

 

As they waited for answers, Caden would wake occasionally, confused by his surroundings, the lack of feeling in his legs and a burning question on his mind – “where are my guns?”

 

That question alone brought tears of joy.  The road ahead was long, uncertain and one they’d never travelled before.  But against all odds, Caden would be traveling it with them – and that was enough.  “I’d take this situation any day, Caden,” Shay once told him, “because these difficulties we’re facing now means that I get to have you here with me.  And I would take this any day over having to bury my son.” 

 

That first week in Colorado was filled with a multitude of God moments.  In the midst of all the fear and confusion, God continually made His presence known to both families.  Looking back now, the list stretches back before the accident even happened.

 

And what began as an irritation between Russell and Shay would come full circle and prove to be the hand of God a year earlier.

 

In 2019, Russ was also planning a hunting trip to Colorado but something wasn’t setting right in Shay’s spirit.  She couldn’t explain it, but she felt like something bad was going to happen in Colorado.  Worried at what that something might be, she decided to hold the house payment in order to have cash available if the need should arise.

 

The trip went according to plan so the payment was made and life went on.  Then came August 2020 when the Owsley’s had the opportunity to purchase an acre of land behind their house.  But that missed payment from the year before caused financing to fall through. 

 

They would have to wait. 

 

They were disappointed, but there was nothing more they could do but hold off until the end of the year when they would once again be eligible for a loan.   Now, with the crystal clear hindsight of 2020 vision, they could see that God had indeed spoken to Shay.  Something bad did happen in Colorado – just not when she thought it would.  


That prompting from the Lord put a hold on their finances and kept them from having a higher mortgage payment at a time when they would be needing the extra cash more than ever.

 

It proved once again that all things do work together for good – it’s just not always easy to see in the moment.

 

Back in Atticus’ room, the Klopfensteins were still waiting for his surgery, along with the questions of what, if any, lasting affects he would encounter from his brain injury.  The list of possible outcomes was long.  Many unsettling.

 

The right side of his brain stem had bruising on it, plus doctors had found approximately a dozen small bleeds on the brain due to axons in the brain being completely sheared off.  With these injuries, the outcome could range from mild deficits in his motor skills, memory and intellectual abilities to extreme life altering deficits and even coma leading to death.

 

Answers would be slow in coming, but the Klopfensteins have a personal relationship with the Great Physician so they, along with many of you, brought Atticus before God over and over as they waited for answers.

 

On September 24th, the long-awaited surgery on his spine finally happened.  And like the Owsley’s, the Klopfensteins could now see the reason God had them endure all those cancellations in the previous weeks. Though the waiting was difficult and disappointing in the moment, the waiting had also give Atticus’ body time to heal and strengthen itself for the surgery. Even to the point that he could sign his own release forms.

 

One day, Jon and Russell sat together, discussing the many ways they had seen God step into their situation.  The two fathers couldn’t help but stand in awe at the many ways, both big and small, that God had intervened on behalf of their sons.

 

They took into account where the accident had happened.  The road was in a remote location with very little traffic.  Yet, one person was there to witness the accident and call for help.

 

In spite of the desolate area, first responders arrived on the scene in short order.  Their quick response and early detection as to the seriousness of the boys’ injuries was life saving.

 

Though they were close to the Colorado/Nebraska border the location of the accident had EMT’s electing to air lift both Caden and Atticus to Swedish Hospital in Denver – which happens to be the only level one trauma unit in Colorado.

 

Erica testifies that the staff was undeniably handpicked by God.  Their knowledge, expertise and words of truth and encouragement kept them moving forward through all the trauma and uncertainty.

 

God also stepped in when the parents first arrived in Colorado, uncertain as to how long they would be staying.  Yet God lead Atticus’ sister, Emory (still back home in Indiana) to connect with the owner of an AirBnB near the hospital who not only gave them a discounted price for the use of the home, but also made a special shopping trip for various supplies before they arrived.  

 


God stepped in and provided a way to transport their vehicles from home to Colorado.  Their vehicles arrived just hours before they needed to return their rental car.  Small details, but it’s often those simple things that feel like a warm hug and reminder from God that He holds all things in His capable hands.

 

God stepped in through the community coming together to complete the farm work while Jon was away.


Photo Credit: Keith James

(Keith took these photos of local farmers raking hay for the Klopfensteins while they were in Colorado.  This was during the western fires which made the sunset colors more brilliant.)



He stepped in through the provision of a world class therapy facility which was located next door to Swedish Hospital.  It’s worth noting that Craig Hospital specializes in two things – spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.  God had Caden and Atticus right where they needed to be.

 

Because of the medical professionals and the hand of God guiding each and every situation, both boys are making miraculous recoveries.  They have shattered all expectations of time.  Even the level of recovery that they have made is remarkable.

 

For example, Atticus was released in early October while Caden was to remain in Colorado until February. But good news came in November that Caden would be able to go home to visit over Thanksgiving.  As they made arrangements for the trip home, doctors hoped Caden’s new wheelchair would arrive before the trip but the possibility of that seemed unlikely. 

 

The following day, Caden was met at the door of his therapy session by staff talking about the Thanksgiving miracle - his chair had arrived.  And it would prove to be perfect timing because suddenly COVID was shutting down the state and Caden’s outpatient therapy was transferred from Colorado to Indiana.  

 

He was coming home to stay – and they are both here with us today! 

 

As of today, Atticus’ broken sternum and ribs are fully healed.  

 

And the brain injury?  The one with the mild to extreme life altering possibilities?

 

He has none!

 

There is no explanation other than the fact that God, against all odds, stepped in.

 

A test this week did reveal that he has only had minimal to moderate healing in his vertebrae thus far but we trust that God is more than capable to step into that situation yet as well.

 

As for Caden, he surprised his doctors and nurses with how quickly he has progressed through rehab. Doctors at Craig were determined to help Caden become self-sufficient.  They lead him through the process of learning to do everything from getting dressed to transferring his body from a wheelchair to a vehicle to driving and even shooting his beloved guns.

 

Like Atticus, a majority of Caden’s injuries have completely healed.

 

Yes, the paralysis is still there, but things are happening.  The first was a slight sensation Caden felt on his legs while still in the hospital.  Then there was the feeling of a temperature change and the weight of a blanket.  Since arriving at home, those changes have seemed to stall, so when praying for Atticus’ vertebrae, let us pray for continued healing for Cadon as well.

 

In spite of his situation, Caden has a reputation with his doctors and nurses.  One nurse recently contacted Russell with this message.  “It was refreshing to have a patient who radiates gratitude.” She said, “He could be bitter and have a totally different attitude with everything he has been through, yet he still has a good attitude. Just want you to know that you have raised an amazing son.”

 

This past week, Caden was back out doing what he loves – hunting.  He hasn’t let the weight of his situation keep him from learning to adjust and move forward in life.


Our church family has been given a gift in knowing these two men of God and their families.  They encourage and inspire us.


This experience has taught us to pray bigger prayers even as we encounter His peace in the middle of the unknown.

 

Their story, along with the Brumbaughs, the Gagnes, Jack and Mary Ellen Smith and Wayne and Dawn Carter are all testimonies of the ways that God has stepped into the lives of our church family this past year.  Through them, we are reminded that God sees us in our place of desperation and comes to our rescue.  Through them we can see that He doesn’t always step in and remove the trouble we are facing, but rather He leads us through it even as He strengthens us each step of the way.

 

Many of us are living out stories of our own right this minute.  Will you join me as we invite the Savior of the World to come and fill our hearts with peace this Advent season.  And let us thank God, who against all the odds of 2020, has stepped into our own lives in so many wonderful ways.

 

Klopfenstein Family
Photo Credit: Keith James



Owsley Family





















 

Against All Odds - Hope (Smith & Carter Story)

 Hope.  It’s a powerful thing.  

 

It energizes the weary, encourages those in despair and empowers the fearful to rise up and fight another day.

 

Hope is life giving.

 

It quiets the mind’s frantic thoughts.  It searches the heart of God and returns confident that He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it.  

 

Two men sit among us today – their stories similar, yet different.  Both have faced incredible difficulties.  Difficulties that threaten to knock the very breath from your body and leave you paralyzed with fear.  But hidden among the struggles of these two men and their families, we find reasons to hope.


Wayne & Jack together at church


 

Their testimonies remind us this Christmas season that no matter how great the battle, hope can always be found.  Sometimes we just have to step away from the noise and strengthen ourselves in the Lord in order to be reminded of the hope that only God can give.

 

It was 2018 when they both came face to face with the ugly giant called cancer.

 

For Wayne Carter, it came in the form of Non-Hodgkins Follicular Lymphoma.  While reviewing the diagnosis with Wayne and his wife, Dawn, doctors told them that the cancer was asymptomatic and he could go a lifetime without treatment being required.

 

But in September 2019, the cancer became aggressive.  Scared and uncertain, Wayne and Dawn reached out to his oncologist.  To their dismay, they learned that now, when they needed him most, their oncologist had left the practice with no one to replace him.

 

Time was not on Wayne’s side.  His primary care physician was extremely concerned and told Dawn that Wayne’s life was in very real danger and would need help within the next few days.

 

Helpless, Wayne and Dawn prayed.

 

On Wednesday of that week, Dawn went to the FFM Women’s Bible study where she met a woman named Mary Ellen Smith. Through conversation, she discovered that Mary Ellen’s husband, Jack, was also battling cancer.  Hearing of Wayne’s dilemma, Mary Ellen suggested that Dawn contact Goshen Cancer Center where Jack had been going for treatment.

 

The following morning, Dawn called GCC and to her amazement, Wayne was being seen by an oncologist within 48 hours!

 

Time was critical.  Over the next five days, Wayne had a biopsy, a CT scan, a port placed in his chest and his first dose of chemotherapy.  Things like this don’t often happen so quickly – but God was going before them and opening doors they couldn’t have opened on their own.

 

As Wayne began the seven cycles of his chemotherapy schedule, Dawn was facing a battle of her own.  Fear and doubt filled her mind.

 

“Why?”  She asked.  “Why would Jesus give her her beloved husband, only to take him back?”  This isn’t how gift giving works!

 

Dawn’s questions were left unanswered as she sat with Wayne through his first round of chemo.  Sometimes the answers we long to hear are slow in coming so all Dawn could do, was wait.

 

Wayne’s body did not respond well to the chemo.  During his first round, treatment was stopped early in order to deal with the severe reaction his body was having to the strong medications.

 

Through the following days and weeks, the weight of their situation hung heavy over their home.

 

Wayne lost his hair and experienced a variety of other side effects from the chemo treatments.  And then the bills started arriving in the mail.  Each chemo treatment produced a bill of $80,000.00 and with seven cycles to Wayne’s treatment the cost was staggering.  Some bills were so high that if the Carters sold everything they owned, they would still be unable to cover the costs.

 

In spite of Wayne’s health condition, both he and Dawn were able to continue working, grateful for the medical insurance which helped them navigate the mounting costs.







 

Through December 2019, the Carter’s felt the love of you, their church family, as they were blessed in various ways – a love offering, prayer support and a stack of fire wood to heat their home from their FFM Life Group.

 

Then came the last week of December.  Wayne got sick.  Each day he was more ill than the day before.  Though they had had plans to spend New Year’s Eve with their life group, instead they found themselves face down on their floor crying out for Jesus to spare Wayne’s life.

 

By now, Wayne was struggling to breathe and was unable to walk from one room to the next so their son, Ben, drove his father back down to GCC where they ran labs, various scans and a variety of tests until they were able to determine that Wayne had bacterial pneumonia which could be treated with an antibiotic.

 

Relieved, Dawn thanked God for once again sparing her husband’s life.

In February, more good news!  After the sixth round of chemo, Wayne’s PET scan returned with the exciting news that Wayne was cancer free! 

 

Feeling as though they could breathe again, the Carters jumped back into the welcome reality of normal life! They traveled, worked on projects around the house and cherished these days they had waited for so long.

 

But then, it was back. 

 

Only several months later, a PET scan revealed that the cancer had returned.  Cancer on its own is hard enough, the Carters already knew this.  But now they would be maneuvering the world of cancer with COVID in the mix.   No one would be allowed to go with Wayne for his chemo treatments, plus Dawn was not yet eligible for a family medical leave of absence.

 

As doctors discussed the next plan of attack, Wayne and Dawn’s son and daughter, Ben and Victoria, rearranged their work schedules in order to be able to take their father to his appointments – this time to Indianapolis in addition to the chemo appointments in Goshen.

 

This new regimen would be stronger with different and more difficult side effects.  Wayne was plagued by nausea, headaches, bone pain, fatigue and sleeplessness.  And since the chemo was given weekly, his body didn’t have time to recover before the next round was administered.  

 

Their days were mentally and physically trying – filled with moments of despair.

 

Without this treatment though, Wayne was told he had only 3 to 6 months to live.  And so, they pressed on.

 

Victoria encouraged her parents with the words from Isaiah 35:3 & 4 ‘With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.”’

 

You see, the Carters have learned that no matter what the outcome will be, cancer doesn’t get the last word.

 

During this hardest battle of their lives, Dawn had a vision of the monster called cancer coming before the throne of God.  As she watched, the very thing that looked big and ugly and scary, suddenly lost its ability to continue its reign of terror as it was cast into the lake of fire.

 

Cancer will bow to the name of Jesus!

 

Three times now, Wayne has been told he had months to live.  


But against all odds, God has stepped in.  Though none of us know what lies ahead, we can have hope that God is ready, willing and desiring to go through it with us!  He wants to be our peace, our comfort, our hope no matter how the story ends.

 

A year ago, Wayne and Dawn celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.  They couldn’t help but wonder if it would be their last.  But just this past week, they celebrated their 31st. anniversary.  

 

And though this past year has been difficult, God, in His kindness, also brought a ray of sunshine into their lives in June with the arrival of their grandson, Roman Wayne.  How like God to remind us of the hope new life brings through the birth of a child.

 


Wayne and Dawn, against the odds, you came through this past year.  It has been hard – but you persevered and you have discovered some amazing secrets – secrets you’re willing to share with us today.  (Married couples, we would do well to listen.)

 

Dawn, you admitted that though you wrestled with Jesus over your husband’s diagnosis, through it you have found peace because you have recognized that Wayne belongs to Jesus first. 

 

And while many struggle over petty disappointments, you two discovered the strength that is found in mornings spent reading the Word of God and praying together.

 

You learned that arguing over everyday things (like dishes left on the table) are moments wasted – moments you will never get back.  Moments that could be spent so much more wisely.

 

You learned that being in the desert doesn’t mean being apart from God.

 

And you were reminded that the prayers of the body of Christ are powerful and wonderful.

 

In fact, your journey has brought a friendship into your lives that has found added value because of cancer.  Your friendship with Jack and Mary Ellen Smith.  It is one that has been a source of encouragement and support.   Mary Ellen encouraged Dawn to connect with their oncologist in Indiana and later Dawn was able to help connect Mary Ellen with doctors at U of M.  Two wives linking arms and hearts as they help their husbands fight for their lives.  To watch them is inspiring.

 

Like Wayne, Jack had also received a cancer diagnosis in 2018.    

 

It was November 28, 2018 when the doctors told them the news.  Jack’s body had been invaded by an aggressive prostate cancer which had already metastasized and he was now in Stage 4. His PSA levels, which should normally read at 4 points or less was at a whopping 33.0.  

 

Mary Ellen and Jack sat in disbelief as they were told that Jack had approximately nine to twelve months to live.  Should the doctors be able to get the cancer under control, they could hope for three to three and a half years max.

 


Jack was given his first treatment of shots with hopes it would help lower his PSA and was sent home to wait until his next appointment.

 

Time seemed to stand still as the words swirled around them leaving them feeling as though the earth had swallowed them into a deep, dark hole.

 

The following days were much the same.  A heaviness loomed over them as doubt, fear and worry took up residence in their minds. 

 

By this time, Jack and Mary Ellen had been attending Firm Foundation Ministries for about two months.  Before the service, Pastor Don walked by and stopped to greet them. 

 

“How are you doing?” he asked.

 

“Fine,” Jack replied.

 

Mary Ellen burst into tears and said, “He just lied to you, Pastor Don.  Jack has stage 4 cancer and we are in a fight for his life!”  Pastor Don immediately prayed over the Jack and Mary Ellen.  That alone brought some measure of comfort.  

 

And then came worship.  Every song seemed as though it had been chosen specifically for them.  More heaviness lifted.

 

That Sunday, we lit an Advent candle and I wonder if God smiled that day.  For though the Smiths’ couldn’t have known, God knew.  He knew that we would be here, two years later telling their story and once again lighting that same Advent candle – the candle of hope. 

 

But on that day, two years ago, Jack and Mary Ellen didn’t have God’s perspective.  They couldn’t see today.  They could only place their hope in God and trust Him for the outcome. 

 

Like Advent, the message that day was focused on hope.  Several times throughout the sermon, Pastor Don pointed right at Jack and encouraged him to hope!  It felt as though the sermon had been tailor made for them!

 

After the service, a group of people surrounded the Smiths and asked God for a miracle for Jack.  They left church that morning feeling uplifted and renewed by the hope that had been poured into them.

 

The holidays were different that year – how could they not be when one spends their days gripping onto hope without any guarantees of what the new year would hold bring.  

 

Finally, it was January 10th and time for another doctor visit.  The doctor scratched his head in amazement.  While most patients with Jack’s type of cancer suffer from a variety of side effects, Jack had none.

 

On top of that, his PSA level had dropped from 33.0 to 3.72!  

 

Amazing!

 

Their doctor warned them to expect the PSA level to spike again.  

 

But it never has. 

 

In fact, in April of 2020, his PSA was summed up in one beautiful measurement - “undetectable”.

 

Mary Ellen remembered those life sentences and had to ask.  “So, what is Jack’s life expectancy now?”  And together they heard another beautiful word – ‘indefinitely!’

 

God stepped in.  

 

He stepped in and interrupted the expected outcome.  

 

He stepped in and filled Jack and Mary Ellen with hope even when they had nothing tangible to base their hopes on.

 

Nothing, that is, but their hope in the Lord.

 

And is there really anything better to build your hope on than a hope like only God can give?

 

Life hasn’t been perfect for Jack and Mary Ellen since that day this past April.  Jack’s cancer is undetectable but he has since developed non-stop gastrointestinal symptoms.  The effects of this has stolen much of his health and caused a myriad of complications.

 

Like Wayne, the setback came out of nowhere and threatens to wear one down emotionally more than the original diagnosis.

 

Yet, like the Carters, Jack and Mary Ellen used these long days of discomfort to develop a set time each day to read the word of God and pray together.  It has become a source of comfort and renewal.  According to them, this exercise alone has removed all concern because they recognized that they were going through this hardship for a reason.  They used their experiences to minister to others dealing with cancer and discovered that because of this, God was able to use them in ways they had never imagined.

 

Ironic, isn’t it?  How two couples who had everything to lose, stand here today and remind us of what really matters when all seems lost and you’re staring death in the face.

 

And if they, after all they’ve faced can still tell us to hope – then what’s our problem?  

 

We live in a world that is desperate for something to believe in.  To cling to.  To hope in. And we have a choice – feed on the false narratives of the enemy and let it dictate our mind, will and emotions.  Or renew our focus with the promises of who God is and discover the freedom that comes when we rest in that confidence.

 

This Christmas, let us remember to fix our eyes on Jesus.  To cut out anything in our lives that keeps us from finding hope in His presence.  For He is the author of life and the reason for our hope. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Against All Odds - Love (The Gagne Story)

As we celebrate Advent this year, we are looking within our church family to celebrate the ways that God, against all odds, stepped into our lives and revealed Himself in various ways.

 

Last week, we celebrated Joy and we talked about the fact that not every story will end the way we want it to – but that does not negate the fact that in spite of our personal desires, God does in fact still step in.

 

As a mother myself, I struggled to put words to paper this week.  There are so many emotions that we as parents wade through when facing challenges involving our children.

 

Yet, as I dug deeper into this story, I couldn’t deny that it is saturated in love and we will see it in so, so many ways.

 

Today I invite you all to meet a precious part of our church family.  Her name is Olivia.

 

It was still 2019 when Toni and Gary Gagne got the news.  They would soon be adding another child to their family.  With two older brothers and one sister, this little girl was the perfect addition to their family.

 

The timing had Toni feeling a little apprehensive as they had recently made the decision for Gary to join the Border Patrol.  He was set to leave for training soon so Toni was looking at long months alone raising their three children while pregnant with their fourth.

 


But then came a diagnosis they could have never imagined.

 

Trisomy 13 is a rare chromosome disorder characterized by having three copies of chromosome 13 in cells of the body rather than the usual 2 copies.

 

In Olivia’s case, Toni and Gary would soon learn that their daughter had an extensive list of abnormalities in her tiny body.  Doctors reviewed her case and used four words Olivia’s parents would never forget - “not compatible with life”.

 

Not compatible?

 

With life?

 

The words rocked Toni and Gary to the core.  Their daughter would not… could not live outside the safety of her mother’s womb.

 

Even as they absorbed the pain of a fatal diagnosis for Olivia, the doctor went on to suggest terminating the pregnancy.

 

Toni and Gary said no.

 

They would be asked to consider termination two more times throughout the pregnancy, but their answer remained the same.  Olivia had the right to live and they would fight for every precious moment her life had to offer them.

 

Christmas 2019 came and went and with it a mixture of pain and joy.  How would Toni be able to face the coming birth and death of their child without Gary by her side.  But then came a blessing in disguise.  As the airwaves became filled with the news of a pandemic, Gary got word that due to COVID-19, his training was being delayed.  


What the enemy meant for evil, God was using for good.

 

With the burden of Gary’s departure now off the table, they settled in to cherish each precious moment with their daughter and strengthened their souls for what lay ahead.

 

How does one prepare for both a birth and a death?   One would think the human mind incapable of comprehending the complexities of the one followed so closely by the next.

 

Over the coming weeks, God took Toni to a greater understanding of what love looks like.  To love with no guarantees.  To love, in spite of the outcome.  To love through all the unknowns.

 

God had entrusted this little life to Toni and Gary and they rose to the challenge.  Full heartedly they said “yes” to God.

 

Yes, they would love Olivia just as she was.

 

Yes, Toni would nurture her and give her life for as long as they could.

And yes, they would live a life of surrender.  They would trust God’s plans for their daughter – no matter what.

 

It causes one to wonder - did Mary, the mother of Jesus, did she too wrestle with the knowledge that her Baby was going to be born to die?

 

Did she too wrestle with the unknowns as well as the unwanted reality of what lay ahead?

 

Did she, like Toni, whisper a million “I love Yous” to the Child growing inside her belly, knowing full well that there was a fatal diagnosis which would call her Son to lay down His life for mankind?

 

Her life reveals that yes, she did.  She chose to love anyway and in so doing, welcomed the pain that comes with sacrifice.

 

They say it’s better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all.

 

This statement rang true on March 20, 2020, the world now in full pandemic mode.  Toni had carried Olivia to 38 weeks and was admitted to the hospital for induction.  Scared of what was to come, she begged for the opportunity to go home again as long as she promised to rest.  She wanted to stay pregnant forever.

 

Despite Olivia’s diagnosis, Toni had bonded with her baby girl.  She had witnessed the wonder of Olivia’s movements – her tiny feet shoving up against her ribs, the happy kicks after waffles at 4 o’clock in the morning and the miracle of watching her suck her toes during her ultrasounds.

 

But now, Toni and Gary were here – in this strange place where joy and grief collide.

 

The delivery room was peaceful and quiet.  A worshipful calm filled the air as those present witnessed Olivia’s entrance into the world. 

 

They wondered at the beauty of her blond hair, her perfect hands and the way she clenched her tiny fists. Love permeated the room.  Together they sang Happy Birthday over Olivia as she lay quietly in her mother’s arms.  

 

Toni closed her eyes, absorbing the feeling of Olivia’s soft breath against her chest as the overwhelming presence of God’s peace filling the room.  For twenty beautiful minutes, Olivia lay peacefully in her mother’s arms until just as quietly, she slipped away.

 

“Death was not horrific,” Toni shared. “It was more beautiful than I could have imagined.  We laughed, we prayed, we sang… and we longed for Heaven as we watched her peacefully leave this earth and enter the presence of God.”

 

“I’m almost jealous of her,” Toni went on to say, “her journey through this was life was so beautiful.  She only knew love.  Her life was perfect.  She was welcomed and loved by her earthly parents and then just as quickly opened her eyes to see her Heavenly Father.  Oh, what a joy it will be to see her again!  It was an honor to be hers.

 

Because of Olivia’s life, I hear God more clearly than ever in my life. I have visions I’ve never had. I have that agape love. It’s deeper than describable. All because I said Yes.”

 

 

We stand here, nearly a year since Olivia came and left and anyone who talks to Gary or Toni will hear the testimony of how in the middle of the crushing pain, the hard questions, the desperate cries for help… in the middle of it all.. and against all odds, God stepped in.  He was there!

 

While grief, chaos and confusion knocked at the door, God pushed His way through the darkness to reveal Himself to the Gagne’s over and over again in spite of overwhelming loss.

 

Stepping in doesn’t require God to do things our way.  No.. stepping in simply means entering our situation – and in His kindness, He reveals Himself to us in various ways.  Sometimes what He does in our lives is obvious and sometimes it is up to us to see His hand at work.


Toni saw God step in when the dark cloud of grief overwhelmed her.  He stepped in to the silence of an empty nursery to bring comfort to a broken mother bearing the ache of empty arms. 

 

He stepped in through Gary’s job in miraculous ways throughout Toni’s pregnancy and the weeks following.  

 

He stepped in through the love and compassion of many sitting here today.  Your calls, texts, love and support did not go unnoticed by the Gagne’s.

 

 

There aren’t many guarantees in this life.  Few of us in this room had the privilege of meeting little Olivia here on this earth, but that does not mean she isn’t a part of who we are.  

 

Her life changed ours and she will forever be remembered as part of our FFM family.

 

Do we grieve her passing?

 

Yes. Absolutely.  But not as those who have no hope.  Though our selfish desire would be to pass her around and celebrate her life here today, we have been offered the gift of knowing and loving her – two things that cannot be dictated by the hands of a clock.

 

 

Olivia’s life was full of purpose and meaning.

 

Not compatible?  

 

I disagree.

 

You see, love takes sacrifice.

 

It’s proven over and over again.  We see it in every relationship.  Our relationships with our spouse, our kids, our parents, siblings, friends… even with God. 

 

And when we stop and think about it, we realize that loving with an agenda isn’t really love at all.

 

In a culture where 62,000,000 lives have been thrown away based on the personal preference of another, God stepped in to Gary and Toni’s lives and reminded them of the invaluable gift of choosing to give themselves over to love – even when it hurts. They chose surrender, they chose sacrifice, they chose love… all so that Olivia might have life!  And in the end, they and now all of us bore witness to the miracle of her life.

 

Today, we celebrate the love that God has for humanity!  We celebrate the fact that though it caused Him deep pain, God chose love so that we might have life!  It’s the power that fuels the Christmas story!

 

Against all odds, God stepped into our fatal diagnosis and laid it all on the line so that we can experience eternal life!