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.
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”.
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.
“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.
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!