The Blog: On Second Thought

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Happy Memorial Day (weekend)!

I think what Memorial Day is best known for in our country is barbecues, a day off from the grind of the work week, and most importantly–the beginning of summer. However, Memorial Day is more somber than that. It started as a day to go visit tombstones and decorate them, remembering the soldiers buried there shortly after the civil war. In 1971, it became a national holiday to take time to remember those who gave their lives in the defense of freedom. To be fair, only about 7% of Americans have served in combat. Of that, fewer have had close friends or loved ones die in battle. So when this holiday comes around, more barbecues than cemeteries are decorated.

For those of you who need a story to remember I would like to share the story of the first soldier to die under my command in combat. I was a company commander in Iraq in 2004. We were stationed at Camp Habbaniyah–just West of Fallujah and just East of Ramadi–patrolling the road that connected those two violent cities. My tank company, A/2-72 Armor which had been attached to the Currahees (of Band of Brothers fame) had just replaced a tank company from the 1st Infantry Division. The road was in our hands, and I was nervous. I stepped outside of my TOC (Tactical Operation Center (HQ)) and watched as my tanks headed through heat waves into sector. I glanced at my watch; we were on time. Second platoon was heading out in sector and I felt like things were starting well…then Boom! A massive explosion erupted about a mile and change out. I watch a mushroom cloud rise from the fire. I ran inside the TOC and got on the radio.

“Sitrep!” I shouted.

Gunfire exploded in the distance. I waited an eternity for a reply. Then through the Radio, I heard, “Red 3’s been hit.”

“Any casualties?” I asked my RTO as I ran to my bunk, grabbed my rifle, vest, and helmet.

“Red 3 is KIA.”

I paused taking in what that meant. Killed In Action. SSG Vaillant was dead.

I ran down to my tank. I remember racing past SSG Vaillant’s tank as it came in. I remember wanting to grieve. I remember fear and anger and thoughts of God all flooding my mind. I joined the platoon in contact with the enemy, we fired across the Euphrates River at what we thought might be the trigger man that killed our brother. Then we crossed the river and got on foot going house to house. I spent seven hours with my interpreter trying to figure out who killed SSG Vaillant. The only thing we found that day was sadness and exhaustion.

A couple days later the leadership of the battalion and my company stood by to remember SSG Vaillant. We would have our own memorial day. Psalm 23 was read, Amazing Grace was played. I gave a eulogy about the grace of God. A twenty one gun salute jerked a tear from my eye. After the ceremony, my company huddled together and informally I asked the men to share a memory of their lost comrade. PVT Cavazos took a step forward. He shared a memory back in Korea about how SSG Vaillant and he were waiting for transportation together to get back from a firing range. It started to rain and they were getting wet and tired. They decided to sit back to back for comfort and to prevent the rain from invading as best as possible.

“That’s when SSG Vaillant started talking about Jesus.” Cavazos said. “I was getting tired, and I didn’t want to be rude, but I just nodded off. When I woke up what seemed to be an hour later, SSG Vaillant was still talking about Jesus.”

I want to be remembered like that. Etched in the mind of PVT Cavazos was the man whom SSG Vaillant was. A man of God who died in combat. A man of God whose hope was realized on the day when it seemed death and darkness got the upper hand.

SSG Vaillant’s memorial day pointed to a greater memorial day. The day that Jesus took our sins away. The day that he died on the cross in our place…but didn’t stay dead. And that was the hope of SSG Vaillant. And that is my hope. That is the hope I wait for patiently. I’m waiting for the day Jesus comes back and ends the war, the hurt, the pain, and the darkness. So it’s Memorial Day, a day to remember those fallen in combat. We remember them because of our loss. We remember Jesus, because of our hope.

 

Chris Plekenpol is the Lead Pastor of Wells Branch Community Church in Austin, TX. He is the author of Faith in the Fog of War I & II available on Amazon.com, here and here.

 


More like this

Blog

In four minutes, I lose my first soldier- How Chris Plekenpol lost his first soldier and what he learned watching a terrorist burn to death.

How I found myself after I lost my mother to addiction- This past May, I lost my mom to alcoholism and addiction. In truth, I had lost her before that—long before that. But the shock of it was no less jarring.

13 Reasons Why Not: an open letter to my friend who committed suicide- Dear Daniel, I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back.

Films

Chris Plekenpol: Watch Chris’s own story. God must have taken a vacation because there’s no way He can be present in a situation like this. That was Chris’s rationale after being deployed to Iraq where no day, hour or minute was certain.

Chad Robichaux Film: As a police officer, Chad Robichaux had to make a life-or-death decision. As a Force Recon Marine serving as part of a Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, he witnessed unspeakable evil. Eight tours later those memories still haunted him.

Brian Birdwell: One minute he was visiting the bathroom down the hall from his Pentagon office. The next minute he was burned over 60% of his body from an unknown explosion and resulting fires. That was the hell unleashed on Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell on 9/11/2001.

Sujo John: When terrorists hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, his life story was altered. As the walls of the towers came crashing down around him, his wife’s whereabouts unknown, and thousands dying around him, Sujo could only rely upon God’s plan for his life. A plan which became real amidst the death and debris of Ground Zero.

Chris Plekenpol

Sometimes, I regret not saving that guy’s life. I mean, sometimes, I sit there and I’m like “you know that’s probably what a Christian would do.” And yet, I didn’t have the guts to do it.  You think you really know God. There is just those moments where I went from this place of being a fan of God, when I was 22, to just having this incredible faith. Where life went from black and white and turned to color, and it just became such a powerful thing. The army kind of sometimes runs a little contradictory to that. So, I just made this call and decision that the only thing in life I wanted to do was share the gospel [of Jesus].

So, I find myself getting out of the army and I’m in Korea and the Colonel gives me a call. And he’s like, “Chris, I want you to take command of this company.”  

So, there is that moment, “Sure, I’ll do one more year. What’s it going to hurt? It’s great leadership experience.”

Well, twelve days after I take command, my Colonel gives me another call, “Hey Chris, I need you to take an assessment of your men. I can’t tell you why, but you can probably figure it out.”  

Figure what out? Well, he told me I was going to war. I was going to Iraq.

A couple of months later I find myself in the sandbox of Iraq. I am now the commander of 100 men, 21 tanks, 7 Bradley’s, which are like mini tanks, a handful of Hummers. I’m standing outside my command post for that first day of combat. I was watching heat waves, I mean it’s hot. Heat waves are bouncing off – it’s 120 degrees outside. And there are my tanks, we’re all out in the sector. I mean, I’m doing this – this is real.


There are three letters that you never want to hear creep across the radio in combat. And that’s KIA.


I glance down at my watch to make sure everything is okay and boom, a massive explosion erupts about a quarter of a mile out. Smoke and fire billow into this mushroom cloud about 250 feet high. Immediately, I run into my command post and I’m trying to figure out from the situation report what exactly is going on.  There are three letters that you never want to hear creep across the radio in combat. And that’s KIA, killed in action.

The first four minutes, I lose my first soldier. Immediately, I run and go grab my M4 carbon rifle, my 9mm pistol. I put my flak vest on and sprint down to my tank. I charge that 50 caliber machine gun, my loader takes a 45 lb., 120mm round and puts it in the breach of the main gun. Then my gunner toggles the switches on the computer, while my driver pushes that 72 ton beast of a machine 42 miles an hour into the west gate.

I align three tanks to pound the north shore with everything we got. These terrorists start to withdraw to the north. I send two tanks across the river to follow. I follow in my tank. 100 men behind me start searching house, to house, to house, to house. And after 7 hours of searching, we find nothing.  


You got one job as a military leader, and that is to bring back everyone home alive. In the first four minutes of that, I fail.


I’m emotionally drained. I go home, back to the barracks and write a letter home to his wife, Kaila, and his 13 year old daughter, Sara, and explain how I let her father and husband die. You got one job as a military leader, and that is to bring back everyone home alive. In the first four minutes of that, I fail.

Spiritually, I’ll be honest with you, it kinda felt like God took a day off. When I came to faith in Christ at 22, we kind of had a deal. Here I am 6 years later and it feels like that whole thing about “I’ll never leave you or forsake you”, it’s kinda church jargon now. But where are you in the moment where my company is in battle, in combat, and I lose somebody and there is that sense that you’re on vacation.

I was constantly out of sector. My uniform is wet with sweat. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I don’t even feel like I’m a Christian at all. I feel like I’m not praying. I’m not reading my Bible. I’m struggling here. Ultimately, I made a decision and went up to my second-in-command, my executive officer and I said, “Adam, check it out man, I am going down to the chapel in the morning.”


I figure that God is big enough for my worries.


I take a chair and set I set another chair [in front of me]. I just sit there and I talk to God. And I am like, ‘You know what, I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I don’t know if I can do this. I’m lonely. You know, there is no one I can express this fear with; everyone looking to me and  I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders here.

So that frustration kind of mounts and I’m just letting Him have it. I figure that God is big enough for my worries.

This one time, we are out in sector and all of a sudden this terrorist takes a car bomb. It’s not like he has a uniform. He looks like everybody else. He takes this car bomb and he plows it right into one of my men’s tank. The car doesn’t explode. In fact, there was something wrong or he miscalibrated somehow. The detonator didn’t work and he rams the car straight into the tank. You know, this is a 2 ½ ton car running into a 72 ton tank. He loses. He’s knocked out.

The entire gas tank explodes. We have this massive inferno moving from the rear of the car to the front of the car, where these bombs are. So, this terrorist rolls out of the car. He wakes up because the heat must be just incredible. He’s starting to roll away from the blast. And there is a moment. I’m not going to lie to you. I could have saved his life. I saw it, but I didn’t do it. There’s that moment, I was not willing to die for my enemy right now. I’m not willing to do it. And so I watch him. The explosion erupted and we watched his body ripped apart. After the explosion, the dust settles. I jump off my tank and I sprint up to his body. I watch crimson fill the sand.

I’m that terrorist.  When it comes to how I’ve affected my life towards God, I’ve been an enemy of him and yet he didn’t sit back in his tank and just watch me die. He decided to come from heaven to earth and take that blast for me. Life is so short and so urgent. We just have this need to share the hope that we have with people who have no clue. I look at that terrorist and there is no way that I would ever go and save that guy’s life, because I am not that kind of hero. I am not willing to go and risk my life for an enemy. Yet Christ did that very thing for me. I owe him everything and that is why he is first in my life, because he was willing to do what I was never able to do.  

I am Chris Plekenpol and I Am Second.  

 

Chris Plekenpol: Watch Chris tell his story in his own words.

Chad Robichaux Film: As a police officer, Chad Robichaux had to make a life-or-death decision. As a Force Recon Marine serving as part of a Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, he witnessed unspeakable evil. Eight tours later those memories still haunted him.

Brian Birdwell: One minute he was visiting the bathroom down the hall from his Pentagon office. The next minute he was burned over 60% of his body from an unknown explosion and resulting fires. That was the hell unleashed on Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell on 9/11/2001.

Sujo John: When terrorists hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, his life story was altered. As the walls of the towers came crashing down around him, his wife’s whereabouts unknown, and thousands dying around him, Sujo could only rely upon God’s plan for his life. A plan which became real amidst the death and debris of Ground Zero.

When Marriage Hurts- Matt Morrison

In a few weeks, Holly and I will celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe we’ve been married this long. It’s also hard to believe that we have a five year old, that we’re pregnant with our second child, and that we’ve known each other for over a decade.

Over the past year, we’ve found ourselves transitioning into a new season of marriage. For the longest time, we’ve usually been the young couple in the room receiving advice from the more seasoned ones. And while our marriage is still young and we definitely still need that advice, we’ve recently hit an awkward stage where others are coming to us for the advice too.

It’s not like I haven’t learned a few lessons through the years. For instance, if you accidentally eat her leftover cheesecake while she’s pregnant, she’ll end you. And when she tells you she’s pregnant for the first time, a response that starts along the lines of “I did notice that…” is a terrible idea. Also, texting her friends behind her back to help them plan a surprise party in her honor doesn’t look much different to her than the early stages of an affair.

When Holly and I are asked for advice about a couple’s situation, our most common response is, “Been there, done that.” From the endless fighting over each other’s bathroom routines to the late night “come to Jesus” meetings, we’ve learned just how normal challenges in marriage can be.


I found myself reiterating the same point over and over again- “This is going to be harder than it looks.”


Recently, I was asked to officiate my first wedding. I taught the groom in a Bible class when he was in 4th grade. Through the years, he grew close to our entire family. He’s one of my “non-biological brothers” – guys who my parents mentored closely through the years. As I thought about my message, it forced me to consider implications of marriage on my faith for the first time in a while.

Walking with them through the pre-marital counseling and the hell that is engagement, I found myself reiterating the same point over and over again – “This is going to be harder than it looks.”

At the ceremony, I walked through an important passage in the Bible found in Ephesians chapter 5. It’s about the roles of the husband and wife. Paul challenges the couple to submit to one another. The husband is called to sacrificially and proactively love his wife as Christ loves the Church. The wife is called to submit to her husband, trusting his servant leadership. Together, they paint a living picture of the core message of Jesus. Their unending commitment and radical selflessness demonstrates the unconditional love Jesus shows the world.


We feel this pressure to make everything in marriage seem passionate, seamless, and endlessly joyous. But marriage isn’t two people running through fields together and vomiting sunshine.


When we consider this idea that marriage demonstrates the the core message of Jesus regarding love, we often think about the sweet times – the romance, the sex, the outward acts of love. We feel this pressure to make everything in marriage seem passionate, seamless, and endlessly joyous.

But marriage isn’t two people running through fields together and vomiting sunshine. In fact, I believe God is most honored when marriage is hardest.

Inevitably, every marriage experiences moments when there seems no way forward. Hearts are broken. Trust is shattered. One or the other is physically and emotionally exhausted. In some instances, the very covenant itself may even be violated.

In these moments, it only makes sense to give up, part ways, and call it quits. These are the times when the world says God wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. They’re the seasons when it’s easy to think you deserve more than what you’re getting. They are also the moments that separate a marriage from any other relationship or commitment.

When we choose not to give up, it makes much of Jesus. How else can you explain a wife who forgives her unfaithful husband and fights for their marriage? How else can you explain a broken husband who serves his wife in the face of emasculating verbal assaults? There’s no other relationship that could leave two people more vulnerable to heartbreak.

But when we choose to stand in and fight for one another, we demonstrate a supernatural love. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to his cross and defeated death. This is why divorce is so heartbreaking to God. While unfortunately necessary in extreme cases, it’s a missed opportunity to demonstrate that love.


The tough times in marriage shouldn’t be a place of shame. In fact, they can often be a message of hope to the world.


Whether you’ve been married six months or six decades, you should never be ashamed of difficulties or challenges. You should never feel as if the relationship is failing. These late nights and tearful moments are when God’s love shines through most. They are the very reason you made such a powerful commitment in the presence of all your family and friends. You were telling the world then that you’d never give up. This is where you get to show them.

And when you do, you’ll show them more than just two people who love each other. You’ll show them a glimpse of the God who never gives up on them. The tough times in marriage shouldn’t be a place of shame. In fact, they can often be a message of hope to the world.

Couples, don’t be afraid to struggle.  Let the world see the love God has shown you by how you love each other through the tough times. Don’t be afraid to let your failures and weaknesses hang out. While uncomfortable, these are defining places in our lives that have the power to draw people to Jesus.

Matt Morrison has been married to Holly for eight years. the two live in McKinney, TX with their son, Caleb and soon-to-be-born son, Noah. He manages communications for e3 Partners, a Christian organziation based in the Dallas area. You can find his latest writings at mattmorrison.me.

 

(Photo source: Andrew Neel via unsplash.com)

(Photo source: Andrew Neel via unsplash.com)

Dear Daniel,

I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back. I remember calling the next day. Your mom answered and said they couldn’t find you. I try not to hit myself every day since. I don’t know how heaven works, if you are able to hear me or not. But if you can this is what I would have told you, this is why NOT to end your life. And if you can’t hear me, then I hope someone who can will know though you seem alone, there is someone who cares.

  1. You are loved.

I used to cry myself to sleep. I’d beg God for one good friend. Picked on at school, bullied, lonely, hurt. I needed someone. You chose to be that someone. I don’t think I ever told you the dark spot I was in when we met. But you brought me out of it. Maybe you feel unworthy or undeserving of love in this moment. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to wonder if anybody at all loves you. Let me be real clear on this: I love you.

  1. You are forgiven.

Maybe it’s guilt that’s brought you here. We all need forgiveness. You have no monopoly on that. If you need it from me, you can have it. I’ve never denied you that. If you need it from God, just ask. He’s forgiven far worse.

  1. You are not alone

Maybe you feel alone. Maybe you feel the battles you face make you alone in this world. You are wrong. You are neither alone, nor unloved. I am here. Others are here. Even if you don’t feel our love, we love.

  1. The world is NOT better without you

You never said why you chose this path. I wonder if perhaps you thought we’d be better without you. We are not. You had struggles and they hurt me. That is true. But your friendship has always and will always be worth it. I’d rather have you with all your mess than spend my life unable to say thank you for the kindness you gave me in my time of need. Let me be there for you as you were for me.

  1. It gets better

I know you are in pain. I won’t even pretend to understand your pain. I have had my own version of pain in life. I lost my daughter several years ago. She was born never taking a breath. We named her Hope, because in our worst pain all we had was hope. Hope that somehow it would get better. Hope that there is one who will fix the brokenness. Hope is what we have when all else is lost.

  1. We won’t get over it

Maybe you’re thinking that we’ll hurt for a while and then get over it, get over you. We won’t. For six months, my life went into a tailspin. Your family for years longer than that. I still carry your obituary with me, tucked into my Bible at a passage that reads “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” It’s been over a decade and the pain has softened but has yet to leave. I fear it never will.

  1. You have a purpose

Maybe you feel you’ve wasted your life. Failed your purpose. The purpose of life is simple. Love God and love the people around you. You can’t love us, if you don’t stay with us. You’ll do it imperfectly, as we all do, but anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. As long as you are here, trying to love those around you, you are doing the one and only thing you’re meant to do, even if you do it poorly. And trust me, you’ve loved us better than you think.

  1. There is help

There is help. Ask for it. Don’t stop calling. If I don’t answer, call someone else. There are people in your life who love you.

  1. There is hope

I don’t know why God allows things to happen the way he does. Trust me. I’ve told him on many occasions how terrible his plan seems to be sometimes. I don’t know why there is so much brokenness and pain in the world. But I do know this much about God. He’s going to fix it. Hope is this thing in the future, this faith in some better time and place. We see it in glimmers now. And it’s those glimmers that allow us to believe that its coming. Hold on to that hope.

  1. This is NOT what I want

Do not be confused here. I do not want this. I want you to live. I’d rather have the on and off, back and forth, pain in the a#% troubles that come with having a friend with your struggles, than have a life without you. I choose you with all your mess as you chose me with mine.

  1. Your struggle inspires

Every struggle gives birth to loneliness. In battle you face the enemy and so lose sight of those who fight beside you. Knowing you still fight inspires me. While I never realized the intensity of your fight, I’ve been inspired watching you fight it. Give me the honor of fighting it with you. Just reach out. Let someone know.

  1. I need you

In case you are confused that you’ve become a burden to those around you, be assured, that’s a lie. You chose me as a friend, when I needed one most. I had moved from out of state, was bullied by my peers, and desperately lonely. I always admired your kindness, talent, and brilliance and considered you my best, and at times, only friend. I know our life decisions began to diverge towards the end. But through it all we were friends. And I still need your friendship.

  1. You can’t undo this

I thought you’d be my best man and I yours. Instead, I was your pallbearer. Every other mistake can be undone, the consequences dealt with. But this is final. I can go with you anywhere, but not there. Stay with me, friend. Give me the opportunity to be with you in your darkest moments as you were in mine. Don’t go where I can’t follow.

 

Your best friend,

Doug Bender

 

(Photo source: Thomas Hafeneth)

(Photo source: Thomas Hafeneth)

Usually on Mother’s Day I scroll through my Facebook and Instagram reels, flooded with photo after photo of my friends smiling brightly back at me with their moms. The little captions catch my eye; “my ride or die” “‘my number one,” “my best friend”…with plenty of variations. Sometimes I find myself reading through the longer more meaningful captions and find myself wondering what I would say to my mom this year if she were here for Mother’s Day.

Sometimes I look through these photos and I truly don’t mind so much. They don’t phase me.  I can skim through them all without really feeling anything special. I “like” a few of my friends’ posts, then move on with my day, a little unsettled, a little down, but still okay overall. But in the past few years I’ve noticed that I can’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy eating at me when I realize how lucky my friends are. I can’t help but envy the mother daughter photos that flood my newsfeed.

I took out pictures of my mom today and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness mixed with anxiety. My heart sunk when I looked at pictures of my mom and me and realized that the most recent photo was six years old. Of course I knew this was the case, but letting it sink in and actually coming to terms with it was difficult. There are no pictures of us now. There are no photos of us at my college graduation, or of us at our family trip to the shore. There are no pictures of my mom meeting my new puppy. There are no new pictures of my parents, or of my mom and my sister. There are no new photos of us for me to share on Mother’s Day.

It’s hard because Mother’s Day throws this lack of photos in my face, with sales on flowers to target ads covered in Mother’s Day specials. It’s hard to escape from Mother’s Day. And I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. Maybe this year is hard for you too. Maybe you are also missing your mom. Or maybe you are missing the idea of Mother’s day; the idea of having someone to celebrate. You might be missing the idea of buying tulips from the grocery store or of picking up a sweet card for your mom. You might be missing the idea of having a family brunch or of sharing a warm cinnamon bun with your mom today.

I’m sorry if you are feeling like this too. I’m sorry if Mother’s Day isn’t what it used to be for you, or if it’s always been hard for you. It looks like we both missed out on the VIP passes to this members-only holiday. It’s hard when everyone around you gets to celebrate on the inside, and you are here, stuck on the sidelines, looking in.

Mother’s Day is hard; there’s no way around it. And it comes every single year. I don’t know what you do to get through Mother’s Day (or, let’s face it, Mother’s Day week). I know that I sometimes purposefully try not to let Mother’s Day bother me. I try to avoid it, by putting up an invisible shield, putting on a fake smile, and pretending the day doesn’t exist for me. But I’ve learned the hard way that this doesn’t really help – it just masks over the real feelings.

The thing is, you see, even if you try to force yourself to avoid thinking about Mother’s Day altogether, by simply numbing your feelings or blocking it all out, it still doesn’t make it easy. Ignoring Mother’s Day doesn’t just make the day, or your feelings, disappear. No matter how you get through it, coping in itself takes energy and it takes strength. It inevitably wears you out after a while, even if you think you’re doing just fine. So it’s important to remember that you don’t have to pretend that Mother’s Day is easy. You don’t have to act all “brave,” or act like you don’t have feelings.

While I’m most definitely not going to sit here and advise you to just try not to think about it, or to try to power through, I’m also not going to suggest that you “force” yourself to feel thankful on Mother’s Day. I’m not going to suggest that you force yourself to feel anything, for that matter. Some of you might feel at peace on Mother’s Day. Some of you might feel thankful for your mothers, whether they are present or absent. And for those of you that this applies to, I’m happy that you can feel grateful on this day. It’s a blessing, and it’s important for you to feel this way because it is authentic.

But if you’re not feeling so grateful? Don’t judge yourself. It is more than okay to not feel good. It’s also okay to not feel thankful. It’s more than okay to feel sad or even bitter. It’s also okay to not feel sad at all. You don’t need to judge yourself for what you are feeling. Forcing away a feeling, or trying to make yourself feel a certain way is only harder because it lacks authenticity. Faking it just breaks you. It only makes the harder.  You have to listen to yourself. That’s the main rule of making it through Mother’s day; you have to have your own back.

I don’t know if I truly feel grateful on Mother’s Day. But this isn’t because I’m not thankful for my mom. Of course I’m thankful for her. She was a hell of a mom. But feeling thankful for her and “celebrating” her is just harder for me to experience on this specific day when her absence is highlighted.

What I do feel is discomfort and sadness. I feel upset that I can’t celebrate her in the real, alive sort of way. It feels like the fact that I am “motherless” is being thrown in my face, so this takes over me feeling grateful. Of course I loved and love my mom. But Mother’s Day isn’t the day I can fully understand this.

So remember. If it is too hard for you to find peace today, I understand. You don’t have to try to make peace with Mother’s Day. You don’t have to do anything festive on Mother’s Day. What you do need to do is be judgment free and take it easy. It’s a hard day. And remember that whatever you feel or do not feel doesn’t make you any more or less of a person. I’m not going to tell you to have a good day or a bad day or any type of day. You can see what feels right this year. So from me to you, just have a day. And please, allow yourself to simply “be.”

By Colleen George

(Photo source: Alex Jones via unsplash.com)

(Photo source: Alex Jones via unsplash.com)

Mother’s Day started out so sweetly for me and my mom. I’ll never forget my excitement as a five-year-old in kindergarten, making my mom her surprise gift. I placed my hand on top of smooth, terracotta-colored dough while my teacher traced around my fingers with a pencil. Together, we shaped a replica of my hand so the fingers cupped up to hold an invisible something, forming a precious Mother’s Day memento.

Creating Mother’s Day gifts continued to bring me joy, but during my teen years, things changed. I seriously considered buying my mom a broomstick because of our fighting. She disliked the company I kept, but I craved independence and space from her. I began lying to my mom about where I was going to keep her off my back.

One evening, my friends and I left a restaurant before paying. It was exhilarating, at first, but the fun was short-lived. Our fellow classmates dining inside quickly identified us. Within days, we faced community service for our half-baked dine and ditch.

My mom grounded me right away. Being stuck at home provided the opportunity to apologize to her, since I knew she had been right all along. Instead, I gave her the silent treatment.

I made a few more mistakes in the years to follow before I realized I didn’t want to lie anymore. I wanted a dramatic change, so I began to follow Jesus. Despite my new beliefs, my mom struggled to trust me and old tensions returned. It was frustrating. I mean, God’s into reconciliation big time, right? Why were my mom and I still at odds?

By age 21, I was a newlywed living in a new land. My husband and I had relocated to Texas from California for graduate school. He took a pay cut at work to keep his class schedule, and we went overdraft three months in a row. I accepted the first job I could find to make ends meet. It was a customer service position in a building with no windows. For 40 hours a week, I was supposed to take phone calls from people angry about insurance claims not being paid.

During lunch break on my first day, I sat outside by myself in blistering summer heat, hiding tears on my cheeks from coworkers walking by. I was scared, and I wasn’t sure how my husband and I were going to make it so far from home.

Then my phone rang. It was my mom, and instead of pretending things were OK, I told her how I was really doing. My mom married as young as I did, so she knew a thing or two about my situation. She recounted the times my parents moved and risked job changes to make things work for their family.

“Look, I’m no Pollyanna,” she said, referencing the overly optimistic children’s book character. “Life is challenging sometimes and you have to work hard, but it gets better.”

Her no-nonsense words resonated, and I didn’t feel so alone. I started calling her weekly, craving her affirmation and survival stories.

Recently I gave birth to my first child, a sweet baby girl. Before my pregnancy, I used to complain about waking up before 6 a.m. These days I’m up at 4 a.m. to feed my daughter, and by the time she’s in bed at night, I’m so exhausted from chores and chasing her around all day I can hardly keep my eyes open. Becoming a mom is the best thing that has happened to me, but the lack of down time is numbing.

Knowing my mom underwent this same reorientation towards her child’s needs has bonded us on some deep level. We’ve had regular phone dates for ten years, but now I have a new reverence.

The two of us are still a ways off from reaching “Gilmore Girls” status — giggling and sharing deep secrets over two steaming cups of coffee. That’s just not who my mom and I are. But we do love each other, and when she calls to encourage me, I know she is proud of me and has my back.  

Last year I traveled home for Christmas. All of the twinkle lights and sugar cookies must have sparked some nostalgia, because I suddenly remembered my Mother’s Day gift from kindergarten. Out of curiosity, I made my way upstairs to my mom’s room to see if she still had the old craft. I smiled when I spotted it on her dresser, between a bottle of perfume and a picture frame. My little clay fingers reaching up; my palm open.

Whitney Thompson is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. She has written for several publications including Advocate magazine, Prison Fellowship’s Inside Journal, and Upper Room’s Teen Devozine.

Ciara with her daughter, Audri (Photo source: Ciara Sims)

Ciara with her daughter, Audri (Photo source: Ciara Sims)

The image is still vivid in my mind. We were in a Men’s Wearhouse parking lot, picking out his tux for our wedding. Our relationship was on-and-off for six years, but we had finally decided to get married. We bought a house and we even had an 8-month-old daughter. But in a parking lot, boxed in by solid white lines, it all fell apart.

We had a conversation that I couldn’t ignore.

In a state of shock, confusion, and panic, I moved two hours away and began my journey as a single mother. It’s a journey that initially tore me apart, but one that eventually found me not only content but joyful. I know that doesn’t make sense. But it’s what happened.

It wasn’t the easiest of starts. Every day, I would drop my daughter, Audri, off at child care around 7am, drive an hour to my office downtown, and work 8-5 almost always with a smile on my face. But it was a fake smile. I didn’t want to bring my personal problems into the work environment, but the truth was I missed Audri desperately. I spent my lunch break at a little cafe looking at pictures of her on my phone, secretly wishing I was mashing up her food and flying her “airplane spoon” into her tiny mouth. I worried for her safety and health every second. I felt guilty for working while a stranger taught my daughter her ABCs. But what could I do? I’m only one person. I can’t be the sole financial provider and the homemaker simultaneously.

After days, then months, then years of this, I began to feel as if the walls were closing in on me. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, and I had no one to relate to. I attended group classes for single mothers at a nearby church, but the women were older and their children were in different life stages. My friends, although loving, would never be able to understand and I couldn’t expect them to. I was changing diapers while they were at the movies.

But one day, it all changed.

Up until that day, I had grown ashamed of my brokenness and thought it was my mess to handle alone. But in that moment, I grew tired of being tired. I became desperate for something more fulfilling. I became desperate for Jesus. I was a Christian, but I had never really allowed my faith in God to permeate the very center of my lifestyle. A lifestyle that had me facing a lot of challenges alone.

But that’s when the truth hit me: I would never have peace if I didn’t ask God to step in as my “husband.” That outlook changed everything.

I began waking up at 6am to read the Bible before work. I posted scripture all over my apartment as sweet little reminders of God’s infinite love. I ended each night in the floor of my bedroom on my knees in prayer, even when the prayers had no words. I knew God could hear my internal cry, and I began seeing the results of His love and tenderness.


Don’t get me wrong, life didn’t suddenly become easy, but my perspective changed forever.


Don’t get me wrong, life didn’t suddenly become easy, but my perspective changed forever. By placing Audri and myself second to God, I found an incredible sense of strength and independence I would never have known.

That’s what I want you to know, especially if you’re a single mom.

Know that you are understood and loved intimately by the creator of the universe. Take a deep breath in and smile because you brought that child to life when abortion was the convenient alternative. God makes no mistakes, and your little one was given to you for a purpose. Trust that God’s timing is perfect. Sometimes God gives us more than we can handle, so that we come crawling to Him for dependence. The good news is that He promises to “never leave us nor forsake us.”

You know what you should do now? Reward yourself. Have a popcorn/movie night past bedtime. Take a long drive or a hot bath. Be proud of yourself for a moment. I know I am. I taught Audri how to crawl, months later she took her first steps on my bedroom carpet. Now she’s potty-trained, and saying things like “You’re so precious to me mommy, I love you.” But don’t be too prideful to ask for help every now and then. I’ve since learned to acknowledge that I’m just one person and I’m not invincible. For instance, my parents will drive to pick her up one day a week from child care and stay while I take care of chores and personal things I often neglect.

More than anything, I encourage you to discover your worth and influence. Understand that no matter how important being a mother is, it’s not where you find your worth. It comes from something greater, from someone greater. And that’s what I’m going to teach Audri. Her value and identity is in Jesus and, nothing else the world offers is as freeing as that. I will fail her, but God won’t. And He’s the best parent she could ever have.

Ciara Sims is the founder of VeiledFree and veiledfree.com, a website dedicated to faith and fashion. She’s passionate about encouraging people to find freedom and connect with one another. Follower her on Instagram (@veiledfree) for faith and fashion inspiration.

 

Singing country music, that’s what I’ve always dreamt of doing as a young boy. Growing up in South Carolina, it was out the ordinary to dream such a dream.

I haven’t always been the guy that walks into a room and automatically the attention is on me. I’m normally the guy that stands off in the corner. Singing allowed me to express myself in ways that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I don’t feel like God called me to be a gospel singer. He didn’t call me to be a Christian singer, he called me to be a country singer, and I just happen to be a Christian.

The one thing that I had to overcome was negativity. The idea that dreams can’t really come true, I never wanted to believe in that.

I grew up in a little place called Hannah, South Carolina, a little farming community a long way from any kind of big city. The first real album I owned was Randy Travis’ Storms of Life, and that was the album that really made me start dreaming of the possibility of doing this for a living. I moved to Nashville in 1998 to get a record deal and try to get my foot in the door. I didn’t really know what I was doing.


The one thing that I had to overcome was negativity. The idea that dreams can’t really come true, I never wanted to believe in that.


God inspired me to write “Long Black Train.” I wrote this song, by myself, in my apartment, and it came to me in a vision. It’s a vision of this long, black, beautiful, shiny train, and people are standing out to the sides of the track, watching this train go by, just craving to get on it. At the same time, they know that this train leads to destruction, it leads to emptiness, it leads to nowhere, but yet they still want to get on it. This train was a physical metaphor for temptation.

I wrote three verses and a chorus that night in my apartment, woke up the next morning, I wrote the fourth verse. And at that moment in time when I laid the pen down, I said nobody’s ever gonna want to hear this. It’s too old-fashioned, it’s too old-timey, it’s a gospel song, so this is probably not going to end up on one of my records in the future.

And a friend of mine walked in and she said, can I hear it? And I was like well, sure. I played it for her, and she said you need to play this for such and such, and so it just snowballed from there. I ended up playing it for recitals, and all kinds of stuff, did demos of it. A girl in my class heard it on that demo, played it for MCA, they heard it. This was the song I played first time on the Grand Ole Opry, and got two standing ovations and an encore. I was completely unknown to the audience that night. It became the title track of my first record, it became my first hit, it helped me sell a million copies of the first record. So there were a lot of people hearing this song, a lot of people being touched by this song.


It’s about changing people, it’s about touching people and influencing people in a positive way.


That was the moment that I realized it’s not about the money, or the fame, or the glory. It’s about changing people, it’s about touching people and influencing people in a positive way, and so from that point on, that’s what I’ve tried to do.

“There’s a long, black train
coming down the line,
feeding off the souls
that are lost and crying.

Rails of sin,
only evil remains,
watch out, brother,
for that long, black train.”

There’s no song that I can write, there’s no record that I can make that’s going to save me. I do need a savior.

“Look to the heavens,
you can look to the skies,
you can find redemption
staring back into your eyes.

There is protection,
and there’s peace the same,
burning your ticket
for that long, black train.”

I’m thankful to have Jesus as my savior. My relationship with God has always been one where I’m talking to him all day, every day, about anything and everything. It’s just a continuous ongoing conversation that I have with the Lord, and I feel like that’s brought me closer to Him. It helps me think through things clearly, I feel like it’s given me wisdom about other people, about myself, about the life that I live. Ultimately, I get my joy from him, and always put him first.

My name is Josh Turner, and I Am second.

(Photo source: pexels.com)

(Photo source: pexels.com)

There were babies up for adoption at the local neonatal unit. Babies that needed homes. JT Olson was frequently updated on them because he served on the board at Bethany Christian Services. When he would return from the monthly board meeting, his wife would ask how it went, and he would give her a run-down of the meeting and then tell her about the available babies up for adoption at the hospital.  

This usually provoked the same response from his wife, “Can we go see them?” They already had four kids, and JT was resistant.

They had just started a new business and weren’t even taking a salary yet. “Do you really want to go into our life savings to adopt?” he asked.  

His wife’s response usually went something like this, “Listen, we’ve got four kids, and I can be happy with the four that we’ve got, or one more. The kids can be happy with the four that we’ve got, or one more. I can take either one. What I can’t take is you being up and down about this. Sometimes you’re excited about adoption and sometimes you’re not. When you’re on board, let us know.”

His kids added some pressure as well. Every night as he would put them to bed, they would pray, “Dear God, please let Dad let us adopt.”

Fast forward to Christmas Eve 2001.  

“I went upstairs to get the stockings,” JT said “and started looking around. I saw a crib, a stroller, a carseat and high chairs, and thought to myself, we have everything we need to raise another child. And it hit me, what’s wrong with using a life savings to save a life?”  

As he was going back down the stairs, he met his wife and began to tell her that he had seen all the baby furniture in the attic. “She thought I was going to tell her we needed to have a yard sale”. But instead, he repeated to her the epiphany that he had just experienced. “Honey, there’s nothing wrong with using a life savings to save a life.” His wife wrote a note for each child that she put in the stockings that evening, they were going to have a new baby brother or sister. The kids found out on Christmas morning the next day.

The little baby that was destined for their home wasn’t even born yet. They had no idea at that point where the baby would even come from. They only knew that they were willing to adopt, and that they were willing to take all the steps necessary to make that happen.

She would soon be born in China. Under intense pressure to abort children in China, and especially girls, her biological mother made the tough choice to have the baby, which she left in a box, with a bottle, at the orphanage. The caretaker at the orphanage named her Grace, not knowing that Grace was the name that the Olson’s had already chosen for her.     

“When I saw that they had given her the Chinese name for Grace, I asked my wife if she had told the social worker that we had already picked that name for her. She hadn’t. That was just another confirmation that God was leading us down this path.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down with JT over coffee recently as he recounted this story to me.  I met him through someone I know at I Am Second. When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t really have a sense of where the conversation might go. I was blown away in the first five minutes of meeting JT, how much passion he had for helping orphans and widows.  

As a follower of Jesus, it’s not hard to understand where that passion came from, because those things are so in line with Jesus’ teachings. Still, seeing someone living that out in real life, in such a real way, is not something I see every day. I found myself feeling challenged. Not in an abrasive or aggressive way, but in a way that made me ask questions about my own life. “What is really important to me? What am I doing in my life that puts others first? How can I pour my energy and time into others more effectively?”  

I asked JT why he decided to adopt in China. With tears in his eyes, he gave me this simple response. “Because that’s where Grace was.”

Not all of us are going to adopt a child. It’s not for everyone. But when I was five years old my parents decided that they should do just that. I remember them driving to Denver when I was 5 years old to pick up my little brother, who had flown in with a bunch of other orphans from Vietnam. He too was left at an orphanage. He’s now a successful football coach, a father, husband and teacher who has touched many lives, mine being one of them.  

JT’s story touched me deeply. Sometimes living second means reaching out to others who can’t help themselves. No one is more helpless than a little baby.  

JT Olson’s concern for orphans and widows is profound, and he’s doing something about it.   

Click HERE to get involved and find out more about JT’s journey.

stan fletcher head shot

 

Stan Fletcher’s day job is showing people around Lieper’s Fork Distillery as a tour guide.  He writes music, plays the guitar, and performs weekly at various spots around Nashville.  He has been involved in various aspects of I Am Second since the beginning of 2016.  Stan was a pastor in Seattle and Scottsdale for 13 years.

(Check out the man behind the magic, Jim Munroe, live in Dallas at the Majestic Theatre, Sunday, May 7. Click here for more info.)

I have been playing with cards since I was actually a kid. I’ve been learning this for a really long time. You know while learning how to become a magician I have developed a skepticism. That’s really where my story starts.

Having become a magician, you understand that there is some kind of scheme or something going on behind the scenes that is ultimately fake or false. The idea of a god seems really silly, it seems really, really silly. It’s like the Wizard of Oz. It’s like the wizard behind the curtain making things happen.

However, one day in college, I was asked to go to church to check it out, so I did. Something happened to me that morning that I couldn’t quite fit into my worldview. It was the way the version of the story that was shared. I began to ask myself the God question. Maybe there is something more to this?


 

If I was going to believe in this god, if I was going to believe in the Bible, I needed him to make it so real to me.


If I was going to believe in this god, if I was going to believe in the Bible, if I was going to acknowledge who the Bible ultimately points to, which is Jesus. If I was going to acknowledge all these things, I asked God to make this real to me. I needed him to make it so real to me. I needed him to take me back behind the curtain. Sometimes when you pray prayers you don’t fully want them to be answered. Mine was getting ready to be answered.

Here I was, I was 29 years old. I had been married for five years, with a three-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. I had this really intense pain that started happening in my leg. I was popping ten Advil at a time, trying to make it go away. We decided that it would probably be best for me to go to the ER.

They began to run a bunch of tests on me. The doctor walked in and told me that my white blood count was real high. They wanted to do some more tests. Then another doctor walked in and on his name badge it said TX Oncology, a cancer doctor. He said, “Mr. Munroe, you have leukemia. We have to do something about this right now.” This doctor basically told me I had two months and that I was going to die if we didn’t do anything.  They got me down to MD Anderson Cancer Center and they began to run just a battery of tests on me. CAT scans, catheter into my chest, sticking huge needles into my spine; it’s a complete whirlwind.


No matter how hard we hit it, it was going to keep coming back.


The first doctor on call that was going to oversee all of my treatment came in and said, “Mr. Munroe, I’ve got some bad news for you.” And at that point I am going, you mean like worse than cancer bad news?  He said the kind of leukemia I had was more rare than what they initially thought. Even if we fought the cancer and got me into remission – this thing was going to come back. No matter how hard we hit it, it was going to keep coming back. There was something they wanted to do, something that could assist in making me completely well and healed.

They wanted to do a procedure called a bone marrow transplant. What they wanted to do was to get me into remission by treating me with chemotherapy. But then find somebody somewhere in the world, whose DNA matched mine so distinctly that doctors would literally take their immune system out of their body and put it into mine. And hope that my body would recognize it enough as its own and it would essentially start growing new white blood cells from an entirely new person. That is like real magic.

So they went and they tested my biological sister, and my own biological sister wasn’t a close enough match. Which was a huge blow to the situation. So then they went into this database that the national bone marrow donor program keeps and they told me that of the 7 million-person database, I had 16 possible matches. Out of those 16 possible matches, they found one perfect match. It was a 19 year old female. We found one perfect match.

We were elated and so excited that there was someone out there who was not only a match but, after being contacted, was willing to give their blood and was brave enough to give me what I needed to live.


They used this terminology like, you will be born a new person, you will be given a new birthday. You will be like a baby inside a mothers womb all over again.


So they began the process and began the chemotherapy. Those first ten days literally destroyed me. As we went through the process, they used this terminology like, you will be born a new person, when we transplant this and put this new blood inside of you, you will be given a new birthday. You will be like a baby inside a mothers womb all over again. I had heard that terminology before in Scripture, [the Bible], so I was thinking that this was kind of weird.

I am literally dying a death, and then they brought that bag of blood into the room, the whole time, this whole process just waiting to get this new blood on the inside of me and they stuck it into my IV. The new blood began to run into my body. The doctors and nurses, everybody involved were hoping my body would accept this new blood. And it did. My body accepted this new blood and it slowly began to build a new immune system and I am completely cancer free today.  I am 100% cancer free.

It’s no longer I who lives, but someone else who lives inside of me. When they look at my blood now, when they investigate it, they don’t see a 30-year-old male; they see a 19 year old female. I literally have XX chromosomes living on the inside of me. It was a substitution of blood on my behalf so that I could live again; and so that the deception of my body would die. That to me is really difficult to ignore when I asked God to reveal himself to me. That is very difficult to ignore.


I believe that all of us have a spiritual cancer that’s eating us away on the inside. We are dying and we are begging for somebody to intervene and step in on our behalf.


I believe that all of us have a spiritual cancer that’s eating us away on the inside. When we really take a look at it, we are dying and we are begging for somebody to intervene and step in on our behalf.  There is not a question in my mind that the only answer for the human condition is Jesus. My life with Jesus has completely changed as a result of my darkest hour. I am actually thankful for the process I went through.  As a skeptic and a magician, I fully believe. I fully believe in not only who God is, but also what He did for me. There is no question in my mind.

My name is Jim Munroe, and I Am Second.