Is fear real? Is fear fake? Is fear a mindset? Is fear a reaction?
I found myself asking these questions about fear in the midst of unexpected life change. Out of nowhere my world was turned upside down. Weeks of stress left me exhausted and overwhelmed in a whirlwind of fears.
Prior to this catastrophe I slept through the night, I made decisions confidently without second-guessing myself, and overall life as I knew it was pretty good. But now every decision I made was filtered through the lens of underlying fear.
When asked a simple question in the drive thru one day, “Would you like ketchup with that?” I was unable to answer and just sat there with tears pooling in my eyes. In that moment I realized I needed to get a grip on myself. I thought I really might be going crazy. Honestly, I could no longer answer the simplest questions without being fearful of making the wrong decision. Who had I become? I was now insecure, indecisive, inconsistent, irritated and irrational with my every thought. How did I let it get to this point? Fear was overtaking my life, my thoughts, and my wellbeing.
Surely you too have wrestled with fear? Fear of the future, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of loss, etc. you name it we’ve all had our struggles with fear.
So what do you do when fear takes you out and you feel paralyzed emotionally, mentally and even physically? When your mind races with endless worse case scenarios, you toss and turn all night long and you find yourself with sweaty palms and heart racing throughout the day.
How do you overcome the torment of fear?
I would love to tell you I have three simple steps that work like magic and you’ll never have to deal with fear again, but as far as I know that does not exist. I did, however, find the pathway to overcoming fear when it rears its ugly head. Because let’s face it, fear is not going down without a fight. Fear’s job is to knock you down, keep you stuck and leave you questioning and confused.
There is one pathway I understand to be true for overcoming fear, and that is to know PEACE. Peace is the opposite of fear. If we truly know peace the second it leaves, we will know it immediately. It’s like a red flag in our spirit goes off that we are out of alignment.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of focusing too much on what is wrong verses what is right. That is a tactic of fear. The more we focus on fear the more room we allow for it in our life. We want to focus on peace, and we must be intentional about it. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and He is our protégé to follow. All throughout scripture Jesus carries a tone of peace through His actions, words and character. Read through the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you will get to know Jesus intimately, and learn how to live out peace in your life.
Setting our minds and hearts each day on Christ is the way to truly know and experience peace. Make no excuses, do what it takes to build a strong intimate relationship with Jesus, and I promise you will be able to overcome every fear that comes your way.
About our guest:
Linda Kuhar is a Christian Life Coach, Board Certified Coach with the Center for Credentialing & Education, and has led women worldwide through online Bible studies. Linda is a speaker and the author of Worthy of a Miracle, 5 Simple Truths for Believing and Receiving God’s Love. Her book is about her miraculous recovery from cancer and a coma given less than 5% chance of survival and still struggled with a question so many wrestle with: “Am I worthy of God’s love?” For more inspiration and encouragement from Linda visit www.lindakuhar.com
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2
Pride, envy, bitterness, resentment, fear, anxiety, anger, low self-esteem, doubt, depression, and a poverty mindset. These are just some of the high gravity, negative emotions, feelings, and thinking patterns that aggressively compete for space in our minds. If allowed, they will shape and color our behaviors – not just in our generation, but they can also propagate and be passed down to our kids and their kids and then their kids. Get the picture?
But, before you read any further, I need to give a disclaimer: If you are on a genuine quest for truth, want to take ownership of your behaviors and thinking, want to live a fulfilled life of joy, have healthy relationships with other people, and experience deliverance from the chains which have been holding you back, then I challenge you to keep on reading. But if you’re more concerned with living in denial, manipulating the facts, preserving your sensitive ego, and making excuses, then go ahead and stop now.
Listen up! It’s time to post the eviction notice, light up the ‘No Vacancy’ over your mind, and kick out the thinking patterns, ideas, and behaviors that are holding you back, and keeping you from reaching your maximum potential. Stop letting toxic behaviors take up valuable real estate in your soul. But there’s a catch…you’re going to need to take a long, hard, HONEST look and do a critical assessment. Each “self-reflection moment” even needs to bring with it a little bit of discomfort. It should hurt a little bit when you’re rooting out these chronic, systemic, and woven-in thinking patterns, ideas, and behaviors because if it strikes a nerve, then that’s a good indicator that you’re probing and cleaning the decay and rot out of the right area.
Your brain is hardwired to absorb information and then adapt itself around it. Our perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs are shaped and formed by what we hear and see. From the moment we’re born, we are being programmed with information. The things we saw and heard growing up set the stage for the climate of our mindscape – the place where information is processed and analyzed to form our perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. What was spoken over us and about us, in those early years of development, established both the framework of our mind and the lens through which we view the world around us.
The information which we allow to take up residence in our minds is the driving force behind our attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs. These then dictate our behaviors and how we respond to people and circumstances. So, that means to live our best life, and fulfill our God-intended purpose; we’ve got to ask ourselves some pretty straight forward questions.
When you were growing up, what information did you routinely see and hear?
What information was helpful and healthy?
What information was hurtful and toxic?
What type of information are you taking in daily?
Is there ANY SIMILARITY between what you saw and heard growing up and what you hear and see today, and is this affecting your current behaviors, relationships, climate, and quality of life?
In what ways do you feel that information has impacted or affected your behaviors and viewpoints today?
The ‘No Vacancy’ sign of our hearts and minds needs to be lit up. But how do we do that?
By first evicting the negative and then replacing it with what is positive. The only way to keep the negative thoughts and information from taking up residence and occupancy is for those spaces and rooms to be already filled.
Many of us have been to a hotel or motel. Often we’ll call ahead or check online to see if there is space available. If all the rooms are already booked up, what does the hotel say? “No Vacancy.” The hotel isn’t saying that to be mean, they’re merely saying all the rooms are ALREADY FILLED. That means there’s no room for you.
The same principle can apply to your heart and mind. If healthy thinking patterns and beliefs already occupy our mental and emotional rooms, then there’s no room for whatever is unhealthy or toxic – because we’ve lit up the ‘No Vacancy’ sign.
Success is something that most people want; it’s written into the very fabric of our souls.
But there’s a stark and massive difference between simply wantingand engaging in actions and behavior, which will result in the attainment of success.
In today’s multimedia and social media connected world, we have near-constant access to the profiles, pictures, and videos of the rich and famous partaking in the fruits of their success. The fast, exotic European luxury cars, private jets, exclusive yachts, sprawling estates, six-pack abs, bronze-tan skin, perfect hairdos, and custom-fitted clothes.
We see the wealth and luxuries of another person’s lifestyle and wish it could all be ours too. Many times we obsess to the point of becoming envious and depressed – because it seems too far away and unattainable.
In reality, behind each social media post and celebrity-centric news story, we don’t see the hard work, discipline, and dedication that it has taken for those people to achieve their economic, social, business, or educational status. Perhaps, even more importantly, what we also don’t see are the heartaches, struggles, pain, and tears that they have been through, while they were on their journey – but that is another topic best saved for another post.
Because we have a habit of looking at the world through a superficial lense, I want to narrow the focus on the things which we don’t focus on every time we look at the lives of the successful.
Today, I’m going to zoom in on the “7 Keys of Successful People”.
#1: Truly successful people don’t lounge around in bed all day. Instead, they wake up well before the average person. Think about this: If you live to become 80 years old, that means you have 29,200 days to live your life on this side of eternity. So, let’s do the math. There are 24 hours in a day, and if you live 29,200 days, you have precisely 700,800 hours to accomplish everything you were created to do. To look at it another way, if your sleeping 8+ hours a day, that means that over the course of your life you would have spent at least 233,600 hours sleeping. That is a third of your life! Genuinely successful people value rest and understand the need for a good night’s rest, but they also know that the moment their feet hit the floor, they are on the clock and only have about two-thirds of their day to plant, cultivate, and grow.
#2: Successful people have an active vision and plan which covers the short term (9-12 months), the near term (3-5 years), the long term (5-10 years) and a legacy term (10-20+ years). They write the plan down, filter it through seasoned counsel, and stick to it. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
#3: Successful and prosperous people read – A LOT! Every self-sustaining millionaire and billionaire will expand and enrich their knowledge base. They are continually learning and developing their minds. Sure, in this fast-paced society we live in, sometimes we don’t have the time to read an actual book, but what about audiobooks and podcasts? With the advantage of technology, there is almost no excuse for not enriching your mind with valuable information and tools to help you grow intellectually.
#4: Surround yourself with eagles; not turkeys. Those who are successful surround themselves and orbit around people who will give sound advice and speak the truth. They keep company with those who hold them accountable.
#5: If you’re on time, you’re late. Successful people know the value of a timeline and respect deadlines. They stay ahead of schedule and plan accordingly. They understand that time is a valuable and irreplaceable commodity. They don’t waste theirs or another person’s time by showing up at the last minute or canceling unannounced.
#6: A closed mind is a locked door to the world’s most valuable asset. Successful people are willing to listen and learn. Their ego is not so sensitive that they can’t take constructive criticism and not so big that there isn’t room for new ideas.
#7: Honest self-reflection yields the fruit of experience. A successful person will do a gut check and assess areas of weakness as pathways for growth. They see mistakes as an opportunity to learn, not as things from which to stubbornly shy away. Mistakes only become problems when they are chronic and permanent.
This is just a shortlist of some key ingredients which are employed by some of the most successful, influential, and wealthy people today. Your life is a gift from God, created for a unique and special purpose which only you can discover. Learn to live it intentionally and with a standard of excellence and one day you’ll look in the rear-view mirror and see that you’ve gone higher, farther and faster than you ever thought possible.
We live in a day and age where almost everyone has a smartphone, and many people are connected through some means of social media.
It can be a great tool through which to communicate with loved ones, friends, as well as providing a handy networking opportunity. Social media provides a fun and easy way to keep the people who are important to us, up to date with the latest happenings in our personal lives; regardless of the time and distance between everyone. In today’s information-centric environment, social media has the benefit of keeping everyone connected and informed about our latest vacation, birthday, or holiday get together.
Social media has truly taken the information domain by storm and revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with each other. Some statistics show that as of January 2019, there are 3.48 billion social media users. It is one of the most popular online actives, with over 79% of the U.S. population claiming to have some type of social media/networking profile. This means that at the beginning of the year, the United States had over almost 250 million social media users.
With the rapid rise and prolific use of social media, comes the shaping of behaviors, including how we manage our personal relationships. Just as people are staying connected and sharing information with one another, so more and more often, people have used social media as a vehicle to address personal conflict. The keyboard and screen provide a sense of distance and security when it comes to ‘people issues’. Social media has provided an all-to-convenient medium for those individuals who have a hard time engaging in healthy in-person communication or avoid resolving differences and disagreements face-to-face.
For those lacking a strong emotional center or positive self-image, social media provides a false sense of security through which they can engage in passive-aggressive or manipulative behaviors. Rather than invest in personal development and character growth, it’s easier for them to maneuver through the social media terrain in order to perpetuate their cycle of dysfunctional behavior.
There are entire fields of human behavior studies dedicated to the effect that social media has on our collective psyches, and there are a whole range of signs and symptoms which can help a person identify if there is a problem, but I’ll just hit up a few for now. Here’s a quick ‘Top 3’ list of negative social media behaviors which are telling signs of something much deeper going on.
#1 “Smoke and Mirrors”: Not everything in our lives needs to be shared in public. Discretion says that it’s best to keep some things to yourself, but if you absolutely feel the need to discuss the matter, at least do it with someone who can give you an honest, open, and mature opinion.
Needless to say, some people go on social media and simply allude to the fact that something is bothering them. This is a tactic used to get attention, rather than actually seek a genuine resolution to the problem – aka “Smoke and Mirrors. It’s a manipulative and immature way to seek support and only proves to aggravate one’s friends and family via their social media connections. Sometimes the “Smoke and Mirrors” offender will even post (what they believe are) clever memes or pictures, just to drive their point home. “Smoke and Mirrors” is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior and shows a lack of healthy, developed communication skills.
Mature people, who have a strong sense of self-confidence, do not feel the need to ‘beat around the bush’ or talk around a problem. Instead, they bring the issue to light, discuss it with an open mind, and seek a positive outcome. A good rule of thumb is this: Got a problem or an issue with someone that needs to be resolved? Simply talk to them face-to-face. What if it’s a more complicated matter and you’re not sure how to handle it? Get some solid and sound advice from someone you respect, who is outside of the issue, will tell you what you need to hear not want to hear, then revisit the matter.
Bottom line: Quit using “Smoke and Mirrors” to tap-dance around an issue and stop hiding behind the keyboard. Social media isn’t meant to be a trashcan for half-canned whining or complaining.
#2 “WIMI” (Where Is My Invitation) syndrome: One of the great features of social media is the fact that we can share important dates and events with other people. We all like to share pictures from our latest group event. Pictures of concerts, sporting events, birthday parties, etc. We’ve all captured these special ‘moments in time’ and posted them on our social media network to share the latest event in our lives. Unfortunately, this comes an all too familiar unpleasantry.
Sometimes, within our social media spheres, there’s that one person who seems to browse and troll their friends and family’s posts just to cast shade and breathe a cold chill. Their comments seem to drain the color out of whatever fun or joy was felt during the event you just posted about. Rather than feel and express genuine happiness for the those who engaged in the social event, they make passive-aggressive statements like “Looks like everyone had fun, even if I wasn’t there” or a sarcasm laced “Must have been nice…thanks for the invite.” Comments like these come from a person who operates from a mentality of entitlement and self-subscribed victimhood. Instead of celebrating the moment, they decide to punish those who shared in the festivities by injecting a sense of guilt for not being invited.
For a person with “WIMI syndrome,” it’s not that they actually wanted to be a part of the event; instead, their response says that they feel entitled to an invite and slighted that other people could possibly have fun without them. “WIMI syndrome” is a manipulation tactic and mind game used to exert control within a group dynamic. It’s used to ensure that no one within the group dynamic will have a social gathering or event without first giving an obligatory invitation. A person with “WIMI syndrome” wants an invite, even if they don’t plan on attending in the first place. Interestingly, they will actively engage in the very behavior which they accuse other people of doing. They will even intentionally post pictures on social media of events, (to which they didn’t invite others) for the purposes of being exclusive, spiteful or invoking a sense of jealousy and or isolation in others.
#3 “Your post is about me”: Social media is a wonderful platform for people to share new ideas, concepts, or discuss life issues. There are countless quotes to help us improve how we think, behave, and live. From gentle daily inspirations to more hard-hitting sayings.
Often these quotes may come from a great military leader, a successful businessperson, a self-help book, a sports coach, a scripture verse, or even a conversation with a mentor. These nuggets of wisdom are little pieces of truth which serve to either inspire us to do better or teach us a valuable lesson. With the convenience of social media, these parables and teachings can be shared, at light-speed, with those in our circle of connections, as well as the entire world.
Most people embrace and share these inspirational sayings, but then there are some people who look at them through a different lens. These people will hunt and peck for reasons to believe that every positive affirmation meme or life-coaching statement is aimed at them. Not only do they feel that they are the target, but they think that the posts are somehow a way of conveying a message about them. This often caused by one or more of the following three things:
They’re insecure, have a poor self-image, and are paranoid about the perceptions of others.
They’re vain and believe that they occupy the majority of a person’s thought life.
The words in the post are like a mirror…reflecting back something about themselves which they don’t like.
Self-reflection is a quality that a “Your post is about me” person often lacks. They don’t like it when someone in their social media circle posts something about life, character, or personal development. In fact, such topics make them uncomfortable. Rather than pause and ask themselves some self-reflective questions about why they feel that way, they get offended and retaliate. Often the retaliation will be through the very same means which they are accusing the other person of doing. Their social media pages are often filled with cheap pre-formatted ‘copy-and-paste’ pictures, memes or and gifs riddled with unoriginal and cliché ‘fortune-cookie-quality’ messages that only act as an echo chamber for their delusional, ridged, unteachable, and self-absorbed thinking.
Even though social media wasn’t invented during the time the Bible was written, there are principles in God’s Word which are timeless when it comes to the way we communicate with others, regardless of the medium and vehicle.
Wow! That’s about as blunt as it gets. Our thoughts, intentions, and motives are always known to the Creator of the universe, no matter how hard we try to rationalize or heap layers of emotional camouflage on top.
If there are negative, self-promoting feelings behind our actions, then those motives will be transparent to others. If we’re not trying to build someone up and be positive, then it’s best not to say anything at all.
This is a tough one. Notice how the course of action is placed on keeping our thoughts in the right place. It is from our thoughts that we derive our motives, and it is our motives which color and flavor our actions, no matter how “right” they may seem. We have to be very careful not to do the RIGHT THING for the WRONG REASONS.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, this is not an all-encompassing list of negative behaviors. As social media use expands, it becomes increasingly essential for us to be mindful of our actions.
What those behaviors are saying to others in our networks and social media links?
Is our electronic communication reflecting authenticity and genuine goodwill?
Are we engaging in a positive way?
What is our social media behavior saying the others about our character and inner self?
Relationship: The way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected. (1) a connection, association, or involvement. (2) connection between persons by blood or marriage. (3) An emotional or other connection between people.
Expectation: The act or the state of expecting: to wait in expectation. (1) The act or state of looking forward or anticipating. An expectant mental attitude: a high pitch of expectation. (2) Something expected; a thing looked forward to. (3) Often expectations; a prospect of future good or profit: to have great expectations. (4) The degree of probability that something will occur.
There are so many types of relationships, and everyone is in one or more. From the not so deep relationship, such as the driver of the car next to you, sharing the road on the morning commute, to the deeper business relationships such as employer-employee; landlord-tenet; bank-borrower; seller-buyer. Then, of course, there are the relationships we have with our friends and co-workers. Then the relationships go even deeper. How about a family? Mom, dad, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The family relationship dynamic can be even more personal, such as husband, wife, and children.
Regardless of the size, scope, depth, and proximity of the relationship, the fact remains that we are all in one.
As we saw in the opening definition, a relationship is essentially the description of how two or more people are connected. With every relationship comes a certain level of expectation. A landlord expects the rent to be on time. The bank expects the borrower to repay the debt per the terms of lending. The employer expects the employee to do an honest day’s work. If the expectations of the business relationship are not met, there are consequences; things like eviction, repossession, and being fired. Likewise, the tenant expects a decent place to live, the borrower expects the bank to adhere to the terms of the loan, and the employee expects to be paid for his or her hard work.
Just as there are expectations to be met in our business relationships, so there are expectations to be met in our personal relationships. The most common expectations within every personal relationship are:
To be enriched
To be valued
To be respected
Relationships can be divided into two basic categories: toxic and healthy. The more personal and close the relationship, the deeper these categories come into focus.
Here is a quick list of 8 signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s toxic and 8 signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s healthy:
8 signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s toxic:
1. They are thin-skinned and look for reasons to be offended. In other words, some people are on a quest to find offense in places, where most REASONABLE people won’t. Nearly every action/word is scrutinized & picked apart to find SOMETHING to be a victim over.
2. They hold grudges and are slow to forgive. It’s all about keeping score of every offense for a toxic person; not ever actually coming to a resolution or moving past faults or mistakes. As long as there is a grudge, they feel validated in being a victim.
3. They blame shift. This means they never take ownership and grow from their mistakes; instead, they point fingers and shift the topic of blame to someone or something else. They subscribe to the notion that two wrongs make a right, everyone else is wrong, and it’s someone else’s fault.
4. They don’t self-reflect. Self-reflection is like personal hygiene. It has to be done consistently every day. Failure to do so results in bad breath and body odor. The same goes for hearts and minds, hence the saying, “Your attitude stinks.” Toxic people rarely look inward to see how they can grow, improve, and be a better person. They expect everyone else to adapt to them and simply accept their dysfunction.
5. They have anti-social behavior. Toxic people have a hard time engaging in meaningful and enhancing group dynamics (big or small). In their mind, three’s a crowd; because more people mean less of an opportunity to be the center of attention.
6. They like to be spoon-fed. A toxic person wants to be pampered and coddled. It keeps them at the center of your attention. It also prevents them from ever assuming responsibility or risk. They’ll rely on others to make even the most straightforward decisions; why? So, they don’t have to think for themselves. If the decision fails, they can always divert blame away from themselves and onto the decision-maker.
7. They like using guilt. Toxic people are the travel agents for guilt trips. It’s one of their primary means to manipulate those around them and hurt those who are closest to them. They will try to leverage your personal beliefs/values/experiences/education or economic status as a way to compel a sense of shame in order to get you to respond their way.
8. They play relationship games. Toxic people handpick those who they think they can manipulate and align with to make themselves look good. To a toxic person, people can be used as pawns on a chessboard, to shape the perceptions that other people have. In other words, a toxic person will pretend sincerity and innocence to gain unwitting allies.
8 Signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s healthy
1. They have thick skin, are not easily offended, and see the best in others. They have a great sense of humor and don’t sweat the small stuff. They have a genuine, engaging nature and always have something positive/encouraging to say.
2. They don’t live in the past. They live by the motto of “forgive, grow, and move forward,” They don’t focus on the negative or keep a list of offenses and hurt feelings.
3. They take ownership of their mistakes, learn from them, and become better. They are quick to offer a genuine apology and then invest in the mending process.
4. They take the time to do daily self-reflection. They measure their thoughts, words, and actions by doing honest gut-checks. They are self-aware and have high emotional intelligence.
5. They love engaging in meaningful and enriching relationships. They play well with others and don’t seek to be the center of attention. They seek out people who will challenge and encourage them to grow; they are a fountain and not a drain.
6. They are self-sustaining and like a challenge. They are not co-dependent on others but are secure in their personhood and have a positive self-image. They are equitable partners both in business and personally.
7. They are above-board and honest. Integrity is their watchword – no hidden agendas or ‘sleight-of-hand.’ They share their opinions and feelings with authenticity and respect without resorting to name-calling, manipulation, or guilt.
8. They treasure and protect the relationships they have. They believe people are priceless gems to be valued, not chess pieces to be played. They never play ‘both sides against the middle’ or use one person to spite or tear down the reputation of another.
Everyone has their bad days; no human being will exhibit all of the healthy qualities all the time, but a good way to gauge which direction the relationship is leaning, is to do a measurement. If there are more toxic behaviors than healthy, then it’s a safe bet that you’re in a negative relationship. Likewise, the opposite holds true; if there are far more healthy traits than toxic traits, than odds are the relationship is healthy.
Remember, relationships take work and we engage in the intentional ‘care-and-feeding’ of the relationships which we value most.
I challenge all of us to reflect on the above list. Jesus was the only one who ever lived that was perfect, but He left for us a model to live by and showed us how to steward the relationships we have with each other.
October 3rd, 2017. It was early in the morning; the sun hadn’t even risen yet.
The sky wore the faint glow of predawn light, and the stars twinkled as twilight hung onto the night before the first sunbeam crossed the eastern horizon. Erica, Isabella and I walked outside to the car, our breath creating little puffs of steam against the chilly autumn morning. We were heading to the hospital; within a matter of hours, a new human life would come into this world.
This wasn’t my first trip to the delivery room, but I was just as nervous. Half asleep, Isabella sat in the back seat next to the little car seat which would carry her newborn baby brother.
As we drove to the hospital, I reached over and held Erica’s hand. I knew she was nervous and feeling anxious. Having a baby is a big deal and a significant life event for anyone on their best day. We had already been through so much as a family, so the size and magnitude of everything going on seemed so much more significant. Still, even though we felt moments of nervousness and anxiety, we relied on God and our church family who surrounded us with prayer, love, and support.
The car GPS said that the trip would take about 30 minutes – I think I got there a little sooner than that. As we pulled into the hospital parking lot, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw Isabella had fallen back asleep. “Isabella, we’re here. Time to wake up sweetie,” I said. Isabella yawned and stretched, “Oh we’re already here? That was fast,” she replied, half asleep and half awake.
I pulled the car up to the very front of the building and into one of the parking spaces labeled ‘EXPECTING MOMS.’ “Wow, this is for real…today is the day…I’m gonna meet my son!”, I thought to myself.
Once we were all settled into the hospital, the whole check-in process took less than half-an-hour. Soon, Erica was escorted into her private delivery room, and we were introduced to the team of nurses who would be helping deliver the baby. The lead nurse took Erica’s blood pressure and other vital signs, while Isabella and I checked out the room where we’d be spending the next several hours. Then she began the process of inducing Erica’s labor. The doctor came in the room soon after just to fill us in on what to expect. I asked him what time he thought Erica might deliver the baby; he chucked and jokingly said, “Definitely before 7pm because that’s when my favorite TV show comes on!”
As the morning wore on, Isabella got hungry, so I went and picked up some breakfast at a fast-food restaurant down the street. When I got back to the hospital, one of Erica’s close friends from church was in the delivery room, keeping Erica company. Childbirth is a unique and emotional event for any family; even more so for ours. Although we were many miles away from biological relatives, we were never alone because we had our church family there with us. For the next several hours, Erica’s friend and Christian Sister stayed by her side, to keep her company, comfort her, and pray with her.
Soon lunch time came around, and the nurses were checking on Erica more frequently. Based on the progress she was making; she would be going into labor very soon. Around noon, the first wave of massive contractions kicked in. By this point, the nurse had already called the doctor, who was in his office down the hall and provided him an update. Based on how far apart and how intense the contractions were, it wouldn’t be long before Erica would need to start pushing.
As the contractions increased in intensity and frequency, the nurse asked Erica how she was feeling. Erica replied that she felt intense pressure and pain. When the nurse checked her progress in dialation, she was surprised and said that Erica was ready to start pushing. Then the nurse quickly called for the doctor to come in and begin the delivery process.
Meanwhile, Erica’s friend and Isabella rushed out of the room while the doctor ran in to start delivering the baby. We had agreed before hand that Isabella should stay in the waiting room with Erica’s friend while she was going throught the actual delivery.
Once the doctor arrived, he asked enthusiastically, “So, how’s everyone doing? Y’all ready to have a baby today?”, as the nurses helped him put on his gown, mask, and gloves. “How ya doing momma? Ya feelin’ alright?”, he said to Erica as he checked the charts and vitals. Erica tiredly replied, “Yes…I’m just ready…to get this done.”
“Hey dad, how you doin’ sir? You look nervous…you nervous?”, the doctor chuckled and joked. I smiled and replied, “I’m good to go doc…ready to do this.”
By this point, the contractions were coming closer and closer together and had merged into nearly one long contraction. The doctor looked at the monitor screen and waited until the next big one. “Alright Erica, you should be feeling another big contraction any moment…as soon as you do, I want you to push until I say stop…you ready?”, the doctor said. Before he even finished his sentence, he suddenly shouted, “NOW!!!…PUSH…PUSH…PUSH…C’MON, THAT’S IT.
Erica’s squinted and winced, her face became bright red as she bore down and pushed. My hand went numb, and the blood left my fingers as she squeezed my hand until it felt like my fingernails were going to pop off.
One push…two pushes, then suddenly the doctor said to Erica, “Alight mom…you got this…this is it…this next contraction you’re gonna have this baby. You’re almost there. One more big push.” Then the doctor looked over at me, “Dad when I say ‘PUSH,’ I want you to tell her she’s got this…tell her to push as hard as she can.” I nodded and looked Erica in the eyes. “You got this honey…get ready…our little guy is almost here.”
I had scarcely spoken the words when Erica’s face winced up again, and the doctor shouted, “PUSH…C’MON MOMMA…PUSH!”. I echoed the doctor’s words and excitement, “Yeah Erica, push…ya got this honey…push”.
As Erica was pushing and bearing down with all her might, I saw the doctor quickly reach down and tell the nurses to get ready. One nurse stepped closer to the doctor, while the other went to check the heat-lamp, scale, and other stuff they would need once our baby was born.
While I was looking over at the two nurses setting up the post-delivery equipment, I suddenly saw out of the corner of my eye a wiggly, wet little person appear. “Well, here is he is! It’s a boy, dad! You’ve got a boy; did you already know that?” Before I could entirely focus my eyes and attention on what I was seeing, a mighty little cry pierced through the moment.
Meanwhile, what we didn’t know is that Isabella had refused to go to the waiting room and insisted on standing right outside the door to the delivery room until she heard the cries of her new baby brother.
Interestingly, the hospital had a tradition of playing a cute little tune over the announcement system everytime a baby was delivered. So, just as the new baby tune played in the room, another nurse came by and told Isabella that she had to go to into the waiting room. Even though she was filled with excitement, Isabella reluctanely complied.
As the nurses held my little boy in the receiving blankets, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy. Nothing and no one will ever replace my dad Michael, my little brother Benjamin, or my precious daughter Elizabeth. But at that moment, it felt like the wounds caused by those traumatic losses were soothed with the healing touch of hope and life.
I determined in my heart that none of the darkness, trauma, and pain which I had to walk through would ever touch that little boy. I looked at him and vowed that he would be loved, protected, trained, and developed into a man who is confident about his God-ordained purpose and destiny.
As I held his tiny hand in mine, I leaned over and whispered in my son’s ear, “I’m never going to leave you son…your daddy’s never going leave you”.
When my dad Michael committed suicide, he didn’t know the cascade effect it would have across multiple generations in one family. He was stolen away by an unremorseful enemy of the human soul. Over the span about 30 years the same enemy, which caused my dad to give up hope, had lurked in the shadows. It whispered wicked lies of self-loathing and self-harm to other people within my family.
The enemy wasn’t satisfied with merely causing misery. No, instead it delighted in creating pain and suffering, all of which is part of it’s ruthless and cold-blooded objective – to kill, steal, and destroy.
The same enemy, which preyed on my dad’s mind, eviscerated and consumed every shred of my little brother Benjamin’s confidence and self-worth. It weaved a web of deception and substance abuse around his mind – to the point where he ended up dying from alcohol poisoning two months before his 19th birthday.
In the years which followed the passing of my little brother, the enemy would end up wreaking havoc by stealing four more people within my family. Each loss echoed with a sense of helplessness; as if those of us left behind could do nothing to stop it. It felt like the enemy was telling us that we had to just to sit there, take it, and wait for the next one to happen. Heartache and pain became a repeated drumbeat through my entire immeditate and extended family…but for me, nothing was as personal or painful as what I had to endure in 2015 when that same enemy took my oldest daughter Elizabeth.
To see my child taken from me in the same violent way that my dad, her grandfather, was taken, was too raw, real, and personal. I knew that something had to be done. The destruction had to stop. Elizabeth was just a 15-year-old girl full of life, beauty, and promise…and yet that same enemy, who had destroyed and stolen the lives of so many other people in my family, took my daughter’s life too.
It was time to make that enemy pay.
And so I embarked on a journey of healing, purpose, and hope. It was an active counter-offensive comprised of six lines of effort:
Strengthening my spirit and deepening my relationship with God.
Healing my mind from everything I had suffered.
Sharpening my life’s vision and taking active steps to make that vision reality.
Recognizing chronic toxic behaviors.
Defining and setting boundries on those who refuse to think, operate, or be in relationships in a healthy way.
Knowing and embracing my God-created purpose and living it unapologetically and boldly.
To put action into these lines of effort, I leaned on two essential resources:
A strong cadre of people who could speak life, wellness, strength, and help me rehabilitate my mind from the horrible things I had witnessed. These individuals were also dedicated to helping me sort through layer upon layer of damage which had been caused by the dysfunction, abuse, and manipulation I suffered through during my childhood.
Fellowship with people who shared the same values of life, purpose, and faith. I became part of a family of Believers who could keep me accountable, provide encouragement, and pray with me as I embraced life with tenacity and intentionality.
As momentum built and I advanced along my six lines of effort, I began to see growth and changes. A vision began to take shape, and clarity of purpose was forming. This means building a legacy of excellence and prosperity in every aspect of my life – mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually – a legacy where God’s very best is woven into the fabric of not just my life, but the lives of those who come after me.
My vision became plain – establish a legacy of life, promise, and hope built on the endless love of a Sovereign God.
“A little boy. I can’t believe I’m having a little boy.”
This thought kept playing over and over in my mind. I was so excited, but I was also scared. I questioned my ability to be a father to a son. For so long, I had carried the wounds inflicted on my heart and soul by my own dad; I didn’t want those to transcend to my own son. As much as I was filled with joy at the prospect of raising a little boy, I also spent a lot of time in prayer.
I wanted to be intentional and honor every engagement I had with him.
Another concern on my mind was the overall health of the pregnancy. Often times, a sudden and tragic loss, like the one we had experienced with Elizabeth, causes a person to be hyper-vigilant. As a person begins to heal and adjust to their post-trauma, they may still wrestle with fear and anxiety of another bad thing happening. This was our struggle. We were barely recovering from walking a parent’s worst nightmare – we didn’t want to lose another child.
That constant state of alert is a typical symptom and side-effect of a catastrophic life event. It was one of the many reasons why we stayed active and engaged with our counseling and therapy. Not only was the treatment a considerable help, but we were blessed to have such a beautiful and loving church family. Because we were the newest and smallest of all the expansion church sites, there was a tight-knit bond. They really became an extension of our little family. Each one of these Brothers and Sisters knew what we had been navigating and the journey that God had us on. Even though Erica and I wrestled with concern and worry, we were able to lean on our church family for prayer and support.
Then, towards the end of the second trimester, something happened, which caused the fear and anxiety to rise and suddenly return. For women who are 35 and above, pregnancies are often considered to be at a higher risk for complications, so about once a week, we would go in for an ultrasound. One afternoon, a few days after one of the ultrasounds, Erica received a phone call from the doctor’s office. “Hello?”Erica said, answering the phone. A few moments went by, and Erica didn’t say anything, but I could tell something wasn’t right. “Uh huh…yeah…ok. Well, is that serious?”, she said as the look on her face changed from puzzled to concerned. “Ok then, I’ll be in first thing in the morning…thank you for calling…bye-bye”.
While Erica was talking, I could sense that she was concerned, and I was wondering if it was the doctor’s office calling regarding the baby. “What was that all about?” I nervously asked. “That was the doctor’s office calling about the results from the last ultrasound…they said it looked like there were some unusual fluctuations in the amniotic fluid.”, Erica replied.
At this point, I went from just being nervous, to actually feeling scared. I could feel my heart rate go up, and my thoughts raced to a bunch of worst-case scenarios.
“So, what does that mean? Is the baby ok?”I impatiently asked.
“Well, they said that it could affect the baby’s development, so they want me to come in for another ultrasound and then have regular testing. That’s all I know. We’ll find out more tomorrow.”
Erica’s answer only seemed to feed my anxiety, but regardless of what I was feeling, deep in my heart, I knew that God hadn’t brought us that far or carried us through so much, just to let us down. Confident defiance rose up in my heart against the anxiety. I wasn’t going to let myself be shaken by a list of ‘what-if’ scenarios fed by the PTSD and grief, which I had been growing through and healing from.
The following day we went back to the doctor and went over the results of the last ultrasound. I asked a lot of questions, and by the end of the visit, I felt much better. The doctor and his staff told us that overall everything was going well, they just wanted to keep an eye on the fluid levels around the baby. Part of their diagnosis and instructions was for Erica to not be on her feet as much and to ease up on the work she was doing around the house. That meant I’d have to step up the pace at home and take on more responsibility.
Late August / Early September 2017.
Erica continued her weekly ultrasounds, and I went to as many as I could. My leadership at work was supportive and allowed me the flexibility to take care of Erica so she could get as much rest as possible, per the doctor’s orders. The anticipation and excitement grew with every passing weekly ultrasound. Seeing that little boy wiggle and kick on the screen made my heart swell with pride. The grainy black and white image clearly showed his strong arms and legs flexing as if he was showing off for us. Other times he would have his hands balled up in little fists blocking his face, like a rugged boxer waiting to throw the first punch.
At one point we asked the nurse if the ultrasound machine was capable of creating a multi-dimensional image. With the flip of a switch, the monitors suddenly displayed a vivid picture of our little boy. It was so detailed, that we could see the creases in his lips, contorts of his eyes, and little wisps on his head gently waving back and forth whenever he moved. “See that?” the nurse said, pointing to the little wisps, “that’s his hair…your son is gonna have a full head of hair.”
Erica and I looked at each other and smiled. I was born with a full head of hair too. I wondered what color his hair was going to be.
We only had about a month or so before we’d finally meet our little boy. We already had his name picked out too – Marcus. I chose that name on purpose and for a particular reason.
My dad’s first name was Michael. Now no disrespect meant toward my dad, but there is a lot of emotional gravity associated with that name for me. His choice to end his own life had a massively devastating effect which cascaded into the lives of everyone connected to him – his parents, siblings, my mom; but most especially my little brother Benjamin (whom he never met) and me. I didn’t want my son to grow up feeling like he had to somehow make up for the mistakes of previous generations, just because he had their first name.
I also didn’t want to name him Matthew, after me. I didn’t want him feeling like he lived in my shadow or somehow influence him to think that he has to mimic me. Yes, there are things I’d like him to model, but I don’t want my son to subconsciously feel like he’s a facsimile of me or anyone else. No, I want him to grow stronger, fly higher, run faster, believe deeper, and know God even closer than I have. I don’t want my son to suffer the pain and hurt that I did, nor did I want him to struggle with the guilt or shame that I did, because of poor choices I had made in the past.
I want my son to know that he comes through me, not from me – that he really comes from God. Most of all, I want him to see that he was created for a purpose, that there is a Divine custom charted plan for his life, and that he is surrounded and immersed with an endless and boundless love by the God who created the entire universe.
While I wanted to give him a name which is uniquely his and captures his God-given individuality, I also wanted to weave in something which would be a common thread between multiple generations. At the same time, the name had to have a strong and positive meaning. I believe in the power of a name; it’s something that we will hear and identify with every single day of our lives. From the cradle to the grave, our name says who we are. It becomes our identity. When I named my son, I wanted it’s meaning to be imbued into his very character, heart, and soul.
He will become a warrior and leader who stands strong for what is right, and he is an example of God’s graciousness and favor.
So, with my task and purpose clear, I choose the name for my boy. His initials MJM would reflect the linkage between my name, Matthew James Mattera, and my dad, his grandfather, Michael John Mattera.
I named my son Marcus John Mattera. Marcus means Mighty Warrior and Leader; John means God has been gracious and shown favor.
Looking back now, I understand how traumatic events can affect and color our daily interactions with the rest of the world around us. A common symptom is being hyper-vigilant; basically, having a sense of impending doom and that something terrible is going to happen unexpectedly. All of these are some of the reasons why my family and I were so immersed in our counseling, therapy, and faith.
Whenever faced with those feelings, I reached back and drew upon everything I’d learned so far – a combination of prayer mixed with other healthy coping mechanisms.
With the news of having a boy becoming more and more real, maintaining a healthy emotional, mental, and spiritual climate in our home became my number one priority. I didn’t want my son to be born into an environment which was tainted with grief, sadness, or depression. I didn’t want the trauma which we had experienced to skew or blur the lenses with which he views the world.
None of the dysfunction or pain which I had to navigate will ever touch him. His life will be filled with happiness, joy, and love.
I am establishing a legacy of life, faith, and hope.
Erica, Isabella, and I were wholeheartedly engaged in pursuing healing, wholeness, and growth.
This meant staying plugged into the counseling and grief therapy, as well as staying involved and connected with our church. Every opportunity for training and personal development was another chance for us to grow stronger as a family, further heal, and sharpen the vision that God had placed on my heart.
As we continued to grow, something new and joyful was about to take place.
The seasons changed, and the cool dampness of the Hampton Roads autumn slowly gave way to winter’s frosty touch. The holiday season was in full splendor; the sights, sounds, and smells of Thanksgiving and Christmas filled the air. With the joy and celebration came a lingering sadness – it was yet another season of festivity and family, which echoed from the silence left by Elizabeth.
Isabella, our youngest daughter, missed her big sister so much. She looked up to Elizabeth…she admired Elizabeth…she aspired to be Elizabeth in so many ways.
For over 18 months Erica and I had been so focused on healing and keeping our sanity, that we had nearly forgotten about the secondary and tertiary effects caused by Elizabeth’s passing; foremost of which was the fact that Isabella had been left as an only child. Isabella’s best friend and big sister was gone – and she felt all alone.
Erica and I could see and sense that loneliness. We were used to having two children to raise and care for, yet with Elizabeth gone, we all felt like we were trying to walk with only one leg and no crutches.
It was around this time that Erica started talking about having another child, but I had a lot of trepidation and uncertainty about bringing another life into this world. My heart still hurt, and I wasn’t sure if it had enough room for another baby or if I could ever love another child again.
Even though I had a lot of uncertainty about the whole idea of having another baby, I knew deep down inside that Erica was right. So, as the winter of 2016 drew to a close and 2017 began, the dawn of a new era was ushered into our lives.
February has always been a significant month for our family. Not only do Erica and I celebrate our wedding vows within the first week of the month, but within a couple of days of our anniversary is Elizabeth’s birthday.
As the first week of February passed, Erica and I celebrated our nineteenth anniversary, which was followed by the emptiness and pain left behind by Elizabeth’s birthday, who would have been 17 years old.
That was our second birthday without her, and it was just as painful as the year before. It also served as a reminder that this was going to be our ‘new normal’. Elizabeth was on the other side of eternity, but here on this side of the invisible veil, time continues to track forward.
The gravity of that reality echoed with me for several days. In my soul I knew that to properly heal and step into the purpose God had laid out for us, we needed to move forward, and that allowed me to open my heart and arms to another child.
One evening, towards the end of the month, Erica had some news to share with me. “Matthew…I took a test, and just to make sure, I took two more. We’re going to have another baby.”
My heart and mind swirled with emotions. ‘Wow! That was fast’, I thought to myself. “Really honey…are you sure?”, I asked with a puzzled look on my face. We had barely started talking about having another baby, I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen this quickly.
“Yup…I took all three tests, and they all said the same thing. I also know what my body is telling me, and it says I’m pregnant.”
In the days which followed this fantastic news, the reality of it all sank in, and as the joy from the prospect of having another child welled up, part of my heart also ached. I felt guilty about the happiness I was feeling. In some strange way, I thought I was being untrue to the memory of Elizabeth. ‘Nothing and no one can ever replace you, sweetie’, I would think to myself. Tears would well up in my eyes as I quietly whispered, ‘You’ll always be my little baby and princess…I miss you so much…I wish you were still here’.
One afternoon, about two weeks after Erica told me the news of having a baby, I was driving my truck to the dump to do my weekly trash disposal. As I was driving along, a sweet little song came on the radio. It was a song about loving a new child and welcoming a baby into the world. My heart came unglued and the mix of powerful emotions I had been carrying burst out as healing tears streamed down my cheeks, Through the sobs, I began to pray:
“Ok God, I get it. This is from you. Now is the time…but God, in addition to Erica having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby, I ask one thing. Please let me have a son. If you give me a son, I’ll raise him to love you and be a strong warrior for your Kingdom. Please grant me the privilege of imbuing your Love, Word, and Law into the heart of a boy who will someday become a man. Help me be the father to him that you have been to me.”
That following Sunday, Erica and I added to the announcements list, which our pastor friend would share with the rest of the church, the news about us having another baby. As he went through the list of announcements, he paused, looked at the paper, and his face lit up. He looked up at Erica and me and said, “What! Is this true guys? Can I read it?”
I chuckled and told him yes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing announcement to make. Our friends, the Mattera family will be welcoming a new baby, and Isabella is praying for a baby brother.”
Everyone in our church family cheered and celebrated with us. Many of them knew about the difficult trials we had faced on our long journey; they knew how significant and healing having a baby was for our family.
As winter slowly passed, the prospect of having another life in our home was becoming more real. Isabella was actively believing and praying for a little brother. Erica and I secretly prayed the same prayer. A little boy meant so much on so many different levels. After the passing of my little brother Benjamin in 2004, I was the last male descendant of my father, Michael. That meant that unless I had a son, my father’s direct bloodline ended with me.
Once a week, Erica would go into the doctor’s office for an ultra-sound and checkup. The anticipation grew with each passing week; the heartbeat was strong, and the baby was growing at a steady, healthy rate, but we still didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl. Nearly every night, I prayed that in addition to the baby being healthy, that God would bless me with a son.
Sometime around mid-May, Erica went in for another ultrasound. This time it was going to be a more detailed and lengthy process, partially so we could discover if we were having a boy or girl. Erica arrived at the doctor’s office about 15 minutes before me. I left work early so I could meet her for the appointment.
It was exceptionally warm that day; the sun shone brightly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; it was as if nature decided to skip the rest of spring and jump right into summer. As I pulled my truck into the parking lot and walked towards the doctor’s office, my heart was pounding; I was nervous and excited.
I walked into the main medical building, met Erica in the doctor’s office, and the ultrasound technician greeted us. Soon we were settled in the exam room, and the procedure was underway.
First, we got to hear the baby’s heartbeat. Everything was strong and healthy. Then the technician asked if we wanted to know if we were having a boy or a girl. Time seemed to slow down. This was it…the moment I’d find out if we would be buying pink or blue; but more than that, I was going to find out if my last name would be passed on.
“Well, it looks like you guys are having a boy,” the ultrasound technician suddenly said. I could hardly believe my ears. “Are you sure?”, I asked in disbelief. “Are you sure we’re having a boy…how do you know?”
The technician chuckled and pointed to the screen. “Right here, see… it’s a boy.” My eyes became misty. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A boy…I was going to have a boy! So many feelings and thoughts ran through my mind. I thought about all the years I grew up without a dad. I was going to have the chance to be a daddy to a son and teach him everything I wish my dad had taught me. I was going to raise a little boy and watch him become a man – a man of honor, integrity, courage. Most of all, I was going to teach him about our Heavenly Father.
When the ultrasound appointment ended, Erica and I both walked towards the elevator to leave. As I walked Erica to her car, she asked, “So how do you feel? You’re going to have a little boy; isn’t that exciting?”
I was beaming from ear to ear; my face hurt from smiling so much. I could barely contain my joy, “Exciting??? You bet it’s exciting honey…I still can’t believe it! I’m gonna have a son!”, I exclaimed.
Erica opened her car door and started the ignition. I leaned over and gave her a kiss. “I love you, honey…everything is gonna be just fine…I can feel it”, I said as a sense of ease and confidence washed over me. Erica smiled back and said, “I know love. I’ll see you back at the house. Oh, and don’t forget to call your folks and tell them the good news.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s right. I’ve got to call my family back up in Rhode Island. They’re gonna love the hearing the happy news”, I replied. “I better run…I’ll call them while I’m on the way to the store.”
I helped Erica shut the car door and blew her a kiss as she pulled away. I walked back to my truck and headed to the grocery store to pick up stuff for that night’s dinner. I was so excited…who was I going to call first? I thought about it for a few moments and decided that the first person I should call is my grandmother, Nanny. Every loss in our family was her loss as well. She had lost two sons, a grandson, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter to the same self-harm and self-destruction. This time, instead of grieving another tragic loss, we were going to celebrate a new life and a new beginning. Adding to that joy was the fact that my father’s line and lineage lived on.
Nanny and I spoke for a few minutes, and during that conversation, I could hear the smile on that sweet lady’s face. After I talked to Nanny, I called my oldest uncle. He had also been affected by the same losses in our family. My uncle was thrilled when he heard the good news. After everything that happened in our family, after all the heartbreaking loss, there was a promise of renewed hope. As I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, my uncle and I wrapped up our conversation. It was nice to share the happy news with my family after we had been through so much.
I parked the truck and went into the store. As I finished my last bit of shopping, I took a quick stroll through the kid’s toy section and went straight to the area where all the boy’s toys are – trucks, cars, action figures, jet planes, and cap guns. There were creepy critters like rubber snakes and plastic spiders along with fierce dinosaurs and lions. All the toys, I used to like when I was a kid, were there. As much as times change, some things still remain the same. All of these classic toys were just like how I remembered them from over 30 years ago.
There were so many toys, I wasn’t sure where to start. That’s when I saw the little pocket-size cars and trucks. I used to love these when I was a little boy. I’d spend hours playing with them, setting up races and roads outside in the dirt. I’ve been a ‘car nut’ since I was a kid; it’s in the blood. My grandfather Papa owned a car dealership when I was young, and it was in the family for years. Automobiles are part of our DNA.
As soon as I saw those little toy cars, I knew I had to get them for my boy. These would be the first things that we’d bond over as father and son. So, as I looked at all the different colors, makes, and models of these miniature vehicles, I picked each one individually, based on what I used to play with. Muscle cars with flames, exotic racers with pinstripes, and 4×4 trucks with knobby tires. By the time I was done, I must have at least two dozen cars and trucks in the basket.
My soul swelled with joy and hope – all the right things which were missing from my childhood were going to be given to my son. At that moment, standing there in the store, with little toy cars in my hand, I determined in my heart, that he was going to get all the fatherly love, guidance, and mentorship I never had growing up. The reset button had been pressed, and we’d crossed into the horizon of a new chapter dedicated to building a legacy of hope, purpose, and life.
Losing my dad to suicide, and then growing up without any fatherly direction, had a massive impact on my life. I felt abandoned, adrift, and alone. 20 years later, when my little brother died from alcohol poisoning, those feelings deepened and spiraled into a dark, angry place. In the late fall of 2007, when Erica and I found out that we were having another girl, I questioned God.
During that time I was at the height of my internal conflict with Him because of all the painful feelings I was wrestling with. I used to think to myself, ‘I already had a daughter. Didn’t God see that I needed a son to connect with, raise, and pass on my name to?’
But when Isabella was born in April of 2008, she captivated my heart. Everything about her was perfect, sweet, innocent, precious, and priceless. The time for a son had not yet come to pass. There was still much ahead of our family, and the road we’d end up traveling would take us through very painful territory. In the things which unfolded on that journey, God knew we would need Isabella. He knew that our home would require that sweet special presence that only a little girl can bring.
So, we didn’t have a boy until several years later. It would be after Erica, and I suffered the hardest most horrific blow any parent could bear – the death of a child.
Despite having to navigate a loss, that words can hardly describe, this was the appointed time and season for God to give us a son. After I had faced my darkest hour, experienced so much heartbreak, and seen so much pain – after I had seen my own daughter taken from me the same way my dad’s life was stolen – that’s when I was ready to embark on the journey of raising a boy into a man.
I was ready to train a mighty warrior and leader for God and His Kingdom.
It had only been two days since I had planted a tree in remembrance of our daughter who we lost a year prior.
The time had come for my family and me to take the next step. It was time for me to answer the task and purpose which I felt on my life since I was a little boy.
Since the day of Elizabeth’s passing, that call from eternity had become a white-hot inferno deep in my soul.
Her passing had caused everything, which I had traversed and navigated throughout my life, to culminate into a massive center of gravity. Her loss was too personal and too precious to go unanswered. All the trauma I had gone through had to be used for good, but I didn’t know how.
Every tear, every loss, and every heartbreak stitched into the fabric of my life was preparing me for my created purpose. I began to see that God had woven a golden thread with each experience – the good, bad, and even the painful.
While I didn’t know what the details of His purpose on the map of my life looked like, the discovery of that purpose wasn’t something I’d be able to find on my own. The raw fire in my heart needed to be channeled and shaped into a usable forge in which God would fashion the tools I’d use to fulfill my life’s calling – and so, I felt God quietly speak to my heart. The first step in building that forge was to seek seasoned and wise counsel from people who have the time, resources, vision, and capacity to help steward and shape what I’ve been called to do.
My family and I were already actively receiving the best grief counseling available. Each therapy session played an integral part in piecing together the shattered pieces of our minds and helping us heal both together as a family unit and as individuals.
As we were already actively engaged on the road of emotional healing, it was also time to integrate spiritual mentorship and guidance.
We needed to go back to a church which we had attended a few years prior, back when we had first arrived in the Hampton Roads area. It’s a large and dynamic fellowship located in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They have a powerful and relevant message of hope, life, and purpose and the senior pastor is one of the leading voices in the faith community today; both in the United States as well as internationally.
In addition to our robust emotional therapy and grief counseling we were already getting; I knew that this particular church was where we needed to be, as we prepared for our calling and purpose.
I felt God speak quietly to my heart, telling me that He was ready and able to use every shred and fiber of our family’s traumatic experiences for good. But I had to be willing to come under wise leadership, take a step of obedience, and reconnect to a larger family of faith who could help me to carry and responsibly steward these painful life experiences properly. These experiences started with the loss of my daughter, going all the way back to the loss of my dad, as well as everything else I had walked through, in between those two defining points of pain.
Previously, the hour-long drive to the church seemed to justify itself through the excuse of convenience. It was a different time and my heart was in a much different place. Back then I wasn’t ready to ‘pick up the phone’ whenever I felt God calling me.
This time not only did I answer, but I also refused to ‘hang up’. This meant that I didn’t care how long the drive to church was. The blow of losing Elizabeth had me focused like a laser-beam pursue to the good that God wanted to bring about.
Sunday, May 15th, 2016.
It was a beautiful, warm day. The sounds, colors and sweet fragrances of spring caressed the senses and the sun shined as if lighting our path toward a new frontier. An invisible tether was drawing us back to a place where we belonged. Thousands of families around the area, state and country were all getting up to do the same thing we were – going to church. But for us, we weren’t just going to church – no, for us it was so much more.
We were stepping into a place where we’d be connected to life, find meaning, discover the good, and begin the journey of fulfilling our purpose. It was the place where I was going to learn to yield all the pain to God, learn to grow in fellowship, learn a new definition for the word brotherhood, learn to submit to leadership and discover how God’s fingerprints are all over every aspect of my life.
As we pulled into the parking lot and parked the car, it was a powerful and emotional moment for my family and me. The last time we had been there was with Elizabeth – in fact it was in that very same church that she had given her heart to Jesus back in 2013, shortly after her first hospital stay. There we were, going back to the same church because she wasn’t with us anymore.
By the time we got settled in and the ushers showed us to our seats, our eyes were already welling up with tears. As the worship music touched our wounded hearts, the healing power of praise washed over my family and me – even my youngest daughter Isabella (who was eight years old at the time) had tears running down her cheeks. God was there, and we could feel it.
Following the service, Erica and I went to go get Isabella from Sunday school, but something in my heart said that I needed to go and introduce myself to the senior pastor, who was down at the front entrance greeting everyone as they were leaving. He’s a dynamic, personable and down-to-earth guy, whose genuineness and warm, engaging way with people sets the tone and heart of the entire church.
Typically, at the end of every service, there’s a line of people waiting to say hello or chat with him, so while I was heading over, I thought to myself, ‘There’s going to be a long line, and we won’t have a chance to catch up.’ To my surprise, as I rounded the corner, I saw the pastor talking with one of his staff members. No long line – no significant group of people. I walked up and introduced myself. We chatted for a few minutes, and he asked how everything was going. That’s when I gave him a quick background on everything that had happened in my family, and our reason for being back in the church that Sunday.
In that particular moment and encounter, I wasn’t looking for a solution – I was looking for connection and accountability. I sought linkage to a larger life-source and strong leadership to help develop my family and me spiritually, as well as relationally with other people. The calling which had been laid on my heart and the burden weighing on my soul couldn’t be answered within a five-minute conversation, and the pastor, based on his years of experience knew all that. After we talked for a few minutes, he asked for my phone number. He wanted to connect me to some other people in leadership in order to gauge the emotional and spiritual climate of my family, help me find my footing moving forward, and ultimately help me discover the size and scope of what God wanted me to do.
Later that afternoon, I received a call from one of the other pastors on the church leadership team. He and I spoke for about an hour and covered some of the more personal details and background of my journey. As the conversation drew to a close, we made plans to have coffee and talk more a few weeks later. He also gave me some background regarding the size and scope of the church and how they were continuing to expand to new locations, known as ‘campuses’ around the area and even across the country. In fact, the church had recently started holding services at a new campus in Chesapeake, which wasn’t too far from where my family and I were living at the time, so he provided me the address and service times.
The following week we attended the church’s newest location in Chesapeake. Services were held in a hotel conference room. Everything at the Chesapeake Campus was a near exact replica of the environment and dynamic at the central campus location, which is in Virginia Beach. The lights, music, and sound may have been on a smaller scale, but the Holy Spirit and God’s presence was just as massive and uncontainable as it was at the Virginia Beach Campus.
The new location was led by a campus pastor along with his wife and family. Immediately he drew Erica and I close and got to know us and our story. We had found our home and were fulfilling the beginning stages leading to our purpose, and the calling God had laid on my heart.
Weeks slowly added up into months. Erica and I were getting involved in nearly every activity that our new church home had to offer, and we were getting to know the rest of our new family. I had a tenacious drive to immerse us in a culture full of life and closeness with God. We joined a home Bible study, spent time with the other couples encouraging one another, and attended significant conferences held by the church. Each engagement was intentional and had a singular focus on us being accountable and being connected to a corporate network of Believers who have a positive life vision and strong faith.
The Chesapeake Campus became our new family. Slowly, priceless relationships were formed, and lasting friendships developed. This little family of ours was there to help us learn to walk again after suffering our most tragic loss.
Erica and I engaged steadfastly in our new life of faith and fellowship. Every Sunday, we were connecting on a deeper level with our church family, and every conference we attended downloaded truth and life into our hearts. Leadership, passion, faith, initiative, healthy thinking, healthy relationships, and how to live a life of excellence – all of these were tools and topics which were being added into our lives. The fire burning in my heart was being stoked and fueled, and the first pieces of the vision God had for my life began to take shape. Initially, I wasn’t sure where to start, but then I realized that He had already equipped me with much of the skills I would need to get the ball rolling.
One evening, sometime during the first week of August, I knew it was time to start writing, working on a blog, and sharing my story. I was at my desk upstairs in the loft and looking up information online on how to purchase a website name, how to start a blog, who the best blog hosting services are, etc. The flood of advertisements and information was overwhelming. My eyes ached from staring at my computer screen. I needed a break. Exhausted, I leaned in and rested my elbows on the desk, cradled my head in my hands and began to pray – “Father…how do I do this? I know you’ve called me to serve you and work for you. I’ve felt your hand on my shoulder since I was a little boy. You’ve been with me during every trial and tribulation. Through it all, you’ve never left me. I’m laying at your feet every bad memory and every painful experience. Use them for your glory and purpose, so that others may know you and see you as the loving Father that I know you are. Guide my hand and mind…give me the words to write and speak.”
After I prayed, I had peace in my heart. I got up from my desk, took a break and knew, that when a came back after a little while, God would show me what do to and how to do it. A few hours went by, and I went back upstairs to the loft, sat back down at my desk, and began to look for the best-rated blog posting services. Within a couple minutes, I came across one that allowed me to purchase a website name and had an easy-to-use interface for me to design and upload my content. ‘Whew…well that was easy, thank you, God’, I quietly said to myself.
Now the next step – choosing a name for my website and blog. Once again, I stopped what I was doing, prayed, and then took a few minutes to think and clear my mind. Then I took out a piece of paper and jotted down some words like: ‘destiny, purpose, driven, focus, plan’…and then all of a sudden it hit me, ‘I’m a career Sailor. I’ve served in the U.S. Navy since I was 20 years old. What does the crew of a ship use to know where they’re going when sailing the ship? They use a chart!’
All ships, merchant or naval, use charts when navigating the open seas or when they are near the coast and close to shore. The crew sails along a course which has been charted. These charts show the location of land masses, navigational aids (like buoys and beacons) and even underwater hazards such as rocks, sandbars, and shipwrecks. For things like storms or emergencies, the crew can make adjustments and change course, but all of this is still accounted for on the chart. The chart will show where the ship has been and where it is going.
That’s when I realized how everything in my life has been charted by God; meaning He knew what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. My life wasn’t by accident, that I’m not sailing the Seas of Life without a chart for me to look at or reference. Sure, I’ve had to navigate through some severe storms, and I’ve even run into some dangerous hazards, but all of them were on the chart. God knew where each storm and danger was…some I had to sail through and others I sailed around.
As I sat there and wrote the word CHARTED down, the word LIFE fit right next to it…followed by the number 365; because every single day of our lives has already been charted by God. He knows the terrible storms we’re going to sail through and the dangers we’re going to face – every hurt, every pain, every broken heart, and every tear – He knows them all, and if we let Him, He can use them…
The Boat – Imagine a little tiny boat, on the open sea. The weather is overcast; the ocean is angry and choppy. The small boat bobs up and down, moving along as the frothy white-capped waves break against its sturdy hull. As this little boat moves along on its journey, storm after storm rises up out of the dark, murky grey. The winds howl and rage, lightning flashes, the thunder roars, and the sea beats against the little boat.
Now what I forgot to mention, is that our little boat was the smallest and seemingly least of all the other grand vessels back in the harbor. Our little boat didn’t look the strongest or fastest. Many people even said that it wasn’t much to look at.
People back at the pier overlooked it – and to those whom the little boat was entrusted, they either neglected or abused it.
The irony is that the seemingly least and smallest, of all the boats, has actually sailed through the deepest oceans. Our little boat has been plummeted by heavy wind and seas; it has sailed through back-to-back hurricanes, spent more time underway, and had fewer times in-port, than most vessels twice its size. Despite all this, there is something special about this boat. Despite its tiny and unimposing appearance, its hull and structure are stronger and hardier than most craft. It’s as if it was designed and created by its builder to withstand the harsh environment it was going to sail into – it was as if the builder knew ahead of time that the little boat was going to face storms that would sink any other ship – but not our small boat. Our boat is sturdy, strong, and brave – because it was made that way.
What no one noticed, not even the little boat, is that all those years on the high seas through storms and crashing waves didn’t weaken it. No, instead the years of turmoil and tempest made it stronger, faster, and more agile. Every crashing wave and gust of wind added strength and structure. The keel became stronger, the hull became thicker, and the beam became wider. Its engines burned hotter and cleaner.
Over time our vessel is no longer a little boat, but it has instead become a mighty warship – a capital ship that rivals and even surpasses all the other vessels it had left behind in the safe harbor, so many years ago.
After spending about two weeks down in Houston, Texas with Erica’s family for Christmas, we drove back to our house up in northeast North Carolina. The weather in Hampton Roads was cold and wet and seemed to mirror our internal emotional climate.
This was going to be the start of our first year without Elizabeth; a reminder that time continues to move forward. This was just the first step into living our new reality without her.
The distractions of the holiday season were gone, and my family and I continued to face the pain and emptiness left behind by Elizabeth. She had been woven into every layer and aspect of our family.
Elizabeth’s room sat empty, just the way she had left it the day she passed away. The door remained shut; it was too painful to walk near her room and nearly unbearable to walk inside it.
That’s when the waves of grief would come rolling in like a tidal surge. The stage of the initial shock after losing Elizabeth had already passed; by this point, we were dealing with the aftermath of trying to adjust to the fact that she was gone.
The traumatic and horrific images in my mind, caused by what I had seen that day, complicated the entire healing process. The smallest and seemingly innocuous of things would trigger a flashback – I certainly couldn’t watch movies or tv shows depicting graphic violence or blood.
Whenever my mind would conjure up the terrible memories, my hands would shake, I’d hyperventilate and weep uncontrollably. Many times, Erica was there to soothe and comfort me when this happened. She would hold me close as my heart raced, and my entire body became rigid. I would subconsciously bring my hands up to my face as if I trying to block my eyes from seeing something terrible. My fists would be balled up so tight that my knuckles turned white. I’d sit and rock back and forth until the emotions ran through and left me exhausted and drained.
Then there were the nightmares. My sleep was so restless that I’d accidentally wake up Erica. Countless times she had to shake me awake because I was trembling while mumbling and whimpering. I’d wake up startled with tears in my eyes.
All of these are just some of the classic symptoms of PTSD.
I knew that ‘just dealing with it’ and trying to carry the pain and grief wasn’t sustainable or healthy for my family or me.
My commute to and from work was either spent listening to sermons, Christian music, or in prayer – often accompanied by tears. The drive was about an hour, one way – by the time I got near the base, I dried my eyes and cleared my mind for work.
Once I got to work, my mind was clear enough to engage my daily tasks – although I was easily agitated and restless. My mind would always wander elsewhere. Not only was I having to traverse this unwelcome road of mourning, but so was Erica and our youngest daughter Isabella. In addition to my own wellbeing, I was concerned for theirs as well.
Our world had been flipped upside down and turned inside out, and we were trying to figure out how to put everything back together. During the initial days and even weeks following the heartbreaking loss of Elizabeth, time seemed to freeze; but as we continued to walk through the grief and embrace the healing process, we saw that the universe kept moving forward. A key and vital part to that forward movement was my family and I seeking counseling. Not generic ‘how-are-you-feeling-today’ advice, but intentional and focused therapy designed to address every aspect of our grieving process and the internal mental trauma.
And so, as time marched on, we found ourselves watching February slowly come upon us. It may be the shortest month on the calendar, but for my family and me, it’s the longest… February 9th is Elizabeth’s birthday.
February 9th, 2016 was on a Tuesday.
Everything about that day seemed heavy. It had only been 9 months since she had left us. For 15 years, that was a day of happiness and joy in our home; a time to remember and celebrate the life of our oldest daughter.
Yet this time, there was no celebration. The silence Elizabeth left behind was especially loud on her birthday. Erica and I knew that the road of healing and wholeness was going to be a long one, experienced through an open mind and a willing heart accompanied by many tears. That particular moment was just the first of what will be a lifetime of birthdays without Elizabeth.
February slowly rolled into March. By now my family and I had been seeing our counselor regularly. We were not only hungry for help in dealing with the feelings of loss, grief, and sadness, but we wanted to find the strength to leverage our experiences for a positive and higher purpose. So, I immersed myself in the therapy and healing process.
Many hours were spent not only talking through the events surrounding Elizabeth’s passing, but also the other traumatic experiences that I’d been carrying in my heart and mind for years. Those counseling sessions were necessary and healing, but they also weren’t easy. Besides the grief and immense sadness, probably the most challenging side-effects from all the trauma were the anxiety/panic attacks and nightmares caused by the raw and graphic imagery I’d seen the day Elizabeth died. It was a lot for my mind and heart to process.
Although nothing was going to undo what had happened, only a holistic and comprehensive approach was going to be able to help me navigate the experience. Not only did I want to come through it all successfully, but I also wanted something positive to come from it as well. I knew that Elizabeth taking her own life was certainly not what God wanted, nor was it in line with His perfect will. I also believed deep in my heart that He can make good come from any situation.
I knew that God was going to use this, as well as all the other losses and challenges, for our good and His higher purpose – but the question was this – would I let Him?
Therein lied the paradox of healing: was I willing to steward the turmoil by turning it over to Him and how was I supposed to do that?
I was going to have to traverse each day, moment-by-moment, and face what had happened. The experience of losing Elizabeth wasn’t going away, so being in a place of denial wasn’t going to fix anything. The wounds caused by her passing were deep…very deep. In order to properly heal, it meant being honest with the size, scope, and depth of those wounds and then being willing to allow God into those same broken places so He could heal. That process took vulnerability, and intellectual honesty only found via a humble heart and an open mind.
Holding onto the pain would have consumed me. I tried that back when my little brother Benjamin died in 2004. When he passed away, I futilely attempted to drown my sorrow in things that only deepened my sense of loss and abandonment. This time there was too much at stake and on the line! The loss of Elizabeth and the details surrounding her passing were too raw, real, emotional, personal, and sacred for us to try and handle un-strategically or alone.
That meant only one thing – Erica and I would have to be in agreement and alignment as to what our next course of action was. And that’s what we did. Through the counsel of some very wise friends, including our therapist, Erica and I began to walk down this journey of stewardship-and-healing together.
As we approached the spring of 2016, I started to feel emotional strength slowly return. Something was beginning to stir up in my soul. We had an unexplainable resilience and determination not to let our experience go unused. Not only did I feel it, but so did Erica.
In our pain, we discovered a passion for leaning on God more than ever before. We had become hungry for His healing, and in that healing, we knew that we’d discover His truth and higher purpose.
Whisper-by-whisper we began to hear God’s still small voice.
As the one-year mark of Elizabeth’s passing began to draw close, I knew I had to do something to honor her memory. I thought and prayed hard…it had to be something which symbolized life. That’s when I felt God speak softly to my heart – ‘Plant her a tree in the back yard’ flashed across my mind.
So, on Thursday, May 12th, 2016, I went to the local home-improvement store, headed into the garden section and started to look at the trees. I walked up and down, row-by-row until I found the right one. It was a little red dogwood tree. The leaves and blossoms were starting to form, and on the small information card attached to the trunk was a picture of scarlet leaves and light pink flowers. Those were a couple of Elizabeth’s favorite colors…I had found her tree.
Along with the tree I bought some flowers that I wanted to plant around it and three flat paver stones to lay on the ground, sort of as a memorial site to my little girl.
My goal was to get that tree securely planted in the ground before the afternoon school bus drove by the house. The last time I had seen Elizabeth alive, was a year prior when she walked off that very same bus. Although it was a year later, I wanted to plant the tree at a time when she was still breathing.
I pulled my truck into the back yard, dropped the tailgate, grabbed the shovel and began to break the ground. The clay soil was hard and unforgiving. It was back-breaking work; each shovel strike only seemed to move a few inches of dirt. Tears welled up in my eyes with each thrust of the blade. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of my next-door neighbors walk towards me. I looked up, and he asked if I needed some help. I politely declined; I needed to do this myself…there was too much meaning behind it. Judging by my emotion, he must have known why I was planting a tree.
Pausing for a moment to see my progress, he then insisted that I at least borrow his post hole digger. “It’ll make breaking through that hard clay a lot easier,” he kindly said. My hands were sore, and blisters were beginning to form. The clock was ticking, and I only had a short while before the school bus drove by.
After a moment, I took my neighbor up on his offer and borrowed the tool. “Take your time; no rush…you can put it against the side of my shed whenever you’re done”, he replied.
The post-hole digger made cutting through the clay much easier. Finally, the hole was big enough to plant the tree. I lowered the root ball into the ground, filled it in with garden soil, and added some fertilizer.
As the I shoveled in the last bit of dirt, the same yellow school bus, which had dropped off Elizabeth for the last time exactly one year prior, slowly lumbered by.
I looked down at my watch. At that exact moment one year earlier, I had seen Elizabeth alive for the very last time.
Elizabeth’s little tree stood tall in its new home; the breeze picked up and rustled through its tender branches and buds. I stood there with my back aching, hands blistered, covered in dirt, and tears streaming down my cheeks. “I did it Elizabeth…I planted your tree…now it’s time for mommy, your little sister, and I to take the next step”, I quietly whispered.
A severe wound requires extensive recovery. Injuries which take away a piece of the person, like the loss of a leg, require not only healing but also intense therapy and rehabilitation. Slowly, through many tears, doubts, and frustration, the person learns to walk again, even if it’s with a limp – each limp is not only a reminder of what was lost but a silent witness to the unstoppable combination of a tenacious heart and unashamed faith.
The loss of Elizabeth was a gaping wound which had ripped away a piece of our hearts and souls. Life for us had forever been redefined, yet somehow pain and trauma which should have crushed us only kindled a fire inside my heart. In the span of about 30 years I had been through more than several lifetimes worth of heartache and loss, but this time it was different. This had become my existential moment. Everything I had walked through growing up, and everything Erica and I had been through since we were married, fused into that one nexus point of indescribable searing hot pain. It was in that furnace that a new hunger was forged and an unquenchable desire to never quit.
I wanted to fight back – I needed to fight back. But fighting back meant I would have to heal and grow strong first. I would have to learn to walk again…and then I could eventually run in the race set before me.
The only way God was going to use all of that trauma for a testimony was if I was relentless in both my faith and action. I had to partner with God…and that meant being willing to let Him in and start to triage and treat all the brokenness and hurt that I had carried for so long.
Every wound and every scar needed to be willingly surrendered to Him because that’s where the healing process begins.
In the two years following the one-year-mark of Elizabeth’s passing, doors began to open, and connections were woven which would be essential to fulfilling His purpose for our lives and the task that He set in front of us. Inches turned into feet, feet turned into yards, and finally, yards became miles. With each passing day, I grew stronger – as did my family. Slowly our purpose came into focus, the trauma converted into triumph and beauty was exchanged for our ashes.