A blog is essentially a story. As a child of God, my story is His story, told through me. And like many great stories, this blog begins on a sad note. Sad, but so full of hope, revelation and transformation.
For the past few
weeks months years I have been struggling. Wrestling with God. Seeing as Jacob did precisely that, spurning his name Israel, I suppose I’m ingood company. However, it’s been a less than glamorous experience. I have been discouraged, felt far from God and even questioned my faith more than once. I have spent an extraordinary amount of time feeling like a failure, trying desperately to make up for that feeling, and in so doing, overloading my plate with expectations that no one could fulfill. When I would inevitably drop all the spinning plates, I would go to pieces, reinforcing the debilitating fears and insecurities about my abilities as a mother, a wife, and a woman. The cycle of depression, pulling up the bootstraps of boots far too big, and crashing and burning just kept spinning wildly out of control. This ride was not what I signed up for, and I wanted off. I wanted to run, but deeper down still, I wanted far more desperately to just live. To really live. To enjoy a life full of purpose and intention. I wanted fulfilling work, deep friendships, a passionate marriage, hearty belly laughs, smelling the roses…I wanted all of the richness of life, but I felt none of the vigor for it. Instead, I spent most days for nearly six years praying for bedtime to come, escaping into the internet, books, television – anything to just ‘get through it’. I was depressed, I felt worthless and I found myself daily praying for the second coming to take us all home, away from this place of pain. I never contemplated taking my life, but I sure prayed hard for a rapture. I wasn’t living, I was merely existing, trying to put on a happy face to the world while inside I was broken and nearly dead.
You wouldn’t think it would be a car wreck that would change all that, but it was. No, I wasn’t in the accident, nor was anyone in my family, but bear with me.
Last Monday, a friend of mine called to ask if her sweet girls could hang out at my house for a while so that she could meet with some people about their new house. I said that of course I would, her girls are precious and Caroline would be glad of the company. She brought the girls at 12:30. I would normally leave to go get Brinley from school at 1:40, and would pull up to the school right at 2:00. Another mother with whom I had become friends would always get there right at the same time. On this particular day, though, I decided to wait a few more minutes to leave so that the girls could play. Brinley wouldn’t actually get out until 2:15, I just always got there early and waited. It was a few quiet minutes that I used to clear my head, or often, chat with Ryann, the mother who would pull up about the same time as myself. I thought that today there was no harm in getting there right on time.
So on this day, because the girls were playing, we left at 1:50. As we crossed over the mountain, the girls were singing songs from Frozen at the top of their lungs, when I noticed two police cars come flying up behind me, lights blaring. I wasn’t speeding, but tensed up all the same. I breathed a sigh of relief as the passed. Then came an ambulance. Then another police car. And a fire vehicle. All racing in the direction of my daughter’s school. As a knot formed in my stomach, I knew something was terribly wrong. I sped up and followed the train of emergency vehicles, praying my daughter was safe. As I turned the corner to the road her school is on, I saw a mass of emergency vehicles at the turn into the school, where the intersection of the divided highway turns into the side road to the school. As I got closer to the wreck, I saw a single black SUV flipped upside down in the ditch, and children being loaded into ambulances. I felt sick to my stomach. It was Ryann Brown’s car.
After going a round about way to pick up Brinley, I spoke with her teachers and the other parents, confirming it was indeed Ryann. All anyone knew was that it was “bad”. I quickly strapped Brinley into her seat and immediately called my dear friend Liz, who is very close to Ryann, and before I could get out of my mouth what was happening, she said “I know, I’m heading to the hospital right now.” I asked if I could help with Ryann’s two children in Brinley’s class, the ones she had been heading to pick up with her four other children in tow when she was hit. Amid the confusion, it seemed best to let the teacher handle them for now, so I continued home. As we got off the phone, she said she would call me as soon as she knew something. As I pulled up at home, my friend whose children I had been watching and I swapped out, and Caroline went to hang out at their house until I could figure out what was happening. I knew at some point I would be springing into action of some sort. It is not in my nature to stand idly by when someone is hurting. I watched the clock. I checked in again with Liz. She had just arrived at the hospital. Rumors that one child was dead were already flying and I was desperate to help any way I could. I got a text from another friend who was close with the Brown family. She and her husband were headed to the ER as well. About that time, Drew walked in and I told him I felt that I had to go. He took the girls and told me to call him when I could.
As I arrived in the ER, I walked in behind a man on his cell phone. He was saying in a shaky voice “I am here now. I think my nephew has died and two of my nieces are in pretty bad shape.” It was one of the brothers of David, Ryann’s husband. I fought a lump in my throat as I went through security to join the crowd of people all waiting to hear news of the Browns. After about half an hour, news came. It was horrible news. Their sweet five-year-old boy, Micah, had indeed not survived the wreck. Their two oldest girls were in critical condition, one of whom was about to be flown to a hospital about a hundred miles away. Ryann was okay, just a minor concussion, and their three-year-old daughter had a bruised lung, but was otherwise okay. I was shaking as the news was broken to the waiting group of family and friends. This couldn’t be real. This kind of thing happens to people in the news, to people far from me. People that I feel a certain sadness for, but don’t truly seem real, as they only exist on a news article I read on Facebook. Not to people I know and love.
A few minutes later, a representative for the ER said that David and Ryann wanted as many people as could fit in the room to come and help them say goodbye to their son. I wanted to run away. I had only known Ryann a few months. Should I really be here? True, I had felt immediate bond with her, had wanted to develop the friendship further, but was I the right person to be here now? In this moment? I just trusted God that I was not here by accident and followed the crowd. As we walked through the maze of hallways to the trauma rooms, many at the front of the group dropped back to walk with a spouse that lingered behind. Somehow, I wound up right at the front of the group. Jesus, help.
As a hospice nurse, I have seen death. I have seen mourning. I have seen heartbreak. But nothing prepared me for this. Seeing my sweet friend laying across the body of her tiny son, weeping with her whole body, her whole soul, as her husband held her, in grief I cannot describe. I felt like an intruder in deeply private moment, but I also felt a sense that as uncomfortable as it may be, I was there ‘for such a time as this’, and I walked in with the rest of the group, as we laid our hands on this precious couple to pray over them.
I cannot imagine that I was in any way a comfort. I was shaking from head to toe. I was sobbing as quietly as I could. My heart was ripped from my chest. As a mother, it’s a different kind of pain you feel for other mothers who have to watch their children suffer or die. I cannot describe it. But as hard as it was, I cannot begin to fathom what Ryann felt. All I knew is that I was here to support her and David, to pray over them, to beg our Heavenly Father for mercy and healing and grace. To ask Him to hold them. After several prayers from their pastor and friends, the crowd trickled out. As we walked out, I looked back at Ryann’s heartbroken face. She was sitting up, shaking with grief. My heart broke all over again and I felt the need to go to her. I simply held her hand, hugged her, and told her that I loved her. I heard a barely audible ‘thank you’ as she hugged me back. As I walked out, she collapsed in sobs over her son again and my own tears flowed freshly at her pain. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to fix it. And there was no fixing this.
In the days that followed, miracles truly occurred. A story of a car wreck is rarely something that grabs national attention, even when a child dies, but this one sure did. Of course those who knew them loved them and wanted to help in any way possible, but this went far beyond a circle of close people. Anyone who had any connection with them, no matter how remote, was jumping at any and every opportunity to pray, contribute money and resources, and share their story. Even perfect strangers were jumping in to help in any way they could. A plane was offered to help lessen the stress of trips between the two hospitals, over $80,000 was raised on their GoFundMe site, and countless fundraisers were held at local businesses. This is to say nothing of what was raised at their church, where the community was invited to make donations, come for a time of prayer, and write notes of encouragement to send the family. An enormous outpouring of support and publicity surrounded this family. As much as I was incredibly thankful to see this outpouring of love, I couldn’t help but wonder – why? Why this wreck? Why this tragedy in particular? It wasn’t the wreck itself. These kinds of accidents happen all too often. It wasn’t even the fact that a child died that grabbed everyone. It was this family. These people. There was something about them. Maybe it was the fact that they were so kind. Maybe it was the fact that they had four biological children and then chose to adopt two more with special needs. Maybe it was the fact that the wreck was so nasty and happened during such a routine daily task. No. As I would learn in a few days time, it was far, far more than that.
A Facebook group was formed to pray for the family and provide updates on the condition of the two oldest girls. After noticing that there were prayers coming from so many locations, a few of us decided to put together a map with a visual representation of the locations all over the world where people were praying. Once the post went up asking for locations, we received over 600 specific places in the world where someone was interceding in prayer for the Browns. Six. Hundred. And they are still coming in, ranging from coast to coast in the US, and all the way to India. From Ecuador to Russia. From Australia to Mozambique. China. South Africa. Poland. Brazil. The list goes on and on. Most locations had not one, but several or even many people reporting that there were whole families, communities, and churches all praying in the same location. The actual number of people praying is mind boggling. I can’t do the math, but I don’t have to to know that there is a mighty roar in heaven of God’s children asking for healing, strength, mercy, peace and hope for this family. This was not just an earthly response to an accident, this was the Holy Spirit at work. This was the body of Christ uniting from the ends of the earth for His purpose. This was God using a horrible tragedy and “making all things work together for the good of those who love Him”. And Ryann and David were surrendered to His plan.
As the week wore on, the memorial service loomed and I busied myself with finishing the prayer map. I wanted to support the family, but I didn’t really want to go, either. I wanted to run. It was on my birthday to boot, so I was trying to come up with excuses not to go. However, Liz asked me to bring the prayer map, which I knew needed to be there, and I couldn’t just drop it and run. I was meant to be at that service, for some reason, and I was going to be there.
As I walked into the doors of the church, I looked through the sanctuary doors and saw a screen scrolling baby pictures of sweet Micah. I felt sick. I couldn’t do this. “All you have to do is be here. You aren’t the one burying your child,” a still small voice reminded me. Touche. We hung the map on an easel in the lobby and headed to the sanctuary. A friend who I had the blessing of meeting through the map project and I sat together near the rear of the sanctuary as the service began. The perfectly selected music stirred my heart. Hearing the entire sanctuary full of voices, loudly singing praise to the God of mercy and healing, raising their hands in worship, even through the pain spoke to my soul.Those who spoke awakened something long dead inside of me. The precious video celebrating Micah’s life touched my mom-heart in a way that said “Quit trying to escape what is truly the most precious gift of all – these days with your children. They are small for such a short time, and you are never guaranteed tomorrow.” Micah’s Sunday school teacher shared how sweet little Micah always knew that Jesus was his best friend. My friends Liz’s husband spoke, beautifully likening the Brown family to a fire crew, with captains Ryann and David that prepared their crew for anything, by teaching them to trust the Fire Chief, Jesus. But it was Ryann, who summoned the strength to speak at her own child’s funeral that really got my attention. She spoke of hope, and how even now, her hope was in the Lord. It was evident that these were not mere words, but a genuine deep ‘peace that passes all understanding’ even in the midst of incredible suffering.It hit me:
It wasn’t the fact that they had six children.
It wasn’t the fact that they had chosen to adopt two children with special needs.
It wasn’t that they had lost a child.
It wasn’t that they were just nice.
What drew the world to the Browns was their unwavering certainty in their identity in Christ. They exuded a kind of confidence that comes only from the security of knowing one’s incredible value in Him, and being fully surrendered to His will and His purpose for their lives. Yet that confidence is balanced with great humility, knowing that He is their salvation, their hope and their strength. It is these things that draw others to them, wondering ‘What is it that they have that gives them such confidence, peace and balance? Because I want it, too!”
In a word, surrender is what sets the Browns apart.
Being fully surrendered and committed to Christ is what led the Browns to bear and adopt their precious children. It is what leads them minister to other families in their times of struggle. It is what has guided their daily decisions and the paths of their lives. It is what taught their children to trust the Lord, why Micah knew Jesus was his best friend, even as a toddler. They have modeled surrendering to and embracing Christ daily. Their choices and purpose are not defined by this world, they do not concern themselves with impressing people, nor do they rely on their own strength or plans. Allowing the Holy Spirit to work within them, and getting out of the way to let it do its work, is what makes the Browns who they are. And I knew it was what I had been missing.
As their pastor brought the service to a close, he spoke of being truly alive in Christ, and that it will last for all eternity. Then he said something that hit me like a ton of bricks.
What is it about this tragedy that has drawn people in like this? Why has it made national news? Well, I think I know why. And I refuse to believe that you are sitting here by accident.
It’s like he had read my mind. I was indeed brought here, not only to serve the Browns by creating a visual representation of their prayer support, but to be served by hearing the message that a life committed and surrendered to Christ is the only one worth having. That’s why I had struggled. That’s why I felt so empty. For years I had been trying to do enough, to be enough, to direct the path of my life by standards of this world, rather than listening to His voice. Instead of relying on the voice of the Father to direct my life, I was taking charge and deciding who I would be, setting impossible standards for myself that, ultimately, amounted to nothing. Instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to direct my actions, I was arrogantly “taking life by the horns”, relying on my own strength, which led to going to bed empty each night, and waking up drained each morning. I was continually emptying a cup only He can fill, and wondering why I was so thirsty. Finding this truth, that He fills it so that we can pour out again in service to the world, and return again to be filled, was the key. This is the cycle of surrender, and the only one that breaks the cycle of pain and futile self reliance.
This path to revelation had been set in motion few weeks prior to the wreck, when I had sat with a spiritual mentor and discussed the broken hamster wheel of a life I was living, and how I just felt so lost that I didn’t even know exactly what I needed. Through an hour and a half of talking through it, the realization came to me that I just needed direction. Purpose. Intention. We prayed that God would reveal these things to me in His time. Through his servant Ryann, He revealed to me that before I could find my purpose and my life in Him, I had to fully surrender to Him. I had to let go of what this world told me I should do, what I should be and what I should achieve. I had to commit to seeing my life in the eternal realm, through His eyes. Only then would I be able to find His will for me. I had come to know Christ as a preteen, and loved Him still, but I was “living free, but from a prison cell” as the Casting Crowns song illustrates. I knew Him, but I didn’t know Him. I trusted Him, but I didn’t trust Him. I was simply existing, giving Him the occasional nod. To be truly alive, I would have to die to myself, because “to live is Christ”.
It wasn’t as much of a sudden light bulb “ping!” moment as it was the climax of a story that had been building in my heart over the previous few months. This was the Hallelujah Chorus to the epic score of my epiphany. Over the days, this realization had been swelling inside me and now burst forth as a fully realized concept: fully surrender to Christ, and then, and only then, you can move forward with a life of purpose.
So I did just that. And I feel so free. I am letting go of so much in my life now that I am looking at it freshly through His eyes. Our home is being purged of anything that does not serve a purpose in a rich, yet simple life, lived in light of His glory. Our insane schedule is being pruned, letting go of any activities that are not ultimately building the hearts, minds or bodies of our children in a way that prepares them to serve Jesus. While we respect their tastes and preferences, we are simply not going to do ‘it all’ anymore. It’s not healthy or even possible, so we are sitting down with our kids and helping them make those choices. Most of all, I am asking Him daily to cleanse my heart of anything that breaks His, or gets in the way of His plan for me. Because until I am willing to “Cease striving, and know the He is God” I will never be able to hear Him.
Perhaps the most freeing thing to release is fear. When I was relying on my own strength, I lived in constant fear. Fear of losing those I loved, fear of illness, fear of death, fear of failure, fear of not being enough. Surrender to Jesus squashes fear. Of course, because I am human, flesh and flawed, I will revert again and have to come back to the foot of the cross. But He will be there to pick me up and set me back on the right path, holding me as I go. Every time. Surrendering to Christ allows freedom to overtake fear, and brings confidence that when the storms come, we will be held by the one who created the Universe. In that confidence, we truly say “whom shall I fear?”
So Ryann, I thank you with the greatest sincerity for being His hands and feet. For letting His light shine so thoroughly through you that it could not be missed. Thank you for being a beautiful picture of surrender to Him, so that I couldn’t help but hear the story He is speaking through your life. While I remain ready to serve your family in any way I can, I also promise to do more than send donations, make a map, or say a prayer. I promise to honor your son’s sweet memory by embracing Jesus as you do, as you taught him to do. I cannot imagine a better way to commemorate his sweet life.
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live. I surrender all,
I surrender all.
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.