Finding Life in Death

In honor of Mother’s Day and God’s gift of life, Anna asked her friend, Debbie, to (re)share her story of adoption, the earthly loss of her precious son and of finding life in death. This interview, for Wendy Simpson’s and Anna Smit’s joint blogging series Breaking Light, took place five years ago, but has been updated by Debbie recently. It ends with a prayer, written by the steward of this blog, Anna Smit.

Roma and Debbie

In these five years, Debbie and her husband, Bruce, have since moved from suburban Maryland to West Virginia. They see their three remaining children and ten grandchildren as often as they can. A sequel to her first book, But the Greatest of These Is Love, has begun in serial form with installments added each week. Follow her at her blog at Consider It All Joy for updates. 

1. Of all the characters in the Bible, who do you most relate to and why?  

I think Moses’ protest sounds familiar. “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13) I’ve said that too.

But lately I feel like Paul. Before his ministry, he thought he knew God. As a Pharisee, Paul arrogantly thought he was doing the work of God, getting rid of those pesky Christians. Then, in a sudden revelation, he KNEW Jesus. My journey into deeper faith felt that sudden. That could only have been achieved by the work of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t go looking for it. My “Damascus Road” experience changed forever my intimacy with God. It was like the scales fell off my eyes. 

And for all the efforts Paul made for the Kingdom, writing letters to encourage the new Church, trying to make God known to others, his confessions sound a lot like mine. 

“[…] I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out, I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I hate is what I keep on doing. Romans 7:18-19

Paul mourns of a “thorn” in his flesh that he cannot be free of.  God’s response? His Grace is sufficient. There will always be thorns, and God keeps reminding Paul, and me, how very much we need a Savior. 

2. What is one of your favorite Scriptures and why does it mean so much to you?

Matthew 16:24-25  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life  will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.'” NIV (bold and italics, mine.)

This is language we do not like to use.

Sixteen years ago, I half-heartedly participated in a small group study, Experiencing God. One morning while doing my homework, that verse jumped off the page at me. And it terrified me, because I instinctively knew God was going to demand something hard of me, something akin to “death” of my altar of Self.

God loves us too much to leave us where we are. The world tells us to celebrate ourselves, and to love who we are, that we deserve the best. Jesus’ words, however, demand radical change. God doesn’t want to compete with anything; He wants ALL of us, especially the parts we cling to.  For me, it was (and often still is) my god of Comfort. My easy life was put on the scales with my relationship with God. 

This theme of surrender is Jesus most repeated theme in the Gospels. To name a few more with this mandate of dying to Self: Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Luke 17:33, John 12:24. There are others. It must be very important.

One of my favorite writers is C.S. Lewis. I love how he shares his journey from intellectual disbelief to finally knowing the Truth of Christ. In Mere Christianity, Lewis has captured this concept of surrender, this “dying to Self” beautifully, from Jesus’ point of view. 

“Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart.”


3. What events, circumstances or struggles in your life have been and/or continue to be your deepest valleys? 4. In what ways have you experienced God’s nearness in these valleys? I’ve combined these two questions, because of continuity of my telling the story.

My journey to deeper faith began in 2000, with a sudden, surprising invitation, a whisper from God which shattered my comfortable life. As I write this, I recognize this was a “death” so I could be born again. How could I say no to God and stay connected to Him? That lonely valley of trying to say no to God lasted a year and a half.  

During that valley God revealed Himself to me in shocking and unmistakable ways.  He came with that theme of dying to self I had recently read in Matthew.  When presented with God’s plan, I was not so sure I wanted to be a disciple at all! God came making an seemingly impossible demand of me and I wanted Him to chose someone else. I endured a hard season of offering God suggestions of what I was willing to sacrifice in place of what He was asking me. But God would have none of my puny offers. He wanted all of me. He wanted my complete surrender. His command was that I must deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him.  But where He wanted to lead, I did not want to follow. 

What invitation did God whisper to my unreceptive heart? Adoption. 

It was a horrifying idea to me, as a happy wife and proud mother of three with a comfortable life. My life was perfect, too perfect to disrupt.

As the shocking theme of “adoption” morphed into an even more terrifying theme of  “adoption of an older Russian boy,” I wrestled with God over His unlikely and unwelcomed proposal. This valley became a season of preparation, when God revealed Himself to me in ways that strengthened my faith, and set me on a path toward Him, one tiny, hesitant step at a time.  

In 2002, armed with a mustard-seed of faith, God led us to  Russia to bring home beautiful, lively, seven-year-old Roma.  It soon became apparent that this little boy, this gift I tried to reject, was an extravagant reward for my meager obedience. We congratulated ourselves for saving this precious little boy. We couldn’t know how God would transform our faith using Roma. 

Roma

In the next season of  my life, my joy was complete. My family and friends had embraced little Roma from the beginning and watched him grow into a confident, charming young man. My faith was deep. And all was well in my world. 

In 2013, I sensed God dramatically moving in my life again. This time God’s movement came with a premonition of suffering. Dread and a hyper awareness of God was my paradoxical response. I knew whatever was in my future, I must cling to God. I thanked Him that this time I trusted Him without reservation.

In 2014,  my sweet, lovable Roma headed down a dark road of alcohol and marijuana abuse. But even in that valley, God was always close, and I experienced God’s grace in hair raising ways. And right before the challenges went into high gear,  I was told in a dream to “write it all down.” (Read the Hound of Heaven Winks to begin that miraculous series of posts.)

Every challenge we faced, I thanked God for the premonitions He had given me, because I was not caught off guard by surprise. Each time I was thankful, because the consequences of Roma’s rebellion weren’t too terrible. I kept telling myself, “This could be so much worse.” I thanked God for protecting Roma and revealing Himself to many of us, including Roma, who were watching the God Stories unfold.

But the foreboding continued. Roma wandered away from our family again in the middle months of 2015. I was powerless to change him. I had to turn him over to God. My friends worried that I wasn’t worried.  But if I truly believed what I claimed to believe, I wasn’t supposed to worry. I had put Roma in the loving and capable Hands of our Father God. “God loves Roma more than I do,” I would remind myself and others. But oh how I loved that boy! My peace was real, and those who doubted began to trust too. 

Then, finally, in October of 2015, the Prodigal Son returned. He was repentant, he sought God and mercy. We spent time talking honestly about God. Roma had a hunger for Him that was brand new. He was a joy to be around again. 

After seven joy filled weeks with our transformed son, on December 7, Roma died from a work accident, a fall from a ladder while working on a roof.  When the heartbreaking news came, I was hardly surprised. God had so lovingly and thoroughly warned me to be prepared. If God had warned me, He had known ahead of time. I had to believe Roma’s death was part of God’s Divine timing. 

5. In what ways have you seen God minister to others through your deep valleys?

In that protective fog of the first days, I was showered with Divine Love. And miracles. The veil has been thin between Heaven and earth at times. As devastated as I was, and still am, I trust God. Heartsick friends and neighbors witnessed the peace we had. And the miracles. In the middle of our collective pain, we were in awe of God’s great love.

Although I think social media is Satan’s tool, God can use it for good. On my sites, I tried to continue pointing people to God in our circumstances, because He was so real to me in that dark valley. Soon friends were listening intently or reading with eagerness, the stories I share of God’s Nearness in the midst of our pain. 

When our concerned friends rallied around us after Roma died, they saw that God had given us strength and sincere faith. I had faced the hard question, “Did I believe that God is really who He said He is? And did I believe Heaven was a real place?” If so, I would miss Roma earthly presence, but not despair over his absence. I would also have to celebrate that Roma was indeed free and with God in Heaven. I learned those first few days that God can be trusted. And, at least some were comforted, as I could confidently point to God with gratitude.

6. How have you seen God build community through your deepest valleys?
Oh yes! Our loss was everyone’s loss. God sent Roma to not only my family but to the whole community, and beyond. God knew this honor of raising Roma was way too big for the Michael family alone. We would need helpers. LOTS of helpers! To aid in the recruitment of many helpers, God had armed young Roma with a BIG hearted personality, a sweet deposition, disarming smile, and fabled charisma. And oh, those sparkly green eyes. 

Yes, the helpers came over the years.  Neighbors, teachers, coaches, teammates, friends, mothers and fathers of friends. All assisted us in the joyful task of raising Roma. They loved this boy sent from God. Now they hearts were broken too. Roma had touched more lives in his brief twenty-one years than most people encounter in a lifetime!

Since Roma took up residence in Heaven, I have experienced true miracles. And I tell everyone who will listen or read. At first, I feared people would think I was crazy. But to not shine the Light that God had given me through Roma and his stories, would be failing to give Glory to God. God is not silent or still.

I have wondered lately, is God becoming bolder in His actions, or am I suddenly hyper aware of Him? Whatever the case, I am thankful that something so redeeming has transpired after the  excruciating loss of Roma. People are hungry for God Stories. I have had a huge jump in my readership. Even people who never knew my dear boy tell me they feel like they know him and have cried for our loss. And I guess that was the purpose of the book. Now he is a friend to all, and they are eager to read about him. God has not wasted my pain. He has redeemed it all. 

7 and 8. What obstacles have stood in the way of the ministry God has called you to through the hard? And how have you responded to these obstacles?

Lies of the enemy. At the beginning I was reluctant to continue to write my blog. “Who cares about Roma and your little stories now?” was a concern I had. But I had more stories to tell, I still do. God has been giving me many stories to tell, and I will keep writing them down. More than a few readers have said that there will be a second book. We’ll see. As long as God keeps giving me nudges and stories to tell, I will continue to write them down.

I remind myself that God is still good. He sees the BIG picture. I do not. In the past six months since I said a temporary, earthly goodbye to Roma, I have never felt God closer. 

9. What one piece of advice or kernel of wisdom would you like to leave with our readers from your journey through your hard thus far?

Seek and you will find is another often repeated instruction in Scripture.  I like to meditate on Jeremiah 29:12-14. 

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”  

God is trying to transform us into marvelous creatures like His son. He cannot accomplish this until we surrender ourselves to Him. We will not know Him better until we diligently seek after Him. Pray with expectation that He will be found. 

Father, oh how we thank You for the gift of life. Oh how we thank You that You are a God of compassion, mercy and justice. Thank You for Roma and my own little adopted brother, for all the children the world over who You see in their great need and who You love to set in families and shower in love and affection.

Thank You for Roma’s and his birth and adoptive families’ story that is continuing to be written in You. LORD I ask You to unleash the words You long to be shared through Debbie and to draw those the world over whose hearts and souls You cannot wait to awaken to Your love, truth, compassion and mercy through her. Surprise and awe us with what you have in store for Debbie and those You are weaving and have woven into her life. Continue to sustain and encourage her as she seeks to honor and obey You.

Thank You for remaining so faithful to all birth families, to all adoptive families and to all adopted children . Thank You for bringing more and more healing to Your whole Body through the gift of adoption that teaches us so much about Your faithful love and mercy toward us all.

Father, today I pray for the many birth parents and birth brothers and sisters the world over whose hearts are aching today. I ask You to send them proof of Your unending love for them and the children and brothers/sisters they have surrendered. Unveil Your redemption and Your restoration in ways that surprise and awe them.

Father, I also ask You to strengthen, comfort and pour out Your compassion upon adopted children and their families the world over. When trauma triggers shake these adopted children, fill their new families with Your moment-by-moment discernment to love these precious children of Yours as You love them.

Surround these adopted children and their families with men and women who uplift them and bless them in Your Word and who step in with practical help. Give adoptive parents the courage to forsake the opinion of those around them, where You are calling them to a different path. And where hurt has been caused in a lack of understanding, Father move in Your kindness to restore, heal and redeem. Take what the enemy meant for evil and turn it into good – more and more life in death.

LORD, I ask You to comfort all parents who have had to say goodbye to their child. Who have had to surrender them fully into Your eternal hands. Bring them a special Word of comfort and encouragement today. Surround them with Your Body and Your miracles that remind them that You are with them and have not forsaken them. Surprise them. Awe them. Shower them in blessings.

And lastly, I ask You to make Yourself known in and through every story of adoption, loss and trauma. Reveal Your life in every death and surrender we, Your children, walk through. We love You. We praise You. We honor You. In Your precious Name, Amen.

Known

Isaiah 40: 27 – 31 (The Message)
Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,
    or, whine, Israel, saying,
“God has lost track of me.
    He doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening?
God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
    He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.
    And he knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
    gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
    young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
    They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
    they walk and don’t lag behind.


As the Lord began to unearth the fears that were crippling me, both in response to memories of my mother’s last hours and reflections on my childhood, the first anniversary of Mum’s departure for heaven crept ever closer. I was genuinely fearful of what this day would bring. My heart was heavy with grief and my mind still anxious from the memories of crippling flashbacks.

And yet, God chose this day of deep mourning to display the wonder of His Loving Presence, to bring deep joy into the depths of sorrow, not just for me, but also my Dad, who was staying with us at the time.

I recorded the day in my journal:

Yesterday, we commemorated one year without Mum and Grandma. I was fearful of what this day would bring, fearful of the tears, of the pain. Yet, as the day progressed more and more joy took hold of me, held me and embraced me.

Balloons bubbling into giggles of delight, joyful purple bubbles catching a powerful gust of air and being drawn up high, high above the cloak of mist that covered us below, delighted girls watching the sight and thinking of their Grandma, a warm embrace from a Dad whose heart felt as heavy as that cloak of mist, but whose tears found release. A café of remembrance bringing God’s gift in a basket speaking of a Grandma’s kindness, of a Grandma’s deep love flowing over, from beyond the grave…speaking of a God and Saviour sowing a garden, a Garden of Joy, Gladness, Peace and Thanksgiving, where a wife’s, a mother’s, a Grandma’s soul can find a rest eternal in the Sun and Son of Life. A Garden waiting to call all its children home to their Father of Compassion and Love Abounding.

As the afternoon dawned, so did the sun in all its warmth, as children played and laughed, sliding, jumping, swinging high and adults smiled, joy lifting heavy hearts. Children’s joy a balm to weary souls. A day ending in thankfulness for gifts overflowing from a Father of Grace.

Everything about the day reveals God’s deep abiding Presence to me:

  • the heavy mist that covered us as we arrived at the beach (my Mum’s favorite place) to release the purple (my mother’s favorite color) balloons, which mirrored the heaviness of our grief,
  • the delighted giggles and energetic limbs of our little girls, who lifted our heavy hearts,
    the strong gust of air that lifted the balloons up high and away, which spoke of the strong arms carrying our mother, grandmother and wife into His Presence,
  • the basket that met us in the café we went to, a café we had taken my parents to many years ago, that was filled with happy memories.

    What is so astounding about this basket, is:
  • the words inscribed on the signs were in English, not Dutch,
  • that it was about a Grandma, what my Mum was to her six grandchildren, a role that gave her such incredible joy, especially in her final days on earth, when the biggest smiles would spread across her face at the sound of her grandchildren crying, giggling or playing, or as they would come sit at her bedside to clasp her hand in theirs or playfully run around her bed,
  • that there was no particular reason for the café to choose these words on this particular day (it was not Mother’s Day), and that at the bottom of the basket there is a pine cone, something my parents would often go out to collect at the back of their beach property with their grandchildren.

We ended the day with the joyful playing of our girls at the outdoor playground of the pancake restaurant we visited,  delighting in their exuberance and reflecting on the wonder of the day.

God truly is the God who “knows me inside out” (John 4: 29), “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16: 13), the God who comforts me “as a mother comforts her child” (Isaiah 66: 12 – 13) and the God who, full of compassion, pours out joy, gladness, thanksgiving and the sound of singing into the depths of my grief:

Isaiah 51: 3 (NIV)
The Lord will surely comfort Zion
    and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
    her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
    thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

This is the fifth installment of Anna Smit’s personal testimony to the love and mercy of Jesus. These installments of her testimony are God’s answer to all of us who have walked a path of trauma and heartache, believing our God has abandoned us. For He has never ever forsaken us and He wants us to know it, and to see the fingerprints of the Cross – and His unending love for us – all over our lives. For the first installment see: Love Never Ends