Category Archives: Hope

Our Father, Who Has Been in Hell.

My Daddy doesn’t cry.

Growing up, I never saw him cry even once. Oh, his voice faltered for one tenuous moment while speaking at my sweet Grandpa’s funeral in the old church on Hubbard Street, but no tears fell. This is, in no small part, why I find it violently disturbing whenever a man cries in my presence. It feels like the sky is falling.

As a little girl, my Mama used to tell me that one day, I’d see my Dad cry. She’d grin and lean in, as though she were about to share something precious, confiding in a whisper that every time the two of them watched Father of the Bride, Daddy teared up just a little bit until he’d finally ask her to turn it off. Your Father can’t even think about your wedding without tears springing to his eyes. Oh honey, that man is going to just cry on your wedding day, she’d tell me with a sort of prideful glee that I’ll bet only a Mama can understand. It was a promise that I savored, treasuring the idea that that my stoic Dad loved me so much that he’d actually cry when I got married. I used to recount that promise to friends, remarking how I’d need to wear waterproof everything on my wedding day because I was entirely certain that one look at my Father with tears in his eyes would send me careening straight over the edge.

Ian started chemo two impossible days after his diagnosis. Doctors wearing white coats and grim expressions were using words like aggressive, and as Ian’s abdomen continued to swell his shallow breathing was becoming increasingly labored. Every second mattered. Reeling from an incomprehensible diagnosis unceremoniously handed to a healthy twenty-one year old kid, we were sitting in a corner room at UNC Hospital, Dad, Ian, and I. Large windows overlooked Chapel Hill in October, and the Magnolia leaves had sparked into flame. We barely noticed, that day.

My tall, strapping brother looked so small laying in his white hospital bed. The chemo bag was hung, Ian was hooked up, and I remember being surprised that something as ominous as chemotherapy wasn’t more complex. As though there should have been more fanfare, more gravitas before poison was allowed to course through my little brother’s broken body. A smiling nurse quietly exited the room, and I sat on the edge of Ian’s bed as the chemo began to infuse, our Dad standing behind me.

So this was chemo.

Minutes later, Ian began to shake violently. The pale, curly-haired boy that had been cheerfully traipsing around his college campus just three days earlier was moaning and writhing on the bed in front of me, and as I lunged over him and held him I fought the panic in my voice as I screamed for someone to come help. I felt like I was drowning as I watched my little brother convulse on the bed in front of me, powerless to do anything but watch. Ian, I’m here, I’m right here. Daddy and I are right here. You’re going to be just fine. Just keep breathing. We’re right here. Nurses and doctors poured into the room, and I stayed trembling at the foot of Ian’s bed, my hands holding his feet. I’m here, Ian. I’m right here.

Fearfully, I glanced over my shoulder at my Daddy just in time to see one tear trickle down his face. It was the first time that I’d ever seen him cry.

I would later learn that Ian was experiencing Rigors, induced from too much of the toxic chemotherapy flowing into his battered body at once. His chemo drip was slowed, and eventually the horrifying convulsions came to a sputtering, faltering halt. I weakly made an excuse about needing to go get something, anything, and walked into the long hallway outside of his room with hot tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. I didn’t make it past the nurse’s station before gut-wrenching sobs threatened to send me to my knees. Sunlight poured into oversized lobby windows, and everything in my world felt dark and splintered. My twenty-one year old little brother’s body was rebelling, and there was nothing, nothing that I could do. I learned that morning what it’s like to feel helpless. To pray ragged, desperate, keening prayers, deeply guttural moans begging God the only way I could think to do it: please. Please. Please. Please. 

Ian would go into kidney failure later that day, and would be rushed downstairs into a dark ICU. I would sit there by his bed, holding his cold hand, begging God please. Please. Please. It was a scene that would be repeated time and time again over the next five months, by hospital beds and on 2:00 AM drives home from the ICU, always begging God please.

When I think about that day, and the many like it that would follow, when I think about holding tightly to Ian’s hand as he falteringly breathed in and out for the very last time, when I think about how God said no, I don’t understand. I believe that when our hearts are shattered, human instinct is to try and make sense of it all, as if a tidy answer will help us put the pieces back together again.

I don’t pretend to understand God. I cannot tell you why He said no to the one thing that I wanted most in the whole world. What I can tell you, is that before Ian’s first day of chemo, I thought about God as Our Father in Heaven. He is that, of course, but as I learn to stumble through life without my little brother I have learned to cling to Him as Our Father who has been in hell. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched the flesh be torn from his Boy’s body as He was chained to a post and violently whipped again and again. Until tattered skin hung loose and blood ran crimson and bone was laid raw and exposed. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched as thorns were pressed deep, as blood poured rivers down his Boy’s beaten face. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched smirking Roman guards stake his Boy to a couple slabs of wood. Our Father who has been in hell, who for hours watched his Boy slowly suffocate to death. Straining, gasping for air that his exhausted lungs could not find.

I’ll bet He cried, just like my Daddy did.

I do not follow a God that I understand. I do follow a God that understands me. Who understands wrenching pain and searing loss, who for the sake of Ian and you and me stood by while his precious Son bled out and suffocated. A God who is intimately familiar with the raw, howling, soul-wrenching bone-weary keen of grief. In the midst of it, I am grateful for the God that has been in hell. Who triumphantly walked through it and shattered the chains off the gates and declared it FINISHED so that death would not be the end of Ian’s story.

It does not have to be the end of your story, either.

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Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

Mama Always Said…

I’d like you to meet my Mama.

Her name is Cindy. She is feisty and sarcastic and ENTIRELY inappropriate. She makes a decadent chocolate cake that will change your whole entire life, and when I was little she religiously danced to Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies work out video every. single. morning. [On account of the cake.] To this day, every time I hear “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”, I have PTSD flashbacks of mint-green striped spandex and coordinating scrunchies.

My Mama also happens to be the director of women’s discipleship at The Summit Church, a minor miracle given the fact that she is probably the least-holy person that I know. She tells it like it is, and this talk that she gave is no exception. She’s my best friend and my first phone call should I ever need to dispose of a body with no questions asked, and if she died tomorrow I would inscribe one thing on her headstone:

God only gives good gifts.

It’s been her mantra since I was tiny. To be perfectly honest, for a long time I thought it was a cliche; something to be needlepointed onto tacky decorative pillows or slapped onto bumper stickers. That all changed the day that her little brother died. I was in the 8th grade, and in the face of incredible pain, Cindy Peterson still believed to her core that God was incapable of being anything but good to her. Spending my life watching her believe–really believe that–taught me to believe it, too.

If you have ever experienced grief or questioned the goodness of God, this video is worth your time.

And if you’d like to hear about the time that she and I belted “Gold Digger” to Ian until 3:00 in the morning in a dark ICU, well, that’s in there too.

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Filed under Family, Grief, Hope, Ian

Changing the Story. [END IT.]

END ITWe were on Skype, she working in Nepal and me in my air-conditioned New York living room.

My computer screen flickered, and in utter disbelief, I had to ask my friend to repeat herself.

She said it again, slowly—Ashley, there are entire villages in Nepal where there are no women under 30, because they’ve all been sold.

I closed my eyes as the sheer enormity of it washed over me. Generations and generations of little girls being sold by impoverished parents too desperate to see another way. Mamas and daddies handing their daughters over to the highest bidder in a despairing, last-ditch attempt to keep food on their tables. My stomach churned as I pictured children violently ripped away from everything they knew to be sold as playthings.

She continued. Forty-two percent of people in Nepal are unemployed. Selling children is an industry here. They end up at bus stops, dance bars, and massage parlors—the lucky ones will be enslaved as house help.

The lucky ones.

The decay that sin has wreaked on the world is never more evident than when we look at an entire industry devoted to the buying and selling of humans. IJM soberly informs us that,

“More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade…generating profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year [GDP of Costa Rica] for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children [population of Houston] are exploited in the commercial sex industry.” – International Justice Mission  (IJM)

Tomorrow, you and I and thousands like us will link arms and resolve together to END IT. We understand that the 27 million slaves being held captive TODAY are not simply a heart-wrenching statistic—they are names and faces and stories. These are sons and daughters just like ours, standing with their noses pressed to a glass window begging a watching world for intervention. Today, we cry, “Not on our watch!” and affirm together that we will not rest until they are free.

I am deeply grateful for organizations like IJM that have dedicated their lives to bringing freedom to the darkest corners of the world. I weep with each new story they release. I pray fervently for them. I long to see them expand and reach more people—with 27 million still enslaved, there is much yet to be done.

At the same time, I desperately long to see the narrative changed. My heart sings as I read sensational stories of raids and rescue—but I want to read more remarkably unsensational stories. Tell me the one about the Nepali girl who grew up in an adoring family of six. Tell me how she went to school with each of her three siblings because her parents never had to make the impossible choice of which child to educate, and which child to sell. Thrill me with the story of a mother and father whose children never went hungry, who never lived in quiet dread of being torn away from their homes and raped 30 times a day. How do we get more of those stories?

When my husband was in business school, one of his professors told a parable about a dusty village near a river. One day, a village woman noticed a baby floating down the river. Horrified, she ran into the swirling waters and rescued the baby. The very next day, a man passing by noticed yet another baby floating downstream. Horrified, he darted into the river and rescued the baby. This horrific pattern continued for years until, at long last, one of the villagers decided to walk upstream to find out where the babies were coming from.

As we feverishly work to rescue those who have been enslaved, we must also partner with those who are running upstream to stop slavery at its source. Slavery is deeply rooted in poverty. Traffickers prey upon the hungry, the homeless, the widowed, and the orphaned. Mothers and fathers who sell their children are not monsters—they are starving and live lives steeped in a desperation that our Western minds cannot comprehend.

What might happen in those Nepali villages if, before traffickers came knocking on parents’ doors, those same parents received a small loan and Christ-centered business training? Job creation is the unsung hero in our battle against slavery—a trafficker’s bait holds no allure when the gnawing ache of hunger has been satiated and the rent has been paid. I fear that until we destroy the roots of slavery, for every child rescued, five more will take her place.

The battle to END IT will take all of us. Today, let us resolve to send thousands more into the swirling waters to rescue the victims—and thousands more upstream to stop trafficking at its source. 

 

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Filed under Hope, Justice, Microfinance

The Shadow.

JCP_1584 bwI was carrying a large pizza.

It was dark outside-after ten o’clock at night. I had been sitting at home waiting for news-any news about Ian all day long. Just that morning we had been told that he did not, in fact, have mono or an odd strain of the flu—he had cancer. Wait until we call you to come, my Mama had said. And so I sat alone in the brown chair and stared at my silent cell phone all day long, willing it to ring.

It only needed to ring once. We’re at UNC Hospital and Ian wants pizza. He’d listed off the toppings that he wanted, and shaking, I ran to my car to race to a local pizza joint on my way to the cancer center.

My voice trembled as I stammered the order. Pepperoni, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, green peppers. Please, please hurry. Black-aproned college students were wiping down tables and stacking chairs, so I stood outside waiting. A gray-haired manager noticed me, lip-quivering and wide-eyed, and walked out to the sidewalk to ask me if something was wrong.  It all came spilling out. He’s only 21 years old. Just diagnosed this morning. I don’t know anything except he wants a pizza. I think sometimes angels must be disguised as sweet gray-haired pizzeria managers, because the man gave me his card with a note scrawled on the back that said “Good for one free pizza at any time.” He wrote a note to Ian on the front of that pizza box—We’re rooting for you buddy! Fight hard.

I parked in a massive concrete parking garage and ran towards the hospital. Glass doors welcomed me to “UNC Cancer Center”, and whitewashed halls grew blurry as tears filled my disbelieving eyes. My heart could not understand where my legs were taking me. He can’t have cancer. How is this possible?

He was on the third floor, with our Mom and Dad. I wiped tears away and then burst through his door with a wide grin. YOU DRAMA QUEEN. You couldn’t just get the flu—you had to get CANCER.

Ian rolled his eyes and slowly grinned back, then reached for his pizza.

I would spend the next five months doing my very best to make him laugh. I refused to cry around my little brother, and I didn’t let anyone else do it either—going so far as to tell my own Mother to step out into the hall and get it together. The big sister in me desperately didn’t want Ian to be scared. I would tease him, goad him, demand that he stop being so lazy and let me ride in his wheelchair for once. But never did I let him see me cry.

When Ian was admitted into the ICU for the last time, I had the flu and was not allowed to see him. For days I sat a fifteen second walk away from him in the waiting room, asking my parents to remind him over and over again that I was there, just steps away, and I loved him. One bleak midnight I staunchly refused to leave and Kellan had to pull me, sobbing, towards his waiting car.

When I was finally allowed to see Ian, he had already been intubated. A ventilator breathed air into exhausted lungs that were too weak to do the job any longer. As I stepped into his room alone, the heavy door closed and clicked behind me and I stared at my pale little brother. Tubes masked his gaunt face. Cancer had left her calling card, and the kid lying on the hospital bed in front of me looked nothing like the one that just months before had picked me up and done curls with me in the kitchen. He looked so small.

My brave façade crumbled, and I grabbed his hand, laid my head down beside him and wept. Voice breaking, I told him for the umpteenth time that I loved him so much, and with tears streaming down my face whispered that if he needed to go, that was okay.

Sitting there beside my little brother, I begged God to let me take his place. If I could have crawled into that hospital bed and shoved the tube down my throat instead, I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have joyfully handed Ian every last second that I had left to live. Jesus, He’s too little! I can do it. Let it be me. Crushed, I begged, and as clearly as I have ever heard anything I heard Jesus say Ashley, I have already switched places with Ian.

This Thursday, Ian will have been gone for one year. His friends are doing all sorts of things to remember and honor him—from raising money to fight cancer to going dancing in his memory. And while those things are great, this big sister would just love it if today, you would remember that Jesus switched places with you too. Jesus took the full weight of death into His body so that you and I and Ian would only ever need to experience its shadow. If Ian could tell you one thing today, I know that He would look you straight in the eyes and promise you that there is nothing in this world more valuable than knowing Jesus. Our deepest need is not for a healthy body or a head of curly hair or Christmas with six instead of five, our deepest need is for Christ Himself. One year later as I stand amidst the wreckage and tearfully survey the damage, I, with Ian, am adamantly convinced of that too.

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The Family Tree.

My little brother Stephen graduates from college tomorrow morning, and so Kellan and I are hopping a Raleigh-bound flight and heading home for Christmas early! Stephen is only a year younger than I am, but already has approximately eleventy billion degrees, every single one of which I attribute to my graciously allowing him to complete my math homework for me when I had better things to do.

Like talk on the phone. Or eat Cheetos. Or really ANYTHING besides my math homework.

YOU’RE WELCOME, STEPHEN.

[Also, I expect a healthy cut of your salary for my efforts.]

My family has waited for Kellan and I to arrive to decorate their tree, and so I imagine that we’ll spend part of tomorrow unwrapping and carefully hanging boxes of ornaments. We’ve done the same thing for as long as I can remember—strains of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas lilt through the air and the lingering scent of molasses hangs heavy as Dad and the boys string cranberry beads and white lights. In keeping with tradition, the kids all fight over whose turn it is to hang which ornament. There’s the “house” ornament purchased the year that last minute plans allowed us to be unexpectedly, blissfully home for Christmas. There’s a polka dotted bunny rabbit snuck into my red stocking as a little girl, in honor of the stuffed bunny that I carried with me everywhere that I went. Ornaments are handmade and popsicle-sticked, shattered and mended back together after eager little hands dropped bulbs on hardwood floors and a patient Father sat and glued. Some are painfully ugly—treasures found by children and brought home to proudly hang on a tree while a Mama bit her tongue and smiled. Stephen and I have matching blue and pink angels that predate our two siblings, the two of which share custody of the single set of wings left between them. Truthfully, my pink angel hasn’t been great at sharing the wings over the past couple of years.

As Kellan and I decorated our tree the other night and unwrapped our little collection of red and silver ornaments one by one for the very first time, my mind wandered as I imagined our own children unwrapping those same ornaments one day. I’m a story-teller, and I will tell the stories over and over again—you see that gold Santa? That one’s from my Aunt Lynn. She gave us a whole box of ornaments right before our wedding. And the spinning ornament? We had those when I was a little girl! Your Grandpa always made sure that each one hung directly over a light. And that clay house ornament? Your Daddy and I got that the very first year that we were married. We barely had any Christmas decorations at all—we had to wrap bath towels around the base of our tree!

And then, carefully, we will unwrap one more.

Ornament

This was the last time that my brothers and sister and I got to decorate our tree all together. Your Uncle Ian would have just LOVED you.

And I will tell stories. Stories of fighting over ornaments and eating too many molasses cookies, stories of snow sledding in Ukraine and waking up at 3:00 AM on Christmas mornings. I’ll talk about curly hair and belting Broadway tunes while we washed dinner dishes, and I will roll my eyes as I tell them how the girls used to swoon over their Uncle. And every year, we will remember together that even in the face of death, we can still confidently, defiantly sing Joy to the World. We will remember that the world is broken and grief may threaten to overwhelm, but it never, never can because Jesus came and gave a weary world a reason to rejoice.

This year, and every year, I will miss my little brother.

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Filed under Christmas, Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

The Bald Ballerina.

DSC_0120The day we shaved off Ian’s curly hair, he didn’t do it alone. My brother Stephen, cousin Justin and my Uncle Anthony shaved their heads bald right along side of him, [Daddy’s head was, shall we say, already shaved? ;)] because in my family, we will elbow our way right into when you’re hurting and hurt right along side of you. You may lose your hair, but we’ll be darned if you lose it alone.

[Side note: the men in my family are devastatingly handsome with or without hair, and I love them something fierce.]

I briefly contemplated shaving my head that day, but dismissed the idea because MY HAIR.

Also, MY HAIR.

My little sister Emily and I stood by with our hearts stapled to our sleeves, grinning bravely and determinedly cheering in the kitchen while our Mama shaved head after head. Curls fell to the floor, and we oohed and ahhed as cancer left her chilling calling card. In the months that followed, people would stare as Ian shuffled into coffee shops and grocery stores with gaunt cheeks and a telling bald head. I would stare rudely, unflinchingly back until embarrassed, they looked away– because NOBODY got to treat my little brother like the dying kid. Not on my watch.

The day that Ian slipped away, I had one arm around Emily while we both tightly clung to his hand. My shattered heart throbbed at the searing loss of my little brother. I ached as I watched my fourteen year old sister grow up in a single afternoon.

After Ian died, Emily began to talk about shaving her head to raise money to fight cancer. She didn’t want any more sisters to lose their brothers, and told me that a bald head was a small price to pay next to giving other girls a chance to wave at their big brother from a graduation stage, or dance with him at their wedding.

And so, for all of the other sisters out there, Emily Scott Peterson is shaving her head. In so doing, she is hoping to raise $2,100—a hundred dollars for every year of her big brother’s life.

Y’all, I’ll be darned if I let my ballerina sister shave her long brown hair off for a red cent less than that.

Emily asked me if I’d write a blog to tell you what she’s doing, and I promised that I would. I’m writing to you not simply because we’re talking about my little brother, and my little sister, but because the world has been badly broken by sin. Since the February day that I walked out of Ian’s dark ICU room for the very last time, I’ve noticed that brokenness in a way that I never had before. Brokenness now leaps off of life’s pages, begging to be restored.

When I look at Jesus’ life, I see restoration. The God-man entered right into our brokenness, and a weary world rejoiced. The Restorer had finally come! Everywhere He went, the hungry were fed, the lame walked, the blind saw. God and sinners were reconciled, brokenness that He encountered was restored, and these were all earthly pictures of a heavenly reality that’s coming.

A thrill of hope, indeed.

I believe that Jesus has called you and I to be on the front lines of restoration. Restoration is our messy, heartbreaking, holy work.

I don’t know how Jesus is asking you to be a part of restoration, simply that He is. In the midst of this Christmas season, let’s remember that sacred good news of great joy—Emmanuel, God WITH us—means that an end to pain is coming. That everything sad is becoming untrue, and until Jesus comes back and our restoration is complete we are to incarnate Christ to a broken world that desperately needs Him.

I am proud of Emily for working to restore, by fighting cancer. If you would like to help her, click here. Select “Seat yourself”, then at the top of the page click “Make a donation”, and then fill in the required information.

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It’s Not Just a Phone.

I started my new job with HOPE about a week and a half ago—and can I just tell you how thankful I am? Y’all, I am SO THANKFUL for early morning alarms and messy rooms and backed up laundry and stacks and stacks of reading. [Kellan is slightly less thankful. ;)] The thought of getting to be a real part of ending poverty makes my heart race, and we’re going to be talking about that a lot around here!

But today, I’m going to tell you about a phone. My phone, actually.

About a year ago now, Kellan flew to North Carolina to be with me as I watched my world begin to unravel. He’d moved to New York a week to the day after we’d gotten engaged, and had left his newly-minted bride-to-be beaming and elatedly scribbling wedding plans into a little black binder. He returned to bleary red eyes and quivering lips, sterile rooms and a very sick little brother.

Kellan felt helpless. The man who would hand me the moon if he could just figure out how to get his hands on it desperately wanted to fix it, and he couldn’t. He stood helplessly by as I crumbled, powerless to give me the only thing in the whole world that I wanted. He could not fix it.

My ancient cell phone was barely holding a charge anymore, which posed a herculean problem given that I needed my family to be able to reach me any time that I wasn’t at the hospital. Something in Kellan’s mind snapped, and the next afternoon he stuffed me into the car and drove me straight to the AT&T store. My protests fell on deaf ears as he put me on his cell phone plan and bought me my very first iPhone. He could not fix my little brother, but come hell or high water he was going to fix the phone.

I’ve never been so grateful for a piece of technology in my entire life. It was by far the most timely, practical gift that I’ve ever been given. I used the GPS to find the different hospitals that Ian was admitted to—I used it almost every single day. I snapped random pictures of Ian and I—pictures of coffee dates, wedding errands, and me curled up next to him in his hospital bed. And months later, one very last picture–a picture of my hand holding his. All of them, pictures that I never would have had if not for that fancy phone.

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I took videos. I took a video of his a cappella  group singing to him in the ICU. It was a video that I held up to his ear and played a thousand times—and I’m almost sure that one day I saw him try to smile. I took a video of him lying in his hospital bed as the steady rush of the ventilator helped him breathe in and out—and I would watch it over and over again at night right before I fell asleep, begging God to please let him still be breathing when I woke up. It was the phone I looked at in a frozen panic the second my eyes fluttered open each new morning, praying that all was calm. The phone that I held up to Ian’s ear and played music off of. The phone that lit up in a dark ICU room as thousands of texts and emails from praying friends and family and strangers poured in while I held Ian’s hand. I read him every single one.

When I started at HOPE, a kind employee graciously informed me that I would be sent a new phone, and transitioning to the company phone plan. My heart stopped as a thousand memories flooded my mind. I cringed, thinking about the archived pictures of the second to last coffee date that Ian took me on. He’d enthusiastically jumped behind the counter at his coffee shop to brew me a latte and impress me with his foam designs, and I’d laughed and snapped a picture.

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I thought of the day that Ian, Mom and I had been waiting in the hallway for yet another painful test. I’d breezed in with my wedding invitations, and in an effort to make Ian smile I’d spread all of my materials all over him and used him as a table. [Address stamps were delivered using his forehead as a level surface. :)] There was a picture of that, too.

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Then there was the picture on the yellow couch, of watching Emily’s ballet recital together, of cake-tasting entirely too many wedding cupcakes.

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I could save them all, of course—but inevitably my new phone would become cluttered with pictures of a life that had no choice but to carry on without Ian, and I hated that.

Grief means that it’s never just a phone.

The memories on my phone remind me that I am not home. That the world is broken, and that God’s heart shatters right along with ours as we stand and tearfully survey the wreckage. Last night, as I carefully saved every precious picture and video, I longed for heaven. I longed for no more broken hearts and broken lives, for the promise of no more tears to finally be ours. And until that day, if there’s one thing that I’d like my life to be hallmarked by, it’s fighting to redeem what has been broken. That is God’s heart, and I want it to be mine as well.

God is enough. He is enough for new phones and new pictures and even for a new life without my brother in it. Oh, it doesn’t feel like it in the midst of this broken Thursday morning—but I choose to cling to the undeniable truth of it.

He is enough for you, too.

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