Just over four years ago, I was on my way home from Red Deer where I had been at a piano teacher’s conference. I was about an hour from home and I think I called home to let Terry know where I was. He said something unusual for him: “Don’t spare the gas – get home as soon as you can.”
I pressed him a little on why – after all, we are usually pretty careful with both gas mileage and speed. He finally told me that our 14 year old daughter, Emily, was missing. I started to drive pretty quickly. About 30 minutes later, I called back to find out if he had heard anything else and he told me that it was confirmed that she was dead.
I drove even faster. Faster than I’ve ever driven before for a long period of time. I was actually hoping that the police would stop me so that they could take me home. I think it took me about 50 minutes to get home from the first phone call, instead of the usual hour.
As you can imagine, those 50 minutes, especially the last 20 or so, were hard. I was crying out to God. I listened to two songs several times over. I prayed and cried and prayed some more and cried. The phrase that came to mind, that I found out later Terry also used in his initial announcement online, was “my precious daughter”.
I don’t remember all the thoughts that went through my mind. At that point, we really didn’t know anything about what had happened. What I do remember, though, is the emotion – the gut-wrenching pain of it all.
As I reached Edson, I took a slightly different way home than usual, trying to avoid the lights on the highway so I could get home faster. As I came around the first corner off the highway, at that moment, “God came down”. I don’t remember the exact phrasing of the thought but I remember thinking, “God, why? And can you understand my grief?”
Then I realized the truth – His Son had died, too. He could understand better than anyone else and He already knew what was ahead of us and what had happened just a few hours before. At that moment, God came down to me.
I’m actually very thankful for that drive home. Although it seems terrible in some ways, it gave me time to cry out to God on my own, before I had to face our children. And as I listened to the two songs, one titled “It is not death to die”, and the other, “How Deep (is Your Love)”, I believe that it started to set the trajectory in my heart focusing on who God is.
As I got home, we started to deal with all the aspects of what has to be done in the case of a sudden death. Terry and I told the younger girls together – they only knew that Emily was missing. We notified grandparents and family and then notified our church family and friends around the world. Our church family and other pastors in the community quickly rallied around us.
I found out more about what had happened that afternoon and evening, although we still didn’t know then, nor would know for several months, what had actually happened to Emily. Terry told me that she had gone for a quick walk prior to a babysitting appointment and had headed up a well-travelled path that skirts a subdivision just north of us. When she didn’t come back in time for her appointment, Terry started to worry and he also talked to our friends where she was supposed to babysit. They told him that there were many emergency vehicles in their neighbourhood so he got on his bike and headed up towards the subdivision. When he talked to the police there about a missing girl, they quickly drove him home and got a photograph, and the wheels of justice were set in motion. Her death was confirmed just about 90 minutes later to us.
The next week passed slowly and quickly. The entire town basically shut down as no one knew what had happened and people were very fearful of the possibility of a murderer being out on the streets. We planned the funeral and in God’s grace, were able to speak of the hope that we have in Christ and our assurance that Emily was safe with Jesus.
Then we waited for two months as the police did their work and at the beginning of December, they arrested the man who had committed the murder. It was a great relief to everyone. That was the beginning of the story. As I consider the rest of the story, I would like to tell you about our fight – against fear, against unbelief, and against bitterness.
A friend of mine said recently on her blog:
I am not remotely as encouraged by a book about success as I am by a book about abject failure, about not getting what you want from life, about hearing the platitudes over and over and being sick of them, about reaching a point of utter disappointment and frustration with life and anger at God, and about COMING BACK. Not to perfection or a magically transformed life but to a life where God says, “I know better than you” and you say, “okay.”That was the point we had to come to.
During those two months when we waited to find out who had committed this crime, I remember feeling fear as I’ve never felt before. Our younger girls remember that feeling very well – it was one of the foremost emotions surrounding that time.
Because we didn’t know why Emily was killed, I was fearful every time I stepped out of the door. The girls weren’t allowed to play in a nearby green space, only in our yard. As time went on and after we knew who had done this crime, I fought fear in letting the kids go places or do things that were perfectly safe for them to do and yet I didn’t want to let them go.
I think that many of us live with fear every day. Not just fear of physical safety but fear of the unknown, of the possibility of being hurt physically or emotionally. Yet God does not call us to a life of fear. Instead, He calls us to a life of trust.
I don’t know about you but my imagination can work overtime pretty fast – my mind can have terrible things happen to my family in just about the blink of an eye. When that happens, I need to wrestle my mind back into submission to God and His word. What has He said about fear?
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (I John 4:18)During those times when I am tempted to fear, I need to remind myself of God’s truth – that perfect love casts out fear. What does this mean? It means that God’s perfect love has already been shown to us in the form of His Son, Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Matthew tells us that Jesus “would save his people from their sins”. The Christmas story is only the beginning. Christ lived, then died on the cross and rose again – all for a love of His people. He took the punishment for our sins on Himself and so He perfected love for us. That’s the first place to start.
Second, one of the psalms I remember quoting to myself often during those first few days, and nights, was Psalm 23. This past Sunday, our pastor reminded us of the phrase – “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” The answer to fear is not anything we can do but simply God’s presence.
When I responded in belief to God’s call on my life, I also began to learn how to love God. It’s very difficult to love someone that you fear, isn’t it? As I have learned to love Him more, I have learned to fear Him less. This is not to say that I don’t fear God in the sense that He is so much bigger and more holy than I am; but because of Christ’s death on the cross, I can approach God boldly. Heb. 10 says:
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.I do not need to be afraid either of God or of what can happen here on earth because of the assurance that we have in Christ. Practically speaking, that meant that I had to give my fears to God each and every time I thought about them.
We also fought fear using music and books. Our girls listened every night for months to a couple of albums by Sovereign Grace music. Even today, if they are particularly worried about something, they will put music on at night to listen to. We use books or music to remind us of what is really true, not just what we see around us.
We have had many people tell us how much they admire our strength. Let me tell you all – that strength is not from us or in us. It is only from God. And I am convinced that it came about through the prayers of God’s people.
On one of the first mornings after Emily’s death, Terry and I got up early (from not really sleeping) and we were sitting on the couch talking. One thing that Terry said stuck in my brain: “If the gospel doesn’t mean anything now, it never did.”
In all his years of pastoring and preaching, in all my years of following God, if that gospel, believing that Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again and is coming back in the future, if that gospel was not true at this time of testing and sorrow, was it ever true?
Now, this doesn’t mean that we didn’t have to fight against unbelief. We had to learn to fight against it. I don’t think I ever lost my belief in God but I did question whether this was right and good and part of His plan. One of the pivotal doctrines I had to wrestle with was the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Was God in control? Was this part of his plan? Did He have a plan? And why us?
I read several books on grief, on suffering and on God’s sovereignty over the course of the first few months. I also read only the Psalms for several months. There were times when I was tempted to throw books across the room because I could not see how they could be true and right. But God worked in my heart and the next day, I would pick up where I left off and so gradually worked through the issues.
My conclusion eventually was that if God’s character is what is portrayed in the Bible and if He is truly God, then He must also be truly sovereign over all things. I have had people say to me they didn’t know if they could believe in a God who would allow this to happen. My answer is that if God is so weak as to not be able to be in charge of all history, I could take no comfort in believing in that God. God, in order to truly be God, must be far beyond us and this universe.
The sovereignty of God is a difficult doctrine but in the end, it is the only one that gives peace and comfort to my soul. And it is the only one that ultimately jives with Scripture. How thankful I am for passages like Psalm 91: “he who dwells in the secret place of the Most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.“
Psalm 61 says:
“Hear my cry, O God; Attend to my prayer. From the end of the earth I will cry to You, When my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I. For you have been a shelter to me.”In our fight against unbelief, we had to acknowledge first of all that it was a fight. I remember saying to Terry that I hadn’t realized before how active faith is. True faith is not passive – it doesn’t just sit back and wait. Especially in difficult circumstances, true faith is active. It’s like the old illustration of a chair. One shows faith that the chair will hold one up by sitting on it, not by just looking at it. We had to learn to “sit” on God’s truths, not just sit back and watch them. Part of that sitting was reading good books, as I mentioned. Part of it was listening and singing good music, in church and at home. And part of it was learning to speak truth, both to my own heart and to others.
Psalm 42-43 repeat this refrain:
Why are you downcast, O my soul?I am indebted to Martin Lloyd Jones for this observation: The Psalmist reminds us that we have to talk to our souls, not just listen to them. I had to keep reminding myself to put my hope in God.
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
Phil. 4:6-7 tells us to:
not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.The promise was that God would give us peace and He did. A few months after Emily’s death, the children’s song in church was “I have the peace that passes understanding down in my heart”. As we were practicing the song, it dawned on me – I finally knew what the peace that passes understanding was. I remember as a child and probably even as an adult wondering what that peace really was.
Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about fighting feelings of bitterness.
One of the greatest gifts God gave us right from the very start was the gift to say, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” I am not saying this to tell you how wonderful we are nor that we never had feelings of anger and bitterness toward the perpetrator.
But it is truly a mark of God’s grace that we did purpose from the beginning to leave this in God’s hands. Although we didn’t understand why then and still really don’t know why this man committed this crime, we did know that God, who is the Judge of the whole earth, will judge rightly and fairly and more completely than we could ever imagine. We were pleased that the justice system here on earth judged, in our minds, rightly and fairly and we were very thankful that the perpetrator pleaded guilty but ultimately, we had to leave it all in God’s hands.
Some of you may be wrestling with bitterness and trying to work through issues of forgiveness. I encourage you to start (or maybe go back) and look at who God is and start by giving the issues of justice to God and let Him take care of the vengeance. Don’t let what the author of the book of Hebrews calls “the root of bitterness” to grow up in your heart. That would be allowing Satan and evil to win. Instead, let God take away the bitterness and rest in Him.
I have been talking about fighting – against fear, against unbelief and against bitterness. It may seem like an odd thing. I think often we think the Christian beliefs and walk should be easy – let’s just “let go and let God”. But I don’t think the Bible calls us to such a laid back approach. Especially when it comes to difficult times or in preparation for suffering, we need to wrestle with these issues. Ultimately, as we learn more about God, I think we will learn more how to rest in Him but it is an active rest. Perhaps we will not fully be able to rest in Him until we reach heaven.
Our family was changed forever by the loss of Emily. And yet, we see God’s gracious hand throughout the past 4 years, comforting, guiding and teaching us. Our children are walking with the Lord, which is a tremendous blessing and answer to prayer.
Juanita has been married to Terry for 23 years. They have four children, two of which are still at home and the oldest is away at college in his third year. Terry is currently pastoring part-time in a team ministry at Calvary Grace Church of Calgary and working fulltime.