Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Meeting Hannah

"Have you met Hannah yet?" the woman across the table asked. We were sitting in an overcrowded ballroom, eating lunch during the Proverbs 31 Ministries SheSpeaks conference. There were over 750 Christian women at this conference. I had met hundreds of incredible women throughout the past three days, like I could remember the names of each and every one.

"Oh, if you met her, you'd remember her," the woman explained. "There's just something about Hannah."

As if on cue, the most beautiful example of strength approached our table and asked if she could join us. This was Hannah. 

A tall, slender woman with chocolate skin, hair past her waist, and a smile that lit up the room. I immediately recognized her from the night before, when here, in this very ballroom, diners were transformed to worshippers, singing songs and praising Jesus. It was a Christian conference, after all. But I grew up in a reserved church. We bowed our heads in silent reverence for God. Here, arms were raised and hands were clapped. Bodies swayed while faces lifted to meet God's smile head-on. The night before, I watched in awe the woman in front of me, wearing what I termed a vintage dress, as she smiled and sang and called out to Jesus. I was absolutely fascinated with her. 

There was just something about her: a light, a strength, a courage that she proudly wore on the outside, for all to see.

This was Hannah.

I leaned in as Hannah spoke at our lunch table. In her exotic accent I learned she was from Botswana, Africa. She had saved money to come to this conference. From Botswana. She literally left her home, traveled something like eight thousand miles to come to a Christian women's conference in Concord, North Carolina. She spent four and a half days in one hotel attending this conference, where she planned to return home the minute it ended.

Who does that? Who spends a life savings traveling to a 4-day conference? Who leaves their family and their country to go to America with the hope to learn how to successfully grow their ministry? A soul on fire, that's who. 

This was Hannah.

Hannah is a business woman in her country. She has a grocery she runs out of her home. A few years ago, Hannah came across the Proverbs 31 Ministries website and started reading the daily devotions they posted. She started sharing these devotions with some women in her village. She wanted them to know the strength they could have in Jesus. She wanted her sisters to know they, too, were strong. 

Hannah saw an ad for the SheSpeaks conference on the website and thought that if she could just get to this thing she would be able to learn what she needed to in order to get her ministry to grow. She needed it to grow, she explained, because of the orphans.

In her village there were three siblings who had lost their parents. They lived in a tent. She knew they needed walls. She knew they needed a roof. But she also knew she couldn't do it alone. And she knew the couple of women from her village who came to her Bible studies in her home weren't enough. She needed to learn how to grow her ministry so there would be more women to help build the home for the three orphans. And the only place that would teach her to do it right would be the SheSpeaks conference.

And so she came.

It was now the last night of the conference and a line had formed to meet Lysa TerKeurst, President of Proverbs 31 Ministries. The line was long, the president tired. An assistant decided enough was enough and cut off the line. "I'm sorry," she apologized, "but we can't go all night." Hannah asked the assistant her name. "I have come too far," she politely explained, "to be turned away now." 

Waiting in line with her I asked Hannah what she would have done if the assistant wouldn't have allowed her in the line. "I would have known I did absolutely everything I could. God only asks that, the rest is up to Him."


Proverbs 31 Ministries President Lysa TerKeurst with Hannah


The next morning, packed bags sitting at my feet, I had one more chance to speak with Hannah. We spoke about how fabulous the conference was - the classes, the workshops, the speakers, the worship, the music, the food: it was undeniably incredible. And yet, I asked if there had been anything that had disappointed her. 

She looked out into the distance for a long time, thinking. I sensed she was gathering her words carefully. 

"I do not even know my roommate's name," she said, looking out at the sky. "She did not speak to me." 

What?! My heart broke. This was a Christian conference. Christians are supposed to be nice! How was it even possible to stay and sleep in the same room for four nights and not speak? I felt sick. 

I looked at Hannah, this amazing woman who lives in a village in South Africa, who only wants to teach others about Jesus, who dreams of building a house for three orphans, who took her money to fly to America to learn what she needed to learn. I was angry.

But she was not.

In her beautiful accent of strength and love and wisdom she explained:

"I spoke with God and asked, 'Why did you make me come all this way for this?' He answered, 'What do YOU need to learn?' So I thought on this. After much thinking I knew. There are 750 women here, I cannot let one person stand in my way. I have come too far to be distracted. I have come too far to give up. I have come too far. Now, I can go back to the women of my village and tell them, 'do not let any man stand in the way of where you are supposed to go.' I want them to go far."

Days later and I can't get Hannah or her words out of my head. "I have come too far..."

I think of every single woman at that conference and I want them to see how far they came. Do not give up now, I want to shout! You have come too far! I want them all to keep going in the direction God called them. I do not want them to give up.

Because isn't that the lesson in all of this? Isn't it all about answering your call, whatever that looks like? Whether you should be writing or speaking or painting or farming of mothering or cooking or singing or teaching or leading? 

The lesson is to do what you can and let go of what you cannot. The lesson is to not allow anyone or anything to stand in the way of your path. The hurdles and road bumps are not insurmountable, even when they look like they are. There is a way around. Do absolutely everything you can, and know the rest is up to God.

I think of what I would have done. Spent the weekend crying, being upset, wondering what was wrong with me. I would have been distracted in the workshops, unable to focus. I would have felt like a failure afraid someone didn't like me. I would have taken it as a sign that I was not meant to be there. I would have called a cab and ran home. I would have missed the lesson God put in front of me to learn and I would have turned away. 

But not Hannah. 

She had come too far. 

And she taught me that I, too, have come too far to turn around now. I look back over the roads I have taken in my life: awkwardness and insecurities, abusive relationships, unplanned pregnancies and single motherhood, toxic friendships, weakness, fear, financial disaster, hateful people, the death of my dear, sweet daughter and I HAVE COME TOO FAR. 

I have come too far to turn away now.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

In the Midst of Tragedy: Where is my God?

I was speaking with a group of people last night about Avery and how I felt called to tell her story. Hers is one of faith and belief and love and God. I've heard a thousand times and more that I should write a book, as if it were as easy as jotting down a list of things to pick up in town. I cannot explain how scary that idea is. Not to write the words; the words are the easy part. It's having to make my heart go back there again.

Not a day goes by when I don't get hit. A song. A sun. A smell. A smile. And I must stop myself from doubling over and crying out, oh, Avery! I just want you back! I just want to hold you! See you one more time!

The hurt is so incredibly raw. Caustic. I remember how bad my throat hurt from squeezing together my pain, holding it back from erupting in all the inappropriate places; so many inappropriate places. At the checkout lane. In front of a client. In line at the DMV. Sitting stoic in the church pew. At a meeting discussing building setbacks and impervious surface ratios. My throat still aches. I barely made in through the first time; would I have the strength to relive it a second?

I try to explain to Matt my need to chase the sun. I don't even think about it anymore. I just do it. Sometimes gone for fifteen minutes; one night, two hours. Driving alone to catch a glimpse of heaven's bright light, desperate for a sign she is still with me. That she remembers who I am. Yesterday, the sky was pink over the cemetary and I smiled. What would I ever do without the sun?

As I stood to leave last night, an older gentleman came over to me. He had lost a daughter to cancer. He showed me her picture. She was so beautiful. He told me he hopes that I will always see God throughout every single detail of this journey. Too many people angrily accuse, "Where was my God? Why did He abandon me? Why did He do this to me?

But I know not everything that happens on this earth is God's Will; but, if I choose to see it, I can find His Will in everything.

Jeremiah 29:11
"For I know the plans that I have for you," declares the Lord,
"plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope."


 How did the unexpected death of my beautiful, innocent 11-year old daughter include welfare, a future, and hope? In the midst of this tragedy, where was my God?

My God was stretching out His loving arms, smiling wide with pure joy as He welcomed Avery home.

My God was comforting the young girl in the passenger seat, holding her tight as He whispered, "I am with you. Do not be afraid."

My God was the strength in Jadrian's heart and mind as she ran to the road to seek help, as she climbed back into the car to craddle her beautiful sister one last time.

My God was with the woman who hadn't been to church in years yet remembered His name as she ran out of her car and into the arms of a tortured and panicked child. He guided her to hold Jadrian's face in her hands and to look unwaveringly into fear filled eyes as she prayed. Prayed fervently with every fiber of her being to the God she knew she needed.

My God was the hands of the college boys who tried in vain to get those beautiful girls out, not knowing how or why or even what to do if they did, just knowing that they had to try. And my God stayed with them as they went, shell-shocked and shattered, to their football team and asked if they could pray.

My God was with all those teammates who were just a minute ago talking about football and girls and giving each other a hard time; He moved their hearts to compassionate prayer.

My God was with every single rescue responder. He was their strength. He was their decisions. He was their gentleness.

My God was there and everywhere and He showered us with blessings and grace, not only in that moment, in that day, but in the days and weeks and months to come. 

He compelled reporters to write about a little girl's faith. He called on people to be strong and compassionate with their thoughts, words and deeds. He stirred hearts to question where they stood in the name of Jesus. He asked people to think long and hard about their relationships with their children and their families. He put words to feelings and stayed near as they were typed out at three in the morning by a wounded mother's pain and into the eyes and hearts of strangers. 

My God spoke loud and clear about His plans to create a ministry in Avery's name. He spoke to many about the amazing ways they could spread His word and His love: through concerts and books and walking and magnets and t-shirts and raspberries; all of it for the Glory of His Name.

My God has not left us.

Not for a second. 

He holds me tight during my darkest hours. And He allows me to laugh in the light.

He whispers a sister's name to a 3-year old boy, recalling memories of singing and dancing and hide n' go seek. 

He prompts visiting ministers to preach about the goodness of heaven, the blessings of eternal life, and of the reality that we will know our loved ones within the gates of the Almighty One and Only. 

He sends powerful reminders of love and support through emails from faceless names several states away, of a gift sent in the mail from someone I have never met. Books, cards, even gluten free red velvet cake! 

He whispers words of encouragement as I looked into the eyes of the enemy: "I can't believe the visitation was in a school gym," she had quipped. "That's so tacky." And as her arms embraced me in the fakest of motions, and I felt my anger boiling to rage, I heard God's voice: she is broken. She has no idea of her hate. She has wandered so far away from me. Be gentle with her; I am anxiously waiting for her return. 

He pulls my heartstrings and I follow Him. Always. He leads me not in the ways I would have planned nor guessed, but I attempt my best to trust absolute.

I do not pretend to understand why. I do not pretend to be stronger than I am. I am weak. I am confused. I am hurt. I am angry. I am sad. I am salty tears dried in sunshine and I miss who I used to be even though I know I am one hundred times better than who I was and I owe it all to this; all because my daughter wanted to tell the world about Jesus. "Because then people wouldn't feel alone or afraid anymore," she had explained. And when I looked into her eyes I had always known she was right. And I had always known God would see to it that she would.

I just never imagined it would be in this way.

In the midst of tragedy, where is my God? 

He is right here with me; where He has always been, and where He will continue to always be.



Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blast From the Past: Regarding Sleep

Since my Facebook feed has been blowing up with brand new precious bundles of joy, I thought it'd be a good time to revisit a previous post from back in the day. Plus, it reminds me that I used to write with humor. ENJOY!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Just another ordinary Friday afternoon.

Mom? When I was a baby, I couldn't drink out of this cup. When I was a baby, I had to drink out of a bottle.

Yep.

When I was a baby, Avery was my sister, but then I got bigger and Avery just died.

Yes. Yes, she did, Buddy.

Mom?

Yeah?

I wish Avery would come back and play with me a second. 

Me, too, Buddy. You guys always had a lot of fun when you played together.

Mom?

Yeah?

I'm saving my money all up so I can buy a swing set and then Avery will come home and play with me. 

Summering for a Season

There were kids who spent their summers vacationing, as in, left their perfectly good homes to swim in oceans adjacent to rented seaside cottages or walked for days amongst Disney characters and acrobatic dolphins. They rode bikes in Nantucket and camped in Yellowstone Park. They boarded airplanes and handed passports to officials in Spain and Paris and, for one lucky kid in the fourth grade, Brazil. 

Me? I spent the summer at my Grandparents' Farm. They lived on the edge of town. We saw them every Sunday. And holidays. This was the exact opposite of vacationing. My mother would wake us at some ungodly hour and we'd drag our tired bodies to the car. I hated it. It was too early. It was too boring. It was completely unfair that I had to help scrape manure off a barn floor when kids my age were being handed twenty dollar bills by their fathers to go get ice cream down by some wharf. 

We'd drive to Grandma's house where she'd be frying up eggs in a skillet, making toast to spread cinnamon and brown sugar on. After breakfast there would be chores down at the barn. Five pounds of potatoes were peeled starting around 10:00am. After lunch we swept floors and washed dishes in water so hot it made the skin on our hands melt. 

I spent my summers sweeping the concrete patio out back, suffering through episodes of Wheel of Fortune, wondering why everything in my life was so blasted unfair.

And yet, those summers would prove to be the foundation for who I am today. I learned how to coax a baby calf to take a bottle. I learned to stack hay bales as tall as the sky without them falling down. I learned to take pride in the things you did and in the things you had. I learned (and was completely confused by) my grandfather's words that he didn't need a single additional thing in life; that he had everything he ever needed and it was more than enough. 

I learned how to treat people who spent their days working for you: you treated them like family even if they weren't. I learned that the sun never rises in the exact same way as any of the days before and it never, ever would, and that's what makes getting up early in the morning so important: because you risk missing a once in a lifetime event every single day. I learned that there is comfort in tradition: especially when it comes in the simple form of a peanut butter sandwich at 4pm. 

I look back now and think of all the fun I had in between the work. The sweltering summer days when older cousins playfully dunked younger ones in stock tanks. The singing at the top of our lungs while sitting on a cattle gate and pretending we were pioneers the day we discovered the old horse-drawn carriage in the back barn.

I wouldn't trade those summers for the world. 

The truth is, I would not have the values I have today if I didn't go through those summers. As much as I dreaded those unfair summers at the time, I look back and realize how necessary they were for me. That prancing through the manicured lawns of a theme park would never have provided what I personally needed to make me, me

There is no way to compare the death of a child to summers on a farm, and yet... what if this is somehow an unfair season I have to go through to continue making me into who I'm supposed to be? Who we're all supposed to be? Sometimes, in the midst of the unfairness and the awfulness we learn how to be who we were meant to become. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Just the Beginning

Avery's school offered the online purchase of yearbooks that included two pages you could personalize for your child. Last year I included all sorts of pictures of things she had done throughout the school year: dressed up as Abraham Lincoln for a history speech; with her swim cap on, waiting for her event; cozied up next to friends at a sleepover.

In last year's yearbook, amongst the photos, I also included this:


I can't say why, exactly. I just knew in my heart of hearts that she was on the cusp of something great. She was amazing and I was seeing her with new eyes: her beauty, her patience, her compassion, her zest for life, her energy, her love for God. I just knew her greatness was just beginning.

Now it's time to order this year's 2012-2013 yearbook. She was in the 5th grade. I had envisioned including photos of her with her trombone at the band concert; dressed up for the school musical; sporting uniforms for the volleyball and basketball team; racing during track; working with the Student Council. Fifth Grade was when everything started. When everything big began. When you got your first locker assigned. When you switched rooms for classes. When you could join the school sports team and be cast in the school musical. When you grew up and got to do great things. But she only lived for six, maybe seven weeks of 5th grade. What did she have time to accomplish?

Avery Johanna McCarthy
2012-2013 5th Grade

The first day of school.
At Ravinia waiting for the Demi Lovato!
First school sport uniform: VOLLEYBALL!

With her good friend Katie. Both were a little timid when they started volleyball, but, man! Did they improve!! I loved watching them play. I loved watching Avery cheer on her teammates.
Celebrating Avery's Birthday!
We had so much fun together!

The outfit Papa bought her!
They went shopping, just the two of them!

Going to the Jamie Grace / tobyMac concert in Madison with Lila! This is the concert where Avery refused to leave until we sponsored a girl named Alphonsine through the Food for the Hungry network.
One of our last days together.
Snapped on Avery's new iPod.
The Officers who were there on that fateful evening.
They came back to give me Avery's Christmas gift: she had just asked for a Bible.

The Headline.
I am so proud of this article. Avery had said she wanted everyone to know about Jesus, that way they wouldn't feel alone or afraid anymore. Avery was just starting to get the Word out. :)
The Visitation.
For hours people stood in line, snaked through the hallways of Avery's beloved school. People had photos up everywhere. Every spot on the wall was met with a sweet, smiling face. Never would I have thought a school gym could feel so much like home.
Just days after Avery's death, her friends had to play in a soccer tournament. Fun Fact: their soccer coach has a son named Avery.
The Letter.
A week after Avery's funeral I found myself sobbing alone in my car in the back of a parking lot. I screamed out, "Avery! I'm so sorry! I don't know what to do! Help me! Help me, Avery! Show me what to do!" Digging in my purse for a Kleenex I came across this letter Avery had written to Alphonsine, where she
answered my pleas:

"I lift my eyes to the hills.
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
Maker of Heaven and Earth."
Psalm 121:1-2

Coach Jean Jacobs hosted a district wide volleyball camp in  Avery's honor and made these awesome shirts! The last Y is an angel. :)

These magnets were created and sold by dear friends for $5 each. Can I tell you how big I smile when I see one slapped on the back of a car driving around town? (And, yes, we have more!)

We created AVERYday Ministries to continue to be the voice and feet of Avery. Through AVERYday Ministries we will do all the things Avery had planned on doing: telling people about Jesus, helping others, and having a fun time doing it!

The Vorpagel family rang the bell in Avery's memory. Little did they know that Avery asked every single year if we could ring it. I had always said no before.

Avery's beloved UW-Whitewater Gymnastics Team hosted their first home meet in Avery's honor. These awesome shirts (that say ALL DAY AVERYDAY! Psalm 121) were sold to help financially support a gymnastics scholarship in Avery's name. She was a VERY proud GymHawk! I cried a lot this day. The team knocked it out of the park! Records were SHATTERED!!
Avery's Tree.
When Geneva Trees heard Avery had begged us for a REAL Christmas Tree they decided to donate one for her grave. Avery's classmates, friends and family all left little ornaments to decorate her tree and to show me that they cared.


Half of our hometown went to Milwaukee's WinterJam in February. Jamie Grace dedicated her song God Girl to  Avery; there wasn't a dry eye in the house!
Avery really, really, really wanted Matt to coach her basketball team. He couldn't say no. I will always thank
her for leading Matt into God's arms. The people, the community - and these very special girls! Avery was with us all every single step of the way.

954 tickets were sold to the very first AVERYday Ministries Seeds of Faith concert held at Young Auditorium in Whitewater. All those people blessed by Contemporary Christian singer and
Grammy Nominee - Jamie Grace, up and coming singer Morgan Harper Nichols and the wonderful with and humor of Mama Mona Harper.  Let's not forget the amazing dancing ability of Bishop Harper!
I had emailed singer-songwriter Jon Troast not expecting anything back. I explained I wanted to have a concert but had never done his before and had no idea what I was doing. He wrote back: "I'll be there."
Avery's school performed the junior version of Fiddler on the Roof. At the end of each performance the cast
turned to the scenery and pointed; their way of acknowledging that Avery was with them on stage each night, in the form of the a butterfly painted on a tree limb. Oh, my heart!

My brother, Patrick, surprised us all by making an illuminated cross bearing Avery's name. This cross is now with my father, Avery's Papa, who has plans to create a memory garden on his property in honor of Avery.
Personal Trainer John Palmer from Fontana, WI, hosted a 6k event called Run2Riches. Proceeds raised went to several different organizations and two families who recently lost loved ones. I was so humbled
and so honored to learn he included Avery. While we walked I continued to find written reminders that Avery was with me. It was so beautiful!
We met an incredible 11-year old named Morgan Radaj. Morgan created Motivating Kids to Give as a way to encourage kids to be positive members of their community. At her annual charity run/walk, four gymnastics girls and Morgan ran for AVERYday Ministries. Together they raised over $300! Don't ever say kids are too young to make a difference!

Riely Rae Mikrut blessed Avery's school by talking at a special chapel about her experiences during a 9-month mission trip. Avery and Riely performed together in community theater. Riely was a HUGE influence on Avery! Avery wanted to be just like Riely! How neat that Avery has introduced Riely to everyone in her school!

This bench with Avery's name  was hand made by the second grade teacher's husband. It just makes me smile. Another way to remind me that Avery is still very much a presence!

The teachers and staff at Delavan Christian School planted this Tulip Tree in Avery's memory. Oh, how I love this school!
Since Avery loved to read it only made sense to pledge to donate five books (because she was in 5th grade) each year. 
The 8th Graders do a service project each year. I cannot begin to imagine the emotional task of choosing to create a cross marker for Avery's grave. I know God is blessing these children. And I know how incredibly blessed I am by each and every single one of them.

Just some of the beautiful girls who attended a week long Basketball Camp. I love how full of life and energy that gym was!

Avery might not be able to earthly visit Haiti, but she has still found a way to make her presence known in the country she loved so much: a bunch of Avery's shirts are making their way with Trish & Gabby Edwards as they serve a mission there this summer. Also going -- a pair of Avery's shoes.
Oh, Lord, bless the feet that fit these shoes!

And I've lost track of how many times I've cried,
missed Avery,
had a bad day,
been upset,
and just when I needed it ...
was blinded by the most beautiful light!








Oh, yes. I'd say Avery has been VERY busy this school year.
And it's just the beginning to what my sweet, beautiful girl
will accomplish!

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