Below is an edited excerpt from my book Joy in the Morning – A Mother’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph (2010).
I am the mother of two tall, handsome and gifted sons, one of whom I lost when he was just 19. Chris was murdered in a random crime by two teens, high on drugs, armed with handguns and looking for someone to carjack.
This tragedy forced me to question my faith. Wasn’t God strong enough to protect my son? If so, why didn’t he? Where was the wisdom in allowing Chris to be taken? Didn’t he deserve a chance to develop and share his considerable talents?
The questions kept coming as I began to examine my beliefs and assumptions: I would be a good person in exchange for God’s protection; my faithfulness would bring only good things to my life; my family would be exempt from crime and violence; other people’s tragedies could be explained—if not by lack of faith, then surely by some other infraction.
I was a grown-up with a child’s faith – a faith, it turns out, that was actually closer to superstition. Tragedy forced a reckoning. The process was long and difficult, but the result has been something beautiful and good.
The year was 2003. Nine years earlier I had founded Mothers Against Teen Violence (MATV) after losing my son. MATV had struggled financially since 9-11 as a huge swath of all charitable giving flowed to victims in New York. We hadn’t fully recovered. Now we faced our most difficult financial challenge to date. The board chair and I met over lunch to discuss the predicament.
As he saw it, we would be out of money in a few months. The only sensible thing to do was to close our doors. I shared his concerns. But like two witnesses with irreconcilable versions of the same traffic accident, he and I saw things differently.
As a self-described non-believer, his was a black-and-white world, where facts and figures reign supreme. I shared with him that, MATV’s future depended not only on our finances but also on faith. And while money was in short supply, there was no shortage of faith.
Of course, he was dubious. As if to humor me, he asked, “What is faith?”
I responded automatically, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Faith is substance. Faith is evidence.”
During the months and years after losing Chris, my faith had been reconstructed and renewed. By now I knew faith to be the activating power necessary to manifest. Through faith we know that what we desire is possible even though it may appear to be out of reach.
I love the Old Testament story of the woman who came to the prophet Elisha after the death of her husband. Creditors threatened to enslave her children as she found herself unable to pay her debts. Despite her grief, she was forced to think clearly and act quickly to save her family. The widow was well acquainted with Elisha. Her husband had been one of his followers. She sought an audience with the prophet expecting a miracle.
Elisha’s single question to her was, “What do you have in your house?” The widow responded that she had nothing but a jar of oil. Following his instructions diligently, she and her children went door to door, borrowing as many containers as they could from neighbors. At home, they placed the vessels together as she began to pour her meager supply of oil into the first container. Imagine their surprise as the oil she started with continued to flow, filling every single borrowed vessel. In the end, the widow had enough oil to pay her debts, and she sold the rest for money to support her family.
This story is a marvelous illustration of faith.
In my work with MATV, I’ve given supportive assistance to many grief-stricken parents of murdered children. I have observed that those who claim a measure of faith appear more likely to progress through the experience without getting stuck.
One of the most unfortunate cases I encountered involved Betty (not her real name). She was referred by another agency as someone we “might be able to help.” I phoned Betty and listened for nearly two hours to an articulate, single mother of five as she shared her story. Her fifteen-year-old son left home out of frustration that she was unable to give him the material things he wanted. He went to live with a drug dealer and, unfortunately, was shot and killed in a drug house. Naturally, Betty was still reeling from her loss. In addition to being traumatized and grief-stricken, she was hostile. “I’m not sure what you can do for me. If you can’t bring my son back, nothing else you can do will matter.” And she was riddled with guilt. “I keep trying to figure out what I could have done to cause this to happen to me.” But her confusion was most challenging of all — not because she questioned her faith, but because she had none. As she put it, “I never really thought about religion… My son’s birthday came, and we bought a cake and lit the candles and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. Is he sixteen now or is he still fifteen? Where is he? Do you think he can see me?”
I could only share the tenets of my faith, but what I said probably sounded like Greek to her. I ended our conversation by asking if she could think of anything for which she was thankful. Her other children were healthy and well. Her own health was good. Still, her response to my question was simply, “No.”
After a few encouraging words, I promised to call her back within the week. I also nudged her gently to try to think of at least one thing for which she could be thankful.
Faith may not protect us from tragedy, but when the worst happens, our faith can strengthen and guide us. Faith requires that we place what we have at God’s disposal.
The widow was part of a faith community. Her husband had served Elisha. She was a believer. Her story is a reminder that faith, like everything that flows from spirit, is abundant. The little oil she started with continued to flow until the last borrowed jar was filled. Faith breeds faith—and the supply is limited only by our capacity to receive.
On the other hand, Betty made the unfortunate choice to live life without faith. She looked at her jar and saw nothing God could use to bless her life. Not even a thankful heart.
When I lost Chris, my spirit was so broken that just getting out of bed was a major accomplishment. There were moments when I thought I might not survive. But in the midst of my brokenness I said to God, “If you want me to get through this, you’ll have to help me. I can’t do this alone.” My prayer was answered. My shallow, immature faith wasn’t much, but it was enough for the spirit to work with.
One of my earliest memories of my mother is seeing her on her knees in prayer. She was a woman of faith, a faith that sustained her through harsh realities that I can scarcely imagine. The power that sustained her throughout her life is the same power I discovered when I found myself on my knees beside my son’s casket.
I came through my tragedy, and I know I didn’t do it on my own. My life is evidence that faith is real. Through faith we can respond to the travails of life in a way that is liberating and perhaps even transformational.
Finally, faith enables us to see things differently.
My tragedy was an opportunity to embrace a God that is bigger, more powerful, than anything I could have imagined in my childhood: an omniscient God who knows everything about me; an omnipotent God with the power to heal my broken heart; and an omnipresent God—who is with me wherever I am.
There is always another challenge waiting around the corner, but faith helps me to focus on the omnipotence of God instead of giving power to difficulties and detractors. These are only illusions.
For years I labored under the illusion that it was up to me to keep MATV’s doors open. I worked twelve and fourteen-hour days and scarcely took time off. I put my own money into the organization whenever there was a shortfall. As is often the case, beneath the exuberance and enthusiasm there was the fear of failure.
Fear is actually a perversion of faith, a belief in negativity. Whether based on God’s abundance or the fear of scarcity, faith has the power to produce a material result.
When I looked at my situation with fresh eyes, I saw the contradiction in claiming to be a person of faith and at the same time giving so much power to my fears. Fear makes achieving my God-given potential practically impossible. Eventually, God led me to the truth: that sustaining MATV was never about me, and the success of the organization was never up to me. Guided by this simple truth, I was able to trust God completely and unconditionally, knowing that whatever the outcome, it would be exactly as God ordained it to be.
When God works a miracle in your life, you look at things differently. A jar of oil is never again just a jar of oil. We started MATV without the benefit of a major sponsor. I was only a grief-stricken mother, praying for God to take away my pain. But God did far more. God gave me the strength to build and lead an organization, the wisdom to help grief-stricken parents, and the courage to speak and to write about the plight of victims and under-resourced communities.
God reconstructed my faith and restored my joy.
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