The year I learned that poisonous words (when left unabated) leech into your bones, burrowing holes in your soul and slowly eroding parts of your mind.
A year of uprooting lies, of painful self-honesty and the re-examination of my self-talk.
A year of fierce hope, active joy, and the affirmation of my calling: to loudly proclaim the truth of my Savior: a story of redemption, a story that warrants continual sharing.
The year I learned about grace at a deep, personal, tangible, and abiding level – Grace that redeems and restores, Grace that loves beyond all rationality, Grace that is interwoven throughout my daily life, and Grace that responds to a name: Jesus.
Grace that exists even in death.
“O, victory in Jesus
My Savior, forever
He sought me, and He bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him
He plunged me, to victory
Beneath the cleansing flood.”
– Hymn, Victory in Jesus by Eugene Bartlett
(I sang this weekly throughout my childhood, but the lyrics are significantly sweeter to me in my adulthood.)
December into January is always a rough period for me. Due to the proximity of the anniversary of Nancy’s passing to Christmas, and her birthday to New Year’s, I’m typically unable to fully plunge myself into the hullabaloo that seems to define this season. Rather than anticipate Christmas and New Year’s with excitement, I approach December with much more of a stoic checklist mentality: I’m simply looking forward to surviving the checking off of each anniversary/holiday, and then rapidly moving on (with great relief) without the pressure of having to face those dates for another year.
But this year, it’s different. So much sifting has happened this year, I’m unable to merely power through December and January with a strict self-imposed numbness. I am no longer capable of doing so. That was about four Amys ago – and I’ve shed my skin too many times since then. No, ’tis the season of reflection and remembrance.
“When we dull our pain, we dull our joy.
When we numb our lows, we numb our highs.”
– Rebekah Lyons, You are Free
This holiday season, I’ve been returning again and again to the intertestamental time, the 400 years of silence – engaging with it, feeling the weight and shape of it, familiarizing myself with its layout. Pacing up and down this silent stretch of history over and over, this barren and desolate desert, its dust solidifying into a film coating my throat. Imagining how abandoned and lonely the Israelites must have felt, held in captivity under the Roman empire, without so much as a word from God for centuries.
How collectively parched they must have felt as they traversed across this desert together. An entire nation groaning under the weight of silence and captivity. How whet their appetite must have been for the birth of a Messiah, for the fulfillment of the prophesies. For release.
In this context I start to get the barest taste of the breadth of the anticipation of the Israelites. A held breath for 400 years. A pregnant pause in the story of redemption.
Suddenly, I’m catapulted forward two thousand odd years in my mind’s eye and I find myself standing in the kitchen of the old farmhouse I grew up in, once again staggering under the news that my mom is pregnant. I’m in eighth grade, encumbered by all the narrow-mindedness and narcissistic viewpoints that come with that, and I’m shocked.
To say I was merely shocked by the news is an understatement – even an injustice to the extent of my astonishment. I was reeling. My sisters (and yes, even my parents) were all floored by this turn of events. At the time, my older sister, Nancy, who was also the oldest of all of us, was nearly 15. Emily, the youngest, was 8. Everyone, including my parents, had thought that they were done having children.
Apparently, God’s plan for my parents and their family looked different. Fortunately we had nearly nine months to adjust to the news. Soon enough, the initial shock melted away into eager excitement. As a family we collectively leaned into the chaos, and after much anticipation, on June 26, 2008, the day after my eighth grade year ended, Lorilee Rose was born. Because she was so much younger than the rest of us, my parents decided to try again so she wouldn’t grow up alone, essentially as an only child, even though she had four older sisters.
Soon enough, my mom was pregnant again – this time, we would soon find out – with my first and only brother. This created an entirely new kind of anticipation in the Lapp house. We didn’t know what to do with boys – even all of our pets were female! My dad had always been the only live in male exception in our estrogen filled house.
Early on during my mom’s pregnancy with Tommy, she was prophesied over by a fellow church member:
“Kristin, God is changing your spiritual name to Hope, the way He changed Peter’s name to Rock.”
Unsure of what to make of the prophesy in the immediacy of the moment, my mom wrote it down to reflect on at a later point. In April, she was reading through Isaiah when she stumbled across the verse in chapter 43 that states: “Behold! I am doing a new thing!” My mom, now four months pregnant with her first son after having five daughters, chuckled silently to herself. Yes, God was indeed doing a new thing in the Lapp household. After over a decade of pink, blue was finally going to have a turn.
All was well in the Lapp house. We were enjoying the newest addition to our family, Lorilee, a precocious eleven month old, who had hair to match her fiery temperament, while also joyously anticipating Tommy’s arrival. The harshness of winter was finally yielding to the soft touch of spring. The school year was plodding slowly, yet steadily to a close. And my mom’s bump was growing slowly, yet steadily with it.
Until, with a silence that deafens, this perfect image was shattered one day in May at a routine check-up. When my parents went in to see the OB-GYN to ensure that the pregnancy was progressing normally, the doctor was unable to find Tommy’s heartbeat.
Our hearts were broken.
On May 21st, 2009, my maternal grandfather’s birthday, my mom was induced into labor and delivered my perfect, tiny stillborn baby brother, Thomas Lee Lapp II.
He fit into the palms of my hands.
I don’t remember much from the days following – I was manic, overcome by grief, mad with sorrow. I picked the lilac bushes next to our house clean and stuffed vase after vase full of the tiny blossoms, permeating every room in our house with their scent. To this day, they remain my favorite flower.
We buried Tommy, released balloons, cried.
My mom returned to her Bible, setting up camp in its pages, attempting to find some solace in its promises, desperate to understand why. We all were still living in the same space physically, but none of us were living in the same space mentally. We were alone, but together. Individually isolated, but a family.
And yet again I push my pen up against the border between the explainable and the unexplainable, that fine line between what can be captured by words and what can only be explained through emotion and experience. Suffice it to say that grief is almost exclusively an emotion and an experience, and any attempt to put it into words is what a drop is to an ocean.
But God was still there, in the ocean. He met me there. He met my mother there. He brought her eyes to rest upon these words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5: “I am making everything new!”
Tommy’s epitaph reads: “New in Jesus, safe in His arms.”
Grace, even in death.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
1 Peter 1:3-9, emphasis mine
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Following Tommy’s stillbirth, God was gracious to my family once again, and on August 3, 2010, we welcomed the youngest and last member to our family: Sadie Mae Hope Lapp. She arrived just in time to kick off Nancy’s senior year of high school.
My mom, being the fervent prayer warrior that she is, sensed God telling her that she only had ten months with all her girls under one roof, and that she needed to make the most of it. Though she was a little confused by such an obvious statement, she still withdrew from everything she was involved in at the school and at church in obedience (with the exception of AWANA, a church activity our entire family was involved in) and threw herself into the full-time chaos of managing six girls ranging in age from 17 years old to newborn. Little did she know how literal that statement was. God protected her from herself, so she wouldn’t have to lament the fact she “missed” Nancy’s last year. Although nothing she was doing was inherently bad, it was important for that season that all other distractions were stripped away, so that her attention was undivided for those ten months.
2011 was a year of bliss and celebration. Nancy graduated salutatorian of her class and spent the summer serving full-time in ministry as the Rec Leader at Beaver Camp. In the fall, she departed for Word of Life Bible Institute to study theology, and I began my senior year of high school. Sadie Mae had just turned one.
My senior year had a similarly promising beginning. I was the lead in my senior show, the President of Drama Club, and also maintaining a spot at the top of my class. I received an award for my portrayal of Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, and was then cast as the lead in my senior musical.
Until, in an explosion of noise and steel, this perfect image was shattered one day in early December, when Nancy got into a fatal car accident.
My entire world spun off its axil. I had never experienced such a strong emotion, one that manifested itself so physically. There were no lilacs to pick this time. Only a cold and barren winter to survive.
Suddenly, the desperation of the Israelites, held captive, oppressed under the Roman Empire, longing for a word from their God doesn’t seem so foreign. It doesn’t seem so distant. I can practically hear their groaning, even though two thousand years of history separate us. “Surely this wasn’t what the world was supposed to look like!” we exclaim together. “Speak to us! Rescue us!”
This time, when God responds, He doesn’t send a prophet. He doesn’t send a word.
He sends Himself.
And two thousand years later, I wrap myself in the name Emmanuel, blanketed by the warmth of a God With Us, and I weep for a God Who put skin on, a Deity born as a child in a stable so that we can rest in His stability, yesterday, today and forever.
“Unless you have looked at a world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you can hardly imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white.”
– C.S. Lewis,
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
The reason death hurts so much is it is the ultimate culmination of the consequences of our sin. The world is marred with brokenness, pain, and suffering because of sin. Something vital within us is broken and we are fallen as a result. And therefore, until all things are truly made new, we experience deep pain – even oceans of grief – on this side of heaven.
But we are not without hope. Because God is above and beyond the clutches of the ugliness of this world. Even what is intended for evil is used for good. Because that is the character of the God we serve. No suffering is purposeless.
Even the Grim Reaper couldn’t lay one of his skeletal fingers on my sister without God’s express permission.
I am unable to properly express how encouraged I am by this. Death doesn’t have the final word; Jesus does. Even while He hung on a cross dying, He was still in total control.
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
John 10:17-18, emphasis mine
Nancy dying was not some fluke of fate. Nor was Tommy’s death. God did not momentarily look away, they did not slip through the cracks. Psalm 139:16 states that all the days ordained for us are written down before even one of them comes to be. God knew the length of Nancy’s life before she was even born. He called her home just shy of 19 years old for His purpose and glory.
And, again, provided abundant grace, even in and through death.
While attending Word of Life the following year, I met a woman named Sarah Pfuelb, who had taken a special liking to Nancy while she had attended there and had the opportunity to serve Nancy as a mentor. One day, overwhelmed by grief at Nancy’s absence and thoroughly exhausted from compounded lack of sleep while serving at Snow Camp she caught me crying in the dining room. In that moment, she gifted me with this story:
When Sarah had gone to return a scarf to Nancy shortly before she departed for break, Sarah found Nancy finishing up her devotions and quietly crying. Obviously concerned, Sarah asked Nancy what was wrong.
“I’m not coming back after Christmas break,” Nancy admitted tearfully to Sarah.
Confused, Sarah pressed further, trying to understand what Nancy could possibly mean by that. There was no conceivable reason for Nancy not to return to WOLBI – her grades were excellent, her health was good, and she loved it there. But Nancy had no further details to offer.
“I just know I’m not coming back,” she affirmed a second time. “But this is my prayer: That whatever is going to happen, God will use it to draw my family closer to Him. That He will use it to draw Jeriah closer to Him. And that whatever it is, He will be glorified through it.”
My sister prayed this over us for several weeks preceding her accident, without knowing at the time that she was praying that God would sustain us in and through her death. (If you want to know what walking with the Spirit looks like, look no further.)
“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
“Should be our reaction to God’s will.”
– Note in Nancy’s Bible next to this passage, depicted above
Nancy then came home for break, clearly carrying the knowledge that she wasn’t going back to WOLBI, yet we were none the wiser for it. She joyfully laughed with us, lovingly prayed for us, boldly and willingly served us, unafraid of what was coming, secure in the knowledge that God was in control. On December 10th, 2011, the Saturday before she died, she sat down to do her quiet time based out of Daniel 8:15-27. In response to the prompt: “How can I apply this to my life?” she wrote:
“If Daniel fell prostrate at the sight of God’s angels, I can’t imagine how I will react when I meet Jesus face to face. I know my face will be turned away, ashamed of my sins and I will not be standing.”
The next morning, when Nancy was found and proclaimed dead, she was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, with her face turned dramatically to one side.
She had met Jesus face to face.
Grace, even and especially in death.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
When Tommy was stillborn, a young girl at the church we were then attending felt compelled to give my mom a figurine that she had saved her money specially to buy. It is a figurine depicting Jesus lovingly holding a little boy in His arms, with a girl donned in a purple robe (Nancy’s favorite color) peeking around His shoulder at the boy. She gave this to my mom in 2009, two years before Nancy joined Tommy in heaven, the same year my mom received the prophesy that her new spiritual name was Hope.
The evidence of God’s goodness and provision is so intertwined with the deaths of my brother and my sister that it’s impossible to tell the story and do it justice without including it…similar to a salvation story I know.
A salvation story that began many moons ago when God made His triumphal entry into flesh under the stars of Bethlehem, in a stable among animals. It was dirty, crude, and smelly, certainly less than ideal, but it was an invitation to the world nonetheless.
God joins us in our dung heaps, in our dirty corners, in the places so overcome with rot that we’re convinced nothing will ever grow there again. He takes that dung, that dirt, that rot, and uses it as fertilizer, drawing out beautiful growth in us through it. He does not ask that we clean ourselves up first, only that we come with a willingness to be cleansed. He does not call things as they are, but calls things as what He will cultivate through what is to come.
He affirms again and again: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. I have sufficient grace, even in the face of death.
“‘This is no thaw,’ said the dwarf, suddenly, stopping.
‘This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you!
This is Aslan’s doing.'”
– C.S. Lewis,
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe