Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Letter From Karen and Joe

The following letter was originally written by Karen on December 17. We held of on posting it for reasons hard to explain (maybe might be too sad for some...). But after reading Sharon's words from Treasures In Darkness remembering her son Mark , Marybeth's Christmas Letter remembering Maria, and the Laurie's Christmas card this remembering their son Christopher - I know we have to post this letter, remembering Joey. This is not the usual "merry" Christmas letter, but it's a Christmas letter from their heart. Here it is:

We ordered Christmas cards with a family picture on them, but they came back from Shutterfly so dark and difficult to see that we had to return them. So this post comes instead. The Christmas card disappointment is a metaphor for our lives these days. Nothing has turned out the way we wanted it to, and we wish we could just send the whole mess back to the manufacturer. Our 2008 is a sad series of shock waves, setbacks and sleepless nights. One disappointment tipped another, till we were left with a heap of loss. And like the Christmas card whose image is bearly discernible, we also have had difficulty seeing in the dark. We have asked "why" a thousand times, and shed ten thousand tears. In our worst moments, it feels as if our hearts and our dreams have been shattered and scattered to the wind. We breathe each day, and do the essentials, and that is all we have in us to do for now.

But in the midst of all this sadness, there has been comfort, and that is what has sustained us. So for the rest of our Christmas letter, we want to tell you about the mercy we have experienced in our darkest hour. For God is near to the broken-hearted, and we have felt that deeply and in so many ways.

Mercy 1: Our son was/is a beautiful person. We were proud of him in life and in death. He loved, he lived and he lead with passion. He touched so many with his goodness. He displayed love, acceptance, generosity, compassion, wisdom, adventure and good humor. His life was a success by every measurement. We have no regrets about our relationship with him, or our investment in him.

Mercy 2: Our son was ready for Heaven. He believed in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and trusted in God to take care of him no matter what. He died with his daily reading Bible by his side. His faith in Christ provided him the only ticket he needed to get into Heaven. He didn't have to earn his way to Heaven, he just had to believe there was One who had done it for him, which he unashamedly did.

Mercy 3: Heaven is real. We never paid much attention to Heaven before, we just took it for granted as the place old or sick people go when they die. From the moment Joey passed, it became topic one. We had to seek out the scriptures that told us about Heaven or we would never have found any comfort in his passing. Now it is as real to us as Kihei or Virginia Beach. Though we haven't seen it, we think about it every day, and imagine what Joey is experiencing. The veil between Heaven and earth seems thinner now. Bible verses about Heaven have become gold to us, our earthly hope for ultimate reunion. We want to make him proud by the way we walk in faith, hearing him whisper to us, "It's real, it's awesome; don't doubt, just trust God and live for Him!".

Mercy 4: A final goodbye together as a family. The months before Joey passed afforded us more than the usual number of get-togethers with his sisters, who saw him a couple of times on trips to California. We also had a wonderful Christmas with him skiing last year in Idaho. The week before Joey passed, we were all in Hawaii together for his sister JoAnne's graduation. In addition, his best friend and Second Family were also there, as their son graduated too. Joey was so happy to be with us all, and even more tender than usual with us. We had meaningful talks and lots of laughs. We sat on the beach and we surfed. He regaled his nieces and nephews with stories that entertained us all. He treated his mom to High Tea at the Moana Surfrider Hotel! We ate fish tacos and drank beer together! We had a memorable dinner with his best friend at Mama's Fish House! A splendid week. How do you account for such timing except to know that God was preparing the way for us.

Mercy 5: Rachel and her pictures. Rachel is God's gift to our family. The most amazing, talented, insightful, lovely woman you could ever hope to marry your son. Though we never made it to the wedding, she is our daughter-in-love, a special friend to each one of us. Her pictures of our son and his last three years capture the essence of his spirit and are the treasures we live on daily. Rachel's love for Joey and loyalty to us is like Ruth's in the Bible--where you go, I will go, your people will be my people, your God will be my God. There aren't enough words for the depth and beauty of Rachel or the comfort she has given us.

Mercy 6: Our daughters and son-in-laws and grandchildren. Our daughters adore their brother. They aren't jealous of our love for him, they share it and we have been able to weep together over and over again for what we lost when he went to Heaven. Their patience with our paralysis has been most helpful. Our son-in-laws love Joey, too, and have shown amazing strength in a year where they also lost so many of their Navy SEAL teammates. When time stopped, they have kept us moving forward. Our grandchildren continue to give us joy and laughter when we couldn't find it anywhere else. Everyone in our family has endured the loss of Joey with courage and faith. And even though grief is an isolating experience, they have worked hard to keep us united and have really risen to the need.

Mercy 7: Our family and friends to catch us when we fell. There are simply too many wonderful people to mention here by name, but they have been like soft pillows cushioning us when we crashed against the rocks. Just a short list includes: Joey's friends who went to his house and found him, who called us, who provided housing for our family and meals, friends who gathered in our home in Maui and made our travel arrangements, friends who drove and picked us up and met us at the mortuary, our California friends who handled every detail of the memorial services, and our Maui friends who did the same, friends who brought us meals, friends who have continually comforted us with their words, thoughtful gifts, books, stories, pictures and blog posts. We would not be standing had it not been for the people around us who carried and continue to carry us. We needed every single one of you and still do, and thank you from the depths of our hearts.

This is just a portion of the ways that God has taken care of us. We give Him thanks for all His faithfulness. We continue to gather mercies, and believe that God will continue to provide them for us in the years to come. The verse that we hang on to in this new chapter of our lives is this one from Philippians 3:20:

Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Your faithful friends,
Joe and Karen

Changing Traditions

We felt loved by the friends who prepared and served the Christmas Eve buffet in our home before the communion service. In his Christmas Eve message Chuck shared with the congregation the Scriptures from Isaiah that were so comforting to us. By the time we sang “O Holy Night” at the end of the service, we were emotionally spent and drew strength from the hugs and tears of friends.

By Christmas morning we needed private family time. Instead of joining extended family for the traditional noisy celebration at the homes of our parents, we stayed at our house. Phone calls from family members meant so much as we tried to honor Christ and grieve for Mark at the same time.

The Treasure of Holiday Presence

(Jesus said,) “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

On Christmas day, I slipped away to spend time alone in our bedroom, reading the Christmas story meditating especially on Mary and the conflicting emotions she must have experienced from the moment the angel told her about the coming Messiah. I wondered, Was she lonely, afraid, confused? What emotions swirled around her soul when she gave birth to Jesus, far from family, disconnected from everything familiar? I felt strangely drawn to her heart and the feelings she may have experienced on the dark, lonely night.

Mary’s song, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, acknowledged her own need of a Savior and her absolute trust that God keeps his promises from generation to generation. I wondered if she sang this song as a sacrifice of praise, choosing to believe the promises of God in the context of u unbelievable circumstance. I followed the thread of her story to the foot of the cross and wept as I married my longing for Mark to her anguish as she watched the brutalization of her beloved son. Did she wonder where God Was? As if to answer my questions, God drew me back to the Scriptures from Isaiah where he repeatedly promised to never leave me alone, to guide me in the darkness, to never forget me, to always be with me. I remembered that Isaiah prophesied the virgin birth of Jesus and proclaimed that he would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The gospel of Matthew places this prophecy in the middle of the Christmas narrative (Matt. 1:23).

And do you know how Matthew ends his gospel? By his resurrection, Jesus has proven himself a victor over death. He’s about to ascend to the right hand of hi Father in heaven, and he promises his disciples- and his followers for generations to come- that he is not really leaving them. Jesus’ last words: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus, through his Spirit, is here. With us. With you. With me. Even now. Especially now, in the season that celebrates his birth.

Treasures of Hope

Scriptural Gems:

“ ’I am the lord’s servant,” Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.’“ (Luke 1:38)

“Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)


Note from Liza: The last 4 entries on this blog are excerpts from the book titled "Treasures In Darkness - A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart" written by Sharon W. Betters. If you missed the other 3 entries, click here and all the 4 posts will come up.

Tomorrow I will be posting the Christmas Letter Karen wrote ...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Safe Place of Comfort

December 23. We’re following the advice of those who have walked this pathway before us, and we’re changing our traditions. When friends realized I did not have the energy or desire to prepare a Christmas Eve buffet, they asked if they could prepare and serve all the food so that we could still gather together on such and important night. I am looking forward to being with the larger group tomorrow evening, but a dinner tonight will be my private gift to my family.

Lord, in answer to my plea to help me experience the joy of Christmas your way, you opened my eyes to treasures I can give to each one of my precious children and husband – the pictures, the story Sean wrote, the birthday letter Mark wrote to Chuck. You are leading me to sue some traditions to create a safe place of comfort and to feely let go of other traditions without fear. Today I wept as I prepared all of Mark’s favorite foods but smiled through tears as I remembered him coming in the back door, stretching his long arms to hang on the entry to the kitchen, and grinning with anticipation of eating hot Syrian bread, dripping with butter. I wished I could see him digging into the stuffed grape leaves one more time. Then I chose to imagine Mark at the banquet table in heaven with you. So, Lord, I’m preparing a special Christmas dinner with all of Mark’s favorite foods, and we’ll think of him enjoying the bounty of your grace while we enjoy the bounty of our Christmas table.

We had read that the anticipation of a holiday, anniversary, or birthday was often worse than the actual event, so one purpose of our family dinner was to create new traditions before Christmas day, hoping to ease in to the pain of Christmas. But my family didn’t know that I had planned a few small surprised for each of them. After dinner chuck asked the kids to join us in the family room in front of our glowing fireplace. I explained that our friend had written a story about our family and that I wanted to share it with them. We laughed and cried together as Sean’s words poignantly and sometimes comically described our family experiencing the second coming of Christ during a future Christmas season.

After the story I gave each of the kids framed pictures of Mark, each one captured a treasured memory with his siblings. I gave Chuck a plaque with the words, “Thanks, Dad, for always being there.” And then I gave him the priceless gift of Mark’s letter that I had found buried in my memories drawer.

Tears streamed down Chuck’s cheeks as he read the framed words:


In all the years that you have been my father there has not been a time when you failed to come through for me. There has not been a time when you failed to encourage me. You have always seen through me and my secretive ways and have not failed to counsel me when I need it most. The words “You’re wrong and I’m right” are the words that I hate to hear the most but I thank you for them. You are a dad that many kids only dream of having, and I look up to you for all the knowledge that God has given you. I am proud to be called the “pastor’s kid,” because I believe it is worth dealing with all of the expectations that many people put on me. I thank God for you and the family he has given me each day. Any question that I ask you, you have never failed to answer it. Any problem that I bring to you, you never failed to help me through it. You have made sure that I am always happy and have never left me disappointed. Having you as my father is one for the best things God has given me. If I could repay you, I would, but I know that that is impossible. However, I can afford to tell you that I love you, and that I care about you very much.


December 24, Well, Lord, here I am. Christmas Eve. Running until I drop. Trying not to think. But I feel this might be the most important Christmas of my life. Mark’s first Christmas in heaven. Our first Christmas without our child.

Note from Liza: The last 3 entries on this blog are excerpts from the book titled "Treasures In Darkness - A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart" written by Sharon W. Betters. I bought this book for Karen about 2 months ago and somehow I did not get a chance to give it to her. I know now why. I believe God wanted this book to be with me so that I can post these words of encouragement here on the blog for them on Christmastime. Had she gotten this book, I would not have had the words to put on this blog for this season. I believe God wanted to comfort Karen and Joe through this book. If you missed the other 2 entries, click here and all the 3 posts will come up. Aloha.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Decoration-Day Meltdown

Continuation of the book excerpt (part 1 here)

As the world around me laughed and anticipated a joyous Christmas filed with packages and food and family, I wished we could skip from Thanksgiving to the middle of January. I pleaded with God that he direct my steps through this quagmire of sorrow. I listened carefully as Chuck described the first Christmas as a season wrapped in pain, not fancy paper and bows. Blood and death covered that holy season. Eternal life could not come without such anguish.

December 20, 1993. I’m coming apart and I don’t want to. The weekend went remarkably well. I felt almost strange. Mark seemed to be close by. After the wonderful choir cantata, Sean Delaney sheepishly pulled me aside and said, “I don’t want to intrude on your family, but your sister told me to give you this. I’m not sure hwy, but I think it’s a Christmas gift from God for your family.” He handed me a short manuscript, which I tucked into my bag as our family left for a local restaurant. We talked about Mark and laughed teeter tottering between hysteria and calm.

The Christmas story and Chuck’s message overwhelmed me with a new understanding of who you are and what you did at Christmas. I’m trying to focus on the choice Jesus made to be a suffering servant and that what he is asking of us is not more than he himself has done. But the ghost of grief is stalking me every minute, and I am weak in my own strength. I have so much I want to do for my family. I will not let the enemy use Mark’s death to rob us of Christmas. But I don’t know where to begin.

Psalm 86: Give me an undivided heart - where I will not be forever torn between missing Mark and trusting you. Deliver me from the pain of the grave. I have asked you to give me a sign of your goodness, that others will see your glory and come to you. I think Sean’s story is one of those signs.

Christmas was on a Saturday that year. I was almost proud of the emotional control I had – focusing on Christ and the first Christmas – until Wednesday, when it was time to think about decorating the tree. I didn’t think decorating would be a problem. But as I approached the attic, I started to cry. With each box I moved to get tot eh decorations, I cried harder. I found one of the boys’ Star Wars men, and I cried. And then I found the decorations. ON top was Mark’s stocking. When I saw it, I laid my head down on the box and sobbed. Lord, why?

December 22. Chuck told me we don’t need to do this – decorate. But I said, “Yes, we do. I want to recognize Christmas. We dishonor our son if we don’t recognize his Savior’s birth. We have to lean into the pain.” Chuck pulled me down beside him on the sofa and said, “Then just sit here and cry for a while: don’t try to hold it in.” Finally, as he and young Chuck got the tree ready, I sorted through the decorations. I put most of them back. The stocking won’t go even when he found Mark’s picture. This is all surreal. But we’re getting through.

(to be continued)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Spirit of Christmas Present

Below is an excerpt from a book that I bought for Karen. It was written by a mother who was grieving the sudden death of their young adult son, much like the story of Joey. She took some of her journal entries and shared it on the book. The she added some more insights. Details of the book will come later, but for now I wanted Karen and Joe to see this:

The Treasure of Holiday Presence Midnight Principle: The Christmas story itself can give strength through the season.
Journal Insight Sunday, December 19, 1993.

Chuck’s message gives me permission to step back from the glitz of Christmas without guilt. For Some reason it helps me to know that the coming of Messiah was a time of pain and weeping. Jesus did not come as a conquering king but a suffering servant. The shepherds were watching over temple sheep that were set apart for slaughter as sacrifices. God chose for Jesus to be born into the rule of a cruel, brutal man. Herod had killed every member of his family that he suspected of disloyalty. The arrival of the wise men from Iran and Iraq terrified Herod. He was so frightened by their search for the baby who would be king that he ordered every baby boy under the age of two to be killed.Matthew 2:17 -18: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ “This terrible loss was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15. O God, you knew. You knew. Somehow that comforts me. There are no accidents. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is told that a sword will pierce her soul as a result of the birth and life of this child. O God, what did Christmas really cost?

In the Bleak of Midwinter

Isaiah’s Sustenance

Holidays sharpen grief. Celebrating such a treasured family holiday was on our minds even on that terrible July night when we lost Mark. On our way home form the hospital, Chuck grabbed my hand a barely whispered, “Christmas, how can we ever celebrate Christmas?

I had no answer.

Christmas had always been my favorite time of year. We didn’t buy many toys for our children throughout the year; that was reserved for Christmas. What great fun we always had, planning and preparing, watching for sales, loving the adrenalin of the chase and the victory of finding just the right gift at just the right price. When mark and Daniel had wanted the most popular toy, we had done everything we could to find it. We had perpetuated our childhood family traditions; family and friends always joined us for a Christmas Eve buffet and then attended the church communion service. I always loved the candlelight service, the music, the family feeling, the preaching, the security of old family traditions. Afterwards our immediate family had gathered at our home for the kids to exchange gifts and enjoy the euphoria of Christmas.

On the night of Mark’s death, I concluded I would never experience such joy again.

In my journal I wrote out passages from Isaiah as God’s personal Christmas card to me and to remind me of his instructions. Some of those verses are here; some are in the Scriptural Gems section later in the chapter.

But now, this is what the lord says – he who created you, O Jacob He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you: I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isa. 43:1-2)

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isa. 43:18-19)

“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isa. 49:23b)

Part 2 coming soon - titled Decoration-Day Meltdown
P.S. Thank you Eydis for typing these for us ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Trading My Sorrows

Holidays are always hard for those who are grieving. The celebration all around simply intensifies the longing of a loved one who are now in heaven. I am sure the Johnsons are experiencing this on this season.

I posted a song for Karen the other day. Today, I have one for Joe. Joe, grab your guitar and sing along with this video. My guess is Joey would be singing this with you - you on earth, he is heaven. Got your guitar? Press the arrow and jam!

One more song HERE - with lyrics and chords.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Ice … I always think of Joey when I’m getting ice at work. Work has this massive, over sized ice machine. I don’t know why we have it. It makes like 600 lbs a day and we don’t even use ice at work… just in our drinks at lunch. I usually get asked to bring a cooler (or 2, 3, 4,…) of ice whenever I go to a pot luck or some sort of event. It’s cheap and it’s good to use the ice – keeps it fresh. I’m a pretty social guy so the request to get ice happen a frequently. To be honest, it’s a pain to get ice. It’s always after hours. Everything is locked up. It’s a pain to haul the coolers – you end up sweating like a pig. I usually try to get somebody to help – you know; many hands make the load light. Most people will begrudgingly come along to help carry the end of a cooler, but it’s hard to get help. People will stand and watch me scoop out the ice. If I happen to miss the cooler with a few cubes, most people (all) will just ignore it. Hey, it’s not their work place, right? Most (all) of the time I just kicked the cubes to the side of the room underneath a table – it’ll evaporate by the time someone comes by, right? Well, not Joey. He would always pick up those cubes and toss them in the sink. Get a paper towel and wipe the floor. He just did it as a matter of fact, not for show or in your face sort of way. Joey’s actions spoke to me about the degree of character that he possessed… that he would pick up after me at my place of work… his care /concern for my reputation. Men like Joey a so very few and far between. I am honored to have had time with him, and blessed by his friendship. I still bring ice to events but I pick up the cubes myself, remembering Joey as I do. Miss you, bro.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Title Can't Tell Stories ...

Click the photo and it'll take you to the article at Autofeinds

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mary Did You Know?

Posting this for Karen.... Mary, the mother of Jesus also felt the pain she is experiencing while grieving ... but ... it did not stop there. Jesus resurrected from the dead, that all of us who believe on Him can have an everlasting life. And because of that, we will one day see Joey again... no more pain, no more sorrows .. in heaven there is everlasting joy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Walk In The Woods

Virginia is cold now, blustery, leafy, refrigerator cold. We wear layers of warmth around our heads and shoulders, We wear boots and mittens, and walk briskly to generate more warmth. It smells wonderful outdoors--woodsy, crisp and golden. We walk through the trees, the muffled sound of leaves shuffling under our feet. The dogs celebrate and romp and investigate and run. Cranky children begin to smile and laugh. We walk in pairs and we walk in lines. We point out the black water of the creek, the gnarly twisted tree trunk, the ruts and ridges of the landscape. We walk till we are tired and full of fresh air.

Back inside, the fires are dancing and we drink hot chocolate and spicy tea. We watch out the windows as the squirrels hop busily, branch to branch, very intent at their gathering task. The harder they work, the less we do. We sit and listen, we chat and play games. We work on puzzles and dinner recipes. Nothing much. We thank God for the soul quietness that only comes from being outdoors.