Finding Purpose in Hard Places
By Abi Dougherty
At the end of January, my family and I were able to take a vacation to Florida. We go not just for the vacation, but for a special time as a family to honor the birth day of our daughter Joeli Grace, who we lost after five months of pregnancy. Because of the pain that is so often felt over that week, we have found this time away creating happy family memories has become very sacred for us.
It was the day before her birth, January 29th 2008, that we found out her heart had stopped beating. That day is always very difficult, I think especially for me. But this year God blessed us with the most incredible reminders of his presence and I think, Joeli’s presence with us too. At the very end of that day we went to the aquarium in Clearwater, Florida to see Winter and Hope from A Dolphin’s Tale. My kids were SO excited.
We arrived at the aquarium, parked in the garage, and got in line for our tickets when suddenly people behind us in line said, “Hey, here’s a free child’s ticket for you. We just want you to know JESUS LOVES YOU!” I said, “Wow thank you so much! Jesus loves you too!” And then they walked off, and we went to purchase the rest of our tickets only to find out that the ticket they gave us couldn’t work for some reason. We had a good laugh and said, “Well, that’s okay, it’s the thought that counts right?! And Jesus still loves us!” Then, after we purchased our tickets we excitedly followed a crowd of 5 or 6 people into a little elevator. I think as they saw our family of 7 trying to squeeze into the elevator with them it instantly led them to their question for us, “What floor do you need?” AKA when can you all GET OUT OF HERE? To which, I very excitedly and loudly proclaimed, “Whatever floor the dolphins are on!” To which, they half laughingly said, “Well, this is the PARKING GARAGE ELEVATOR, so if you’re trying to get to the dolphins you need to get out and go back the way you just came from and outside the building following the signs to the dolphins.”
I open with that story, because it’s very easy to walk blindly, to follow the crowd, but the only place that gets us is lost in the “parking garage elevator” of life. We need a guide. That’s Gods Word. We need a planner. That’s The Holy Spirit, our Creator. And we often need a Body surrounding us, who have gone before us and are gathered around us to help point the way. That’s the people in the elevator who helped us realize we needed to turn around! We need to have enough room in our hearts, minds, and lives to have space to welcome in and walk with The Plan and The Planner and the Planners Pals! That means an emptying of SELF and a SURRENDER to Someone and Something greater than ourselves. So let’s talk about a Season of Surrender.
I recognize that maybe you aren’t being asked to surrender a season of unknowns to a terminal illness in your family right now. But I think that no matter where you’re at today, we can all relate to a season or even moments of being called to surrender. Maybe for you, it is surrendering a job with co-workers that are pulling you down a path you know is taking you far from God. Maybe it is surrendering a habit, a hobby, or maybe surrendering your thought patterns. Maybe it is surrendering your desire for control. Maybe it’s as simple as surrendering YOUR plans for dinner tonight and taking time to cook for someone in need. Or as simple as surrendering YOUR side of the bed to a sick child who wants to cuddle. Along with surrender, I think a big key here too is surrendering the things God is calling us to surrender WITHOUT a begrudging spirit.
Philippians 2:17 says it SO beautifully, “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a drink offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.”
Gods call for me was surrendering MY plans for my children’s education, MY time for exercising the amount I enjoyed, and the pride of continuing to grow MY own blossoming business and instead caring for my terminally ill mother-in-law and my father-in-law through a VERY difficult season. I want to share with you about this season of surrender.
In order to do that, I want to begin by taking you back about 12 years ago with me. That is when my mother-in-law, Lynn, began with her very first symptom of the disease that ultimately took her life on January 2nd, 2020. So, 12 years ago was like any other day at work for her, until she passed out, hit her head, and landed in the emergency room. I remember my very first thought upon getting the news. Being the optimist that I am, I went straight to, “Oh no! She has a brain tumor and is dying...”
I had no idea that although I was wrong about the tumor, and we briefly rejoiced in the “clear” results, my mother-in-law was actually already beginning her very long journey with the rare terminal illness called Multiple System Atrophy-Parkinsonism, or MSA-P.
It was a long journey of health scares for my mother-in-law until that diagnosis finally came. In fact, it wasn’t until multiple bladder infections, continued occurrences of passing out and hitting her head on things, syncopal seizures, tremors, a heart attack and one severe bladder infection that ended up leading to sepsis and landing her in the intensive care unit at Lancaster General Hospital, where she was finally diagnosed in 2014.
I will never forget my mother-in-law’s response to her diagnosis, “Well, at least it isn’t Parkinson’s!” My in-laws really had no idea what this diagnosis meant. I tried to ask the doctor to do some more explaining and give more information to us regarding this neurodegenerative disease, but maybe the lack of understanding lent my in-laws the ability to truly LIVE through this terminal diagnosis with joy and continued normalcy?! Because that is EXACTLY what she continued to do. Even through all the continued falls and health issues that arose, she just pressed on as “business as usual”, or as normal as possible.
Mom pressed on.
Dad pressed on too and picked up care for her rather seamlessly. And for a few years it really honestly did not even seem like “she was dying.”
As things progressed though, it was becoming more and more obvious that we were entering a stage of this disease where the support they needed was increasing and the rate at which the changes were happening was becoming too hard for them to bear on their own. The health declines were overwhelming even for my husband Sean, myself, and Mike and Kristina, my brother and sister-in-law, to keep up with. Sean and I remember Mom walking herself with a walker into the recovery room after I delivered our last child, Jesse. That was some 2 1/2 years ago now. But she was growing weaker and more unstable physically and her mental struggles with the neurodegeneration aspect of the disease were becoming more and more apparent with lewy body dementia, paranoia and hallucinations all setting in heavily.
When it reached the point where Mom could no longer bathe herself, and Dad was not able bodied enough to safely care for her either, that was the point I said, “We need to do something!” At that point Mom’s falls became much more frequent as well, pointing to the unsafe nature of their situation. We started with helping them acquire a few days a week of a couple hours with nursing support, but it was rather quickly obvious that due to the dementia and paranoia setting in this was not adequate with the amount of care and oversight needed. It was also setting mom off emotionally, because with the dementia setting in, every new face became an anxiety provoking situation for her.
This is when God began to call me. I knew it was just pulsing through my blood to care for her—for them—through this season. I knew I could, or thought I could handle the road ahead, and whatever would come (which I had NO IDEA how much would come and all that I ultimately could NOT handle). Yet, I was willing to surrender whatever I needed to in order to be able to serve them through this difficulty. And it was during the many talks that we all had, that we were led to the ultimate decision that they would build onto our home, and we would care for them. That is when I began saying this was going to only be a SEASON. And when I said that I knew, it was truly going to be a Season of Surrender.
It was not easy to walk out the surrendering, but it also was not too hard. Don’t hear me wrong. There were certainly moments, days and even months that felt TOO HARD in regards to the amount of care, emotional strength, and work that it took to serve my in-laws through this. But in regards to the surrender that it took to serve them, God gave me grace upon grace to be able to do so with a deep joy and peace inside my heart. I really believe HE called me to this journey.
But the difficulty, the heaviness, the hard-ness of their season of care truly came in April and May of 2019, just over one year after we had taken them in. In October 2018, Mom was accepted into full hospice care. Meaning, the prognosis in their assessment of her health was that she had only 6 months or less left to live. I calculated and that took us to around April, 2019. And so, as expected, April was very hard. And May was almost unbearable for us all.
Yet, although April and May seemed unbearably hard, dark and painful, we pushed through and found strength through the incredible support of friends, family, and The Church. And Mom somehow pushed through April and overcame what we believe was sepsis. Although Mom rebounded, she was now so weak and almost completely non-verbal. Sean's father had also had a very difficult year with us from 2018-2019, facing multiple bladder infections himself. His infection in May, the month just following my mother in-laws battle with near death, he also became septic. He went into the care of Lancaster General Hospital for much of the month of May, leaving me with the full responsibility to care for my mother-in-law.
Though I felt the weight of responsibility, I often thank God for the wonderful support we had from my brother and sister-in-law. Without Kristina’s support through that I may have ended up in a mental hospital—all joking aside. With both of my in-laws seemingly facing death's doorstep, the pressure we felt was intense during that season. But God! God allowed us to walk through possibly some of the darkest most painful seasons in the surrender that we have ever walked through.
It was hard. It was SO hard. But every moment of the hardest and darkest parts of the journey only lent me further opportunities to more deeply surrender my heart, my mind, my desires and plans, my fears and my weakness to the One who IS able.
Many times people use the phrase, “I hit rock bottom.” It is when God is the Rock at the bottom, that I think we have fallen exactly where changes and growth happen, which bring deeper beauty. People also use the phrase I’m stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Both phrases really bring about a sense of finality and impossibility to any sort of FORWARD or UPWARD motion.
But again, IF GOD is the Rock that we hit when we fall or feel stuck, we somehow SEE things differently and notice that we are now ABLE not because of our own able-ness, but rather, because of HIS! I don’t know about you, but I am SO thankful He is at work WITHIN us!
In Ephesians 3 it says, “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.” You are a vessel being used by Him!
His stability, immovability, security and strength—all of His faithfulness—provides for us! This reminds me of a vision God gave me when we lost our daughter Joeli Grace. I remember crying out to him, “GOD! Where are you in all of THIS?!” And instantly He showed me this dark turbulent, bitter, violent stormy sea with waves crashing all around me and then he took my eyes beneath the surface of all of the waves and heartache and deep, deep beneath the storm was a HUGE ROCK planted firmly, unmoved, unshaken, unaffected by the storm above. And He said, “Abi, this is who I am and where I am. I haven’t moved. I haven’t changed. I haven’t shifted. I am still the same yesterday, today and forever.” And I felt this stillness wash over me. He is my Rock. In Hebrews 13:8 it reminds us that, “Jesus Christ (is) the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”
I asked an artistically gifted friend of mine, Leslie McCarthy, to paint this vision for me. She called it, Rock Of Ages!
When everything else is shaking, unstable, and not secure, HE is immovable, unshakable, unchanging, strong, stable, and secure. I don’t know about you, but I want to fall on a Rock like that! I want to get STUCK on a Rock like that!
That year after we lost Joeli, I poured myself heavily into the Psalms. This one from Psalm 18 was one of my firm foundations:
Psalm 18:1-2 says, “I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
You know, in the Old Testament many times God’s people would celebrate VICTORY by blowing the ram's horn. He is our victory celebration. The ram’s horn also symbolizes protection and defense against an enemy. Think of the ram. His horns are his defense and protection. God is our Mighty Defender and our SALVATION!
There is something I want to share with you, it is the concept of a vessel. From the day of that my daughter was stillborn, my husband Sean has always called her body her “shell.” He always said, “That is just her shell, she is already with Jesus!” And God spoke so directly to my heart on our Florida trip on that difficult January 29th day this year. He sent reminders of His presence and Joeli’s presence too. That morning as I walked the beach, I came upon 5 perfect and LIVE conch shells sitting all together in ankle-deep sea-water.
I instantly got teary eyed and could barely breathe because I felt so sure that God and Joeli had gifted them to us, one for each of her siblings. And then, not even a half an hour later I found a perfect pure white and EMPTY conch shell.
Do you know how miraculous it is to even find one conch shell? You know, people say things are happenstance or irony but this... I truly believe with all of my heart THIS was one of those Signs From God Himself! A miracle! A reminder of Joeli’s presence with God. A gift to her siblings. God speaks!
Now our shell is a CARRIER of something. Right?! A VESSEL. I mean vessel MEANS a container—something that holds something else. A blood vessel carries blood. A ship is a vessel that carries cargo or people. A jar is a vessel that contains juice.
So I want to ask you today: What are you carrying?
I don’t think the vessel that we are is quite so simple in purpose. We carry much more than these fading and temporary things. WE carry an eternal spirit. We carry within us something Created by GOD! We were created to live with purpose! And if we are in Christ, we carry the Living Hope within us, every single moment of every single day. So often though we overcrowd our vessel with useless things. We waste our: Time, Words, Money, Energy, Resources, Mind, Emotions, Gifts and talents...
We miss precious opportunities to LIVE WITH PURPOSE. We fill our shell with dying fading things instead of being FILLED with HIS LIFE AND PURPOSE! And what is the BEST way to live a life FULL of purpose? Maybe surprisingly it is actually found through living a •LIFE OF SURRENDER• not just a season, but a whole LIFE of surrender! Being EMPTIED, poured out like a drink offering, so that you can truly BE FILLED with all HE has for us and wants to do in and THROUGH us!
So, my final question for you today is this:
Are you living a LIFE of surrender? Or are you holding on to areas, to habits, to selfish desires or maybe even some healthy desires that are taking the position though of FIRST above HIS CALL for your life or your season or your day or this moment?
Take some time to reflect, talk to God, and then maybe even to share with a friend today in what ways God is speaking to your heart. INVITE the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart and do some pruning if necessary. Let the Holy Spirit begin to usher you into a Holy Calling and a life of surrender.
May the hard places you face, lead you to The Rock of Ages!
Abi is a wife to Sean for 15 years and mother of five earthly children and one precious daughter awaiting in heaven. She has a passion for running, laughing, and gardening. She loves worshiping and has been leading others in worship since she was 12 years old. Abi also has a passion for speaking at women's events. Abi believes the word of God is our true sustenance for living and personal love letter from a Heavenly Father who seeks a relationship with each of us 'til the cows come home.
You can link to Leslie McCarthy's artwork HERE.