Great expectations

A conversation with daddy on the family chat, as my parents vacation in Baguio for his birthday (translated into English):

Dad: …Love you guys. I miss our family vacations in Baguio. Maybe someday, we can do it with the grandkids. (*three laughing emojis*)

Me: Ahhhhh hahahahahahaha!!! Even without grandkids, lezzzgoooo.

Patty (my sister): DAD. IT’LL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE GRANDKIDZZZ.

Me: You gotta have faith dad. #prayersalone (#dasallangtalaga) And very very very good health.

Patty: LONG LONG LONG HEALTHY HEALTHY HEALTHY LIFE

Dad: (changing the subject) #notexpectinga1000wordFBgreetingonmybday

Me: Oh dad, don’t expect it at all. (*laughing emoji*)

Dad: #pamyisnotfeelinganypressurerightnow

***

That, right there, is a true story. Hashtags included. And in that short exchange you immediately see three things about my dad. His love for family (and his yet-to-be, unknown grandchildren), his sense of humour (complete with #dadjokes), and his great expectations.

Now there is probably not a sane parent out there who has not had grand dreams for their children. Yet not every parent approaches this in the same, level-headed manner.

We are fresh from a wedding in the family—one that many of us jokingly refer to as the only wedding we’ll be having in a long time. It is in moments like these, that get me thinking of how my dad has graciously dealt with the many unmet expectations heaped upon him in 34 years of parenting.

Many people ask why none of us in a family of six children have followed in his footsteps to become medical doctors. The more kaypoh* ones may go a step further and pry about why we have yet to settle down and give our parents grandchildren.

35144771800_900e081173_oWhile I’m sure dad has his hopes for us, I didn’t feel that overbearing burden of expectation upon us. There wasn’t one course to take—not a case of medicine or bust. There wasn’t one way of living a life—not marrying for the sake of it, as if it were the only inevitable option. There wasn’t just one mold of thinking, being or doing, which looking back, may have been simpler for a young person finding her place in the world. Of course, we were well-aware of his preference, but in the end, the choice was still ours to make.

Well, he asks for a 2 million-word piece for Father’s day in June; and instead he gets these 977 words—as a belated birthday greeting, at that.

***

Growing up, dad was the one to start the fun and jokes at the dinner table (especially when he was in a very good mood. Ahem.) And admittedly, it was mom I would run to for the serious talk. Still, when it mattered, dad always came through with his words of love, encouragement and wisdom, usually written. I’d like to think I get my inclination to writing from him, among many other things. This is one old email I keep from the time I hit a rough patch in a previous relationship.

 


“…(you will find) someone who will share your dreams and aspirations…You are a beautiful person not only outside but moreso inside. I am sure that one day (maybe even sooner than you expect), Mr. Right will come your way.

 Again, I know that right now you feel that the world is coming down on you but please don’t feel so. I will tell you now to pray, pray harder than you have prayed before. Ask our Lord for guidance and strength. Prayer is powerful. Part of my daily prayers is that nothing but positive things come out of your relationship, no matter what happens. I am certain that even with your breakup, something positive will come out of this.”


I read back on this email five years later, and it astounds me how it was indeed prayer that saw me through that time in my life. Back then, I had my own daddy remind me to go to my Father in heaven. And out of that dark period, the light of a renewed relationship with God came forth.

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Picture taken from Heart of God Church Instagram account (@hogc)

We recently concluded a series on prayer at church. Pastor How preached that prayer is a posture of humility, a petition to the highest authority, a position to defend and hold, and that secret place where we encounter Him. It lifts our spirits to rejoice in Him and stirs up faith to expect great things from God.

***

Dad, on your birthday, I come before God grateful for you, my father here on earth. Through you, I have felt what it is to be loved unconditionally and to receive freely. And because of this, I can approach my heavenly Father with even greater expectation.

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.

Ephesians 3:20, NLT

So yes, I pray not just for a life abundant in years, but one rich with love for and from God, and those around you. Yes, let’s pray you will be walking your children down the aisle, or enjoying with your grandchildren in due time, but also pray that you would walk with Him closely and enjoy His presence daily. I am expectant to see what God can do in and through your life in these golden years of wisdom. 

The Message version of the Bible puts it beautifully: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”

So dearest dad, hope and dream far beyond what the world dictates. For if there’s someone who gives above and beyond what we expect, that is our Father God.

I love you always. Happy Birthday! 🙂

 

 

*kaypoh: (Singlish), (noun) a busybody, (verb) to pry into someone else’s business

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Independence Day (a letter to mom)

Dearest Mommy,

This is your first Mother’s Day as an empty-nester. When your not-so-little monkey, Paola, left home late last year, it all became official. And so it has been a long 34 years of motherhood thus far, that probably went by too quickly, depending on how you see it.

All around me, friends and relatives are becoming mothers for the first or second time. It must be an entirely different experience for you, transitioning into a new season of motherhood. One where your children no longer vie for your attention 24/7, but instead one where you wait for their Viber messages across different time zones. Where the once messy dinner affairs for eight are now intimate dates for two. Where peace and silence replace the shrill cries and raucous laughter.

Yet also one where we are no longer just a room away to kiss and hug you goodnight, or bug you for no good reason. Where we have come to rely on the virtual endearments of emoji and internet speak. And where finding us sometimes means seeing a Facebook post or an email of a flight itinerary, just to see where in the world we are.

You always told us that your main role as a parent would be to equip us for independence. That it would be your greatest joy not to keep us all close by and dependent, but standing on our own two feet, wherever our individual paths would take us.

I know this is ‘out-of-season’, but I still remember that skirt you painstakingly crafted for our Christmas tree. At some point, the holiday rush interrupted that yearly practice of adding a new star for another year passed. Growing up, it would have been unthinkable to break from tradition—like being incomplete for the annual family picture. Yet the day has come when we are all beginning to build new traditions, while gratefully drawing from our home and family that you and daddy built with great love and sacrifice.

I’m sitting outside now at some café, and I just finished my long overdue read of Joy’s novel, “All My Lonely Islands”. (As an aside, has dad gone past the fourth chapter? Please tell him to read the whole thing.)

The central mother figure to the story’s protagonist wrote to her—

“I wanted a faith that stands on its own even if it seems that God has snatched back His hand and no longer remembers my name. I hope you’ll learn to drive your roots in a deep earth so that the fullness of your life will depend on no one, not a mother or a best friend.” 

Your prayers have been answered. You have raised us as independent men and women, and I will always be grateful for that.

Rather than selfishly keep us dependent on you, you gave us the space to fight our own battles, be it as simple as nursing a cold or overcoming heartbreak. Yet not once did I feel any distance, as you always readily listened, offered your wise counsel and fervently prayed daily for every one of us.

You have shown us a better way—anchoring our faith not on filial ties or limited human capacity, but a complete trust in God alone. More than being an independent woman, over the years, I have gone through a journey of becoming God-dependent. And I thank you for supporting me through every step of this walk in faith.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3: 5-6

As it turns out, not one of your daughters is in any great hurry to become a mother. I know though, that when that time comes, if God wills, then I would like to share this same kind of God-dependent parenting. You did subscribe to the idea that your children are not entirely your own; that God blessed you with each of us, only to pass under your care for a season. And we are all ultimately, His children.

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Mommy, we can never truly be apart, as our ties have been forged by flesh and blood, by a lifetime of vivid moments, a treasure of values I hold close, and the great blessing of a shared faith. Know that I would choose to be by your side, not because of desperate need, but because of the love I have for you.

Happy Mother’s Day! In a strange way, after 34 years, Happy Independence Day to you too! 😉

Near or far, I love you always, mom.

Pamy

Staying on the path

“If it is God’s will you want more than anything else in the world, it’s going to mean endurance.” – Elisabeth Elliot, 1983

I’m not one to write down resolutions, but in recent years I’ve prayed for a guiding theme or principle to help me envision and live out the year. Coming from the highs of last year’s “arise and shine”, I had such expectation for what 2017 would be all about.

And as the arc of the year-end played out, it became clear that God was leading towards foundational work. At Church, our own personal vision spoke of living out our Christian faith that runs counter to this world, turning it right side up—the “Upside Down Faith”. And one late night on YouTube, stumbling upon Ms. Elliot preaching from the year I was born, I was struck by the quote above.

There it was. Faith and endurance.

Still a one-liner wasn’t enough. As any researcher would, I wrestled with the next steps of operationalising that frame into more concrete terms.

How could I put this faith into action? What would I do to endure?

Words started to come. Build. Sow. Persevere.

***

Last Saturday, as we celebrated the 21st anniversary of our Senior Pastors in ministry, the answer played out vividly before me on stage. With every testimony and tribute shared, the story of God’s work in and through our pastors was told. I may have heard these in bits and pieces from those who have had personal encounters with them, but there was such power to see the full scope of it and the fruit it bore—our Church standing strong today.

Pastor How’s and Pastor Lia’s living testimonies pointed directly to the heart of what it means to have great faith and endurance.

With barely two years at Heart of God Church, I have little history to speak of, but it has not lacked in significant moments.

852117793_47249_3921905300531587336From that very first service on the 21st of March in 2015, Pastor How preached on “Grace for the Disgraced”, and it opened a second chance for me to get back on the right path and allow God to work on my character.

When I first served in ministry, it overwhelmed me to see the work poured into a seven-minute testimony segment, something that stemmed from the standards of excellence they set and modelled. I also saw how Pastors attended to every detail, through the processes set in place.

 

When I went on my first mission trip to Myanmar, I was deeply impressed by how one encounter that Pastors had at a Children’s Home from years ago, birthed and sustained an entire ministry, and the beginning of global outreach. All because they knew they “had to do something.” And so they did. Faithfully.

 ***

Pastors, in everything you do, you leave traces of your hearts that beat for God and others.

You build. You sow. You persevere.

Thank you for building our Church, by building up every individual person and emphasising character above all.

Thank you for tirelessly sowing and speaking into individual lives, showing that no act is too small and no person beyond help.

Thank you for persevering and never losing heart in the times of trial, always led by the joy of God’s vision set before you. And that is your heart for raising up generations of people who will give God the best years of their lives. Just as you have done.

 

“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.”

1 Timothy 5: 17 (KJV)

In all their 21 years serving, it astounds me that this is the first time the Church has celebrated with them. It also coincides with the first time they chose to take their sabbatical after three 7-year cycles. Though I should not be surprised, given the humility and dedication with which they have conducted themselves all these years. Last Saturday’s landmark service and outpouring of love are truly nothing in comparison to their full reward awaiting in Heaven.

Twenty-one years ago, Pastor Lia had a vision of God’s will for her life— to build a strong youth church. She and Pastor How wanted it more than anything else. So they remained faithful, obedient, and patient in endurance.

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I thank God for placing me under their wise leadership. I pray that God would also grant me the same grace to stay on His path, to fulfil His vision for my life, sharing the vision of our Church, not just another two or 21 years, but to run the entire race in this lifetime.

 

 

*written on the occasion of the 21st year of ministry of Pastor How and Pastor Lia, Heart of God Church

 

Truth be told

It came as an unexpected question on Christmas eve morning, but a nevertheless welcome one. Like a simply wrapped package tucked in a hidden corner under the tree, bearing that one gift you never knew you wanted.

“How do you read the Bible? I never owned or read the Bible growing up, because they didn’t teach us that in public school.”

Could this be true? My grandmother just asked me about reading the Bible. I was still cramming my Christmas card-writing and gift-wrapping, but when God presents such a gilded moment complete with a red velvet bow, you drop everything to receive it.

Truth be told, I was caught off-guard. No one had asked me before. How would I respond to this seemingly random, yet perfectly timed question?

I tell her the Bible is God’s Word. He speaks to us directly, to anyone who would listen. He reveals Himself and His plans for us, to anyone who would seek in faith. He set us on the right path with His Truth, to anyone who would trust in Him.

Simply put, God’s love letter to us as He draws us closer into a relationship with Him. We read it with a desire to go deeper into that relationship.

And in my heart, I asked that God do the rest.

***

There was one gift that I eagerly anticipated in the run up to Christmas. My water baptism on the 17th of December. The very moment of immersion went by so quickly, but it was the culmination of a journey of 33 years that took a different turn in the last three.

I think of that Ethiopian eunuch traveling by chariot in the desert, struggling with the words of the prophet Isaiah and seeking guidance (Acts 8: 26-38). After coming to the realisation of who Jesus is, He asked the God-sent Philip, “What prevents me from being baptised?”.

And many times, I asked myself that same question. For someone who had known and believed in God her whole life, it was one thing to understand with my head, and another to accept it completely in my heart.

When the truth of God’s word truly pierced my heart, I was certain to whom I belonged. Even as God gives this gift of new life freely, it requires something of us that we might have it fully. It would take turning my back on my sinful, self-consumed, proud, relationship-obsessed ways.

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with family and friends at Heart of God Church, December 17, 2016

No longer just a historic account, or an impressive literary tome, God’s word could begin the work of transformation it was meant for. As I was submerged in the water, I was buried to leave behind all sin and idols. Then coming up from the water, it symbolised Jesus’ resurrection and my rising again to new life.

This was the truth of what happened in my life—what Christ’s salvation has done for me (the details another story)—that I could not help but be baptised and let this Truth be known.

***

On Christmas eve morning, I received another early gift, the image that will be seared in my memory. My grandmother, Mamita as we fondly call her, seated near the front door, my bible in her hands, angling for light to aid her reading.

Just a week shy of her 92nd birthday, I gifted Mamita with her first Bible. She promises to read it every day. We live in different continents, but I’d like to keep her in prayer, as she makes her own journey in getting to know God in new ways.

On Christmas evening, when everyone had gone to bed, I sat by the soft glow of lights on my tiny tree. I pondered on what this Christmas meant, and I was led to a powerful statement that Jesus made toward the end of His earthly life.

“You say rightly that I am a King. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

John 18: 37

We all take different paths, but we all come to our personal moment of truth when God’s inescapable glory and truth is revealed to us. The moment when that Truth draws us to Him, and we respond to His love and receive His mercy so that we are forever changed. And it is a Truth so enduring, a grace so amazing, that we are compelled to share this gift with others.

Call off the search

King Solomon, in search for meaning, reflected on the futility of earthly wisdom, pleasure and work and concluded that all was meaningless1. All this coming from a man who himself was the living superlative of wisdom in his time. Now, if we were indeed to see these through an eternal lens, we could only attribute lasting significance to heavenly wisdom (James 3:17), pleasures at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11) and the work we do for God’s kingdom (Philippians 1:6).

Yet there must be some merit to these good gifts from above. And on this occasion of thanksgiving, I ponder on the value of work—that when carried out according to His purpose, takes on meaning, and serves to exalt Him above all.

See, I started my career in market research in 2005 in Manila, buoyed by one promotion after the other, that I quickly rose up to middle management. I was much younger then, extremely driven, and better built for the sleepless nights and physical toll of the job. I wanted to do things well, as I had done in the past (i.e. academics), and the norm of hard work producing results had things going my way.

It has been eight long years since that step up to a managerial position. After coming to Singapore in 2010, it all came to a halt when I faced the challenges of being in a new environment and a much larger team. It was a bitter cliché to swallow—had I become that big fish in a previously smaller pond, now thrown out into sea? Sure, work had always been tough, but never (seemingly) thankless. So this was the sense of hollowness and meaninglessness that Solomon talked about.

Where praise was harder to come by and self-doubt hovered above my every move—at this lowest point—little did I know that God was opening the door for the only validation I would ever need. A real encounter of His Love.

And so three years into this new job, the milestone has come, and not a moment too early or too late. At a time, when I am called to rise up in all ways possible, in areas of Church and ministry, on the domestic front as I live on my own, this new role at work is perfect in timing and significance. As all things came crashing down some four years ago, so do all things come together in 2016.

 

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Others may chalk it to coincidence, and perhaps if I had not come to believe as I do, I would be quick to brush it off the same way. On August 23, on the same day that I was to pay my new rent, the official promotion letter was placed in my hand.

And that is why it is not simply about the new title, not the pay raise, not even the recognition, but how the process traces God’s hand moving through it all.  Through the dry years, when I had nothing more to give, He was hardest at work, moulding my character and recalibrating my motivations, humbling me and leading me to a greater trust in Him.

Truly, I thank You Lord—for all You have done and all You will do*.

Eleven years ago, I wrote as a fresh grad twentysomething, searching for that elusive thing called “meaning”. Now it dawns on me that all meaning founded on human understanding alone will always be subject to the beating down of the tides of circumstance and shifting emotions. Only an unchanging and unfailing God can perfectly define our purpose, prosper our work, and bring the meaning or significance we seek.

Call off the search. I am through chasing after fickle winds of illusion, done striving for what cannot last. For in my God, I have an unshakeable hope, my all in all, the real deal.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”

1 Corinthians 15:58

 

 

1Read more at the book of Ecclesiastes, chapters 1 and 2

*I overflow with thanks to the tune of Bethel Music’s “Thank You”.

**Pardon the vanity that Solomon speaks of, but this serves to document God’s faithfulness in my life. And fine, I like these corporate shots 😉

 

This too shall pass


I’ve waited long enough to write.

So much so that I pray this moment has not yet passed its expiration date.

Back in May, a spate of work trips saw me flying back to Manila every so often. It was the height of election season, and I was plunged straight into the impassioned swirl of campaigning and heated support for each one’s candidate of choice. And now, just over a week into this Duterte administration, change has indeed come—and no, I’m not referring to this new brand of governance.

The sense of impermanence on this earth has become even more imminent to me in the wake of all that unfolds around the world. Major political shifts, senseless mass killings, redefined societal values and on a more personal note, death in the family.

Mama Lily had waited long enough.

It was surely no mere coincidence that my visits to Manila became more frequent leading up to Mama Lily’s final passing. In her final months, Mama talked about her anxiety around wanting to go, coupled with a fear of what was to come next. She feared being alone. The longer her solitary days at home, shifting between bed and wheelchair, the more she felt imprisoned in her frail body.

This was very different from the Mama I knew in my childhood. Strong, in-control, self-confident, fiercely proud, a veritable institution in her community, a pillar of her Church.

This was a woman who had gone through a lot, growing up and then raising children in the turmoil of Jolo; knew a lot being a true help and partner to our grandfather in his role as town doctor; and did a lot, extending assistance to all around her.

She could get things done and as she would regard, better and more efficiently than others could. The results a proof of her resolve, whether it be her signature leche flan or getting her grandchildren to put on a show. She had a tough love for her five children and slowly softened over the years with us grandkids, while still maintaining a no-nonsense demeanor.

On that final weekend in the midst of our sister’s graduation celebration, I sat at her bedside during downtime in the hospital room. We prayed, sang and piped worship music into her ears (oh and yes, even that Frozen classic, “Let it Go”, for not all humor is lost). Even when she could no longer respond in words, those few labored muscle movements, gasps and breaths were fading signals of her presence.

One by one, we said our goodbyes, let go of hurts, assuring Mama of our love, acceptance, and that she had nothing to fear in this farewell. That God would be there in these final hours as He has always been from the beginning.

And God never delays.

 

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Mama and her children. (Photo credit to David Cid)

Mama would not be Mama without one last act to set the stage for her remaining days. Amidst debate on whether to keep her in the hospital or bring her home, she moved her

left leg to express her wish to be brought home.

Just two days after, in the confines of familiar bed sheets, it was time for God to take her into His embrace.

On the day the Philippines inducted its new president into office, our prayers were answered with a peaceful passing for Mama Lily. The end of an era in many ways.

We like to say that phrase, this too shall pass, in full hope for something better.

In grief over the loss of loved ones. In the pressure of everyday struggles, making a living or writing a thesis. In the anxiety of finding a new job or waiting for a pass approval. Or quite simply in that state of wanting to be anywhere but where we are.

And only Jesus makes that hope something worth our whole life’s existence.  Not the security of a job offer. Not the promises of a new president. Not even the love of a grandparent or parent. Not anything that we can claim as our own on this earth.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

1 Peter 1: 24-25

All the temporary balms and relief this world offers are nothing compared to the glory waiting for those who faithfully press on toward the eternity ahead. Indeed, at the end of the ages, all these things shall fall and only the source of all these will remain. Only God’s kingdom shall stand, never to pass.

Mama Lily, your life here with us has run its course, but we look forward to the day when we too shall be joined with our Lord, never to part.

For All to See

What is it about the crucial moments that make us decide to rise up and fight? Are we spurred on by the challenge? On the other hand, what makes us crumble and fall short? Do the weight of expectation and the real or imagined scrutiny of those who watch become too heavy to bear?

In the wake of the Easter weekend, there was one character, aside from Jesus, who jumped out at me from the pages of the Bible.

Who was Joseph of Arimathea? Who was this man who took Jesus’ lifeless body from the cross and laid it in his tomb?

Across the four gospels, we find a handful of descriptions—a rich man who followed Jesus (Matthew 27:57), an honored member of the Council, awaiting the coming of God’s kingdom (Mark 15:43), a good and righteous man, who was not in favor of the Sanhedrin’s actions against Jesus (Luke 23:50-51), and perhaps most aptly referred to as a “secret disciple”, dreading judgment from Jewish leaders (John 19:38).

On paper, here was a man who appeared to have it all together. He had the wealth and status, the connections and acceptance in society, even more so the faith and an upright life. Yet none of this human-defined goodness could get him that which he truly desired. Deep inside of him was a yearning for Christ, a hope yet to be revealed. At the same time, there must have been a fear in his heart, of what the consequences of going public with his faith might be, and the opposition that awaited him.

But in that moment when it counted, he summoned the courage to come forward. He went to Pilate—and as the NLT phrases it, “took a risk”, and asked for Christ’s body. And there it was, the disciple from afar, now up close and intimate with Jesus and the ravages and glory of His suffering. A dangerous move, but well worth whatever price would need to be paid.

I wonder how many of us can identify with this man, Joseph.

Could you be among those who have yet to come to Jesus? Those who may not even know what it is they seek in this chaotic world, but find a stirring in their hearts, an ache they cannot put their finger on.

Or are you already a “secret disciple”? Perhaps God has once revealed Himself to you, yet something holds you back from fully embracing Him. Perhaps you have felt God’s love in your life, but earthly trappings make it difficult to grow this relationship.

Then there are those of us following Jesus out in the open, but from time to time forget the reasons why we made a decision in the first place.

Oh, that we would all be willing to make a courageous step and come to Jesus in all humility.

Lord, what joy you bring to those whose heart’s longings are finally revealed and made one with Yours. May all of us who take this risk—who dare to ask the tough questions and be faced with the hard truths—may we truly find You, Lord.

And more than just doing these actions for others to see us—may we open our hearts, so that all may see Christ who lives in us.

***

Meanwhile, there are those whose courage shines brightly and in full view. I cannot let this week pass without mentioning Courageous Caitie (Caitlin Soleil Lucas), a brave little girl from the Philippines whose life and death have impacted many, including myself, in spite of not having known her personally.

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Caitie’s favorites at the zoo.

Much has been said about her, but let me share what I will remember—how in the most crucial moments, she rose up, carried by Christ’s strength and love. How she held on even more tightly and did not allow the dark night of suffering to snuff out God’s light in her life.

No “secret disciples” here. Instead of retreating in their anguish, her parents Jay Jay and Feliz Lucas took the risk of letting people into their pain and sharing their hope in Christ. As the events unfolded before our eyes, the hearts of this family in full display, God was glorified and made known in both Caitie’s life and death, for all to see.

“For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all His glory.”

Colossians 3:3-4

In Caitie’s short, but nevertheless courageous and joyful life on earth, she stayed close to Jesus, and God kept her faithful to the end, so that others would also be emboldened to come forward, to know Him and embrace Him.