The morning of August 31st felt like any other. Nothing out of the ordinary- except the fact that this was the morning I got up at 6am to work out with Brooke. She had started Insanity a week earlier and it was about time I got motivated and got back in a workout routine. After a crazy summer of ministry in Slovenia I was looking forward to the beginning of Fall and getting back into “normal” life- whatever that means. Workout, coffee, breakfast and devotional was on the immediate schedule. A recent conversation with a student about angels prompted me to look up the Perry Noble series entitled “Angels and Demons” that I recalled my sister talking about a couple months ago. I thought this would be a perfect place to begin some angel research that I could relay to this student. The first two talks in the series focused on 8 questions that the church members had regarding angles and demons and the spiritual world.
Here are some noteworthy nuggets from the first sermon:
-One thing is for sure; we are in a spiritual battle. The epic battle between good and evil.
-There is a real enemy but we also serve a God who is all-powerful, all knowing, and everywhere.
-Some people wonder why we should even care about the spiritual world. We care because God has a plan, but so does Satan.
-Satan wants to steal all goodness from us and ultimately destroy everything we hold dear.
-Should we be scared? Well, yes, if you are not walking with Jesus, but if you believe in the God who conquered all and is all then there is nothing to fear. Not even death.
-The evil one holds no power over those who are in Christ.
As I continued to listen to this sermon I was greatly encouraged on this day that was like any other, or so I thought. I enjoyed the first sermon so much that I decided to start listening to the second while eating lunch.
Question #7 in the series was “Why would God allow the devil to exist?” The bottom line is that God is good and he loves us. As Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
This is a verse that I have heard over and over again in my life. It is a regularly repeated motto of all Christians. We must believe that ALL things- yes ALL things work together for the good. Therefore, nothing in life can be bad. Every “bad” thing in my life is good because of God. As I reflected upon this truth I received a text message from my sister, a text that would change things forever. It was 12:30 in the afternoon so I knew it was 6:30am where she was. “What?” Why am I even getting a text from my sister right now? What is going on?”
Sarah: Hey can you call me right this very minute!
Me: Um on Skype?
Sarah: No like find a phone and call us…Make sure Johnny or Brooke is with you. Right now. Please.
…wait. What? This is weird. What is going on? What has happened that I have to urgently call my family who are in America and I am way far away in Slovenia?
I immediately called Johnny and asked if I could come upstairs and use their phone. They have an app that can call the states. I need to get this app. Anyway…my thoughts immediately went to my Poppa. Something must have happened with him. He did just have heart surgery. I knew my sister and parents were all in Charleston, SC with my Poppa for my cousins wedding that was later that day. “Is something going on with them?”, I thought.
I dial. The phone rings once. My sister answers and I can already tell that she had been crying. She says hello and that she loves me and passes the phone to my dad. He says, “Hi Gwynnie.” And I can tell that he has been crying too. He asks if I am sitting and I think, “What? Why do I have to be sitting? I don’t want to know whatever you are about to tell me.”
“Gwynne, your brother was camping this weekend…”
“Wait. Why is he talking about my brother? This can’t be about Daniel. He is fine.”
My dad continues as I can hardly think, “Gwynne, there was an accident. Your brother was riding a 4 wheeler and there was an accident and he is gone.”
“NOOOOOO!!!!!!” screams the voice in my head. “No, this isn’t true. This can’t be true. I just saw him 2 weeks ago. He is fine. This didn’t happen. He was..is…only 26. He is about to graduate from medical assistant school. No! I am not about to use the past tense because this isn’t true. He is not dead.”
Through hysterical tears I tell my daddy that I love him and somehow start talking about the sermon that I was just listening to and about how when bad things happen that it all works for good. What the heck was I saying? I know I believe this but I never thought I would have to apply this to loosing my only brother. Then my mom gets on the phone and frantically tells me that she loves me and that we will talk again soon.
Johnny and Brooke were there with me and after the phone call ended I turned to bury my head into Johnny’s shoulder and he hugged me tight. This can’t be real. I hugged Brooke and they told me they love me. Their 3-year-old daughter, Kinsley, saw me crying and quickly asked to go upstairs to her room and she returned with one of her stuffed animals to comfort me. So sweet.
I sat on the couch in shock. This was supposed to be just another “normal” day. It was just another day of living in Slovenia. It had never been a fear of mine to actually loose someone while living over here. What do I do now? How do I get home? These thoughts were interrupted by Johnny saying, “Gwynne, don’t worry. I will look at plane tickets. You will stay in our guest room tonight. We are here for you.”
Plane tickets? Oh, yeah. I need a plane ticket. When will I leave? I just want to be with my family. Have they invented teleportation yet? I wish that were my super power.
Brooke interrupted these thoughts; “Lets go on a walk.”
Before leaving, Brooke posted something on our private Josiah Venture Slovenia Facebook page and told briefly what had happened and asked for immediate prayers.
We walked into town and the calls and texts started. My dear friend Laurel called first. I have known her and her husband for 6 years. They know my family. They had met Daniel. It was a comfort to hear her voice and talk with her. Then Josh and Kristy Patty called. We spoke about how life is a continual balance of pain and joy and how God truly does have a Father heart for all his children and a plan for all of us.
With every conversation I was encouraged and felt loved, but also still thinking, why is this happening? What good is this? God what are you doing? All the while my mind was flooded with various memories of my dear brother.
His soft baby like blonde hair.
When we are little and building forts together.
Jumping on our trampoline.
Crying together on the kitchen floor when our parents told us that we couldn’t take our dog, Promise, with us to Germany.
Riding in the “soccer mom” van together in high school and blasting Relient K.
Going to his high school graduation where he wore a purple gown.
Playing video games with him- especially 1080, the snowboarding game where he always beat me. Then I would beat him in original Nintendo Mario.
Family road trips where we would play the license plate game and fill the car windows with our spiral graph designs. We always wished our parents would cave already and get us a DVD player for long road trips. I’m glad they didn’t.
When he held my hand during the entire retirement ceremony of our dad. That was just a couple weeks ago…
Him calling me beautiful and “poop face” (his most often used term of endearment).
And on and on my mind soared with memories of my dear brother, Daniel…
That afternoon on the schedule was a “Fusion Jam”- a gathering of our Slovene youth to play music at the church together. Johnny and Brooke said we could cancel it if I wanted. I said, “No. Let’s still have it. I want to tell them.” When I arrived I was swarmed with the normal hugs and joyful greetings. I still wanted to pretend that everything was ok. That nothing out of the ordinary had happened. No, I didn’t have a life-altering announcement to make. Johnny gathered everyone together and told them that I had something to say. I had to say it fast. Like ripping off a band-aid.
As my eyes pooled with more tears, “So I found out today that my brother was in an accident and he died.”
This was the first time I said it out loud.
I then said something like, “But it’s ok because he knew Jesus and he is with him now He was only 26. You don’t know when your last day will be. Jesus wants us to trust him with our lives now. He loves you so much.”
Johnny then took it from there and prayed. They then all lined up and gave me long hugs one by one. I kept thinking that these Slovenes are my little brothers and sisters now. My biological little brother is now in heaven so I have these young ones in my life and they need to know how much God loves them.
That night I called my family again and we all cried on the phone together. The tears seemed to be never ending. I just wanted to be with them. Why was I so far away? I still had another day until I flew to them.
Sunday, September 1st- a new day. My 16-month anniversary of living in Slovenia. I went to church and received many consoling hugs and kind words. I even understood most of the songs we sang in Slovene or they were all songs that I knew by heart in English. We sang, “Better is one day”, and I just listened. The lump in my throat wouldn’t let any sound come out and if it did it would not have sounded very harmonious. I simply enjoyed listening while Brooke held my shoulders.
Daniel is in the court of the King.
“Blessed be your name” was the next song.
“Every blessing you pour out I’ll turn back to praise. When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say blessed be the name of the Lord…You give and take away. My heart will choose to say Lord, blessed be your name.”
Lord, you took my brother away but I will choose to praise your name. Not because it is the Christian thing to do but because I want to. I choose it. I choose to praise the Lord who gives and takes away life because he is my God and loves me and has a plan.
It was prayer Sunday at the church. Ales, the pastor, knew about Daniel and he brought me up front and had me say a few things and then had the elders and Brooke gather around me and cover me in prayer. I kept thinking of the verse, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
I have felt carried.
I felt carried that evening when some of my amazing friends here in Slovenia drove over an hour to come and be with me. They brought me socks. I love socks.
I felt carried when Johnny and Brooke created an amazing meal of fajitas for us all to share.
I felt carried when Lori prayed for me and held me tight…when Stephanie rubbed my back…when Shauna packed my suitcase and when Mateja folded my laundry and then when they all drove me to the airport 2 hours away at 3 in the morning.
Shauna gave me 11 letters for me to open while I traveled. Part of the first letter read, “I’m praying for you in this hard time. My heart was hurting when I thought of you on that airplane by yourself, so I thought these notes would help remind you of how much you are loved! I will be praying for you constantly. Then I remembered (as I was writing this!) that our God is so good and so big that I know He will be enough for you when you’re on the plane! His LOVE is enough, Gwynne!”
These notes helped in getting me through 28 hours of travel. It was brutal. I wanted to weep on the shoulder of every person I sat by or I wanted him or her to not talk to me at all and leave me alone because if I had to open my mouth to say one word I would have lost it. I was literally on the verge of tears during that entire transatlantic journey. Instead of causing a grief-stricken scene at 30,000 feet, I gazed out the window and was in awe of God’s beautiful creation as the plane swam through the marshmallow clouds. It was a blessing from above. I felt that God had created each of those beautiful clouds for me. Eventually the sun began its bedtime routine and I watched the colors change from light purple and pink to dark blue and eventually black. Darkness. But I was not alone. There was the moon and I felt peace. The Lord was with me.
From Zagreb to Munich to Philly to Denver I don’t know how I moved my body from airport to airport. I was in this weird robot mode and when I finally landed in Denver and spotted my dad among the sea of people all the emotion that I had bottled up for 28 hours came flooding forth as I bulldozed my mom and hugged her hard. We had a Gardner group hug right there in the airport.
Just the four of us.
There will never be five while on this earth again.
We got a hotel room that night, opened a bottle of wine, and started sharing Daniel memories and talking about the weeks plans while all of us cried on and off. That afternoon my parents and sister had met with the coroner and received Daniel’s belongings. We went through his backpack and smelled his clothes. A surprising clean yet musty smell mixed with Polo cologne. Daniel.
The following days included meeting his roommate, Richard, at their apartment and going through Daniel’s things. The four Gardner’s, Richard and his girlfriend, Amanda, my 5 Cobb cousins, and then 3 of Daniel’s friends all came to help. It all got done rather quickly. We got rid of some clothes and other things of no particular value or attached memory. My dad sorted random papers and mail that were scattered about the room. He ended up finding an un-deposited check for almost $1,000. Daniel, cash those babies when you get them! So typical. His ipod, that he thought he lost, was found buried beneath papers and lots of other random stuff in his car. Also, not one but three 30th birthday cards to my sister. She will be 32 in March so apparently he didn’t clean his car out very often. The cards were addressed and stamped. They just never made it to Sarah until now. We all laughed because that is just so Daniel. We knew he loved us even when he forgot to mail birthday cards.
The next day we met with the funeral director. After much thought we all decided to opt for a viewing of Daniel’s body before he was cremated. I had never seen a dead body before and was not sure how I would react. We went to the viewing with 6 of Daniel’s friends and our cousin Josh. Josh married into our family and held a special bond with Daniel since they were the only two to serve in the Army.
Just the four of us entered the room together while the others waited. There he was lying on a table…no, not him…it was just his body. The shell that held his soul for those short 26 years of life. It looked as if he was sleeping. He even had a little smile on his face. It was my brother. Tears immediately flowed. It was real.
He was gone.
He no longer will live on this earth. He will never get married. He won’t be at my wedding when I get married some day or be an uncle to my kids or have kids of his own. He will never grow old and grey. All these future thoughts kept flashing through my mind.
Why God? Why did you cut his life so short?
I began praying through tear muddled thoughts as I reached to touch his cold tattooed skin. I felt the Lord say softly within me, “Gwynnie, Daniel is with me. Do not worry my sweet child. Daniel is home.” My brother always called me Gwynnie and Jesus knew this nickname and these words were exactly what I needed to hear. There was a peace that truly passed all understanding! (Philippians 4:7)
And I knew that I was thinking about the wrong things. I should be focused on his life and what he had done on earth, not on what he didn’t get to experience. His motto after all, which was taken from the movie Shawshanck Redemption, was “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.” My brother lived. He traveled. Never met a stranger. Loved his family. Served his country with pride and boldness. Was the best little/big brother to his two older sisters. He had a ministry that he didn’t even know he had. He showed Jesus to people- not in a pushy TV evangelical way- but in an every day kindness. He loved the unnoticed and accepted people as they were. Daniel will forever be remembered by his kind accepting smile and great big bear hugs.
Psalm 139:15-16 echoed in my head, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Jesus knows the number of our days. Daniel’s were just cut short compared to some, but they were just the right amount and God knew that. Jesus took him home.
We left the room and let his friends have some time to say goodbye. I am not sure of their salvation and can’t even imagine how people that don’t know the Lord deal with loss. We were able to share the gospel with them right there in the room with Daniel’s body.
From a father’s heart my dad shared, “It’s not him. He is home. Jesus loves each one of you and you can be sure of where you go after you die, just like Daniel was.”
Then we all started sharing Daniel stories and laughing together. Later when we spoke with the funeral director she said, “When I heard you all laughing through tears I knew you would all be ok and you all were a very special family. I can tell you are greatly loved.”
And we do feel so greatly loved.
We felt greatly loved by the group of over 100 people who came to the memorial in Ft. Collins, CO. Thirty people from Daniel’s school alone came- all the way from the president of the school down to the janitor. That right there is an example of how Daniel was a friend to all and loved every person he came into contact with. An army buddy and another friend drove 14 hours from New Mexico to be there. Countless friends were present; from when my dad was stationed in Alaska when Daniel was three, to his 8th grade youth leader when we lived in Germany, to family members, all the way up to his roommate and friends in CO. Over and over the gospel was shared. The hope is that God’s name would be glorified through it all.
We felt loved through every card sent, every hug received, every word of encouragement whispered, and every eye lock of sympathy.
We felt loved in South Carolina at the memorial when about 200 people were in attendance to celebrate Daniel’s life. And that’s what it is. A celebration. Life does not end on this earth. For those who know Christ have eternity to look forward to.
I could go on and on with story after story of how people have been deeply impacted by Daniel’s death. I am often brought to tears when I think of Daniel mainly due to the fact that he is in the presence of the Lord, a place I have longed to be. A mixed tear of joy and pain pools in the corners of my eyes because I want to be there too. I want to be with Jesus and with my brother again. I know that one day I will be, but until then there is work to do. There is faith to be displayed and there is a declaration to be announced, that God is a God who saves and he is a God that loves. (Zephaniah 3:17, John 3:16)
He loves you!
Thank you to the many who have prayed and continue to pray. Thank you for grieving with us and for helping to carry the burden and to stand beside us during this devastating time.
At the memorial in SC I read from John 11. It is the story of the death of Lazarus. Lazarus dies and leaves behind two sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus says to the sisters in verses 25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus then goes to raise Lazarus from the dead and many who witnessed this miracle put their faith in Christ.
Jesus didn’t raise Daniel from the dead, but I know he will continue to live in our memories. Jesus has done many miracles and has poured out a multitude of blessings since Daniel’s passing and he will continue to because he is God.
Daniel is now truly living it up in heaven because he was one who believed. My prayer is that if you don’t believe that you would choose to put your faith in a God who loves and a God that produces joy from pain.
“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” Daniel 6:26-27