words and images: Jessica Sowards
Being a parent is terrifying. I used to live in so much fear that something awful would happen to my kids. Every news story was a one-way ticket to the Land of What-if. And it was a land I visited often. It was a land in which I held duel citizenship.
I’d wake in the night and hover over their beds with my hand gently resting on their chests, making sure my imagined horrors had not spilled over into reality and, in fact, stopped their lungs from rising. Every time we were in public places, I scouted out the exits and planned my escape from attackers. Every stranger could have been a kidnapper, every bump or bruise could have been the first sign of a dire diagnoses, every moment of calling their name and not getting an immediate response could have been the moment that everything changed for the worse.
I remember after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, I checked my boys out early. They were in kindergarten and first grade, the same ages of the children slain by the shooter. We lay in bed and watched movies all afternoon. We ate ice cream for dinner. They thought it was the best day ever and I hid my tears so as not to change their minds.
School shootings were added to the looming list of threats, alongside the rest of the possibilities that might snatch them away from me. This list was a vague and nearly palpable thing, whispering daily its intention of proving my worries right. I loved my sons so much that it seemed only right to worry with the same fervor. It felt like love to worry like that, even though it killed my joy.
In April of 2014, a tornado tore through Central Arkansas. It missed our house by about three miles, but it did not miss my friend April’s house. My sons slept peacefully that night as I lay awake in horror. The next day we told them that April’s two sons, their best friends, were dead, and the Land of What-if was no longer some imaginary and vague place. It became an inescapable reality.
It took a few days for God to break in. I was so mad at Him. His character was standing trial and I was judge, jury and executioner. Then I visited April in the hospital, and in her brokenness and newfound childlessness, she proclaimed the goodness of God to me and it sent me reeling. I simply could not process her faith. That night I lay awake again, this time not in horror but in a weak and flickering hope that maybe my fear could be overcome.
The next morning, from the end of my kitchen table, while I breastfed my son Ezra, I wrote a blog post about a tornado and a mother that knew the goodness of God. It went viral. So much so that four years later, it still receives a hundred hits a day. Beauty began to emerge from ashes, and I was set on a path into a deep and meaningful relationship with the Creator of the universe. God used a tornado to teach me about His goodness. In the faith of my friend and her unsurmountable peace, I found freedom from the chains that had bound me my entire motherhood.
It was in the midst of loss, pain and tragedy that I learned a lesson I had not been able to grasp before. Gripping my children suffocatingly tight while fear dictated how I raised them wasn’t changing the fact that our days aren’t promised. So I decided to be certain in His love and actually, really, fully live. The opposite of fear isn’t nonchalance in the face of threats. The opposite of fear is found in love. That is where bravery and freedom exist. The knowledge that He is good and trustworthy is the only place unshakable by What-if.
Last week, while yet another school shooting, this time in Florida, was still trending in the headlines, and while a tornado watch buzzed on weather channels, we met with a group of friends in our home. We get together weekly, a living room expression of church and community, and we teach our children to worship and to know Jesus. That night we sat before them, us completely aware of the state of disarray of our broken world, them completely oblivious to it. And we taught them about the Bible story of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.
Jesus washed His disciples’ feet briefly before going to the cross for humanity. It was a picture of His love for them and His humility. He knew when He washed their feet that soon things would look hopeless to them, and He was giving them a palpable expression of how trustworthy and good He is. In the modern world of socks, sneakers and paved roads, we have no literal need of foot washing. But we can still carry out the act for all it symbolizes.
We didn’t expect our foot washing to be profound. We anticipated something of a zoo, one with seventeen children and several pitchers of water. As the story unfolded and we talked about what love looks like, the children settled. They began engaging in conversation, and when we asked who would like to help wash their friends’ feet, hands went up, some quickly, some apprehensively. Within minutes, even the hands that hadn’t gone up at all had taken part. Before we knew it, everyone was washing feet, praying over each other and receiving the same.
We wept that night as our babies carried out an act of love they were only beginning to grasp. It may not seem like much, a handful of families in a living room doing something so menial as foot washing, but it stood for something incredible. It stood for the belief that the bad things happening in the world do not measure the goodness of God. It was a picture that grace means having the ability to navigate through brokenness with love and the ability to still have hope.
My heart still breaks at the headlines. I am not harboring the belief that I am immune from tragedy. I know that I can follow the traffic laws, and make my sons wear their helmets and follow every precaution to keep them safe, but ultimately, I cannot protect them from the world. So I have decided to trust the heart and intentions of God, and to find my assurance in the promise of eternity. No matter what, He is good and He loves my boys more than I do.
So I will love them with a worry-free ferocity. They will never learn fear from me. It is my earnest hope that when tragedy brushes them in this life, they will be the ones who respond in certainty to God’s goodness. That on the foundation of His love and mine, they might be the ones that loosen the chains of fear off their friends by their own fearlessness.
Maybe, just maybe, they could be the ones to bring a little healing to this broken world. Maybe they could live as duel citizens to a different Land of What-if, one where only one question was begged, “What if the world knew that God really is, always and undeniably good?”