Astounding Suffering & Amazing Grace: The Willis Family

he heals

The best Bible study I have ever completed, is Disciplines of a Godly Woman.  I know that I have “plugged” this study on the blog before, but for good reason.  It is that good.

One of the more challenging chapters to read however, was on suffering.  And how we train our minds and hearts to contend with pain that is so unexplainable and deep, we cannot find a simple “way out”.  The chapter begins with a story I wished never to read, but one that has marked my gauge of suffering since.

scott and janet willis

Scott and Janet Willis were driving along an Illinois interstate one afternoon, their 6 children tucked into their seats in their van.  Ahead of them, a transport truck drove, not noticing that dangling from its rear was a heavy metal bracket, holding the truck’s mudflaps in place.  The bracket broke loose and the Willis van ran it over, puncturing the van’s gas tank.

The van exploded into flames and within a handful of moments, the Willises lost their children.  Five children died immediately, and the 6th lived until late that evening, but then succumbed to his burns.

A hospital attendant, Janet said, told her that Ben knew he was dying and asked her to hold his hand. She couldn’t, because of his burns.

How does anyone live through horror like the Willises have endured?

At a hospital news conference, Scott, a Baptist minister, told reporters that his children “were given of the Lord, and we understood they weren’t ours. They were his, and we were stewards of those children. And so God took them back.”

It wasn’t magic thinking, Scott said. And it wasn’t a roll of the dice. It was God’s will.

Do you find this stalwart belief in God’s sovereignty convicting?  I do.

Last week, the kids and I were watching America’s Got Talent, and we were particularly interested in a large family of 12 children, who performed a fun routine of singing, dancing and instrumentation.


We were amazed to realize later, that these 12 are Willis grand-children.  Of the 3 Willis children who did not perish along the Illinois interstate that day back in 1994, there are now 32 grand-children.

There will never be a way for Scott and Janet Willis to out-run or out-live the pain of losing their precious children.  Until Heaven, that loss will mark every one of their earthly moments.

And yet, I am grateful that their story teaches and reminds of a God who gives.  Who gives life.  And who gives children.

And who has given back to Scott and Janet Willis, 32 beautiful people to love.

His ways are beyond understanding, His paths beyond tracing out.  And in it all, He loves.

Ian and Larissa: {When Love Didn’t Give Up} & Giveaway!

ian and larissa graphic

The story of Larissa and Ian has been shared in several places in the Christian world.  But Desiring God has been doing a particularly excellent job of keeping those interested in Ian and Larissa up to date with their progress.

To those unfamiliar, Ian and Larissa are a married couple whose story is unlike most of ours.  They have encountered many trials, and have persevered in a tenacious, Christ-like love.

Ian and Larissa were like any other college-aged couple – enjoying the carefree fun of dating  – until the day Larissa received a troubling phone call.  Her boyfriend, Ian, had been involved in a car wreck.  Larissa immediately began to pray that God would spare Ian’s brain, as she drove to the hospital to be with him.

ian and larissa before accident

But Ian’s brain had been traumatically injured.  And for several hours he was in surgery, as doctors worked and Larissa prayed.  Miraculously, Ian pulled through surgery and began to make progress.  Brain-activity tests showed him to be gaining ground.  Larissa made the decision to move in with Ian’s family, so that she could become a part of Ian’s daily care.

The two continued to date, though Ian was unable to talk.

“We just prayed that some day marriage would happen.  We watched all of our friends get married, and that was challenging.  But we just tried to hold out hope that that would be us some day”.

And it was.  Eventually, step-by-step Ian re-gained the ability to communicate enough.  And he and Larissa began to pursue engagement.

I think what helped me, Larissa states, is knowing that Ian would not have left me, if the roles were reversed.

ian and larissa wedding color

Ian and Larissa were married.  And they began to build the foundation of a marriage, though with a unique set of challenges.

We are able to love each other with just a more Christ-like love I think, because of Ian’s disability.  And we are able to understand that picture a little bit better than if you were healthy, Larissa offers.

Agree? she asks Ian.  Yes, he states firmly.

In the past 3 years, Ian has made continued progress.  He is able to walk on his own, enjoying increased freedom of movement.  And he and Larissa move forward in building a solid, married love.

ian and larissa couch

When asked: How have you seen God at work in your marriage? Ian is quick to respond, A better question would be, how have I not seen God at work in my marriage?



Ian and Larissa have been at work writing a book, sharing their adventures and experiences in seeing God’s faithfulness to their marriage.  Entitled Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up, the book releases August 28th of this year.

ian and larissa book

In honor of their dedication and perseverance, and in conjunction with my birthday which is also 8/28, I have pre-ordered 2 copies of When Love Didn’t Give Up: Eight Twenty Eight – one for myself and one to give away.

If you would like to be entered for this giveaway, please leave a comment at the end of this post.  Or, click over to the Facebook page and leave a comment there.  I will leave the giveaway open until Friday, as Summer fun has slowed blog traffic down.  And please take 8 minutes to watch Ian and Larissa’s beautiful story on the video above.  It is well worth a few moments of your time.

Happy Monday, all.

















Profiles of Courage, Part 2 : Jo’s Story {Foster Parenting}

Yesterday, I featured the first part of my cousin Jo’s story, as the first in what I hope will be a monthly feature: Profiles of Courage.  Jo and her family embarked on a foster-care journey 3 years ago, and have learned much along the way about being emptied and filled.  If you did not read Part 1 of her story, you can find it here.


Ten minutes. That was the amount of time I was given to decide if I was ready to change my life. My whole family’s life.

The call came around noon. “We have an Inuit toddler who needs a home. Will you be ready for her in an hour?” This was it. I called my husband and couldn’t reach him at first. I paced up and down the kitchen in prayer. When he finally called, he said only this; “Yes. Let’s say yes. This is why we’re doing this.”

    An hour later she arrived. Sleepy and disheveled, she watched us carefully, clinging to her sippy cup. Our two dogs were an asset as their wet greeting eased her out of her confusion and into giggles. And then she was in my arms, swinging with me on our old wooden swing. Minute by minute swaying her way deep, deep into our hearts.

A year and a half. That is the amount of time we had to braid her long black hair and practice our tongues at the strange new words that were home to her. A year and a half to watch her grow steady on her feet and move steadily into her place as baby of the family. A year and a half of that husky laugh, that smile, those dimples. Of memorizing the shape of her and the way she fit into our arms. A year and a half of marveling at her ability to embrace every new day, place, and person as though they were an anticipated delight. A year and a half is the amount of time we had to begin to lose sight of losing her.

Until we did. You see, our little girl had a terrific mother. In this system, we have been told, most grow weary and choose vice over motherhood. But there are others who fight, kick, claw their way back to health and to their children. This little girl had a mother like that. It didn’t take long for us to see it, and it made us want to join her fight. The battle of the broken should never be a spectator sport.

It isn’t enough to show an empty-armed mother that you love her child; the one you get to hold in your arms at night instead of her. That heartbroken mother will take in the picture of you in your nice house, with your shiny family. And she will only feel more broken if she watches from a distance as her child is loved by people deemed more stable, more secure, more safe. We knew there had to be a gathering-in. We wanted to honor her for every one of the 18 months that shaped this child before she made it to our door. We asked her to teach us all the things we didn’t know about her daughter. And she did.

As we opened up wide our life, our home and our church to her, this mom opened herself up wide in response. She helped us grow more familiar with her language: “Akuluk means I love you.” It was with her that we first tasted whale meat– an experience I hope never to repeat, mind you. . . One day, she gifted me with a beautiful hair clip made from seal pelt. She told me that her Aunt had made it to thank me for taking such good care of her little niece.

As she gave, she also allowed herself to receive. She became a familiar face at our church, even though it must have initially been very uncomfortable for her. We invited her to join us for afternoons at my parents’ home where she and my Mom would discuss the finer points of mystery novels. She joined us for many celebrations throughout the time we cared for her daughter, and she did so without reservation. I will never forget the day we gave her a ride home, and as she climbed out of the van she leaned in to kiss our daughter. “I love you,” she said. And I knew she meant it.

A lifetime. That is the amount of time we will remain awed by the gift of having lived this. We are soberly aware that this story is a rare gem in the circles of social care. But it is our gem. A little while ago, our girl came to spend the weekend with us. I watched her run around the house, rediscovering the landscape of her toddler-hood, and I could barely breathe. I looked up to find my husband looking back at me. “This hurts” I mouthed silently across the room. He nodded. Yes, it hurts. But it only took a minute for pain to be covered over by awe at the stunningly vast parameters of love. Look what love does! It gives. It takes. It shares. It loses. And it tenaciously roots and grows through it all.


Jo writes from time to time on her blog, where she also shares her keen eye for beauty and creativity.  You can find her site here, and one of the most incredible crafts she made here {hand-made memory game}.  Thank you for sharing in her experience, and for being such an encouraging audience.  I appreciate you all!



Profiles of Courage: Jo’s Story, Part 1 {Foster Parenting}

One of the facets of this blog that has been most enriching, is contacting people from all over my past and present to aid me in the focus of this site: women growing women.  One such link to the past extends far behind me, to the beginning of childhood.  Jo- my cousin- has been a piece of me for as long as I have memory back.  Her mother and mine are sisters, so in our relationship there exists that comfortability of being somewhat the same.  Jo is many things: wildly creative, articulate, energetic and hilarious.  But above all, she possesses a passion and determination for life well-lived that is challenging.  Jo has never sat down at the foot of a challenge and said: I cannot take take this one.  God has knit together in her equal parts bravery and integrity.  And it is with this spirit that she and her husband embarked on a foster care journey 3 years ago.  The outcome, though without neat and tidy edges, was nevertheless marked by the goodness of God’s careful hand.

I asked Jo to kick off what I hope will become a monthly feature here – Profiles of Courage. Jo graciously agreed to  write down for all of us, her experience in foster parenting – a process in which she has been emptied and filled.


I used to say I wanted to adopt someday. I envisioned a dark hand in my pale one. And maybe a few more little hands as well. A full colour pallet of little hands. It was a pretty picture that I now realize was sustained mostly by a rosy-coloured romanticism. Adoption and Christianity just seemed to go together. But whether or not adoption and I went together was another thing entirely.

 I also used to say that I’d marry young and have a handful of kids. I envisioned a mob of us. Loud. Chaotic. Bursting with messy love. In this case, hope became reality at a whirlwind pace. I met my husband at 19, married him at 20 and had my first child within a year. My next four children came quickly on the heels of the first. And that loud, chaotic love wrapped itself around me like a second skin.

Somewhere along the way I began to learn about being filled and emptied. God would fill my mind and heart with His designs for me, and I would expend myself on them. The association was slow in coming, however. In my immaturity it went down more like this; I would obsess about something and then go after it with wild abandon, heedless of prayer, meditation or counsel. Slowly, I realized He was trying to lead me, and it went far better when I slowed to listen and talk to Him about it.

 Simple as it seems, that was the spiritual process by which my husband and I became foster parents. We had five healthy, thriving children, the youngest of whom was three. I couldn’t carry any more children of my own, but the desire remained. Our home was safe and secure, as was our marriage. We were inundated with supports of all kinds. And we began to be all filled up with God’s design. He told us he had more for us to do. More children for us to parent and to love.

 It was a series of connected messages on a theme. Our local Christian radio station began Adoption Month and my drive-time was filled with stories of fostering and adoption. Sermons seemed to refer to God’s adoption of us as sons and daughters everywhere I went. Friends of ours began the process of becoming foster parents. And finally, we visited a church where we reconnected with a family that looked a lot like ours. They had five kids of their own, but had launched into foster care a few years earlier. It was in the air. A palpable calling.

The practical unfolding was a high-speed ride that was a pleasure to be a part of. I made a first inquiry online to our local Children’s Aid Society one morning as I sat sipping coffee. That was all it took to rapidly launch us on to a 6-month path to becoming full-fledged foster parents. Everything lined up for us. We had prayed for a foster care worker who would understand our hearts. We got her. We prayed for a new vehicle that would fit a few more little passengers. Within a month a huge white van with a bumper sticker that read “I heart foster parenting” on the back was parked in our driveway. We flew through every hoop. Even the sticky ones that come up when a Christian family butts up against a secular system. The way was smooth.

Why fostering rather than adoption? I credit my husband with offering up the gem of insight that settled us on this path. He said that through adoption we would be able to help a few kids. But through fostering we’d be able to help many. Foster care comes with a special kind of pain because you can never ever mistakenly think of these kids as your own. They all have mothers and fathers waiting for their return. But, therein is found the other jewel of an opportunity in foster care; it is a ministry of love to the moms and dads who are watching and waiting. You are given a chance to love them right alongside their children.

And so, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, we waited. And then on June 13th 2012 we got the call. A little girl needed a home. . .


Jo’s story will continue tomorrow.  In the meantime, here is a definition of courage, as found in the dictionary:

*the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery*

Throughout Scripture, we see multiple accounts of God calling people to tasks beyond their limits.  Moses, called to lead Israel out of the darkness of Egypt.  Joshua asked to stand tall in the face of opposing and warring nations.  Jesus Himself, our ultimate example, facing the brutality of the cross.

Courage has long been the Gospel’s call.  It is not an easy call, but we were not promised easy, were we?