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The Power of Unthinkable Circumstances
There are moments when God makes utter and complete sense to us, and then suddenly, life changes and he seems a foreign remnant of a childhood force-fed faith.... "[Lord,] give us eyes to see your coming and going, ears to hear your voice and your silence ,hands to hold your presence and your absence, and faith to trust your unchanging nature in all seasons." -ELISA MORGAN
The phone rang in the middle of the night. I squinted in the direction of the alarm clock as Gene reached for the receiver. It was 12:35 A.M. Who would be calling at this hour? Listening to my husband, I instantly knew he was receiving dreadful news.
Gene pulled the receiver back and haltingly choked out the words. "J.P. has been arrested."
I was dumbfounded. What illegal act could my son possibly have done that would have resulted in an arrest? My husband continued speaking with tears spilling down his cheeks. "He's been arrested for the first-degree murder of Douglas Miller Jr."
My feet hit the floor as I tried to get out of bed, but my legs were incapable of holding my weight. I slumped to all fours. Nausea swept over me. I began crawling toward the bathroom where I could throw up, but everything was in slow motion. I had never before experienced shock. No strength. Wave after wave of nausea. Dizziness. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Thoughts began swirling in my head. This must be a mistake. Or a cruel joke. Perhaps it's a case of mistaken identity. Maybe I'm living inside a horrific dream. Surely this news is not true. Someone is playing a perverse game. My son is not capable of taking the life of another human being, much less a premeditated act of such violence. This is not happening. My son is a dynamic Christian. He's a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He defends American citizens; he doesn't destroy them. I will go back to sleep and wake up in reality.
Our daughter-in-law, April, was still on the phone and through hysterical sobs of her own, she verified that she had just received a call from Jason at a jail in downtown Orlando, Florida, and he had been arrested for the murder of her ex-husband. Gene tried to calm her while simultaneously dealing with his own raw emotions. We were filled with incredulous thoughts. How? Why? What really happened? What was Jason doing in Orlando, a six-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Panama City? Was it an accident? Was it self-defense?
The next few hours were a blur of tears, panic, fear, and erratic, meaningless activity. It was after 1:00 A.M. when Gene finished the conversation with April. Still on my haunches on the floor, I called the Orlando jail to see if anyone named Jason Kent had been brought to the facility. The woman on the end of the phone line was rude and irritated; her speech was slurred. "Lady, we ain't got nobody by that name, Jason Kent, in here. Your son ain't here."
For a few brief moments hope returned. It was a mistake. Our son had not been arrested. Jason was okay and we would be okay. But within an hour, another call confirmed our worst fears. Jason Paul Kent, our only child, son of my womb, was locked up at the Thirty-third Street facility in Orlando. And he was being held without bond on the worst felony charge possible-first-degree murder.
Florida is a death-penalty state. My mind flashed to the documentary I had seen the week before, giving the blow-by-blow account of an inmate on death row. Would my son end up in the electric chair? I choked out a fresh sob.
As the next few hours crawled by, Gene and I held each other and wept. Two parents in the grip of a nightmare. A mom and a dad who loved their child deeply. A child who had been a joy to raise. A focused, disciplined, compassionate, dynamic, encouraging young man who wanted to live for things that mattered. A young adult who had dedicated himself to serving his God and his country through military service in the U.S. Navy. But that day the unthinkable roared into our lives. Without warning our dreams for our only child came crashing down in a thousand broken pieces. Our whole world felt shattered.
Throughout the wee hours of that morning Gene and I watched the clock as darkness slowly turned to dawn. I had always taught other people to pray when they were in trouble. It was easy to tell somebody else what to do during a crisis, but living through our own unspeakable situation was different. I am a woman who takes action. I am a researcher, a public speaker, a leader in my community. Surely there was something I could do to fix this horrible problem. But I didn't know where to begin.
My mind recalled a verse from the book of James:
If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who "worry their prayers" are like wind-whipped waves.
Gene and I didn't do formal prayers that morning. We did wailing, pleading, moaning prayers. "God, please protect and comfort our son. God, please send Your angels to console the family of Douglas Miller. Please put Your arms around April, Chelsea, and Hannah (our granddaughters). God, please help us to know what to do and who to call. We are desperate for wisdom. We need You. Please."
Looking back, I believe our prayers were more like "wind-whipped waves" than bold, believing prayers. We were begging God for assistance. We had never felt so needy in our lives. We alternately burst into sobs and clung to each other, followed by intermittent list making. Relatives needed to be notified and action steps had to be taken. We needed to see our son. If this had really happened, then J.P. needed his parents. He also needed an attorney. We needed the best legal counsel available and we didn't know where to go for help.
I quickly discovered that a person who is in shock cannot think beyond the moment. I could only do one thing at a time, and for the next several hours we did "the next thing" one item at a time. At sunrise Gene called the only pastor we knew in the Orlando area, Dr. Joel Hunter of Northland Community Church (where J.P. and April had first met, followed by a whirlwind romance). Gene asked Joel if he knew of any outstanding criminal defense attorneys in central Florida. Joel assured us he would call back as soon as he got the advice of people he trusted.
Our next call was to our brother-in-law and lifelong friend, Graydon Dimkoff. As a family court judge in western Michigan, we hoped that my sister Jennie's husband might be able to guide us to a resource that would lead to a competent attorney. Within an hour the pastor in Florida and the judge in Michigan returned calls to us with the identical recommendation for a criminal defense attorney. Gene and I believed this was a direct answer to prayer. Before 10:00 A.M., attorney Bill Barnett had agreed to take Jason's case.
With the assurance of legal counsel, we were also informed of the fee for this service-a sum much larger than we could have imagined. We needed to empty the savings account, cash in retirement funds, and figure out a way to give our son the best legal defense possible.
Our crisis was only hours old, and on the surface we were moving forward with decisions that were difficult, necessary, and important. But inside our souls we were curling up in the fetal position and wishing to die. I wailed, "God! This is too big for me. I cannot walk this road. Please, take me home to be with You right now. God, please ... I don't know how to live through this."
But even as I uttered that prayer I knew my son needed me more now than he ever had before. He was locked up in a maximum-security jail with more than 4,000 other prisoners. We could not telephone him and had no way of knowing what his physical and mental condition was. As my thoughts hovered over all of the frightening possibilities of debilitating harm Jason faced in his current circumstances, my heart started palpitating and my breathing was labored.
As night turned to morning, I was in too much of an emotional upheaval to make the necessary calls to relatives. Gene carefully made a list of people who needed to be contacted before they got their information from a newspaper or from a stranger, and one by one he began making the calls. First, he asked Graydon and Jennie to tell my parents in person. They live in the same town on the other side of Michigan from where we live. We feared that one or both of Jason's grandparents might have heart attacks when they received the news. J.P. is the oldest grandchild in the family and deeply loved and respected by my mother and dad.
Following my sister and brother-in-law's visit to their home with the devastating news, Mom and Dad called us. The exact wording of our conversation is a blur, but one thing about that call stands out: We sobbed together over the phone. Before the conversation was concluded, my parents assured me of their love for us and for J.P., and then my father prayed for all of us. Dad is a semi-retired preacher and his deep, resonant, pastoral voice was a comfort to my desperate and weary soul.
Jennie called later that morning, and once again I experienced the "fellowship of tears" with one of my four precious sisters. We are the oldest of our parents 'six children, and even though I'm four years older than Jennie, our deep heart connection has long caused us to refer to ourselves as "twins born four years apart." When I picked up the receiver, Jennie's voice was such a comfort to me. Our children were as close as siblings, and Jennie loved Jason deeply.
"Oh, Jen," I stammered, "I don't know how to fix this. I don't know what to do next. I don't know where to go for help. I don't know how to help my boy." I could hear her labored breathing between sobs as we held each other as closely as the telephone would allow.
Gene's mom called and cried with us over the phone too. Gene had asked his brother, David, to break the news to his mother and her husband, Bruce. Bruce has been Gene's stepfather for over three decades, and J.P. spent a lot of time with this set of grandparents during his growing-up years. He was their pride and joy, and they were in deep agony over this shocking report.
Gene's father is a man of few words, and after David broke the news to him, he called us and struggled through an emotional response. He ended the call by saying, "I love you, son." I could see tears in Gene's eyes as he hung up the phone.
When it rang again, my best friend from high school, Jan Fleck, was on the line. Jan and I have known each other since we were fourteen years old and remain close friends to this day. Both of us lead busy lives and we aren't in contact weekly, but she seems to have a "sixth sense" when I have a need for prayer.. This time we hadn't communicated with each other for a couple of months and when I picked up the phone, she asked immediately, "How are you?"
"Not very well," I sputtered. "How did you know to me call today? J.P. has been arrested for first-degree murder." She was not prepared to hear those shocking words, but she knew God had prompted her to call me. We were two redheads who had encouraged each other spiritually for several decades-kindred-heart sisters who prayed for each other regularly. She loved my son. I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but that morning I felt the power of knowing that a friend was weeping with me. I knew I was not alone.
Later that day, Dr. Joel Hunter became Jason's first visitor at the Orange County Jail. Immediately afterward Pastor Joel called us and said that our son was a broken young man, still stunned by the ramifications of his actions. Joel went on to say that they had gripped each other's hands tightly and he had prayed with J.P.
Intermittently throughout that interminable day, denial kicked in and I once again believed I was living inside a grotesque nightmare. Several hours later, however, a collect phone call brought all denial to a stunned halt.
"Mom and Dad?" Our son's voice was soft, and I sensed his broken and crushed spirit.
"J.P., are you okay?" we asked, almost simultaneously. We were so grateful to hear his voice.
"I'm all right." I sensed my son's feeling of being unworthy to voice any concern for himself and his circumstances in light of what had transpired the day before.
For at least a full minute there were no words-just shared tears between a father, a mother, and their only child.
"J.P., we love you and we are here for you," I assured him through intense emotions. "We will always love you. You are not alone."
Gene added, "We've hired an attorney for you who has been highly recommended to us."
"Thank you, Mom and Dad."
We prayed over the phone for J.P.'s safety, for his mental and emotional state, for the family of Douglas Miller Jr., for wisdom to know what actions to take, and for God to help us. The call was terminated abruptly by the cutoff of the digitized telephone system at the jail that regulates the length of all inmates' calls.
Living on the Edge of Reality
The next day I had a long-awaited appointment for my annual gynecological exam. I vacillated about whether or not to go. I was getting nothing done at home. Only a handful of people knew about our circumstances, and I needed to have a prescription filled. I decided to go.
The waiting room at the doctor's office was filled with women and children who were happily laughing and interacting with each other. A very pregnant mother tried to balance a two-year-old on her lap, and she flashed a smile in my direction. Another woman was paying her bill at the counter. Others were watching a soap opera on the television in the waiting area.
I felt like I was sitting on the edge of the real world, but the feeling was otherworldly-like I was an observer, not a participant, in what was going on around me. Countless thoughts somersaulted wildly in my mind. How can the people in this room act so normal when my entire life is falling apart? I wonder if they can see the agony on my face when they look at me. I pray that none of my friends walk through the entrance, because I will fall apart if I have to face them. I'm sure God doesn't love me, and I don't think I love Him either. I hate what I'm experiencing. My son used to be as adorable as the two-year-old on that mommy's lap. How does a child go from that level of innocence to taking the life of someone else? I shouldn't be here. I should have stayed at home.
Suddenly my name was called and I was ushered into the examining room.
Excerpted from When I Lay My Isaac Down by Carol Kent Copyright © 2004 by Carol Kent. Excerpted by permission.
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