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As a journalist, I get asked this question a lot: “What was your favorite story you wrote?” I always have a hard time answering that question, because every story I write leaves me with a different impression.
Some stories, like the one about being a Hollywood background actor, were fun and light. Others, like the one about antifa protests in Berkeley, were exciting and aggravating. Then there are heartbreaking yet eye-opening stories, like my series about mental illness (see “Saving Seth” and “Broken minds, broken lives”) or my report about Pakistani Christian refugees in Thailand. Each story touched a special place in me as a writer.
But as I look back on 2017, I can immediately point to one story that shook my core, and continues to stir emotions and thoughts inside me. It’s a story I thought wouldn’t get much traction but ended up being the year’s No. 5 most-read article in WORLD. It was the story that trailed me to my home, my church, and my dreams. It was the story I shared with all my friends, with shining eyes and raised pitch: “Esther’s story.”
I still remember that morning drive through the dusty, farm-sandwiched roads to the late Esther Ybarra’s childhood home in rural Oregon. I was on my way to meet her family—her parents and six younger siblings. Esther was 22 when she died of a rare soft tissue cancer, and her 24-year-old husband, Jacob, took me to her gravesite, where she was buried with her 13-week-old miscarried son, Thaddeus. My idea was to write a real-life tale about a young woman who left the world too early, but left behind a legacy of hope, faith, and love to those who knew and loved her.
I confess I was not looking forward to meeting Esther’s parents. I was ailing in my own problems at the time, and as I drove past berry farms and vegetable fields, tears kept dripping onto my lap. I was 20 minutes early, so I drove a dozen miles more on the barren roads, wiping tears on my sleeve, blasting worship songs yet not really hearing the lyrics. Then I pulled into the driveway of Esther’s old house, blinked the last tear out of my eye, and shook the hand of Ron Suelzle, Esther’s father, who greeted me with a smile still cleft with fresh grief.
And what profound grief I witnessed! I can’t think of a pain more unbearable and persistent than the sorrow of a parent who has outlived his child. I met Ron and his wife, Teresa, three times during that visit to Oregon, and sensed in them not just sadness but a mental, emotional, and spiritual battle. It was a battle to find joy and peace even in deep suffering, not to dwell in the past but to see God’s faithfulness through it and give thanks. I saw in them a trust that God is good and has a perfect purpose, but that every moment is still a fight to live out that trust from mouth to heart to action.
My pain could never measure up to theirs, but I identified with the Suelzles, and I identified with the once-ambitious Esther, who had to surrender her dreams and trust God amid tumultuous uncertainty and fear. I always begin each new year with a prayer topic, and for 2017, I had asked God to help me better experience and practice the work of the Holy Spirit. Well, for many reasons, this year God certainly made me practice, practice, practice the discipline of tuning in to the Spirit as my ever-present Helper, Counselor, and Advocate.
My father the never-retiring pastor always preaches to me the “five-second Holy Spirit mystery”—all it takes is five seconds for the Spirit to reset my mind, calm my soul, and gladden my heart with the truths of God’s Word. For me, it was never as quick as five seconds: It took closer to five hours, five days, sometimes even five weeks for me to experience that mystery. To cling to God, I had to first open up my clenched hands and let go of my plans, my desires, my fears. That required genuine trust and submission, which was (and still is) so terribly hard.
But slowly, gradually, I loosened my fists and started reaching for the hem of Jesus’ robe. And I’m still reaching for Him, quoting back to God His own sweet promise: “Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12, NIV).
The sun was setting when I said goodbye to the Suelzles. My whole body was tingling with the sense that I had witnessed something glorious. On my drive back, I turned my Spotify music playlist back on, and my favorite band United Pursuit was playing “Take a Moment”:
Take a moment to remember
Who God is and who I am.
There You go, lifting my load again.
No longer am I held by
The yoke of this world.
Come upon you the yoke of Jesus.
His yoke is easy, His burden is so light.
His burden is so light.
That, I knew, was God speaking. Finally, I let His Spirit touch mine, let Him pull me between His shoulders.