It was an ordinary morning. I got up, washed my face, and quickly downed toast and tea as my mind raced through projects and appointments waiting for me at the office. Then my youngest brother, Rick, called, his voice trembling. "Annette, Soren has been murdered.' In that moment my life was changed forever.
My brother Soren, a long-distance trucker from Idaho, had been murdered in his truck in the eastern region of the United States. My mind spiraled out of control. My heart felt like it was being ripped right out of my body and the guttural sounds of anguish echoed throughout the house. Murder doesn't happen in my family. How could anyone intentionally take the life of my brother?
Anger consumed me. Thoughts of the murderer bombarded my brain. The hours passed. My body went through the motions of packing a suitcase, getting ready for the long drive from Alberta, Canada, to Idaho for Soren's funeral. My husband and I spoke little; the miles passed slowly. When the song "God Is Watching From a Distance" came on the car radio, I exploded. "How could You watch from a distance and allow this to happen?" I screamed at God.
I beat my fists on my legs and the windows and dashboard, desperately venting my feelings. At last I caught my breath. I'd lashed out at God, but I knew without a doubt that He loved me and understood my pain. Even as I screamed out my anguish I knew that He, too, was grieving Soren's death.
Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind. Perfectly normal-looking men looked capable of murder. Walking along the street, I wanted to shout, "Everyone, stop! Don't you know my brother has been murdered!'
That a human person could violently take my brother's life so scarred my emotions that I sought counseling from a hospital chaplain experienced in grief recovery. It was helpful to learn I wasn't losing my mind, that I wasn't alone in my struggle, and that by facing this head-on I could eventually walk away from the pain.
I lived through my brother's murder. The long torturous journey included wrestling matches, mountain climbing, motorcycles, prison cells, and even eagle's wings, but God stayed with me every mile of the journey. His heart of love led the way.
Yet night after night I wept in my pillow, my heart longing to be near my brother once again. One sleepless night I tried to identify the type of person who had done this hideous thing. I called him Evil, Wicked, Vile, and Monster. Then in the quiet, God's Spirit spoke. "Annette, the man who murdered your brother is deeply wounded," God said, "Annette, I love the person who murdered your brother, and I love him just as much as I love you, and just as much as I love Soren."
I didn't want to hear that, and I wrestled with God all night long. "I know You love us regardless of what we've done, but please don't ask me to believe this about my brother's murderer," I pled.
Texts flooded my mind as the hours passed, and I felt impressed to insert the words "my brother's murderer" into them. Slowly, reluctantly, I recited, "I love your brother's murderer with an everlasting love," and "While your brother's murderer was dead in sin, I loved him." At last God won the battle and I fell asleep with a deep sense of peace.
Throttling through pain The days drifted into months of deep soul searching and hard work as I climbed the mountains of grief and anger. During that time my big beautiful 1,500-cc motorcycle was a real instrument of healing. My husband and I rode up to 15,000 miles each summer: countless hours of solitude in God's wonderful creation. It's my habit during those long rides to focus my thoughts on my relationship with God. I would create poetry, sing, and just worship Him, totally immersing myself in God's presence.
So each day that I rode during this time of grief, I selected a word that represented God's character or a quality I knew I needed in my spiritual journey and my recovery. On one terrible day I learned new details of Soren's murder, things too sordid to cope with. I needed to get on my bike so I could spend time in God's creation, sensing His presence, throttling my way through the pain. None of the friends we rode with that day knew of my pain. It was too fresh and too raw to share or even to acknowledge.
I chose the word "acceptance" for that day's ride, and after an hour or so of worshipful focus I finally got down to the guts of why I'd chosen it. "Lord, You have to help me accept this whole horrible picture. I can't accept it on my own. It's too ugly! It's too terrible! Why is my brother part of this story?'
I cried aloud, cranking open the throttle, passing all the bikers in our group, and angrily racing off into the distance as fast as my bike would go.
After several miles of speed, throbbing pipes, aggressive shifting, and torrents of tears and pleading, I slowed down so my friends and my husband could catch up. It was as if I had to let out all my feelings before I could even begin to listen to God.
I Can't Forgive
It was there on my bike that I saw three crosses in my mind's eye, and it was then that the Holy Spirit spoke again. I'll never forget His words: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do.'
Suddenly a revelation flashed into my mind: they didn't know my brother! This family who did this despicable thing didn't know how much Soren was loved, how much he would be missed, how much he was needed. This was not against him, the person, Soren.
They wanted his truck. He stood in the way, so they killed him.
I finally had an answer to "Why my brother?" and it was powerful. But now, how to accept the rest of the sentence: forgive them!
No! No! No! my mind screamed. I can't do it. Don't ask me to do it. Oh, please, no! Another agonizing wrestling match, then the Holy Spirit spoke again. "Forgive, and you will be forgiven." The command could not have been clearer.
'But Lord, how can I do this? I can't forgive on my own strength. I'm hurting. I'm wounded. I long to be near my brother again. I can hardly bear to know the pain and terror he went through. I can't forgive.'
'But Annette, My strength is sufficient for you. I didn't come to condemn; I came to give life and to give life abundantly. I will uphold you. And when you forgive as you have been forgiven, you will rise up on eagle's wings.'
I couldn't argue anymore. I couldn't struggle. When the King of the universe speaks promises in your ear, when you hear His voice above the rumble of your motorcycle pipes and the beating of your heavy heart, you know you're in His presence. And you know He means business.
Weeks later I received a call saying that Travis, the man who pulled the trigger, had confessed and would be sentenced to life in prison. Did I want to be there for the sentencing, and would I like to present a victim impact statement? For weeks I constructed the statement in my mind, rehearsing the details of the pain that we'd endured throughout the past 19 months. Then a week before the sentencing date I spent a whole day in prayer while listening to wonderful music and allowing my soul to be bathed with tears and God's presence. At the end of that day I knew what I had to do, but I knew I couldn't do it alone.
I called some special friends to be with me the Friday night before our departure. I don't often reach out for help from others, but that night I realized how wonderful it is to be open, transparent, and real with my feelings, emotions, fears, and needs. As I poured out my heart and my plan, my friends encircled me with their love. They placed their hands on me as they prayed for me and for what I was about to do.
On the day before the sentencing our family met with the prosecuting attorney and the FBI. We visited the crime scene, listened to details of the murder, and reviewed records and photographs. We even met a survivor of an attack by the same assailants. This made the whole horrendous picture even more graphic and real.
Our family filed into the courtroom the next morning. Soon the benches were filled with courtroom officials, lawyers, FBI agents, family, reporters, psychologists, social workers, corrections officers, and observers. Up to this point I'd been afraid of what I'd experience when I saw Travis. Would I be repulsed? Would I change my mind? How would my family respond to what I was about to do? How would Travis respond?
As we sat in silence awaiting the arrival of my brother's murderer an incredible peace came over me. I felt as though a whole host of angels were surrounding me, that God was lifting me up, and that the sunlight streaming through the window was God's Son shining on me.
The double doors of the courtroom opened, and in walked Travis. In stunned silence every eye went to the man who had taken our brother's life. Wearing a bright-orange prison jumpsuit, Travis walked with his head down, his hands cuffed behind his back. The haunting sound of chains and leg irons pierced the quiet as he moved awkwardly to the table for the accused.
What did I see as I stared at the one who'd shattered our dreams, destroyed a home, and wounded our hearts? I saw a young man: sad, depressed, accused, ashamed, afraid, and alone. I also saw a young man whom God loved, regardless of what he'd done.
Ten family members carefully and deliberately verbalized what Soren meant to them and the pain that Soren's death had created in their world. The courtroom was alive with the emotion, anger, tension, and tears that tumbled from the lips of our broken hearted family.
My heart beat wildly as I approached the witness stand and finally looked directly into Travis's eyes. Slowly and methodically I addressed the torment and suffering my family and I had experienced.
But then I told him that in spite of the pain and sorrow of the past 19 months I had learned some very important things.
'Travis, it is only by the Lord's unconditional love and forgiveness He has so graciously given to me that I am now able to look at you through eyes that see beyond the hideous thing you have done."
'What I am about to say will never erase or excuse what you have done to Soren. Travis, the Lord doesn't love what you did, but He has impressed me that He loves you just as much as He loves me and just as much as He loves my brother Soren.
'There is nothing so deep, so dark, and so horrible that He cannot forgive. He longs to forgive you for what you have done, Travis.
'Here in the quietness of this moment I am offering God's love and forgiveness to you, but I am also offering you my love and my forgiveness.
'Travis, you have forever impacted our lives, but I will be praying that you will allow God to make an impact on your life that can affect you for eternity.'
As I looked intently into Travis's eyes I felt God's heartbeat of forgiveness throbbing deep in my own soul.
The experience was so deep and rich that it was almost as if my heart had stopped beating and that God had wrapped His loving arms around me, allowing His heartbeat of love, acceptance, and forgiveness to permeate and infuse every cell of my body. I felt His love pouring over me like soothing warm and fragrant oil.
It was at that sacred moment that I came face to face with forgiveness: a gift straight from the heart of God.
As Travis listened to my message, his eyes became more intent, more soft, and then almost popped wide open in unbelief, as if to say "Can this possibly be true? How can you forgive?" There wasn't a sound in the courtroom as God's presence touched the hearts of many witnessing the sacred scene. Outside the courthouse the media encircled me with cameras and microphones. "How can you forgive your brother's murderer?" they asked.
My answer was unrehearsed. "I can forgive my brother's murderer because God has drenched me with His love, and has forgiven me so much.'
As I left the courthouse that day I felt as though a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I was free!
Through this experience the pain that once bound me to Travis has now been replaced with cords of love. Those cords are like golden strands that weave our hearts together in God's love. I pray for him, and I long for his heart to be changed and renewed. I also want the world to know what God can do.
Breaking your chains of bitterness, horrible and hurtful things happen in life, things that we think we can't possibly forgive and don't even want to forgive. As you've read my story your own painful memories may have surfaced in living color. Those experiences may have created deep roots of bitterness that surround you like tendrils that tighten and hold on. I've found that when I spend time with God, telling Him how it hurts, He gives me the courage to face the pain along with the strength to allow Him to work in those circumstances.
Let God take the burden of your past. His tender touch and His heart of compassion can loosen the strongholds of memories, bitterness, and even hate. He can give you a heart of forgiveness. I may have had a unique experience in that my heart is knit in strands of love to Travis. God is not asking that of you. He just wants to free you from your chains of bitterness.
I pray that you will allow God's Spirit of love to walk the healing journey with you, to fill you and transform you in ways you never thought possible, and that you will experience His freedom and His peace.
This article originally appeared in Women of Spirit.