Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Letter 2008, What I Have Learned This Year

'God reveals Himself to His people'
…God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
1 Corinthians 2:10

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but shall have eternal life.” John 3:16. Probably the most well known verse in the bible. I don’t know about most of you, but I believed this verse. I mean I believed God loved me…didn’t I? I guess you could say I just didn’t get it. This past year brings to mind so many memories and emotions. What a journey it has been. And still is. Kenny and I welcomed a baby girl, named Ava Irene Ballenger, on New Year’s Eve of last year. Hard to believe it has been almost a year. The events that unfolded that night were like a scene out of ‘Trauma-Life in the ER.’ This letter is a journey through great tragedy and even greater triumph.

To begin the journey, I must share a dream I had in early November, 2007. Just to set the scene for you… I was 8 months pregnant with Ava, had a great career, beautiful family…life was good. I go to bed that night [uncomfortable as usual] and, after talking with Kenny about his day and saying our prayers, I fell asleep. Let me just take a quick moment to comment…most everyone has a picture in their mind of what they believe Jesus Christ may look like right? I mean there are several books and movies, but I’m sure you, the person reading this letter, has an idea in your mind of what Jesus looks like. That being said, in the middle of the night I had a dream that Jesus was standing in front of me. Now this was not your typical dream. You know, usually dreams just have a lot going on and most of it doesn’t make sense. Like you’re dreaming that you and the waiter at Applebee’s are chasing purple monkeys through the Syrian desert. I mean, dreams are usually like that. This dream was different. It was just myself and Him. Nothing else was going on. I remember in this dream I felt an overwhelming sense of love, kindness and gentleness just emanating from Him. He didn’t say anything, just stood there in all of His awesome glory. In the dream I dropped to my knees and, as I did, He took my hand. As He took my hand I wept, and He said to me, “I am always with you.” And that was it. I woke up. Whoa! I thought. WHAT was THAT all about!? Why would Jesus come to ME in a dream? And I felt like He was comforting me in some way. But THAT didn’t make sense because life was great, why would our Lord and Savior come to comfort me in a dream? I just laid in bed for a long time taking in what I had just experienced. I only told a few people about the dream, my husband [of course], my great-Aunt and our associate Pastor’s wife. I didn’t tell anyone else, I mean what would people think if I said, “By the way, Jesus visited me last night. Yeah, seriously, in a dream.” Kenny didn’t know what to make of it. The following week I received a phone call from my, normally calm, husband trying to hold back tears as he informs me that he had been fired that morning. “Fired?! Seriously? The day before Thanksgiving?” I was mad let me tell you, and scared. I was getting ready to have a baby. My husband’s income was supposed to support us while I was on maternity leave. As it turned out, Kenny was able to transfer to a different dealership and stay with the company. “Phew!” I thought. Now everything would be ok….

God is still in the business of Miracles…
Jesus said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.
John 14:11

…I had been in labor all day and arrived at St. Ann’s Hospital ER Department deep into advanced labor and with fetal heart tones dropping quickly…at times barely audible. They put a fetal heart monitor around my belly (you know, the ones that look like a belt?) and saw the expression on the nurse’s face as she kept moving the belt around trying to find a heartbeat. There was none. I had decided to pursue a natural birth, and so had no pain relief at all. For the past 2 hours I had been trying in vain to push the baby out but she would not budge. I kept begging them to take me into surgery and do a C-Section, begging them to get the baby out. I was in pain, yes, but I was begging them because I heard her heartbeat getting slower and slower. Now in the trauma room we couldn’t hear anything at all. Could you imagine? It would be like one of your kids falling into a lake and drowning and you can do NOTHING but stand on the shore and watch. I couldn’t do anything. She was literally stuck inside me, dying (or already dead), and I could not get her out. Worse yet, I had heard her heart slowing down, I had heard her die. We would later find out that a placental abruption had been the source of this tragedy.

I was lying on a trauma room bed and in walks this Dr. I see him getting forceps ready. I’ll never forget the words he spoke as he leaned over and talked to me. “Honey, there is no time for a C-Section, and all the surgery units are in use. You are going to have to sum up whatever strength you have and push as hard as you can while I pull ok?” A few moments later I was slammed with another contraction. And…I just went to another place. I prayed, I cried, I screamed. While I pushed, and the Dr pulled steadily with the forceps, a [very large] male nurse shoved his elbows into my abdomen…and Ava was born. I didn’t see her as the Doc cut her cord and immediately handed her off to the team from the NICU. Ava was, for all intents and purposes, dead at birth. We estimate that she had been without a heartbeat for between 5 and 15 minutes. The NICU team commenced to performing full CPR on Ava, trying feverishly to revive her. “1 min!” I heard them say. “2 min!” time creeped by….”3 min!” She was dead. I couldn’t fathom the thought. I just laid in the bed in shock. “How would I tell the family that we lost our baby girl? How would we deal with the loss?” I grabbed Kenny by the shirt collar, “GO PRAY FOR HER!!!!!!” I screamed. Poor guy was still clenching the hospital bed rails. He made his way over to the table where they were performing CPR on our baby. I saw Kenny bow his head and I closed my eyes along with him. “5 min!” I heard them say…It seemed like time was just creeping by. ”We got a heartbeat! She’s back!” She was alive! My midwife and I just grabbed each other and cried tears of joy. She was alive. It was a miracle! Our prayer had been answered immediately. God had given Ava back to us…

“4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I Corinthians 13:4-7

…After Ava was revived, the NICU team quickly rolled her over to my bedside so that I could see her. I was only able to get a quick peak at her as her condition was dire. They said they had to get her ‘settled in’ as quickly as possible. It took them a couple more hours to get me into a room and STILL no one came to give me an update. I kept asking staff members, “How’s my baby? How’s Ava? Can we see her yet?” “Not yet, it shouldn’t be long,” I kept getting told. Ava was born at 9:15pm on New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t get into a room until about 4:00am. STILL no one had come to give me an update on her. Finally, at around 9:00am, the Neurologist on staff came in to talk to us. “Do you understand what has happened to your baby?” He asked. “No,” I replied with a puzzled look. I mean they revived her and she was breathing I didn’t understand what was going on. “She has suffered a severe insult to her brain resulting from going without oxygen during her birth. Her brain is swollen and she is in a coma.” He continues, “she is not producing urine.” “What?” I still didn’t understand. “What this means is that all of her organ systems have shut down in order to preserve her brain.” The Dr continued. “She is fighting…but the outcome doesn’t look good. We’re going to transport her to Children’s Hospital to give her the best possible chance of survival. You can go back and see her now if you’d like.”

After he left I looked at Kenny and the two of us just sat there. I don’t think we even blinked. We made our way down the hall to the NICU, stopping at the sink to wash our hands, and waited for our nurse to come and take us back to Ava. When we arrived at her bedside, they had her laying on her side, she was so beautiful…perfect. She had a head full of dark red curly hair, and little red puckery lips. She looked perfect. It was so hard to imagine that she was so sick. The nurse caring for her explained that we could touch her but not to make any stroking motions because it would cause her irritation. She was not breathing on her own and had been having seizures since shortly after birth. I felt a lump in my throat. I was trying to hold back tears (in vain of course). I was overcome with love for her, and I wanted to take her place on that table. It wasn’t fair that this tiny little baby was suffering.

After arriving back at our room, we had several people come to the hospital and pray with us. The love was starting to pour in from all over. Several staff members had heard of the tragedy and came to give their condolences and offer prayer. The sweet Dr who just ‘happened’ to be at the hospital that night came by to check on me, to check on me and to tell me how sorry he was he couldn’t do more for Ava. He also offered to keep us in prayer. People from Germain, the company I worked for, were calling to say they had heard and were praying. I had voice mails from pastors of other churches, family members, we had voice mails from complete strangers. ALL reassured us that they were lifting up Ava in prayer. At one point Kenny and I counted several dozen churches in several countries around the world praying for our baby. We felt so wrapped up in love it was amazing! Despite the tragedy that was unfolding in our lives, God had wrapped His arms around us in love. Through the love of many people, he was reassuring us of His presence and His love. I was still trying to wrap my head around the reality of our situation, but I felt God’s love around me. It was like warmth enveloping my entire body. Ever had anyone offer to pray for a bad situation in your life? I mean sincerely, with heartfelt love, offer to pray for you? Kenny and I had people call us and offer prayer that I never knew even prayed….but they prayed for Ava. For a lot of the people that called us, it was the first time in a long time [if ever] that they had ever turned to God in prayer for anything. But they prayed for our baby, and us. So in the midst of this tragedy going on, I was able to sit back and literally watch God’s love all around us. In action. Very cool…

God gives us the strength to endure…
“…Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
Nehemiah 8:10

…In the first week or so after Ava was born, we were so overwhelmed with love it could only be God at work. We also started having an unusual amount of ‘favor.’ Things just started falling into place for us. Aside from the many offers for prayer, we had people walk up to us in church and hand us money, people brought us food, staff members at Children’s Hospital would go out of their way to come and talk to me and pray with me… I remember the day I came to understand that Joy that everyone talks about. It had been a hard day for me. Ava was about one week old, and we still had a long stay ahead of us. That morning, I had been approached by this nurse in the NICU that just had a bad attitude. She started telling me about all the bad stuff that Ava would probably have to endure in the weeks and months to come. When she walked away I grabbed the curtain, yanked it closed and pulled up a rocking chair beside Ava’s crib. As I took her out and settled into the rocking chair with her, I looked down on her beautiful little angelic face [still in a coma], and the tears started to flow. They were actually dropping onto her face. My mind was filled with anguish. I started asking God, “Why God? Why her? Are you really here? Are you really in control of this situation like everyone keeps telling me you are? Really not feelin it God. God?” At that moment I felt my pocket vibrating. “Who’s calling me?” I thought. As I looked at my phone I saw I had a new text message. I pressed the ‘Read Now’ button and as I read the text message the hair on my arm stood on end. The text message read, “Vicki, I felt the Lord wanted me to give you this verse to read. ‘Be Still and Know that I am God and I am With you.” Had God actually answered my question? It was as if He were listening and spoke right to me through Vonnie. I felt warm all over again, my cheeks were actually warm to the touch. I felt this Joy welling up inside me. My bad thoughts had turned to pleasant thoughts. I was no longer worried about Ava. I KNEW God had this situation under control. My joy was real, and it filled me up. I told Kenny about it and I don’t know if he didn’t believe me, or it was just hard for him to fathom, but that night it happened again. We were lying in bed, and Kenny was having a hard day. Questioning whether he was praying in the right way, questioning whether we could have done something differently, and on and on. As we were lying there, he turned to me and said, “I just feel like I should be doing something differently.” As he said that, HIS cell phone beeped with a new text message. It was from Vonnie again. It read, “Kenny, I feel like God wants me to tell you to be still and wait.” “….Are you kidding me?” I thought. We both just laid there staring blankly at his phone like, “Did that really just happen?” Now Kenny believed me. Man did he ever! We both were humbled at how God was moving in our lives. It made our hearts ache to see Ava in the hospital, but God was very clearly telling us, “I have this under control! Just have faith in me…” I was filled with joy knowing that God loved us, and revealed Himself to us in such a spectacular way…

…to give it all to God...
“…I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
I Timothy 1:16

I like that verse, “Unlimited patience.” The Lord’s patience is unlimited. I wish mine was. Those of you who know me, know a person who is goal oriented, lives life by her planner and likes things in order. I’m pretty much a professional control freak. But I couldn’t control this situation. In fact, I felt completely out of control. The next few weeks after Ava’s birth I would learn that I would have to give up my career, learn extensive medical procedures and learn to depend on other people. Very hard for a professional control freak to do let me tell you. I remember like it was yesterday, our first care conference with all of Ava’s Doctors. Let me just set the scene for you. Down the hall from the NICU, there is a board room, literally a board room. It is a long table that seats probably 30 people. So we are ushered into this conference room and seated on one side of this massive table, and then here come the Dr’s. The Neonatologist, Neurologist, Developmental Specialist, Cardiologist, Pulmonologist, Nurse Practitioner, Hospital Social Worker, NICU Discharge Planner….I looked out the door to see if they were going to call in the cafeteria workers and cleaning crew as well. I mean, might as well have a staff party right? I just sat there silently praying that I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack from all the stress. We were informed of the grave condition she was in, and advised that she would require extensive specialized care even after coming home. After the meeting, I sat there with Kenny and the hospital social worker and just broke down crying. I was just so scared. I didn’t know how I would handle a child with such in depth special needs. Could I do this? I had always been able to stay strong through everything that life had thrown at me, but this? I wanted my mom so bad at that moment. Isn’t it funny no matter how old you are, when life sucks, the person we want the most is our mom.

“Let’s go have dinner somewhere quiet,” I told Kenny. I will always remember that dinner. We drove out to this remote truck stop by Buckeye Lake, and just sat there and talked about how our lives were changing. It was as if we were standing at the edge of a cliff getting ready to dive off into a new life…and I was scared to death. I couldn’t take much more, I really felt at times like running away. Not literally, but you know what I mean. You just want to crawl in a hole and disappear. Many times I prayed for God to take this away. I prayed for Ava to be completely healed overnight. But it didn’t happen that way. She was making slow, steady progress, but she was getting better. I went to bed many nights thinking that maybe I would finally wake up from this bad dream and find a healthy baby girl sleeping in her crib the next morning. I remember one day when it got really bad. I literally could not stop crying. I cried from the time I woke up until I went to bed. Hysterically. Kenny was really worried about me. The next morning I woke up and my eyes stung so bad I could barely open them. I went back to bed and, you guessed it, started crying again. Then I just stopped. I laid there in bed and said, “God, I can’t handle this anymore ok? I’m going to put this one up on the shelf because no matter what I do I can’t change it. I trust that you are in control and will bring some kind of good out of this. I know that you gave Ava back to us that night in the ER, and that you must have something pretty special planned for her life. I know that she was yours before she was mine and so I’m trusting you with her. Ok God?” I decided to change the way I prayed. Instead of asking God to remove our burden, I asked Him to show me what to do with it. There is growth in everything. Amazingly, after I said this I experienced a deep, inner peace. Peace that surpasses all understanding…
God has infinite grace…
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, lest no one boast, it is the gift of God.”
Ephesians 2:8

Grace, by definition, is free and unmerited favor of God. Unmerited. Interesting. So basically grace is a free gift from God that we do nothing to deserve. Remember how I mentioned that Kenny was fired the day before Thanksgiving? He was able to, Praise God, transfer to another dealership within the company. But after Ava’s birth, neither one of us were in any condition to work. One of my first thoughts was, “How are we going to survive financially?” Like a lot of people, we had a mortgage, car payment, several credit cards, utilities, and others. It was amazing the outpouring of help. We received favor from our employer, I received cards in the mail with money, members of our church shoved money into our hands…I do not think I paid for a single lunch or tank of gas the entire time Ava was in Children’s Hospital. I would get so overwhelmed by the outpouring of help I often times wondered, “Why? What have we done to deserve all of this kindness?” A friend of mine told me one day while sitting by Ava’s bedside, “Honey, that is what grace is. God loves you, and He is showing you He loves you. You do not need to do anything to deserve it.” With my eyes now open, I could see God’s grace and favor everywhere in our lives. Seriously. Everywhere. From how the staff at Children’s seemed like they were extra watchful of Ava and our needs. How our private insurance company agreed to pay for private duty nursing (which is unheard of). How Ava was able to get on the Medicaid Waiver program in only one month, seriously unheard of. How we prayed for a Christian nurse, and we found a wonderful nurse…who had been praying to get placed with a Christian family. Isn’t God so cool?! How, despite Ava’s challenges, our lives have been so richly blessed…

God’s refining fire…
22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

This is one of my favorite scriptures from the bible. It is talking about how God creates good fruit in your life when you allow Him to lead you. I actually keep this scripture in my planner because it describes the kind of person I strive to become. Can you imagine what kind of impact you would have on the people around you if you were constantly walking in; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? I know that God brings good out of every bad thing that happens to us, and turns it around to bring honor and glory to Him. I am now starting to see how, going through this, has refined me. Ava spent 12 weeks in the NICU and, throughout this past year, has spent a combined total of 6 months at Children’s Hospital. I have taken the trip down I-71 South more than 200 times this year. I remember my first day back to work after being off for months, I actually drove to Children’s Hospital and pulled into the parking garage before I realized that I had intended to go to work that day...

Our journey has made me a better, more patient wife and mother. It has made me humble and appreciative of every little blessing in my life. It has allowed me to let go of the love affair I had with my career. It has opened my eyes to see the bigger picture. I am just now starting to learn about all the miraculous ways God moves in our lives, and I am sure that I have just tapped the surface. But after what I have experienced in my walk with Him this year, I am excited to see where He will lead our family.

I came across a copy of last years Christmas Letter and was reading Mom’s journal entries. She was so passionate about the Lord. She absolutely infected you with her love of Jesus Christ. In her last journal entry, she wrote that her greatest wish was that her friends and family would come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. That is such a cool and selfless wish isn’t it? And you know, I cannot imagine going through what we went through this year without Jesus in our lives. He held us up, He comforted us, and gave us peace that surpasses all understanding. Just like He said in my dream, “I am always with you.”

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
John 14:6

I pray that this Christmas Season will bring a new [or renewed] relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I pray that blessings will rain down upon you and your loved ones. I pray for the Lord’s favor will be on you in the coming year. I pray for peace that surpasses all understanding. I pray for you to experience vibrant health. I pray for all of you, each and every one. If you have never made a decision for Jesus, and would like to now, simply make the decision in your heart and read the prayer below and begin your relationship with the Savior today!

Merry Christmas and God Bless,

The Ballengers
Kenny, Vicki, Aohdan & Ava
202 County Rd 24
Ashley, Ohio 43003
(614) 402-5728

Prayer of Salvation
Dear God in heaven, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I acknowledge to You that I am a sinner, and I am sorry for my sins and the life that I have lived; I need your forgiveness.I believe that your only begotten Son Jesus Christ shed His precious blood on the cross at Calvary and died for my sins, and I am now willing to turn from my sin.You said in Your Holy Word, Romans 10:9 that if we confess the Lord our God and believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead, we shall be saved.Right now I confess Jesus as the Lord of my soul. With my heart, I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. This very moment I accept Jesus Christ as my own personal Savior and according to His Word, right now I am saved.Thank you Jesus for your unlimited grace which has saved me from my sins. I thank you Jesus that your grace never leads to license, but rather it always leads to repentance. Therefore Lord Jesus transform my life so that I may bring glory and honor to you alone and not to myself.Thank you Jesus for dying for me and giving me eternal life. Amen.