by Amber Hunter Jesse
My mom really loved my dad, and I think he really did try to love her back. Together, they brought me and my big brother Cliff into the world, and they wanted to make us a happy family.
But our family broke and fell to pieces.
I cried my eyes out on their bed, as mom told us she was divorcing him. I was only eight years old. I understand now that she couldn’t live anymore with his unwillingness to get the help he needed for his depression and mental illness. He often stayed home while she worked full-time at the courthouse and we were dropped off at mediocre babysitters, the only one’s mom could afford.
When I was 11, my mom cried as she told me that my dad would be spending the rest of his life in prison. He had shot a man to death. I remember my young and puzzled brain, trying to make sense of it. I think I went into survival mode. My immediate response was, “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine. He was nothing but a sperm donor to me.” Looking back, I can see that I was traumatized. My mom was limited in her understanding and ability to walk us through a healthy, healing process. She tried to bring it up throughout the years, but I had made it an “off-limits” topic. I was ashamed and terrified that people would find out that I was the daughter of a murderer. “Anguish” isn’t too strong a word to describe how I felt realizing I had lost my dad forever.
In the middle of my senior year of high school, my mom was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. In other words, cancer. She died only four months later. I remember a conversation we had maybe a month before. She said, “Amber, there will be times in your life when you think, ‘I wish my mom was here,’ but I want you to know that I already know. I already know that you’ll do so many amazing things in your life.”
Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey! After graduating from college and spending a very inspiring summer in Pemba Mozambique, I was invited to move into Downtown Phoenix , to start community of people called “Apprenticeship to Jesus, (A2J for short).” These past eight years, we’ve tried to walk closely together, on a common path into the beautiful heart of Jesus. I’m so thankful for how God has surprised me with this miracle of community! It’s been a safe harbor where I’ve consistently felt known and cared for, and where I’ve had a sense that I belong. Our shared life has also been a place of transformation; we’ve come to understand that relationships are the context where God matures, heals, and forms us in Love.
When I moved into the A2J community I was very passionate about Jesus, but I was also more injured than I knew. I was limping, spiritually and emotionally. I was extremely sensitive and when a wound got touched I lashed out at the people who loved me the best. My A2J family supported me through a much-needed season of mourning. I pinned this large burlap cross above my bed and, for two solid months, I wept and ached in the presence of God. My community also gave me the courage to begin unpacking my painful places with a professional counselor. Over these years, I’ve experienced significant growth and heart-healing that, upon reflection, causes me to gasp in amazement.
What’s even more amazing is that my brother Cliff decided to jump on board! Cliff is one of my best friends and one of my very favorite people. You should see him! The love of God has completely transformed him, along with his beautiful wife and kids. It’s been a dramatic and beautiful thing to behold.
Four years ago, my brother called me up and said “Amber, I think it’s time for us to go visit our dad.”
We had reconnected with our dad through letters, but we’d never gone to see him in prison.
I knew Cliff was right, it was time. So, we sent him a postcard to let him know we were coming and, before hearing anything back from him, we drove the eighteen hours to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas to visit our dad for the first time. We hadn’t seen his face or heard his voice in over fifteen years.
My heart was pounding as I sat at that picnic table waiting for him to come. His letters had revealed significant mental illness and instability, so we had no idea if he would even come out, or how he would respond to us. Would he be angry or overwhelmed? Would he say strange things? I wasn’t even sure how he felt about me. Would we hug? Would that feel weird?
I looked up and saw a frail inmate in an all-white jumpsuit. He had grey hair, and he was unfamiliar. “Well, that’s not him,” I whispered to my brother. But as he came a bit closer, Cliff leaned over and said, “that is him!”
When our eyes met, my dad gave a hesitant smile. I found myself jumping out of my seat as he sped his own steps. We threw our arms around each other and I said, “Hi dad.”
As tears welled up in his eyes, my dad said, “do you remember the last time I saw you? I’ve replayed it over and over in my mind. I just can’t remember if I hugged you… if I told you that I love you.”
Our visit inspired me to write a song called Freedom Road.
It’s been a long road, learning what it means to forgive my dad for all the ways he wasn’t there for me when I needed him. I’m still learning to trust God with my dad. This process has opened my heart and allowed love to grow and to blossom.
Since then, our dad has sent me a lot of his amazing original artwork, and I’ve created art books that I’ve sent back to him. He said to me “they’re the best gifts I’ve ever received and that comes right from the center of my heart!” As I sort through all his creations, I feel so proud of him and thankful that we've found this way to collaborate and make something beautiful together.
I cannot imagine the pain of spending life in prison, let alone with his serious mental illness, and in one of the harshest prisons in America. He's starting to become more open with me, even sending a drawing of the inside of his cell. Art helps this dad and his kids to connect.
Last month, my brother and I went back for a second visit. It went beyond our hopes.
We arrived on the rare picture day and were able to get a photo with our dad! I was so excited! We didn’t even think that was possible.
Our dad has the sweetest smile. Cliff says that it’s his favorite thing about our visits. This time, dad shared stories from his childhood that made our hearts hurt, and helped us to understand him so much more. He sang for us a new song he had written. Yep, it turns out all three of us are songwriters! His song was gentle and emotional, and his tears made his chin quiver as he sang. He said it was the best visit ever, and that he felt like “a free man, outside of the fences.” We all agreed together that God is restoring so much in our family.
As we were leaving, and he was headed back to his cell, I got this urge and I ran back over to give him
another hug. It caught him off guard, and he smiled.
We left that prison with a mix of joy and sorrow in our hearts.
I remember my mom’s words. “Amber, there will be times in your life when you think, ‘I wish my mom was here,’ but I want you to know that I already know. I already know that you’ll do so many amazing things in your life.”
I feel an ache as I read those words.
I wish my mom was here to see this photo.
~Ryan and Noleen Thurman
We are indeed alive. We have survived, at times just barely, these intense four months of travel. We have driven over 4000 miles zig-zagging (see map below of our journey) through eleven countries. Our average stay time at each stop was 3.5 days, you can imagine how difficult it would be to live out of a van packing and unpacking so often. We are creatures of habit and routine and to not have this is was very stressful and exhausting. In spite of the challenges we praise God for his protection and grace each step of the way. We have been part of historic meetings, spent quality time with many from our team, and seen and experienced much beauty here in Europe. We do not take for granted that what we are experiencing as a family is a true rare gift, and we feel the weight of of what is being entrusted to us. The words of Jesus, to whom much is given much is expected resonate deeply with us
The primary purpose of this year in Europe is to encourage our team. God has given us significant time strengthening friendship, praying and strategizing together with our Antioch Network staff and board in Europe and also our ministry partners from Wittenberg 2017 and John 17. Being part of an international team serving around the world it is challenging staying close relationally, and conference calls and emails only go so far. But nothing can take the place of being in one another's home, sharing a meal together and having the time and space to talk unhurriedly where our hearts can begin to open up to one another and prayer comes naturally.
This has led us to visit our team and partners in these cities: Rome, Dahlem, Wittenberg, Trieb, Berlin, Lodz, Wieselburg, Crikvenica, Sarajevo, Mostar, Valetta, Ir-Rabat, Bari, Caserta, and the Vatican City.
Lodz, Poland with George and Hanna Miley
The City of Lodz: The Chemin Neuf community invited George and Hanna to the Youth Festival in Lodz, Poland, July 19-25, 2016. About 5,500 young people from over 40 countries attended. We continue to sense one of our primary assignments from God is to support George and Hanna Miley and help them finish well all that God has entrusted to them. It is a joy to walk with them in this special way! In Poland, our kids had a unique role, specifically our girls in helping Hanna sell her books. It was very meaningful to hear our youngest Elyana ask Noleen and I, "If George and Hanna are you spiritual parents does this make them our spiritual grandparents?" Yes it does!
Hanna was busy sharing almost every day with young people as they visited Radegast station where Hann'a parents arrived on their way to the Lodz ghetto and eventually to their death in the Chelmno death camp.
In 2010, ten of us visited Chelmno, the death camp where Hanna’s parents entered the gas van. (See A Garland for Ashes, chapters 19-21). Six years ago we arrived there on the anniversary of their deaths on May 3, 1942. But the gate to the site was locked; it was a national holiday and we could not enter and pray in the place of their final footprints. This time on Sunday, July 24, 2016, our last day in Poland, the Lord opened the way for us to visit Chelmno again, with a group of 20 or so from Germany, Holland, Belgium, Bolivia, Poland, France, UK and USA prayed together at the passageway leading to the gas van where Hanna's parents were murdered.
Below is a link to a trailer of a movie that was produced during our time there, Hanna Miley has a key part in this film. The full length movie in English should be out soon.
This was Ryan's second visit to Taize but our first as a family. Taize has deeply influenced our family and the work of Apprenticeship to Jesus. It also is a community that leads by example what it looks like for Christians from different traditions to be one as Jesus prayed for in John 17:21. We were able to make wonderful connections with our small group while we were there and with some of the brothers of Taize. It was also a very meaningful time for our kids in their own spiritual journey.
Ryan's work in Bosnia goes back 22 plus years. Noleen and Ryan have served off and on in Bosnia since being married. It had been seven years since the last time we were there as a family. It was a great joy to reconnect with so many dear friends and we sensed God speaking to our hearts that we are to be even more involved in the days ahead. Ryan was able to preach with Mladen at the church in Breza and also connect with one of his dearest friends Sead and his family in Mostar. We hope to have both families come visit us here in Gozo and potentially return to Bosnia in early 2017
Our New Home in Gozo (ours is the house with the black van in front)
Why again are you in Gozo? We were invited by colleagues to come and join them as they establish a Christian community and to partner with them in working towards Christian reconciliation and unity in a place deeply divided. Since being here, we have participated in a historic Christian unity gathering in Malta. Earlier this week I was in Malta connecting with the leader of the International Association for Refugees (IAFR) learning how we can partner in helping migrants and refugees while we are here. There is talk of establishing a 'safe house,' for women and children, here in Gozo where we live. (Currently there is no work with refugees going on in Gozo that we know of but only in Malta) Finally Gozo/Malta is a strategic location to use as a base as we continue visiting other team members in Europe and Turkey because of its central location and a hub for discount airlines. We also sense God has given us this large house (our rent is equivilant to what we would be paying at home) to have team members come visit us while we are here. Also if you have read this far you have earned an invitation to come visit us as well. :)
A2J Is Growing
It is very encouraging for us to see A2J flourish in our physical absence. We had our annual commitment service last month and skyped in to participate. We were deeply encouraged to have five friends make first time commitments for this new year. The team is is strong and full of vision. If you haven't visited our website recently, I encourage you to do so and check out the new resources http://www.a2jphoenix.org
Bonus Photos from our travels
Following Jesus our life will become not narrower, but broader; not more limited, but more boundless; not more regulated, but more abundant; not more faint-hearted, but more daring; not more incapable, but more creative. All this is Jesus and his spirit of freedom and peace.
by John Armstrong
All religion, which involves us in the outward signs of faith that are expressed in different forms— celebrations, statements, codes of behavior, and visible expressions. But faith and religion are not the same. A person can be deeply religious and not have true faith. And he or she can practice religion and not believe that God is love. Religious beliefs vary, but all seek to express what faith means through particular social practices.
Perhaps the world contains so many religions because people have so many ways of expressing how they understand their experience. According to the biblical tradition there are many “gods,” but there is only one true God (Exo. 18:11; 20:3; 23:24, etc.). This distinction, which is called monotheism, made the Hebrew faith unique in the ancient Middle East. God revealed himself by the unspoken name of YHWH. (Hebrew has no vowels, so this name is sometimes written “Jehovah” in English.) God is presented as the Lord who reigns over all. Moses asks, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11). Moses, and even God for that matter, never denies that there are other gods. But he affirms that YHWH is the Lord, the one who is “majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders.” This is the God that Jews and Christians believe “has the whole world in his hands.”
Religion has its rightful place (see James 1:27), but only through divine revelation can we truly know God’s character. How can I know that love guides the universe? Abundant evidence suggests otherwise. And if God is love, how then should I respond to him? What constitutes an authentic expression of faith in a healthy religious context? Is faith simply a private “hope,” or does it make a difference in how I treat others? Given what many people see done in the name of religion, some popular atheists now suggest that all religion is inherently evil.
It is important that we realize a comprehensive discussion of what God has revealed would require many volumes. For our purposes, in Costly Love I will address only a few critical matters regarding divine love before I consider why our love must be costly.
I am concerned first and foremost with the meaning and practice of love. Is love only a dimension of God’s identity, or is love God’s actual response to the world? In light of immense and complicated tragedies and evil what does it mean to say that “God is love”? Explanations have offered only limited help. In the end, the Christian response proclaims that God created the world out of infinite love and allowed it to fall into a state of sin and death. But the story does not end here.
At least for Christians, any discussion of what God has revealed has to begin with what he has made known in and through Jesus Christ. This is true for several reasons, but the central one may surprise you: What Jesus said about God, and how the earliest Christians understood what he said, is the only solid basis for a Christian answer. The right response to sin and death is found in the redemptive life and suffering of Jesus. Because the God who “is love” expressed himself and suffered in the person of Jesus, he truly suffers with all people in a uniquely human way. While we rightly work to alleviate suffering, we remain mindful that our suffering ultimately has meaning precisely because God is love.
Perhaps Jesus’ most remarkable claims are these: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and “[No one] has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Jesus is saying, “If you want to know what God is really like, look at me!” Time and time again he claimed to share an eternally intimate relationship with the Father: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10).
Divine revelation implies that there is a God who loves us enough to take the initiative to explain himself openly. But he did far more than that. He became one with our humanity in the incarnation of Jesus. The Sacred Mystery became what Leslie Newbigin called the “open secret.” And now God has given the Holy Spirit to those who follow him so they can know what is necessary for true life and godliness: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
The Christian religion clearly reveals that faith is a gift of God. We can experience God only when we have been initiated into divine love through God’s grace. True religion is not us working our way to God but rather God giving us the gift of his love. True religion is thus rooted not in our keen intellect or special religious status, but in this gift.
John Armstrong is a friend of A2J. You can read more of his writings and follow him here