Behind the Scenes: The Mastermind of Babi Yar

When working on Like a River From Its Course, I knew that I wanted to give as historically accurate a glimpse into World War II Soviet Ukraine as I could while still offering myself plenty of creative license with the stories. Having so many real life stories to draw from helped shape many of the characters and their narratives, but what about the side stories?

What about the real life men and women responsible for the heinous acts of the 1940’s?

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Writing a book about World War II is daunting. The market is fairly saturated with stories from that era, so how would I write about those days in a way that was fresh and new? I needed to add an element of realism to make those wretched years come alive.

I spent countless hours researching the events that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, with the largest tragedy occurring at Babi Yar, the “killing ditch” where roughly 34,000 men, women, and children were killed in just two days time.

The mastermind behind that horrific event was a man named Paul Blobel.

800px-Paul_BlobelA wicked, wretched little man, Blobel not only took credit for ordering thousands of Jews killed, but he was known to speak highly of his involvement in these mass executions.

In one of the books I read, a story was told of the day that Blobel and one of the Gestapo leaders drove past Babi Yar. The decomposing bodies of the Jews lay smoldering in the narrow ravine, and as the story goes, Blobel looked at the smoke, rising into the air in plumes of heartache, and said to his comrade, “This is my ditch. Isn’t it grand?”

The level of hatred that this one man possessed, and the demons that operated from his shell of a body were hard for me to comprehend. There were days when I had to swallow hard the bile of anger as I considered his actions, and those of the many like him.

It is these aspects of the book that make the story gritty and tough to read. I couldn’t possibly gloss over the sheer darkness of those days and somehow honor the fallen. If we are to respect their memories at all, then we must respect the wretched ways in which they died.

Including some of the real life characters in the book gave me a chance to show the extreme depravity of these men. But it also shined a light on the beauty and resilience of those who fought and survived those years.

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Juxtaposed against Paul Blobel’s ugliness was the beauty of Ivan Kyrilovich, a man who was willing to give his life for his Jewish neighbors. Maria Ivanovna was willing to take a beating for her friend. Luda Michaelvna chose love over hatred after being assaulted. Sergei Ivanov worked as a partisan, despite the danger it put him in.

For all the horror of World War II, there was a whole lot of hope, and when you start mining through all these stories you find that the wretchedness of men like Paul Blobel cannot withstand the ultimate beauty of the human spirit.

We live in a day when fear is ever present. Tensions are high around the world, and there’s no better time than now to look at the past and to remember that the spirit of a man cannot be so easily quenched.

Order your copy of Like a River From Its Course now!

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#tbt – 3 Years of Slow Hope

Three years ago today, my feet were caked with the red dirt of Tanzania. On May 7, 2012, I wrote this post and it is still, to this day, my most shared post. It’s been read thousands of times over the last three years, and of course it has because the message is universal.

People need Hope. They crave and long to know that Hope is alive, and indeed it really is.

Hope is Slow may be the most important blog post I will ever write. This is the message that carried me through the terminated adoption of 2013. It is the message that carried us through the cancer diagnosis of 2014. And it carries us now in 2015, with the unique and pressing challenges of our present.

Hope is Slow. But it is alive.

I’m thankful for the reminder today.

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As we ambled back up the rutted dirt path it finally happened. I knew the emotions would take over at some point, but I honestly didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed my second day here. On both sides, children scrambled about watching us with bold curiosity.

“How do you handle seeing this all the time?” I asked Shaun as we stepped gingerly over a stream of muddy water flowing through the red soil. My throat burned and eyes watered as the images of the family we just visited ran through my mind. It wasn’t the condition of their home that left me so affected, though the small, concrete structure that housed two adults and nine children did leave me a bit shocked.

The situation this family lives in is dire in more ways than just physical. There was a hollow emptiness in the eyes of the mother that struck me. A desperation in the grandmother’s voice that tore through me. Abandoned and alone, these women now work only when they can and pray for daily bread in the most literal sense.

Currently, two of this young mother’s five children are being served by Compassion – twins, Doto and Kuluwa. One is sponsored, the other is still waiting. They were all quiet, eyes downcast, shy. When asked what she hopes for her children, this mother replies, “I hope that they can grow up and do business so that they can take care of me.”

Doto is sponsored. Her twin brother, Kuluwa is not.

I left this home with a quivering chin. “How do you see this all the time and not feel overwhelmed?” I asked. “It just all seems so much, like it’s impossible to ever meet all the needs.”

“Hope is slow,” Shaun replied softly.

Read the original post at Minivans Are Hot.

What To Do When Life Leaves You Weary

I am not a curse word kind of girl. I know that there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, some would actually laud that as a good thing, and it is. I’ve told my kids that curse words are really just lazy words. We can always find a better word to describe how we’re feeling without dropping a four letter word.

Unless we can’t.

A few nights ago, Annika woke up at 12:30. I had been asleep for about an hour and a half when she woke, and my sleep was good. It was that heavy, REM-style sleep that makes you feel kind of magical.

I was tired down to my bones, so when she woke up in a full out scream, I leapt from bed, heart racing, and the first word out of my mouth was a lazy, four-letter word. So unlike me, but in the moment I could think of nothing else to say. And after my heart stopped racing, I fed her and got her back to bed only to hear Lee chuckling beside me.

“That was funny,” he laughed in the darkness.

I was too tired to elbow him in the chin.

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Knee-jerk reactions tend to bring out the worst in all of us, don’t they? When we’re surprised or frightened or quickly angered, we find ourselves reacting in a way that may be atypical to our normal operating behavior. When I put Annika to bed that night, I planned for her to sleep all night. I didn’t plan on her scooting into the corner of her bed, bumping her head, and waking herself up in a wail.

What do we do when life doesn’t go quite as planned? How do we react? My vocabulary indiscretion is a lighthearted example, but all of us can point to moments in our daily lives that leave us weary, exasperated…perhaps a little loose-tongued?

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It’s exhausting being mom. It’s exhausting hearing how exhausting it is being mom, as I right? But the good news is there is Hope. There’s hope for all of us, and that Hope is alive even at one in the morning when the baby won’t stop crying.

That Hope is alive when the children threaten to tear one another’s eyes out. (Well, Hope and the belief that someday they will grow up and maybe be friends again…or at least be tolerable to one another.)

That Hope is alive when the dinner burns, the car breaks down, and the schedules require one person to accomplish the tasks of six.

Even more – Hope is alive when life doesn’t go as you planned. And this…this is the true beauty of Hope.

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It’s been two and a half months since we said our final goodbyes to my father-in-law. As the days stretch into weeks, we’ve begun to really gnaw on the permanence of death, and there have been moments when we wished with everything we had that the outcome of his cancer battle had been different.

But then I think of Herb standing at the foot of his Savior, and I remember that if he were asked to return, he wouldn’t want to, and really I wouldn’t ever ask him. Because in that trust I find so much Hope.

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There are so many moments in life that make us feel hopeless. The swell of our days rushes over like a tide, and we’re left out of breath, frustrated, and utterly, completely spent.

But Hope.

If you’re bogged down by the mire of your days, feeling hopeless to dig out from under the rush of routine, of anger, of disappointment, of grief, of simply feeling overwhelmed, then I encourage you to pick up the book Hope for the Weary Mom. 

There is so much grace and truth sprinkled throughout this book. It’s like a breath of fresh air in a smoky room. Each page is filled with nuggets of wisdom and peace that you can tuck into your heart, saving them for the moments when life gets to be a little too much.

(And maybe these truths will spill out of your mouths my mouth in times of frustration instead of those pesky four letter words.)

Purchase your copy of Hope for the Weary Mom today and Choose Hope.

Happy weekend, friends!

The Sting of Illness. The Reality of Heaven. The Privilege of Suffering.

Last week I wrote of Love, and of the beautiful, mysterious pain that accompanies such a surrender of emotion. When I typed those words, I formed them in the context of watching my child graduate kindergarten. They were framed in the knowledge that Love requires separation, and in my innocent state of mind, I could only see the separation of parent and child that comes through space and time.

Then we got the phone call no one wants to receive.

There was a mass. The biopsy reveals cancer. We wait and we pray, and we hope for the best – the miracle of healing. Today the confirmation brought unwelcome news.

Stage 4. Metastatic.

Suddenly the pain of Love grew wings and took flight. Lee’s dad – our patriarch, our hero, our mentor, and a steady spiritual guide – now faces a fight that, short of a miraculous touch from God Himself, will result in his passing from this life on earth and into the gates of heaven.

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Lee and I have gathered our flock tight these last few days, clinging to one another as we slide down into yet another trough.

“…Now it may surprise you to learn that in His (God’s) efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks;some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

There is no irony in our present circumstance. We cannot point to these days with a flippant laugh and label them a coincidence. For on the very day we got news that cancer had invaded one we loved, Lee was in process to make a transition at work.

His division was cut loose from the company. We’d known this for weeks, and while the news was met with some disappointment, suddenly it seemed that he had lost his job for such a time as this.

Severance gives him a cushion to absorb the blow of his father’s illness. We have the freedom to leave, he and I, for the weekend, and fly to Arkansas where we will fold into the arms of his parents and brothers and all face this new challenge in the race together.

What a privilege it is…

When we told our kids of their grandfather’s illness, I felt a tightness pinch my heart. My sweet little ones will now taste the sting of illness. They can no longer be sheltered from the fear of grieving and, given the statistics, they may face the searing pain of death far earlier than I would have wanted them to.

And yet I cannot escape the thought that this journey we are about to walk as a family is a privilege. One thought has rumbled across my heart all day as I’ve processed this pain of a Love torn.

What a privilege it is for my children to know the sting of illness and the reality of heaven at a tender age.

We’re gearing up for a road filled with hope and unknowns. We cry out for a miracle, with full belief that God, in His mighty power, is capable of banishing the cancer from Herb’s body with a simple touch of His Hand. We pray for this, that we may show our children the power of God, and proclaim Him to the world.

And yet…

We accept the reality that God may have a different path planned. One in which we must say goodbye far sooner than we ever hoped or imagined or desired. And if this is the path we must follow, we will show our children the power of God, and we will proclaim Him to the world.

Cancer is an ugly word. It sucks the marrow of joy right out of a soul. But we have been given the grace of time. We pray it will be longer than the statistics predict. We pray it will be sweeter than the treatment’s effects. We rejoice in our current state of jobless unknowns, for it gives us the sweet freedom of time to process.

What a privilege it is to walk this road of grief and hope, for in this trough I feel God so near. He is real, a balm to the sting.

My ten year old and I took a walk today. Hand in hand we made our way down the sidewalk, and his sweet innocence blessed me.

“I’m excited to see heaven now,” he said to me, a smile spread across his face. “I can just imagine it, and what I’m imagining is awesome.

What a privilege it is to walk this pain. We covet your prayers in the days, weeks, and months to come. They will be hard, and they will be sweet. They will mirror the mystery of Love.

Join us in praying for a miracle – no matter what shape it may take.

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