"That's one hell of an amen,
Fighting the good fight
Till the good Lord calls you home"
- Brantley Gilbert
2015 is drawing to a close, the end of our first year without Nathan. I haven't posted in a long time because there is so much baggage to sort through while learning to live all over again in a world I never could have imagined. I am relearning God, and relationships, and my self as a mother but no longer a wife. I am constantly up and down the emotional spectrum, sometimes all in the same hour. I have learned that time does not heal, that some wounds will throb and protest until they are permanently erased in heaven. I have raged and sobbed and wanted to die and gone numb. I have been shocked by pangs of love and joy that I was sure I'd never feel again. I have experienced firsthand the resilience of the human spirit. The man I love more than life is no longer here, but somehow each day I find the will to get out of bed, to make the most of another day, to give our daughter the life she would have had with both of us, to press through to the finish line and make him proud.
This past October 5, the one year anniversary of Nathan's passage to heaven, marked a tangible shift for me. I had made it through that excruciating year of firsts: first Christmas, first new year, first birthday without him; and lasts: last time we kissed, went on a trip, ate dinner, watched an episode of Parks and Rec together. I spent October 5 in Destin, FL, one of Nathan's favorite beaches, with his family and closest friends. As I sat alone by the ocean and reflected on the last year I felt a tide turn within me. For the first time I had the words and the will to tell our story. A week later I stood in front of an Alabama youth group, tears flowing freely throughout the room as perfect strangers were introduced to the most extraordinary man I've ever known.
For an hour I talked about our love story, Nathan's character and drive, and things I've learned from him. After fifteen months of reflecting on the way Nathan lived his life, I can honestly say that he is my hero. I aspire to be just like him, and if I can live the rest of my days with half as much purpose and vision as he did in his 26 years I will count myself a success.
I shared earlier this year about how Nathan's coworker gave his parents a card at his memorial service. Inside was a photo of Nathan, wearing a shirt that none of us had ever seen. The message on the shirt has gotten me through each day since losing him: a challenge to Finish the Fight.
Finishing the fight is exactly how Nathan lived each day. I want to share with you all what I shared with the Alabama youth group, a FIGHT acronym which aptly describes how Nathan lived each day. My prayer is that it will challenge and inspire each of you as it has inspired me to live on mission in 2016.
The first word is FAITH: complete trust and confidence in God. When Nathan was in high school his 19-year-old cousin, Elizabeth, was in a horrific car accident while traveling to a worship conference. She died after 60 days in the intensive care burn unit. Years ago while we were dating Nate wrote me this email about the impact that Elizabeth’s death had on him:
“I was kind of a Christian when everything happened, but it did not make sense to me...how could God let this happen? Why? There are plenty of teenagers who didn't have near as promising a future as Elizabeth; why didn't God choose one of them instead? Honestly, I haven't been able to even come close to answering that question. The more I asked it, the further away from God I got. I have finally come to accept the fact that I'll never know on earth why He did it, but I have FAITH that God loves His children enough to do what is best for them.”
Nathan was a man of amazing intellect, but he didn’t let things that didn’t make sense to him give him an excuse to not believe in God. His life verse was Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In 2013 Nathan and I lost our first child, Hope, and at the time it was the hardest thing I had ever gone through. Nathan’s faith had already been tested and strengthened through losing Elizabeth, and he was able to point me back to God’s promises and faithfulness in the midst of our heartbreak. He didn’t let his circumstances change what he knew to be true about God; his faith was his anchor through the storms of life.
The second word is INTEGRITY: moral uprightness. Nathan set very high standards for himself, and invited others to join him in doing the same. In college he started a challenge group with a few close friends, where they set weekly goals for themselves and held each other accountable. The challenge group continued with new friends and coworkers and even with me after we moved to Houston. An excerpt from his personal mission statement reads:
“I strive to honor God with every action. I have a quiet time at least five times a week, and I give 10% of what I make to advancing God’s kingdom. My personal desires and actions are subject to God’s commands and calling for my life.
I live my life as if someone is watching every action that I make. My actions follow my professed ideals and beliefs. My integrity is not be compromised for any reason (i.e. pleasure, advancement (corporately or monetarily), etc.). I am sexually pure in thought and action.
After God, my family is my number one priority. Their well-being and happiness supersedes my career and personal advancement.
My close friendships are God centered, and with all of my friends, I demonstrate the love of Christ. I share humbly my thoughts and struggles with my close friends and invite their insight into my life.
I inspire the people around me to perform to their highest potential, and I lead by example.
I continually challenge myself to grow in every aspect of my life. I read one book a week, and I research areas that I am not knowledgeable in order to have an informed opinion. In every action that I perform I am proactive and give my best effort. I improve instead of complain. My mission in life is to fulfill God’s purpose.”
It is incredible that at the end of Nathan’s life on earth those closest to him can look back and say that he truly lived out the high standards he set for himself each and every day. As I’ve thought back over our years together I honestly cannot remember a single time that Nathan complained or spoke negatively about someone. He was the same at home with his guard down as he was in public, genuine to the core.
The third word is GIFTS. Nathan means Gift of God. Not only was Nathan an amazing gift to me, his family and his friends, but he was extraordinarily gifted. He had the brain of an engineer, the vision of a CEO, the athletic prowess of a starting quarterback, the humor of a stand-up comedian, the looks of an Abercrombie model, and to top it all off he was everyone’s best friend. To give you an idea of the effect Nathan had on people, at his memorial services four different men – a high school student, a successful engineer, a Marine fighter pilot, and a Ph.D. scientist – all stood up and called Nathan the best friend they’d ever had.
Youth, peers, and senior executives alike aspired to be like Nathan. He made the most of his God-given gifts, but he never acted superior about them. In fact, one thing that everyone admired the most about Nate was how good he was at calling out the gifts in those around him. One friend said that Nate “made everyone a better version of themselves.” At times he identified and awakened gifts in others that they didn’t even know they had. Nate was the ultimate leader because he so valued each individual’s unique gifts. He brought teamwork and unity to every situation by bringing out the best in those around him instead of trying to dominate and be the best.
The fourth word is HONOR: great respect. Nathan honored God, and he honored others. This was exemplified particularly in our four-year dating relationship. There were so many times when I got tired of fighting and was ready to “throw in the purity towel,” figuratively speaking. I shudder to think where we would have ended up if it weren’t for Nate’s steadfast leadership in honoring God and each other. Even after we were married Nathan made me feel like a princess every day. I can’t remember a single time that he criticized me or made me feel insecure about myself. I am far from perfect, but Nate brought so much grace into our home and always treated me with the highest esteem.
At first glance Nathan looked like he had it all. But his gifts and character came at great personal cost. As a young boy he was legally blind in one eye, and had severe problems with his other eye. He wore an eye patch for years, as well as braces and headgear. He was repeatedly mocked by others and had to learn that it is what’s on the inside of a person that matters. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Nathan had the same mentality. Instead of looking down on others who didn’t measure up in an area he focused on the good he saw in everyone, and he helped me to do the same.
The last word is TIME. Nathan had enough vision and personal goals to fill three lifetimes, and he made every minute count. Part of Nate’s challenge group was a weekly “Roles and Goals” worksheet that he would fill out to make sure he fulfilled each of his priorities in his roles as a Christian, husband, worker, family member, and friend. A typical day for Nate went something like this:
-Wake up at 5 am
-Spend time with God
-Work all day
-Call friends and family on the way home from work
-Eat dinner and spend quality time with me
-Work a few more hours on nonprofit and grad school projects
Looking at all Nate accomplished in a short period of time, some might think he was a workaholic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nate valued hard work, and he maximized every minute of work time, but he also valued fun and relaxation. Often he was the one dragging me out of the kitchen and forcing me to stop working and goof off with him. He loved games – especially Guesstures and charades – and he was always finding the latest Fail Videos on YouTube. He played basketball every chance he got, and our Friday night ritual consisted of pizza, shaved ice, and Steve Martin or Jim Carrey movie marathons. Nate loved to laugh more than anything, and the number one thing that everyone remembers most about him is his legendary smile.
Nathan taught me that there is a time for everything: for work and for play, for learning and relationships and rest. He did everything with such excellence and purpose that many people have commented that he lived a full 80-year life in just 26 years. We will never understand why Nate was only given 26 earthly years, and why God called him home when it seemed like his life had only just begun. But in God’s perfect timing Nathan’s work here on earth was done. He has won his eternal reward; he has heard the words “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
At the beginning of my talk l asked the kids what one thing they wanted most in the world. If you had asked me this question eight years or five or one year ago I would have said Nathan. He is the best thing that ever happened to me, and now he has gone on ahead of me to heaven. What do I have left here on earth?
I have a fight to finish. I’m still here because my work on earth isn’t done. If I accomplish one thing in my life I want it to be fighting like Nathan taught me. I want to thrive, not just survive. I want to be so heavenly-minded that I am of great earthly good. I know that God is fighting for me and Elissa, and that Nathan is in the cloud of witnesses cheering us on. We are not alone. I am committed to fight every day for the rest of my life to honor God and make Nathan proud, and to win the prize of eternity.