Posted in Celebration, Childhood, Faith, Family, God, Holiday, Hope, jesus, Joy, Marriage, Murder, Parenthood, Prison, Rwanda, Thanks, Uncategorized

What’s Your Panera? #giftsalreadyopened #littlesurpriseattheend

“Every good and perfect gift is from above.”  (James 1:17)

I walked into Panera this past Wednesday and there was a gift waiting for me.

I climbed 20 flights of stairs last January and another gift was waiting for me.

I went to my normal chiropractor appointment at the end of the summer and a third gift was waiting for me.

I went to church on a regular Sunday and a fourth gift was waiting for me.

All the talk right now is what do I want for Christmas.  What do you want?  What gifts are we going to get come nine days from now (yes, I know, it’s the final countdown…9…8…7)?  

Walking into Panera a few days ago stopped me in my tracks.  Right there on Route 22 in Watchung, NJ was a gift I had already been given in 2018:  my new friend Jackie!  Her bright eyes and cheerful smile greeted me before we even reached each other for a hug!  Our conversation unfolded in authenticity and grace.  We didn’t really want to leave at the end of two hours, but other things beckoned us to pack up our plates and give a quick hug goodbye.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, filled to the brim with joy over this wondrous gift of a budding friendship, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of all the gifts I have already opened in 2018, gifts strewn lovingly by God’s hand to my heart.

Maybe it’s just me (and somehow I would hazard a guess that it might not be), but with all the struggles that come from my average, every-day life, my mind tends to swirl around all the gifts I’m NOT getting on any given day.  They range from the minuscule (I forgot something at the store and now I have to go back and I just lost a half-hour of time) to the grandiose (some of the prayers I fasted for during Lent on my Hosanna List have not been answered yet).  I become discouraged and disheartened, wondering where God is in all of it and if He sees me and even cares.

Enter Panera.  My 2018 AHA moment.  “Take stock, Esther, of the gifts you’ve already received and opened and enjoyed this year,” a Voice inside my heart nudged, or more like prodded, “You don’t have to wait until December 25.”  So on this ordinary Sunday, December 16, 2018, I am doing just that…one for each month of the year!

  • The beauty of Allen’s apartment in the Strip district in Pittsburgh.  Yes, it’s 20 flights up (there is an elevator for the faint of heart), but the view of the river and the sheer “one-of-a-kindness” of it takes my breath away each time I turn my key and open the door.  And can I just say, Jared moving to this land of Allen’s birth is the icing on the cake!

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  • My solo visits to my friend Kim in prison.  Who knew prison could be a place of restoration and joy?  I didn’t.  Who knew a long-lost friendship could be rekindled in such an unlikely place?  I didn’t.  And now, my women’s group penned individual notes to her for Christmas!  I am undone with gratitude.
  • Fellow writers, editors and podcasters like Afton, Janis, Gail, Annie, Sarah, DebbieTracy and so many others who are encouraging me on this new-found and scary, but exciting journey of blogging, and book-writing.  (check out some of the links by clicking on their names…you won’t regret it).  AND YOU READERS who this would be useless without!!!  Huge thanks and shout out to those of you who read and share and encourage!  You have no idea how my heart leaps with each “like,” “share” and “comment.”  It means what I’m doing matters.  Thank you.
  • Authors who share their hearts with a waiting and skeptical world and the books that come out of them.   My two favorite this year and who I am determined to meet one day soon (one moved to NYC and one moved to Pittsburgh, so I have a good chance!!!  One knows a friend of mine and already emailed me back and I have a couple of friends who know the other personally…if you know them, hook me up!):  Shauna Niequist and Tish Harrison Warren!
  • Our cozy beach house that provides a place of respite and restoration for our family, my women’s group, our friends and even the renters who call it “our house” year after year.  Memories are forged, love is shared, the salt air heals and each one leaves better than when they came.  There aren’t enough words.

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  • Sharing at church about marriage mentoring and all the wonderful couples who came forward to be mentored and especially to mentor!  This makes my heart so happy.  Not only do we get to share about our own marriage journey (filled with struggles and strengths), but that others willingly come to receive and give themselves.  #yayformarriage #yayforvulnerability #yayforredemption
  • Budding friendships with those I didn’t even know existed a year ago.  Jackie isn’t the only one, even though she’s pretty AMAZING as I’ve already told you.  How about Susan, Stacey, and Tatiana, girls who jumped into my small groups and opened their hearts wide, sharing their very selves (BTW my small groups are unbelievable…don’t live without one)?!  WOW!   What about Liz, a young wife who loves Jesus and whose heart matches mine on this wholeness and healing journey (she’s the one who was waiting at the chiropractor, a very unlikely place)?  How about Natalie, my cohort in mischief and joy on my trip to Rwanda?  As a pastor’s kid,  she gets the “growing up in ministry” part of me very few understand.  Plus, she’s a great match for this Esthergizer Bunny.What other surprise people are in store for me?  I never want to say it’s enough.  As I’ve told Sarah so many times in her life, “the best friend you’ll ever make might be waiting just around the corner.”

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  • Our monthly couple’s massage.  Best birthday present ever given by my awesome husband.  Somehow, though, he benefits from this.  He’s a sneaky, but cute one.
  • An invitation into the redemption story of Rwanda!  To see this dream fulfilled after 10 years of our family’s “clean water obsession,” was absolutely incredible.  Not only to be a small part of it on the ground, but sharing with our team, meeting the people who do this day in and day out, and being completely invigorated by the ways God is bringing true restoration to a county so broken and devastated.  Even the Rwandan woman who prayed for me one day!  What a gift!  We cannot wait to go back with our family!
  • Long, deep and abiding friendships that are too many to count! (I can’t even begin the list because I so don’t want to miss anyone.  You know who you are!  Some of you are even my family members!)  Friendships that stand the test of time and love all the fabulous and flawed parts of me.  Friendships that remind me never to give up hope and speak grace over me when I’m hurting.  Friendships that keep me on course as we “limp our way together to redemption” (Tish Harrison Warren).
  • The latest Podcast I listen to and online book club I am carefully venturing  into with the Bible for Normal People.   This is the place I get all my mental feels and my brain gets stretched and I can discuss and argue and be free to express all my doubts and questions about God and the Bible.  For this girl who grew up thinking she (and a few other chosen ones) had all the answers to the big questions nailed down, it’s a huge, precarious step into the largeness of God!  On a very silly note:  I even got to record my voice giving a shout-out in one of their upcoming podcasts!  #90secondsoffame
  • Allen, Sarah, Cody, Broden, Jared, Lady, Josh, Daniella, and Rachel.  Heart of my very own heart!  Can you even believe that I have permission from them to share about them?!  Can you believe a husband and a bunch of mostly Millennials let their stories be known?  Who has that?  Believe me!  I don’t take it lightly!  This gift of them and from them allows my voice to be heard and there is nothing I treasure more!  They are even willing to go further!  How about that??  Here’s the LITTLE SURPRISE: you will begin to hear more from them and from me in the New Year on my new podcast called “The Dolly Mama and the Millennials.”   So excited!!

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So what’s your Panera today?  What gifts have you already opened this year?  Take stock, my friend!  And please please share at least one!  Or two, or twelve!  You can comment here, but even better out on social media!  Or BOTH!

 

Posted in Beautiful Mess, Emotions, Faith, Freedom, God, Hope, Murder, Prison, Word of the Year

Dear Kim (my letter to prison about what might really matter),

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important. (Dwight Eisenhower)

Hey Kim,

Hope you are doing well.  Thank you so much for your letters.  Seems like your life is full of crazy stuff in the prison system, things I have no understanding of, nor comprehend how you tolerate, work through and actually still have peace and joy in the midst of them.  I can’t believe you’ve sent me four letters and I have not responded to any of them yet.  It makes me sad to think about that.  I wonder why I haven’t and why I’m sad.

I could give you the “excuse” that life has been a bit crazy lately and it would be true.  In the past month, I’ve spent time with my mom during her surgery, helped Sarah with the baby, had a power outage for a week from a major winter storm, helped Jared move into his apartment, looked for a new place to call home within the next two years (we need to downsize–our taxes and this big house are killing us), along with the normal things I do like manage our home and rental property at the beach, have some kind of exercise regimen, lead my women’s group and stay committed to our small group (both of which provide grounding and love), spend time in our marriage mentoring ministry while keeping our own marriage from falling apart, make time to write and keep up with my blog (that also keeps me processing and grounded) and try to maintain some kind of close relationship with God (my lenten fast being a huge thing right now – click HERE and HERE to find out more).

Just seeing all of that in print makes my head spin and I’m not surprised that I am a little exhausted and stressed.  My Word of the Year is “TEND” (for those of you reading my blog, I will be having an update right after Easter) and I’m not sure how it’s playing out in my life.  As I perused your latest card this morning, your words struck me right between the eyes of my heart.  I paused and re-read all four of your letters, reflecting on what might really really really matter and what I might need to “tend” to.  As I sit here and process, two huge things jump out.

First, the urgent often takes the place of the important.  The urgent are the things that supposedly need immediate attention:  endless “needs,” work, house stuff, emails, the “fires” of life, etc. etc. etc.  Many times, I have to respond quickly or they don’t get “fixed,” “checked off my list” or I have disappointed someone.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t be taken care of, or they aren’t good things, but oftentimes my focus needs to be shifted.  In all the flurry of the urgent, the truly important gets neglected:  my relationships and heart connection with people (people like you), my dream to bring hope and healing to myself and others and figuring out the avenue to do that best, and most importantly, a vital and deep relationship with God.  I miss what’s best for what’s good.

Sometimes I envy you in prison (click HERE and HERE to read more about Kim).  You take the time to make what genuinely matters matter.  I know you have great loss in not having external “freedom,” and I don’t take that lightly, but you seem to spend your time and energy on the larger things of life, not being encumbered by all the seemingly urgent things it takes to make life keep “humming along,” whatever that even means.  I would imagine you really miss the normal  parts of life and are envious of me at times as well.  As I read your letters and am getting to know you again, it seems like you just “get it” and see life through the lens of the important and not the urgent.  You’ve caused me to pause and listen to the cry of my own heart today.

Second, your encouragement from prison is baffling and beautiful.  Your letters remind me that it’s not our outer circumstances that dictate our inner life.  Nothing can touch our true selves and the hearts God has given us.  He is continually healing and bringing us into closer touch with His own heart, the best place of all (not the Women’s Correctional Institution or Stirling, NJ).  You penned that the SAME God who has consistently “held you in his loving arms as you have suffered the consequences of your own actions also holds” me too in all the things I am journeying through.  I was mildly taken aback.  What kind of person says those things (and more importantly believes them) in your situation?  The answer does not surprise me:  you are someone who understands the deep heart of forgiveness, mercy and grace of God like no one I have ever met before.  Your words today healed my own heart further and placed me right in the palm of God’s most loving and generous hand.  Thank you.  Thank you.

I am making plans to visit you (I am sorry they were thwarted this past time by your illness) because I want to take some time to set aside the urgent for the important and continue the path of relationship with you, one that we both believe has been one of the most redemptive and healing of the past year!  I miss you and can’t wait to see you again.

Much much love,

Esther

P.S.  To answer your question about being a grandma, it’s truly amazing!  Broden Bear is a fun little guy!   I love that your daughter sent you 265 pictures of your sweet granddaughter!  Yay for us!

 

Posted in Freedom, God, Hope, Love, Murder, Prison, Taboo

A Letter from Prison and a Journey to Freedom

“Inner slavery is even worse than outward slavery.  Inner freedom is even better than outward freedom.”  (Kathryn Lindskoog)

By the amount of sheer clicks and views on my post about my friend Kim who killed her husband, I know many of you read her story a few weeks ago.  (If you didn’t, check it out here first before going ahead, but don’t forget to come back.)  I was thrilled that I received views, but somewhere inside me I knew that it was partly because of the mind-boggling nature of the post.  I would have clicked as well just out of curiosity.  Today, however, I hope that even if you did come again to quench the thirst of an inquisitive mind, you will find a greater satisfaction for your spirit.

My friend Kim and I have become pen pals.  Snail mail is a slow process, especially with prisoners, because all mail is opened and read before reaching the other person.  It can take about two weeks from penning the letter to the opening and reading of it on the other end.  In a world where immediate communication is just a text, email or phone call away, this has been an exercise for me in carefully thought-out words on paper and eager anticipation of a reply as I wait patiently for up to a month to hear back.

My second letter came about two weeks ago.  It was the first since visiting her in prison.  I had written her a long letter and sent her a copy of the blog post I had written about her.  She was responding.  As I read the letter, I began to weep with joy over the words that came flowing off the paper.  It was as if I was perusing something straight out of the best book I had ever read, where wrong is made right and goodness wins over evil, something my soul longs for at the very core of it.

Two girls in a dorm room, sharing secrets and dreams late at night while the campus goes to sleep.  Two massively different external stories.  One girl goes on to raise a “normal” family and live a typical American life.  The other kills her husband and heads to prison for 20+ years.  What could we possibly have in common 30+ years later?

Kim writes…  (Get a cup of coffee.  Sit back.  Don’t skim.  Go slowly.  Breathe her deep wisdom into your soul.)

“Your blog entry was poignant.  Wow.  I never thought of my story as inspirational.  I’m not talking about the salacious, media version of my crime.  I mean my story, the one that had yet to be told.  I believe that those truths needed to be told so that my victims would no longer have questions.  I owed truth to them, to my family, to my friends and to the larger community.  I believe that keeping the truth inside of me all that time was in essence a kind of theft.  The truth is all I have to give and I needed to give it.

Telling the truth is hard.  Especially to someone who is out of practice like me.  I kept many secrets for many years and it made me hollow and dead on my inside.  I lived like that while looking perfectly normal on my outside.  Telling those truths was beyond scary to me.  I thought I would lose every single person that loved me, family included.  But God moved in my life and opened doors for me, giving me a safe place and way to finally speak.  Yes, there was real risk of rejection, but I knew it was the right thing to do.  It was the only thing to do.

In prison, there aren’t many safe places to tell the truth.  Information that can be used to hurt someone is power.  So we hold our power inside as a kind of protection.  Sometimes, we don’t even admit the truth to ourselves because we can’t bear to look directly at what we’ve done.  That was definitely true for me.  I wanted to speak, but how?  To whom?  Where should I start?

My objective was to find a way to reach out to my husband’s family.  I was not seeking forgiveness.  I would not dare to ask that.  I have no right to it.  Forgiveness is a gift that heals and releases the giver.  The decision to forgive (or not) is sacred.  I wanted to give them the opportunity to hear truth and to respond however they want.  My hope was that my acceptance of responsibility might help them heal.  I knew I had to try.

My father died and I inherited money.  I hired an attorney.  He found something called DIVO (Defense Initiated Victim Outreach).  It is part of the restorative justice movement.  We hired a psychological expert to create an “in-depth profile of me.”  The woman we hired was patient and smart and kind.  She helped me speak out loud not only what I did the night of my crime, but how I got to the point where I believed that killing my husband was the only answer.  She helped me understand what I could not understand on my own.  She peeled off the layers of self-hate to uncover the complicated mess underneath.  It was painful and horrible and a blessing.

In 2010, I took a class called VOICE (Victim Offender Impact Class Education).  In that class, we heard many stories of victims and how the crimes impacted their lives.  At the end, we were encouraged to write a letter to our own victims.  These letters are kept in a file that victims can access.  They told us that a letter would be sent to our victims telling them the letter was on file.  So I wrote.  I do not know if the letter ever reached Steve’s family.

There was still a pull in my heart to do something, anything to express my remorse, to tell my ugly truth to the the people I had harmed.  I joined a group called “Building Bridges.”  The work we do is transformational.  We speak openly to each other about our crimes and our lives that lead up to them.  It was rough, hideous and shocking to say those things and hear them from others.  We then meet with outside guests to tell them those same truths and allow them to ask questions.  The questions are hard to answer, but I do.  I know that doing the uncomfortable thing is good, that God wants to bless the truth.  And He does.

I have alienated people with my truth.  Especially when the truth exposes something awful that was done to me.  One of those secrets I mentioned.  In the end, I have been loved unconditionally, maybe for the first time in my life.  I am lucky in a way that the only kind of love I can get is unconditional.  Only unconditional love can penetrate barbed wire.

Telling the truth has healed me.  I was without the burden of a thousand lies on my back.  I can accept my incarceration with grace and the acknowledgement that I do belong in prison.  I do not believe I will be here for life and God is working.  He has put blessings and opportunities in my path that could have only come from Him.  That is how I know I am on the right path because He is restoring me.  He promises to give back what the moths and locusts have eaten.

Your visit was part of that restoration.  He gave you back to me.  Your friendship is both a blessing and confirmation.  I love you for it and I give all my thanks to God.  He has loved me even when I was unable to love myself.  He never gave up, even when I did.  It is people like you and Rachelle who exemplify Christ when you love someone who is less than perfect, someone who has destroyed her own life, someone who is lonely and in prison.  Someone just like me.”

What do we have in common?  Nothing on the outside, but everything on the inside.

When I first found out about Kim in January, I believed that God had brought her into my life to restore her.  I would be the one ministering to her, loving her.  God is an upside-down God sometimes.  He’s the God of surprises.  He’s the God whose “thoughts and ways are much higher than ours.”  He’s proving it once again.  Kim’s story is redeeming me.  Her wisdom is freeing me.  She believes that God is restoring her through my love.  And she is probably right.  But I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this God of redemption and mercy and unconditional love is bringing further hope and healing to both of us at the same time.  (And now, hopefully to you as well.)

The story of Kim’s crime is interesting and may satisfy your curiosity, but the story of her heart is redemptive and may just satiate a much deeper, needy place in your soul, one that longs for truth and freedom on the inside.  It has mine.

Two girls and two paths that from the outside, look utterly different.  One God.  Two girls and two paths that are wonderfully similar on the inside.  From lying to truth.  From hiding to freedom.  Her story is all of our stories.   The stories of redemption.   May the stories continue.

 

Posted in Freedom, God, Murder, Prison, Sacred

Kim (A Prisoner on the Outside, but not on the Inside)

“If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”  (Jesus)

My college roommate and best friend at the time murdered her husband on Valentine’s Day, 1998.  Even though it was a famous and well-publicized murder, I never knew until recently that she was serving a life sentence in a Maryland correctional facility.  We had spoken just a couple of years prior to the murder, but we lost touch, mostly because we had both moved and it was before social media (snail mail just didn’t cut it in those days).

Fast-forward to this past January when I spoke at a women’s group telling the story of my  continuing redemption and restoration.  I hadn’t thought of this friend for several years, but some things that we shared (not such good things) were a huge part of my redemption story and I shared them with this group.  Just FIVE days later,  I commented on a friend’s Facebook post and received a quick response, “Are you the Esther Maret that roomed with Kim Aungst in college?”  I recognized her as Kim’s high school friend, Rachelle.  Quickly, I private messaged her and said yes.  I couldn’t believe Kim’s name was coming up again.  I asked if she was still in touch and how I could reach her.

Her next message: “As for Kim, we are still friends but it is a long, sad, crazy story. She was convicted in 1999 of killing her husband. If you Google Kimberly Hricko, you can see part of the story. (I know some of you are clicking… don’t forget that you are reading what the media wants you to know and don’t forget to come back!!!) At first I wasn’t sure if she did it but she has since admitted she did. I am pretty much the only friend from that period of her life that stood by her. I just felt that regardless of what she did, she needed someone. She has since turned herself to Jesus and is helping others in prison. She has a daughter who I kept in touch with. She was like a niece to me. She is married and has a daughter.”

A few more messages were exchanged.  My body started to tingle all over.  I was overwhelmed at the heart of Rachelle who had unconditionally loved Kim, but my mind went to how this could have happened.  Two young girls sharing a dorm room at a Christian college.  Best friends.  The transfer after freshman year to separate schools.  One goes on to marry, raise a family and do normal things (that would be me).  The other kills her husband and is in jail for life.  I spent the better part of a week sorting through my feelings and decided to write her a letter, convinced that God had brought her back into my life.  Would she respond?

Mustering the courage to tell Kim that my heart was broken for her and that I wanted to see her, I penned a short letter, enclosing a picture of our family, telling her bits about myself, promising not to judge her, explaining that I just wanted to be hear her story and be her friend again.

It took weeks to get a reply (snail mail in jail is extremely snailish).  She wanted to see me.  Relief washed over me.  I met with Rachelle for breakfast and spent the better half of the morning getting reacquainted, sharing the stories of our lives and making a plan to go see Kim together.

That happened this past Thursday.  A four-hour trip to Jessup, Maryland (Rachelle almost not getting in because of  bra hooks that set off the metal detector), a one-hour visit with smiles, stories, and quick hugs, and a four-hour trip home.

Early Thursday morning, I  prayed that I would bring healing and restoration to Kim and that I would (wait for it…okay, it’s hard for me) listen, listen, listen.  But, of course, God had something else up his sleeve.

The moment I saw her sitting in the visiting room at the sterile table, my heart leapt for joy.  As we spoke, she was the same Kim:  kind, funny, smart, interesting and my friend.  The three of us spoke for the hour, reminiscing, sharing stories of ourselves, our thoughts, our families, and she shared about life in prison.  It was fascinating, to say the least.   Here are little glimpses of her life:

  • She works and makes $3.45 a day as a layout engineer using CAD software.  She designs office space for municipalities and has even done some dorm layouts for the University of Maryland.
  • She has to buy all her own toiletries.  Tide Pods are $6.99 for a small box.
  • She lives in the most privileged section of the prison because of good behavior.  She has a TV (with an old antenna) and a DVD player.  She has seen reruns of the TV shows where she is featured countless times.
  • She has a pet cat named Lynn.  The local shelter has partnered with the prison to allow inmates to care for a dog or a cat which goes with them to freedom if and when they get out.  (litter box right in the cell)
  • She started a book club (that has now spread to three or four other prisons) where college professors come and teach.  Her favorite book is Life of Pi.
  • She speaks to victims’ families and allows them to ask her any question.  This is designed to bring understanding and the potential for forgiveness and healing.

The story of her heart was even more fascinating.  She has come to the place where she has taken ownership, admitted guilt, and sought ways to contact her husband’s family to ask for forgiveness.  She has hope that (and it would truly be a miracle) one day there might be some kind of healing between them.

I was confused and amazed as to how she had gotten to this place.  How had she worked through all the shame and guilt.  I mean this is big stuff.  Like huge stuff.  Way out of my league stuff.  Why is she okay?  And not just okay.  She actually used the word “blessed.”  I received a little peak at part of the answer.

We spoke about how God’s heart is NOT for retribution, but for restoration.  His desire is not to punish her, but to redeem her (or any of us for that matter).  She knows this life-changing truth at the core of her soul.  He loves her no matter what she has done.  He is restoring her.  Not to freedom on the outside (both literally and figuratively), but to freedom on the inside (both literally and figuratively).  WOW!  Just WOW!

It all hit me like a tons of bricks:  this is why Jesus came.  Freedom for the prisoners (Luke 4:18).  Not the outside kind, but the inside kind.  And no circumstance or failure (even premeditated murder) or brokenness is too much for Him.  He doesn’t discard anyone.  He never sees anyone as beyond hope.  He can free anyone, even normal me.  This is His main business.

I prayed very differently on Thursday night.  This time it was not that I would bring healing to Kim, but thanksgiving that she had brought a little more healing, freedom and restoration that day to little old me!  Surprise!

(By the way, I received her permission to share all of this.)


 

I write about many topics including:  Marriage, Parenting, Anxiety, Spiritual Practice, Thankfulness and Charity.  Check out my favorite posts by clicking on each of these.