Happy Birthday in Afghanistan

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Specialist John Keller

Specialist John Keller

Twenty years ago today was a very cold, snowy morning. My husband and I had carefully traveled the icy roads late the evening before in anticipation of our oldest son’s arrival.

He wasn’t due for another two and a half weeks and I wasn’t in labor, but my water bags had broken and my doctor suggested I come to the hospital. We didn’t relish the idea of rushing through more snow in the early hours of the morning so we left late that night.

Although I had taken childbirth classes, I really didn’t know what to expect since every woman is different. (And I can tell you after having five children that each pregnancy and childbirth varies even with the same woman.)

I tried everything I could think of to get my labor started, but it was past midnight and nothing was happening. I reluctantly agreed to pitocin. I assumed that my labor would be long, so when the pains became intense very quickly, I decided to try an epidural.

The anesthesiologist was with another patient and by the time he began giving me the epidural, I felt a strong urge to push. I was fully dilated and ready to give birth.

I don’t think the nurse realized how quickly I would progress, and if I had known, I would have chosen all-natural. (I chose all natural with the next four. Yes, I had an emergency, C-section with my fifth child, but it was only after going through the whole labor sans drugs, and I began pushing that the doctors realized I wouldn’t be able to deliver a double footling breech baby. Only then, did I agree to an epidural and the C-section.)

Shortly after 5 in the morning, I gave birth to my first-born son. He was one ounce over six pounds, and the most beautiful baby I had ever seen! My heart filled with love as I held him close and nursed him for the first time.

With the thoughts of joy, however, came thoughts of fear and inadequacy. How could I ever possibly teach this baby all he needed to know for life? Would he learn to love God and treat his fellow man with kindness and respect?

As the years passed, I tried to imagine what my son would look like as a grown man, and what he would become. Despite my mistakes—and I made plenty of them—my son John grew up into a fine young man.

My only regret is that this is the first birthday that I can’t give him a birthday hug and kiss. I can’t make him a special birthday meal or a birthday cake.

You see, my son is part of the United States Army, and his unit is currently serving in Afghanistan. It hasn’t been easy, but he is fulfilling his duty to his country, and I couldn’t be more proud of him. He also received his E-4 promotion today on his birthday, which makes him a specialist.

Congratulations, Specialist John Maynard Keller, and happy 20th birthday!

How does a mother feel about letting her son go out of her protective arms and across the world to a dangerous situation? Carried in His Arms. describes the emotional struggled I encountered as the day of my son’s departure drew near and how God sustained me during that time.

Carried in His Arms

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Over my bed hangs a plaque with my name Rachel, its meaning (lamb, gentle, innocence) and the verse Isaiah 40:11.

He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the LAMBS with His arm
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young.

This verse took on special significance for me when I was pregnant with my oldest son John. My husband and I found ourselves in a place of uncertainty, not knowing where God was leading us or how He would provide financially. (We were rich in Christ, but very poor in material wealth.) In anxious fear I knelt at my bed and cried out to my Abba Father. Glancing up, I noticed my name plaque and the verse. And in that moment I felt God’s arms around me, reassuring me that He was carrying me–His lamb–in His bosom and that He would gently lead both me and the young child in my womb.

Now 20 years later, my Good Shepherd has reminded me once again that He holds me–His lamb–and my offspring in His arms. The week before traveling to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to say goodbye to my firstborn (who would be leaving for Afghanistan within a week) was full of mixed emotions. I was excited and eager to see my son again after being separated for almost two months, but our brief time together also meant his imminent departure to a dangerous place far from loved ones and my protective arms.

Not by coincidence, the name Jehovah Roi, or God is my Shepherd, was the name of God for the week in Ann Spangler’s Praying the Names of God online devotional. At the same time, God was comforting me through a book that a dear friend gave me (Psalm 91 for Mothers by Peggy Joyce Ruth and Angelia Ruth Amy Schum) from which the following is excerpted:

Do you know why God calls us His SHEEP? It’s because a sheep is the only animal that doesn’t have any protection on its own. It is not like a dog that can bark away his enemies or a skunk that can spray out a bad odor to keep from being bothered. Some animals have sharp teeth to protect themselves, but a sheep doesn’t have anything to protect himself–EXCEPT THE SHEPHERD. We are God’s sheep, and Jesus is our good Shepherd. He wants us to know that He is our protector. Just as the shepherds on the hillside protect their sheep, Jesus wants to protect us.

I love my son dearly, but God who made him loves him far more than I ever will. He understands what it is like to send a son as an ambassador to a faraway, dangerous place (John 3:16; Romans 8:32). And He knew long before Jesus came, the indescribable death awaiting Him. Yet, He sent His Son who willingly left the beauty and perfection of heaven to live in a fallen, wicked world that cruelly rejected Him–not because we were worthy, but because of His great love for us even when we were unlovely (Philippians 2:5-8; Ephesians 2:1-7).

Yes, Jesus is my good Shepherd (Psalm 23; John 10). He covers me under His wings (Psalm 91). I can go nowhere (even to the remotest or most dangerous parts of the world) where He is not (Psalm 139). He is my keeper who watches over me day and night. He never sleeps, but is ever watchful. He is my shade on my right hand, and whether I come or go, He can protect me from all harm or evil (Psalm 121). Nothing or no one can snatch me from His loving embrace (Romans 8:31, 35-39). How comforting to be able to rest in those everlasting arms! (Deuteronomy 33:26-27). I can trust my future (and my children) to the Good Shepherd who carries me in His bosom and gently leads me to places of rest and peace in His wonderful presence (Isaiah 40:11).

How does a mother feel about not being able to hug her son on his 20th birthday? In Happy Birthday in Afghanistan, I share my feelings and reminisce about the snowy December night my eldest son entered the world.

Psalm 23 is perhaps one of the best known and well-loved psalms in the Bible. The Shepherd’s Psalm is a poem I wrote based on Psalm 23.