My life changed in October of 1988. I was eighteen and was beginning my freshman year of college. My older sister, Lee, was also in college and was entering her sophomore year. We did everything together, so it only made sense that we would both attend the same school. We shared a room, a car, and even shared friends. Thursday, October 26, began as a typical day. We both had part-time jobs; and, after class, Lee dropped me off before heading to her job at a local sporting goods store. If I close my eyes, I can still see her as we said goodbye for the last time.
Lee’s shift started as usual but was quickly interrupted as a man entered the store. Stealing a pair of shoes and sweatpants, he began his getaway. One of my sister’s coworkers shouted at the thief. She told him that she was calling the police and would identify him. Those words got his attention, and he began to reenter the store. However, instead of returning the items and leaving, he approached my sister and her coworker with a gun and shot them. “Execution style” is the way local newspapers described the senseless murder of my sister. When I got the news, my world stopped. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, our family’s lives were consumed with funeral services, interviews, visiting family and friends, and a painful murder trial.
As time moved us further away from the initial loss, all of the attention surrounding Lee’s passing also ended. The responsibilities of work and school marched on, but I was at a standstill. Daily activities triggered my pain again and again. Lee and I had shared several classes that year. I asked myself, “How can I go back to class and stare at her empty desk day after day?” Dropping out of school became the only option for me as the hate in my heart for this murderer consumed my every thought. I wanted my sister back; knowing that she was gone was more than I could process. I searched for ways to cope with emotions that were out of control. For years I moved from one mistake to another as I searched for love and purpose. Loneliness became a part of who I was, and I had no way of changing my new reality.
As the years passed, I carried my pain and loneliness into marriage and the birth of a child. Though I seemed happy to those around me, I was daily covering up the pain of my loss and grief. I eventually reached out to a pastor who helped me get clarity on my thoughts and questions. I also began searching through God’s Word. With Scripture becoming a daily part of my routine, my questions started to become more about who I am and less about my circumstances. As I developed a better understanding of who God says I am, I also began to understand who God says He is. God used the tragic murder of my sister, and the years that followed, to lead me to Him. However, I still had the weight of hate in my heart. I knew God was changing me, but I had no idea the magnitude of work He was preparing to do in me.
Through God’s love revealed to me, I realized He had forgiven me for all the hatred and the mistakes I made after Lee was murdered. I read in Romans 3:10 that “there is none righteous” and finally forgave myself. I understood what it means to be forgiven by God. Colossians 3:13 says, “Even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” These words stuck in my spirit, and I couldn’t shake the new realization God was giving me. As much as I didn’t like it, I knew what this meant. I had to forgive everyone who had ever “offended” me. I had to forgive my sister’s murderer.
On October 11, 2015, I decided to forgive the man who murdered my sister. I remember the exact day. Forgiveness wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was a work God did in me over many years. God has been faithful to redeem my tragedy. I still get sad. I still feel lonely without Lee. I still miss her. I think about shopping trips, nieces and nephews who will never be born, and our late-night talks as sisters. God never required me to like my circumstances; He merely asked me to trust Him through them. Trusting God means following Him. As a result, I came to a decision that brought peace I could have never imagined.
I wrote a letter to Lee’s murderer. I explained to him that he must serve his time for the crime he committed, but that I had forgiven him for his sin against me. My freedom was not found in writing a letter. Instead, I wrote and sent him that letter because of the freedom that found me. When I was broken and hopeless, God freed me from that bondage. As a result, I was compelled to forgive my sister’s murderer. God’s grace offers the freedom that transcends our feelings and builds our faith. My years of living in the tragedy have become a life of living in faith through my tragedy. I now live with a hope that holds me through my forever loss and joy that endures the future pains of life.
We have just released a new Bible Study based on Jeff Bumgardner and Dr. Stephen Cutchins new book. Green Hearts: God’s Goodness in the Worst of Times. This study is a reflection of grief and is response to the tragic loss of Jeff Bumgardner’s 10-year old daughter Ella.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Lesson #1 — Grief
Lesson #2 — Pain
Lesson #3 — Questions
Lesson #4 — Answers
Lesson #5 — Surprises
Lesson #6 — Grace
Lesson #7 — Faith