The phone rang in the middle of the night. I squinted in the direction of the alarm clock as Gene reached for the receiver. It was 12:35 a.m. Who would be calling at this hour? Listening to my husband, I instantly knew he was receiving dreadful news.
Gene pulled the receiver back and haltingly choked out the words. "J.P. has been arrested."
I was dumbfounded. What illegal act could my son possibly have done that would have resulted in an arrest? My husband continued speaking with tears spilling down his cheeks. "He's been arrested for the first-degree murder of Douglas Miller Jr."
My feet hit the floor as I tried to get out of bed, but my legs were incapable of holding my weight. I slumped to all fours. Nausea swept over me. I began crawling toward the bathroom where I could throw up, but everything was in slow motion. I had never before experienced shock. No strength. Wave after wave of nausea. Dizziness. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Thoughts began swirling in my head. This must be a mistake. Or a cruel joke. Perhaps it's a case of mistaken identity Maybe I'm living inside a horrific dream. Surely this news is not true. Someone is playing a perverse game. My son is not capable of taking the life of another human being, much less a premeditated act of such violence. This is not happening. My son is a dynamic Christian, He's a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He defends American citizens; he doesn't destroy them. I will go back to sleep and wake up in reality.
Our daughter-in-law, April, was still on the phone and through hysterical sobs of her own, she verified that she had just received a call from Jason at a jail in downtown Orlando, Florida, and he had been arrested for the murder of her ex-husband. Gene tried to calm her while simultaneously dealing with his own raw emotions. We were filled with incredulous thoughts. How? Why? What really happened? What was Jason doing in Orlando, a six-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Panama City? Was it an accident? Was it self-defense?
The next few hours were a blur of tears, panic, fear, and erratic, meaningless activity. It was after 1:00 a.m. when Gene finished the conversation with April. Still on my haunches on the floor, I called the Orlando jail to see if anyone named Jason Kent had been brought to the facility. The woman on the end of the phone line was rude and irritated; her speech was slurred. "Lady, we ain't got nobody by that name, Jason Kent, in here. Your son ain't here."
For a few brief moments hope returned. It was a mistake. Our son had not been arrested. Jason was okay and we would be okay. But within an hour, another call confirmed our worst fears. Jason Paul Kent, our only child, son of my womb, was locked up at the Thirty-third Street facility in Orlando. And he was being held without bond on the worst felony charge possiblefirst-degree murder.
Florida is a death-penalty state. My mind flashed to the documentary I had seen the week before, giving the blow-by-blow account of an inmate on death row. Would my son end up in the electric chair? I choked out a fresh sob.
As the next few hours crawled by Gene and I held each other and wept. Two parents in the grip of a nightmare. A mom and a dad who loved their child deeply. A child who had been a joy to raise. A focused, disciplined, compassionate, dynamic, encouraging young man who wanted to live for things that mattered. A young adult who had dedicated himself to serving his God and his country through military service in the U.S. Navy. But that day the unthinkable roared into our lives. Without warning our dreams for our only child came crashing down in a thousand broken pieces. Our whole world felt shattered.
Throughout the wee hours of that morning Gene and I watched the clock as darkness slowly turned to dawn. I had always taught other people to pray when they were in trouble. It was easy to tell somebody else what to do during a crisis, but living through our own unspeakable situation was different. I am a woman who takes action. I am a researcher, a public speaker, a leader in my community. Surely there was something I could do to fix this horrible problem. But I didn't know where to begin.
My mind recalled a verse from the book of James:
If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who "worry their prayers" are like wind-whipped waves.'
Gene and I didn't do formal prayers that morning. We did wailing, pleading, moaning prayers. "God, please protect and comfort our son. God, please send Your angels to console the family of Douglas Miller. Please put Your arms around April, Chelsea, and Hannah (our granddaughters). God, please help us to know what to do and who to call. We are desperate for wisdom. We need You. Please."
Looking back, I believe our prayers were more like "wind-whipped waves" than bold, believing prayers. We were begging God for assistance. We had never felt so needy in our lives. We alternately burst into sobs and clung to each other, followed by intermittent list making. Relatives needed to be notified and action steps had to be taken. We needed to see our son. If this had really happened, then J.P. needed his parents. He also needed an attorney. We needed the best legal counsel available and we didn't know where to go for help.
I quickly discovered that a person who is in shock cannot think beyond the moment. I could only do one thing at a time, and for the next several hours we did "the next thing" one item at a time. At sunrise Gene called the only pastor we knew in the Orlando area, Dr. Joel Hunter of Northland Community Church (where J. P. and April had first met, followed by a whirlwind romance). Gene asked Joel if he knew of any outstanding criminal defense attorneys in central Florida. Joel assured us he would call back as soon as he got the advice of people he trusted.
Our next call was to our brother-in-law and lifelong friend, Graydon Dimkoff. As a family court judge in western Michigan, we hoped that my sister Jennie's husband might be able to guide us to a resource that would lead to a competent attorney. Within an hour the pastor in Florida and the judge in Michigan returned calls to us with the identical recommendation for a criminal defense attorney Gene and I believed this was a direct answer to prayer. Before 10:00 a.m., attorney Bill Barnett had agreed to take Jason's case.
With the assurance of legal counsel, we were also informed of the fee for this servicea sum much larger than we could have imagined. We needed to empty the savings account, cash in retirement funds, and figure out a way to give our son the best legal defense possible.
Our crisis was only hours old, and on the surface we were moving forward with decisions that were difficult, necessary, and important. But inside our souls we were curling up in the fetal position and wishing to die. I wailed, "God! This is too big for me. I cannot walk this road. Please, take me home to be with You right now God, please I don't know how to live through this."
But even as I uttered that prayer I knew my son needed me more now than he ever had before. He was locked up in a maximum-security jail with more than 4,000 other prisoners. We could not telephone him and had no way of knowing what his physical and mental condition was. As my thoughts hovered over all of the frightening possibilities of debilitating harm Jason faced in his current circumstances, my heart started palpitating and my breathing was labored.
As night turned to morning, I was in too much of an emotional upheaval to make the necessary calls to relatives. Gene carefully made a list of people who needed to be contacted before they got their information from a newspaper or from a stranger, and one by one he began making the calls. First, he asked Graydon and Jennie to tell my parents in person. They live in the same town on the other side of Michigan from where we live. We feared that one or both of Jason's grandparents might have heart attacks when they received the news. J.P. is the oldest grandchild in the family and deeply loved and respected by my mother and dad.
Following my sister and brother-in-law's visit to their home with the devastating news, Mom and Dad called us. The exact wording of our conversation is a blur, but one thing about that call stands out: We sobbed together over the phone. Before the conversation was concluded, my parents assured me of their love for us and for J.P., and then my father prayed for all of us. Dad is a semiretired preacher and his deep, resonant, pastoral voice was a comfort to my desperate and weary soul.
Jennie called later that morning, and once again I experienced the "fellowship of tears" with one of my four precious sisters. We are the oldest of our parents' six children, and even though I'm four years older than Jennie, our deep heart connection has long caused us to refer to ourselves as "twins born four years apart." When I picked up the receiver, Jennie's voice was such a comfort to me. Our children were as close as siblings, and Jennie loved Jason deeply.
"Oh, Jen," I stammered, "I don't know how to fix this. I don't know what to do next. I don't know where to go for help. I don't know how to help my boy."
I could hear her labored breathing between sobs as we held each other as closely as the telephone would allow.
Gene's mom called and cried with us over the phone too. Gene had asked his brother, David, to break the news to his mother and her husband, Bruce. Bruce has been Gene's stepfather for over three decades, and J.P. spent a lot of time with this set of grandparents during his growing-up years. He was their pride and joy, and they were in deep agony over this shocking report.
Gene's father is a man of few words, and after David broke the news to him, he called us and struggled through an emotional response. He ended the call by saying, "I love you, son." I could see tears in Gene's eyes as he hung up the phone.
When it rang again, my best friend from high school, Jan Fleck, was on the line. Jan and I have known each other since we were fourteen years old and remain close friends to this day. Both of us lead busy lives and we aren't in contact weekly, but she seems to have a "sixth sense" when I have a need for prayer. This time we hadn't communicated with each other for a couple of months and when I picked up the phone, she asked immediately, "How are you?"
"Not very well," I sputtered. "How did you know to me call today? J.P. has been arrested for first-degree murder." She was not prepared to hear those shocking words, but she knew God had prompted her to call me. We were two redheads who had encouraged each other spiritually for several decades kindred-heart sisters who prayed for each other regularly. She loved my son. I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but that morning I felt the power of knowing that a friend was weeping with me. I knew I was not alone.
Later that day Dr. Joel Hunter became Jason's first visitor at the Orange County Jail. Immediately afterward Pastor Joel called us and said that our son was a broken young man, still stunned by the ramifications of his actions. Joel went on to say that they had gripped each other's hands tightly and he had prayed with J. P.
Intermittently throughout that interminable day, denial kicked in and I once again believed I was living inside a grotesque nightmare. Several hours later, however, a collect phone call brought all denial to a stunned halt.
"Mom and Dad?" Our son's voice was soft, and I sensed his broken and crushed spirit.
"J.P., are you okay?" we asked, almost simultaneously. We were so grateful to hear his voice.
"I'm all right." I sensed my son's feeling of being unworthy to voice any concern for himself and his circumstances in light of what had transpired the day before.
For at least a full minute there were no wordsjust shared tears between a father, a mother, and their only child.
"J.P., we love you and we are here for you," I assured him through intense emotions. "We will always love you. You are not alone."
Gene added, "We've hired an attorney for you who has been highly recommended to us."
"Thank you, Mom and Dad."
We prayed over the phone for J. P's safety, for his mental and emotional state, for the family of Douglas Miller Jr., for wisdom to know what actions to take, and for God to help us. The call was terminated abruptly by the cutoff of the digitized telephone system at the jail that regulates the length of all inmates' calls.
Living on the Edge of Reality
The next day I had a long-awaited appointment for my annual gynecological exam. I vacillated about whether or not to go. I was getting nothing done at home. Only a handful of people knew about our circumstances, and I needed to have a prescription filled. I decided to go.
The waiting room at the doctor's office was filled with women and children who were happily laughing and interacting with each other. A very pregnant mother tried to balance a two-year-old on her lap, and she flashed a smile in my direction. Another woman was paying her bill at the counter. Others were watching a soap opera on the television in the waiting area.
I felt like I was sitting on the edge of the real world, but the feeling was otherworldlylike I was an observer, not a participant, in what was going on around me. Countless thoughts somersaulted wildly in my mind. How can the people in this room act so normal when my entire life is falling apart? 1 wonder if they can see the agony on my face when they look at me. l pray that none of my friends walk through the entrance, because I will fall apart if I have to face them. I'm sure God doesn't love me, and 1 don't think I love Him either. I hate what I in experiencing. My son used to be as adorable as the two-year-old on that mommy's lap. How does a child go from that level of innocence to taking the life of someone else? I shouldn't be here, l should have stayed at home.
Suddenly my name was called and I was ushered into the examining room. I quickly donned the paper gown women wear for the dreaded pap smear. I was sitting at the end of the examining table when the nurse reappeared. "Are you ready for the doctor?" Before I could answer, she spoke again, "Are you okay?" I burst into tears. I wasn't okay. I wasn't even close to being okay, but it felt good to be near a compassionate person, even though the nurse didn't know the real reason behind my tears. She walked over to the table and put an affirming hand on my shoulder. Leaning closer, she said, "The exam won't be that painful."
The moment suddenly felt even more surreal and bizarre. For the first time in forty-eight hours I laughed out loud. It was only one of many times when "black humor" would strike me at the oddest moments. The nurse thought my anxiety was induced by my fear of the gynecological exam. If she only knew the real source of my distress! I felt deep sadness for my son and for the family of the son who was now dead. I felt betrayed by God and helpless to change anything. Life could never be the same againand I had been in this strange, distorted facsimile of reality for only two days.
Gene began to chronicle the devastation in his journal.
October 25We received the news that J. P. was arrested. Cried. Found an attorney
October 26Coped poorly Cried. I am so afraid for my son.
October 27Carol and I go through the motions of being alive, but inside we are dying.
In my own journal the next day, I wrote:
Laurie (my assistant) brought a blood pressure cuff to the house, and Gene and I took our blood pressure readings. For the third time this week mine was higher than it normally is. I suddenly blurted out, "I am the mother of a murderer." My sobs could not be stifled. The love poured out from family and friends is beyond description. Gene and I hold each other, weep, and feel each other's pain during unusual moments each day. When one is strong, it seems the other is weak The phone does not stop ringing.
Wrestling with the Enemy
Jason Kent loved people, and he was committed to Christ. He had a stellar record in high school, lettered in sports, and was president of the National Honor Society. In addition to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, he mentored younger students, and he gave blood every time the Red Cross was in need. He earned a black belt in karate and was a leader in his church youth group. He was a typical teenager and young adult, but he was easy to raise. He never caused us to have serious concerns regarding any inappropriate behavior: he did not get caught up in drugs, alcohol, or hanging out with "the wrong crowd." As a student in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, he studied hard and earned good grades. He was a disciplined person, physically and mentally He joined the sailing team and set his sights on serving his country as a Navy SEAL.
If the allegations of what happened on October 24, 1999, were true, then we instinctively assumed that our son had snappedemotionally, mentally, and spiritually. How could it be that our son had stooped to this act of violence? For him to get to the place of being able to pull the trigger and kill a man, something was going on in his head that Gene and I could not see. We were desperately sad we did not see warning signs that might have allowed us to intervene. We didn't know what had happened inside our son's brain, but we knew that there was nothing about his crime that was justifiable.
My mind flashed to the invisible world, and I could envision Satan laughing with a cadre of demons. They were having fun, and in between cackles several of them looked in my direction as the leader pointed at me and said, "Let's wipe her out spiritually and emotionally. Let's put a guilt trip on that mother that will make her give up on God. We'll put such financial and personal stress in the lives of the Kents that they'll give up on their faith." I could hear the creatures jeering in the background. And I sobbed.
The Enemy quickly seized the opportune moment and delivered his lies to my heart. In my wounded state of mind, all of the untruths were entirely believable.
Lie #1: I must have done something wrong as a parent or this wouldn't have happened.
Lie #2: If I had read my Bible more consistently, prayed more intensely, and stayed closer to God, I could have prevented this terrible thing from taking place.
Lie #3: If I had been less busy I could have fixed the problem before it got out of hand.
Lie #4: If I were a more perfect Christian, God would protect my family and me from such hurtful circumstances.
As I struggled to make it through the next several hours, the lies hovered over my mind like vultures as the Enemy tried to control my emotions. Feeling panic, shame, and guilt, I went from window to window and closed the blinds. I envisioned reporters at the door with a multitude of questions that my husband and I couldn't answer.
One of many desperate scribblings in my journal during that time reflects my anguish:
When your only offspring commits a murder, you can't think of yourself as "a good parent." Will Gene and I ever stop wondering what we could have done differently in our parenting that would have prohibited our son from taking the life of another human being? We did the best we knew how to do. Obviously, it wasn't good enough. Does that mean we were bad parents? Who knows? Definitely, we should have been better parents.
While I was feeling lost at sea in a tidal wave of fear and despair, Gene found a life preserver by going to the Word of God seeking wisdom and solace. In his journal he wrote about the day he picked up his Bible for the first time since the appalling news smashed our world:
I started reading where I had left off last week. I'm in Genesis 28 where Jacob falls into a dream and sees a ladder. The bottom of the ladder is resting on earth, but the top reaches to heaven and God's angels are going up and down on the ladder. Jacob awakens, more alert than he's ever been, and he realizes, perhaps for the first time, that there is much more going on in the visible and in the invisible world than he has been aware of before. "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it."
I showed Carol my "find," and we wept together, realizing that in the middle of this earthquake in our lives, we have been very unaware of God's presence, but that doesn't mean He isn't here. We were encouraged to know that Jacob felt the same way.
The image of the ladder between earth and heaven reminds us that there is activity going on in the unseen world. Have the demons been fighting to destroy our family? Have they been in strategy meetings in the invisible world, figuring out how to take us outstarting with our son, assuming the "trickle-down impact" will tempt us to quit serving Jesus?
One of my favorite visual images of the apostle Peter comes from John 6. People had been following Jesus out of curiosity and because they got free food and saw some eye-popping miracles. But then Jesus began explaining the real reason He was on earthto reconcile us to His Father in heavenand His bizarre message about people needing to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life was incomprehensible and offensive to most. Many of His followers said, "This is a tough teaching, too tough to swallow" When Jesus added that no one was capable of following Him unless the Father willed it, many disciples deserted Him for good.
Jesus then turned to the twelve handpicked apostles and asked, "Do you also want to leave?" Peter's response has been my key question while walking through this personal journey of unspeakable pain and deep grief. It fills me with sincere respect and with brotherly affection for the irrepressible Peter, the sanguine disciple who often acted without thinking. He answered Jesus' query with his own heartfelt question: "Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We've already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God."
I agonized over the overwhelming journey ahead of usJason's current incarceration and our desperate fears for his safety, along with his upcoming trial. I grieved over the needs of his wife and stepdaughtersChelsea was seven then; Hannah four. There were monumental legal fees and a great need to continue being active in ministry so the bills could be paid. That need for economic stability was combined with the desire to curl up in the fetal position and disappear, which was only intensified by the haunting question, If people in my audiences knew 1 was the mother of a murderer, would they even want me to be their speaker?
I drew comfort from Peter. I could almost see his furrowed brow and the questioning look on his face. I could feel the heaviness of his potential loss. I understood the sincerity of his simple response when he said, "Master, to whom would we go?" Where else did I have to turn in this dark hour?
I found myself sometimes angry, often hurt, always brokenbut the bottom line of my heart was this: Lord, where would I go if I turned away from You? If I didn't have You, l would have nothing. I have nowhere to turn, so while I'm pounding Your chest with my hurt, pain, and anger, please know that I am still facing You, still leaning into the warmth of Your embrace, not sure I can trust You, but knowing You are all I have. If I left You, I would be completely aimless and lost. So while 1 feel devastated by what You have allowed to happen, I still cannot resist pressing into the comfort of Your strong arms, I am angry that I am not resisting You more, because I know You could have stopped this think from happeningbut I have nowhere else to go.
Gene continued our first week's chronicle:
Carol and I both feel more empowered because we've gotten a small mental picture of the battle that is going on around us. We are in pain, but we are not giving up. We are engaging in this battle. We will choose life. We will choose hope.
But, first, we got mad. In fact, I had an all-out temper tantrum with Satan. The irony of the situation plagued me. Could the Enemy have taken my son's strongest attributehis sense of righteousnessand twisted it into making him believe he was destroying evil? The more I contemplated, the angrier I got. Did Satan, in his destructive, conniving way, also take a look at my ministry as a writer and a Christian public speaker and say, "Let's wipe out the parents along with the kid. If I can get to the kid, the parents will be immobilized too."
I got so angry, I screamed out loud, "Satan, you can come after me, but don't put a finger on my child! I command you, in the name of Jesus Christ and His shed blood on the cross, to leave Jason Kent alone. Get away from him! You are despicable and disgusting! You are a loser! You are a DONE DEAL! You have only a little while longer to leave your mark and I know the end of your story! We win! You lose! Leave my family alone!"
My anger against the real enemy felt empowering. It helped me to pray with passion. I finally had a good reason for being on all fours pounding the floor!
When we fully understand that we are in a spiritual battle, that the world is not our home, just a "stopping off" place, we can begin to get excited about having a short time to engage in the battle raging around us. The Enemy wants us to waste our time generating anger toward others, ruminating over personal betrayals and over injustices due to sickness, accidents, and evil. He wants to destroy our ability to function productively and to disengage us from inspiring others to be Christ-followers. He wants us to give up and die or to control everything around us in such a tight-fisted manner that we're tied up in ridiculous knots.
The most freeing thing I did in the hours following the devastating blow at 12:35 a.m. was to activate my brain and decide that I would not let the Enemy win this round. I would choose hope. I would choose faith in unthinkable circumstances. If I practiced "eternity thinking," I could even glimpse beyond the end of my son's life. I could see further than the suffering of this situation with all of its losses.
I wrote to my family that night: "Included in this walk through the valley of what feels like death is an awareness of His presence I have never experienced before. I can almost hear the sound of angel wings."
The Power of Unthinkable Circumstances
Looking back on the beginning of our crisis, I am now able to see how much power is released when we are in the middle of a totally unexpected situation that cannot be reversed. As days became weeks and weeks became months, Gene and I began to uncover the hidden treasure in our unthinkable circumstances.
- We realized the world is in a mess. In fact, we experienced as never before what it feels like to live in a chaotic, fallen world. Horrible things happen to people. Life-altering changes come into the lives of good, Christian people who are trying their best to be Christ-followers and point others to the faith.
- We asked for help. Being in a situation that was totally out of our control forced us to seek wise counsel. It made us listen to advice and evaluate alternatives. Instead of following our gut feelings and making educated guesses, we sought assistance. This was a new response for me, because even though I had been a Christian for forty-five years, my natural tendency was not to depend on others, not even on my sisters and brothers in Christ. I was used to being the "strong" one, the self-sufficient one. I had a lot to learn about being "poor in spirit."
- We recognized that everything trivial was just thattrivial. Spilling a full cup of coffee on white carpeting was not a big deal. Running out of ink in the printer when an important letter had to be in the mail immediately was not a huge issue. The great debate over the new flooring in the church sanctuary was not a matter worthy of gigantic amounts of emotional energy. Compared to the "elephant" in our lives, everything else was less significant. It felt good to realize that "sweating the small stuff" was a ridiculous waste of time and energy. Having a measuring stick in our lives that helped us understand the difference between what was inconsequential and what was important proved to be freeing.
- We admitted that our sense of control was an illusion. I am a firstborn of six preacher's kids and grew up in a home where my father always said, "The oldest child in the house at any given time gets to be the boss." With my background as the chief babysitter for four younger sisters and a younger brother, I was very used to being in charge, and control came naturally to me. I was a people-pleaser and loved to do things perfectly and to be known as a competent person who "got the job done well." I was obsessive-compulsive about following through with my personal goals and would often work on projects for ridiculously long hours, having little respect for getting sleep or setting realistic expectations of my limits. Much of the time, I felt like there was nothing I couldn't "handle" or "manage." I was wrong.
- We were humbled as never before. Often my goals (and Gene's too) were spiritual in nature, which probably made us even more frustrated when we faced this huge tragedy with our son and hoped that God would be more direct with His answers to our questions. I realized that there was a part of me that thought, Don't 1 deserve better than this after all I've done for the Lord? 1 love Him so much; why is He letting me be crushed like this? I learned quickly that I wasn't unique and that pain is pain is pain. And I needed comfort, like a baby.
- We had to arm or reject our faith. For years I had been telling audiences that God is good and He is trustworthy. "No matter what happens to you, God has your best interests in mind," I preached. "He will never walk away from you. He is your advocate. He is your provider. He is your victor."
During the early days of our crisis, I wondered about all of this. Where was God on the Sunday afternoon when my son shot Douglas Miller Jr.? Was God busy with affairs in the Middle Fast that day? Was He preoccupied with the issue of international terrorism? Was He distracted by a worldwide crisis? I agonized, "God, since You are omnipresent, why didn't You give Jason a flat tire that would have prevented him from entering that parking lot? Lord, why didn't You make his vehicle break down between Panama City and Orlando? You had six-and-a-half hours! Why didn't You stop this awful thing from happening?"
Gene and I were reeling from the shock and the loss of our son's future, and we were also grieving for the unspeakable loss the Miller family was experiencing. In a deeply personal way we realized that when unthinkable circumstances enter your life, there comes a point when you either stand by what you believe or you walk away from it. Over time, we chose the powerful reaffirmation of our foundational posture in the universe: God was God and we were not. We were utterly dependent on Him, and if we were to continue living with a sense of purpose and passion, we knew that our only hope was in His infinite mercy and His unshakable plan for redemption regardless of sin, sorrow, and shame.
Excerpted from When I Lay My Isaac Down, copyright 2004 by Carol Kent. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
When I Lay My Isaac Down is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
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Author Carol Kent is president of Speak Up Speaker Services.