Every single one of us has a story to tell.
To begin 2014, I’ve vowed to bring the invisible stories of strangers among us to life through their own words, with tough questions to make you think.
My first perfect stranger is Susan Van Volkenburgh. A woman of great faith, a talented author, a kind spirit…with the eternal will to survive unthinkable heartbreak.
She is a child of 9/11.
A wounded bird who lost a piece of herself as terror tried to take hold of our nation. Yet through the bitter tears, the unanswered questions of WHY, and the travesty of learning how to move forward, she reflects the sincere grace of extreme humility.
Allow her to fill your world for a moment. She is a stranger to you now. Yet once you read her words, you’ll connect with her on a level that will leave you with a dear friend. One that you’ll feel like you’ve known for a lifetime and then some.
NAME & AGE (29 AND HOLDING IS PERMISSIBLE): Susan Van Volkenburgh 49
QUESTION 1: WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING? Homeschool mom, musical evangelists, and author
QUESTION 2: WHAT DRIVES YOU TO CLIMB OUT OF BED EVERY MORNING AND FACE THE DAY?
My family; I want to be there for them, to be an example to my children. Even at my worst, it was my love for them that kept me going, fighting through terrible circumstances to reach a place where I could stand.
QUESTION 3: A SECRET PASSION…EVERYBODY HAS ONE. WHAT IS YOURS?
Well, I don’t know how much of a secret it is, but what really drives me is the will to touch the lives of others with my words, my talents, my life. I owe so much to others who have reached out to me through difficult times: by simple statements or words to a song, by a musical score that caused my heart to soar. I want to build on what they have started, to make my existence count for something.
QUESTION 4: TRAGEDY IS A PART OF LIFE THAT EACH OF US ARE FACED WITH AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER. SHARE A TRAGEDY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED IN LIFE. HOW DID IT CHANGE YOU?
September 11, 2001. That day marks a change in my life. Everything I am pivots around that terrible day.
It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. A faint breeze brushed through leaves painted with gold and red, whispering of autumn.
As always, I began the day in Bible study with my children. The morning’s subject was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (Daniel 3) In discussing the three who were placed into the fiery furnace for their unwavering faith in God, I made the cryptic statement that no matter what happens in our life, even when we go through the fiery furnace, still we must follow the Lord. I did not know at that very moment that my own life would be put through the furnace and my words tested. For it was at that very moment, as I spoke to my children, that my own dear father was ripped from this world as American Airlines Flight 77 plummeted into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
In the stillness that followed September 11, the silent emptiness filled us with the stunned awe of disbelief. How could anyone do such a thing, such a terrible thing? How can we live in a world so full of hate?
I had always felt God’s presence around me, keenly aware that He was with me. But now, when I needed Him most, I felt an empty silence that followed me everywhere I went. I was in the desert and God was silent.
How do you look into the eyes of a God who let you down? How do you speak the thoughts that are in your mind? Wasn’t He supposed to protect us? Didn’t He promise to look out for us, to keep us safe under His wing? How then did we get caught up in this event?
Living with grief is hard. Just the breath we take in can become a burden. There were days when all I could do was focus on the next moment, for to look beyond that next moment was overwhelming. It was all I could do to get out of bed. As I struggled under the burden of loss and trauma, words my father had spoken came to me.
When I was in high school, my father and sister were in a terrible car accident. Thankfully, they sustained only minor injuries, but my sister was traumatized. She told my father that she was never getting behind the wheel of a car again. What he said next has stuck with me, has helped me carry on.
He said, “I will give you three days to heal, then you are back behind the wheel of the car. For you will not let anything or anyone have dominion over you but God.”
I was determined to live up to this statement, to demonstrate this courage for my children. Yet still I struggled.
December of 2001, my husband took me to see Peter Jackson’s cinematic rendition of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Seeing this movie was supposed to take my mind off the thought that the following week we would be laying my father’s remains to rest, three months after September 11, God spoke to me through the movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings. He spoke to me across time through the words of J. R. R. Tolkien.
As I sat in the theater, I assumed I was about to watch an adventure drama geared more to men than to me. I sat there amazed. As the Fellowship entered into the Mines of Moria, Frodo, the main protagonist of the story, who being an unlikely candidate to hold the future of Middle Earth in his hands, confronted Gandalf, the wise old leader of the group, with tough questions, the questions I had avoided bringing before God. It was surreal. As he spoke, the audience in the theater melted away. It was only Gandalf looking at me as a beam of light leapt off the screen, alighting me in its illumination, a tunnel between the screen and myself, as though no one else was in the room. Frodo stated to Gandalf, “I wish this had never happened, I wish the ring had never come to me.”
Gandalf looked full upon me, his eyes boring into my very soul as though the words written by Tolkien fifty years earlier were written for me. “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
I was jarred to the core. It seemed so simple. Yes, that is all I have to do. God had spoken to me through Tolkien, reaching out to me to address the issue at hand. When I would run from the dispute, He sought me out, taking me by the hand in His overwhelming Love. It all began to make sense. God had not really let me down. A great weight lifted from my shoulders and I began to look up. My ears began to hear the voice of God. I do not have the power to change what had happened … all I can do is go forward. I did not have control over what occurred on September 11. However, I do have control of how I respond to it. This is all I must decide.
Suddenly, I could see how God had been speaking to me all along. The floodgates now opened, and I drew in water that filled my soul with wonder. But there was still work to be done. I started asking God those tough questions. I sought out the answers. I devoured all the works I could find of Tolkien to see if there was more in the pages of his books to help me understand this God of mine. And most importantly, I began to read God’s word with new eyes, eyes that looked Him directly in the face, unencumbered by the shadow of fear.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the story does not end with the furnace. But I think the key is in the word through, for we do go through, we do not stay in the furnace. There is an end to our trouble if we stand firm. The fire had no power. For even as the three young men stood within the flames of the furnace, they were not alone, but a fourth stood beside them. They were delivered from the fire, their clothes were not singed, and there was not even the smell of smoke upon them. We are not alone. The Lord is not a God who hovers on the outside. He steps into the furnace with us.
I am not the same person I was, but I will not allow anything or anyone have dominion over me but God. I have taken what the enemy has given me and use it as an arsenal for the cause of Christ. In the integrity of my father before me, I stand firm in my resolve.
QUESTION 5: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE VERSE, QUOTE OR SAYING?
2 Timothy 1:7 For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandlaf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
QUESTION 6: SHARE SOMETHING UNIQUE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY. WHAT MAKES YOU, YOU?
Probably not something that makes me, me, but this is what comes to my mind. Every Christmas, we gather together and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but we do this with a twist. Each of us dig into our supply of second-hand clothes and dress outlandishly, modeling our ensemble after the attic scene where Chevy Chase’s character wears old clothes to stay warm after being trapped in the cold attic.
QUESTION 7: FINISH THIS SENTENCE – ”WHEN MY TIME ON EARTH IS THROUGH, I WANT PEOPLE TO REMEMBER ME AS…”
A woman after God’s own heart –
QUESTION 8: THE SECRET TO LIVING A FULL LIFE IS… to be in the will of God in all things. Be true and walk in uprightness, and remember to not take yourself too seriously. Capture the small, quiet moments and carry them in your heart. Stay grounded; do not forget what really matters, what lasts for eternity.
QUESTION 9: WE INTERACT WITH, LOVE, HONOR AND CHERISH MANY PEOPLE IN OUR DAILY LIVES. NAME ONE PERSON WHOM YOU RESPECT, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, FEEL LIKE YOU OWE THE WORLD TO, AND WHY.
Wow, that is a hard question. There have been so many people that have influenced me in my life. To choose one is like saying he are more important than any of the others. Yet, I suppose my father has influenced my life the most. He taught me so much: a love for God, research, learning…He demonstrated an honorable and noble life, a life that was honest and firm in his beliefs. He was definitely the strong stoic type. My father exhibited to me the quality of never giving up, to keep going when the fight is right, no matter the cost. I have tried to live up to his example.
QUESTION 10: STRENGTH & WEAKNESS. BOTH LIVE IN EACH OF US. NAME ONE OF YOUR STRENGTHS, AND ONE OF YOUR WEAKNESSES.
My weakness is that I am impatient. I do not like to wait.
My strength is my creativity: in writing, music, and art.
QUESTION 11: IF YOU COULD TRAVEL TO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WITH A SINGLE SUITCASE AND ONE COMPANION, WHERE WOULD YOU GO, WHAT WOULD YOU TAKE, AND WHO WOULD ACCOMPANY YOU?
I would go to New Zealand and travel through “Middle Earth” – I would take a sketch book, a journal, a pair of hiking boots, and, of course, a copy of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I would bring my husband for he has been my companion through many adventures, and even though this may not be his favorite place on earth, I know he would go there, because it is important to me.
QUESTION 12: WHAT IS YOUR BEST QUALITY?
My tenacity. I can stick to things like glue. If I cannot see a way to complete a task, I will create a way. I believe if you think about a problem long and hard enough, you can find a path through to the other side.
QUESTION 13: MEMORIES MOLD US. SHARE ONE MEMORY IN LIFE THAT YOU REFLECT UPON OFTEN.
When I was very young, we lived in the woods in Maryland. My father would rake up a mountain of leaves. It was a huge job. Yet he always mounded the leaves in front of our swing set, just in the right place for us to jump off the swings and into the pile of leaves. How fun it was to fly through the air and land, not always so gracefully, into the soft tor of leaves. Of course, this caused the leaves to disperse. He would then have to rake the leaves again. The fact that this busy man would take the time to allow his children this simple pleasure amazes me. He had to be exhausted after raking the entire yard, yet he did this for us. What great love.
QUESTION 14: THIS BROKEN WORLD COULD USE A LITTLE HEALING. HOW CAN WE BEGIN MENDING FENCES AND NURTURING THE WOUNDS WE’VE INFLICTED ON ONE ANOTHER AS A SOCIETY?
Christ said it all. The greatest commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-38
Only with the love of Christ in us can we bind the broken. With empathy, or looking at circumstances through the eyes of another, can we fully understand what others are experiencing.
If our true motive in this life is to do the will of God, then everything else falls into place, for to love God is to love others. If we love, we are not selfish, and the needs of others weigh on us.
We cannot control what others are doing, but we can start by doing what we know to be right, and kind, and good. We may not be able to fix everything, but we can mend our part of the wall.
QUESTION 15: “I BELIEVE IN __________ BECAUSE…”
…a loving and benevolent God. For when I was lost, He found me; when I was in the dark, He gave me Light; when I was without hope, He lifted me.
** Visit Susan’s website here.
** Purchase a copy of Susan’s book, “Silent Resolve and the God Who Let Me Down” on Amazon.