The rain was pounding down so hard that even with the wipers going back and forth full speed, we couldn’t see that a portion of the roadway just ahead of us was swamped by a flash flood.
We splashed into the flooded portion, and the water quickly rose in our van. It rose to the seat cushions, then up to the steering wheel. My wife, Melissa, and I knew that with the water rushing outside, we couldn’t get out and carry our four small children to safety. We were trapped.
It was August 2003. We were returning home to Kansas City from a wedding in Wichita, Kan. We’d had a marvelous time with relatives. But now, in this torrential downpour, we were caught in a thousand-foot-wide river flowing across the freeway.
As the water rose in the van, we did some important things. First, we called on Jesus. We said, “Jesus save us! Jesus save us!”
Second, we spoke Scripture. We quoted Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (NIV).
And we sang songs of praise. We sang, “Lord, I lift Your Name on high … I’m so glad You came to save us.”
Our van was pressed up against a concrete median, but soon the water washed away the median, sweeping us across two lanes and down an embankment. We were caught in the raging river. We knew we had only moments to spare, so Melissa and I agreed that now the only thing we could do was to kick out the window and try to get our family out.
I kicked out the driver’s-side window. It was like popping a balloon–instantly I was sucked out of the van, as were Melissa and my oldest daughter, Makenah, who had come up to sit with us in the front seat.
Something truly amazing happened in the water. The peace of God was there; I wasn’t afraid. When you’re in Christ, you don’t have to be afraid of death. I had felt no fear, not even in the van while the deafening sound of the rain was pounding, not even while our children were crying and screaming as we tried to pray and praise God through the storm. There was a peace there that can come only from God.
In the water, I felt as if the hand of God was lifting us all to heaven. Scripture says that God knows His sheep, and we know Him, and we hear His voice. He says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28, NIV). He wound up lifting my family to heaven, but He rescued me. He pulled me above the water and to the shore about a half-mile from the freeway.
I crawled out on my hands and knees. “O God, O God, what just happened?” I asked, lifting my arms to heaven. I made my way back to the freeway, where I could see flashing lights. I saw a police officer and said, “My wife and four children are still down there.”
They put me in an ambulance where, for about three hours, I waited, hoping the doors would swing open and someone would say that my wife and children had been found.
That never happened. But in a hospital at about 3 a.m., I was told: “Robert, we found your van. It was a mile and a half from the freeway, upside down. We need you to identify the bodies of your three youngest children.”
That’s every parent’s worst nightmare; you’re never prepared for those words. But as they led me down that long hallway to the emergency room where my precious children were, God was with me. He promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, NIV).
In the most agonizing moments of my life, I felt a peace and a oneness with God that I cannot explain. The Bible says that God will give us a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV). As I draped my body over my children and stroked their wet hair and felt their cold bodies, I felt the presence of the Lord. Death truly had no sting. I surrendered them to heaven and said, “Lord, into Your hands I commit their spirits.”
A few hours later the hospital staff said that Makenah’s body had been found about a half-mile from the van. It wasn’t until three days later that they found Melissa, about two miles from the freeway in a retention pond. My world was devastated. I had lost everything. I had been a provider, a husband and a father; now all that was gone. Yet I still had a life because it was built upon Jesus, the Rock.
Jesus talked about those who hear His words and put them into practice. That’s what Melissa and I had done throughout our 12 years of marriage. We had put Christ’s words into practice through good times and through difficult times.
We had endured many trials, including two miscarriages–one of which was nearly fatal to Melissa. We had two children with special needs–one with Down syndrome and one, adopted from China, with a heart condition. Through those circumstances, God taught us to trust Him and to say, “Lord, no matter how difficult circumstances can get, we know that You can bring good through them.”
We practiced His Word. We taught Scripture to our children. We ate meals together. We spent many evenings singing songs by the piano. We played together and prayed together. We taught our children about Jesus through everyday things.
Jesus said that when we put His words into practice, we are like the wise man who built his house on a rock: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:25, NIV).
The house is very quiet without my wife and children; their loss has been an excruciating amputation of my heart. The main way I get through each day is by praising God. Praise brings me into His presence, and in His presence is fullness of joy.
And I know that my family is in the joy of the Lord right now–my wife and children are in His presence, and they are fine. They are in a place where there’s no more sickness or sorrow or death or disease, and so I’m happy for them. It’s a devastating loss for me, but it also brings me joy to say, “God blessed me with a wonderful wife and children for almost 12 years.” I thank God that He gave me the honor of enjoying that season.
I’ve always loved music ministry, and I lead worship in addition to speaking at churches. God truly gives me the words to speak and teaches me what to say. I come into contact with many people who have lost loved ones, and I can share in their loss with them. As Christians we are to bear each other’s burdens and also to encourage each other. It’s gratifying to speak with others and see how God is touching others through my experience.
Sometimes I walk at night and look up at the stars, and I give the sign for “I love you” to heaven. I call out each of my family members’ names: Melissa, Makenah, Zachary, Nicolas and Alenah. I tell them how much I love them, how much I miss them, how much I can’t wait to see them. And I say good night to them. I don’t say goodbye; I just say, “Good night, and I’ll see you in the morning.” Because Jesus’ joy comes in the morning (Cf. Psalm 30:5).