Thanksgiving… It’s Different Now
As long as I can remember Thanksgiving has been without a doubt my favorite of all holidays. Even as a kid growing up, the anticipation of getting together at my grandparents home for an incredible spread (my grandma made the best EVERYTHING), there with all the family – aunts, uncles, and cousins. And then of course in Michigan Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without Detroit Lions football. So there it was and there it is, the trifecta of the perfect holiday: the three “F’s” – Family, Food, and Football.
Throughout the years, as time passed and we all grew older, and with the passing of time we are all too familiar with the way families develop and grow and change, and yet there was a consistency, a sameness, to the special feelings that every Thanksgivings would bring. It still always came down to Family, Food, and Football, and there was nothing else like it. Of course I do realize there is quite a bit more than the “three f’s” when it comes to Thanksgiving, those are the big ones for me, but I know my wife for one doesn’t care much about the football part, sad to say, and I know that there are others in that camp besides her.
It’s true that we all have our own take on what makes Thanksgiving Day so special and dear to our hearts, and the focus is, after all, on being thankful and on giving thanks. Without a doubt, while I am thankful for the great food we enjoy, and I am indeed thankful for football (even as a suffering Lions fan), but far and away my family has been a gift that so greatly outdistances anything else, which I am exceedingly grateful for and for which I continually give thanks for. Thanks to God of course, who is the giver of every good thing, and as God is by nature inherently Good, He therefore only gives good things. Whether or not those things always make us feel good is another matter altogether, but He and His gifts are good nonetheless, without exception.
It was one year ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving day, that everything changed. My wife Theresa and I along with our two granddaughters Mia and Lilly, were already in the holiday mood, enjoying some pre-Thanksgiving Chik-fil-a. Then my phone rang. It was my daughter-in-law Fran in California. She was distraught. My son Keith was missing, he had left work the day before and hadn’t been seen since.
Of course the questions came in like a flood. How can this be, this is so unlike anything he would do. I mean I know I am his father, but I would marvel at this kid, now an incredible young man. Like when he was in college and he decided that instead of renting an apartment he would go ahead and find a cheap house to buy and fix it up so he could live in it. It was possible because he happened to be holding down a full time job as well as having a full class schedule, and oh yeah, he was a star player on the Michigan State Rugby team too. His grades suffered a little bit, but not enough from preventing him from graduating and not enough to prevent him from being accepted into the MBA program a few years after that. It’s not that he’s one of those people who are just driven, not at all, Keith just has this way about him that he truly believes there is nothing that he can’t do, and he was able to do it without the least little bit of arrogance and with a sense of humor that is completely disarming and endearing. So what in the world was going on!?
We did the only thing we could do at the time, pray as hard as we could and ask others to do the same. His friends and coworkers were making every effort to locate him as well. Just before midnight that evening I got the call from my daughter Rachel that they had recovered Keith’s body. He was gone. The agony of that moment and of countless moments since then and even up to this very moment is beyond description.
What happened? We actually basically know what happened, we are still searching for answers as to why it happened. Without going into much detail, we know that Keith got up and went to work as usual. At some point early on in the day, he left, got on his bicycle that he had with him, and started to ride. He rode for several hours, somewhere between 6 and 8 hours, from his work in Santa Cruz, down the coastline through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful country ever laid eyes on. He rode on through to Big Sur and the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. They recovered Keith’s body near the base of that bridge.
While there many more details we know, that like I said, are not mentioned here, and even some details are still slowly becoming more clear, the bottom line is that there are way more questions than there are answers. To say this was unexpected would be the understatement of the century. Keith was the epitome of a healthy, vibrant, overflowing optimism that cared deeply about others. While I could go on to write volumes about his life and times and the deposit he left in so many lives, now is not the time.
The question that inevitably must always be answered in situations like this is: where do we go from here? Because the reality is that everything is different now. And yet in the midst of all that darkness, all that despair, there remains One who never changes, One who goes with us into those dark places and gently leads us back into the light, and His name is Jesus.
In previous blogs I spoke about “six words” that the Lord impressed upon me as significant in the pursuit of “pure and simple devotion”. These six words consisted of three two-word phrases (feel free to read the previous blogs), one of which was “stay free”. The concept of “stay free” has primarily and most importantly to do with staying free from offense, of maintaining an “unoffendable heart”. The residual effects of harboring offense, whether it be inter-personal, or even between us and God, are far reaching and insidious, and they cause us to rot from the inside out, effecting our ability to maintain a firm grip on reality. John Bevere aptly calls it “the bait of Satan”, and in Luke 17:1 and Matthew 24:10 Jesus warns us that it is lurking nearby and it will destroy us if we give it the chance.
Just because we grieve we are not somehow exhibiting a lack of faith and is no indicator of an offended heart. I have said that grief is a neighborhood that I pass through every day, but I refuse to live there. I can grieve Keith’s absence, while still experiencing great joy in my life, while still living a life that is overflowing with gratitude, because by the grace of God I have maintained an unoffendable heart.
Keith is so so special to me and I miss him more than I can describe, we had for many years a deep and meaningful father/son relationship that will be cherished for a lifetime. Recently as I was contemplating life and family, the Lord challenged me. He said “count your blessings”. I thought, ok, Lord couldn’t you come up with something more original than “count your blessings”? And yet I knew immediately what he was referring to. He was referring to how special and what an incredible blessing each of my other children are and have been to me and to our family. Let me expound.
We’ll start with Jimmy. “Jimmy Lee” came into my life (along with his mom ;-)) when he was about seven years old. Jimmy is a year older than the youngest Rachel, a year younger than Keith and three years younger than the oldest Bryan. From day one Jimmy has never been a “step” son, he has been my son and I loved him and still love him as a father loves any of his children. I can go on and on about all of my kids, but I have seen in Jimmy the heart of God literally become huge in Jimmy’s life. He is a musician and a worshipper – he and his wife GG have traveled across the state and country as sought after worship leaders and are now helping to plant a church in Tampa. Jimmy and GG and the granddaughters Mia and Lilly have been a Godsend for Theresa and I personally and it has been a joy to be so close to them, both the fact that they are here in Florida, and that our hearts really are knit together in so many ways.
The oldest son Bryan is really one of the kindest souls who values so deeply each member of our family. I cherish the memories of spending countless hours when Bryan was little either in the side yard throwing the football, or in the driveway shooting hoops, or as they were growing up coaching each of the boys little league teams. Bryan as a young boy had developed rapidly as an athlete – he was known for his huge legs for his age – when he was twelve he had the legs of about a 17 year old. He was unstoppable in football, the other dads would be in the stands or along the sidelines and I would watch them marvel and gush about “that Bonzelaar kid” and I distinctly remember thinking to myself at one of those times that I would always remember the pride that I felt in that moment. Now Bryan is every niece and nephews favorite uncle and is one of the most generous and thoughtful persons you will ever meet.
Rachel is the only girl and the youngest. She is the toughest and most strong-willed. She is determined and relentless, and she has a heart to please God above anything else. She loves with reckless abandon and wants the absolute best for everyone. Of all the kids growing up, Rachel and Keith probably had the closest relationship. Rachel has an uncanny ability to bring people together, I have witnessed her do it ever since she was young girl. I proudly say that she is a “daddy’s girl” and always will be. Growing up she wasn’t particularly career minded but always said she really just wanted to be a mom, and she is an incredible mom. Within the last couple years she’s had a dream of pursuing a career in real estate, and true to form she has developed the expertise and people skills that have led to incredible success in the field. She is a rock who is madly in love with Jesus.
So Lord, consider my blessings counted. Actually Lord once I started counting my blessings it became obvious I could start counting and probably never stop.
I’ll close with a couple of excerpts from some correspondence first between Keith and his sister Rachel, and then something that Rachel wrote jus a couple days ago that exemplify so beautifully the heart of thanksgiving in the midst of our most difficult challenge.
The following is just an excerpt of a long letter as Keith poured out his heart to his sister Rachel concerning relationship advice:
One of my favorite authors, John Piper, has made his life message this simple but profound truth: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”
What does this mean? It means that we can exalt God by
trusting in Him and desiring Him above anything else in life–more than companionship, more than romance, more than marriage. When we do, our lives say louder than words that He is more fulfilling than all these things.
Unlike all the fleeting pleasures of this world, when we make God the object of our soul’s longing, He truly satisfies us–we find the lasting peace and joy we long for. Only then can we have a healthy, happy relationship, because instead of the relationship being our reason for living, it becomes an expression of the fact that we’re living for Someone GREATER.”
Following is a post written by Rachel as she remembers her beloved brother:
As we enter into the week of Thanksgiving my heart can’t help but feel saddened as I have prepared myself for the anniversary of the loss of someone so special, so amazing and such an intricate part of my family and who I am. The blow that comes from losing someone, not just so close to the holidays, but also in such a tragic way is paralyzing. Our family has endured the most heart wrenching year, figuring out how to cope with that loss. Trying to understand the pain he experienced. Trying to make sense of his choice. Trying to figure out how to live with that void his death has left us all with.
BUT! In all circumstances we must always remember to give thanks to Him. And that is what I strive for, long for and fight for.
So today, and this week, I CHOOSE TO BE THANKFUL! I’m thankful God gave me a brother that changed my life. I’m thankful for who he was, and how having in my life made me a better person. I’m thankful to have had a brother that loved me and supported me. I’m thankful I had a brother that knew how to make me laugh. I’m thankful I had a brother that cared about me. I’m thankful I had a brother that taught me how to fight for something I wanted. I’m thankful I had a brother that showed me how to be humble. I’m thankful I had a brother that laughed with his whole body. I’m thankful I had a brother that always thought he knew everything and would debate with me until the vein in his forehead popped out. I’m thankful I had a brother that could do the best Napoleon Dynamite, Chris Farley or Jim Carrey impersonation. I’m thankful I had a brother that could give the best hug a person will ever experience. I’m thankful I had a brother who was transparent and honest and wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was making stupid decisions. I’m thankful I had a brother who showed me what true passion is. I’m thankful I had a brother that taught me how to love people with everything inside of me. I’m thankful I had a brother that would call me and greet me with a strange voice and ridiculous statement that would make me laugh every single time.
I’m thankful I had Keith. 34 years with him is better than no time at all. And for that reason I’m choosing to live in a place of Thanksgiving this week. Your story isn’t over Keith; I choose to carry it on through me. I love you so much big brother! Miss you to the 🌚 and back!
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Thes 5:18