Messy, Complicated, Beautiful

Let me tell you about Mamaw and Papaw. They are Jon, my first husband’s, adoptive parents. That’s a complicated mouthful, illustrating a precious reality. It’s not common that a widow’s first in-laws stay in her life when she remarries, but these beautiful ones are another facet of a story only God can write.

In order to see the full loveliness of the mosaic, I need to back up further though.

Jon met the Neffs through his grandma taking him to church. Dad Neff was the pastor, and Jon quickly became best friends with their son, Ben.

Jon’s mom, Darlene had had type 1 diabetes, and In the 80s it was a much more life threatening disease than it is today. She had been told “If you have children, it will kill you.”

But God had other plans. Jim and Darlene were absolutely thrilled to find out Jon was on the way. From reading her journal, I learned she was hospitalized for months leading to his birth. Not easy, but daily she poured out thanks for the miracle growing inside. Her love of Christ leapt from the pages; her journal is a touching link to a lady I never met.

When Jon was five, Darlene had her first stroke. He quickly learned to dial 911. Eventually her legs were amputated, and she was a home bound invalid for much of Jon’s life.

She died when he was 14.

After his wife’s death, Jon’s dad Jim tried to drown his grief in alcohol. He had adored his wife, and Jon always told me he learned lavish love by watching his dad.

And Jon himself described sitting on the edge of his bed with a loaded gun contemplating something horrific. But the phone rang. When he answered, someone merely said, “Hey Jonathan! I’ll be there in a few minutes to pick you up for church.”

It wasn’t a request, but he always said it saved his life.

Fast forward a few years. Jon started passing out playing basketball and it was discovered he had a long missed, congenital heart defect. After open heart surgery and a heart valve replaced at 18, he was written about in medical journals.

Through all this the Neffs were there, in the background of his story, loving him though he seemed like a “rebellious” influence on their son.

The suffering wasn’t over, however. Jon’s Dad died of cancer after Jon’s first semester of college. He was alone.

Astonishingly though, God was up to something new and marvelous. Before Jim died, he asked the Neffs a big request.

“Will you help him stay out of trouble? Will you make sure he stays in college?”

But in their hearts, they knew God was asking them for more.

“Would you make him your son? Would you bring him into your family?”

And they did.

They packed up a grieving, angry teenager and welcomed him home. My first mother-in-law has said, “Even then I knew it would be more. I knew he wasn’t going to walk out of our lives after college.”

So they adopted a son. And Jon always said he got another mom and dad, two brothers, a sister, a dog, and a cat. Another family to cherish.

His brother Ben jokes that Jon held the world record for longest sleepover.

“I used to go over to Jon’s house, but the one time I asked him over to mine, he ended up staying for 12 years!”

They went through some crazy rough times together. At times he made them angry. At times he broke their hearts. But a miraculous, radiant thing was forming. Another son. Part of the family.

When he took me home to meet them, I learned later he eagerly asked, “So do you like her?”

“What’s not to like? You better not mess this up!”

They played such a huge, indispensable role in the gospel driven man he became. He was loved when he was unlovely.

At my wedding to Jon, he couldn’t help but be choked up about the beauty of adoption. Through example, his second parents taught him the reality of an even greater adoption.

Jesus accomplished the greatest adoption. His death and resurrection brought His own into the family!

As Mom and Dad Neff chose Jon, so God adopts His chosen ones. He makes them part of His family, as sons and heirs. His love is lavish.

After Jon died Mom Neff wrote,

“And my mother’s heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. ‘Wait, God, this wasn’t the plan! This is not what I expected!’ My heart mourned, and God held me close and simply whispered, ‘You let me love him through you, and that was my plan all along!’

“People ask me if I would do this again, knowing the struggles, disappointments, and hurts. My honest human answer is maybe not! (Later in the post she wrote, “In a heartbeat!”) Here’s the interesting part, however. God didn’t just change Jonathan, He changed me. The love of God is unconditional, full of grace and flowing from His heart “even while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8). Because that’s His plan, to use His children to love those around us, those who need to know the love of God as more than just a fuzzy idea they once heard somewhere, to love those who need to know the love of God in salvation!”

At first I wondered if I would lose them as I had lost Jon.

“Ami you’re stuck with us. We’re not going anywhere. Jon may not be here with us anymore, but you are still ours. You are still family.”

And they have been. And they are. They welcomed David with open arms, excited for new love in my life. David, the uniquely suited for me man that he is, welcomed them too.

They were at mine and David’s wedding, Dad Neff sharing the joy of walking me down the aisle.

They are another set of grandparents for our children since my own parents are gone. Mom Neff has come after the birth of all three babies. And we see them as often as we can.

As we drove away from their house today, I prayed thanking God for such a sweet week.

From the back Hudson and Charlotte piped up with their additions.

“And thank God for the park by the zoo.”

“And thank God for the big swimming pool.”

“And thank God for Jon, your first husband because we have Mamaw and Papaw. And we wouldn’t have them without Jon.”

Little boy knows how to make both of his parents cry.

It’s a lovely, complicated, messy thing, but God has made it so beautiful.


To see more about how this all unfolded…