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Sunday would have been Cora’s ninth birthday. We made our way to the cemetery after church to release balloons like we always do. Each year the growing bunch of pink balloons fill up a little more space in our van. It’s like the amount of time that has past since we last saw our girl, which is hard to wrap my mind around when some days it still feels like yesterday she was in my arms. The plan was for each of the three boys to release three balloons. I should know by now to hold loosely to my plans. Before we could even get the balloons out of the car at the cemetery, they all tangled together thanks to the unrelenting Kansas wind (which hasn’t let up even as I type this two days later). If you have never been to Kansas you might not understand that this wind is not just a pleasant breeze but something that can actually knock you over, or in this case tangle up all your birthday balloons. My sweet idea of each of the boys releasing three balloons for their sister would not be happening. We tried to get all three boys to hold onto the balloons and release them together but by this time the wind was making Jake cry. I felt like crying too. The balloon ribbons ended up wrapped around Levi’s neck and once Griffin finally freed him, they abruptly flew sideways into the air in a big tangled blob, barely clearing the nearby trees. We all proceeded to sprint to the car to seek shelter. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

But isn’t that life sometimes? We come up with a detailed, beautiful plan–even determining the precise timing–but instead find ourselves in the middle of a big tangled mess. We try to cling to our failed plan, maybe adjusting it a little but not wanting to completely let go. The wind tosses us around and we end up feeling a little like Levi, choked by the tangled up balloons on a horribly windy day. We sometimes get this idea that if we are following Jesus our life should be good and easy. We equate a smooth path with God’s pleasure or blessing and see difficulties as bad. But when our “good” plans fail, when we instead are facing disappointment, sorrow, betrayal or heartache, we feel let down. We wonder where God is and we desperately want to understand what He is doing. I’ve been there, have you?

Here’s the thing about our best made plans and not understanding when God says no. There was a time (and let’s be honest, it still happens) when I asked God for his blessing over my family, home, and career and waited expectantly for him to bring the “good” things, the things I thought were best for me, into my life. I thought I knew what God’s blessing looked like. But in many ways I think I was putting God neatly in a box that made sense to me. I was trusting in a god-of-my-plans. Maybe you have done this too. But do we really want to put God in a box so that we totally understand Him? Do we really want to serve a god who is predictable and always acts the way we are expecting Him to; a god that is no bigger than our limited wisdom and understanding? Or do we want to serve a God whose ways are higher than our ways and thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9)? A God whose knowledge is too wonderful for us, too lofty for us to attain (Psalm 139:6)? A God who is all-wise, all-good, and all-powerful.

I read this a few weeks ago and loved how straight forward it is,

“God knows what I need. I do not. He sees the future. I cannot. His perspective is eternal. Mine is not.” (The Unwelcoming Gift of Waiting, Vaneetha Risner)

God is not like us and that is such a good thing. Instead of holding onto our plans, what if we would hold onto God? What if we would let go and find shelter in Jesus? What if we would choose to find rest in knowing that He is for us and that His plans are for our good…even if they don’t seem good to us at the time?

Nine years of birthdays without Cora and I still find myself struggling to let go. I still find myself wrestling with God about my plans that I thought were pretty great and the things he has allowed into my life instead. I have to remind myself to stop bossing God around. For me, most of the time it comes down to having a right view of God and remembering that He reigns for my sake and for His glory. I have to choose to trust in who Jesus is above my circumstances and feelings. And sometimes that means being willing to let go of my plans or the outcomes I was hoping for. We can be confident that God is who He says He is and He will always act according to His character. Nine years later and I can tell you without a doubt, He is always faithful and always trustworthy.

Maybe this yearly birthday tradition of releasing balloons is meant to remind me to stop holding onto what seems good to me and instead hold onto my good, good Father.

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  • Sarah - This spoke so deeply to my heart. Thank you, my friend. Love that our sweet girls share a birthday month. xoxo.ReplyCancel

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  • Lisa Kirkes - Jess ~ Such wise words, beautifully written. I wish I could express myself this well. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words. I’m stopping right now to pray for you and your sweet family.ReplyCancel

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  • Toni :0) - You’re right. Doesn’t seem possible it’s been as long as it has been. I continue to pray for your family and always remember Cora in our Mass intentions. Big hugs to you all. 💜ReplyCancel

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  • Toni :0) - You’re right, doesn’t seem possible it’s been that long already. I continue to pray for your family and will always remember Cora in our Mass intentions. Blessings to your sweet family and big hugs.. 💜ReplyCancel

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  • Jayne - Bless your heart, Jess. It is hard to believe that Cora would have been 9 years old. I’ve been reading your blog since Cora got sick and I remember reading it when she passed into the arms of Jesus. You are so faithful and you are her mama and every year is a milestone for you and your family. Your boys are lucky to have you and Joel as Godly parents.ReplyCancel

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  • andrae - hugs Jess.ReplyCancel

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  • Laura - Beautifully written. God has enriched many through Cora even though she spent little time here on earth with your sweet family. We will never understand all of life’s twists, turns, and heartaches until it is our time to meet Jesus.
    I don’t remember how I stumbled on to your story from the very beginning but I do know that you have been an inspiration to me and many others from that time on. God bless you and your family.ReplyCancel

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  • Mary Ann Davis - Reading this post, I was crying and laughing at the same time. Crying because the post is so true and heartfelt. Crying because of your loss and your eternal perspective of Cora. Crying because its hard to want something so badly but yet God knows that there is a different plan. Laughing because of the picture you painted with the wind. Laughing because the boys are so funny and seem to be enjoying their tussle with the balloons and the wind. 9 years…for me it seems just like yesterday but then it seems so long ago. It will be 9 years in August that my husband passed away. He missed meeting my daughter-in-law. He missed being a grandpa to my darling almost 7 year old grandson. But they watch us from heaven and in my belief system, they are closer than we think. Eternity really isn’t that far away. Thank you Jess for this lovely post and for sharing a little bit with us. In my wildest dreams I cannot imagine the loss of your beautiful Cora. But she is ever loved for the love never ever ends!!ReplyCancel

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  • kim b - I am not eloquent with words, I try and keep things short and I always give the long version of the story. I just want to say thank you for always sharing your heart. My daughter Cora was born about 6 months after your daughter Cora. I came across your blog when Joy was listing things on etsy in honor of Cora.
    My daughter injured herself yesterday and was struggling with why her being in pain was part of Gods plan. This post will help me communicate with her and if I can’t express the greatness of His plan I will share this post with her.
    So thank you for helping me teach my daughter to love and trust in God even when we are suffering.ReplyCancel

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  • chrissi - your thoughts. your words. your beautiful children. and your sweet celebration for cora …♥ReplyCancel

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  • Jen - I love this so much friend!! Makes me sad, as Jocelyn will be nine this year too, and I can’t even fathom what you are going through! You and your faith are such a blessing to me. So thankful for a God with the knowledge of the future and better plans and timing than our own! Love you bunches and I am praying for your family always!ReplyCancel

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  • Danielle - Beautifully written, Jess. Your words about putting God in a box, especially spoke to my heart. Trusting God is a day to day process. It is what I want to do with all my heart, but it takes constant effort and is easier some days than others. Trusting Him and letting my plans go sums up my day to day walk with the Lord since my cancer journey, and really since having children. 🙂 I heard a quote on K-LOVE recently that I continue to remind myself several times each day: “God love me so much, that I can trust why He is allowing ‘this’ to happen to me.” Whatever “this” is, may we all be able to give it to God each day and trust His plans, not our own. Continued prayers for you and your sweet family! Love, DanielleReplyCancel

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  • Krystal - Thank you for this post. I love how God brings clarity of who He is out of what we initially see as messes or problems. Praying for your still hurting heart!ReplyCancel

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I have a house full of boys. Boys are awesome. However, boys do not like hearts and pink and other frilly valentines-y things. At least my boys don’t. But valentines day is super fun so I went searching for some “boy-ish” valentine ideas. After scrolling through Pinterest I came up with a list of ideas that I thought my boys would approve of. They narrowed my list down to whoopee cushions, punch balloons and gum. And all of a sudden valentines day was awesome again. 🙂

These are not my original ideas as I saw various versions of each one on Pinterest but I wanted something more specific to boys that we could pass out to their cousins. So I texted my super talented friend, Jen, and she came up with these awesome tags for each one. Jen is the best and she is even letting me share the printables with you! Thanks, Jen!! Also make sure you check out Jen’s blog because she has some more cute kid valentine ideas!

Griff chose whoopee cushions. Let me tell you that the tooting jokes and pranks have been running wild around here. I guess I can’t be mad about it because it was my idea. Their smiles and giggles are totally worth it. And eventually they will pop, right!?

Griff was trying so hard to make horrible faces at me because he knew I was taking his picture, but then I caught this smile.

I love him and his little preschool handwriting so much. Two kids who can write their own names on their valentines is pretty great! I hope my sister and sister-in-laws don’t hate me too much for sending these home with all the cousins. At least I was smart enough not to send them to school. 🙂

Whoopie Valentine

free printable tags | whoopie cushions | chalk pen | bakers twine

Levi chose punching balloons. Partially because I told him I didn’t think his teacher would appreciate with her whole class of first graders had whoopie cushions. Oh my. He is all about football and tackling and anything physical so these were perfect for him.

Hopefully the first graders will keep them in their bags until they get home. A whole room of kids with punching balloons probably wouldn’t be fun either.

Punch Valentine

free printable tags (cousin / friend) | punch balloons | clear party bags

Jakey chose bubble gum. Mostly because he just wanted to eat it all. He loves gum. If you ever want to make friends with him, just hand him a pack of gum.

Originally I was going to buy those candy tubes and big bubble gum balls but I had these little mini cups and bubblegum on hand already so I just went with what we had. I thought they turned out so cute!

Stuck on You Valentine

free printable tags (cousin / friend) | bubble gum | mini cups | bakers twine

Tomorrow we are hosting our annual cousin valentines party! It should be fun! I meant to post these much earlier so that you had time to use the printables too, but that just didn’t happen. So if you are looking for a last minute idea…here you go! Or just tuck these ideas away for next year and you will be way ahead. Leave a comment or tag me on Instagram (@jessmcclenahan) if you end up using any of the tags. I’d love to see!

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  • Jody - Our school parties were yesterday. Someone in 5th grade gave out punching balloons. I only had to tell one person in the hall not to do hit it on someone’s face…and it was a girl! LolReplyCancel

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  • Mary Ann - Over the years, I have always loved to see your cousin’s Valentine party and then the photos afterward. Your boys are so darling. I hope the party is everything and more than you and the boys had hoped for. ENJOY!!ReplyCancel

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A little over a week ago I got to spend some time with the ladies of Lindsborg Evangelical Covenant Church and speak at their women’s retreat. It was such a sweet time together. It is a pretty incredible privilege to be able to share with others how God has worked and continues to work in my life through sorrow. And then to hear firsthand how He is moving in the lives of others as well?! So amazing! I left feeling so encouraged but if I am honest with you the weeks before were a little rough.

Levi got a bow and arrow for Christmas and he thinks it is the best present ever. Joel put a hay bale in the yard for him to practice shooting at. He is getting pretty good but that didn’t happen without practice. I heard Joel talking to him about keeping his eye on the target. He told Levi that if his eyes started to wander and he lost sight of the hay bale his arrows would go all over the place. It could even be dangerous. Hmmmm….life application, maybe?!

You know, for some reason God continues opening these doors for me to speak and each time I question Him a little because speaking still doesn’t feel like “my thing”. I don’t feel like I’m gifted at speaking, my heart aches as I relive some of the hardest days of my life, the “whys” begin to resurface again, I worry about presenting God’s Truth accurately (which I think is probably a good worry!), and pretty soon I feel like I’ve lost sight of my target–shooting arrows all over the place. Wandering. And while some of those emotions are just part of the ups and downs of grief, it is not a place that I want to stay. I have to refocus, get my eyes back on Jesus and work to keep them there! Each time God proves himself so faithful to equip and give me the strength to do what He has called me to do. Each time as I approach the week or two before I speak, God guides me through his Word and reminds me of how He has walked with me and proven Himself faithful over and over again. I am no seasoned (or even gifted!) speaker but I can tell you that by some miracle, each time, God has given me a message to share and the strength to get up in front of people (and even use a microphone!) and share it.

This month has been a hard one for me because of both the time of year (when Cora was in the hospital) and other normal life things. January and February always seem to have a way of rolling in all gloomy like. I shared with the women at the retreat how the Bible was a lifeline of God’s voice to me as I searched for answers and comfort after Cora died. And you know what? The same has been true in my life again over the past few weeks. It was not by accident that God had me pouring into His Word extra hard as I prepared for the retreat weekend. He knew that I needed to draw near and be reminded that my inmost needs are completely and fully met in Him. My eyes were wandering and my emotions were all over the place. He reminded me that I needed to keep my eyes on Him. God is good like that, isn’t He?! Before I jump too far into this year, getting distracted and pulled by so many other things, I want to remember to look to Jesus. Goodness, I need Him.

I know that January is over and everyone is done making their goals and resolutions for the year but these speaking preparations have reminded me how important it is not to lose sight of Jesus. I thought I would share a few resources with you that have been helpful to me:

If you have been following along since Cora died you know that I love Nancy Guthrie and that The One Year Book of Hope has been such an important tool in my life as I’ve navigated through grief. If you have lost a loved one or are just facing disappointment or heartache this is a great book to use daily.

Last year I found another yearly devotional that I love so much. New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp is packed full of the gospel and is such a great tool to read daily. I will always love The One Year Book of Hope and still pull it out often but this is a new favorite for sure!

This year I committed to read through the Bible. I don’t think I have ever read it all the way through and I wanted that to change. Joel and the boys got me The Daily Bible and I am loving it. I got behind when I was preparing for the retreat so I have some catching up to do! I like having the Bible in my hands to read and mark in but the ESV Bible app has a yearly reading plan and is great too. I use the app occasionally because it will read the passages to you. So helpful if you are doing dishes or driving in the car! You don’t even have to wait until next year…just start now!

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin is such a great resource if you don’t even know where to start with reading your Bible. She has so many great Bible studies as well!

And lastly, Bible Study Fellowship has been so great for studying God’s Word in depth and with more of a whole Bible perspective and it also keeps me accountable. I love BSF and I can’t say enough about their children’s program (it is amazing!). If you are looking for a Bible study to plug into, see if there is a BSF near you!

Let me just say that of course I don’t use all of these things every day. Don’t feel overwhelmed! These have just been a few things that have worked for me at different times over the past few years. I fail over and over again just like everyone else. But I find that when I am using some of these tools to stay in God’s Word it helps me keep my eyes on Jesus. It helps me “bind my wandering heart to Thee”. I long for the overflow of my life to reflect a deep love for Jesus. That starts by daily connecting with Him.

We all are prone to wander, aren’t we?

What about you? How do you stay in God’s Word and keep your eyes on Him? I’d love to hear!

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  • Brooke in WI - Talk about perfect timing! I’ve been meaning to email and ask about the book you loved so much, that helped with your grief. Some friends of mine lost their young adult son last Thanksgiving (near Garden City actually) in a car accident and it has been crushing. I’ve wanted to send something to them this winter, and this book (couldn’t remember what it was) was on my mind. Thank you!ReplyCancel

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  • Mary Ann - Yes, we all wander. I stay in God’s word by reading His word and trying to take the things I learn to heart. I keep my eyes on Him by serving others, by attending my church meetings, by remembering Him daily. I say prayers daily and try to be the person He knows I can be. But it’s a daily challenge. My favorite song is “Come Thou Fount.” My favorite version is the Tabernacle Choir. I love the last part of the song in the version they sing:
    Oh, to grace how great a debtor
    Daily I’m constrained to be,
    Let that grace now like a fetter
    Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
    Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
    Prone to leave the God I love.
    Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
    Seal it for Thy courts above.

    I want to seal my heart to God. I want to be that person that my parents and my husband will be proud of when I see them again in heaven. I want to be a good influence on my children, especially my almost 7 year old grandson. I want to make a difference. Yes, we all wander away from God but the important thing is that we return to Him and do those things that will seal our hearts to Him. You are a wonderful person Jess. Your blog has given me strength and hope many times. I love to see the photos of your children. Thanks for being an inspiration to many of us.
    P.S. Go to You Tube, search “Tabernacle Choir Come Thou Fount.” Watch the version where the women have on red dresses and they are singing with the orchestra. It is stunning and beautiful and I can feel the power of those beautiful lyrics written over 250 years ago. I love seeing those talented men & women whom I know love our Savior Jesus Christ, singing this song. It never ceases to move me to tears.ReplyCancel

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These photos are so “last year” but I had to post them here! Amanda of Amanda Marie Photography took our photos this year. I asked her if she would be willing to come out to the farm and I was so excited when she said yes. I have always thought it would be fun to have our family photos taken on the farm. My next dream is to have our family photos taken during harvest. Wouldn’t that be fun?! Anyway, I love these photos. It was a horribly windy day but you would never know because she captured our family and those sweet farm boys of mine so well.

I love documenting each year with family photos. So much to be grateful for!

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  • Carrie - These are FANTASTIC! Thanks for sharing.ReplyCancel

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  • Micah - These are amazing!! Your boys are so grown up and handsome. A blessed new year to your sweet family!ReplyCancel

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  • Tiffany - That was probably a good idea – everyone looks so comfortable! Great photos.ReplyCancel

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  • Jenny - ADORABLE! I love them all. Happy 2017 to you and your family!ReplyCancel

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  • Liz - These pictures just made me chuckle. They are a treasure.ReplyCancel

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  • Maria - Adorable! What a blessed family!ReplyCancel

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  • andrea siebert - these are so great Jess!! 🙂ReplyCancel

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  • Tomi-Marie Court - I love your sweet family! Such wonderful pictures.ReplyCancel

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  • Toni :0) - Oh my goodness!!! Those are precious and beautiful photos Jess!! Absolutely perfect! Cheers to a wonderful new year. 😊ReplyCancel

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  • Danielle - Beautiful Jess! Family pictures are my favorite treasures, too! If we can’t keep them little, at least we can take a million pictures of them to try and remember them that way, right?! 🙂 Prayers of blessings to you and your sweet family this new year! 🙂ReplyCancel

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  • ellen patton - These photos are fantastic!ReplyCancel

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  • Michelle Keene - Love, Love these pictures. You have a beautiful familyReplyCancel

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  • Madison - LOVE these…especially the last one and the third from the bottom!ReplyCancel

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  • jennifer - Wow! What beautiful pictures! The sun on the boys’ faces is so wonderful! And three shirtless boys in boots! What a lovely reminder of your days as they grow!!! Photos are so precious.ReplyCancel

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  • Gran - It makes me sad there is never any dog photos:(ReplyCancel

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  • Mary Ann - Oh my…the photos are so stunning and sweet. They surely do capture your boys’ personality. I love how they are taken at your farm. What a treasure they are and will be for years to come. Your family is darling!!ReplyCancel

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jess-mac-front-1jess-mac-back jess-mac-back

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  • Mary Ann - I hope you and your family had a wonderful Christmas. It was a wonderful day to celebrate on the Sabbath. Me and my little family had a fun, quiet, restful day. It’s always good to see Christmas through the eyes of a child (my grandson). I love your photos. Your boys are getting way big, way too fast!! Happy Holidays and Have a Happy New Year.ReplyCancel

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