Turning Off the Dark
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In the midst of Christmas preparations for church and wrapping presents, Levi and Jennie Lusko tragically lost their five-year-old daughter. They share how God graciously lit their path to healing.
Turning Off the Dark
Dave: Alright; I want to find out if you ever listened to my sermons.
Ann: Of course, I did!
Dave: Thirty years of sermons.
Ann: Yes, I have them all memorized!
Dave: There’s one I used—okay; let’s see if you can finish this line—
Dave: “Trials can make you—
Ann: —“…better or bitter.”
Dave: There you go; there’s another part to it.
Dave: “Trials can make you better or bitter”—see, look at that! [Laughter] You got half of it—
Dave: —“The choice—
Ann: —“The choice is yours”; that’s it!
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So yes, when pain or adversity enters your life, you have a choice.
Ann: And all of us will have pain and adversity.
Dave: Yes; and being the Detroit Lions Chaplain for 33 seasons, I knew a lot about pain and loss. [Laughter]
Anyway, we’ve got a couple with us today—Levi and Jennie Lusko—who’ve written a book.
Ann: —several books.
Dave: Yes, several books; you’re pastors of Fresh Life Church in Montana; you taught in Wyoming. And who knows?—there are probably other states—because God has really blessed this thing.
You wrote a book about a painful, excruciating moment in your life as you were starting Fresh Life Church. I guess you were about four or five years old in the church.
Ann: —and it’s called Through the Eyes of a Lion.
Welcome back to FamilyLife Today, you guys.
Jennie: Thank you!
Levi: Thank you so much for having us.
Jennie: Thank you so much.
Levi: My family grew up in Detroit, actually; both my mom and my dad are from Lansing.
Levi: Yes; he moved to Colorado later on in life, which is where I was born. He told me my whole life, “I’m raising you as a Broncos fan, because I don’t want you to have the pain and agony that I did cheering for the Detroit Lions.” [Laughter]
Levi: So I relate to that.
Ann: That’s a smart man.
Levi: But he still did cheer on Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons.
Dave: There you go!
Levi: I definitely got some Detroit love there. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; that’s good.
Well, take us back to 2012. You were leading Fresh Life Church, and it’s December.
Ann: Your church is growing.
Dave: Just take us there.
Ann: You have four kids; things are going really well.
Levi: Yes; what we like to say is: “It was the best and the worst of times, at the same time”; because that year was a year of growth for our church. People were getting saved, and we were taking our ministry on the road with tours—you know, evangelistic tours—around the country.
Jennie: And even in our own lives, too, I remember specifically—just in my own life/my own soul—I felt like God was just growing me and growing us in our marriage.
Jennie: It was just a year of growth.
Ann: How old were your kids then?
Jennie: Alivia was—
Levi: —Lenya was five.
Jennie: And then Daisy was two-and-a-half.
Levi: Daisy was 2, and Clover—
Levi: Clover was one.
Jennie: —was one/almost one. They were bunched in right there at the bottom.
Yes; beautiful! I mean, lots of fun. We have always had a really fun family life—not to shout out your show—beyond church, we always/family days. I’ve always loved being a daddy to little girls: daddy-daughter date nights, and fun family days, and all of that.
Jennie: You would take the girls, as they got older—you would take them on trips, preaching trips.
Levi: Yes, I had just taken my second-born daughter, Lenya/our daughter, on her first daddy-daughter trip; we went to Disneyland.
And then we started our tradition, that we’ve continued every year except for 2020; and that is we would always taking our family vacation on Easter Sunday. We’d finish preaching our last service, and then get on a plane and go somewhere. I’d turn off my phone and my email and not work the whole trip, so all of that. It was the best; we were establishing all of these great rhythms.
Then at Christmas of 2012, Lenya, who was our second-born, had an asthma attack—
Jennie: It was five days before Christmas.
Levi: —five days before Christmas. She just stopped breathing—it was inexplicable—out of the normal. She’d had a lot of asthma attacks; but normally, takes medicine, breathes better, and is fine.
Jennie: Levi has asthma, and our oldest has asthma, too; so it’s kind of a normal part of our life.
Levi: She just stops breathing and starts turning blue. I did CPR; Jennie called 911. We were praying, obviously; and in just a matter of moments, she went from being here to not being here.
Ann: Pause right there for a second. This is the most traumatic thing—and the greatest fear every parent has—and you’re living it. As she’s turning blue, Jennie, are you so fearful? Do you think, “She could die,”—are you thinking that?—or are you thinking, “Oh, it will be okay”?
Jennie: Well, I thought she would be okay. We had just finished a date night. Our date nights were on Thursdays—that was kind of our rhythm—and then family days were on Fridays. We had just finished our date night. We came to my mom’s house, pulled up; and literally, in that moment, we were just saying how we were so excited for family day.
You know, the week before Christmas for church is just crazy! For anyone, it’s crazy; but we just had our schedules packed that week. All week, we were like, “Okay, you guys, it’s crazy now; but we’re going to have Friday family day, and we’re going to go ice skating, and we’re going to have a fancy family dinner. Levi was going to take Lenya to go Christmas shopping for her sisters.
We went into date night, like, “Okay, we just need this—we need time together—and then we’re going to be with our kids.” We rolled up to my mom’s house; literally, Levi was like, “I just feel so relaxed right now.” That’s how we felt.
Levi: Well, I had finished my sermon that day.
Jennie: Yes, so we were ready for a Fresh Life Christmas; we were ready for Christmas as a family.
I walk in; and my mom is trying to give Lenya her treatment, but she wasn’t taking it. She is sitting on the counter; and then, she just passes out on the kitchen counter. Levi had parked the car; he ran in—he immediately started doing CPR—and we call the paramedics. That whole time/in that moment, I’m just praying; and I’m crying out to God, and saying, “Lenya, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
The paramedics come in, and Levi goes with her; they take her away. I’m with the other girls in the other room, and I’m just holding them. I’m not thinking that she has died; I’m not thinking that I just said, “Goodbye,” to her—I’m not thinking those things—I’m literally thinking, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. It has to be okay.”
Then my brother drives me to the hospital, where Levi and I are sitting in that little waiting room. The doctor comes in; and then, all of a sudden, we’re hearing what no parent wants to hear—what no one wants to hear—or is in their nightmares; he says, “I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Lusko. There’s nothing more that we can do.”
We’re like, “What?!” We were just in shock. They bring us in, and it’s just the hardest thing ever.
Levi: It was terrible.
Jennie: Our automatic response—obviously, we were just in shock and crying—we each hold one of her hands. It was almost immediate; I don’t even think we knew what we were doing—but we just raised our other hands—and we were saying, “God, You gave us Lenya; and we give her back to You.” There was just that moment of like worshiping in the weeping; and acknowledging God in the heartache, and the heartbreak, and the shock, and the terror, and the horrors.
I mean, even just looking back, it’s like, “I don’t even know/I don’t even know how we did it. I don’t know; but God was there with us in our deepest pain.”
Dave: I mean, that image of you—
Dave: —with your arms up is not what you would expect a parent to be able to do in that darkness. Like you just said, “How in the world was that your response?”
Levi: A lot of what came to my mind in that moment was Lenya’s baby dedication. You know, we had dedicated her to God, as parents, early on. In our church, we bring parents up, and they stand on the stage, and they hold the baby. With the pastor there, they say, “We’re going to recognize God in this child’s life as long as they’re here. Babies are on loan; they’re gifts from God. We’re here to be stewards, not owners.” You’re essentially saying, “This isn’t my child; this is God’s child, and I want to raise this child to know Jesus.”
I remember seeing her in the hospital—that was one of the first images that popped into my head—I remember, when we were praying, we said, “God, we dedicated her to You when you gave her to us, and now we give her back to You as You’ve taken her home.” We weren’t like super-human in our faith—we were broken, and we were devastated, and we were suffering, and we were in agony—but I can also say that God gave us peace that passes understanding. In the midst of that agony, we truly felt a sense of: “It’s going to be okay,”—and God—“I’m here with you through this.”
Dave: So how do you walk out to your car?
Jennie: The worst!
Levi: Yes, it was hard. We looked at the empty car seat. We looked at—you know, it was all/the timing of it was all so capricious—I mean, there’s no good day to lose a child; but to have gifts under the Christmas tree with her name on them—
Levi: —her stocking was on the fireplace. There were a million things about it that were just so cruel. To have a child die is like having memories taken from you—that you’ve already thought about and enjoyed so you almost feel like they’re already yours—but then having them snatched from you. You know, you fantasize about your child’s high school graduation, walking them down the aisle; you know, there are so many benchmarks. To this day, in our pantry, there are/all of our kids have little tick marks with the date by them, and Lenya’s stopped; everyone’s getting older but her.
All of that’s in your mind when you look in the rearview mirror and you see an empty car seat. We looked at that; and we just thought, “This is not happening!” But at the same time—and again, it’s like a split screen—because then Jennie reminded me that we should go back and invite the people in the hospital to church.
Ann: Yes, Jennie! How does that happen?
Dave: This is right outside the hospital?
Levi: Yes, in the parking lot.
Ann: Yes; this is you walk outside; you had just left the hospital, and Jennie said, “Levi, you have to go back in”?
Levi: Well, I had already shifted to reverse.
Levi: She goes, “Hold on; you need to go back in and invite those people to church.” It was just natural; it’s just part of our rhythms. You know, you don’t build a church by telling people to invite their friends. You build a church by inviting everybody that you meet to come to church. It’s not weird or icky evangelism; it’s just a natural overflow of: “We’ve seen Jesus, and we want to tell people about Jesus.” We always had little cards or invites we could use to invite people. Now, it’s through our website or Instagram®; right? But we would say, “Hey, come to church on Sunday!”—you know?
Jennie: And even, both Alivia and Lenya had little purses that they would always put little treasures in. After she went to heaven, we found Lenya’s purse. She had her little mini-Bible, and she had invitations to Fresh Life Christmas and bracelets.
I don’t know exactly what came over me. All I know—we had spent/I don’t even know how long in the room with Lenya—but I know that it was the hardest thing to leave. We were walking out, and we should have been carrying her with us; she was supposed to come with us. Leaving the room, and leaving the hospital—[emotion in voice]—our daughters were all asleep; they were in the car.
Just looking back, and seeing Lenya’s empty—I don’t know—I had invitations in the car; because even going through the drive-thru or whatever, we would just always—I was like, “Those people just were there for us on our worst day; we just need to invite them to come to church.” So Levi went in and invited them.
Levi: Well, I was crying, and I was, you know, a hot mess. But I said, “Thank you for everything.” I said, “We’re having Christmas services, and we would love to invite you to come.” I said, “I spent all day working on my message, and this all happened; but if you’ll come, I’m still going to be there. If you guys would come in my daughter’s honor, we would love to have you.”
Several of them did end up coming, which is beautiful. We heard afterwards that some of them made faith decisions.
Levi: It’s just fantastic; it’s how God does. God takes the hard things we go through, and He uses them for good—right?—if you don’t get bitter, you get better. You know, none of us get to choose what we face; but we all get to choose how we’re going to respond to it.
Ann: Well, as I listen to you guys, what I think is: “Those things happened because it was a natural overflow of how God had already filled you. You were filled with Him; you’re filled with His Spirit. Even though you’re in the most devastating experience that you could ever walk through, you’re still filled with Him. Jesus always has His eyes on His people; He’s always loving them. Even your response of worship in the midst of suffering and pain is just—you know who your Father is, and you trust Him. That says a lot about your walk with God and your perspective of how much He loves you and He loves your girls.
It reminds me of hearing Tony Evans, years ago, when I was in my 20s, I think. He talked about building our foundation. You say something like this in your book; but he says, “You don’t see people pouring the foundation in the middle of the storm. They’re building the foundation when the skies are clear because, when the storm comes later, the foundation will last.”
Levi: Well, you know, you’ve got to train for the trial you’re not yet in—
Levi: —that’s the thing.
Ann: I love how you said that.
Levi: But I don’t think you ever know when you’re in that season, and when you’re potentially doing what’s foolish or wise. Jesus said, “When the storms come, you find out if it’s sand or rock.” We’re all, right now, determining how we’re going to respond to our darkest day.
Dave: You know, I’m a dad; I’m a pastor. I’m not sure I could preach after that, that Christmas. You know, I think it would be very easy to say, “Hey, I’m going to take this year off.”
Ann: And people would understand.
Dave: How were you able to preach, and did you write a new message?—or was it the message you already wrote?
Levi: Well, you’ll recall I spent that day writing that sermon.
Levi: And you know, I always say this: “I want to be really careful, because I don’t think there’s any value in playing hurt or faking fine,” as my friend, Esther Allen, likes to say. She wrote that book, No More Faking Fine. There’s definitely nothing noble about: “I pulled my hamstring, but I’m going to keep playing.” You can do severe injury if you do that.
Levi: So that’s the disclaimer.
I did take time off; I took a month off preaching after that weekend. But I felt like I didn’t know any other way through it than that. I wrote the sermon. It was my way to honor her. I promised those people in the hospital, so there was really never any question that I was going to. I tweaked the ending of the message and worked, of course, the conquering of death into the story. Getting up and doing that, I think, was my gift.
I mean, most kids have the obligation of stewarding their parents’ legacy. God gave us the backwards responsibility of honoring and stewarding our daughter’s legacy. We just have kind of, from the beginning, intended not to miss a moment in that journey.
Dave: Well, I know the title; I don’t know the content of your message. I think it was “Turn Off the Dark”?
Levi: That’s right.
Dave: What did that mean?
Levi: Jesus, in John, Chapter 1, is the Light of the world. I had always thought about you turn on a light. If you turn on light, you’re turning off dark. The action of turning off the dark, which was inspired by the Spiderman Broadway play, was this epiphany that, when Jesus came at Christmas, it was God’s attempt to turn off darkness. That was what I had spent the whole day kind of writing. You know how it is—when you get a good idea, and it kind of works, you reek a moment of Archimedes in the bathtub, where you’re almost ready to run through the streets naked—you’re so excited about your sermon that you wrote. [Laughter]
It doesn’t always happen; but when it does come in that bolt of inspiration, it’s wonderful! That was how that sermon was given to me. It was all kind of full circle. There were 3,000 people in the church at that point, but I think 6,000 people came to that Christmas Eve service. You know, it was amazing to get to honor Jesus and my daughter in that moment.
Dave: Finally, I’d love to know your perspective on—you know, we said at the beginning, “Trials can make you better or make you bitter,”—in some ways, this sounds so trite in this situation. Yes—when you have a flat tire or the meeting gets canceled—yes, they can make you better; but when you’re going through the devastation that you have—
Ann: —the valley.
Dave: —there are families listening, who have lost a loved one—maybe a son, or a daughter, or a spouse—how is it that God can meet you in that moment? How does He do that?—because you’ve experienced it.
Levi: Well, we just want to be really careful to not, you know, come in with our experience. People hearing this, it could feel so insensitive to say, “You know what? You’re going to be fine. God’s making you better,”—and you know, like you said, give some kind of pat answer.
Our experience, though, is that everything Jesus said in Matthew, Chapter 5, has been proved in the fire: “Blessed are the broken-hearted…” “Blessed are those who mourn…” “Blessed are those who hunger; they will be filled.” “…. they will be comforted,” “…theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There is a reward in suffering. That reward is: God does come near; He is near to the broken-hearted in a unique way. I really believe, if you don’t harden your heart—if you open up your heart to God being there—there is a unique treasure that’s available to you in the midst of suffering that is, honestly, an honor.
I don’t know how to say this any other way than this—so I’ll just say it—“If I could have what God has given to us in this suffering without going through it, I would still want it. I would want every good thing that He has given to us in this, because it is so good. There is such a nearness of His Spirit and a depth that you can’t get outside of being put into a crucible. It’s why Paul said to the Philippians: “To you it’s been entrusted with the grace of, not only believing in Jesus, but to suffer for His name.” That could sound so cruel!—“Man, you guys are given the great gift of suffering!” But they would say, “You’re right, Paul; it is a gift to suffer for Jesus.”
Jennie: Yes, it’s hard though; because we wish that she was still with us. We don’t want to say, “Oh, people gave their lives to Christ! Since Lenya went to heaven, all these people know God’s love!”—yes, that is true; and that’s amazing—but we miss her! It has hurt so much. It has been, especially in those early days, and then kind of randomly and sporadically after, where it’s just that weight heavy on your chest. It’s hard to breathe; you almost have to just trust God for the next breath.
Yes, we believe that God has entrusted us with this pain; but reciprocating it is us trusting Him in the little moments and trusting Him when it hurts so much, and trusting Him that He’s at work. He Himself said: “My ways are not your ways. My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are higher than yours.” So trusting Him that He is good and that He loves us. Even His Word/the Bible says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Our worst day was actually Lenya’s glorious day.
Ann: —best day; yes.
Jennie: The tension, even with that, of the suffering and the pain that we have experienced—but not for her—that tension of knowing that hope that we have in Christ, that one day—Lenya will not come back to us; and we won’t get to experience her as a 13-year-old and as a senior in high school; our daughters are growing up with the void of their sister—however, we have our hope in Christ—we have the hope that, because we’ve placed our faith in Christ, and because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, there’s going to be a day, where all of this/we won’t even remember it because of the joy that we’ll have when we’re with Jesus together, face to face.
There’s just always that tension of the heartache, and the pain, and the anger; but also the joy, and the privilege, and the honor to get to serve God in this way, and to love God in this way, and to steward this.
Bob: Anyone who has experienced the kind of pain and suffering that Levi and Jennie talked about today with Dave and Ann Wilson knows that’s a wound that takes time to heal. Apart from God’s grace, that wound can become infected. Levi has written about the loss of their daughter in a book called Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power.
We’ve got that book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, the title of the book is Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We want to take a minute today to say a great big “Thank you,” to so many of you who, over the last month, have gotten in touch with us, either online or by phone, and made a generous donation to help support the ongoing ministry of FamilyLife Today. As many of you know, there was a matching-gift opportunity made available to us during the month of May. So many of you responded; we are so grateful for that!
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And we hope you can be back with us, again, tomorrow. Dave and Ann Wilson will continue a conversation with Levi and Jennie Lusko, talking about how God met them in the midst of the pain they were experiencing when their daughter died unexpectedly. I hope you can tune in for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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