It has been a month in which I’ve experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that life could throw at you. It is a month full of life-altering milestones both tragically and triumphantly. Year over year, more than just the turning of the leaves and the transition from Summer into Winter, November always seems to bring significant change to my life.

My dad asked me the other day how this time of year makes me feel. The truth is, when I hear even the word November, thousands of tiny synapses fire through my nerves. It would be impossible to properly describe to you how this time of year truly makes me feel.

But I’ll try . . .

I was born on November 2nd, 1985.

Every year even through High School I would anticipate November’s coming. I’m honestly not much of a birthday person, but there is something special about your mom bringing in a cookie cake for the entire class when you’re in elementary school, or getting to plan a special outing with your friends when you’re in middle school and high school. My very last birthday spent with Amanda (my late wife), she threw a surprise party at our house and invited all of our closest friends to welcome me into year 30. I can’t remember feeling more loved and cared for up to that moment.

Amanda and I started our dating relationship this time of year. We met on October 1st, 2005 where we hung out for a week, but we didn’t see each other again until mid-November. This is when she met my family, they fell in love with her, and our relationship began to burgeon.

I remember the next November visiting Amanda in college in Florida over Thanksgiving week and telling her “I love you” for the very first time. We weren’t allowed to talk in their school library so I passed her notes through the shelves as we perused the aisles. Although she didn’t say it back to me until the week of Christmas that year, we still held that as a milestone moment in our dating story.

After we married, she and I left where we had grown comfortable and secure in Greenville, South Carolina, packed up a moving truck and followed God’s call to moved to Indianapolis to start Resonate Church on November 11th, 2011.

We got pregnant with Weston in early November 2013.

And then, on November 10th, 2015 our home was broken into by three young men and Amanda (and our unborn 2nd child) was murdered. She was pronounced officially deceased on November 11th, 2015 — exactly 4-years to the day that we uprooted our entire lives to follow God’s call.

Let me pause right here to say that at this moment in my life, November could have — and frankly should have — cast a foreboding cloud over me. If this was the end of my story, even the word “November” would cause me to shudder. It would send horrifying triggers through every fiber of my being. As November comes barreling toward us every year, I would probably make provisions to wall myself off, hole myself up, and push away from any and all social interaction. And this is exactly what many people I interact with do. Along with milestones, seasons, and anniversaries, they anticipate the pain they believe they’re going to feel before they ever actually feel it. This undoubtedly causes an exacerbation of that pain.

Please don’t misunderstand me. November to me can still at times seem tinted with of darkness and shrouded by intermittent sharp twinges of pain. But I refuse to let the enemy steal the many beautiful memories I once held about November (and all the other months I shared with Amanda) through this earth-shattering tragedy that has bifurcated our lives. When I’m able for just a moment just step back and take an objective look at everything I recognize that to let the enemy have a claim over November would be simply tragic. Because up until November 11th, 2015, this month was full of so much joy.

And God in his goodness has peppered even more joyful experiences into my Novembers since then.

Many of you have followed our story and read my blog as I shared some of the deep soul-wrestling I underwent to find healing through losing my best friend and unborn baby girl.

Over the course of 2016 I felt God’s nudge to not sit back on my heals and let November just come to me. While I would never be able to get Amanda back, I felt The Lord whisper to me that He had given me the power to take back what the enemy had stolen from me in the spiritual realm. I could seize joy again. I could choose to worship. I could decide to be grateful. I could resolve to heal. By His Spirit I could overcome.

On November 11th, 2016 the worship team at our church recorded a live album of songs we wrote chronicling the grief journey we’d been on — with a special emphasis on the triumphant healing power of the Holy Spirit. That night was monumental. We held the worship album recording at the church that Amanda’s dad pastors, where she grew up, and where we got married. It was for me a direct confrontation to the enemy . . . and I believe the first crack in the fortress that barred my heart from experiencing joy again.

Since then God has begun to write a new story — or at least new chapters to the story he’s been writing all along — and He has seen it fit to use Novembers as significant settings to the plot He is masterfully weaving.

I met and fell in love with, Kristi Monroy, a beautiful girl who had been attending my church and worked out at the same Crossfit gym I did. On November 8th, 2017 I took her to a luxury rooftop overlooking Indianapolis and asked her to be my wife. (I’ll need to give you the full story later because it’s an amazing one!) I wasn’t necessarily planning on proposing to her so close to November 11th, but as God’s providence would have it, it became the most suitable time to drop to one knee.

In November 2018 Kristi and I began to feel God stirring another transition in us, this one would be painstakingly difficult but necessary (again, I’ll have to give you the full story on this one soon as well). We sensed God was calling us to step away from the church Amanda and I had started in order to pour ourselves into ministering to people who have found themselves in the middle of trial, tragedy and transition. Once again, November marked another step in the mourning — and healing — process.

Now I’m sitting on a couch in my living room before the rest of the house is awake writing this. It’s early in the morning on November 11th, 2019. The 4-year anniversary of Amanda’s death. November 11th will always be a significant date for me — one marked with excruciating pain and sorrow. However, just one week ago, on November 4th, 2019, I experienced a cocktail of emotions when beauty, healing, redemption, joy, and elation flooded a hospital room as Kristi and I welcomed Cohen David Parker Blackburn into this world. There is no way in this brief of a forum I could help you understand the richness of redemption that pervaded the room as I held Kristi’s hand while she labored through the night to bring Cohen into this world. Every so often sitting in that room that night, I would experience slight triggers that would send me back to November 10th and 11th, 2015 — the smell of hospitals, the sterile long corridors, the arrangement of furniture in the hospital room, the side of the bed I sat while holding my wife’s hand while she unconsciously labored for her own life. This November night, however, I clutched Kristi’s hand while she pushed and groaned and gasped and at times even screamed. Rather than fighting for her life, she fought to bring life to another. The moments where I experienced the depths of anguish and sorrow had now become the foundation for layers upon layers of elation. I heaved and sobbed tears of utter joy next to the hospital bed while this little one was brought into the world. As the doctor laid our newborn on Kristi’s chest, I had a stark awareness that I was sitting in a moment of renewal. It was the most beautiful, healing, redemptive, and joy-filled moment I’ve experienced to date.

And it happened in November. Exactly one week before the anniversary of Amanda’s death.

I can’t help but think that God does these kinds of things on purpose. Like it’s part of his supernatural intervention on the traumatic parts of our story. As He did so often with the Israelite people, He brings us right back to a place we’ve been before, a place that haunts our memory. But as we confront that memory we find the web that once entangled our courage is now hollow and abandoned. This time around it’s different. It’s now been marked with a stone monument blanketed with moss and beautiful budding spring flowers to show He’s faithful to heal and restore.

When my dad asked me how I was feeling this November, he followed up the question with something like this, “do you ever find yourself feeling guilty for feeling joy again?”

I told him I used to, until I realized Amanda wouldn’t want me to feel guilty . . . and until I acknowledged that a version of the pain will never leave. It remains like a sacred thorn in the flesh.

It’s like the dull pain you have in your ankle because of an old high school sports injury. Much of the time you don’t notice it. You’re going about your day, staying in motion, your mind preoccupied with other pressing matters. Every once in a while you may land on it the wrong way and it sends a sharp pain up your leg, but other than that you pay it no attention. But if you sit still long enough you’ll feel the ache in the joint begin to come on. It reminds you of the many nights immediately after the injury you spent nursing it with an ice bath, the many practices you endured with a brace around it.

Sorry to use a sports metaphor that some may not be able to relate with, but this is much how it feels to heal through losing a loved one — only a million times worse.

Please understand this, God’s desire for you is healing and for me — full healing. He wants you to get up and dance on that ankle that you once sprained. He desires to bring beauty from your ashes. He desires to turn your mourning into joy. He desires to give you a garment of praise to replace your spirit of heaviness (Isaiah 61).

On top of that, your lost loved one desires this for you as well.

She would want you to live your life. He would want you to experience joy. She would want you to smile again, and laugh with your kids, and put up Christmas decorations, and listen to Burl Ives, and drink your favorite holiday latte — even if those were traditions you did together. Your loved one would not want your “November” to haunt your memory forever.

I’m confident Amanda would want me to see the beauty in November again. I know she would want me to condition my kids’ ears to tingle at the first stroke of “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” every November 1st. She would want us to watch Elf and enjoy sipping on our holiday latte of choice from Starbucks. She would want us to make the most of this life here on earth.

And that’s what I would want when I pass away too. One day life will stop for me here on this earth, but it doesn’t need to stop for my loved ones. I’m sure they will be sad and miss me, but when that time comes I would want them to know that I will be more alive than ever before, basking in the warm rays of Heaven’s light, not looking back at earth with even a hint of homesick — for I will be home.

If Amanda were to speak to each of us here on November 11th, 2019 she would more than likely say something like this, “Be careful not to focus on the things in your story that have no bearing in eternity. Stop getting stuck in what once was. Don’t get distracted by the minutiae or the noise. Keep living your story. Keep leaning into His story as it propels you forward into hope. The Lord will do another beautiful thing in November. He’ll bring you another you can love and you’ll discover an even deeper and richer love than you knew before. Because a pre-requisite to rich love is deep loss. He will show up and bring these redemptive purposes to fruition, and then you’ll know He cares for you! To Him, this is personal.”

My story is not one of tragedy. Does it contain a tragedy or two? Absolutely. And so does your story. And so will all of our stories. But whom we choose to let have the pen determines how our ending is written. Like the old choose-your-own-ending books we used to read as kids, the power lies within you to make the choice as to how your story will be written. Bob Goff once told me that we all have a Chapter 4 in our stories. Chapter 4 is the chapter that everything seems to go wrong for the character. But can you imagine closing the book at Chapter 4 and never picking it up again to see how the next 27 chapters unfold?

Scripture tells us that God is the author and finisher of our faith. Every great story contains a perilous situation that seems impossible to overcome but that situation becomes the crucible that forges a prolific hero. Every great story contains a moment where the main character is confronted by the pain of his past. He comes face-to-face with a dragon he must slay in order to move beyond what was and into what could be. For me, one of those dragons is “November.”

I don’t know what the “November” of your story is, but you have one. We all do. And you have the choice of what you’re going to do with November. You could let November haunt you for the rest of your life. And if you choose that path, it will haunt you. It will swell and grow into this horrifically ugly and terrifying month that swallows you whole. Or you could let God use November — the very thing that once haunted you — to heal you. If you let Him, He will bring you back around, full circle, to experience rich healing. The very same knife that slashed you open will become a scalpel that mends you.

Today on November 11th, 2019 I’m thanking God for every moment we experience in life, both the ones that make you not want to take another breath, and the ones that take your breath away.