Author and speaker Bo Stern candidly discusses the challenges her family's experienced as a result of her husband's fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and offers encouragement to those facing similar battles. (Part 1 of 2)
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Bo Stern: I remember Steve saying, I don't want the kids to be bitter at God. I don't want them to think God gave them a bad deal because they're probably gonna lose their dad young and to watch such a treacherous process. So, his goal right away was, we have to redeem this thing. We have to believe Jesus will redeem this, but we have to be strong in this in front of our kids.
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John Fuller: That's Mrs. Bo Stern and she's sharing a little bit about the journey she had with her husband who fought a battle with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease as it's known. And she's on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly.
Jim Daly: John, this is another of our best of programs for 2015. Bo Stern's strength, her wisdom and candor in the face of her husband's terminal illness simply put, they're inspiring, which is why this program got such great response from you. And we all experience situations at one time or another that turn our world upside down--the loss of a relationship, financial struggles or in this case, a terminal illness or diagnosis.
In the midst of that, it's hard to keep an eternal perspective. It's hard to think God intends our suffering for good, but through the hope and promise of Christ, we have an anchor we can hold onto. And our guest today will not only share her family's story of difficult times, but also the beautiful lessons they've learned along the way.
John: And Bo is a teaching pastor at Westside Church in Bend, Oregon and has written a book called Beautiful Battlefields and she and her late husband, Steve have four older children and two grandsons and we'll share an update about their family later on today. Here now is Bo Stern on a "Focus of the Family" Best of 2015 presentation.
Jim: Now folks are wondering, okay, what's Bo story? Just quickly, tell us about you and your husband, Steve. Give us an idea of what Steve is fighting, but tell us a little more about who the two of you are.
Bo: Yeah, well, Steve and I met in Bible college. I went when I was 16. I was very mature (Laughing). And we didn't like each other at all and--
Jim: So, it started on the right foot.
Bo: --it started (Laughter) out just right. The opposite of love is not hate. (Laughter) The opposite of love is passionate, I mean, we were passionately not in love. (Laughter) And so, we went on one date and it was kind of train wreck.
Jim: How did you ever say yes? Did he ask you or you asked him?
Bo: You're at Bible college. You have to date (Laughter).
John: It was the MRS degree that you were—
Bo: It was—
Bo: --Old Testament Survey and (Laughter) date a boy. It was my thing.
Jim: Wait, do people just get bored in that class or what happens? (Laughter) They start thinking, okay, I gotta find somebody to get coffee with or something.
Bo: It really is true, but you put all those men and women in one [place], yeah, that's what's gonna happen.
Jim: So, you said yes.
Bo: So, I said yes; we went on a date. Depending on who you listen to, it was a train wreck or not. I didn't love it. And so, he was out of school for a year and when he came back, something happened and he had changed. He will say I had changed (Laughter). And he's not here to defend himself, so I'm gonna say it was him.
Jim: So, the truth is somewhere in the middle, I'm sure.
Jim: You both—
Bo: --in the middle.
Bo: Yes, so then it was pretty much love at second sight at that point. And we got married and saved up money to buy a house and started having babies and built a life, you know. It was great.
Jim: So, you're livin' the dream, the Christian dream, doin' all the things right, I mean, goin' to Bible school together and finishing that. Did you both go into ministry? Or where did the Lord take you?
Bo: Yeah, well, we were always sort of volunteer ministry. We lived our lives around the church. We both were in business and had careers outside of ministry. But it was something that we loved. We loved giving our life to the church. And then, I don't know, a dozen years ago or so, we both were on staff at a church. So, ministry's always been the heart of our home.
Jim: Now I laughed; we laughed when we talked about you being a grandma, but talk about your kids and the age of your kids.
Bo: Yeah, my kids are 27. I don't know why this is always the hardest question to remember.
Jim: You do stumble a little bit. (Laughter)
Bo: Twenty-seven, 24, almost 20 and 14. And so, yeah, our grandbaby lives just two miles away, within spoiling distance for sure (Laughter)—
Jim: Spoiling distance.
Bo:--it's wonderful. Yeah, we're all at the same church and it's really wonderful to have all our family together.
Jim: Well, and there's a reason that your family is all back together.
Jim: Talk to us about what happened with Steve and that will take us in the direction we need to talk about today.
Bo: Yeah, in 2010 he noticed some symptoms that started to worry him. And he had always been the strongest man in any room. He was always a strapping guy. And he had never had any physical problems. And so, I didn't worry about it much, but we started kinda pursuing answers and he got a few misdiagnoses. And then we had one moment in a doctor's office where I just knew it was Goliath walked in. I knew it. He walked in. We couldn't see him, but we could feel him and we knew this is not gonna be okay. We're in for the fight of our lives. So, it took five months from that point to get to a diagnosis of ALS, which I think is better known by Lou Gehrig's Disease. And it was a gut punch. We didn't imagine. Lou Gehrig's has a 2- to 5-year prognosis. It's always fatal and the process I think it more difficult even than the prognosis.
Jim: Describe because many people will not know. They know the word, "ALS" or the acronym and they know Lou Gehrig's Disease, but what does it do to you over that 2- to 5-year period.
Bo: Yeah, it's a neuromuscular disease where your motor neurons, for whatever reason, nobody knows at this point, stop firing. They stop telling your muscles to work. So, your muscles assume they're not necessary anymore and just give up. So, it's atrophy and just all your muscles start to atrophy. And paralysis sets in until really, you become entombed in your own body and only the eyes and brain function after that. And then finally, the breathing will give out and so, it's usually a 2- to 5-year prognosis until time of ventilation or death.
Jim: There's so much to talk about in this. Tell me the age you were and Steve was, the ages when you got the prognosis.
Bo: I was 45 and he was 49. My youngest was 11.
Jim: Okay, so, three years ago.
Bo: Yeah, so that was our biggest concern, was how do we walk the kids through this? I remember Steve saying, I don't want the kids to be bitter at God. I don't want them to think God gave them a bad deal because they're probably gonna lose their dad young and to watch such a treacherous process. So, his goal right away was we have to redeem this thing. We have to believe Jesus will redeem this, but we have to be strong in this in front of our kids.
Jim: How did you go about or did you go about the A, I guess, talking about it? And then B, I mean, this is a disease that begins to take Steve away from you, even though his body is there, but he'll at some point, he's not able to communicate. How did you start ordering the priorities of, what do we say and do first? How do we deal with this with the children? What do we say to them? Steve, what are you gonna say to them? How did you go through that as a couple?
Bo: It was hit and miss honestly. I remember saying, is there a book we could read to know when is the right time to tell them? What is the right way to tell them? It was just so hard to know. But we fell back pretty hard on the Scripture that the joy of the Lord would be even their strength in the moment, that it all would come out.
So, we waited till we had a final diagnosis and then the older kids knew, as we were walking through it, but our youngest didn't know. And so, Steve took him to Olive Garden, his favorite restaurant and they sat down and Steve explained to him what was coming and then they cried.
I remember Steve texting me, 'cause I was frantic during the conversation. He didn't want me to go, which I understand. And he texted me and he said, "We talked; we cried and then Josiah said, 'Can I have more breadsticks.'" So (Laughter), there's kind of a resiliency that kicks in.
And then he asked Josiah spontaneously during that dinner, "Would you like to do something with me in the next six months? What would you like to do?" And he said, "I'd like to go to a Colts game." And from that conversation, Steve decided to have the conversation with all our kids and say, "What kind of dream trip would you want to take with me if we could do anything we wanted?"
So, that launched a year of traveling with our kids. We took five different trips and just really traveled and said the words we needed to say and took pictures and made memories while we could.
Jim: That's a beautiful resolution to do those things while Steve could still do those things and those have to be terrific memories for your kids.
Bo: They're bittersweet memories. It's hard when the clock is ticking. My encouragement to families is always do them while you can do them with all joy, because it's hard. You know that you're wrestling with this prognosis and you 're racing time and the symptoms were starting to kick in as we were doing those trips. And so, it was beautiful and brutal. It was both those things.
Jim: You know, Bo, I'm seeing right now Steve's three years into the 2- to 5-year typical prognosis. We're in the faith community. We believe God can heal somebody. How do you manage that posture before the Lord of, "Lord, would You heal my husband?" What happens in your private prayer closet?
Bo: Well, I have prayed the prayer of Mary for her brother, Lazarus, about a million times. Lord, the one You love so very much is sick. And just that and I just keep thinking, putting that out in front of God must matter. It must move His heart. And many people have really been staking their flag in the ground of Steve's healing and I appreciate it so much and they fight hard on that ground and believe for it. And I have chosen to stay in this place of believing that God is doing His very best work in us. This is not Plan B. He is doing something beautiful and if that leads to healing, we will dance really hard. And if that leads to heaven, we will dance really hard, because we know He's doing something beautiful.
Jim: And yet in all of that, there is still the questions in your heart, I'm sure and it's okay to ask those questions. I think sometimes we in the Christian community feel we're offending God if we say, "Why God?" How have you managed that? I mean, how have you sorted that out with the Lord, to be able to write a book, Beautiful Battlefields, which I love the title, by the way; I think that captures life. But how have you been able to absorb the reality of where Steve's at, the diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease, what's pending, the plight that is in front of you, the difficult death that will be? And God, where are You in this story? Mary was seemingly pretty upset with Jesus.
Bo: Uh-hm, yeah and I have had those moments. In fact, I would say it's a daily process. There are days where I wake up and I still think, when will we wake up from this? And so, I keep reminding myself that grief is appropriate. Sorrow is appropriate. I've had 30 years with the best man I know. And so, it wouldn't be appropriate to not feel this.
And I think sometimes people will have read the book and said, "I don't see the beauty that's come from my battle." And it's because they're looking for beauty that replaces their sorrow. But it isn't that. It's beauty that comes into sorrow and kind of mingles with it and softens it. It's not the acid of joy; it's the oil of joy that kinda comes in and heals and soothes and reminds you that, I am with you no matter where this goes. So, I would never pretend for a minute it's easy. I wouldn't even pretend it's my first choice. It's not. People say, well, you probably wouldn't trade this time for anything. And I'm like, oh, yeah, I would sure trade this time for my husband's health.
Bo: But given that this is where the lines have fallen to us, we're gonna find the pleasant places inside of it.
Jim: Where does that strength come from? And I'm not looking for the obvious answer, but seriously, where do you find the strength? I mean, even as you speak, you have such peace. I can see it in your face. You're talking about before we came on air, you were talking about some of the difficult nights taking care of Steve. Yet, you have a peace about you that is not superficial. What is that?
Bo: Well, the right answer is always Jesus, so I'll say that and the Word of God has been sustenance to me since I was a theology major at age 16. That's carried me through so much of this. But also Steve, he's just been such a rock and determined. In fact, the day of diagnosis, we stopped with our oldest daughter and son-in-law at a restaurant and we raised our glasses to life. And Steve said, "We have just been called to the ALS community. We are now missionaries—
Jim: Oh, man.
Bo: --and we just got our ticket in" and there's no shortcut into the ALS community. You can't just go in all healthy and say, "Hey guys, Jesus is your only hope." You have to have credibility. And Steve has encouraged our family to not just endure ALS, but to fight for the ALS community and that just gives us so much purpose inside of it.
John: Well, you're surrounded by a group of people I'm sure that have seen you living that out and they turn their eyes toward that unchangeable God. And there's some real hope and encouragement in what you're saying, regardless of our circumstances and I appreciate that so much. Bo Stern is our guest on "Focus on the Family" today with Jim Daly. And her book is called Beautiful Battlefields. We've got details about it and the entire conversation available as a download or on CD at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Bo, I love the Scripture that talks about God being close to the brokenhearted and saving those crushed in spirit. And I say that with a smile on my face, because it's as if there's an extra connection that God has with the human being, one of His made in His image, who suffer. It's like there's a special connection to the suffering soul.
How within the Christian church, I want to come back to this again. I'm sorry, but what strikes me most about you is your, I guess just that ability to rely on Christ in a matter of great difficulty. And I want to tap that, because you can really teach many of us how to be calm in the storm. You minister to people through your church when tough stuff comes, they seem to respond with more shallowness? Why is that? And what do you do to equip them to say that God has a bigger purpose here?
Bo: Yeah, I think in America especially, we give our lives to a God that we don't know and can't see and that's great. But then we don't get to know Him and that's not great, because then we have all these questions. We don't know who He really is and when a trial hits, we think, why did God do this?
And I lived my life for a long time thinking, if I show up and pay my tithe and pay my dues and marry the right guy and live my life the right way, things will go well for me. That will be the favor of God. But I'm just discovering that God is not the God to keep us from all affliction. He's the God Who goes with us into all affliction.
Jim: Right and it's interesting in this life, I would think that if that's true and I believe that's true, that God will allow us then to encounter things that push us toward Him.
Jim: And it's usually not when success is there. It's usually when we're going through difficulty. You talk in your book, Beautiful Battlefields about G: 50:20. What is that?
Bo: G:50:20 is the Scripture that is plastered all over our house. It's on my ring now. This is my new wedding ring and it is when Joseph, the brothers show up to him in prison. I mean, Joseph was imprisoned by them 13 years and sold into slavery. And when his brothers show up, he says, "You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good for the saving of many lives." And so, from the very beginning, we've said, "God is gonna use this, maybe not to get a book deal. Maybe not to even save Steve's physical life. But God is gonna use this for the saving of many lives. That's when we'll know that this work has been successful, that the enemy picked the wrong family, that God turned this around and did something eternal with it.
Jim: Bo, some people listening, they might think she sounds so optimistic. Paint the picture for what the reality is for your husband, Steve, three years into Lou Gehrig's disease. Tell us what a day is like.
Bo: A day starts at night when I get him undressed and put him to bed and put a breathing mask on him and suction out his saliva, because he's unable to swallow anything. And then we get up five or six times during the night and do it all over again.
And then in the morning, I get him up and get him dressed and put him in a wheelchair, where he sits all day long. And he listens to worship music and he meets with his friends and he can still communicate a little bit. And with one of the kids especially, the friends can understand him.
It is a difficult life. It is difficult. Being filled with purpose inside of that life has not made it easier, an easier road to walk. And so, like my 14-year-old knows how to take care of his dad and I don't know many 14-year-olds who get their dad dressed.
So, it's reframed everything in our family. It's reframed the way we see each other, the way we see the love of God, the way we view our community, the way we view people who are suffering, but it's no joke. ALS is really, really hard.
John: Bo, what you're describing sounds very, very difficult. I don't know that many of us can imagine the physical, emotional, spiritual toll. You shared a great deal of optimism with us and hope. Are there moments where you just tell the Lord, I really can't do this, where you just feel like, I'm done?
Bo: Yeah, You—
John: I've crashed.
Bo: --got the wrong girl. Yeah, absolutely. Can I just be super honest with all of America? I'm a terrible caregiver. I don't enjoy it. I get queasy. It's not my gift. I would've never been a nurse and all of a sudden, I've been thrust into this place where I need to know how to do things I've never imagined knowing how to do and I mess them up a lot. My husband's so gracious and longsuffering. But it's really hard.
And you lose your marriage. In the process of it, you lose the sense of that kind of the vows you take, that I'll take care of you and you'll take care of me. And I'm with you and you're with me. And all of a sudden, one person is carrying the whole weight of the relationship and the getting the trash out and getting the bills paid and taking care of that person's physical needs. There have been plenty of times where I've just been like, "Jesus, I don't even know what You were thinking. I am not the right one for this." And that is when His grace so far has always been sufficient. It has always stepped into the storm. But make no mistake, I cannot do it on my own.
John: What are those moments like?
Bo: Well, literally, face in the carpet. I have an office at home and I am just face down in the carpet and I just let Him know this is where I'm at and I pour out. And I think it's so good to get to the edge of your grief. Go all the way through your grief and not just push it back and keep it. And sometimes I'm good at that and sometimes I'm not, but I really do pour out my heart. And I remember one time honestly being on my office floor, where I kept hearing the words, "every minute, every minute." And I didn't know what He was saying.
And so, I sat down with my computer and I felt like what God was saying, "I've already been to every minute you'll ever face and I've made provision there. You won't see it now, but you'll see it when you get there. And so, you can trust all the minutes ahead of you. I've been to those minutes and back. And I have found it now this many years in, I have never run into a minute where I don't see His fingerprint somewhere. Oh, God's, He's been here and He's left provision here. Sometimes I have to find it and it's a determination and it's a choice, but it's always there.
Jim: Bo, you are uniquely positioned to understand Job and losing so much around you and your husband, Steve's difficulties and your children's difficulties. There are many, many people that are going through very similar things. Maybe not exactly the same thing, but similar things and they're desperate. They are seemingly hopeless. They don't know what to do. They're falling into that ditch of bitterness. Can you pray for them—
Jim: --and lift them up before the Lord?
Bo: Yeah, it would be an honor.
Jim: Let's do that.
Bo: Father, I am so thankful that You are our defense and so, I pray for everyone whose feet are planted in the soil of a fierce battlefield today. And for those who are weary and think they can't face another day, for those who are ready to give up or take a shortcut out, I ask that You would be their strength, that You would hold Your shield in front of their heart so that they can see clearly Your plan and purpose for the battle they're facing.
We know that You are the God Who does all things well and that You won't waste this time, so I pray that You would give each one of us faith to see the end, faith to see what will be on the other side. We love and worship You, in Your name we pray, amen.
John: And we'll have more of the conversation with Bo Stern on tomorrow's "Focus on the Family," as we continue to present our Best of 2015 radio programs. And she'll share more about her journey with her late husband, Steve and the impact that ALS had on their family, as well as some hope and encouragement for getting through the kind of heartbreaking trial that they endured.
Jim: Bo speaks so eloquently about these struggles and you can tell how she walks closely with the Lord. She has a supernatural strength and peace about her that encourages all of us. We promised an update on this story. Steve went home to be with the Lord on July 18th, 2015. His battle is over and he is rejoicing now. What really resonated with me in this story is Bo's eternal perspective, as she and Steve really lived the last few years sharing kind of that attitude, that eternal attitude with others. And the reality is, every one of us will have a last breath. We don't know exactly how that's going to take place, but it's good from time to time to think about it, because it helps us to do things differently in the life that God has given us and maybe approach marriage a little differently or parenting a little differently.
As we said at the top of this broadcast, this conversation with Bo Stern brought in an amazing response and I want to share part of a letter that we received from a woman named Kay. She said, "I called the Focus counselors full of anger toward God and toward my husband, who had passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly. You helped me to face the hard truth that I had not finished grieving my husband and I had more work to do. Once again, with God's mighty power sustaining me and with the gentle guidance of Focus, the Lord helped me find a way."
She goes on to tell us she is flourishing and acts as a children's ministry director and middle school youth leader at her church. And when friends and acquaintances are facing a difficult family challenge, she tells them to call Focus.
John: I love hearing that kind of a story, Jim, where God has used Focus on the Family to kind of redeem hurt and suffering and I'm reminded that it's only because of the prayers of so many faithful saints and friends of this ministry and the financial support that they offer, that we can even be here to reach out and help those folks.
Jim: Well, John, that's exactly the point. I mean, we can't do it without friends and it's just a couple of weeks out from Christmas, which is a wonderful season to rejoice in our Lord and Savior's birth. But for many, it's also a painful time. Families are torn apart by crisis and people facing grief or depression. Many people need the hope and peace Christ can give them and you know what? Christ will work through people around them to provide it, even radio broadcasts like this one.
When you join Focus on the Family's Give the Gift of Family campaign with your year-end gift of support, you help save and strengthen families. We also have a special matching gift going on right now that will allow your support to go twice as far and help twice as many people. Thank you for standing for the family, for doing your ministry in partnership with Focus on the Family. Your gift will have an immediate and eternal impact and I am grateful and I want to say thank you for helping us.
John: And we trust that more people like Kay will be able to listen to [us], and find hope and to be encouraged and you can gift the gift of family by donating to the ministry of Focus on the Family today when you call 800- A -FAMILY; 800-232-6459. And we've mentioned this before, but this conversation is part of our Best of 2015 radio programming collection. You can get the entire set. It's 12 CDs or an audio download package with 14 programs on marriage and parenting and faith.
We also have Bo Stern's book, Beautiful Battlefields , in which she offers hope and wisdom to anyone who's facing a batter of really any size. You'll learn how to see the beauty behind the suffering, as well as some very practical ways that you can stand firm on the promises that God has given. This is a great book for someone you know who is struggling right now. And today when you make a donation of any amount to Focus, we'll send a copy of Beautiful Battlefields to you, for your reference or to pass on to that friend. You can find out more and donate at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow as we hear more from Mrs. Bo Stern.
Bo Stern: There have been plenty of times where I've just been like, "Jesus, I don't even know what You were thinking. I am not the right one for this." And that is when His grace so far has always been sufficient. It has always stepped into the storm, but make no mistake, I cannot do it on my own.
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John: That's tomorrow, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Bo SternView Bio
Bo Stern is an author, a public speaker and a teaching pastor at Westside Church in Bend, Ore. Her books include Beautiful Battlefields, Ruthless and When Holidays Hurt. Bo is passionately involved in raising awareness and funding to research ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), an illness her husband, Steve, succumbed to in July, 2015. The couple has four children and two grandchildren. Learn more about Bo by visiting her website.