Earp Takes Aim | Faith, Culture, Life

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I'm Not Leaving Either

I read an article about the Dallas Cowboys that made me cry.

No, not because they started out a supposed Super Bowl run by losing their first two games. 

And no, not because a huge rash of Cowboys have recently been charged with felonies {as far as I know, everybody’s clean so far}.

And not because Jerry Jones is strapped and needs some cash {so far, he seems to be okay}. 


I cried because a Cowboy has actually shown some character – a rare trait in post-Landry Land. 

Perhaps you missed the story. 

He’s number 90 and the Cowboys’ gigantic all-pro nose tackle.  He’s a big man —6’4” 303 pounds to be exact.  But Jay Ratliff is dwarfed by a family story that now has him reaching for a different kind of bigness. 

Jay’s grandparents, Willie and Arletha Ratliff, died of smoke inhalation in a house fire on September 15.  Firefighters found Arletha, 74, deceased, but embracing her also-deceased husband in his bed. 

Willie, 84 and a World War II veteran, was both blind and a double-amputee.  When Jay’s grandmother realized that flames were engulfing their home, she called for help – and desperately tried to pull her disabled husband to safety. 

But Jay tells the story better than I ever could.  “When [my grandmother] opened their bedroom door, it gave the fire oxygen.  The firefighters tried to get in.  But the smoke was too thick.  My grandmother was like, ‘They’re not getting my husband out?  I’m not leaving, either.’”


And that’s when I put down the paper and cried.  Because I couldn’t stop the flames from taking my spouse either.  I tried – we both tried so hard – to beat those flames back, to snuff them out and to somehow find some way to make those flames go away. 

And many were the nights I would crawl into bed beside Cindy, just like Arletha.  I’d snuggle with her, rub her back, feed her Ramen noodles, read and pray with her.  Truth is, I would’ve laid down my life for Cindy if I could.  In fact, I repeatedly asked God to let me. 

But it was not to be.  I couldn’t go for her…and He didn’t choose to let me leave with her.  So our story was not to be a newsworthy story — just a way-too common and everyday story. 

Instead of an all-consuming fire, our family tragedy was a very discriminating and ravaging disease.  Like fire, angry tumors spread through Cindy’s body quickly and with such devastation, but only her body was ravaged.  And only Cindy was taken. 


At first glance, these two family stories may not appear to have much in common.  But here’s where I hope our stories DO intersect.  And more than hope, I believe it’s where they DO connect.

You see, the Ratliff’s now have a story that will be repeated around holiday tables and other family gatherings for generations to come because theirs is a story of amazing and tough love. 

I love what Jay said.  “That’s one thing about my family.  We love hard.  We love very hard.  My grandparents weren’t afraid to sacrifice and love with everything in them.”

And that’s the legacy I hope our story [the story of Cindy and Steve] will be for our family.  Long after I’m gone, I want our grandchildren to be talking to their grandchildren about the way Papa and Grammy embraced each other…even through the flames. 

Newsworthy or not, that’s a story that’s worth repeating.  



This past Saturday, many of our family and friends participated in the local Race for the Cure in Evansville, IN.  Although I was unable to attend personally, my heart was in Hoosierland throughout the entire day.

Isn’t technology a blessing?  Especially to a family separated by so many miles – yet intimately joined together at the heart.  Technology made the day more bearable for me.

Race day began with several texts – some pictures, plus well-wishes — then there was the phone calls reporting in.  Plus a surprise Facetime call with my two granddaughters {my favorite!}.  Then off to Facebook for various posts with pictures.  All sorts of amazingly pink-ish pictures.

Cindy would be so pleased.

Pleased that her family rallied in support for research to find a solution to this ravaging disease.

Pleased that we all pulled a real Team Cindy effort to make it a moment of celebration and not just sadness.

Pleased that the t-shirts we wore {all of us in AZ were also draped in pink} bore the words that had so marked her courageous journey.

Pleased that those she impacted rallied together in love.

Pleased that we walked {and wait} with hope.

Here’s a picture of Cindy at last year’s Race in Anthem.  Her incredible smile protected us from the difficult day she was having.  Then again, it always did.

If you have a second, you might enjoy this entry from my daughter Andrea’s amazing blog. She is a gifted writer and another among so many who continue to deeply treasure God’s gift to us in Cindy.


Can She?

A friend recently suggested a song that might help me as a I grieve. It’s called, “If You Could See Me Now” and it’s written from the perspective of a loved one who has died. Intrigued, I went to iTunes, plunked down $.99 and downloaded it. Ain’t technology great?

The song’s lyrics wasted no time sticking it to me. The very first line was: “Our prayers have all been answered, I finally arrived.”

Really? Our prayers were answered? Sounds elementary, I realize. But to me, it was the first time I faced the hard truth that yes, our prayers were answered. Not when we wanted them answered, much less how — but they WERE answered.

I immediately pushed pause, a mere nine words in. And as I wept through the implications of that opening line, I tried to wrap my arms around what was to me a simply devastating truth.

Yeh, like it or not…sometimes God says, “No.” I didn’t want His “no” {and neither did Cindy for that matter}, yet “no” was His answer.

But this darned song was just getting warmed up. Moving into the chorus, the loved one who has died seems to want the one left behind to know that even God’s “no” is also God’s “yes.” A “yes” to something far beyond anything the one grieving can currently touch, see or conceive.

“If you could see me now, I’m walking streets of gold.

If you could see me now, I’m standing strong and whole.

If you could see me now, you’d know I’ve seen His face.

If you could see me now, you’d know the pain is erased.”

Just so you know — I believe that stuff. Every line of it. And I continue to believe it…and haven’t even once doubted it. And yet my tears keep flowing anyway. However, the next line is the one that really buckled my knees:

“You wouldn’t want me to ever leave this place, if you could only see me now.”[1]

I sometimes tell myself that I could do this journey better if, in fact, I “could see [her] now.” Primarily because my last sightings of Cindy were “then.”

When she could no longer talk or eat — I still see her “then.”

When every part of her was slipping away, slowly but surely. Since we did this journey together, my most vivid memories of Cindy are of “then.”

When she had already departed – and already “arrived.” Until the funeral director came, I couldn’t release my grip on the ravaged body she had forever left behind. That’s the BIGGEST “then” I still can’t erase. A painful, devastating “then” that isn’t even close to Cindy’s “now.”

Can you relate to the dilemma I’m struggling through? I can’t see what I strongly believe. I strain to see “now” but “then” is all I seem to see.


I realize this may sound self-serving, but Cindy got the better end of this deal.

Yes, she suffered greatly during those 14 awful months. And her courage during those painful times was breathtaking. But Cindy’s suffering is over — whereas mine feels as though it has barely just begun. Besides, my Bride is whole now…and her husband is way less than half-whole. And although I’m thrilled for her that her pain is completely erased? My pain is as debilitating as any I have ever known.

But here’s the implications of this song that really nailed me:

I know I can’t see her “now,” but what if she CAN see me?

There is some legitimate reason to believe that maybe she can. Jesus told a story once about a rich man and a beggar who both died. The rich man, after death, “looked up and sawthe beggar. Jesus also described a great chasm that keeps “those who want to go from here to you cannot.” So what would make someone who is dead “want to go” anywhere?[2] Some knowledge, some awareness of an unmet need. In the case of this story, a desire to comfort those in agony.

In Hebrews 12, it says that we are surrounded by “such a great cloud of witnesses.” Some say that all this means is that these witnesses set an example for us and not that they are watching us. But I think they are surrounding us, much like fans in a stadium — for the very purpose of watching us so that they can cheer us on as we run our race.

Some say that if they are watching, they might see things that could make them cry – and there are no tears in heaven. Others say that the inhabitants of heaven are so preoccupied with worshiping God and enjoying heaven that they have no interest in anything happening here on earth.

I’m not so sure.

When Moses and Elijah got transfigured, they were chatting about “His departure” and the “fulfillment at Jerusalem.”[3] Meaning what? They were obviously very conversant about the doings and happenings on earth.

And remember what Jesus said about the “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents?” Most people assume those rejoicing are the angels. But it actually says, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels.”[4] So if it’s not the angels actually doing this rejoicing…evidently the saints in heaven are also involved – especially whenever they witness the conversion of someone they knew and loved on earth.

But what about the no sorrow, no pain, no tears part? If my loved one can see me, can’t she also see things in me that would discourage or frustrate or bother her?

No. I believe that for those who reside in heaven, there is nothing they might ever see on earth that could diminish to any degree the ever present joy of that amazing place.


As comforting as that is to me, that truth is still another reason why I believe Cindy got the better deal. Because even though I can’t see her – maybe she CAN see me. A huge part of me envies that. But another part of me has also started wondering, if she can see me, what would I want her to see?

Would I want Cindy to see me wallowing in self-pity or a grinding never-ending torment? Would I want her to see me stuck in “then” and stubbornly unwilling to embrace my “now?”

No! That’s NOT even close to what I would want her to see. I’m amazed at how some who grieve feel the need to out-grieve others who have also lost a loved one. It’s almost as though they try to make up in death what they failed to do or wished they could’ve have been in life.

Thankfully, I don’t have that need. I don’t mean that I had no imperfections. I only mean that I have no regrets. I loved my Bride fully. I cared for her and walked every painful step alongside her. And because that’s how we made our journey, I have never been stuck in some perverse need to “prove” that I miss her.

I just really do miss her.

But what if she can see me…?

What I would want her to see is not a defeated, depressed and dark version of the “me” she knew “me” to be. I would want her to see the “me” her love shaped “me” to be. A better “me” than the “me” she found when she met “me.”

And that’s where I got the better deal. In life, she made me want to be a better man than I had ever been before. A better husband, a better father, a better pastor, a better writer — you name it, she made me want to be better.

Even more, Cindy’s love taught me how to laugh again.

That’s why I spent my birthday with her gal pals — and did my best to speak in joyful terms and to laugh about good times and to speak positively about my future.

I wanted Cindy {and her friends} to see me sparkle again. Like I used to sparkle…when she made me want to be better.

Cindy’s love also taught me how to love again.

I was damaged goods when God gave her to me. Love had long before become a “concept,” a bit of “theology,” a theoretical “possibility” — for everybody else, but not for me.

But in the protective shelter of Cindy’s amazing love, my heart slowly opened again. And by the time she “arrived” in heaven, my love was in full bloom.

A friend told me recently that when someone loves fully, they will love again. Perhaps more freely and more substantially because they have truly experienced an unhindered love. Well, if that’s true? And if Cindy can see me? I want her to see me still loving without reserve — loving my kids, my ministry, my friends…and even myself.

Cindy’s love is also teaching me how to live again.

I’ve been wanting to get a bicycle to ride to work. Cindy urged me to get that bike. But I kept putting it off – for several reasons. But if she’s watching me…? I want her to see me pedaling up North Valley Parkway.

I also want her to see me doing other health things, like eating right. And keeping a good balance between work, rest and fun.

I want her to see me still wanting to be…well, better.


I can’t see her “now,” but if I could? I really do believe I would see everything the song says I would see. But if she can see me “now?” I really want her to be proud of me “now.” I want her to know that her sacrificial investment in me is still prompting me to be better and informing my goings and doings — even “now.”

Ahh, if she could only see me. And who knows? Perhaps she does.

[1] Kim Noblitt, 1992 Integrity’s Praise/BMI and Dad and Dann Music {Sung by Truth on “Something to Hold On To}.

[2] See Luke 16:19-31

[3] Luke 19:31

[4] Luke 15:7-10



I traveled to the Midwest recently. What I was looking for was a change of place and a change of pace so I could successfully find a change in my perspective.

And I’m happy to report — I found it! At least I’ve found the “change” I’d like my life to have. It’s a change of perspective I’m calling, FORWARD.

For 18 months, I’ve been leaning back.

Back to before cancer. Back to date nights and romantic walks on the beach. Back to laughter and mornings on the patio and sweet, unbridled love.

What I didn’t realize, until my trip, is just how backward my mindset had become. And how could it not be? Truth is, I’ve grown even more backward-focused since three days after Easter.

So backward, in fact — I started my Midwest tour by going to California. I wrote about my visit in a previous post. If you read what I wrote then, you probably thought my trip was a total bust.

I realize now, it wasn’t. Instead, it was in HB that this different perspective took its first uncertain steps. Good friend that he is, Bruce gave me room to back into the question I really wanted to ask. In fact, it took two days of golf and several hours of intense conversation before I asked it.

“Bruce, what will FORWARD look like?”

No, I wasn’t nearly that articulate when I asked it. But that was exactly what I wanted [and was desperate] to know.

Till then, I hadn’t even considered that there would be a FORWARD. Till then, all I longed to do was to hit “backspace” so that I could once again have what I knew I never would have again:

Cindy — back.

My old life — back.

The happiness we had so eagerly shaped together — back.

But at Ruby’s Diner…? I finally and ever so cautiously asked my friend about FORWARD. And I do mean “cautiously.” To be perfectly candid, I wasn’t even sure “forward” was allowed.

Is it too early to want a FORWARD?

Is my life too far gone to expect a FORWARD?

And if not, why do I feel so guilty even considering FORWARD?


This FORWARD theme continued once I finally headed east. I told you yet in another post about the conference I attended. While there, I faced something I knew I would face: A huge conflict between these two competing forces.

On the one hand, my oldest and most cherished friends and peers, seeing me for the first time since Cindy stopped by heaven, showered me with love and sympathy. And though I was warmed by every loving encounter, I found myself battling “backward” again.

But I also met with some other people. Primarily other pastors with whom I know have a shared experience – but who are enough ahead of me that they already forged into their FORWARD. And even though our conversations were marked by many tears, I also found my heart longing to follow in their FORWARD footsteps.


My Midwest tour could be accurately summed as follows: Three steps FORWARD, two steps “backward.” Doesn’t sound all that productive, I realize. But the good news is, even by that unattractive formula? At least there is some progress…even if the distance traveled isn’t all that impressive.

Besides, I’m not convinced checkpoints are worthy markers of the race I’m running. No, the only marker that truly matters is that I want to run this race.

And I DO want to.


After I got home, another old friend sent me a link to a video that was made at his church. It’s the one where people hold up a chunk of cardboard – they write the first part of their story on the front and the rest of their story on the back. He asked me to watch it because he and his family had a part in this moment.

Having seen this drill before, I prepared took a deep breath and then hit play. For nearly 9 minutes, one cardboard flip after another revealed the amazing wonder…of FORWARD. One after another of these mute storytellers would solemnly move into position, slowly reveal their “back” story and then excitedly flip into FORWARD.


Those who had been sexually abused…

Families ripped by divorce and joblessness and disease…

Others who were marked by loss…



Incalculable grief…

Toward the end of the video, Josh and his family stepped into the frame.

“Lost son.”

“Lost brother.”

“…in a tragic hunting accident.”

I had no clue. The miles and years had separated us from one another’s stories. And because I knew their son and brother? I felt that familiar “backward” groan rising up in me…all over again.

But then – they flipped FORWARD.

“He accepted Christ…moments before joining Him in heaven.”

“We’ll see Him in eternity.”

“Jesus always saves.”


And that’s when my heart leaped and I longed for my “flip”, too.

Except…not just “in eternity.” No, if the only hope I have to know my FORWARD moment is only after I cross to the other side…? I’m not sure I can wait till then. And if it isn’t in the cards for me till then…? Then come now, Jesus. Just break through the clouds and do Your thing…now. Now!

Because I am way too burdened by “backward.” I’m weary of constantly reaching behind me for what will never be. “Backward” stinks. No, let’s be real: “Backward” sucks. It sucks my joy. It sucks my hope. But most of all, it sucks my faith.


And that’s why I want FORWARD. I need FORWARD. Because I’m ready to see if there’s any writing on the other side of my cardboard.

As man of faith, I hope there is. I believe in FORWARD. I place all my trust on FORWARD.

But as a faith-wimp, I can’t see FORWARD. Truth is, I kinda fear it. And every time I try to peek through the dark clouds, I’m bombarded by way too many questions and far too few answers.

But armed by my disappointingly wimpy faith, I have made one life-altering decision: With “back” as a forever part of my story, I intend to keep writing my story. And to do that, I need to move FORWARD.


…out of tragedy and into triumph.

…out of stuck and into starting over.

…out of grieving with no hope and into hoping despite my grief.


So I’m setting my compass and am taking some steps. Sometimes backward, other times forward. I’m not making any promises — my journey may be as circuitous as a trip to the Midwest from Phoenix by way of California.

But at least I’m no longer only reaching back. I’m forging FORWARD.



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