The Wagner Family Story
We trust that God is glorified through the words of our testimony. Jared and I (Janelle) both grew up in families who attended church weekly, and we witnessed our parents live out their faith through Bible reading, praying, tithing, and giving of their time and talents to our communities. Our parents, all four educators, created a safe, loving childhood. We met as Freshman at Wake Forest University in the fall of 1994, but don’t ask us when exactly we started dating. Neither of us has a good answer to that! Our relationship was instantly comfortable in that it was familiar. We both value a strong work ethic, close family relationships, and knowledge. However, the similarities end there as God designed us very differently, giving me a heart for the broken, and Jared, a sharp and discerning mind.
In our first year of marriage, I applied to graduate schools all over the country, and was disappointed when many doors on the East Coast were closed. Eventually, we had clarity beyond our understanding that God’s plan was for us to return to my hometown and attend Oklahoma State University. God’s timing was at least partially revealed when my brother Aaron began having frequent seizures as a young adult. He found comfort in spending time at our house during a season in which he was living with my parents and could not drive. Now it was clear why the first house we bought was less than a mile from the house I grew up in. Aaron walked to our house many nights for dinner or a movie. We spent the next five years immersed in a very academic environment where atheism and single lifestyle were popular. We attended churches but were not closely connected to a faith family. Looking back, I can only explain our strong marriage by the faithfulness of our parents in praying daily for us, because I know that the Enemy was prowling around like a lion (1 Peter 5:8).
In May of 2007, Aaron was hit and killed by a drunk driver while walking his dog. Time stopped. It was impossible, unfathomable, unfair. Aaron was a thoughtful and kind man who had overcome epilepsy and its related challenges, only to be taken from us at 27. In Stillwater, we were surrounded by our faith family (friends and biological family) like a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). All of the relationships my parents had cultivated over the years blessed us beyond measure. In those early weeks, my dad began each day with, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” (Psalms 118:24) and was then overcome with emotion, willing himself to find joy in the midst of his suffering. My mother graciously spent hours letting her friends process their grief over what happened to Aaron while in the raw depths of her own. After several weeks, when Jared and I returned to our home in Charleston, SC, we were loved and supported by our faith family there, especially during a time when it was so hard to be apart from my parents. Though we were suffering, God’s faithfulness was never in question. He met us exactly where we were – every moment of every day. And, we were reminded that God is good. We now understood that those four years with Aaron in Stillwater during graduate school were a gift.
Aaron was my hero and the inspiration for my career as a pediatric psychologist, studying epilepsy. I couldn’t even escape my grief at work. At the age of 30, I realized how much I needed Jesus. Despite my mental health training, I was inadequate to heal myself on my own. I had always prided myself on self-sufficiency. Now I needed Jesus just to survive.
Why, God? Why did you allow this happen to my family? Why did Aaron overcome so much only to die so young? I began reading the Bible, CS Lewis, Phillip Yancey, etc. to find knowledge. There must be a literal answer. It was hard for me to pray beyond asking for strength to get through the days. Praying what was in my heart seemed too overwhelming and vulnerable, but I found solace in the Psalms. If David, a man after God’s own heart, could be intimate with God even in his anger, questioning, and sorrow, maybe it was possible for me, too.
As we celebrated 10 years of marriage, I was filled with gratitude for Jared, who was living with a broken-hearted wife. He had met the first challenge in his life that he couldn’t problem-solve to fix. The gifts that God had given him and the family values that his parents had modeled and instilled in him: strength, devotion, selflessness, and faithfulness to God and to me, were apparent daily. Our son Jonah Aaron was born in September of 2008. Jonah means “dove,” and he was our peace in the midst of great sorrow. Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning! (Psalms. 30:5) When I first held Jonah in my arms, I had a glimpse into how wide, deep, and long God’s love is for us (Ephesians 3:18) and into what my parents lost.
Sometime later, Jared and I made the decision to move to Tulsa to be close to my parents. This was a selfless move for Jared, a loyal Wake Forest fan whose entire family is on the East Coast. Our second son Jesse Miller joined us in July of 2010, and our family was complete.
In 2012, my family established the Aaron K Stern Foundation, a non-profit organization which supports Aaron’s Camp, a summer outdoor experience for at-risk middle school youth in Tulsa. Over the past 10 years, we have hosted 400 youth, and it’s been so fulfilling to see them thrive, grow, and step out of their comfort zones. Some campers have returned as mentors, who desire to give back to their community and develop their leadership skills. Through our relationships with these mentors, we have helped them obtain jobs and volunteer experiences, and consider vocational interests in education and psychology. We’ve been invited to their weddings and graduations. And, we have one young woman who has now been a part of Aaron’s Camp for 8 years, and in one family, all four children have participated in camp.
About a year after the Midtown campus launched, we left the BattleCreek Broken Arrow campus to cultivate relationships with families in our area. We felt led to host and lead a community group for couples who had children attending Zarrow International with our boys, but the living space in our house was small. I noticed a house during a morning run, but it needed a lot of work. That night, we asked God for discernment. If it was His will, we promised to use this house to glorify Him. God was faithful, and we moved into an endless project. Over the next five years, our community group and women’s prayer groups met in our house to pray for the teachers, students, parents, and the exchange program. When we sent Jonah (age 11) & Jesse (age 12) to Spain to live with families we had never met in person, it was the biggest step of faith we had taken with our boys. We had absolutely no control and had to surrender all of their care to God. Of course, God already had them in his hands, but our faith grew from the act of surrender.
God has truly been our portion and our strength (Psalms 73:26) in every season of life. All In for us means saying “yes” to whatever He asks. That’s All In for each other, our boys, and giving sacrificially of our finances, time, and talents. To do this, we must be listening to Jesus and have the margin to say “yes.” Several years ago, Jared stepped out of his comfort zone and served with a group from Midtown at tC Egypt. It was the longest we had ever been apart. He came home with a renewed purpose for sharing God’s love with others and was frustrated by our daily worldly interests and comfort in self-sufficiency. We had a lot of conversations as a family around how we spend what God gives to us to steward according to his purposes. Jonah and Jesse know our tithe is taken out automatically each month, before any other money is withdrawn, and they tithe on their earnings from yard work or pet sitting. When we have given sacrificially, God has provided for us, especially in the midst of unexpected expenses. All In with our boys also involves buying water and hygiene supplies or bags of burgers and driving around downtown, handing them out to the homeless communities. It means volunteering with the Haven ministry, serving meals and hanging out at Youth Services of Tulsa, and helping my parents at Aaron’s Camp. It is noticing when someone is struggling and reaching out with a meal, a listening ear, or encouragement.
Now that Jonah and Jesse are in middle school, we find ourselves seeking God more often for wisdom and discernment. We consider it a great gift to shepherd them into young adulthood. Foolishly, I thought that parenting would be somewhat easier for me as a child psychologist. Instead, I have been repeatedly humbled and had to ask for forgiveness from my boys. Sometimes it feels lonely to parent our boys to be in, but not of, this world. There is so much pressure from this world to love without truth. We pray fervently for them to seek peace from God that will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7) and remain on the straight and narrow path (Matt 7:13). It is our goal to parent, not out of fear, but with the end in mind. Our greatest desire is for them to love Jesus and love others, and to store up treasures in Heaven, not on Earth (Matt 6:19-20). We see the Lord at work in them, bending them to His will for them (Proverbs 22:6). Jesse has a big heart and sees the needs of others. Jonah is a quiet leader who is described by his peers as kind. We know God has plans for them, plans to give them hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
All In is greater than the visible gestures. More importantly, it is a daily walk with Jesus. With Jonah and Jesse navigating the confusion of the teen years, we talk often about their identity in Christ Jesus and the importance of guarding our hearts and minds by focusing on what is true, noble, right, pure and lovely (Phil 4:8) instead of all of the noise that constantly bombards them. We also talk about putting on the armor of God to extinguish the flaming arrows of the enemy (Eph 6:16). We are inadequate to do this on our own and must place Christ Above All and keep our eye on the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14). Only then can we shine like stars with love and truth in our warped and crooked world (Phil 2:15). Never has this been more real to Jared than during and in the wake of COVID. As a retail pharmacist, he was depleted of energy, patience, and hope, and he saw brokenness all around him. He himself was inadequate to press on. But, the Holy Spirit was with Jared and gave him the daily strength and hope to extend Jesus’s love to his patients and colleagues. Being All In and putting Christ Above All involves making a conscious decision to surrender every single moment of every hour of every day.
When you lose someone you love dearly, and that person is in Heaven, a part of your heart is already there. Heaven becomes so much more real. You realize that it is the only thing that matters. Because of Jesus, we have the promise of seeing Aaron again. Oh death, where is your sting? (1 Cor 15:55) The question is not why this happened to us, but to what end is our suffering? Looking back over the past 15 years, we see God’s glory through the redemption of physical life (Aaron was an organ donor), relationships with the youth at Aaron’s Camp, and the compassion we have been able to show others because God has comforted us in our troubles (2 Cor 1:4). What the Enemy intended for harm, God has used for good (Gen 50:20). The remaining question in my heart has been “Why did Aaron have to die for this good to happen?” It would be my first question when I met Jesus. Recently, I’ve come to understand that when I see Jesus, I’ll be so overwhelmed by his glory that I won’t have any remaining earthly questions.
We have been afflicted and we have wandered. Our souls have been downcast. But, we have hope that we will never be consumed because of the Lord’s great love, and his compassions are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:19-23).