Between a Rock and Grace
By Carol Kent with Constance B. Fink
In October 1999, life was good for Carol and Gene Kent. Their only son, 25-year-old Jason Paul (J.P.) was embarking on a promising naval career and was newly married to a woman with two young daughters, making the Kents instant grandparents. Carol was enjoying a thriving career as a sought-after Christian speaker and author, and Gene had recently changed careers to help with her ministry. Things were so good, in fact, that Carol mused, “Does life get any better than this?”
A Midnight Phone Call
A few weeks later, a middle-of-the-night phone call abruptly shattered that sense of well-being. The call brought news of the unthinkable: J.P. had been arrested for the murder of his wife’s first husband!
Consumed by fear that the man had abused his stepdaughters and was about to get unsupervised visits with the girls, J.P., a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and an avowed Christian, shot him on a Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of an Orlando restaurant.
Thus began the two-and-a-half-year nightmare of J.P.’s trial, conviction, and sentencing to life in prison without parole. With J.P.’s incarceration, it seemed that Carol’s and Gene’s hopes and dreams for their only child were locked away behind bars as well.
A Mother’s Heartache
At first, Carol wrestled with guilt and despair. Poring over photo albums, she analyzed every detail of her son’s upbringing. In the end, she came to the conclusion that she could not have changed the outcome. “I have to rest in the fact that as well as I knew how to be a mother, I did my best,” she says.
As she watched her son suffer, Carol identified with Mary, the mother of Jesus. She realized that, like Mary, she could no longer orchestrate her son’s life, but she could be there for him. “I think that, as mothers, no matter how old our children get, we can be there for them through prayer, through comfort, and through physical presence for the rest of their lives, even when things happen that seem out of our control.”
Between a Rock and a Grace Place
In the years since their son’s incarceration, Carol and Gene have come to accept what they call a “new normal.” Carol has written several inspirational books about their journey, including the best-seller When I Lay My Isaac Down (2004), A New Kind of Normal (2007), and most recently, Between a Rock and a Grace Place: Divine Surprises in the Tight Spots of Life (2010).
From early on, the couple didn’t have the luxury of withdrawing and wallowing in self-pity. Because Carol’s ministry was their sole source of income, a mere five days after her son was arrested, she had to fulfill a speaking engagement at a women’s conference. Just before taking the stage, she wondered how she would make it through. Then, she felt God speaking to her heart, reassuring her that her message was still valuable, despite her circumstances, and that her brokenness could be more powerful than her professionalism. “That was the beginning of an adventure in knowing that God would not waste what had happened to us,” she says.
As the couple began to reinvent their lives, they decided to move from their Michigan home, and all the friends and family there, to Florida so that they could be closer to their son. In 2005, they settled in Lakeland, less than an hour’s drive from their son’s prison.
Because Sundays are visitation days at the prison, they found it difficult to find a new church after their move to Florida. They soon realized that there were many other Christians among the family members waiting in line alongside them to visit their incarcerated loved ones. They found they had a new church and church family, which they came to call the “Church of the Razor Wire.”
“Church doesn’t always look the way it does inside a building with a steeple and pews inside,” reflects Carol. They have even found a new ministry. Along with J.P., they launched Speak Up for Hope, which helps meet the needs of inmates and their families, such as supplying teaching materials for the chapel programs, gathering games and coloring books for inmates’ children to use in visitation areas, and providing gift boxes for wives and moms of inmates.
A New Kind of Normal
In A New Kind of Normal, Carol shares her own story and those of others in order to offer hope to those learning to live with challenges they didn’t anticipate, including the premature death of a loved one, financial devastation, or a health crisis.
She writes, “Gene and I have to decide every day that we will choose life in the middle of devastating circumstances instead of giving in to emotional death, depression, discouragement, and defeat.” The Kents have found joy in ministering to others even in the middle of their own neediness, traveling in ministry and encouraging other people who have gone through difficult situations.
Though she sometimes has wondered why God didn’t intervene to prevent the crime, she takes comfort in the fact that there is good coming out of what has happened. “Why didn’t God give Jason a flat tire before he got to the parking lot where he pulled the trigger?” she ponders. “I don’t know, but one thing I know is that my son is living for the Lord in a very unlikely place and that God is redeeming what the enemy tried to destroy.”
JBU: How did God make His presence real to you the night of the phone call?
Carol: That is a difficult question because I was in such shock that I found it difficult to take in air. I kept saying, “Breathe. Do the next thing. Breathe.” I discovered it’s impossible to read the Bible when you are crying so hard you can’t read the words on the page, so God’s presence became real when I recalled Scripture I had memorized before the phone call. One of the first Scriptures that began to comfort me was Jas. 1:5-6, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believing, without a second thought. People who ‘worry their prayers’ are like wind-whipped waves” (The Message).
JBU: In what ways have you seen that God prepared you for this crisis?
Carol: A-year-and-a-half before Jason’s arrest my husband came home from a men’s Bible study and said, “Carol, the main point of this study is to look around and see where God is at work—and then join Him where He is already working.” He paused and continued, “Honey, I see God at work in your ministry and I think it’s time for me to get on board.” I watched my husband leave his successful career in the life insurance industry and move to a humble office in our home where he began to manage my speaking engagements and the other speakers we work with through Speak Up Speaker Services. He also began traveling with me full time and managing the sales of my books, DVDs, and CDs. In retrospect, I know I could not have continued ministering after the shocking news of Jason’s arrest without Gene at my side.
JBU: How did you keep ministering to others when your own heart was breaking?
Carol: I ministered out of my brokenness. I didn’t pretend that everything was fine. I was given legal advice that I shouldn’t discuss the case publicly until after the trial, but I certainly let people in my audiences know that I was in the middle of a gigantic family crisis. The first time I spoke following Jason’s arrest was five days after we got the news. I didn’t know if I could make it through a weekend of speaking, but the minute I stepped on the platform and began speaking truth from God’s Word, I felt God’s empowerment. It was like stepping on the enemy and saying, “You meant to wipe the parents out when you went after our child, but you lose. God wins!”
JBU: How did this experience affect your marriage?
Carol: In the beginning, we would explode verbally over tiny things. It didn’t take long to start to remind each other that the “real” issue was the pain we were experiencing due to our son’s upcoming trial. In the long run, the incarceration of our son has strengthened our marriage. Many couples discover that a severe family crisis will either cause a huge rift in a marriage, or it will draw you together as never before—because you need each other for survival. We had to decide whether we would cling to each other or let this pull us apart. Rather than looking back, we decided to look toward the future, even though that future will likely include holidays spent standing in line at a maximum-security prison waiting to see our son, rather than gathering around the Christmas tree or Thanksgiving table. We can’t change what has happened in the past, but we can change the future and what we do with the plate that has been handed to us.
JBU: How do tough times affect your relationship with God?
Carol: When I go through tough times, I sometimes say, “God, right now it feels like You are being unfair.” I ask Him honest questions: Why did You allow this to happen? Why does my son have to be locked up for the rest of his life? We were trying to live our lives for You; why didn’t Your hedge of protection and my lifelong prayers for my son keep Jason from making such a terrible choice? We have learned that God loves honesty and vulnerability and that He’s never disappointed in us for asking Him those questions. I have a much more intimate relationship with God since my son’s arrest, conviction, and sentencing.
JBU: What have you personally gained that you may not have, if you had not gone through what you went through?
Carol: As a result of this journey I have discovered I don’t have to be happy with my circumstances to experience inner joy. I’m also living with hope-filled anticipation about my eternal home—a place where we will be with Jesus in a much better situation and my son will walk in freedom.
JBU: How has your message to women changed as a result of living this nightmare?
Carol: I’m more authentic with my audiences and I’m honest about the fact that there’s a lot of pain in our lives. My message today is that pain is pain is pain is pain—it’s all pain, no matter what degree of pain you are in, and the Bible still has the answers to today’s questions. As I tell the truth about our journey with our son, instead of hiding it like a secret, I’ve discovered a new kind of freedom. One woman in my Bible study said, “Carol, I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we could be friends.”
JBU: What would you say to other parents whose kids are in crisis?
Carol: On a practical level, I would tell them to intervene as early as they see a problem developing. We wanted to allow our married son to establish his own life and have as much independence from us as possible during his first year of marriage. We now realize that as he feared for the safety of his stepdaughters, he needed his parents as his confidants, so he could voice those fears and discuss better ways of protecting his loved ones.
JBU: What does the church do well in ministering to families in crisis? What can we do better?
Carol: The church is very good at reaching out to families in need at the beginning of a crisis. Most of our churches are sincere and quick to extend tangible compassion when there’s an initial diagnosis of cancer, or when there’s a catastrophic accident, a death in the family, or even when a child or spouse is arrested. The calls, e-mails, flowers, and visits come in abundance. The church could do a better job of figuring out how to extend Christian compassion when the crisis goes on for a long time—when a spouse leaves and there is divorce, when children or parents are permanently disabled in an accident, when there is long-term separation from a loved one due to incarceration, or when there is a lengthy agony of the soul.
JBU: What is one of the greatest needs women around the world express to you?
Carol: A great majority of women want to overcome fear—fear of wrong choices, fear of failure, fear for the future of their children, fear of losing control, fear of disappointing people, fear of being rejected, fear of facing past mistakes, and sometimes the fear of success. Women want to know how to turn fear into faith.
JBU: Tell us about your book Between a Rock and a Grace Place.
Carol: In Between a Rock and a Grace Place: Divine Surprises in the Tight Spots of Life. For the first time, Jason has written journal entries and letters for every chapter. They are filled with repentance, redemption, and reminders that as we press into “the grace place,” God is enough—no matter what challenges we face. In every difficult experience we encounter, if we are looking for divine surprises, we’ll find them. When we embrace those challenges in the tight spots of life, we will discover an adventurous journey that produces unexpected joy, unanticipated favor, a strengthened faith, and a meaningful adventure.
JBU: How can we pray specifically for your family situation?
Carol: It’s important to say that Gene and I don’t justify what our son did. The crime he committed was against the laws of God and man. We know he mentally unraveled as his fears for the safety of his stepdaughters escalated. We have seen his repentance and observed his steady growth as a Christian leader, teacher, and mentor for inmates. He is not wasting his incarceration. He’s using it as a platform for other people to find hope. We are hopeful that a clemency request will someday be approved and our son will be released after serving an appropriate sentence.
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