My 2-and-a-half-year-old is just old enough to recognize holiday symbols like Baby Jesus, Santa and Christmas lights. She has no idea what any of these mean, but she can tell from her 7-year-old sister’s excitement level that they must be pretty special.
Recently I heard about a dad, Brad Henn, who has decorated his house with 31,000 lights in memory of his little girl who died in an accident two years ago. It’s near our house, so we took the kids for a drive and brought a toy for the children’s hospital toy drive they’re doing in her honor.
Both girls really enjoyed seeing the beautiful display, which the father calls “London’s Lights,” and I explained to my oldest that this father goes to all this trouble so others can enjoy the lights and everyone can remember his little girl’s precious life.
The holidays can be so difficult for anyone who’s lost someone close. The fact that this dad chooses to pour himself into something that brings joy to others in the midst of his deepest grief really fascinated me.
So I asked him about it. He said they started doing London’s Lights two years ago in an effort to take what was birthed in tragedy and turn it into something beautiful. “We would never be able to buy presents for London again, so our gift to her was Christmas lights,” he said. “She was our little bundle of light, so now we light up our house as a gift to her, in her honor, to memorialize her memory and share that gift, her legacy with each and every person that comes to see the lights.”
I wondered about his other children, ages 10 and 8. While it was easy for me to tell my kids what London’s Lights mean, how does this father talk to his kids about the joy and peace of the Christmas season in the midst of the heartbreak they’ve endured?
“When you’re hit with such a tragedy, you have the option of doing one of two things: 1. Forget about life and begin to numb the pain, become bitter and angry and slip into a place of being forgotten about, or, 2. You run to God, the only true source of hope. Without Him, what hope would there be?
“Our lead pastor told me something so profound just days after London passed. He said, “Don’t ever let your pain be a place of permanence but a place of passage attached to a passionate purpose.” I didn’t really understand that back then as much as I do now. God allowed us to use something so tragic and heartbreaking and turn it into something beautiful with passionate purpose and full intentionality of being a light, a voice of hope and encouragement to others.”
Through it, Brad and his wife, Heather, have taught their kids:
1. Today Matters
Life is a gift; each of us only gets 24 hours in a day, no more or less. “It’s what you do with that time that makes the difference. I tell my children to be the example; be a leader not a follower. I tell them to connect with the un-cool kids, don’t look at the flaws in others but celebrate the greatness in them. I ask them every morning before school, ‘What kind of day are you going to have?’ Their trained response is ‘GREAT!’”
2. Love Heals the Hurt
The best way to heal the hurt is to love others. “We teach through our example as parents. We show them that just because something or someone is gone, they’re never lost. God always knows best.”
3. Peace Comes From the Assurance of Heaven
Our peace comes from the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ and in knowing that we have hope beyond this life (John 3:16). “Our peace comes in knowing that someday we will see London again.”
4. Joy Comes Through Giving
“Our joy comes in knowing that the essence of living is found in giving” (Proverbs 11:24-25, Luke 6:38, 2 Corinthians 9:6-8). “It is far better to give than to receive. The best gift is to do something for someone who will never have the capacity to pay you back.”
Brad and Heather view London’s life as a seed and are working to see it grow to comfort others who have experienced tragedy. They collected 250 toys last year to donate to the children’s hospital, and this year they’ve collected close to 1,000. “Our hearts melt with each person that comes to see the lights, with each toy, with each parent that says, ‘I lost a child, and because of what your family is doing, it has renewed my faith and hope this Christmas and in God,’” he said. “Everything God does is for a reason. Do I wish London was home right now? Absolutely! But sometimes God gives extraordinary joy and peace in the midst of trying circumstances. We as a family choose to never let her be forgotten. She’s very much alive in each of us, and London’s Lights will continue to grow and be a blessing to hurting kids and a ‘go-to’ place for broken families that have felt forgotten.”
Shortly after London’s passing, Brad wrote a song called “Heaven Just Got Better.” The song has been replayed on national radio and across the country in funerals and memorials, including many of the services for victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He also uses London’s Lights Facebook page to talk about his faith.
London’s Lights won the Clark Griswold National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Lights contest this week, which comes with a monetary award and national coverage on a network morning show.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” –Romans 15:13
Cara Davis is a content consultant and co-founder of the soon-to-launch church’d.com. The former editorial director for Relevant Media Group, her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and CNN, and she’s been quoted in USA Today and The New York Times. She lives with her husband and two girls in East Nashville where she has co-founded a nonprofit called Community PTO to support the success of local community schools.