We were at home in Vienna, Austria, in September 1992, when our phone rang at 9:15 one Sunday night. The caller introduced himself as a police officer from our hometown of Concord, California.
"Mrs. Collard, I need the phone numbers and addresses of your closest relatives in this area. I believe a Timothy Collard has been involved in an accident here, and we're checking it out. We'll call you back in 30 minutes."
Tim Collard! That was our 23-year-old son's name! What could have happened? Fear began to build inside me.
Two hours of agony later, our distraught daughter, Wendy, 21, who lived about an hour from Tim, called. Two policemen had delivered her life-altering news: Tim had suffered at least three close-range bullet wounds in the back of his head. He was killed instantly. The bragging murderera man named Mikeasserted that he'd killed his wife's lover.
Friends worked with my husband, Glenn, our son Greg, 15, and me to book a flight back to the States and get to the airport for the trip to California. As we were leaving, one friend said to me, "Remember, Dianne, God is good. Hold on to this."
My response was a fervent, "No! I will never say, 'My son's been murdered,' and 'God is good' in the same sentence!"
My life was shattered. My firstborn son had been brutally murdered. How could God be good? We'd left our homeland and family to serve God in Europe as missionarieswhy would a good God allow this to happen?
Upon our arrival at San Francisco Airport, we learned Tim's murder was front-page news, complete with gruesome pictures and the sordid tale as reported by the jealous, murderous husband. We were in shock.
Slowly the truth of what happened that night emerged. Tim worked weekends as a concessions line supervisor at an outdoor amphitheater, the Pavilion. Since the last summer concert had finished that night, the employees had a parking lot "party" to celebrate. Although Tim didn't stay for the party, as he was leaving, a coworker named Donna expressed her fear of returning home to an abusive husband. Tim went home, but in his concern for Donna, he returned to the Pavilion around midnight to make sure she was all right. By this time, Donna was drunk. Only two other people besides Donna remained at the amphitheater, so Tim offered to drive her home.
As he waited in the passenger seat of her car while she and the two others locked up, Donna's husband, Mike, arrived in his pickup truck. When Donna came to her car, he spotted them together and assumed Tim was the cause of his marital problems. Enraged, Mike fired five shots into his wife, then shot Tim and left him in an abandoned parking lot. Donna livedwith disabilities. Our son was dead.
We met with the assistant district attorney and lawyers, and soon learned some hard facts: Because the murder was unpremeditated, the likelihood of a first-degree murder conviction was slim. We also learned that as Tim's parents we had no rights and involvement in the prosecutionmurder is a "crime against the state." Because California courts were overbooked, we had no way of knowing when the trial would be set. Within a month we returned to Vienna, and were encouraged not to return for the trial. My brother, Bill, agreed to be our representative. He and other family members attended each of the pretrial hearings and the start of the official trial.
Our attorney advised us that there was no question of Mike's guilt. Yet the pretrial hearings all indicated that truth was not the issue. In order to justify the murderer's actions, the defense would attempt to destroy Tim's character, somehow leaving the perception with the jury that Tim was such a horrible person, he deserved to die.
I pled with our prosecuting attorney not to let this happen. The attorney responded that legally it didn't matter who Tim was or what he'd doneit was wrong to kill him. While I knew that, it didn't satisfy.
We didn't know how to pray. We cried out for truth to prevail, that somehow God would intervene.
At the pretrial hearings, Mike appeared cocky and totally unrepentant. But on the morning of the actual trial, contrary to the expectations of his attorney, the judge, and the media, Mike changed his plea to guilty of first degree murder. He received the strongest sentence we could expectlife in prison, with the possibility of parole in 25 years. We don't know what prompted Mike's change of heart, but God answered our prayers beyond anything we could ask.
At the sentencing, we sent a letter to be read, plus Bill spoke for us. In both we expressed our desire that the murderer know God's forgiveness and experience the salvation God offers.
Bill talked to one of Mike's family members, but the attorneys wouldn't allow us to talk to Mike himself. We tried to talk to Donna, but with no success. Donna made it clear she didn't want any contact with us. She had semi-recovered, divorced, and remarried.
Since Tim's murder , it's been a seven-year process of forgiveness and growth. I had a decision to make: Would I trust God, or reject him? My ultimate surrender expressed itself in a heartfelt cry one night as I thought of a chorus: "In my life in my pain in Tim's death, Lord, be glorified."
Even though I had no feelings of forgiveness, God brought me to the point where I could pray, "God, in your strength, I choose to forgive this man." I've had to repeat that prayer whenever I've experienced the pain of seeing my husband and children go through terrible times of grief. When my family suffered, or we'd learn something new about the murder, I'd have to choose to forgive again.
That first year, I felt I'd done all God expected of me. My husband and children were on their own journey toward forgiveness, and I couldn't push them.
But as the anniversary of Tim's murder approached, I felt convinced God wanted me to do more. I contacted my brother, Bill, and asked him to find out where Mike was so I could contact him. Bill had to go to great lengths to get Mike's address; the prison system doesn't trust the victim's family members with that information.
My brother initiated contact with Mike. Eventually I prayerfully, tearfully sent a letter to him through Bill. Mike responded, expressing sorrow for what he'd done. Mike was repentant, but did not feel he deserved God's forgiveness. My brother continues to correspond with him and plans to visit him when it's appropriate.
I can't tell you what God will lead me to do in the future. I've done all he's asked, and I'm committed to obey whatever else he wants. If my husband, Glenn, seeks to visit Mike, I'm willing to go along and face him, but I don't believe I can do it on my own.
I know, both from the Bible and from personal experience, that God's command to forgive as he forgives us is for my goodit brings release from the destructive forces of bitterness and anger.
Obviously, forgiveness doesn't mean murder is "okay," or that Mike doesn't deserve his punishment. It in no way diminishes the horror that this one man's choice contains. But it says I release my "right" for revenge or judgment. Mike's in God's handsand I pray he'll experience God's love and forgiveness.
Has my pain gone away? No! I don't expect to be free from the pain of losing my son. As another grieving parent expressed, "It never becomes easy, but it does become more bearable." But I don't grieve as someone without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). I know that Tim, who asked Jesus to be his Savior when he was four years old, is in heavenand that some day we'll see him again.
I have this hope because Easter is a reality. God's power, which raised Jesus out of the grave that early Sunday morning, is the very power that saved me from my sin and changed my (and my son's) destination from hell to heaven. It's that power that enables me to have hope in the midst of despair and this world's evil.
We've permanently engraved Tim's tombstone, "Life is not fair, but God is good." My cry of "Why?" is engulfed in the goodness of Godmy reason for life and hope.
Dianne Collard, a freelance writer, and her husband, Glenn, are missionaries with Greater Europe Mission.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.