Following Guiding Lights
Updated: Jul 6
(Thanks to my dear mother, Dr. Bonnie Shellnut, for sharing this beautiful message with us. She will celebrate her 76th birthday on July 6. Every day, every year is a gift! Love you, Mom!)
My daughter Shawn and I climbed 94 steps to the top of Fort Gratiot Lighthouse in Port Huron ~ 2014
Lighthouses are special for many reasons, but most important is their lights guide ships and boats through coastal seaways and inland waterways. Plus, they often guide boats and ships safely to harbor. Michigan, home to the five Great Lakes, has about 125 lighthouses—more than any other state. One of my favorites is Fort Gratiot Light which was the first lighthouse in Michigan and was built in 1829 on Lake Huron in Port Huron, MI. I climbed to the top with my daughter Shawn. Each lighthouse is a unique structure but has the same function: to provide critical navigational guidance to ship and boat captains.
Just as lighthouses guide ship and boat captains through rough waters, each of us needs to find guiding lights to help us navigate life. A child’s mom or dad usually is a child’s first guiding light. But, when I was two months shy of eight, I lost my mother to depression that ended in her suicide. My dad’s problem drinking and emotional distance kept him from being an effective guiding light.
Thankfully, however, I found my primary guiding light in Christ at age 16 (60 years ago) when I became a believer and began following him. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” As I turn 76 and reflect on life, I recognize that his light has given not only guidance but meaning and purpose to my life which has directed me to five central guiding lights or principles.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” ~ John 8:12
Guiding Light #1: Accept God’s Love and Grace
The Bible shines a bright light on God’s abundant love and unmerited grace in the following passages:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8)
When I was eleven, my dad was found passed out on the floor from drinking pure alcohol. Rather than having me and two other minor children removed from the home and having him put in jail, a case worker with the court recommended that he go to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and that we children ages 11, 14, and 15 be sent to Sunday School. He had to agree. A bus picked us up. My brother and sister soon stopped attending, but I kept going. I made some friends and found acceptance by one of the kids’ mother and the young pastor and his wife who showed interest in me. As I joined in youth group activities, I was thankful to find and accept God’s love and grace that did not depend on my goodness. I felt loved and accepted. I recognize that I have not always followed God’s guiding light with as much trust as I should have. Thankfully, his love, forgiveness and grace continue to shine even when I might have lost sight of them.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” ~ John 3:16
Guiding Light #2: Commit to Unconditional Love
I met my future husband, Bennie, on our Sunday School bus. As we grew into our teen years, we both got involved in youth activities. He was a handsome, wavy-blond-haired athlete with a sweet smile and polite attitude toward everyone. We started dating when I was 17 1/2, a senior in high school, and he was 19. We got engaged a year later during our first year of college and married the next year when I was 19 1/2. I loved him, but I didn’t want to marry while I was a teen because I had read in Ann Landers that teen marriage often didn’t work out. Plus, I wanted to finish my college education. He told me he was ready to marry me and I didn’t have to give up my college dream. Plus, he would pay for me to go to Wayne State University. Who could refuse such an offer? No demands but lots of love and support for my desire to get a college education. He not only supported me getting my bachelor and master’s degrees during the first six years of our marriage, but also a doctorate during our third decade of marriage. His support gave me the opportunity to fulfill my goals as Robert Frost noted:
“My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation, As my two eyes make one in sight.”
I became a high school teacher of English and literature along with Bible, speech, debate, and drama. After 17 years of teaching, I entered the business world developing training and later worked at universities teaching graduate students and developing curriculum. My husband and I not only loved each other, but we also respected each other’s aptitudes and talents. He was a firefighter who developed design and building skills, masonry, roofing, and furniture making for our children and our house. Also, he developed into a great cook and house cleaner and, most important, a loving childcare provider to our children and grandchildren.
Bennie Ray Shellnut and Bonnie June Belcher at a Valentine's dinner at Free Will Baptist Bible College in 1964 ~ Nashville, TN
My husband and I not only loved each other, but we also respected each other’s aptitudes and talents.
Before we married, we talked about having a family later and wanting to adopt kids if we could not have any. He had lived with his brother and wife who had adopted a little girl while he was there. I finished my degree and after a year of trying and testing for both of us, I had not become pregnant. We were in our mid 20s (much younger than most married couples seeking to adopt) when we started the adoption process, adopting our first baby, a girl (Shawn Marie), in 1970. We adopted our second baby, a boy (Jeremy Wade), two years later. Then five months later in December 1972, I had a baby girl (Heather Leigh). God had blessed us with three kids under three years old. We had lots of bottles and lots of diapers and lots of help from mothers-in-law, aunts and nieces. We included adoption and birth pictures as well as birthdays and special occasions in our children’s baby books and made sure each child (biological or adopted) had special memories recorded. We never for one minute thought our adopted children were different from our biological child. We loved, and still love them, as God’s gifts to us.
The Shellnut Family in 1973, Heather on my lap, Shawn in back and Jeremy on Bennie's lap
We never for one minute thought our adopted children were different from our biological child. We loved, and still love them, as God’s gifts to us.
We committed to parenting and loving each of our children unconditionally no matter how they came to us or how they behaved or progressed mentally or physically. Our daughters learned to walk and talk early. Our son slept less and was more active and explored a lot with his hands. Each one had been the first born of their mothers, so each grew up very independent and strong willed. Each one tested us in different ways.
When Shawn, our oldest, was about eight she got mad at me and said she wanted to run away and asked what I would do. I told her I would be very sad and would come look for her. As a teen, she was an outstanding student and athlete. But there were times she said some mean things to me, saying she was just being honest.
Our second oldest, Jeremy, liked fishing, hunting, and riding bikes. He got in trouble often. Although smart, he hated school and seldom did his homework. When he was in the 11th grade and I was visiting a sick relative out of state and his father was working at a fire station 30 miles away, he threw what became known as the biggest party in Ortonville. Our house was located on seven acres in the country. I surprised him by coming home that night to find about 30 or more cars lining the road and our driveway and at least 70 to 100 kids jammed into our basement and upstairs living area. Loud music bombarded me when I entered the basement. Heavy pot smoke wafted through the air and beer and wine bottles were strewn everywhere. My son’s eyes bugged out when he saw me and said he had no idea how so many kids knew about the party since he had only invited a couple of friends. We later discovered he had spent three days at school inviting kids to his party. Plus, he called his motor cross racing buddies. After all the kids were gone, I had him bag up the empty bottles and cans and clean up messes. His dad came home the next morning and we grounded Jeremy for a week and didn’t let him go to his motor cross race that weekend.
At the end of Heather’s (our youngest) freshman year of college, she told us she was going to move in with her boyfriend’s family and wanted to take her bedroom outfit. I told her she could take her clothes but not the furniture. She got mad and said she would never invite me to her wedding. I told her that if she didn’t, it would be like a knife through my heart. We told her she could come home any time she wanted. About four weeks later, she called her sister (Shawn) and me to come help her move out and back home, which we did without making any comments about her bad decision.
Shawn and I continued having verbal battles throughout her teen years, but she did not make any really bad behavior decisions. Shawn was a straight A student and outstanding athlete and got a scholarship to Wayne State University. Heather was an honor student, active in student government, and got a scholarship to Western Michigan University. However, I had to convince the high school administrators to allow Jeremy to graduate because he had missed one day too many. He did not go to college but became a talented carpenter and handyman. After suffering a traumatic brain injury and other physical injuries from a 35-foot fall in 2013 at age 41, he had to learn to talk and walk again. Thank God for the miracle of sparing his life.
Although we made many mistakes as parents, we tried to be good role models, showing them the importance of hard work, honesty, love, and forgiveness. We spent many hours praying for them and crying, especially during their teen years.
As our adult children had babies, my husband and I committed to being active in their lives by babysitting and attending school and sports events. When my husband, who was retired but working as a delivery driver, discovered that Heather’s first child (Jordyn), who was two and not being cared for properly by a hired babysitter, he quit his job and became her day-time caregiver. He did this for three years until Heather remarried and hired a childcare giver near her new house.
We spent many hours praying for them and crying, especially during their teen years.
Our nine grandchildren loved their Poppa so much because he was actively involved in their lives and showed them lots of love. Naturally, it was devastating to them when he died from a brain tumor in January 2011. I had worked full time and was often away on business before he was diagnosed. I retired immediately and took care of him at home until his death. Afterwards, I began to get more fully involved with our grandkids. As a former teacher and college instructor, I used my skills to help them in their academics. Since Shawn home schooled her four kids for several years, she had me teach them individually and in several co-op classes including literature, writing, debate, and world history. During the pandemic in the fall of 2020, I was the learning coach five days a week for Heather’s two youngest children--Ashton and Owen who took online classes for their fifth and eleventh grades.
When Bailey, the oldest grandchild, graduated from high school in 2013, I started a tradition of taking each grandchild on a trip as a high school graduation gift. Because she planned to go into acting and musical theatre, we went to New York to see five plays.
In 2014, we went to Hawaii to celebrate Jordyn’s graduation. We loved our catamaran boat ride.
In 2016, I took Jacob on an Alaskan adventure—one week on land to see Denali National Park and one week on the inside passage to four major ports. We had a thrilling seaplane ride into the Misty Fjords where we landed on the water.
In 2018, Aaron and I flew into Australia and took a 16-day cruise to New Zealand during his Christmas vacation. Our most exciting excursion was working as crew members on a racing yacht.
In 2019, Liam and I took a 10-day trip to Hawaii where we visited his cousin Bailey on Maui and then enjoyed five days in sunny Waikiki, Oahu. Our snorkeling trip on a huge catamaran was our favorite outing.
There are four more grandkids to graduate. They select the trip (within reason) and we both get a special time to just hang out together, have fun and make special memories before they head off to college.
Guiding Light #3: Commit to Justice and Mercy for Everyone
Some key Bible passages and literature passages have guided me in my social and political interactions. It’s of the utmost importance to love mercy as stated in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Proverbs 31:8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
Galatians 3:28 states: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Clearly it is wrong to discriminate and show preference for one person or group over others.
Isaiah 1: 17 directs us to: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." ~ Micah 6:8
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus teaches empathy to his young daughter Scout when he states: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finally, Jesus said: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” I cannot claim to have become the perfect example of these principles, but I have always tried to follow these guiding lights.
Guiding Light #4: Accept Both Blessings and Challenges in Life
Many marriage vows include the following promise: “I, ___, take you, ___, to be my wife (or husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy law.”
But, in the daily life of working, raising children, and creating a home life together, we seldom think about these vows. My husband and I enjoyed and thanked God for the blessings of life: family, good health, jobs, food, clothing, friends, recreation, etc. Although we experienced some minor illnesses, accidents, a little teenage bad behavior, and some workplace difficulties, we generally had many more blessings than challenges.
Our greatest challenge came in the late summer of 2010 when my husband Bennie, age 66, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and given a few months to live. When the neurosurgeon told me his prognosis, it took my breath away. Bennie had always been so strong and healthy. My daughters and I decided to hold a celebration of life at our church a month after his diagnosis to give friends and family a chance to see him and say goodbye.
My husband and I enjoyed and thanked God for the blessings of life: family, good health, jobs, food, clothing, friends, recreation, etc.
During his four-month illness, he lost his ability to have conversations and make decisions. A good friend asked if I was mad at God for allowing such a good guy as Bennie, who lived a good life helping others and not abusing his body with alcohol or cigarettes, to suffer and die. My answer was “No. I believe that we should not ask ‘why us?’ but ‘why not us?’ If we accept and are thankful for life’s blessings, we should accept life’s challenges and difficulties.”
I believe the guiding light in all circumstances is to follow the example of Paul the Apostle who claimed in Philippians 4:11-13: ”…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength.”
If we accept and are thankful for life’s blessings, we should accept life’s challenges and difficulties.
Naturally, I would have preferred that my wonderful, loving husband had not developed an inoperable brain tumor and had not died one month short of 67. I feel that we were blessed to have 46 years together. We both had talked throughout our marriage of growing old together and enjoying each other’s love and companionship for many more years. But it was not to be. Accepting my husband’s death as part of life does not mean I have not mourned, cried, or been lonely. I have. But it does mean I am not angry at God or anyone else. I am content.
"I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” ~ Philippians 4:11b & 13
Our 46th wedding anniversary on January 2, 2011, two weeks before Bennie passed on
Guiding Light #5: Live Life Fully
Before my husband’s diagnosis, I was in a demanding job and was a workaholic who spent more time working than I needed to do. In addition to my full-time job, I even took on extra adjunct positions at universities, thinking he and I had plenty of time left to enjoy retirement together. So, I regret not retiring at 62 and winding down during the last three years before he got sick. However, I have learned to live life more fully in the last 10 years of being a widow by embracing these guiding lights:
Find places to serve
James 2:26 claims that “faith without works is dead.” I spent one year working with Hospice as a visitor to those in Hospice care. That type of service, however, was not the most suited to my skills. For the next three years I used my background in education to help develop curriculum for a local homeless shelter high school GED program. When they no longer needed my services, I volunteered at a local food bank writing grants for five years. During the same time, several other ladies and I developed a mentoring program at our church for middle and high school girls. While I have the good health and ability to do so, I believe I should serve others in some capacity.
"Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works." ~ James 2:26
Stay as physically active as possible
My husband and I played pickleball with friends at the senior center on my days off or during vacation in Florida where we had a house in a senior community. So, after his death I began to play the game of pickleball with other seniors in Waterford, Troy, Royal Oak and Clarkston. I even entered a few senior tournaments with fellow players, usually placing second or third in our category and skill level. Now, I play five to six days a week for exercise, recreation, and social interaction. Others might find the same satisfaction and healthy benefits in yoga, dancing, walking, bowling, etc.
Feed your mind and spirit
After my husband’s death, I joined our church women’s Bible study program, which holds six to 10 weekly sessions during the fall and winter. We study people and principles from the Bible, share our views and experiences and pray for each other. Plus, I always love to learn and discuss ideas. So, a close friend from high school and I recently started an online book club with some other alumnae. I download library books to my phone and listen to them while driving. Also, I read books, watch classic movies and documentaries, and attend live plays and concerts as often as possible. I can always find things to do to avoid house or yard work.
While I have the good health and ability to do so, I believe I should serve others in some capacity.
See as much of the local and wide world as possible
I have been fortunate to go on amazing tours with groups to Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, and France as well as being able to take grandchildren on trips to New York, Hawaii, Alaska, and New Zealand. But travel does not have to be extravagant to be enjoyable. I joined with a former teaching colleague’s senior group at her church and have gone on inexpensive fun, social day trips. We’ve gone to the tulip festival in Holland, MI, viewed lighthouses on Lake Huron, saw the gloriously restored tall ships in Saginaw Bay, visited Amish country in Ohio, attended Tigers’ baseball games, and enjoyed lots of plays, concerts, the DIA, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra presentations.
I visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2017
I visited the tall ships in Saginaw Bay with my friends, Irma (center) and Sue, in 2016
Make family a priority
It is such a pleasure to get together with my children and their families for dinners and special occasions. And it’s also rewarding to watch my grandchildren as much as needed, help them with their schoolwork, go to their games and concerts, have them over for game or movie nights and take them on trips. For those who don’t have children or grandchildren nearby, there are numerous non-profit organizations that serve children that love having volunteers to work with their children.
I celebrated Easter 2019 with seven of my nine grandchildren
Others will find some of the same and possibly different lights to guide them and go on different journeys. I have been blessed to have these guiding lights to help me navigate my journey through life, marriage, and widowhood.
Michigan has more lighthouses (still standing) than any other state with over 120 listed. Including historical lighthouses, there were 150 built.
Fort Gratiot Light, the first lighthouse in the state of Michigan, was constructed north of Fort Gratiot in 1829 by Lucius Lyon, who later became one of Michigan's first U.S. Senators. The Fort Gratiot Light marks the entrance to the St. Clair River from Lake Huron (going south) in the southern portion of Michigan's Thumb. The light is still active and the grounds are an active Coast Guard facility, but it has recently been handed over to the Port Huron Museum. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Michigan. There is also a public beach and park on the property, known as Lighthouse Beach.
Happy 245th Birthday, America!
"Godliness makes a nation great, but sin is a disgrace to any people." ~ Proverbs 14:34
"I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. For, there is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time." ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-6