The last few years Jim and Muriel Sitton have worked through many questions about God and our lives as believers. How are we to make sense of terrible loss? What are we as Christians to do if we have been crushed by evil? How can we surrender to forgiveness when we can barely lift our battered heads off our pillows to face another day?
Their experience also reveals the honest, difficult truth that believers live in a very real, very fallen world. Christians are not immune to the malignancy of these days.
But God shows us that we don’t have to remain mired in despair. He reaches out and embraces those who mourn, those who weep, those who cry out. And sometimes, He delivers a miracle in the form of a baby. May we all rejoice and sing His praises!
The Long Night
On Thanksgiving, November 26, 2009, Jim and Muriel gathered with extended family for a typical turkey dinner at their home in Jupiter, Florida. Seventeen people enjoyed good food and conversation that day, including Makayla, the Sittons’ lively and inquisitive 6-year-old daughter.
Makayla had come along later in life, when Muriel was in her 40s, and the little girl was the only child in the home. No wonder Muriel and Jim doted on this dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. She was their joy.
Makayla means "Gift of God," and that’s what she was. At home, she sang, danced and played the same piano that her mother had played as a child. There, her bedroom closet was filled with dresses, many made by Muriel. There, she was homeschooled. And there, she learned about Jesus.
It was a good life, and this peaceful home was a refuge for the family.
And then it wasn’t.
That Thanksgiving day the Sitton home became a crime scene. Four people were murdered and one seriously wounded—all shot by Muriel’s cousin, an unexpected guest. After dinner he walked out to his car, picked up a gun and returned to the house, where he killed his twin sisters and Muriel’s mother. Then he stepped into the bedroom where 6-year-old Makayla was sleeping, shot her and fled.
“My life was shattered,” Muriel says. “My only child, my mother, everything. I felt like my heart was ripped out of me.
"At one point I’m on the lawn begging on my knees, ‘Lord have mercy,’ not knowing what was happening inside the house. I love the Lord, and made it my purpose that Makayla knew Him and loved Him, that she had heart knowledge of the Lord. And suddenly to have the rug pulled out from under me, it was complete devastation. I screamed, ‘God where are you?’”
The night of the shooting, their pastor accompanied them to the hospital where Makayla had been taken. “Jim and Muriel said goodbye to Makayla. It was a terrible time,” says Pastor Larry Sarver of Calvary Chapel in Palm City, Florida.
Jim, a photojournalist for the local NBC affiliate station in West Palm Beach, was overcome by grief, but he expressed it differently than his wife.
“There were television cameras all around, and I knew all of the media people. I went out and talked to them on-camera. I remember my main motivation was to let the world know that God didn’t abandon my daughter. I was afraid that the world would think that God let her die like that, and to let them know God wasn’t going to abandon us.”
A week later, Jupiter High School was the scene of a memorial service for Makayla and Muriel’s mother, Raymonde Joseph. Hundreds packed the auditorium—many didn’t know Makayla in life, but wanted to honor her in death.
Makayla was gifted in many regards, Jim says, “She was so beyond her years ... it was like God knew she didn’t have long here on this earth, and He packed so much wisdom, laughter and joy into those six short years.”
Pastor Sarver had baptized Makayla earlier that year. He was convinced that the faith the child professed was authentic. “Normally, I wouldn’t baptize anyone who was six, but Makayla was intellectually and spiritually ahead of her age,” he said.
After her death, Jim and Muriel started the Makayla Joy Sitton Foundation to raise money for scholarships for children who want to participate in singing and dance lessons, two things their daughter loved to do. They published a book that Makayla had written, The Bear’s Castle, and all proceeds go to the foundation.
Eventually, Jim went back to work. Muriel worked for the Makayla foundation, but it didn’t fill her days so she spent long hours alone in the empty house. “I cried every day in her bedroom,” Muriel says. “I would bury my face in her clothes and scream and cry.”
Jim remembers Muriel’s pain. “Muriel would wail for eight to 10 hours a day, like Middle Eastern women do when they are grieving.”
Pastor Sarver made it a point to stop by the Sittons’ home every week to support the couple. “It is not a matter of getting over it, but finding the strength to cope,” he says. “I think Muriel and Jim were an example of real Christians going through real suffering. There were no plastic smiles, pretending everything is okay. Even if you have faith, it isn’t that you don’t hurt. But eventually, the healing was real as well.”
The couple and their pastor spoke often about heaven. But Muriel struggled.
“I knew deep down that God loved us,” she says, “but I was angry, wrestling with God. There were days that I couldn’t get out of bed.”
As the couple’s spiritual journey continued, reality interrupted their lives again. The prosecutor had originally said he would seek the death penalty, but that changed and he announced that a plea bargain had been reached. Avoiding a full trial, the murderer pled guilty to four counts of first degree murder and three counts of attempted first degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
“On the day he was sentenced, I dropped to my knees in the courtroom and pleaded for justice for Makayla,” Jim says. “We felt that the only justice for a baby murderer is the death penalty. If someone who killed your child doesn’t deserve the death penalty, who does?
"But, I do realize that even with the death penalty, there isn’t justice on earth and the only One who can really deliver justice is God, who told us, ‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ I leave forgiveness and unforgiveness up to God.”
The killer has not repented or asked the couple for forgiveness, Jim says.
Muriel adds, “For me, forgiveness is that you don’t harbor that root of bitterness in your heart.”
The Lord was not absent during all these events. He was not unaware. As it turned out, He proved once again that He is the God of the unexpected.
In the months before the scheduled trial, Muriel came to the point where she let go of her anger and found peace with God. That’s when something wonderful occurred.
“I became pregnant again when I surrendered to the Lord. It’s not a formula, but it is how it happened,” Muriel says.
The pregnancy brought warmth and hope after two agonizing years. The couple rejoiced and prepared.
Getting ready for their new daughter, Natalia Grace, the couple redecorated what had been Makayla’s room. They kept some of the older things, such as Makayla’s favorite doll, but added special touches just for Natalia.
She was born February 27, 2012, a precious gift to Muriel and Jim, who each turned 50 that year.
“Natalia is completely different from Makayla, although they look a lot alike. She is her own girl, she has her own personality,” Muriel says. “There is still that sweetness and gentleness, and she loves music and dancing. But she is more active than Makayla was at this age, and she’s a thumb-sucker, which she does when she is sleeping. I think it is adorable.”
Jim says he and Muriel will be completely honest with Natalia about her sister. “We have pictures of Makayla throughout the house, so Natalia will start asking questions, and I’ll tell her what is age-appropriate. But we want her to know how special she is, and that she was the biggest miracle and blessing for this family.”
He sees parallels between what happened to his family and what happened to the Old Testament character Job, who went through great trials but was restored by God.
“There were times that I didn’t think Muriel was going to live after this; that she would die of a broken heart,” Jim says. “Then she struggled with God, and she is now stronger than she was before and trusts God more than before.”
Natalia is a balm that heals—to the degree possible—the wound of losing Makayla, Jim says. Her presence has allowed the family to find a new normalcy.
“Our hope is that our story is one of restoration, of God’s amazing love,” Jim says. “He took something that we endured and brought something good and special out of it. Makayla will always be a part of this family, and I realize that God has a special plan and path for Natalia.”
A Gentle Song
One warm morning last spring Jim was awakened very early by something he heard. It took a moment for him to realize it was Muriel singing to Natalia Grace, just a month old at the time. The soft music was coming from the baby’s room, where he knew his wife held Natalia and was singing as the two gently glided back and forth on a rocking chair.
The song was a beautiful old hymn. As the lyrics drifted into his hearing, tears trickled from Jim's eyes and there was a smile on his face.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved …”