My 2017 Thanksgiving List

As I sit here in my recliner next to the fireplace observing family sitting on our new sectional as they watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade I am reminded that I have much to be thankful for.  I used to do these posts annually, but I just realized it’s been several years – too many years, actually, as I think the last one was in 2013 – since I last composed one.  So, here are some of the things for which I’m thankful for this year.  In keeping with my tradition, these are listed in no particular – except as they occur to me.  Some are serious and some are, well, less serious.  And because I’m always afraid I’ll leave someone off the list accidentally, I don’t list very many names, just initials (since many people have similar initials).  May this list encourage you to create your own.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Melissa, Chloe, Celeste, Cece, and Caroline (okay, so I’ll put in a couple names :)), Family vacations, snuggles on the couch, three-year-olds, baby dolls (can you tell what I’ve just been handed and who did the handing-off? :)), make-believe, tree-houses (and building them), fire pits with bonfires, small fires, chopped wood, mauls (to split that wood), butterfly gardens, forgiveness, grace, hope, being made new, second (and third and fourth and fifth and…) chances, backpacks, SB, CW, KW, Apples (both the fruit and the computer), Microsoft Office (but definitely NOT windows), laptops, jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies, sweaters, a washing machine and dryer, underwear (because who wants to walk around all commando-style?!?!), AS, JB, tears, sorrow, grief, struggles and difficult times – because they all make the good that much better, a godly wife, being called “Daddy”, streaming movies, ceiling fans, a gas stove, Snickers (the candy), ice skating lessons, heat and central air, a job I enjoy, paid bills, trips to cool places and then a home to come back to, umbrellas and raincoats, windows in my office, sunny days, rain, thunderstorms (gotta love those big black clouds rolling in!) but not hurricanes or tornados, puppy dogs, DS, Princess, golden retrievers, eating outside on the deck, trees in my yard, our yard, bamboo groves with hidden surprises, pools in the summer, the mountains, hiking trails, EM rock scrambles, our country, liberty, freedom, the ability to influence policy, my boss, good leaders to follow, my coworkers, a great team to work with every day, texting (most of the time), email (some of the time), books to read, the ability to read, music, CH, playing the guitar and drums and piano, iTunes playlists, CO, twirling dancers in my living room while the piano is played, quiet nights, friendly get-to-gethers, electricity, double-ovens, hot chocolate, lazy days, afternoon naps, pillows, electric blankets, Star Wars, Star Trek, LOTR, (okay, I had to get a little geeky for a moment), iPads, FaceTime, Bear Pauses, Da Bears (I’m NOT talking about the football team), the Cubs (I am talking about the team), baseball to watch, the 2016 World Series (and, yes, I can get a 108 years out of that one…), garages (even if my car doesn’t fit in it right now), bikes, bike rides with family and friends, my parents and grandparents (and all those before them), DO, TG, CN, LB, CJ, early-Thursday mornings at Panera, LC, JC, in-laws, the cross, the empty-tomb, my brothers (and their families) VC, LE, MJ, blankets, hiking boots, shoes, Netflix BMD, JG, EH, finished papers, funded grants, new opportunities, marriage, chocolate, grilled turkey (yum!), Chicago-style-deep-dish-pizza (is there any other kind?!!?), cheeseburgers, Swiss cheese, gas grills, hairspray, electric razors, allergy medicine, push-button starts, power lawn-mowers, the USPS, whiteboard paint, post-it charts, Thinking Collaborative, CC, AS, mentors, new beginnings, traditions, fall leaves, cruises, family game night, Clue, Uno, SkipBo, Mario Cart Wii (even if it’s no longer working), trips to the zoo, citronella oil, butterflies, seeing animals in the wild, napkins, paper towels, two-ply toilet paper, hot water heaters, backyard ponds, fences to keep the dog in, big fields, preschool parties, baptisms, the Bible, dimmable lights, that it doesn’t all depend on me, freedom to make mistakes and the ability to learn from them, ice cream, hot fudge, Duck Donuts (especially the Donut Sundae!), Chick-fila spicy chicken deluxe sandwich, reliable transportation,  heated seats in the winter, cooled seats in the summer, sunroofs, bluetooth speakers in the back yard, hands-free talking on the phone, the fact that the vast majority of people obey the traffic laws, freedom of choice (in just about everything), frozen pizzas, Marabella, mileage reimbursement, turning off the phone,  remote controls, comfy chairs, a Godly heritage, people who prayed (and pray) for me, EP, AP, DP, DW, JI, HB, Words with Friends, Sudoku on my phone, pens and pencils, mint-chocolate-chip shakes, dry-erase markers, kayaks and canoes, safe travel, Evernote, WordPress, dishwashers (both the automatic and short, two-legged manual ones), cottage cheese, pay day, slides, swings, tools for fixing stuff, slippers, chalk, Settlers, Carcasone, hugs, NSO, CSO, ES, DVM, RSC, KS, MC, teachers, Doc, MW, drama, musicals, soundtracks, Pandora, Mahler symphonies, classical music, G&S, snow, pictures, memories, my sister, root beer, medicine, fingers and toes, glasses, paper, post-it notes, printers, Adobe Acrobat, being able to hear, Kleenex, photocopiers, scanners, Gentle Leads, Top Dog, baseball caps, hiking poles, airplanes, grilled steak, salt and pepper, cheese, coaching conversations, counselors, lasagna, crockpots, going out to eat, delivery, eating home-made meals, picnics, French friends, chocolate mousse, French toast, pancakes, maple syrup, corn on the cob, flashlights, walkie-talkies, Find My Friends, GPS devices, geo-caching, giving the benefit of the doubt, presuming positive intentions, Publix subs (particularly the chicken-tender), wall-mounted TVs, picking apples in the mountains, fresh apple cider, desserts (especially the chocolate kind), trips to Sweet Frog, happy-hour at Sonic, hot tea, unsweet iced tea, nachos, quesadillas, queso-dip…

And I suppose this list could go on and on, but I’ll go ahead and stop it there.  What are some of the things you’re thankful for today?


Leaving a Legacy

I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly 17 months now, but, honestly, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say and how to say it.  How does one summarize the impact of a man like Dr. Ray Robinson?

Doc (as we all called him) was the choir conductor during my undergraduate years at Palm Beach Atlantic University, then Palm Beach Atlantic College (PBA).  I studied under his tutelage from 1995-1999.  But for many of us who knew Doc, he was so much more than just a teacher.  What I learned from him was more than a deep love of music, it was more than the ability to be a world-class scholar or an expert musician.  No one ever doubted Doc’s ability, his skill, or his leadership.  Like most college professors he had written numerous articles, and, like most world-renowned musicians, he was in a league of his own.  Yes, he had been the president of Westminster Choir College for nearly 20 years – the second-longest serving president in the college’s history.  Yes, the book he authored on choral conducting has been a standard textbook for conductors in training for decades.  Yes, he was arguably the leading world scholar on the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.  And, yes, the list of professional accomplishments goes on and on.

But to only talk about these accomplishments is to do Doc a terrible disservice.

This weekend I’m attending an event in West Palm Beach to honor Doc and his contributions to my alma mater; alumni of the music program have been invited back to PBA to perform in the Oratorio Choir’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Last night was our first rehearsal with the group, and after the rehearsal many of us gathered for a social time to reconnect, speak with Doc’s family, and share some of our memories of him.  As I sat there and listed to others talk I was both reminded of Doc’s impact, and struck by the unique place he held in each of our lives.  Here were people who had come together literally from all over the world (I believe there were at least three countries and multiple states represented among those in attendance at the social), and it seemed that almost every person spoke of Doc as someone who made them feel extremely unique and special – like they had one-of-a-kind relationship with him – and that they would not be who or where they are today if it had not been for him.

I would say this was a characteristic that was true for many of us in attendance (and even many that were not there whom I still stay in contact with today).  Doc had this ability to make you feel special – no, that’s not the right way to say it…  Doc had this way of communicating to you his belief that you actually were special, that you were important, and at the same time you never once felt like you were so special the world revolved around you.  By the time I knew Doc, he used wisdom to somehow give you a confidence in yourself and your abilities that was not arrogance but was ultimately founded on a deep understanding of your role and place in the world as a deeply loved child of God.  Artists are often (accurately) accused of believing themselves to be almost god-like, or at the very least “God’s-gift-to” then fill in the blank; one of the things Doc taught me was that it was in God, specifically in Jesus – not in my art – that I found my my value and my identity.

For whatever reason Doc latched on to me – or maybe I should say he latched me on to him.  Now to be completely honest I know that my parents had met with him prior to my moving to Florida from Illinois and made him provide a personal assurance he would look out for me and watch over me in my time at Florida; they didn’t know him before I moved away from him, so there was no connection they were trying to take advantage of.  But for whatever reason, he agreed – and I will never know why Doc did so. What was it about some 18 year old, arrogant boy who grew up outside Chicago that caused Doc to look at me and say, “I want to lead that one.  I want to invest in him.”?  It had to be more than a conversation with my parents and it certainly had to be more than my musical or dramatic talent.

I have to believe it had more to do with Doc than it did with me.

During the school years Doc would have me come meet with him every week.  It started informally – he would ask me about my program of studies, we would discuss options for classes, we discussed people and friends.  Even though Doc wasn’t my advisor, he wanted to know how my classes were going, which classes I was taking and with whom.  But over time our conversations shifted.  We started having deeply theological discussions – we talked about books we had read (or were reading) by people like JI Packer, CS Lewis, or Francis Schaeffer, or we would talk about what we were learning and studying in our private prayer and Bible study times.  Doc used to call it our “devotions” – I’m not sure where the term came from, but I never argued with him about it; after-all, who was I to argue with him?

Then he would invite me to his home.  Being a college student from Chicago but studying in Florida I only went home once or twice a year.  So for 3 or 4 years I spent Thanksgiving with him at his house.  I not only got to meet his wife Ruth, but also some of his children and grandchildren – and those I didn’t meet I heard about – often – and I almost felt like I knew them as well!

Doc and Ruth became like another set of parents to me; they accepted me not just into their home, but into their family.  Every summer Doc and Ruth would travel to Poland for him to continue his studies on and with Penderecki, so it was well-known among the music students that he would have students house-sit for him for the months of May through August while they were away.  Those students were responsible to take care of the home while they lived in Europe, and, for several years, I was fortunate enough to have that responsibility.

But what many people did not understand is that when you took care of the house you didn’t just live there on your own – you lived there with Doc and Ruth.  They typically would spend part of the summer going to visit their children in Colorado and South Carolina, then they’d spend part of the summer in Poland, and then they’d often spend time visiting friends and family in other locations (South Carolina and Princeton, NJ were two regulars when I was with them).  And in between those visits they would come home – home to West Palm Beach.  But when they came home they didn’t kick you out of their house until the next trip, you stayed with them and lived with them.  So even though I would “house-sit” for them for four months, there were at least 3 or 4 weeks of that time every summer where I lived with them.

There were even multiple spring breaks where I remained in Florida (after-all, who lives in Florida and goes to Chicago for a week in February or March) and, because the dorms were closed, I lived with them.  Doc was more than a teacher, more than a mentor – he and Ruth invited me into their family and so became family.

How does one share what was learned sitting around the dinner table having conversations about politics, theology, or history?  How does one communicate the impact of evenings on the back patio talking with a mature couple what they have learned about marriage or parenting or life in general?  How can you share the impact of two people opening up not just their home but their lives to you?  That was my experience with Doc, and that was the impact I was reminded of last night listening to others talk.

I remember he and Ruth showing me which plants in the back garden needed watering while they were away – and which ones were the most precious plants and needed the most attention.  And then I remember standing out there every morning for 30 minutes a day tending the garden.  I remember painting the wall along the sidewalk in front of their house with Doc during spring break – we actually talked about the famous conductor Robert Shaw out there.  Or the times we spent together tending to the bushes in the front yard; there was a large bougainvillea vine (or tree or bush) that Doc and I would work on – resulting in both of us looking beat up as we would be covered in blood from cutting and carrying the branches filled with large thorns.  I remember painting the car port for them multiple times (one of many “projects” left behind to take care of while they were away).

I also will never forget the grace, wisdom, and even mercy they showed me in our interactions.  I know I wasn’t your stereotypical party student (okay, so I wasn’t anything close to the stereotypical party student!), but I was a kid.  Their was a security system on the home, and whichever one of us was the last person to go to bed at night was responsible to set it – so, as was normally the case, one night I went to bed late and set the system before going upstairs.  But it was a particularly beautiful night that evening and I decided after getting upstairs I wanted to go out on the second-floor balcony off his desk, so I opened the door to the patio to do so – forgetting the alarm was on.  Oops!  They came out of their bedroom around 1:00am as the burglar alarm was blaring only to find me in the hallway (because I had run back inside) and I had to apologize for waking them up.

Then there was the year I had the fish tank in the formal living room; I didn’t realize it has leaking, but when I moved out at the end of the summer there was a large mildew spot on (actually in) the hardwood floor.  Ruth mentioned it to me, but didn’t say anything else.  I remember paying to have the hardwood floors sanded and refinished throughout the entire house as a result of that mistake – though I know whatever it was that I paid (even though it was a considerable amount of money, especially for a college student in the late 90’s) was probably only a small portion of what was most likely the final bill. But they never talked about it again with me – even though I lived in the house other summers after that and then rented the house for a full year after Melissa and I married and Doc took a full 12 month sabbatical to Europe.

When things like that happened I knew I had disappointed both of them, and I also knew that even in their disappointment they still trusted me, they still respected me, and they showed me incredible grace and love.

We spent countless evenings sitting in the back room together.  We’d watch 60 Minutes or some other news program – Doc in his big chair and Ruth on the couch reading a book with me sitting there between them.  Many nights around 10:00 Doc would get up to get a “snack” – either a bowl of cereal (I think it may have been bran flakes, if memory serves), or.a bowl of butter pecan ice cream – and, many times, after finishing that snack he’d get up and come back with a second bowl of whatever his choice for the evening was.  And we’d laugh and joke about it.

When my younger sister was first diagnosed with cancer, Doc and Ruth were the first to know.  I don’t remember if I got the call when I was at their home or if I talked with my parents just before I went to there, but it was Thanksgiving of 1997.  Doc and Ruth were people who loved me, who listened to me, who ministered to me, and who prayed with me over the years of Erin’s battle with cancer and after her death in 1999.  How does one communicate the impact that that has on an individual?  They showed me true empathy – it was as if they hurt because I heart; or, more accurately, they hurt with me.

What I learned then – though I may not have been able to say until recently – is that it wasn’t just Doc I admired and learned from, it was Ruth as much as anyone.  She was the quiet, firm, consistent strength behind and under him that empower and allowed him to do what he did so well.  And, equally, it was his care, love, concern for, and service to her that allowed her to be the woman she was.  Their relationship was marked by a mutual love and respect for each other, a deep and abiding friendship that had withstood the test of time.  While I don’t know of the struggles they faced over the years, looking back I can see that their relationship was one marked by years of shared victories and probably even shared defeats, but they had come out on the other side of all those trials (whatever they were) stronger, more united, and more deeply in love with each other.  While they never shared or talked about those trails, my life experience has taught me it would be impossible for any couple go through life together without having life scars that were unseen but who made them into the people and couple they were.

Unfortunately, I was never able to communicate any of this to Doc before he died.  After I moved away from Florida I lost contact with them (meaning I stopped communicating with them) and it wasn’t until I learned of his passing that I had an opportunity to think back more clearly on the impact he had on my life, and I regret I was never able to share this with him and thank him for it.

Yet, today, I realize that it wasn’t just him – it was also Ruth.  She accepted and loved me like a son, and together they, in many ways, raised me during my college years as much as anyone did.  And for that I am both thankful and incredibly blessed.  It would be easy to say that Doc made me a better musician and teacher; he absolutely did – he allowed me to be one of his student conductors for a year and provided me some musical opportunities I would have never even dreamed of before moving to Florida.  But that would only be the smallest part of what I learned from him.

Doc and Ruth taught me how to lead, how to be responsible, how to serve, how to love, how to be faithful to other people and to Jesus in even the darkest of times.  They taught me what it was to accept someone unconditionally, to mentor him, and to invest in him.

Now, don’t get me wrong – my parents were (and still are) wonderful parents and I learned all those things from them as well; I think what I’m trying to say here is that while my parents taught and introduced these concepts and beliefs to me throughout my childhood and teen years, it was Doc and Ruth who guided my development as a young adult because they were the ones right there with me.  They took what my parents had planted that had started to grow and worked to make sure I bore fruit; just as I tended the garden while Doc and Ruth traveled, so they tended the garden my parents had planted – they watered, they weeded, and they even planted new seeds.  I would not be the person I am today without their influence and investment.  And I don’t just mean not the teacher and leader I am, but – and more importantly – I would not be the husband, the father, the friend, or the follower of Jesus I am today without them.  Their legacy in my life made an impact far beyond the 4 1/2 years I spent in school at PBA.

So, to both Doc and Ruth, thank you.  Thank you for your willingness to accept, love, trust, and invest in an 18 year old kid from Chicago.  You have made a difference in my life and, as evidenced from what I saw even last night, into the lives of countless others over the years.  And that’s just the direct impact you had, but as I think through all the people I have impacted as a result of your ministry to me (and the people whom others have impacted as a result of your ministry to them), I realize your influence has been exponential.  You both have given me much to strive for, much to aspire to.  Perhaps one day someone will say of me and my life what I am saying of you and yours.

I do miss Doc, but I look forward to seeing him again in Heaven where we will both be part of the heavenly choir.  If you happen to be in the West Palm Beach area on April 4 I would invite you to attend the concert to honor him and Ruth and their legacy.  Information can be found here.

What it’s Like to Loose a Child

It’s hard loosing a child – especially one you never knew outside the womb.  My memories of Caroline are limited to feeling her move inside my wife – getting kicked in the middle of the night when I was next to her, or putting my hand on her belly to feel her doing the somersaults, and then holding her lifeless body in my arms at the hospital.

People tell me all the time, “I’m sorry – I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience this.”  And they’re honest words – many people really don’t understand.  And, frankly, I hope and pray no one else ever does – but I know that in a fallen world where sin and death currently reign that others will (at least for now).  It was 11 months ago today that Caroline was stillborn; 11 months ago today that we sat in the ER just after midnight and were told there was no heartbeat.  It was 11 months ago today that our joy and excitement as we looked forward to her arrival was turned upside down and we experienced pain, suffering, and loss that so many before us have experienced and I’m afraid many after us will as well.  It was 11 months ago that we joined the club – the club no one ever wishes or wants to join – the club that picks you – the club of parents who have lost a child.  I looked forward to the births of each of my children, but there was something special about Caroline – I was most excited about her arrival – I talked about it all the time, it was like I couldn’t keep it in and I couldn’t wait for her to arrive.  And then she was gone.

Many people don’t know what to say to me (or my wife or my children or…); and, honestly, I get it – there are no words you can say that will bring her back, that will take the pain away, or that will make me feel better – often, I’m not even sure would to say to me (or someone else like me), and I certainly don’t know what I want to hear.

One thing I can do, however, is try to give you a glimpse of what life is like since she died, in an effort to help others have some perspective on what the day-to-day and moment-by-moment struggles are for parents who loose a child.   Unless you’ve walked this road, you probably can’t understand it.  And I hope you never do.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t empathize, listen, and love.  I doubt my experiences are unique to me, and I doubt they are unique to those who have lost a child to stillbirth.  I can imagine (and that’s the best I can do) that they probably apply to just about any parent who has lost a child, regardless of age or type of loss.  And maybe that’s why I’m writing this – to help give a voice to grieving parents who are unable to share because the pain is just too raw, unwilling to take a risk for fear of offending or hurting someone’s feelings, or just uncomfortable opening up about their own pain, thinking it’s “too personal”.

Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with some friends and they asked how we were doing, and they also mentioned that even though they didn’t know us well when Caroline died, they felt like they wanted to come to her Celebration of Life service.  They actually said, “I figured I’d be uncomfortable because I didn’t know you that well, but I wanted you to know that you were loved and cared for, and I would just have to get over my discomfort.”  My response was simply, “Thank you for taking a risk.  I can tell you that as uncomfortable as you were, it was much more uncomfortable where I was sitting.”

We are a selfish people, a self-centered people – that’s what sin has done to us.  And we worry about our own feelings, and we see things from our own perspectives, we fear engagement and think we have to fix others, or we fear engagement because we might say or do the wrong thing.  Yet the truth is we can’t.  So to those who have friends or family that are experiencing loss, what I will encourage you to do is this: take a risk.  Be willing to step outside your comfort zone, be willing to listen to the heart’s cry of someone who has lost a loved one, be willing to be present and just sit with them in the pain – be willing to be uncomfortable.  Because I can tell you this – your level of discomfort is nothing compared to the level of discomfort that person is feeling.  Don’t expect them to make you comfortable – because they can’t – be willing to experience a little bit of discomfort, knowing that when you leave their presence your discomfort will most likely end, while theirs will not.

Caroline died 11 months ago – yet it is still a daily reminder and struggle to keep my focus on what is good and true.  Every night when I put my 2 year old to bed I fear, “Maybe she won’t wake up.”  I struggle to pray over all my girls, “Lord, help her sleep through the night” without adding the phrase “and let her awake in the morning” – because the fear of loosing another one is all too real.  When one of the girls sleeps in, I’m afraid to go into the room because I might find her lifeless body in the bed; when I leave I’m extra conscious to say, “I love you” to everyone, to give them a hug and a kiss, because as I step out the door I hear the words “This could be the last time I see them alive” go through my head.

But it’s not just for my kids – I fear my wife will get in a car accident or be diagnosed with some horrible disease and that she will die, too.  Or that the phone will ring and I’ll hear the words, “________ has cancer” or “Something happened to ________ and they’re gone.”  For Caroline death was quick and short; but for those of us who survive, death seems to linger around for far too long, and creep its ugly head up in so many unexpected places.  You never forget what it was like, and you realize there is nothing you can do to keep it from visiting again.

Now I know these fears are irrational – that they are based in lies that someone else is going to die.  I know that God “has not given us a spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7).  Yet it is a constant struggle every day and every moment to not give in to such fears.

Recently I was doing some hiking while visiting the mountains – an activity I love to do.  As I walked I found myself thinking about Caroline, and the first thought I had was, “She’ll never get to experience this.”  But before I could dwell on that thought – that negative thought – I was reminded that what she is experiencing is far greater than a walk in the mountains; her vision of reality far surpasses mine; her relationship with the Father is more tangible than I can experience right now.  I’ve learned that when I think of her I can’t think of all that she’s missing – because really, she got the better end of this deal.  What I struggle with is what I am missing…

I was told much about the “year of firsts” – something I experienced when my sister died over 16 years ago.  And, yes, some of the “firsts” have been difficult.  But what I’ve struggled with is what I consider “the lasts”.  One night I was reading my 2 year old a story (Goodnight Moon), and I realized that she was probably the last child I would read it to – even though she wasn’t supposed to be.  I was changing a diaper and found myself thinking, “I’m a lot closer to the end of changing diapers than I had expected – or even wanted to be.  Soon, I’ll be changing her last diaper.”   I realized that at some point in the future (sooner rather than later) I’ll be getting her up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom as we potty train – and I realized that there will be a last time I do that, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.  As I rocked her I looked forward and thought, “How many more “lasts” are there?  There will be a “last” wedding – even though it wasn’t supposed to be only 3; there will be a “last” grandchild – even though there were supposed to be more; there will be a “last” time I teach someone to ride a bike – though there was supposed to be one more, and a “last” graduation.  It’s the lasts – for me – that are the things I notice and cry over – because the “last” one is insufficient – there was always supposed to be one more.

Then there are the “lasts” I wish would just come – the last time I have to comfort a crying 9 year old at bed time who is “missing Caroline”, or the last time my 7 year old looks up at dinner and just bursts into teachers saying, “I miss Caroline.”  The last time I have to tell someone new that, yes, I have four daughters, and one of them doesn’t live here with me anymore.  The last time someone looks at me with “those eyes” – the eyes that make me feel like something is wrong with me, the eyes that look to me to comfort them because they don’t know what to say; the last time someone avoids me because they don’t want to be uncomfortable; the last time I cry when I hear a song on the radio; the last time I see a parent with a newborn baby and I want to just go up and grab that baby and hold them and say, “Treasure every stinking minute because they go by too fast and, sometimes you never get enough;” the last time I hear the story of someone who is experiencing pain and suffering over the loss of a loved one, the last time someone gets cheated or hurt or sick or afraid or…

Loosing a child is not something one “gets over” quickly – loosing a child is not something one “gets over” ever.  Loss like this hurts for a reason – because it is not supposed to be this way.  We were not created for this.  We were created for so much more; life was created for so much more.

And there is a hope; a hope that says that while death is a really big deal, death is not final, nor is it permanent.  That is the truth I find myself reminding me of over and over and over.  “Oh death, where is your victory?  Oh death, where is your sting?  … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:55, 57)

What’s it like to loose a child?  What’s it like to experience this type of loss?  What does it feel like?

It’s a mess – there are days I can’t even describe how I’m feeling; sometimes there are days where I’m feeling happy and sad and depressed and excite all at the same time.  And, from what I’ve learned by talking with others – this is normal.

Loosing a child is harder than I ever imagined; it’s a constant reminder that we live in a broken and fallen world, a world that is in desperate need of a Savior.  It’s a challenge to see everything in a different way.  There are so many more words I could write of the thoughts and feelings I have, but this is all I’m ready to share right now…. I pray they give some encouragement, some guidance, some sense of what it must be like to loose a child.

Drumming from Death to Life


“Mr Feller, can we get sick and die?”

The question was a legitimate one.  Here I was taking a group of 7th graders to the hospital to perform for pediatric patients; most of my students lived in poverty and had never performed volunteer work – and their experiences with the hospital were anything but positive.

“No, you won’t get sick and die.  Honestly, they’re more at risk of getting sick from you than you are from them.  These kids will all be fighting serious diseases – cancer, leukemia, stuff like that.  Diseases you can’t catch by breathing the same air or being in the same room.  But their bodies, because they are so sick, are at danger of catching colds or the flu from you guys, which is why the hospital won’t let someone come and perform if you’ve been sick recently.” I tried to both re-assure them they would be okay, and at the same time give them a glimpse of what these children were suffering from – and how severe it was.

In 1999 my sister, then 20 years old, died of leukemia.  The Thanksgiving after her high school graduation she was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in her knee.  After 18 months of intense chemo and multiple surgeries – including having a fake knee installed and 18” of her femur removed – she was doing well and it appeared the cancer was gone.  Because of her age at diagnoses Erin was chosen as a recipient of a wish from the Starlight Foundation, so in the summer of 1999 we – my parents, her, and myself – all traveled to Alaska and spent 7 days on an Alaska cruise.  Unbeknownst to me, that was the last time I would see her alive.  After the cruise I returned to my home in Florida and she returned to her home outside Chicago; I had made plans to see her that Christmas, but, unfortunately, that didn’t materialize as I had expected.  Instead of coming home for the holidays to go Christmas shopping and enjoy each other’s company, I came home and held the hand of her comatose body and sat next to her as she breathed her final breaths.

I remember visiting her in the hospital and seeing all the kids there, and how depressed they were, and I vowed to do whatever I could to try and bring a little happiness and joy into their lives.  So when I became a music teacher I started partnering with an area hospital and would take my students to perform for the pediatric patients.  Today was the day we were preparing to take this particular class for the first time.  They were both nervous and excited – and so was I.

We spent the class reviewing policies and procedures given to us by the hospital; we talked about what it would mean for the patients; but, mostly, we practiced our songs.  I knew that the learning they were going to have as a result of interacting with these patients was not something I could prepare them for.  So I simply prepared them for what they were expecting – performing music.

The next day we arrived at the hospital and setup in a small auditorium.  The kids were excited to be showing off what they learned, and you could feel the excitement as they chatted and rehearsed their numbers.  As the patients began arriving, though, something changed.  My students were used to performing for healthy people – and even though I had told them about what they would see, nothing could really prepare them for it.  Kids being brought in in wheel chairs, some walked on crutches, and almost every single one was attached to an IV cart.  Kids as young as 3 years old, some who had to be held because they were so sick.  My students looked at me with eyes of concern and fear; I smiled at them, nodded, and simply said, “This is why we are here – it will be alright.”

By the time we started playing there were probably 75 patients in the auditorium.  At first the students struggled to focus, but eventually they found their rhythm and started playing.  As they played you could hear the patients clapping, and I knew from the looks on my kids faces that the patients behind me were smiling and having a good time.


After the first 20 minutes of performance we invited patients up to play with us.  This was actually the heart of the volunteer program – we weren’t here just to perform for these patients, we were here to drum with them.  My students knew this would happen, but they looked at me with concern in my eyes as some of the patients came up and had IVs sticking out of their hands.  “Will they be okay, Mr. Feller?”  “Will they get blood on my drum?”  All sorts of questions – questions I had anticipated from previous visits; questions birthed in what was becoming true concern for their well-being rather than fear.  My students were starting to build not just sympathy for these patients, but empathy with them.

“They’ll be fine,” I assured them, “The nurses are only picking kids who are healthy enough to come up here.”  My students stood up from their chairs so that the patients could sit in them, and then they were assigned to teach the patient the part for the song we were doing.  In class my kids hated – absolutely hated – sharing a drum; but here, something had changed in them.  They were excited to share, and they willingly offered the drum to the patients.  We started to drum – I taught the patterns, we modeled, and, within just a few minutes, we were making music, only this time the patients were making music instead of watching it.

An hour later we were back on the bus.  The mood on the bus was different than on the ride over, though.  What had been chatty excitement had turned to quiet contemplation.  A couple of my students were crying.  As we rode I stood at the front of the bus to debrief with my students what had just happened.  One looked at me and said, “My Feller, where did they go after the performance?”

“What do you mean, where did they go?”

“After they left the auditorium, where did they go?  Did they go back home?  Did they go to another performance?  What did they do?” the student asked.

Even with everything that had happened, my students still struggled to grasp the severity of it all.  “They went back to their rooms,” I replied.  “This is all they get to do – because they are so sick they spend all day, every day, for months in their rooms – laying in a bed, maybe watching TV or playing video games.  But they only time they leave is for treatment, or to come see us.”

“You mean they spend 23 hours a day in their bed, and the one time they got to leave they came to see us?” one of them exclaimed?

“More or less,” I responded.  “It’s not like they’re in prison, but because they’re so sick they can’t go out and interact much.  So, yes, they spend almost all day in their room, and today they got to come do something special – and that something special was to play drums with you.”


“That’s so sad,” one of them commented.  “I wish I could do more.”

“It is sad,” I said, “But you also need to realize how much you did do.”

At which point they started talking about the looks on the patients’ faces, how much fun they had playing with the patients, how cool it was to teach them songs.  I sat down, thankful that my students were, for the briefest of moments, seeing beyond themselves, and experiencing something bigger than their own lives.

Merry Christmas (with Tears)

We’re told that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and happiness, a time for family and friends.  But over the years I’ve learned that while that may sometimes be true, Christmas is, for many people, a time of deep sorrow and sadness.

For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can often be difficult as we more blatantly notice their absence.  In fact, the first year after suffering from the loss of a loved one is regularly referred to as the “Year of Firsts” – first Christmas, first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first anniversary… and the list goes on.

Over the past two months we’ve suffered the stillbirth of our youngest daughter.  To add insult in injury, just a couple weeks after that we lost one of our family dogs when her cancerous cyst burst open in the middle of the night.  Then just this past week we lost a puppy.  Yes, a puppy – the puppy we had purchased as a Christmas gift for our girls in an attempt to bring some joy and happiness into the midst of grief and sorry.  That puppy.

So at this point we’re fairly acquainted with grief and sorrow; three times in the past month I’ve had to give my daughters bad news that led to many shed tears, and had to answer more “why” questions that I can count.

So it is with a little trepidation that I enter into Christmas.

And yet it is Christmas that I need – that we all need – for it is Christmas that brings the hope we’re longing for. It’s because of Christmas that I have a hope – an expectation – that one day I will see my daughter again.  It is because of Christmas I know that “these light and momentary trials are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17); it’s because of Christmas I do not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13).

On Christmas God came down to earth as a baby – as a babyand the invasion began.  And roughly 30 years after that first Christmas God died on a cross, then he got up from the dead and forever defeated death and sin and the grave, and for those who surrender to him, we have a hope that far outshines anything this world – or this world’s master – can throw at us.

So, yes, I rejoice this Christmas.  Not because of what has happened to us over the past two months, but in spite of it.  When our dog died I looked at her through tear-stained eyes as she was laying there on the floor of the vet’s office and I said, “One day he’s going to pay.  He’s going to pay.”  Death isn’t supposed to win – death isn’t even supposed to be here.  And the hope of Christmas is not that death will one day lose, it’s that death has already lost because Jesus has already won.

Am I sad?  Yes.  Do I grieve?  Absolutely – but I do so as one who has hope that Jesus is Lord, He is sovereign, and one day I will be with him in a new heaven and a new earth where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4).

So Merry Christmas – even if there are tears (as mine most certainly will have).  May the joy of Jesus fill your heart this season as you look back not only on when he came, but also look forward to his return when he will finally, once-and-for-all, set all things right.

Scripture Verses for Grief & Hope

For Caroline’s Celebration of Life Ceremony I selected and arranged scripture verses; I’ve received several requests for the list of scriptures used in the service, so here is the actual script I developed.  This particular one is for two readers, but could easily be adapted for more (or done by one).  My goal here in arranging these particular scriptures was to explore and display the range of emotions present in scripture, particularly when dealing with the dual themes of grief and hope.

All scripture is taken from the ESV.  When it was read during the service the chapter & verse references were omitted, but I’ve included them here.

Reader #1: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord (Lam 3:22-26)

Reader #2: You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand (Ps 139:13-18)

Reader #1 & 2: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Ps 116:15)

Reader #1: Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 27:7-8)

Reader #2: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (Ps 42:11a)

Reader #1: The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. (Ps 116:3)

Reader #2: We do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.      (1 Thes 4:13-14)

Reader #1: From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:1b-2) For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. (Ps 27: 5) God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps 46:1a)

Reader #2: I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (Ps 130:5) For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. (Ps 130:7b) Jesus said. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26)

Reader #1: For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)

Reader #2: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Cor 4:16-5:1)

Reader #1: When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory” “O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your string?” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

Reader #2: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 37-39)

Reader #1: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom 8:14-19)

Reader #2: Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-3, 6)

Reader #1: So if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31-33) So be still, and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10), and give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps 106:1)

Reader #2: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (Is 25:6-8)

Reader #1: Behold, I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:2-5)

Reader #1 & 2: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Ps 42:11)