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.

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)

In Memory of Caroline Grace

Caroline Grace Feller is our fourth daughter.  Just three days before her due date we had to go to the hospital and learned that Caroline had died.  My wife delivered her on October 19, 2015 at 6:50pm; she weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces and measured 20 1/2″ long.

Many people also asked how they can help, or what they can do.  In lieu of flowers, we’ve decided to designate a memorial fund that will be used to build a living memorial by creating a butterfly garden and be used to pay for Caroline’s headstone.  If anyone would like to contribute to that memorial you can do so by visiting

Caroline’s celebration of life service was on Saturday, October 25, 2015.  I actually spoke at the service, and several people requested copies of what I said.  I typically do not script when I speak, but for this particular service I had to script it to prepare it.  Below is a copy of what I said.

Normally I don’t speak from a script – as my friend Seth will tell you – but today, well, let’s just say I’m not in the best of places, so I need a little help…

I’m not even sure what to say. Death sucks – it really does. My heart is broken, so I hope you forgive a grieving father if my language seems a little raw for a reverent ceremony in a beautiful church – but one thing I learned a long time ago is that God is big enough to handle it.

I’m standing here before you today to try and share my heart and I feel like I’m supposed to talk, but I’m not even sure who I’m talking to – is it you out there or is it to myself up here? Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, and babies aren’t supposed to die before they are born. It’s that simple. And yet it happens. But the fact it happens doesn’t make it right.

I think maybe that’s why it hurts so much. Yes it hurts because we will miss those who are no longer here with us physically; but I think deep down inside, each of us hurts because we know it’s not supposed to be like this at all. I want to shake my fist and shout, “This is not fair!” At times like this we recognize the brokenness of our world.

Sixteen years ago I sat on the edge of my comatose sister’s bed; she was 20. I sat there and held her hand as she breathed her final breathes; I watched my parents and brothers cry over a situation that should have never happened – cancer isn’t right and it shouldn’t be here, but it was and is.

Death sucked then, and it sucks now.

So here I am again, experiencing firsthand the broken reality we live in – only this time it’s my own daughter who’s died, and this time I have to lead my own family through the pain and grief. No one should have to do this.

This world – this life is not as it is supposed to be.

Somehow on days like today that truth becomes so obvious one wonders how we could have missed it at all. We live in a fallen, broken, and sick world. Car accidents happen, people get sick, crime happens, and children die. This world is broken… Floods rise, fires burn, hurricanes and tornadoes come, droughts destroy corps – and parents bury their kids. Somehow, deep inside, we recognize the unfairness of the situation – the injustice of it all. But regardless of our technology and our money, we can’t fix it.

“Why do these things happen?” we ask. We want to know – we think we need to know – we feel we deserve to know.

But the fact is, too often we never will.

It’s easy at moments like this, when we see a baby in a casket, to recognize the brokenness around us (the Bible calls that sin); sometimes we even try to justify that brokenness with statistics (like the fact that 1 out every 160 children die of umbilical accidents), as if that makes it okay. But just because something might be happening about ½% of the time doesn’t make it right.

And the bigger lie we’ve come to believe is that sin and brokenness is just “out there” – too often we forget that it’s also “in here”. We know we’re not perfect mind you – none of us is foolish enough to think that (or if we are, we’re certainly not going to admit it to anyone). But our imperfection? It’s not sin, we reason, we’re just a little rough around the edges – nothing more, nothing less. We’re pretty good, and, for the most part, our motives are in the right place. We try to do the right thing (whatever that means), and we try to help others (but only when it’s convenient). And we live our lives.

My favorite verse and promise in all of scripture is found in Revelation 21: “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:[a]

Look! God’s dwelling[b] is with humanity,
and He will live with them.
They will be His people,
and God Himself will be with them
and be their God.[c]
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[d] have passed away.

Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.”

I look forward to that day – the day when death will no longer exist, when grief, crying, and pain will be gone – the day when everything will be new.

But as I read this promise in scripture I realize that while it is available to everyone, it is only applicable to some; and that’s a scary thought, if you’re not in that “some”. That’s not a popular thing to say in society right now – it seems exclusive. But, here’s the deal – the gospel of Jesus is exclusive. Jesus said that He is the way – not that others are the way, or that he is one of many ways. He said it’s all about Him. So if you want to be included in that some, you’ve got to walk through the door he wants you to walk through. Now you can dismiss that and decide you don’t agree with it, but you and he can’t both be right. Either He’s it, or you are. And as for me, I’m siding with the guy who got up from dead – unless you’ve got a better “trick” up your sleeve…

So the first question one asks is, “Will this promise apply to me?” – just like Jason’s question earlier about each of us being with the Father. And the only way to be sure of that is to trust him completely. We already know we live in a fallen, broken world – today is evidence of that – and the Bible says the reason for that is sin, and we all are guilty of sin and deserve punishment by a Holy God.

So let me share two words… But God…

Yeah. “But God” We’ve heard it before, but I’m going to repeat what has been said countless times before because some of you in here may not get it. “But God” is huge – in fact, it’s the big deal. We live in a fallen world where we are separated from God, But God sent His son Jesus so that we can be restored into right relationship with Him. That verse I read a few minutes ago – it’s all about But God.

We live in a fallen, broken, sinful world – but God chose to come to earth as a man, he paid for our sin with his blood when he died on a cross, and then he rose again from the dead and defeated sin, death and the grave. And he told us that if we want to participate in that defeat with him, if we want to be restored to him, then we need to trust him with our lives – both here and now. Jesus promised eternal life to those who followed him – and he also defined when eternal life starts, and it may not be when you think…

Eternal life isn’t something that happens “someday”; it doesn’t start when you die. Eternal life, Jesus says, is to know God the Father; it starts right now. We’re told elsewhere in scripture that when we become Christians – when we accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and surrender ourselves to him – that we literally become new people. Christianity isn’t about behavior modification; Christianity is identity transformation. It’s not about what I do or don’t do; it’s about who I am. And who I am is determined by the fact that God now lives inside me, that he transforms my heart and my mind so that they confirm to his. And when that happens I begin to see things in a whole new light….

So let me share with you how that looks for us right now, where we are at… Even in the midst of tragedy and loss – in the middle of deep pain, sorrow, and grief – Melissa and I have seen God’s grace and his mercy. From the doctor who shared scripture with us and prayed with us at the hospital and then came back after delivery to find Melissa in the cafeteria, to the nurses and other staff who came in and prayed with and over Melissa during the labor and delivery process… The Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer who stayed at the hospital until 1:30am taking pictures – some of which you saw today – to help us remember Caroline. The friends and family who came and held us when we cried, who sat and listened as we talked without trying to fix the unfixable… The family support people at the hospital who reached out to us… The doctors and nurses who went above and beyond to comfort us, gave us permission to grieve, and created some of the mementos you saw in the back to help us remember… The friends and family who came over to our house to help us pack up baby stuff, who watched the kids while Melissa and I were in the hospital, who gave so much without asking for anything – anything – in return – even though they were grieving as well. To those who sent us private Facebook messages and prayers, to those who prayed on Monday night at the prayer meeting, to those who have provided meals, to friends who brought shakes to the house or went out for a simple walk around the neighborhood or just sent text messages to say “I’m praying for you and love you” and then understood they may not get a response, but then the next day send another bible verse or prayer. God truly has shown up in ways we never expected.

I would not wish this pain or experience on my worst enemy – and I’m learning that there are many, many more people out there who have experienced similar situations – many worse than this. But I’m experiencing – even in light of tragic and deep loss – that God is present and He is here and He is good. If you’ve ever wondered about Christianity and wanted to know what it is, here it is on display for you – it’s walking with those who hurt and suffer together, with the hope that both in the present God is here and in the future He will finally defeat death and the grave (and this isn’t the type of “hope” as in “I hope the Cubs win the world series next year. It’s the hope that provides confidence and assurance that what has been said will be.) And we can have that confidence that he will defeat death and the grave because he already has. A man named Jesus got up from the dead – and that changes EVERYTHING.

People ask us what we need, so here are two things:

First, we need to know that every person here is without an excuse to know about the deep, deep love and grace of God offered through Jesus – and that you have had an opportunity to respond to and accept it. We can’t make you accept it, but we can ensure you are offered the opportunity. If you know us at all you know we aren’t perfect – we mess up plenty of times (and if you really think I’m perfect, just sit and talk with my wife or coworkers for about 30 seconds and they can cure you of that delusion). What I can tell you, though, is that without the very real presence of God in my life because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I would not have any hope, I would not have any peace, I would not have any joy or love or grace. Because those things aren’t in me – they are from Him. If Jesus can get up from the dead, he can get us through this…

Jason spoke a few minutes ago much more eloquently than I am as I muddle through this (and I’m going to blame it on my current emotional state). But here’s what we need to do – you need an opportunity to respond to what Jason and I have. And we’re going to respond in prayer.   If you recognize your own inadequacy to fix your sin and pain and suffering, and you’ve not asked God to do it for you, I hope you’ll pray with me in a minute. And if you have confessed your inadequacy already, I’m going to ask you to say these words so that those around you that might want to pray them don’t feel alone. And it’s not about saying magic words to a geanie in the sky – it’s about a humble heart condition that says to a Holy God “I need you.”

So let’s pray (which is just a fancy way to say we’re going to talk to God).. If everyone could close their eyes and repeat after me.

Heavenly Father

This world is broken, and I’m broken, too.

And I know that I can’t fix it or me without you.

Forgive my pride in thinking I could.

I believe you died and rose again to pay what I could never pay.

Change me – inside and out; forgive my sin.

And make me your child.


Before you open your eyes and before anyone is looking around, if you prayed that prayer and really meant it, would you just raise your hand? The only person looking around the room is me …

If you prayed that prayer – really prayed it and didn’t just say words – then the promise I read earlier now applies to you.

I said we had two needs we’re aware of, and that was the first, so let me just share the second. We need to be pursued. Please, continue to pursue us, to reach out to us, to love us and pray for us. And if you reach out and don’t get a response immediately, please do not be offended… We just physically and emotionally can’t do it right now. But we need to hear from you, and we will eventually respond. And don’t just pursue today or this week… We need you for the long haul…. Ask us for walks, invite us out to coffee (or, in my case tea) – offer to watch our kids so Melissa and I can take time to be together. We need time – both alone and also with those who are close to us, and are willing to help us carry this burden. So please, pursue us.

God is a good, good father, and it is my prayer that even in the midst of tragedy – no, especially in the midst of tragedy – that both you and I realize how true that is. He is here today; don’t let the opportunity to respond to him pass you by yet again.


The Irrelevant Christian

It’s been fascinating to me to see how the Christian community has responded to the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.  First, let me say I haven’t seen it and have no desire to see it – and this post is not about the film itself but more about what I believe our response to it represents.  Over-all many in the Christian community have decried the film’s release, I’ve heard some call for boycotts and others argue that, basically, seeing it is a way to be a missionary to the lost who will see it.

Here’s what prompted this post, though… I have in the past consulted the site Plugged In regarding movies to see if they are ones I wanted to go to or not, so I was curious whether the site would review this particular movie, given the public interest in the film in general.  I won’t say I was surprised to see they did, and I also won’t say I wasn’t disappointed to see they did.  But perhaps not for the reasons you may expect.

First, I wasn’t surprised they reviewed it because they’ve reviewed most movies over the years that seem to be highly popular.  Given that pre-release ticket sales were through the roof and that from what I heard about opening weekend sales it out-sold it’s next closest competitor by a 2:1 margin, I wasn’t surprised they reviewed it because that’s what they do.

Second, yes, I was disappointed they reviewed it.  But not necessarily because of the content of the movie in particular – let’s be honest, Christians don’t want to even talk about sex in general, yet alone what this movie apparently portrays – but more generally than that. Because of it’s emphasis on sex most Christians were expected to stand against it and say “don’t go see it”.  Yet many of those same Christians will go see plenty of other movies that portray violence and graphic sex and they don’t seem to blink an eye.  For a long time I’ve had mixed feelings about Plugged In in general – here is a Christian reviewer who will go see some of the worst movies I can imagine and literally record the number of times God’s name is said in vain, the number of swear words, the specific sexual details in the movie (amount of nudity, type of sex, etc).  And I have to wonder how beneficial that really is.

Call me crazy or old-fashioned, but isn’t that one of the purposes of the MPAA – to tell us, as a public, the contents of a movie?  Movies with lots of questionable content (drugs, drinking, graphic sex, nudity, swearing, etc) receive higher MPAA ratings, while those that are “cleaner” receive lower ratings.  So I decided to give this a little test… I pulled the historical ratings of Plugged In to see how he rated all the “R” rated movies over the years.  As could probably be expected, they all are rated poorly – most have only 1 or 2 stars, and only one had 3 stars ever.

Yeah, that’s right…  Movies that I would expect to be questionable for me as a believer to see based on the MPAA rating were, in fact, questionable for me to see based on Plugged In’s rating as well.

Which gets me to the point of this post…  Perhaps the reason the world finds so many Christians irrelevant is that we aren’t different enough from the culture around us; perhaps the reason the world finds so many Christians irrelevant is that they see us condemn movies like Fifty Shades of Grey because of it’s content but then we’ll turn around and praise another movie which, according to Plugged In (since I didn’t see it), has over 100 uses of the “F” word, over a dozen uses of “God” and “damn” together, and “Someone [who] removes his ring when trying to score at a bar [and contains]  one-off jokes about incest, masturbation, oral sex, anatomical sizes and talking dirty on the phone.” (yes, that’s a direct quote).  How is it that Fifty Shades is wrong to watch but the movie American Sniper isn’t (which is what that review is referring to)?

Plugged In even had to release an explanation of why they were reviewing Fifty Shades, given how controversial the decision was.  Obviously, I’m in the camp of commentators who would have preferred Plugged In not review the movie, but apparently I’m in the minority that feels Plugged In (and Christians in general) really don’t need to review any movie with an R rating.  I gave up on those movies long ago.  And I’ve learned that even Plugged In hasn’t given a positive review to any R rated film that I could find, which tells me that, by and large, I can actually trust the MPAA to correctly inform me whether I want to consider seeing a movie or not.  In my opinion, Plugged In could just review G, PG, and PG13 films if they feel the need to, because apparently they haven’t seen a decent R-rated film in the last 5 years (that’s as far back as the records on the site go).

See, part of our problem as followers of Jesus is that we too often don’t take God at his word.  My pastor when I lived in Florida (and who married Melissa and I) released on his blog a post entitled Protect Your Mind! Guard Your Heart! and in it he shared a couple of Bible verses I think are wonderful verses.  Take Psalm 101:3, for example, where David wrote, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless,” or Philippians 4:8 where Paul admonishes “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

But we don’t really act that way – not really.  We put all sorts of conditions on them..  If I were to use the two movies already mentioned I would have to reword Psalm 101 to say, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless unless it is a great patriotic movie” while Philippians would have to be reworded to say, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, unless you’re watching a movie (listing to music/reading a book) that clearly differentiates between good and evil or is extra patriotic and tells a true story.

It seems to me that Christians are the only ones who identify levels of sin – and, ironically, we are the ones who should be move giving of grace.  We are willing to say, “sex on screen in a movie like 50 Shades is sin” but “I can watch Titanic because it only has one scene with nudity.”  Or we justify seeing a movie with “over 100 ‘F’ words” because it’s “patriotic” and “inspirational”.

I watch very little TV, but sometimes I even have to ask myself if sitting and watching a show like Bones on Netflix is any less “fixing my thoughts on what is true” than would be watching 50 Shades.  What about other shows that have people engaging in extra-marital affairs, homosexual relationships, using God’s name in vain, or killing people?  When did watching those shows somehow become “acceptable”?  Why is watching those shows appropriate but 50 Shades not?

The release of Fifty Shades of Grey should cause us as Christians to re-examine what it is we are watching, how we are living, and what it is we say when we tacitly endorse by our words and actions certain movies/shows/books/music over others.