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 https://www.gofundme.com/kg6w8ufw.

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.

Amen.

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 Present


I’ve been working hard lately on this idea of being present where I am at.  It is so easy to get caught up in the next text message that comes through on the cell phone, “checking in” on Facebook when I’m out, or becoming focused on describing an experience in 140 characters or less so I can make it tweet-worthy.  Don’t get me wrong – I love social networking and I believe it is a powerful force for good, but I’ve noticed that too often I miss what’s going on around me for the sake of trying to preserve it for other people to experience by reading about on Facebook or Twitter.

This weekend I had the honor and privilege to take both my daughters out on very special Daddy-Daughter dates.  This past Monday Celeste, my 3 year old, and I attended our local Chick-fila for their annual Daddy-Daughter night.  I had to make a reservation a couple of weeks ago, and when I “asked her on a date” last weekend she was so excited.  I picked her up straight from work, and the two of us arrived at the restaurant (she in her fancy, red and black dress and me in my fancy work clothes).  I gave my name to the hostess, who then escorted us to a reserved table and we ordered chicken nuggets, french fries, and chocolate milk from the server (well, I had tea instead of milk :)).  We chatted and talked for about 15-20 solid minutes about her day, about my day, and about our plans for the rest of the evening.  Then we found out there was a limo ride!

So when it was our turn, Celeste and I got into the stretch-SUV limo, rode in it to the local convention center (about 1/2 a mile), and they dropped us off.  Once inside we did a craft project (making a ring), had our picture taken, then got back into the limo to return to the restaurant.  The entire time I made a point to not check my cell phone because I wanted to just spend time with her (though I think I took about 4 pictures); at the end of the evening we went out to one of our favorite frozen-yogurt places for desert.

Tonight Chloe (five) and I got to go on our date – this time to the Daddy-Daughter Dance put on by American Heritage Girls (which she joined this past fall).  She got all fancied up (Melissa did her hair and nails and I got her a corsage), I put on a suit, and we arrived at the location right at 6:30 when it started.  As we walked in she said, “Daddy, what do we do at a Daddy-Daughter Dance?”  Then, for the next two hours, she found out!  We danced (if you could call it that) fast songs and slow songs (at one point she looked at me when we were “slow dancing” and asked, “Daddy, are we waltzing?”).  Again, I tried to make a point of not looking at or using my cell phone while we were there (okay, I used it once, when she said, “I want to dance by myself and you sit her” to make a comment on Facebook about the music).  One thing I noticed, though, was that I was so focused on her and having fun with her that the thought of picking up my phone – even to take pictures – rarely crossed my mind; I found myself more interested in making a memory than taking a picture of a memory I was missing. (granted, it helped that I knew there were photographers all around taking pictures for us, but every time I thought “I need to get a picture of this” I literally found myself saying, “I don’t have time, because it will only distract me from her”).

I love spending time with my girls – partly because they’re just fun to be with, and partly because I really believe it’s important for them and for me.  Several weeks ago Chloe was playing Legos when I woke up from my nap (yes, I fell asleep and she was awake!), and so I went to see what she was doing.  I sat down and just watched her and chatted with her (even though I “needed” to be doing some other things, like fold laundry and read homework), but when she said, “Daddy, will you play with me?” I immediately said, “Sure – I’d love to play with you.”  So often – and I’m as guilty of this as the next person – we get distracted from what’s really important for what “needs” to be done.  When Chloe asks me a question like, “Daddy, when I get sick does that mean God’s up in heaven saying, ‘Hey – Chloe needs to be sick – so bam! now she’s sick’?” or Celeste climbs in my lap to “tell me a secret” (which is generally something along the lines of “Daddy, I love you sooooooooooo much”, I have to believe that one of the reasons they feel comfortable doing so is because we’ve spent time together.  Time together doing Legos and swinging at the park, and time together going out on Daddy-Daughter dates.

I get discouraged easily about families in my line of work (public schools) because I see so many kids without fathers, or from homes where they spend more time with a TV than they do with a person.  But tonight, holding Chloe and dancing to Cinderella by Steven Curtis Chapman, I was encouraged to see a room full of Dads pouring into their daughters’ lives.  I was on that “dance floor” with dozens of other guys, and I could see them moving their mouths to the words, I could hear them around me singing the lyrics to the song, as they did the same thing I did – danced with their Cinderella.

Why do I do it?  Why do I take the time to take the girls out on dates?  It used to be simply so that some day when some guy comes up to them and asks them out, they’ll know what a date should look like and how a guy should treat a girl.  But I’ve come to realize it’s more than that – it’s about investing in them, spending time with them, and letting them know they are cherished and loved – that they are special.

And one way to do that is being present where they are when they are.  It’s more than just taking them out one on one; it’s about focusing on them, turning off the cell phone, and just being present.  I realize I don’t need to tweet about it, I don’t need to check-in on Facebook about it – at least not while it’s going on – because when I do that I’m ultimately not doing it for them, but I’m doing it for me as a way to say, “Look how good a Dad I am.” to all the people who follow me (many whom I barely know).  I’m robbing from them to feed my own ego.

Yet we do it all the time – I do it all the time.  I do it with my kids when we’re playing at the park and I’m checking email, I do it with my wife when she’s trying to talk and I’m texting at the same time, I do it at my job when I’m trying to read an email while talking on the phone and responding to a question via Google chat, I even do it to God when I’m praying and I start thinking about other things instead of focusing on Him.  I need to just stop – stop and be present.  And, at least on two occasions this week, I did.

I would encourage you to do the same.  Just be where you are at when you are there – don’t worry about sharing the experience with everyone else in the world while it happens, focus on sharing it with the ones you’re with and share it with others later.  And, yes, that includes putting down the camera phone and just making the memory – don’t try to record everything, simply experience it.  That way when you think back on it and remember it you’ll remember the experience, rather than remember taking the picture of the experience you wish you had been involved in.  Stop standing on the sidelines and get in the game.  I’m not great at it – not even sure I’m any good at it most of the time – but I can tell you it’s the best place to be.

Perspective


About 8 months ago I was first introduced to the song Forever Reign by Hillsong, and, to be completely honest, I didn’t care for it.  The phrase that particularly frustrated me (for lack of a better term), was found in the chorus: “Oh, I’m running to Your arms, I’m running to Your arms. The riches of Your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to Your embrace, Light of the world forever reign!”

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know a frequent focus of my posts is worship.  I actually feel I’ve been rather silent on the issue for several months, due in large part to no longer serving in an official capacity as a church worship leader but also just because I’ve not been blogging much lately.  One of my criticisms of much modern worship music has always been the lyrics, and I’m in the camp of those who sometimes feel like worship songs sometimes sound more like “prom date music” than they do words of adoration to the King of Kings.

That was, honestly, my first reaction to this song, in particular the phrase quoted above.  For several months I struggled with the song because of this vision it created in me – a song I didn’t, as a male, feel comfortable singing to Jesus, who walked the earth as a man.  It just seemed… well… wrong.  It was one of those songs that I categorized as “more appropriate for women” but not necessarily a good song for men.

As I prayed and meditated on this, though, I asked God why I struggled with singing certain songs.  I asked questions such as, “Do I really love God as much as I say I do if I don’t feel comfortable singing these words?”  But I never felt like the answer to that question was in the negative; what I sensed God telling me,though, was that the answer was in how I was viewing Him and understanding the text myself – it was all in my perspective….

One day I received a new “vision”, so to speak, a new perspective.  Instead of seeing the text in a clearly romantic light (that “prom date” idea), I saw it as the love between and father and his children (or, more specifically, between a child and his father).  There is little I enjoy in this life more than to see the look on my daughters’ faces as they run up and jump into my arms.  One day when I came home from work and they did this I realized they could be singing these words about our relationship: that they were running to their daddy’s arms and wanted to be held by him (which they do all the time).

It was at that moment I realized I could say the same about my Heavenly Father.  I didn’t need to see these words as a twisted eros type of love (not that I ever did because I didn’t, I just struggled with finding a suitable alternative).  I could see these words as a little kid running up to his daddy and jumping into his daddy’s arms.  One of my favorite descriptions of prayers is, “If you want to know how to pray just watch how a little kid talks to her daddy.”  So I guess in the same vein, I’ve realized that if you want to know how to view yourself as truly believing the text, “I’m running to your arms,” view it as a little kid running to her daddy.  This new perspective changes everything.

The Faith of a Child


I pray that God gives me the level of faith that my children have!  A couple of weeks ago we realized Celeste was having difficulty hearing us, so we scheduled a doctor’s appointment and had her hearing checked.  After a visit to the pediatrician’s office we discovered that she has 100% hearing loss in one ear (for the record, we’ve now been to the specialist and it is 100% reversible, so don’t go freaking out on me!)

Anyway… The day we first found out we decided to have a chat with Chloe after dinner to let her know that Celeste may have trouble hearing her at times because one of her ears “isn’t working so good” (we didn’t go into a whole lot of detail – she is only four).  But here’s the point of this entire story… Chloe looks at Melissa and I, and with the most matter-of-fact tone says, “Well, we just need to pray for Jesus to heal Lestee’s ear. He can do that.  He has the power.  We just need to ask him.”  Then she walked away and started to play in her kitchen.

Yea, it really was that blunt and that simple.  Why didn’t I think of that?

No pun intended, but “He who has ears, let him hear” comes to mind… Why is it we adults (translation: I) allow so much to muddy our view of God?  Why is it we (translation: I) can’t just see God for who he is?  Why is it that we (translation: I) get so worried and bent out of shape by what, in the scope of eternity, is really a minor issue?  Chloe not only didn’t let this news destroy her day, but, more importantly, she knew why it didn’t need to destroy her day: Jesus was watching out for her sister, which meant she didn’t have to.

Oh to have the faith of a child.

Train Up a Child


My children are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – just last night we had an incident.  But today I was reminded of two verses while I listened to them playing…  Solomon advises us in Provers to “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older they will not leave it.” (22:6), and Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.”  It is never too early to teach your children the truths of scripture – my girls are 4 and 2, and we’re already seeing dividends.

Here’s what happened…  This morning I woke up feeling very sick.  I stayed in bed for awhile, then got up and took a shower to see if that helped me feel better, but it actually exhausted me so I went and laid back down.  We decided to skip Sunday School so I could sleep until church started.  While I lay there in the bed I could hear the girls playing in their room (which is adjacent to ours).  Not sure what happened, but they must have bumped into each other because I heard Chloe say, “I’m sorry, Lestee, for bumping into you.  Will you forgive me?”  And Celeste replied, “I forgive you.”  Then they continued playing.

Then a little later Chloe went in to the bathroom and Celeste went in there, too (what is it about girls having to go the bathroom together!?!?!?).  Melissa went in to check on them and I could hear Chloe say, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”  Melissa said, “He’s not feeling good.”  So Chloe said, “Then we need to pray for him.”  And I could hear them all praying together that Jesus would make me feel better (and it wasn’t Melissa leading them in prayer, it was Chloe leading them :))

Finally, this afternoon after church I laid down on the couch to take a nap before the annual church Fall Festival.  After my nap I still didn’t feel good so I decided to stay home while Melissa took the girls.  Celeste came in and asked, me, “Daddy, you go to fall festival?”  I said, “No, sweetie, Daddy doesn’t feel good.” She replied, “Daddy not feel good?  What not feel good?”  I said, “My tummy.”  She replied, “I wanna pray for you.”  So she grabbed my hand and said, “God our Father, God our Father” (prayer she sings to the tune of Frere Jacques), “Please make Daddy’s tummy feel better.  Amen.”

It was that simple, and that sweet.  Today I got to witness three little fruits from all that Melissa and I have invested in our girls.  We have a long way to go, but it’s days like this that remind me there is no greater joy in life than family.

A Walk in the Woods (5.6)


Skipping.  Literally – skipping and hopping!

For days Chloe had been asking me, “Daddy, when are we going HIKING!?!?!” (emphasis hers).  So the second day we were in Virginia we went and did a moderate little climb, and she had a BLAST (perhaps about 1.5-2 miles round trip).  And as soon as we finished that hike she was asking again, “Daddy, when are we going hiking AGAIN!?!?!?” (emphasis hers).  So on our way back from Virginia we took a brief stop at exit 99 off Interstate 64 and parked at the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park where the Blue Ridge Parkway begins.  Along the Blue Ridge at this point runs the Appalachian Trail, so we went down and decided to hike the trail as our last hike. Melissa was leading the charge, the girls were both hiking between us, and I was bringing up the rear.  And Chloe?  She was hopping and skipping down the AT!

She was so excited to be out in the woods hiking, but what was even more exciting was for me to watch her as she enjoyed this new experience – the excitement in her eyes, her energy as she flitted along the trail.  That was absolutely priceless.

Which makes me wonder: what does God feel when we travel the road path he lays out for us?  If I as a human father experience such joy when I witness my Little Girl running and playing in the woods, how much more does my Heavenly Father experience joy when I spend time “in the woods” with him?

So often Bible study, prayer, and quiet time get pushed aside in a busy day because I’ve got other things to do.  What would I have felt this weekend if when I told Chloe we were going hiking she had responded with, “That’s okay, Daddy, I’ll just stay in the car and watch a movie on the DVD player instead.”?  I would have been heart-broken.

But that’s the equivalent of what I too often say to God when he invites me to journey with him.  His invitation may not be to go on a literal hike in the woods and may instead look like an invitation to work at a new job, volunteer for a new ministry, or invest in a new relationship – but it’s ultimately an invitation to spend time with Him.

So the next time you hear his voice calling, make sure you answer “Yes” – you’ll not only get to hop, skip, and jump down the path he has for you, but you’ll bring Him joy, too.