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.

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Drumming from Death to Life


 

“Mr Feller, can we get sick and die?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas (with Tears)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What God Has Taught Me


Today our church service included the testimonies of several of our members regarding what the Lord has taught them over the past year.  Below is a transcript (as best I can provide) of what I shared with our congregation.

testimonies

Looking Back

I wish I could stand before you this morning and tell you that I’ve spent the last 363 days of the year faithfully studying God’s word, desperately pursing him prayer, and passionately worshipping him 24/7; I wish I could rattle off a list of people I’ve personally led to the Lord, that I could say, “Hey – see that table there?  All of them are here today because when I told them about Jesus they listened and responded.”

But I can’t.  And that’s okay.  See, that’s what God has taught me this year.

One Word Summary

If I had to sum the year’s lessons up in one word, it would “grace” – the grace God shares through Jesus every day of the year as he deals with and talks to me.  Jason asked us a couple of weeks ago to talk about how God has moved in our lives this past year so that we could share it.  I wanted to be able to say, “I was sick – now look at me!  I’m healed!” or “One day, out of the blue, God sent a check that paid off my mortgage!” or some other miraculous story.  Instead, I stand before you and tell you that we spent the better part of a year recovering from the consequences of a car accident that totaled our van, delayed our trying to have another child, and put a complete stop on selling our house and moving into another one – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than tell you about the mortgage being paid off, I will stand here and tell you that the promised raise was voted down, sometimes there was more month than money, and the insurance settlement didn’t come close to paying for the new van.

stone of graceYup, that’s our year.  A pretty normal year, a year mixed with both victories and struggles, great memories and pain I think I’d rather forget.  A year that started with good intentions – intentions to read scripture daily, to pray faithfully with and for my wife, to disciple my children – but as I look back I realize that while there were months I did read daily, pray faithfully, and invest in my kids, there are also weeks I’m not sure I even cracked the bible open except on Sunday morning, months that went by where prayers were little more than “Bless this day, God” or “Help feel better”, and plenty of nights where not only did I neglect to do devotions with the girls but where during the day I actually lost my temper and yelled at them.  Yup.  That’s my life – my imperfect, human, raw life.

And in the midst of it, He is here.  God is.  Jesus – he’s in the midst of all the turmoil, all the pain, all the disappointment.  He’s right here. That’s what God taught me this year.  To focus on the increasingly intimate, on-going, day-by-day and moment-by-moment relationship I have with Him, to remember that he speaks to me about and through the “mundane,” he works through me, and he fills in the gaps when I step aside and let him.

The Grant

I look back at the year and realize that when I was one of two people tasked with writing a 300 page grant application in just two weeks, that when the words were flowing through my fingers onto the screen, when the ideas in my mind were literally changing the way we structure support for schools in our district, that they weren’t my ideas at all – they were His. I recognize now that the whole process – a process that didn’t result in receiving the grant – was about growing me in Him.  Through that process he was shared both verbally and non-verbally with my co-workers; he grew my faith and honed my listening skills.  We walked side-by-side through that project.  And we grew closer.

Statistics

I look back at the statistics class I had to take this semester, or the two-nights-out-a-week for school that robbed me of time with family.  And I recognize that he was with me on every drive to Chapel Hill, that those times in the car where I would sing, talk with him out loud, listen to sermons, and listen to him speak to me were times of growth and intimacy with my Savior – times I have come to treasure and even look forward to.  I understand they were times I have to invest in out-of-town friends and family via late night phone calls that serve to help keep me awake as I traveled but minister to them in other ways than I could ever imagine.  He’s worked in and through me even while I drive.

Driving Around Town

I look back on the day I was driving from a school in Winterville out to a school in Farmville.  I was sitting at the intersection of Davenport Farms Rd and Old US264 waiting to turn left.  There was a semi truck coming from the right and two cars coming from the left.  Even though there was more than enough space for me to safely pull out and make my turn, I heard a voice say, “Tom, just be patient – don’t be in such a rush.”  So, for once in my life while behind the wheel, I actually just decided to sit there and let everyone pass – to listen to and not just hear Jesus’ voice.  After the truck passed I turned to wait for the first of the two cars to pass, and after it passed I waited for the second car to pass.  It was then that I saw a third car that had been invisible to me just seconds before – a third car who was executing an illegal pass of the second car, so he was in the lane I would have turned into.  Literally, had I not listened when Jesus told me to wait I would have had a head-on collision with a car that was easily traveling 60+ mph.  And it took me longer to tell you this story than it actually happened in life – it was that quick.

The Missing Dog

I look back at the morning I woke up and the dog had escaped the back yard; of spending 30 minutes driving and walking the neighborhood in the rain when it was still dark outside, only to return home praying, “Lord, just bring her back – or help someone to find her and call us.”  Then I turned onto my street and who was standing in the middle of the road, one door down from our house, looking around all confused?  My Cosette.  And Jesus said, “See – I even care about the dog.  If I care about something so insignificant as that, don’t you think I care about the big stuff, too?”  Sure, it could have ended differently – she could have been lost forever, but I think God was saving me from have the country-music-song year (you know, no raise, car accident, totaled car, hurt wife, dead dog).

The Year to HearThe Lesson: Just Listen

So here’s what I’ve learned this year more than ever before – a year that, while it hasn’t been the most difficult of my life has certainly had its challenges.  I’ve learned that God is faithful in the little things, and he’s faithful in the big ones, too.  I’ve learned that God’s grace overpowers everything the devil can throw at us.  I’ve learned that the best part of life is walking hand-in-hand with my Dad – my Heavenly Dad – and hanging out with him.  I’ve learned that listening to Jesus and hearing him are two different things.  I used to teach my students that the while hearing was a function of the ear, listening was a function of the brain.  Hearing is simply when sound waves hit the ear drum, but listening requires actually processing and paying attention to those sounds.  It’s why we can sit in a restaurant and, even though we hear conversations of other people around us, we only listen to the person we’re having dinner with.  Jesus reminded me of that truth this year, so I want to share a couple of very specific examples when he spoke and I did more than hear, I listened.

Lance Armstrong

To do that I went back and reviewed some of my blog posts for the past year.  Two stuck out…  Two that were turning points in my year when Jesus spoke deeply to me.  The first one I want to share was from last January. To provide a little context, I used to be an avid cyclist, and Lance Armstrong was one of my favorite racers.  Last January was when he finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in each of his seven Tour de France victors.  Here’s some of what I wrote:

There is something about Lance Armstrong that saddens me: he is not a Christian.  I have to wonder how someone who has been given so much cannot believe in God at all.  It’s not that he knowingly serves another spiritual presence, it’s that he doesn’t even believe God exists.  To know that while he may inspire many here on earth to achieve great strides yet not spend eternity in heaven is disheartening.

He writes in his book, Every Second Counts, the story of the home he bought in Spain.  Part of the home is a family chapel that he paid to have restored.  He writes this regarding the chapel: “To me, that chapel isn’t just about worship, but about history, about age, about the hundreds of years that have seeped into the arched ceilings, the gold paint, and the original stained glass.  It’s stunning.”

I fear Armstrong’s comments regarding faith and religion are all-too-common in today’s culture.  Religion is viewed as a duty, as a set of rules, as a hoax, or as a crutch (Armstrong refers to it as this, too).

Yet what Armstrong fails to understand is Christianity is not meant to be a religion but a relationship with the living God of the universe.  Think of it—the creator wants you and I to know Him!  He even came to earth to make a way for us to draw near to Him.  Church is not a building, or a history lesson.  Church, The Church, is the living, organic body of our Savior Jesus.  That’s what Armstrong fails to understand.

This week we see what could be described as the deprivation of man in general and Armstrong in particular.  I didn’t watch his confession, but I read enough in the press to know that his sincerity and regret was, at best, questionable – how else could he still claim he didn’t think it was wrong to cheat?

For me, though, what is even more disheartening than the cheating is the years and years of lying – lying to the public, to his donors and supporters, to his fans, and, ultimately, to himself.  He was vicious – suing those who dared suggest he had doped and calling them terrible, horrible names.  In Armstrong we see the fallen nature of humanity for what it is: an obsession with oneself.  Like the title of Armstrong’s first book, we had confirmed this week that it wasn’t about the bike.  It was about him and only him, at all costs.

And here’s what really gets me… Armstrong’s cycling wasn’t what brought him to fame, it was the fact that he had overcome cancer and then still went on to be what we all thought was the greatest cyclist who ever raced.  We didn’t follow him because of the bike, we followed him because of the healing.

This afternoon I got kinda upset about that.  I found myself upset with God that my sister died of cancer when she was 20, yet this liar and cheater was allowed to live.  It just didn’t seem fair.  Erin wasn’t perfect, but she certainly wasn’t Armstrong.  How come she had to die and he got to live?  If anyone deserved to die wasn’t it a man who would take his healing, shove it in the face of the God who healed him (as he did in his book), and then go on to mock the rest of the world to win by cheating and covering it up for years afterwards – ruining the lives of countless other professionals in the process?  Isn’t that the one who should have died?

And then God reminded about his grace.  It’s what Armstrong needs – it’s what he’s always needed.  Not grace from me or any other person; what Armstrong needs is to accept the grace given him by God.  Erin died a believer, which means she ultimately was healed that night she passed into eternity.  But Armstrong?  He’s headed straight to hell.  Not because he cheated and lied, but because he’s a sinner just like everyone else.  Perhaps worse than some but better than others.  Yet at the end of the day when he dies he’ll spend eternity separated from God because he refuses to accept the grace found in Jesus.

And so God continues to offer grace, one chance after another.  Should Armstrong have died?  Who am I to judge that…  What I can say with confidence is this: God must certainly love him a whole bunch, if you judge it based on the chances he’s given (and continues to give) to come to know Him.  2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Maybe, just maybe, Armstrong will wake up to this fact.  It’s what I’m praying for, anyway

Grey’s Anatomy

The second one I wrote the following month, in February, and I think you’ll see how they are related:

I was watching a little TV with Melissa and she turned on the most recent episode of one of her new favorite shows, Grey’s Anatomy.  One main theme in the episode was a 19 year old who needed a blood transfusion but couldn’t get one because of his religious beliefs.  The conflict in the show revolved around how the doctors should respond to someone whose religious beliefs prevented them from treating a sickness that was curable.  At one point a friend of the dying patient comments to one of the doctor’s that even though they hang out “every day” his friend “never once mentioned to me that he was a Jehovah’s witness.  He never talked about it.  I kinda don’t think he is.” (his being a JW is why he can’t get a blood transfusion).  The doctor responds that maybe he’s just a private person, to which the friend says, “If you believed in something so hard you would die for it, would you keep it a secret?  Wouldn’t you at least tell your friends?”

And that’s when God slapped me upside the head and asked me the question, “Would your friends even know you’re a follower of Jesus?  Have you ever told them?  Would they know what you’re living for?  Would they know what you’re willing to die for?”  See, when God writes them a love letter, don’t you think he wants them to know that he lived and died for them?  Paul tells me that I’m the letter – I’m the ambassador.  So what message are they hearing?  Or am I keeping him a secret?

What about Sunday?

Both of those stories provide the “front book-end” examples, so to speak, of what Jesus was telling and teaching me this year.  So let me use one final quote before I tie this all together to provide the “back book-end”… Just this past week I finished reading a book in which the following question was asked:

“If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus? The reason I pose the question is because most people conclude someone is a Christian or not based on that person’s Sunday religious activities and behaviors. You may not even be inclined to advertise your faith, but inevitably if you attend church often enough, it will come out in conversation. So if Sunday didn’t exist, you would no longer have a building to point to as being the place you attend church…If Sunday didn’t exist, we would no longer be able to use our Sunday activities as evidence that we are followers of Jesus. So back to my question…If Sunday didn’t exist, would anyone know you were a follower of Jesus?”

The Missing Formula

I wish I could give you a formula that said, “This is how you grow closer to the Lord.  You read 4 chapters a day at 6:00am, then make sure you pray for 35 minutes every morning about these 5 topics.  Oh, don’t forget to fast once a week (Tuesdays would be best) so that you can spend extra time with the Lord in prayer.  Always listen to Christian radio, in the car make sure you play sermon podcasts rather than turn on political talk, answer at least 3 out of 5 questions at small group, and….”  Well, you get the idea.  But there isn’t a formula – it’s a relationship between two beings.  And that’s what Jesus has been teaching me.  There’s an ebb and flow to life, and an ebb and flow to relationships.  Hearing Jesus’ voice in every moment of every day isn’t something that happens just because you do X-Y-and-Z.  Hearing is a result of listening, and listening is a result of focus and paying attention – perhaps it sounds like I’m arguing semantics here, but hearing is a physiological process whereas listening adds both the cognitive dimension and the spiritual act of discernment so that physiology, cognition, and spirit all work together.

listen-and-learnNow don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting there’s nothing we can do to hear God’s voice or that regardless of what we do nothing will inhibit us from hearing him.  Sin is very real and it sets a wall up in our hearts to make it difficult to hear his voice.  We have to spend time with him regularly – if I never talked with Melissa or spent time with her or listened to her you’d all wonder what type of marriage we had.  But at certain times of our lives those shared times may look different.  When we first got married we had regular date nights every week – but once you have kids and you realize between dinner, a movie, and a babysitter that date nights take the entire month’s entertainment budget, they start to look different than they used to.  I can’t give a formula for the marriage relationship.  Are there certain things we do and don’t do?  Absolutely.  But we don’t get a marriage because we do those things, we do those things because we are married.

Similarly, I’m not so certain that we get a growing relationship with God just because we read the Bible, pray, fast, or engage in any of the other spiritual disciplines.  Reading the bible and prayer no more make you a Christian than babysitting makes you a parent.  Does this mean you shouldn’t babysit my kids for me?  Absolutely not! But remember that we aren’t parents until we’ve had a kid – whether you have them naturally or you adopt them.  Just because you are a teacher who works with kids, or a family therapist who studies child development and know what all the “experts” say about them, a pediatrician who diagnoses their sickness or a L&D nurse who delivers newborns every day – if you’ve never had the sole responsibility to care for a child you aren’t a parent.  That’s not meant to discourage or dismiss people, it’s simply stating a neutral fact.  In the same way, just because you attend church, read the bible, pray, fast, give money, and/or serve in the community it doesn’t mean you are a follower of Jesus.  Does that mean you shouldn’t do those things?  Absolutely not – but don’t overemphasize the vehicle when what is important is the relationship.

rooted

Abiding leads to doing

Because of our growing relationship with God we engage in those disciplines – just like when we get married we do things couples do, or when we have children we take responsibility for our kids in raising them.  But when it all gets dry?  Well, sometimes relationships don’t always “feel” vibrant.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in relationship.  Sometimes our sprititual walk with our Dad doesn’t necessarily “feel” great, but it doesn’t mean he’s not there or that he doesn’t care.  The thing that Jesus has taught me more this year than any year in the past is that a deep relationship with him is exactly that – a relationship that isn’t ruled by rules and regulations about what I do or say or think.  In fact, it’s not ruled by anything but His Grace.  To use our Covenant and Kingdom language, I’ve learned that as I abide with and in Him, the doing happens automatically and naturally and I don’t even need to think about it.  Just this past week I read John 3:21, “anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”  When I abide in Him, he works through me and others see it for what it is.

Don’t take these words to mean that when you walk with God that what you consider to be “good things” only happen to you or you always get what you want.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t come home, sometimes your sister dies, sometimes you spend more than you make, sometimes the car accident happens or the tire blows out or you fall out of the tree and break your arm.  I have friends who are Christians who walk faithfully with the Lord and still experience great, great pain – the pain of divorce, untimely death, the sickness of a child, lost jobs, or even the loss of a home – so I’m not naïve enough to think that by walking with and listening to Jesus we are free of the effects of sin in a fallen world.  Walking with God doesn’t guarantee bad things won’t happen to you.  It DOES mean you don’t have to go through them alone.

abiding

Rest


This past week was spring break from my classes (not work but school), and I made a conscious decision to not do any homework.  Now in all honesty that means I’m feeling a little behind right now, with a take-home mid-term, paper, and several chapters of reading due on Thursday, but I needed the break – we all did.  I was able to hang out with Melissa and just snuggle on the couch, play with the girls, and even take a nap.  It was….well, restful.

Deeply Loved Cover

As I’m working through Deeply Loved by Kerri Wyatt Kent I’ve been meditating all week on one particular chapter (I read it Tuesday): Hurry.  (This is actually post #2 on the book, so to read #1 click here)  The thing I loved about this particular chapter is that she acknowledged the busyness of life without making me feel guilty for it, though she did challenge me to evaluate it and reflect on it differently.  She shared the following metaphor from a friend who was busy.  The metaphor compared our lives to a jar of river water all shaken up.  She commented that we need to “sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.”  Wyatt goes on,

[This} is what the jar of water teachers us.  We must be willing to show up, and be still – and let [God] work.  Just letting go of control – to stop trying so hard – is, ironically, the hardest thing to do.

She draws a distinction between “busy” and “hurry” that I’ve never before contemplated, but which has given me pause this week to consider.  Busy, she writes, is an “outward reality – what we do”; it’s what I feel sometimes at work.  But “hurry is an inner reality – how we think, the angst we feel when we are overwhelmed by obligations or by trying to adapt to rapid change.”  She challenged me to settle down, to become less hurried, by stopping the multi-tasking effort and focusing on what is most important right now.  This particularly struck a chord with me because I realize that when I become most stressed, particularly at work, it’s when I feel I’m doing too many things at once (it’s why emails sometimes only get half-read).  And I’ve been really trying lately to be more focused, to only do one thing at once rather than 10, and this chapter reinforced that to me.  She wrote that “Hurry has become a mindless habit.  We’ve said yes to everything but serenity.”

So this week I chose to rest, to try and practice serenity, to allow God to refresh and refill me.  I’ve got plenty to do this coming week, but now I’m feeling that I’ll be able to do it – one step at a time.

And We’ve Arrived…..Home


Earlier in the calendar year I did a several-part series on our search for a new church, with the last post done in early May.  I won’t detail the number of churches we visited, but I will tell you that we did visit quite a few.  To make a long story short, we have ended up at Discovery Church.  To be honest, I’ve struggled for quite some time with whether I even wanted to write this blog post because I didn’t want to draw attention to any one church or make one of the churches we visited but didn’t end up at look bad (for the record, all of them were wonderful congregations).  At the end of the day, though, I guess I felt it was only fair to give this update on our journey.

We made our first visit to Discovery sometime last March and have actually been in attendance ever since.  We decided over the summer to get involved in a small group, so we joined one, and then this past fall I got involved with the early-morning men’s Bible study as well as their new discipleship class.  After all I’ve written on the subject of finding a church I feel it only fair to say what finally drew us to Discovery.  It wasn’t the music, the service time, the pastor, the people, or any of those things (they all played a part, but they weren’t the “deciding factor”, so to speak).  Quite simply, the one thing that overwhelmingly drew us in, and why we felt like God was sending us there, was the vision.   Again, don’t get me wrong, the pastor is a great preacher, the people are wonderful people whom we’re enjoying getting to know, and the girls enjoy the kids’ program.  But at the end of the day those things are, well, just parts of the whole.  And, to be completely honest, there are plenty of churches that do a good job with those parts (some perhaps even do them “better”).  What we were really looking for, as I look back, was to identify with what held all those parts together.  And that was always the missing part at so many churches we visited: our visions didn’t align.

So what is the vision?  I’m not sure I can tell you the “official vision statement”, but I can summarize it fairly simply.  Discovery church is about making disciples.  And that’s what we’ve been looking for for a very long time.  Lots of churches talk about making disciples, but this is actually the first church I’ve ever been a part of that has a plan in place to do it.  Granted, it’s a plan in infancy, but it’s a plan none-the-less; and it’s a good plan.  The leaders and people at Discovery truly want to connect people with Jesus.

And that’s what it’s all about.  Our church in Florida had a very simple vision: “Changing lives by connecting people with Jesus Christ.”  We saw that start to work its way out before we left, but we weren’t at the church long enough to fully experience it (not because we left the church but because we left the State!)  And I see that same desire at Discovery:  They talk about it every week, they make it obvious in how they structure their organization, and they’ve spent weeks preaching it and countless hours putting a plan in place.  They’ve identified discipleship as having three components: Deepen, Do, and Develop (it’s what we now call the “3-D’s” of discipleship).  They’ve even restructured their pastoral staff to align with the three terms – we have a pastor of doing, a pastor of deepening, and a pastor of developing:

  • Deepen – it’s about deepening our relationship with God and other believers
  • Doing – it’s about serving God and others
  • Developing – it’s about intentionally building relationships with non-believers with the goal of sharing the gospel

I’m not saying Discovery is the only church that emphasizes discipleship or that the way they are doing it is the only way to do it – in fact, I know that’s not the case because when I talk to my strong Christian friends around the country I hear them saying the same things but in different ways.  I’m just sharing that, for whatever reason, this language makes sense to me.  While it’s not been said by anyone at the church (at least that I’ve heard), I get the impression that the pastors are actually working to “equip the saints” to do the work, and that the saints understand they are to be equipped rather than delegate ministry to “full-time, paid” people.  And that’s refreshing.

Am I suggesting all those things I wrote in my previous posts aren’t important?  Absolutely not.  I’m simply saying that they are not the end-all of the discussion.  I’ve said for years that those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus are all in the same church, we just worship in different buildings.  And I believe this so strongly that sometimes I have suggested to people they attend a different church than the one I attend.  For the record, I’ve actually taken some heat for that.

Before I go on, let me be clear: I’ve never suggested to anyone in one of my churches that they needed to leave the church.  I’m referring here to people who are searching for a church and I’ve suggested they try a church, but sometimes my suggestion has been different than where I attend based on their personality.  For example, if someone was not into liturgy and high-church I suggested they attend a contemporary service even though I may have been at a liturgical church at the time, or vice-versa.  I never discouraged people from coming to my church and I always welcomed them if they did.  I am just much more concerned with people meeting Jesus than I am with building my local church.  One would think those two are the same, but, unfortunately, they’re not.  And leaders who don’t get that fact are missing the boat, and they run the risk of setting themselves and “their church” up as an idol.

Which brings me to my point…  I get the sense that our pastoral staff gets this – that it’s not about us but about Him.  There were two churches we visited this year where the pastors actually said from the platform some variation of, “We want you to be involved in a church, and if it’s not our church that’s okay – just get involved in a church where Jesus is taught and lived.”  Discovery was one of them.

It’s not a perfect family, but it is our family.  Continue to pray for us as we figure out the role we are to play in our new family, and pray that we fulfill that role as God desires.  And thank-you for your prayers as we have traveled this journey.