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.

 

Best Books for 2011


Considering we’re over two weeks into 2012 and I’ve had this on my to-do-list since the end of December, it’s time for me to compile my list of favorite books I’ve read and reviewed in the last year.  But I’m going to do this a little differently than you’d probably expect.  I’m not going to pick my highest-rated books based on my reviews, but I’m going to list the books that have had the biggest impact on my life.  Yes, I read for enjoyment, but most of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog have also been because I’m seeking to learn and grow, so at the end of the year I’m looking back to reflect on which ones led to the most growth and change in my life.

So here goes – my best books of 2011 – and what I learned from them (for the record, these are listed in the alphabetical order, not in rank-order):

  • Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge – This one almost seems obvious, given my love of Eldredge’s works, but when you also consider that I’ve reviewed other books by favorite authors (Yancey and Lucado to name a couple) and not included them on my list, you’ll realize this isn’t an exercise in listing my favorite authors. No, this is an exercise in listing those books that had the biggest impact on my growth over the past 12 months. It’s sad to say, but when I looked at the list of all my reviews I found myself saying, “Wow – I don’t even remember what that book was about!” That’s not the case with this one, though. Beautiful Outlaw challenged my view of Jesus in a way that few other books have ever done so. While I have some reservations (mentioned in the two reviews I post), I put this book down with a desire to know Jesus more personally and deeply than I had when I started – and it motivated me to spend more time in the Word and in conversation and fellowship with Him and others. To me that’s the mark of a book leading to change and growth.
  • Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby – just like Now I Walk on Death Row and While the World Watched helped me once again see the world through another’s eyes: this time through the eyes of those who are lost believing the lies of Islam. And it opened my heart to the necessity of reaching those people through my own actions – including gifts and prayers.
  • Church Diversity by Scott Williams – take Transformational Church and combine it with While the World Watched and you have an idea of the impact of Williams’ book. This book challenged me to think about worship and leadership in many new ways, it confirmed much of what I thought was happening in situations I was facing at various times throughout the year, and it offered insight into how I needed to approach some of those situations. This book is definitely deserving of being named to my list.
  • Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron – Here’s the surprise book on my list, especially considering I gave it such a horrible review. But here’s why I’ve got to put it on my list of best reads: it caused me to reflect on how often I share Jesus with other people and ask myself the question, “Do others see Jesus in me?” My complaint about the book was that it didn’t focus me enough on the life and work of Christ – which then convicted me to say, “How can I do a better job than this book did?” I guess it’s like the old adage that says “You can learn just as much (if not more) from a non-example than you can from an example.” As I said in my original the review, the book is an absolute blast to read – it just didn’t have the focus I was looking for. But, six months after I read it, I still find myself thinking about it and recognizing it had a positive impact on my spiritual growth, so I’ve got to put it on my list.
  • Money & Marriage by Matt Bell – I wish I could say that all our money struggles were fixed after I read this book and that I was able to take every suggestion Bell had and put it into practice. What I can tell you is that it did lead to changes in how I view and manage money – all for the better – and so in that sense this book marked the beginning of a slow process for the better.
  • Now I Walk on Death Row by Dale Recinella – Here’s a book that tells the story of a real-life person who gives up everything this world counts as precious and trades it for the opportunity to minister to “the least of these”. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to be a prison chaplain, or even that I am looking to be one, but this book helped remind me there are lost and hurting people everywhere who need the love of Jesus – and that it is possible to be an agent for good in a lost and hurting world.
  • Radical by David Platt – to this day I still think back to the seemingly simple challenge Dr. Platt refers to as “radical” (read your Bible, pray, and give). And to this day I still struggle to do it! One of the best lessons I learned from the book, though, is the importance of sharing Jesus with other people and being motivated to do it. Platt’s comment that there “is no plan B” has been on my mind practically every day for the past year – and I find it convicting and motivating.
  • Simply Sacred by Gary Thomas – I’m still reading this book every day and finding more and more truth in it than the first time I read it. Melissa and I have been working through it as our daily devotional now for a couple of months and the insights Thomas shares have caused me to really examine my own beliefs and behaviors as I work to match them up with what God has called us to be and do. And since it’s the book we’re using for our couple’s devotional, it’s also challenged me to reflect on how we can grow spiritually as both a couple and family. Perhaps more than any other book on the list, this book has led to real change in how I act.
  • Transformational Church – I’ve spent the last eight years studying and working to better understand what it means to worship and what a church should be. Transformational Church is one of the best book I’ve ever read that answers that question. Without going into a lot of detail, the concepts and teachings in this book are ones that I applied in my own ministry and ones everyone in ministry should study, learn, and implement.
  • While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry – I really didn’t anticipate or plan for this to be a “Top 10” list, but I guess it has ended up that way. This book really helped me see what it was like to live in a segregated society through the eyes of a black person. While segregation is something we learn about in school, since I was born after it was illegal (and because I grew up in the North) it was never anything I experienced. When I moved to North Carolina eight years ago I was shocked by the amount of racial tension I found here. While the past certainly doesn’t justify certain actions and policies that are present now, it absolutely helps explain them. This book really helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So there you have it – my list of the most influential books on my life for the year 2011.  While I don’t make resolutions, I did start last year with a goal of reading at least one book a month – a goal I more than kept when I looked back and realized I reviewed 33 books last year.  While most were wonderful (and there are some I really considered putting on this list), the ones listed here are the ones that a year after reading them I can look back and say (without even looking at the list of my reviews), “I remember reading this book – here’s what I thought of it and here’s how it changed me.”  To me that’s what reading to grow is all about.  Sure, in reviewing the list of books I read I saw titles that caused me to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that – that was a great book!”  But their recollection needed a little reminder.  The ones on this list, though?  No reminder at all was needed.

So what’s coming next?  Here are some on my “To Read” shelf that will have reviews posted as soon as they’re completed:

  • Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll
  • Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas
  • Radical Together by David Platt
  • Out of a Far Country by Christopher Yuan
  • Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias
  • Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

That’s just a small list – thank you to all those who follow this blog and listen to my ramblings and reviews.  Hopefully you find them enlightening, encouraging, and maybe even a little entertaining.  Here’s looking forward to another year.