Building Stories to Serve – Part 2

After unloading a host of trees created by hundreds of individuals, we waited on the Social workers to get a bit organized on who would be the first to receive one of Samuel’s Trees. We knew the power of these trees first hand; Kelly and I had received one during our own stay at Children’s Hospital LA only five years before. But as we have always been each Christmas season following our son’s death, we felt a real sense of nervousness. How would they react to a tree this time? You see, when you have a baby holding on for life, not knowing if they are going to survive, but not believing they will die for want of sheer will, your entire insides are on fire.

Questions loom.

Fear abounds.

Hope seems to ebb and flow on each new test or blood result.

Inside the room of every child is a holy place to the parent, and entering into that place of vulnerability is something we know too well and take none too lightly. And so we waited patiently. If I had nails, they would have been chewed off.

I remember looking at Kelly with a sense of wonder and excitement, mixed with an agony for those experiencing what we had. Knowing each minute with the baby was precious beyond words. What would it seem like if we were to barge in? A random set of people holding a Christmas tree of all things.

The Social worker waved to us from outside the room we were staying in, and we followed with tree in hand. Walking a precarious few steps down a hallway, we made a series of turns and ended near a room. She gently knocked on the door and as it crept open, two estranged and haggard sets of eyes met ours. We knew this was a sacred moment; we knew intimately their struggle for inside was a baby with the same condition as Samuel’s; the rare defect forever in our mind called CDH.

I do not think the couple experiencing such heartache said hello. Their primary language was Spanish, and as the Social worker interpreted for us, we felt a loss for words. We wanted to reach out and just hug them. We wanted to weep with them. We wanted to tell them it was all going to be okay. We wanted to tell them they were not alone. Instead, we showed them.

A few words were exchanged in Spanish and we shared with them our desire to bless them with a small Christmas tree. It seemed trite at first, but we continued. We told them this tree was not from us, but from hundreds of strangers who loved them and prayed for them.

I could almost see the wheels in their minds working and begging the question, “What’s the catch?” But there was none. And so I gently gave the tree filled with hundreds of dollars of gifts cards to the man who was much shorter than me. As I let go of the tree, and as he looked at it, he turned around and spoke to the mother of the child. As he walked back in the room, we remembered how the Social worker had said they had no money, and were given food by the hospital staff at times. She had gingerly told us before that they had no visitors their entire time there.

Then the mother came out. Her face had a smile on it that had probably not been there for many days, and she began to profusely thank us. Again, we tried telling her that we were messengers from others, and began to tell her about our own story with Samuel. She listened. She cried. I cried. Kelly cried. Even the Social worker began to tear up. The man came out of the room again, and as the two of them stood there taking in all that the tree would now provide provisionally, I asked them if I could pray for them. We embraced and such a warmth-filled hug from complete strangers holding each other created a very holy moment.

No, I was not able to tell them they were not alone, but they felt it. I was not able to tell them that everything was going to be okay, but for that moment, and every time they looked at that tree, they knew, as we did, that hope prevails even in the worst of times. We didn’t just tell them we loved them; it was manifested in a tangible expression they would take with them wherever they went. We know. Others care. And no, you are not alone.

Building Stories to Serve

IMG_1391We had just finished reading to Samuel and heard a knock on the glass outside the NICU that was our home. Walking around to the entrance of the room and taking our scrubs off, we went to one of the nurses who told us someone had left something for us downstairs. I had just put a request out to friends and family who were following Samuel’s journey to donate blood and Children’s Hospital was almost overwhelmed with the amount of people. Some had wanted to meet us or visit us, but we kept to the room with our son because every moment was sacred.

After several hours, and after updating those who followed my blog about Samuel’s progress, we saw it. A small three-foot Christmas tree, adorned and decorated with ornaments and what seemed like hundreds of gift cards awaited us. What was a plastic three-foot Christmas tree doing here?

At first, we didn’t exactly know what to think. I believe Kelly realized the sheer amount of gift cards decorating it first, but as I slowly began to survey all that was on it, we both began to weep. You see, complete strangers who had followed the blog from a church near Yorba Linda traveled to Children’s Hospital and dropped this off. We wanted to run down and meet them, hug them, embrace them, but they had already left. They had waited a few hours for us to come down, but we were transfixed on our son. We never met them during that time, though later one of the people who organized it also had given us a gift to bring Samuel home in. We received that gift the day he went home to be with the Lord. It was such a beautiful, but painful gift. That was Christmas Eve 2010.

Christmas was hard. We wept off and on as our children ripped open their presents. To tell you the truth, I barely remember that day. We were numb. We were broken. Our son had died the day before.

Months went by and I remember seeing that tiny Christmas tree packed away in our garage as I rummaged for a tool. The pain of everything was still too near and so we relegated it to the garage and out of site. I had stopped feverishly writing on the blog and life went on as work ensued in ministry. Something about that tree, however, was powerful to us, and we cherished it, unwilling to let it go.

The following Christmas we visited Samuel’s gravesite, sent our balloons up in the sky, and pulled out our Christmas decorations. Noah helped me put up lights. As we ended our time, and after most of the decorations had been put up on our house, he pulled out a three foot Christmas tree and asked if he could put it in his room. It was almost as if a siren went off and Kelly and I just wept.

The Christmas of 2012 saw a new addition to our family; Christian. But the same old three-foot tree found its home in Noah and Mia’s room again, and Kelly made a powerful decision. “Dan, what if we gave a tree to a family in the hospital who has a baby in the NICU like Samuel?” Selfishly, I do not think I was too excited about the idea, and so provided little support. It was too raw to me; too sacred to try and do the same to someone else. Kelly pressed on, and with the help of family and a few friends, she put together a tree and decorated it with an intense love, staying up late one night to finish it to perfection. She was never more beautiful than in that moment. After she delivered the first tree, she vowed to always try and do one more Christmas tree for families each year.

The next Christmas we both decided to invite more friends into giving trees to families who were hurting. I had come around to embracing the idea but still sort of kept the idea at arms length like some sixth grade dance. After all was said and done that year, I believe we had three trees filled with gift cards and notes of love. The same three-foot Christmas tree we had received had now turned into three Christmas trees, and we both were able to personally hand them to families.

In 2014, Christmas was beginning to seem exciting again. We started earlier with our emails. I even invited people on Facebook to join in, and we were able to put together seven or eight trees. The night before we dropped them off, Kelly worked long into the evening decorating those trees and making sure each one was perfect, like the one we had received. The impact on the families was tangible, powerful, and life-giving, but we realized that we wanted others to experience the joy of giving these trees. That year we vowed to do something different with the trees in the future.

In 2015, I began to tell my world about Samuel and the tree we received. We contacted the lady who first gave us the tree, Natali Rigio, and she re-engaged with us. She had not given a tree to anyone since the one she gave to us five years earlier. We had never met her but had always kept in contact through social media, and she jumped on board with gusto. I contacted businesses, schools, clubs, family, friends, restaurants, supermarkets; anyone. An army mobilized, and we raised enough support for fifty trees. We threw a Christmas tree decorating party. In three cities, we reached into the lives of hurting families and mothers courageous enough to follow through with their pregnancies and celebrated life with them. And, wouldn’t you know it, we met Natali face to face for the first time and she was just as beautiful inside and out as we imagined. She mobilized her own army and gave four trees to the cause.

We know the simplicity of the act of love we are able to give to families is palpable. One lady asked us to be the godparents of their baby. Others just wept. Some praised God and reconnected with Him. One, not believing she was worthy of anything because of her “sin”, experienced God’s love in a redeeming way. Even the families who spent a night or two writing cards out, decorating Christmas trees for delivery, or putting on campaigns in their schools were blessed. There’s something special we are doing with Samuel’s Trees, and it all started with a group of strangers who wanted to do something for someone out of love. Indeed, that three-foot Christmas tree that we always put up in the kid’s room is just that. It is love.

Family Worship: Is Dead?

IMG_1533If you are anything like me, you are caught between how busy life is because you love your family so much, and feeling some weight of responsibility for the souls of them as well. I know I cannot save my children, but each day I am given an opportunity to teach, lead, and instruct them by my own example.

And that’s the rub really if I can confess; the example I show them is not one of Christ all the time. I remember a man who always prayed in public, “Lord, let me be Christ to my kids.” That always stuck with me whenever I would contemplate my own behavior and lack of Christlikeness.

I have talked with many pastors regarding the approach of the Bible as a family. Some (too many actually) have said they rarely if ever do bible studies with their wives or children. This is probably the case with most fathers as well. They seem to have their own relationship with God, but rarely carry that over into leading their families into God’s Word. In my desire to look at things biblically, to rethink God and a host of other things, I am now going to take a look at what the bible really says; not how our church culture pressures or does not pressure.

And what I will say, at the get go, is calling out a recent trend to make families (whether marriage, children, or the role of fathers in the home) the center of religion. It is indeed a great temptation, but it is ultimately an act of idolatry. Biblically speaking, the church, particularly Sundays, is the not even the center of religion; God is. It is important that we teach our children that the Bible is primarily about God, not family. As we do this, we can be sure that God will not let our efforts be fruitless. He is the focus of our lives, and our Bibles.

I read things like Deuteronomy 4.8-9, realizing the need for daily time spent as a family around the Bible and a call to fix our eyes upon God. In good churches, a “call to worship” happens straight from the word of God. The worship pastor should never call people to worship; the Word of God calls us to worship. God calls us to worship Him. And why should we not do that as a family? Why should we not pursue Him in His Word and hear from Him to worship Him? (read other passages like Deuteronomy 11.19, or Ephesians 6.4)

Charles Spurgeon writes, “You must know that it is at home that you are what you really are.” Oh no Lord. That hurts; the reality of my home life makes me realize I need you so much more than I thought. It’s humbling as a father to hear words like that from Spurgeon. The Bible even has warnings for those who willfully neglect the instruction of their family. Hosea 4.6, particularly at the end, just haunts me. As I personally neglect the law of God, the byproduct of that is directly manifested onto my children. The same relationship between this passage and myself in the 21st century may have changed because of what Christ has done, but nonetheless it is frightening.

So what is family worship? Is it really a biblical mandate? I would argue that it is, and deep down as parents you know it is as well. Biblically speaking, the Bible is clear that we are to lead, particularly fathers, our families in God’s Word. But here’s something honest as well. I have tried to do this multiple times. I’ve bought books and even printed out things online, but the consistency is never there. We go for a few weeks, and then fizzle out for various reasons. I read again, am convicted, and on we go to try something else. It’s a horrible cycle, and at times I feel like it is worse than if I never started.

A minister in eighteenth-century England wrote:

Tediousness will weary them. Fine language will shoot above them. Formality of connection or composition in prayer, they will not comprehend. Gloominess, or austerity of devotion, will make them think it a hard service. Let them be met as for the most delightful service in which they can be engaged. Let them find it short, savory, simple, plain, tender, and heavenly.

Short and sweet is generally more effective than an effort to turn each night into a forty-minute sermon or each morning into hour long meditations.

This is important: the primary object of family worship should be to point our hearts toward the God of the Bible rather than to teach a list of proverbs, should nots, or duties. Use each passage to direct the family back to the God whom they must know.

I would encourage you to read Psalm 78; particularly verses 4-8. Ask these questions: We must…in order that they will…

You may be like most of everyone else in life right now; feeling that there is no time to add family worship to your busy schedule. If you feel this way, it would be the wisest thing to search your heart for idols. I know that sounds harsh, but I know that’s the case in my own heart when I don’t have time. Anything that is more important than God is an idol. So logic would mean…yeah, you get the point.

What are the things you are trusting to satisfy your children’s souls and keep them from open rebellion? Is it education, moral friends, finding their talent or gift, entertainment, church or parachurch activity, sports or other hobbies, principles to live upon, or financial security? Many of these things are good, but when our hope is placed in them rather than God, we are treading on some seriously dangerous territory. If we do not have time to meet together with God as a family, we must ask ourselves why. Is it because He is not really our hope?

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