Remembering Markelle

markelleThere are some people in your life that make an indelible, remarkable impact. Markelle Elise Dumm was one such person for me.  I remember being introduced to her in 1991 and how incredibly similar she looked to my girlfriend at the time. Markelle was my girlfriend’s sister, the girlfriend who would eventually become my wife, making Markelle my sister-in-law. And a more amazing sister-in-law I could never have asked for.  Kind, gentle, strong, precious, caring, genuine, authentic, honest, loyal, peaceful, smart, hilarious, thoughtful, creative, articulate, curious, adventuresome, and loving.  These are just a few of the adjectives that flood my mind when I think of Markelle.  Anyone who knows her is right now adding their own words to that list; because there are certainly more.

Nearly 8 years ago, during a cesarean  section delivery of Chris and Markelle’s second daughter Elena, a ruptured cyst was discovered and later found to indicate the presence of stage 4 colon cancer.  Stage 4 colon cancer–to those who know–is pretty much synonymous with a death sentence.  Statistics show that 5 years of life from diagnosis to death is the top end of the time someone with that type of cancer gets.  But Markelle never seemed to listen to that.  Its not that she didn’t hear it, and its not that she didn’t believe it, its simply that she didn’t live it. 

sunset

We started a tradition 4 years ago, between my family, Chris and Markelle’s family, and my in-laws. We’d take a week in the summer, rent a beach house on an island on the Gulf of Mexico and occupy ourselves with 4 primary activities: eating, swimming, laughing, and sleeping.  And this past summer was no exception.  Just this past August we once again converged in a little slice of paradise and shared that precious time together.  No one said so, but we began to sense that perhaps this might be our last time at the beach with Markelle.  Just as with the 3 years prior, we soaked up every second of that week together.

It was soon after that week at the beach, and after 100 chemotherapy treatments over the years that Chris and Markelle were told by doctors that there was nothing more that could be done for Markelle.  Upon receiving that news, it became even more important for me to give my wife as much time with her sister as I possibly could.

My wife went to Missouri to visit Markelle for a week in September.  Then for another week in October. Then for 20 days in November, including Thanksgiving.  With so much of life to be thankful for, I was so glad these 2 sisters were together.  During Merritt’s September visit, she was able to go out to lunch a few times with Markelle. During her visit in October, Markelle could only get out to a doctor’s appointment. And during the visit in November, Markelle struggled to get from the bed to her bathroom and back.  Clearly Markelle’s health was declining.

During Merritt’s visit in November I was able to have a poignant, vital conversation with my oldest daughter regarding Aunt Markelle.  With Markelle’s earthly life seemingly coming to a close I wanted–needed–my own children to merrittandmarkelleunderstand and embrace an important truth.  They had all prayed for Markelle daily for nearly 8 years.  For her full health, for healing, for recovery, for remission, for whatever way God could heal Aunt Markelle and give her back a “normal” life again.  8 years of asking.  But what if Markelle died?  What would that mean for all those roughly 3,000 prayers each person offered?  Were they wasted? Unheard? Ignored? Did those prayers not make it past the ceiling?

As my wife and I lay in bed on Friday December 14, 2012 we received the phone call that for nearly 8 years we had hoped and prayed would never need to be made.  At 10:33 p.m. Markelle Elise Dumm finished her race and fell into the arms of Jesus her Savior.  My wife sat on the edge of our bed as she received the news from her mother that her only sibling, her only sister had gone home to be with the Lord.  I remember her mom’s words flowing through the phone line and into my wife’s ear: “Her battle is over.” Shortly after, Merritt hung up the phone and collapsed on the bed next to me, her feet still on the floor.  I just held her.  There’s nothing to say.  If you’ve ever been in that solemn, sacred moment you know there’s not one thing to do but cry and embrace.

By mid-morning the following day we had rented a van, kenneled the dog, and packed the van for the 17 hour drive to southwest Missouri.  Arriving there under those circumstances would be for me like stepping onto holy ground.  Being so close to someone you loved so much and knowing that at that moment they are with the Savior you both love and live for is almost like being with Him yourself.  Loving someone who stands in the presence of the King is akin to standing there yourself.  Hard to explain, but that’s how I felt and still do.

Markelle’s viewing was a testimony to the incredible number of lives that she touched.  For hours a long line of friends made their way through the doors of the church and up the aisle to where Markelle’s body was laid.  Her husband Chris stood there and greeted each one warmly and lovingly.  In many respects I think that Chris who was among those devastated the most by Markelle’s passing was a great comfort and encouragement to so many who came to comfort and encourage him.

During Markelle’s funeral the next day, her life was honored and celebrated and her love for Jesus was heralded.  Chris and Markelle’s pastor Tim did an incredible job of spotlighting an extraordinary life while putting most of the attention right where she wanted it: on Jesus her Lord.  I was honored and humbled to serve as one of the six pallbearers for my sister-in-law.  This may sound strange to most, but I considered it one of the most powerful acts of worship I will likely ever participate in.

Now, back to that conversation I had with my daughter (and perhaps the point you need to pay closest attention to).  We talked about how long we had been praying for Aunt Markelle, and if it happened that Aunt Markelle passed from this life into eternity, we needed to understand and embrace this one truth: God did not ignore our requests. He did not turn a deaf ear and do nothing with our prayers. What God did was to answer our prayers in the most complete and perfect way possible!  We had prayed earnestly and faithfully for Aunt Markelle’s healing and God in His great goodness had given her the full healing her body so desperately needed!  As I talked with my daughter about this, it was a truth that I myself needed to be reminded of.  It was just as much for my own good as it was for hers.

To know that God in fact had  heard our prayers. He had  listened. He had  answered.  And His answer was holy. Complete. Perfect.

 

Below is a poem I wrote for my wife while she was with her sister last month.  Maybe it can be an encouragement for you.

 
When the road you feel under your feet
Turns to rocky ground from solid street
When the skies above that were once so clear
Turn from blue to gray like joy to fear
When what you thought was sure and true
Turns to unending questions in front of you
When more seems lost than what is gained
When you’re tired of standing in the pouring rain
When the life you’re living you’d rather not
When one last breath seems to be all that you’ve got…
 
Please turn your face to the One holding you.
Please hold out and grasp what He says is true.
Please take your heart beyond the moment you’re in.
Please let God remind you that He calls you “friend”.
Please know that while you feel defeated, He has won.
Please remember that Jesus, God’s only Son
Has taken your pain, your hurts, and your tears;
He’s taken your questions, frustrations, and fears
And has swallowed them down along with your strife
He is the Truth, the Resurrection, and the Life!
 
So please stand on the Rock that He is for you.
Please know that all that He has said is true.
Now please lean upon His loving chest,
And find within His grace your perfect rest.
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What To Do With An Empty Altoids Tin

empty tinHave you tried Altoids?  They’re overboard in their mintiness.  It’s uncalled for really.  The tin says “Curiously Strong”.  I disagree.  I think they’re inappropriately strong.

But there is something about Altoids that I love, and that is the usefulness of the empty tin.  The possibilities are endless, really. I’ve got a vintage Star Wars “Snaggletooth” action figure.  The AltoidsSnaggletooth tin is the perfect coffin.  Or cryogenic sleep pod.  Next time I play with my Star Wars figures the tin will surely serve one if not both of those purposes.  See what I mean?  Endless possibilities.  You want 22 more ideas for your empty tin?  Click here.

Probably my favorite way to reuse an empty Altoids tin however, has got to be the use our 8th grade guys small group came up with: to bless people.

Last night as I was walking through our church building during our middle school small group hour, one of the adult leaders of the 8th grade guys small group came to me with an urgency in his step.  He said, “Jerry, could you come to our room? The guys have a presentation they want to make.”  I knew exactly what it was.  You see, this wasn’t the first time these guys have reused an Altoids tin.

I stepped into their room and Joseph (one of our stellar 8th grade guys) handed me an Altoids tin.  Its weight sunk into the palm of my hand as I took it from him.  I knew exactly what was inside.  These guys had collected their coins and dollars for the sole purpose of encouraging, equipping, and supporting our missionaries in Southeast Asia.  I took the tin, gave a word of thanks for their gift, and arm-in-arm with Joseph we prayed that the money would quickly find its way to God’s most effective place where it could be used to help anyone in need in another part of the world; a part most of those guys will never even see.

You see why that re-use of an Altoids tin is my favorite?  

 

What are some ways you’ve reused YOUR Altoids tin?

(What that you say? You want even more empty tin ideas?  Okay.  Click here.)

Let’s Kill the Joneses.

suburbs‘Tis the season to want what everyone else wants.

A crazy thing happened when our family moved across town 4 years ago.  In our previous house, we got free cable (despite the fact that we had cancelled it, the signal still got through).  When we moved, we knew that we’d be forfeiting our free cable.  We told our realtor it would be nice to add that detail to our house listing.  We didn’t.

But when we bought a slightly larger house (to fit our kids that seemed to be growing) and moved across town–to a house with NO cable, we witnessed quite an interesting phenomenon during the Christmas season that first year: Our kids had no idea what they wanted for Christmas.  We concluded that was because they had no commercials telling them what they wanted for Christmas.

We’re creatures who are often fixated on what others have, aren’t we?  Yesterday my oldest daughter was in one of her high school classes and the teacher was loaning a workbook to any student who needed one.  The catch was that the teacher wanted some collateral in return to ensure the books were given back at the end of class.  The teacher told students, “give me your phone, and if you don’t have a phone, I’ll take your backpack.”  A large percentage of the class’s students made their way to the front of the classroom and one by one they dropped their iPhones into a basket.  When the dust settled, the teacher had a literal basketful of iPhones….and one backpack. Guess who’s.

When that story was relayed to me last night, I had a couple of emotions almost instantly.  First, I felt pity.  I thought, “Oh, that’s so sad. My daughter had to endure the shame of having to be the only one in her entire class without an iPhone. I really wish she had one. I really wish she didn’t have to stick out like that. I really wish her dad wouldn’t blog about it the very next day.”  Okay, so I didn’t think that last one but you get the idea.  I was feeling sorry for my lone iPhone-less offspring.

avocado-wall-phone-with-rotary-dial-203x300Next, I felt frustration.  I felt irked-ness bordering on anger with all the parents of all those iPhone-toting teens.  I thought back to the late 80s/early 90s when I was in high school and the only phone we had was attached to a wall in the kitchen and even then you couldn’t go anywhere because of the coil-leash that robbed you of any chance for privacy.  I envied my friends who’s parents installed one of those 50-foot long coils on their phone.  Sure, it created a pile of phone cord when not in use, but when you needed it, you could stretch it to your room.  Or at least the hall coat closet.

So I thought, “Ugh. Why do all these parents give their kids their own phone? Don’t they know they’re making me look bad?!?”  And there it is.  The heart of the matter.

You see, I don’t really care (that much) about the moronic decision to give an 11 year old their own phone.  Go ahead.  This is America.  You’re free to be wrong.  And I’m free to say so.  Really, the issue for me was more that I felt inferior as a parent because my daughter was seemingly the only one in the room without an iPhone to drop in the basket.  That somehow that reality reflected poorly on me.

The whole situation led my mind to a larger issue; that of our insatiable desire to “keep up with the Jones’s”.  You have a Jones family in your world. Probably several of them.  Maybe you’re surrounded by them. Or maybe it’s you.  Its this reality that drives human mobs to trample humans in an attempt to get their hands on an Elmo.  Its this reality that tempts me to shell out money I don’t have for stuff I don’t need to impress people I don’t like.

Here’s the kicker: To keep up with the Joneses is to become a Jones.  Think about it.

Have you ever noticed that the people who aren’t grasping at stuff seem to be the most satisfied?  Crazy, right?  Now, I don’t think giving (or receiving) gifts is a sinful thing.  I’ve gotten gifts for my four kids this Christmas season and I’m excited to experience Christmas morning with them.  I’m not saying that stuff is wrong.  I’m saying that grabbing stuff is wrong.  I’m saying that wanting more stuff for the sake of having more stuff is wrong.  I’m saying that stuff isn’t going to ever make you satisfied. Because you weren’t created for stuff.  You were created for way more than the race for having the most, biggest, or best.

Paul said it perfectly in Philippians 4:11 when he said, “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”  

Contentment doesn’t come from knowing my daughter isn’t left out in the next iPhone pile-up at school (because she will be). It doesn’t come from the acquisition of anything seen.  It only comes when I “learn” that everything I need is found in my love relationship with my wife, in the parenting role I have with my children, and in the faith walk I have with Jesus.

Bleery-eyed & Blissful

cookie lineI’m typing this blog post through half-opened eyes, partially encrusted with cookie crumbs.  Last night was our 3rd annual “Cookie Blowout”; an event our student ministry does each year to celebrate the Christmas season and to give all our students a chance to invite their friends to what ends up being the best Christmas party they’ll attend.  We have cookies as far as the eye can see, milk flowing freely, contests, giveaways, and countless opportunities to make a spectacle of yourself. In a word, its fantastic.

So we hosted a couple hundred people here last night and the event (from all indicators) lived up to the buzzing hype that surrounded it weeks prior.  We had a great crowd that brought a great vibe to make it a great event.  Let me first tell you what made it so great, then tell you from a ministry standpoint where we go from here.

First off, unlike in years past, our Student Leadership Team really took a more active, ownership role in this event.  From the conception of the activities, to setting the place up, to overseeing during, to cleaning up after…the student leaders simply rocked. I was proud of each of them!

Second, the atmosphere was one of warmth and connection.  We wanted not one person left out, disengaged, or unembraced.  And I’d dare say that as I walked and played and talked with students last night, we hit the mark.  Its so true that new students come to an event like this with 3 questions: group dance1) Will anyone know I’m here? 2) Will anyone care I’m here? and 3) Will anyone include me?  I challenge our student leaders to relieve any new face of any responsibility to find their way in. We want to make sure every person feels welcomed, no exceptions. If a new student came last night and never returns, we certainly don’t want that to be for our lack of effort to welcome and include them. After all the top 3 most important things to teens are: 1) Friends, 2) Friends, and 3) Friends.

Finally (for this blog anyway), what made the event were the students themselves. This one is closely connected to #2 above, but quite honestly the students that came seemed bound and determined to not only have a great time, but create a great time for others.  That’s an important distinction.

That’s a tipping point in any student ministry; when students not only come for what they can get, but for what they can give.  It’s a critical difference and its the difference between a student ministry that is self-centered and one that is others-focused.  Our Karaoke Jam last night was a prime Sam & Tyler Karaokeexample. Not only did those who took the stage do so with gusto, but those who watched were thoroughly entertained. Laughter poured out of that room like eggnog. It was infectious.  And it was an important reminder that many of our students understand that they don’t simply come to take, but to give.

 

So, where do we go from here?

First, a nap.  I’m pooped.

Second, we communicate to all students and leaders involved, thanking them for coming, sharing some pictures/videos, and give them some next steps.  We had plenty of new faces last night; students who had their very first exposure to Southside Students last night.  And based on the smiles, they seemed to love what they encountered.  What we want to do now is to let them know that they’re welcome at the Mixx this and every weekend, and to tell them when our next Weekend Blitz is happening (Feb. 10th: “Bowl’n’Roll!”).  This way there are hands they can hold as they move forward with us.  As I told our student leaders, the ultimate goal of the Cookie Blowout isn’t just to eat cookies and have insane fun, but its also to allow more students to come and enjoy the very unique and wonderful group of teens known as “Southside Students”.

Finally, we celebrate the fact that we have an incredible body of believers (of all ages) at Southside Church that get behind efforts to share God’s love on a broader scale like this.  Each of them do so in their daily lives for sure, but there’s a different dynamic when we link arms, bake cookies, and fling the doors wide open, inviting community students to come in, test the waters, and find that there’s a place for them with us.

No other place.

I took my kids to a popular fast food restaurant today for lunch. I stepped up to the counter, smiled, and said “Hi, how are you?”

I do that regularly especially with cashiers because I’m very often amused by their responses.  Even more when they’re actually honest.  And the response I got today just might take the cake for worst ever responses of an employee to a customer when asked the question “How are you?”

With a look of contempt for his current situation, he said plainly: “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.”

Was it completely devoid of tact? Yep. Was it classless? Sure thing. Was it unprofessional? Absolutely.  But in his defense: he’s not in a “profession”.  Cashier at a fast food joint doesn’t qualify as a profession.  So being unprofessional was completely within his right.

Besides, I’m glad he said what he said.  It gave me a chuckle and almost immediately triggered a thought which has resulted in the words you’re reading right now.

"Anywhere but here" or "Nowhere but here"?

“Anywhere but here” or “Nowhere but here”?

There’s a conversation Jesus had with some of his followers that just might be my favorite of them all.  It was immediately after Jesus had said some things about himself that were a bit off-putting to some of his followers (including the words “eat me”).  These words were so off-putting in fact that upon hearing them, some of his followers became his ex-followers. (John 6:66)

Upon seeing some of his disciples pack it up and turn back, Jesus turns to those closer to Him and asks a simple question; not unlike the simple way I asked that employee today.  Jesus asked, “You want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67)

At that point Peter made a bold, definitive statement.  This was an “all in” statement if there ever was one: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  (John 6:68)

Just like that employee voiced his “anywhere but here” assessment of his day, Peter and the other disciples declared their “nowhere but here” desire to simply stay with Jesus.  He had proven Himself to them and their response to Him was a resolve to be nowhere else.