Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Last year, I wrote the below essay about the passing and funeral of Caleb Koke, the 17-year old son of my longtime friends Rob and Laura Koke. Caleb passed away in a car accident on July 14th, 2009. Today is the one-year anniversary of Caleb's passing, which his parents refer to as the day that Caleb was "relocated to Heaven." I have been incredibly moved by the stories behind this boy's life, and the amazing faith and courage that his parents have shown in the face of this unimaginable loss.
Hi Friends and Family,
I am writing to share something with you that I have desired to share with you for some time now. I have taken a lot of time to put this message together, as I wanted to craft these words very carefully.
This is something that happened very recently, and it has had an extraordinary impact on my life, and in particular, on my personal faith. Like most of the correspondence I send, this is a bit long.
But if you read nothing else from me this year, please read this.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 14th, I received news of the death of Caleb Koke, the 17-year old son of our friends Rob and Laura Koke. While driving home early that morning, Caleb fell asleep at the wheel, ran into a tree, and passed away at the scene. I know many of you have heard about this, and have been in prayer for this family.
My family and I were utterly shattered to hear this news. Caleb’s mother, Laura, was one of my sister Julie’s best friends in high school, and spent countless hours at our house in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I was in elementary school at the time, and thought that Laura hung the moon and quite possibly the stars as well. She was a cool, beautiful teenager. I was a goofy and probably over-eager 10-year old, but Laura never made me feel that way. She treated me like a sister and made me feel cool too. She also made no bones about her deep love of Jesus, which I found so intriguing as a child, and which, in retrospect, was very likely instrumental in planting the early seeds of my Christian faith. After all, she made loving Jesus seem pretty darn cool.
Throughout the years, Laura has remained a dear friend to our family. While pregnant with Caleb, she was a bridesmaid in Julie’s wedding. She sent beautiful correspondence to us following my father’s stroke. She and my Mom had a very special relationship, and indeed, Laura was with my family for several hours in the ICU hospital room on what would be the last day of my mother’s life. She is now a regular customer at the restaurant where I work, and our conversations there invariably seem to turn to our mutual faith in Christ.
As a family, we don’t see Laura often, but she is a vital part of our history, and she, her husband Rob, and her children are very special to us. The news of Caleb’s death left us all utterly heartsick.
Upon hearing of Caleb’s passing, my sister Julie made immediate arrangements to fly to Austin from Atlanta. Julie’s life is not an easy one from which to pick up and leave, but there was no question or hesitation on her part. She was coming to Austin. Period. Together, we attended Caleb’s funeral on Friday, July 17th. The service was held at Shoreline Christian Center, the church at which Rob and Laura are the founders and co-pastors.
I would like to share with you what I witnessed there.
Because I cannot shake the things that I saw and heard at this funeral.
And I pray that I never do.
I watched this grieving family walk into their church as the worship band played and sang “Everlasting God”:
Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord,
Wait upon the Lord,
We will wait upon the Lord…
As they took their places on the front row, the song continued:
You are the Everlasting God…
You’re the Defender of the weak,
You comfort those in need,
You lift us up on wings like eagles…
And then, I saw Rob and Laura raising their hands in praise of God.
Now, let me be clear. These parents were grieving intensely. I had visited with both of them the night before at the Visitation for Caleb. They were shattered. They were heartbroken. Their grief was new and severe and raw and real. Their pain was unfathomably, inexpressibly deep. Their tears flowed freely. And yet, here at their son’s funeral, they praised God.
I watched as they praised the God who now held their son.
I watched as Caleb’s 20-year old brother Luke and 15-year old sister Danielle courageously spoke individual eulogies over their brother. Both told stories that you would recognize from your own family – stories of good family times and family trips. Stories of basketball court rivalries between brothers. Stories about a big brother who included, loved, and defended his little sister. Stories that demonstrated how their sibling relationships were now transforming into deep and abiding friendships. But what struck me the most were the promises that Luke and Danielle made to their parents, Luke vowing “to be strong and be the rock for our family” and to “always love you and protect you”, and Danielle promising to “be strong for you and love you ten times more.”
These are sentiments that I recognized from my own life. When you grow up in a home in which you are deeply loved, and you see your parents in pain – when you are confronted with their humanity, their vulnerability – you want to love them through life’s heartache the way that they have loved you through yours. You want to reciprocate the amazing love that has been lavished upon you. I watched as the Koke children showed us just how deeply they had been loved.
I watched as Rob and Laura took to the altar to speak to the thousands who had come to mourn their son. I listened as they spoke of a pain so deep and of a loss so jarring in its suddenness and randomness, that they could not find words to express it. I listened as they spoke of a son who was “beautiful”, “loyal”, “tender-hearted”, and “so easy to love”. Of a boy who was a cool and popular star athlete, but who was so very much more than that: a young man who cherished family and friends, who was growing in his faith, who had recently given his entire suitcase of clothes away while on a mission trip, who boldly shared the love of Christ with others, and who was just beginning to consider a future in full-time ministry.
More remarkably, I listened as Laura and Rob spoke of the faithfulness of God throughout this unimaginable grief. About His presence and His promises, and how very, very real they are. That He promises to be “close to the brokenhearted and save those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18), and that He will turn our “wailing into dancing” (Psalm 30:11). Finally, they shared of a “deep-seated joy in knowing that Caleb is with Jesus”, and that even in the throes of their devastation, it was well with their souls.
Peace in the midst of pain. Mercy in the midst of mourning. Hope in the midst of despair.
There is no rational explanation for this. This is not logical. This does not make earthly sense.
There is only one explanation for this:
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is true.
It has to be.
In fact, I’ve never been more sure of it.
Which is interesting, because the death of a gifted, beautiful 17-year old boy who was on the cusp of his life – a life he would have most certainly spent serving Jesus faithfully and being a light to this dark and broken world – leaves me bewildered and angry. And in my worst moments, questioning God’s wisdom.
And yet, I trust Him. I do trust Him. And it makes me trust Him even more when I see a family walk through a fire like this with such faith in God’s goodness. It makes me want to love God more, know Him better, trust Him like never before.
Put simply, I have been changed – really changed – by this. And I just had to let you know.
I will leave you with Rob’s final words to us at Caleb’s funeral. They are, indeed, words to live by – words that I am going to strive to live out: “I’m gonna ask you to honor Caleb’s life by adding a little bit more tenderness to your life, a little more loyalty to your family, a little bit more fight against adversity, a little bit more commitment to giving your best, and a little bit more love for God. And if you do that, you’ll honor the purpose that God put Caleb on this planet for. And maybe at the end of the day, also honor God.”
Thank you for listening.
Love you all,