This post is written by a guest author, my wife, Carrie Kell.
“Dad, hey it’s me. I called to see if you know what you were doing 33 years ago today?”
“No, I don’t think I do. “
“You were looking at me for the first time.”
The silence was broken with a tearful voice, “You’d think I would remember that, huh? I guess it is August the 8th. Happy Birthday, Sis (he called me sis or sissy for as long as I can remember).
Dad actually never forgot my birthday. I wasn’t upset though, I knew he hadn’t been himself lately.
I had called him a few days earlier and he’d asked me (for the 3rd time) if I knew what “the baby growing in my belly was yet.” I reminded him it was a boy, and he was just as shocked and excited as he was the other two times I told him. I knew something wasn’t right.
What I didn’t know, however, is that the last time I would ever speak to my dad (perhaps for eternity) was on my 33rd birthday. I am forever thankful that I called and reminded him what day it was. His response was so sweet. He was emotional. I often wonder if he knew he was close to the end.
We were in Speculator, New York where Garrett was speaking at a family camp. We were there to relax and be reunited with some dear friends from Texas. I would need those friends that week more than I realized. The Lord’s timing always amazes me and encourages my faith.
Two days after we arrived, on August 10th, 2013 my sweet husband came to me in the dining area where I had just shared laughs with my friends. He led me by the hand into the hallway and said those words I’ll never forget, “Carrie, your dad died.”
My eyes widened in disbelief, but deep down I’d known something wasn’t right with him lately. But still, my dad? Mike Church? It just seemed so surreal.
You always know that your parents will die one day, but you can’t really grasp what that means before it happens. In fact, you can’t really grasp what it means after it happens. Losing those you love is very strange.
Mike and Me
My dad wasn’t like the dads my friends had growing up. Nor did he even come close to the kind of dad my children will have. But he was what God gave to me—and for that I am truly thankful.
In the early days of my life I remember curling up with him and falling asleep in his oversized red recliner he loved so much. He coached my sports teams, took us on vacations, and made sure to get us gifts we wanted at Christmas time. He tried to be a good dad, but he could only do that in his own strength for so long.
I was 11 when he left me, my mother, and my brother. He became a man of self-love and basically did as he pleased for the rest of his life. This kind of life with Mike Church wasn’t easy. There were years that he didn’t try to have a relationship with me, nor did he seem to care when I tried to have one with him. We were not his priority anymore. He was his own priority.
He thought this would make him happy. So he ran after it with all his heart, which is so sad, because it ended up being the very thing that made him so miserable and lonely. And it was my father’s misery that God used to soften my heart toward him.
The Changing of the Heart
When I was a freshman in college, the Lord convicted me about the way I felt toward my dad. Now you might think that I was angry at dad for what he had done to our family, but I wasn’t angry—I was apathetic. I seriously didn’t care. He had left us and I had no need to care about him.
The change began one evening after a conversation with a new friend. He wasn’t a Christian and was struggling to find happiness in his life. He’d been through hard things and was at a breaking point.
After my conversation with him, I went back to my dorm room with a heaviness like I had never experienced before. I began praying for him and pleading with God to save him. During that prayer I began to wonder how I could care so much about this person’s salvation, but not for my own father’s?
In many ways my new friend was much like my dad (he even shared his birthday). His self-centeredness didn’t make him easy to be friends with, but as he shared about his desire to find happiness, it softened me towards him. The Lord used that night to melt my heart and teach me not only what it meant to be broken over my friend’s salvation, but to begin to love my dad. Where my heart had once been so indifferent towards him, the Lord gave me a deep love for him. There is no explanation for this love except the grace of God.
A Father to the Fatherless
One of the first things God impressed on my heart was that if I was going to love my father, I was going to have to forgive all his sins against me. I had grown cold to the sting of those sins, but I knew they were there. In His mercy, God reminded me of how much He had forgiven me in Christ.
It was through this that God gave me grace to extend forgiveness to my father for all he had done to me. Jesus loved His enemies, and He called me to do the same (Luke 6:27-33). What I have found is that loving those who are difficult to love is only possible because the Lord does it for you as He works through you. My faith increased so much in those years, because I was certain the deep love I began to develop for my dad wasn’t my own love, it was the love Christ gave me.
The Lord also taught me that to love my father, my expectations would have to change. When I began to love him as a lost person and not a dad, it gave me freedom. I no longer expected Mike to be a real dad to me. He wouldn’t ever be that, unless God changed his heart. But this didn’t mean I would be without a father to care for me.
In Psalm 86:5 God promises that He would be a “Father to the fatherless.” Though my earthly father had abandoned me so many years ago, I have a heavenly Father who will never leave me or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6). God had promised to supply every need of mine according to the riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19), and making me His daughter is the greatest of those riches.
The good news of the Gospel isn’t only that Jesus forgives my sin through faith in Him (which is amazing), but that He gave me grace to love my dad and gave me assurance that God would forever be my Father.
The Prayer Unanswered
Though God changed my heart toward dad in college, my prayers for his salvation had begun long before that. I knew he was a lost man and desperately needed Christ, just like I did. I wanted him to have freedom from the life he lived and the pain and loneliness I could see so clearly. I also became convinced that I was his daughter for this very purpose (Acts 17:24-30).
Because the Lord had so changed my heart toward my dad, I really believed that eventually he would see his need for a Savior. I believed he would look back over his life, see where he had failed, and find hope and forgiveness in the only place he could—Jesus!
I prayed for this almost daily. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I was certain it would. I struggled to trust the Lord in other areas, but I was sure that the Lord would hear the cry of my heart and let me see my dad come to know Him!
Because of this hope, I shared the gospel with my Father often. A month before he died, I sat in his house in tears as I shared the importance of loving God, knowing Christ, and knowing his need for Christ’s forgiveness. He wasn’t convinced. It broke my heart, but not my faith.
That proved to be the last face-to-face conversation I had with my dad. We only spoke on the phone a handful of times after that day, including the day I reminded him of my birthday.
When dad died I was certainly sad, but even more so, I was confused. Why did I not see God save my dad? Why did God change my heart toward my dad if it weren’t for the purpose of seeing him believe? What did this mean about God’s character if twenty years of prayers for my dad’s soul weren’t answered?
Peace in the Unanswered Prayer
Though I have many unanswered questions, the Lord has given me peace. Though my prayers were not answered in the way I had envisioned, my heavenly Father loves me more than I can imagine and I know that all He does is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4).
1. I have no regrets.
By the end, dad knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me as much as he was able. Dad also knew the Gospel. I don’t always do this well with others, but the Lord gave many opportunities for me to share the love of Jesus with him and I truly believe there was nothing left I could have said.
Sure, our conversations weren’t always easy and I often walked away discouraged, but by God’s grace I have no regrets today because I shared the Gospel with him. This has served as a great encouragement for me that I will never regret sharing the Gospel with someone—especially once they are gone.
2. I have hope in God’s mercy.
Because I had shared the Gospel, I can rest in the fact that dad knew where to go for mercy if he wanted it. I don’t know what the last few days of dad’s life were like. I wasn’t there when he died. But I do know that as long as someone has breath, they can cry out to God who delights in saving those who seek Him, even if it is with their final breath (Luke 23:42-43).
This peace did not come quickly for me. There were many days and nights of praying and questioning since his death, but God’s mercy gives me hope, no matter what happens.
3. I have trust in God’s greatness.
Though I don’t know that I will see my dad again, I know that I can trust in the great love and wisdom of my heavenly Father. Once I am in His presence in heaven, I know I will lack nothing. In this I rest and in this I hope. Until that day, I will take my anxious heart to His Word and find comfort in truths like this,
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. 3O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” Psalm 131
Losing my dad has been a sorrowful journey and one that will change my life forever. But my sorrow has been put to rest because the Lord has quieted my soul. He will hold me fast. He will hold me fast.