My Tribute to My Mother

As you may know, Pastor J.D.’s mother, Carol, passed away on Monday, April, 11. The following are the words he shared at her celebration of life service on Friday, April 15 at our Capital Hills campus. You can watch the full service here.

—Chris Pappalardo, Editor

My Tribute to My Mother 

First, I want to thank you all for the love and care you’ve shown for my family during this time. The outpouring of love has been … overwhelming. I think our family’s greatest privilege is to be a part of this church: the care and kindness you show is a testimony to the Holy Spirit at work in you.

It’s been a very difficult week. It’s strange to have two such strong, conflicting emotions at the same time:

  • One is joy—genuine joy—at what I know my mother is experiencing right now. She loved and longed for Jesus! She talked about him for my whole life, and taught me and my sister, from as early as I can remember, that wisdom compels us to number our days and that only the fool lives for the 70 or so years they get on earth and not for eternity. And now I know her faith has been made sight. A friend of mine said to me, “She gets to celebrate this Easter in the presence of Jesus!” What is that like? We’re all—those of us at The Summit Church—we’re all going to be at the amphitheater at Walnut Creek on Sunday, which is going to be great, but she’s going to have the best seat in the house.
  • The other emotion is this hollow, gnawing sadness. A mother’s love is unlike anything else in all creation. My mother was the first person I ever remember loving. And she was the first and most consistent evidence of God’s goodness toward me. There’s this contemporary Christian song by Josh Baldwin out right now that says, “All throughout my history, your faithfulness has walked beside me//I see the evidence of God’s goodness, all over my life, all over my life.” That song came on in the days leading up to my mother’s death and it hit me like a tsunami wave that my mother was the first evidence, the first manifestation, of God’s goodness in my life. (The irony, btw, is that she wouldn’t really have liked that song. She wasn’t a fan of all that contemporary Christian music with the rock beat and everything. I always teased her that when she got to heaven, it was going to be a lot noisier than she preferred; she was convinced the organ would feature a lot more prominently than I accounted for). I told her, “We’ll see.”

My mother came to faith, or at least, found the assurance of it, shortly before I was born, and so I had the privilege of growing up at the feet of a brand new Christian for whom everything was new, who was just full of wonder and excitement about Jesus. 

It is impossible to overstate the blessing that a godly mother is in your life.

  • At every point of my life, she was there, cheering me on, believing in me. The thing I will probably remember most and cherish most about her is that no one ever believed in me as much as she did. In many ways, I just became the man she always said and believed I would become.
  • And she was always so in touch with the Holy Spirit. She’d get up in the middle of the night to pray for me, sometimes unaware of what I was going through, just aware that she needed to pray. When I was 17, she woke up in the middle of the night 10 minutes before I was in the worst car wreck of my life, just aware that she needed to pray for me. She did that for many of you, too. Dad says he frequently would wake up in the middle of the night, and she’d be out of the bed, and he’d find her in the living room and she’d say, “I just knew I needed to pray for …”
  • I remember the Sunday morning I got called to serve as pastor here. I preached the—I guess what they call the “trial sermon”—back at the old Homestead Heights building, because of course that was the only building we had at that point, and after the message, they took me and my family down to the office area so they could conduct the vote. And we sat there for a few minutes and then we heard this huge cheer, and it was obvious they had either decisively voted no, or voted yes, and I remember my mom suddenly getting all teary and saying, “Son, don’t let this ruin you. Don’t let this go to your head. Just stay close to Jesus. Just obey him.”
  • She spoke words of warning and encouragement and faith to me when she had no way of knowing what was going on in my heart. It was supernatural.

And my mother lived this way, seemingly, without the slightest recognition of how specially anointed she was. I think no one saw the virtues in others more, and herself less, than she did. Not long ago I preached a message on prayer in which I referred to her as one of the greatest prayer warriors I’ve ever known—because she was—and after the message, she said to me, “Oh no, please don’t say that. I wish I were worthy of that, but I’m not.” 

This week as so many of you have reached out to talk about the impact she had on you—there are a lot of people who think of her as a second mother or a mother in ministry. Her home was always open. We always had random people staying with us. Showing up at odd hours. Spending the holidays with us. All these other people called my parents “mom and dad,” and occasionally, I was like, “But for real, they are my mom and dad.” I got a note from Derrick DeLain on Monday, one of our church planters up in Nashville, Tennessee, and he said, “You know I was in your mom’s biology class at Piedmont, and she is a huge reason why I am in the ministry today.” And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say things like that.

And she was mostly oblivious to all of this. I think my mother exemplified 1 Peter 3:4, “Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

Her obedience was not noisy. She was one of the most capable people I’ve ever known—she was so smart, she graduated summa cum laude in her college and post-grad work—and she was so organized and efficient, but she devoted her life to me and my sister, my dad, to caring for single moms in crisis and the elderly at our church, and to mentoring young men and women for ministry. And she did all this mostly behind the scenes, in obscurity.

For those of you at The Summit Church, I can tell you that if you are blessed by my ministry, it’s because of a faithful mother who kept her eyes on eternity and quietly served Jesus as faithfully in the small things as much as any saint has done in the bigger ones.

I know and trust the Bible because she taught it to me. I know what faithfulness and selflessness look like in marriage because she lived it out in front of me. I love the local church because she showed me what it looked like to love it. I always say the only drug problem I ever had growing up was being drug to church—we were there five days a week it seemed. And that’s because she loved it. And she taught me to love it. I think in big part I became a preacher because everywhere we went when I was a kid, she had BBN playing in our car, so I drove around listening to preaching. As a kid, I didn’t know a lot of pop music singers, like the other kids did, but I could identify the voices of Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, and J. Vernon McGee in just two syllables.

I was the arrow my mother drew back on the bowstring of faith and launched out into the world. (One of the conversations with her I remember most was when I believed God was calling me into the ministry, specifically to the overseas mission field. Up until that time I was thinking of going into law, and I was scared …)

Mom’s walk with Jesus began about 49 years ago when she and my dad moved from West Virginia to Winston-Salem, and they started to casually attend a church there where they came under the preaching of a man named Dr. E.C. Sheehan. Mom had never heard the gospel presented that way. To her dying day, she could scarcely talk about Dr. Sheehan without getting teary. He was her spiritual father. Many of you don’t know this, but Chris Gaynor, our pastor of prayer, who is leading this service, is Dr. Sheehan’s grandson.

And so what I have received from her is a legacy of gospel faithfulness. Quiet faithfulness done only for Jesus, but that resonates loudly through me, and through my children, and, Lord willing, through their children, and through many of you, for all eternity. This morning, during my time with God, he gave me this verse: Isaiah 61:9, “Her descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” For many of us in this room, we are spiritual descendants of my mom, and we will be known among the nations and peoples of the earth as a people who are blessed, and we will be a blessing to those people. 

My mom loved 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than that my children walk in the truth.” You are her legacy. You are her great reward and her great hope.

She leaves a void—one I can scarcely describe—and I know not just in my life but in many of yours, too. 

  • In my life: People talk about what a beautiful smile she seemed to always have on her face. That smile was often directed to me, and I know I’ll never see it again this side of eternity.
  • In the life of my kids: The morning that she passed, I drove home from the hospital—she’d passed away at about 4 a.m., and I wanted to be there to tell my kids when they got up. The kids were pretty upset and my 12-year-old son, Adon, getting ready to walk out the door to go to school, said, “What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?” To which Veronica said, “We’ll still have those.” He took two steps and then paused. “Without grandma? How?” She leaves a void.
  • And a big one in the life of my dad. People say my mom had a glow about her that came from two things: knowing Jesus and being married to my dad.

One of the greatest privileges of my life was being with my dad in my mom’s final hours. Hearing him talk to her. Watching him grieve over her. Encouraging her that it was OK to let go and go on to be with Jesus. I knew it was a sacred moment, one that many men never get to experience, and one I will never forget.

After the doctor had told us that she just had a few hours left, my sister and I left the room so my dad could have a few minutes with her, and I’ll never forget seeing my dad on his knees in front of her, head buried in her lap, talking to her, and stroking her hand, and weeping before her; I knew I was seeing the culmination of two people devoted to each other for a lifetime, 52 years of marital faithfulness, who lived out the gospel to each other and in front of me and my sister.

In the final moments before my mom died, my dad and sister and I were with her, just holding her hand, and as she struggled for her last breaths, a small tear formed in her eye. I don’t know what caused it, but my dad took a Kleenex and dried it, and three or four minutes later, she was gone. And all I could think about was that the next hand that touched her face … was a nail-scarred one, who wiped away her final tear. And I told my dad, “That was the last tear she’ll ever shed.”

“And Lord haste the day when my faith shall be sight//the clouds be rolled back as a scroll//the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend//it is well; it is well with my soul.”

“For eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has even entered into the heart of man, the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”

We haven’t lost her, family; we haven’t lost her, friends; we’ve just lost contact with her, and only for a little while. We love you, mom—it’s Good Friday, but Resurrection Sunday is only a couple of days away—so we’ll see you again real soon.