I had planned the Celebration of Life service very carefully.
I knew who I wanted to speak, who I wanted to perform, and which artist I wanted to paint pictures while the service went on. Tom Clark was an artist I knew through Saddleback. I didn’t tell him what to paint. I trusted him enough to know that whatever he did would be perfect.
In the notice about the service, we asked people to dress in bright colors. Jessie would not have wanted people in all black. I wore my NEGU T-shirt with Jessie’s signature — though I did wear a suit jacket over it — and many others wore their TeamNEGU shirts. I had asked the people who were speaking to type up their comments so that, in the event they were too emotional to speak, a “backup person” could read for them. I, too, had a backup person.
The stage was lined with JoyJars containing flowers. As the service started, I noticed that everyone was looking solemn, and the room fell quiet. Even with more than five thousand people in attendance, there was total silence.
“This is just way too silent for Jess, so turn to somebody and give them a hug,” I started. After thanking them for attending, I told them, “Today we are going to do two things. We are going to celebrate Jessie, and we are going to celebrate Jesus.”
Youth pastor Kurt Johnson read three of Jessie’s favorite verses, starting with Philippians 4:13, then Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” And Philippians 4:4-9.
Papa spoke about Jessie’s faith and her caring nature. “Gale Sayers wrote a book called I Am Third. God is first, family is second, and I am third,” he said. “Jessie’s book would be I Am Fourth. God is first, family is second, everyone else is third, and I am fourth.”
Tanta spoke next about Jessie’s love of music and how we were all searching for our “brighter days” now that Jessie had found hers in heaven. “In the music world I’ve often heard it said, ‘I only use the good notes.’ Jessie was all the good notes.”
When everyone else was finished, I spoke about how I thought God had taught us three lessons through Jessie: to love compassionately, to laugh constantly, and to live courageously.
“Because of her life, I’m confident last Thursday morning she heard her heavenly Father say, ‘Well done, good and faithful little servant of mine! You have been so faithful with spreading my hope, joy, and love; I will put you in charge of many things here — like making heavenly JoyJars. Come and share my happiness! I’m so glad you are home now, my sweet girl.’
“Many years ago Jessie made the most important decision in life — she asked Jesus into her heart. Have you?”
I then invited Rick Warren to the stage, and he gave a sermon in which he talked about the perfection of heaven and how the only way to get there was through a relationship with Jesus.
“Do you know God the way Jessie did? If you don’t, you need to start getting to know him tonight,” Pastor Rick said.
Then he asked people to pray along with him, to invite God into their hearts, accepting Jesus as their Savior and asking for eternal life.
Those who had never said this prayer before were asked to stand with their heads bowed while Pastor Rick said a blessing for them. More than two hundred people stood up and committed their lives to Jesus that day.
In addition to the five thousand people who came to the service, another four thousand watched it online in real time, and countless others have watched it since then. How many others were saved because of Jessie?
I had thought my daughter’s biggest impact on the world had to do with her JoyJars, but I started seeing something else that day — maybe it was part of the answer I was seeking. More than two hundred people had just been given a home in heaven because of Jessie. That’s some legacy. She cared so much about helping people — what could be better than helping them have eternal life?
People had told me that in time, we would heal. We would start to forget and things would go back to normal, but I didn’t ever want to forget. So at the end of the service, I prayed that we would never be the same again. “God, thank you for this celebration, and let it never end in our hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Watch the Video for Never Ever Give Up
Excerpted with permission from Never Ever Give Up by Erik Rees, copyright Zondervan.
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Have you had a deep loss in your life, a death even, that God used for His glory more than you could have imagined? Have you been changed by loss and grief? Have you let the Lord use your griefs as an opportunity to share the Gospel with others and ask them, “Do you know God?” Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you!