Celebration Service

Thanks to the 1200+ who came to Susan’s celebration today, and the 500-600 last night.  Our family is overwhelmed by your love and compassion for us.  I wanted to share with you what I shared in person today at the service about the amazing woman Susan was.

“How do you summarize 40 years of a life in ten minutes?  How do you try to explain a relationship that lasted for 20 years, married for 15?  Susan was a planner to the end, and so she put together this service.  And she asked me to speak.  She said “you’re my husband, but you’re also my pastor”.  I will do my best to hold it together.  There are so many things I want to say that I am afraid I am not going to do her justice.

She was simply the most beautiful person I have ever known.  She made everything fun, she made everything bearable.  I would do anything if I knew she was going to be with me because she would always make it fun.  I remember giving up a week of my summer break after college one year because she talked me into working at a camp in the kitchen for a week.  We were serving meals, busing tables and scrubbing dishes, but I didn’t care because every time I looked up from scrubbing pots and pans I saw her sweet face and heard her laugh and it was so worth it.

I remember the very first time I saw her.  I was standing at the back of a room full of college freshmen the first week of school at UNC.  She was up front playing guitar and leading some singing for this campus ministry.  She came up and introduced herself to a couple of us, and I clearly remember her eyes and her smile.  She just sparkled, this beauty on the outside for sure, but also inside, from her heart.  It did not take me long that year to realize I was in love with this girl.

There was an honesty about her that was so refreshing.  I always said to people about Susan – “what you see is what you get”.  There are not many that this is true about, but it was true about her.  She was honest, real – it’s what made her so relatable.  I couldn’t help but want to be around her, and that’s what so many of you have said.  There was a truthfulness about her that was inspiring.  It’s like the line Jack Nicholson says in “As Good As It Gets” – “You make me want to be a better man.”  The day that she said yes to my proposal, the day that we married, right here in this church – were two of the happiest days of my life.  I knew early on – she always said I knew before she did – that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

She loved people.  She loved to make people feel good about themselves.  She was always so concerned about what other people were feeling.  She was so in tune with that.

She loved her kids.  Bailey, Christopher, Luke – her heart beat for you.  You need to remember that you received a lifetime of love from your mother.  She poured herself into you, she stopped working full time so she could care for you, she taught you, fed you, clothed you, picked up after you, cleaned up your messes, kissed and hugged you.  She had dreams for you, dreams you will realize.  To be great people, to love others, to have joy in your lives, and most importantly, to have a deep relationship with the God who loves you so much.  You need to hear from me that we are going to make it, that we are going to be OK.  Because we know now that mom is OK.

She loved her family.  Martha and Bill, she was fiercely devoted to you both.  She loved you and appreciated everything you gave her.  That really struck me early on in our relationship.  She knew the sacrifices you made for her, especially during her cancer.  Martha – it was amazing how you took care of her, of us, during this time.  You were her caretaker, her advocate, her chef, you fought for her when she couldn’t fight for herself, you held her in her arms when she was born, and you did something that no mother should have to do – you held her as she took her last breath.  And you did it with dignity and grace.  Now we know where Susan got those traits.

A lot of us are upset, a lot of you are upset.  I am too.  A beautiful woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, who died too young from an awful disease.  It is still hard to believe that it actually happened.  I – and we – am experiencing raw pain that I have honestly never experienced before.  It’s the kind that takes your breath away.  I believe that it’s OK to be upset, to be mad, at God.  As long as it’s not forever, and as long as it makes you bring your questions to Him, not stop talking to Him.

Here’s what I want you to know about Susan, though.  During the entire last three years, she never turned her back on God.  She never felt like He turned His back on her.  My friends Mike and George and Brett came over to pray with her one day awhile back, and she began telling them how even though her body was wasting away, that inside she was experiencing an intimacy with God that was incredible.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Many of us are asking why.   Why did this happen to someone like Susan?  How could she be in the place she was in?  She just had a glow around her these last few months.  So many people told me that.  Neighbors and friends who would visit her.  Nurses in the hospital.  They saw her glowing. They saw her beauty.  They saw what I saw the first time I saw her, shining so brightly through this frail body she had.

She had fixed her eyes on what is unseen.  Though outwardly she was wasting away, inwardly she was being renewed day by day.  And now she has received an eternal glory that outweighs all her troubles.  What did she fix her eyes on in her sickness?  The same thing she fixed her eyes on when she was well, when she was a teenager, when she was a child.  Jesus Christ.  She knew Him, and He did not abandon her.  If you want to know where God was during this whole thing, here is what I know because I saw it with my own eyes, I felt it every day I was with her – He was in her hospital room beside her, He was with her on the radiation table, He was holding her in the ICU, He was walking his daughter home.

Here is what I know she would want to ask all of you – do you have an intimate, life-changing, love relationship with Jesus Christ?  Do you know Him?  Because it’s easy to sit on the outside and wonder where God is.  But she knew the truth – God was there for her in ways I couldn’t be, or her family, or anyone.  He was there and He loved her and He had a plan in this.  She would want to – in her honest, gentle way – to encourage you to open up your own heart to this relationship.  If you are marveling at her strength, Susan would want you to know that her strength is actually God’s strength in her.  It’s what happens when you live a life surrendered.  A life where you try as much as you can to put yourself in His hands.  A life where you trust Him, no matter what.

Those beautiful eyes of hers were so bright because they were reflecting what she had fixed her spiritual eyes on – her Savior, her Lord, her First Love, her Jesus.

Her desire – my prayer – would be that before you leave today, you would consider how your life might be different if you opened your heart up to Him too.”









28 Responses to “Celebration Service”

  1. Sheryl Says:

    Thank you for writing this down for us!! Today’s service was beautiful and was so inspiring…I was trying to recall all you had shared and now I can read it and reflect on what God would have me to learn from Susan’s life!!! You are a gifted preacher and I am so thankful you agreed to talk today!!! Your family is in my prayers daily and will continue to be!!!!

  2. Jennifer Pearce Says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Jerel. I could not travel to the service, so reading your eulogy was my only connection. Thank you.

  3. Melissa Durham Says:


    I wrote on my wall earlier that Susan’s physical road was broken, but her eternal road to Him was not broken! I hope when and I know that in time yours and the kids wounds will heal because you have Our Almighty Savior Jesus Christ in your life and He is going to mend your broken roads too! We will continue to love and pray for you and your family!

    Love the Durham’s (Bob, Melissa, Megan and Autumn)

  4. megan main britt Says:

    This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Thank you, Jerel, for being real, for being honest, and for sharing so much about the incredible life that Susan lived. Your genuine spirit and grace toward others is a model that ought to be emulated by all who call themselves a pastor.
    Susan’s love for Christ was the ultimate example for all of us, you captured her so well through your words today. I pray that Susan’s amazing, steadfast, and full dependance on Him will continue to impact me, as well as many others, for years to come. Thank you for continuing to be a pastor to all of us, even in the midst of your own heartache, your love for Him is clearly evident. praying for all of you with much love!

  5. Hillary Haynes Says:

    these words are so beautiful, and even though I never met Susan, I know she is pleased and proud. I know God is with you all and will continue to be. I am and will continue to lift you all up in prayers, God bless you and your family as you go through this very hard time in your life!

  6. Misty Says:

    Absolutely perfect in every way. God bless you and your family, near and far, here and in heaven.

    Love, The Nielsons

  7. Misty Dove Says:


    That was so amazingly beautiful and what makes it even more beautiful is that it was true. Wow, Susan would be so proud of all of you! I know all to well how raw and deep your pain and hurt are at this moment. My prayers will continue to be with you and your entire family!

    Much love,


  8. Philip Keefer Says:

    I just wanted to thank you for speaking at the service today and sharing your thoughts of Susan. I can’t imagine how hard it was for you but your commitment to Susan and to the Lord was very evident — in your words and throughout the entire service.
    I’m a friend of Susan’s from “back in the day” at FBC youth group. I met you at one of the youth group “reunions” we had a couple years ago (and we have mutual friends in David and Jennifer Mowrey). As everyone did, I have fond memories of Susan from those days — she was a very sweet girl; a truly genuine person.
    I thought the celebration service for her today was beautiful … the family and friends who spoke did a great job. I know she inspired a lot of people and I know you’re proud and thankful for that.
    I came across a verse on Saturday that I prayed for you all and then I heard that she had gone to heaven that next day.
    Psalm 90:14 “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.”
    You and your family will continue to be in my prayers. We know the HOPE Susan had IS real. Hold on to that until we see her again. God bless you.

  9. lori childress Says:

    Wow. . . what a tribute to our Savior and a life filled with His love and excellence. Joe and I got struck with the stomach flu and were heartbroken to miss the funeral, so thank you for writing this so we can be a part of this. You all are family in Christ. . . and we will continue to walk with you, pray for you, and cry out to God for healing for you. Your love for Susan was brilliant, and Christ’s work in your family is so pure and true. . . just like the Savior Himself. You know our Lord never wastes our pain and suffering. We love you and pray Jesus holds you close to His heart right now.

  10. Rhonda L Says:

    Thank you for finding these amazing words of comfort even while you are in so much pain. Susan will continue to inspire……….

  11. Kyle Caddell Says:

    Jerel…….your words today were very inspiring and a great tribute to an amazing woman. I also believe Susan’s desire for those in attendance to examine their relationship with Christ was achieved. My connection to Susan is through her brother and your brother in law Brian, a long time friend and my college roommate at Carolina. It has been evident through my recent conversations with Brian how much of a rock you have been for the entire family. As my wife Robin and I have read your blog each night, we hurt for you and your family and are also inspired by your Christian witness. The presence of Christ in the life of you and your family is evident. It is a great example to all. Thanks for sharing during such a difficult time.

    Your children have an incredible legacy left behind by their Mom. It will be a gift to them for the rest of their life. My dad passed away when I was a year old. While I was very young, I still grew up to know him because of the great stories that my extended family told about him. Because of the life Susan led and the person she was, you no doubt have an abundance of great stories to continue to share. We pray that God’s presence sustain you and your family now.

    We will also pray for your children…the product of two very special people!

  12. Stephanie Kluttz Says:

    I have been praying for your family since seeing a posting about Susan on a friend’s facebook page. I am deeply sorry for your loss will keep you all close in prayer. The words you shared from the service today are simply beautiful and amazing a wonderful testament to a wonderful person who meant so much to so many. May God continue to keep His loving arms wrapped around you all as you travel this journey together.

  13. Beth Crigler Says:

    What a beautiful service today. I wish I had met Susan years ago, as clearly she was as close to perfect as you can get. I am grateful that I got to see first hand the very real sparkle in her eyes. You and your family will continue to be in my prayers.

  14. Greg Bennett Says:


    Today’s celebration of Susan was nothing short of absolutely inspiring. I did not get a chance yet to see you face to face since Susan passed, but have followed much of what has been written by you and Susan in the blogs over the last year or so. I have been deeply saddened by your loss and at the same time inspired by the display of courage and grace.

    Not only has Susan, to use your words, “made you a better man”, but her story and your family’s strength, courage, and down-to earth humor will inspire many men to honor their family and especially their wives as you have. God has given each of us the instruction book, but to see it happening right before us for all who are watching to see is like witnessing Jesus in action through your example. Wow. I saw something different modeled as I was a young boy/man observing my father’s example. My wife too has made me a better man, but as iron sharpen iron, seeing your example lived out for everyone around to witness is inspiring me to be a better man.

    The Lord’s fingerprints are all over this in that God’s promise (Romans 8:28) is being played out all over the place in this tragedy. Thank you Jerel, and each of those who knew Susan best for showing those of us who were briefly touched by her, a closer look at a life well lived by a sweet woman who is well loved and will be well remembered.

    Please know that we are praying hard in my family for you and especially for your sweet children. I have something to give you that might help add “sweetness” to the sour feelings that will be present at times in the youngsters when you are all really missing Susan. When Amy was very sick, I was pretty much a solo parent for about three years while she eventually has recovered and we are now a team again. There are simple things we do to inject fun and sweetness into tough situations and reach out to me when things calm a bit and I can pass it along 704-488-2831.

    Wishing you the best in Christ,


  15. Kyle Wallace Says:


  16. Melissa Durham Says:

    It was a beautiful service yesterday and thank you for sharing the beautiful words that you expressed to us and your family of what a beautiful women Susan was inside and out…


  17. Lynn Marshall Says:

    Jerel – the service was a beautiful celebration of a life well lived. It captured her love of fun, of life, love for her family and friends but most of al her love for her God. Susan was the most genuinely sweet person I have ever known and her memory and legacy she has left will not be forgotten. We are praying for God’s comfort to envelope your family.

  18. Christie Says:

    How great is our God! I am so challenged and encouraged as I read this. I was pointed to this blog on Dec 30th by a friend of a friend’s friend and have been praying for your family during these days, but my husband and I have had the bigger blessing by hearing this part of your family’s story and how God has worked in this beautiful lady’s life. This blog is simply beautiful as heart-wrenching as it is. What a gift she gave as she shared so well about such difficult things. Thank you for sharing this from the celebration service. We continue to pray for you, your children and family and continue to be so encouraged by hearing of God’s faithfulness and love during such an unimaginable time. I’m so sorry for your loss, but so grateful for the God who sustains and comforts as only He can.

  19. rich henderson Says:


    I just heard the news from Kathy Rowlett. I’m so sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you and the family. And you are certainly in my prayers. May you have the grace to grieve and celebrate indeed.

    Rich Henderson

  20. brandi rabon Says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing. You have a gift for communicating and your words of adoration & love for Susan are blessing so many, even in your pain. Jay & I will continue praying for you & your children.

    Brandi Rabon

  21. Jill Angell Reynolds Says:

    Jerel, this is so amazing and you delivered it so well yesterday. Thank you for these words. Susan McKnight also did a wonderful job…all of the speakers did. I would love to have a copy of what she said as well if there is any way you could post her remarks. Yesterday was such an amazing tribute to an amazing woman who was so very loved.

  22. Meghan Says:

    Jerel,we don’t know each other but we have a mutual friend who has been sharing Susan’s story on Facebook…I am so sorry for your loss and my heart goes out to you & your beautiful children. In time, I pray that your hearts heal, her bad days fade and you are all left with beautiful memories of a woman who was your wife, obviously your best friend and a wonderful mother.

  23. Shannon Huneycutt Says:

    Incredible words. It was simply one of the most beautiful things I have every read. I wish I could have been there with all of you to hear these wonderful words being spoken. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  24. Holly Wilder Says:

    Jerel, Bert and I were honored to be there yesterday and hear your words. You are a wonderful writer and speaker. I know Susan would be so proud of you. I hope you can feel the prayers of the saints b/c we are certainly praying!! Lots of love to you and the kids.

  25. lisa Nageotte Says:

    I do not have the perfect words, but you and your family are so deeply in my thoughts and prayers. I have many friends at school that know your family well. They hurt, and love you all so much. I am hurting for you, and I will continue to to be touched by your story. Your wife was clearly an angel, and I am sad that I never got to know her. Your beautiful words paint an awesome picture of who she really was. Thank you for helping others and never losing faith.

  26. Susan Ballard Says:


    You delivered such amazing words of Susan’s beautiful character at her service. I learned new things about her and am so thankful and moved by that. I am hurting and praying for your family. Susan was a person like no other…truly a servant of the Lord.

    Love, Susan

  27. Sue K Says:

    Jerel –
    You, Susan, and your children are an inspiration to families everywhere. I admire Susan’s strength and pray that I can be half the woman that she was. Your devotion to her is clearly evident in your postings. You have been given the gift of eloquent expression. I hope that you continue to use your gift to spread the Word. You all are in my thoughts and prayers…

  28. Pam Gustafson Lusk Says:

    Wow! That was so powerful Jerel! Your and Susan’s story and relationship has inspired me. We are so sorry for your loss.
    Your family is on our prayers.
    I have been following your updates and you have done an incredible job honoring Susan!
    May you continue to feel the Lord’s loving arms around you and your family during this time.
    In Him,

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