My family has a lot of stories about my brother that we love to share. I’d like to share a few stories here about David’s giving heart. I believe that the ways David gave to church, missions, and people in need stored up for himself treasures in heaven. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We remember so many examples of how David gave his time and money to things that had eternal value. These inspire us to ask ourselves, “Am I being selfish with my money or giving to others in need? Am I giving towards the work of the gospel so more people can know Jesus’ love for them?”
When David was about 10 years old, our church, Brookville Road Community Church, was preparing to build an addition to our building because we had outgrown our sanctuary. Today our church has grown because of the building addition that we finally moved into in 2005. But back then the church family had to figure out how to finance this growth. Our dad, Pastor Hubert, shared the vision of the new sanctuary, Cafe, Playland, nurseries, etc. that would need to be built, and he challenged the congregation members to consider doing something to earn extra money to give towards the building campaign. My brother was only 10 years old at the time, but he wrote down on a card that he would give $800 for the new building.
When my dad saw that he wrote down $800, he asked Dave where he was going to get this money. They brainstormed and finally came up with the project: my brother, along with Mom and Dad, would paint my grandparents’ fence posts because Grandpa was looking to hire someone to paint them.
They worked several days in the heat of the summer to paint the fence posts. When they were finished, Grandpa wrote them a check for $1,000. Dad told David that he would give the $800 to the building campaign.
Then David said, “Dad, I was thinking about the other $200. Do you think it would be okay if—“
Dad thought he knew what David was going to say. He thought he would ask if it was okay if he took the $200 and bought a new video game system or some other fun thing for himself. Dad was prepared to tell him yes because he was already so proud of him for working hard to give this money to the new church building.
But Dave had a different idea.
He said, “Dad, do you think it would be okay if I gave the other $200 to Pastor Tele and the missions in Brazil?”
Dad nodded his head and smiled, “Yeah, Dave, I think that would be okay.”
A few weeks after David passed away, Pastor Tele saw my dad and told him a story that none of us had known. While he was still in college, David went on a missions trip with Dad to Brazil. There he met a man who worked in maintenance at the church in Brazil, and he met his young daughter who was about 7 years old. David became friends with him and realized he could not afford to send his daughter to the Christian international school for her to get a good education. David responded to a scholarship request from the international school for this young girl. He told Pastor Tele that he couldn’t do much, but he had his savings, and the Lord was asking him to help with this family. David paid $700 toward this young girls studies to allow her to attend that school.
A lady named Malissa Terry spoke with me after David’s celebration of life service. I had known Malissa from VBS, and she works with my friend at a Christian daycare. I didn’t realized that she and David had served together when David was serving in the Yeshua Society, which is a ministry serving people in impoverished areas in Indianapolis. I loved the way Malissa talked of how David took her teenage son under his wing and how he encouraged her to be a leader. I also loved the story she shared about how David realized a lady didn’t have a carseat for her baby, so David drove to Walmart at night and bought the carseat with his own money.
I want you to read Malissa’s words she wrote about David: “David served God in ministry in such a quiet, faithful, loving, way. I am honored to have served for about 3 years alongside David in an outreach ministry, and I, along with my son Christian both have so many fond, and hilarious memories of David Nolen. David used to take Christian to play basketball and although Christian was really good... David was better and would not LET Christian beat him! It was funny because Christian would talk so much smack and David would grin his great big grin and just shake his head, ‘No... It ain't gonna happen.’ And it didn't! David made Christian try his best, he pulled the best out of him, and I was grateful.
David sat with me and Pastor Mo Wildey all night long in the ER with Christian one night. He was cheerful at 3 am, in the waiting room. We talked about the miracles of God, the Azusa Street conference that we both watched... He was as excited as I was about the move of the Holy Spirit, the prophetic words that came forth during the conference. We almost had church in that waiting room!
David taught a Bible study one night at the outreach ministry that really inspired me. Afterwards, when we talked, he offered to send me his study notes. I was amazed. That ministry was an outreach of Brookville Road Community Church, it came to the apartments where I lived, many of us had broken homes, living in poverty. I came from day one, and God kept me coming, and I served in any capacity that I could. The entire time, David treated me with so much kindness, and respect. ( I used to tell him I could tell he had big sisters!) He didn't look at my circumstances. I'm guessing he just saw me as a person that also loved Jesus. He sent me his study notes and discussed them with me as a colleague, an equal. I will never forget that, and I still have that email. There's that saying, people will forget what you said, or did but will never forget how you made them feel. Nothing could be more true. I felt respected, important, and special to God when I was around David, and I believe everyone he encountered did. After I gave a 15 min message once, David told me that I had touched all 5 principles (or something like that) of writing a sermon. I did? He said, yep I learned that in Bible college... We laughed because I had no idea, I just followed the guidance of Holy Spirit. He laughed and said, yeah God gave you something that I had to go to college to get! Lol.
One night a young lady had no way home because she did not have a car seat for her little baby. She was stranded at the Bible study and could not ride the church van home without one. Some people left and told us good night, but 24-year-old David was not going to leave without helping this lady and her baby. David asked me where he could buy a car seat at that time of night. He never hesitated—he looked it up online on his phone, asked Christian to go with him, and they ran to Walmart at 9:30 at night, and David bought this girl a car seat for her baby with his own money. He never brought it up again, he didn't complain about it, he saw a need and he just filled it cheerfully because that was his heart. He truly had the heart of Jesus like no one I've ever known. By the way, not sure what type of shenanigans occurred on that trip because him and Christian came back cracking up laughing and wouldn't tell me why!
The last time we saw David was at The Hope Center Indy. He and Christian took off and went to his office, talked about tennis shoes and basketball and they made themselves the most giant frappuccino shakes with a ton of whipped cream and they had a ball. I thanked him over and over for all the time he spent with Christian and just for being the amazing person that he was. We will miss him so much, and I pray for the hearts of his family, his Brookville Road and Hope Center family, for the comfort and peace of the Great Comforter to miraculously strengthen and comfort you all. After all, one of David's favorite things to witness was the miracles of God!❤️”
One more story that is special to my nieces: One year, when Raegan was about 3 and Rylee was about 5, David brought them gifts on Valentines Day. He was probably only 18 or 19 at the time, but he wanted to do something sweet for his nieces. He had bought them balloons and flowers and surprised them with a special Valentine’s Day gift from their Uncle Dave. We love the picture of David with Rylee and Raegan because Dave was so happy to give them this gift, and the girls were thrilled to receive it. :)
Psalm 23:6 says, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
My brother passed away in the middle of the night from complications from the open-heart surgery he had two weeks prior. The surgeon had said everything went smoothly. I sat in the family waiting room and heard for myself the surgeon say those words. I walked with Dave around the unit at the hospital while he was recovering. I had snapped a photo of David and Stephanie in his hospital room. He had gone home from the hospital because they said he was recovering well.
I took guacamole to him and Stephanie in their apartment. I hugged him and kissed his cheek when I walked into his apartment with the guacamole. In the last several years I had often made guacamole for Dave and me to eat while we were on the Daniel fast, so I remembered that he liked it. We chatted for awhile that day, and then I hugged him and kissed his cheek when I left.
I didn’t know that was going to be my last time to see David on earth.
No one expected this.
I got the news at about 3:30am. Our family gathered together at that hour. It still feels too private and personal to share the emotions of those moments. I can’t really describe it. It was so unreal. I was in so much shock—I kept shaking my head and couldn’t stop thinking, “Dang it,” and “What the heck? He was just right here.” Nothing made sense. Seeing my parents’ devastation broke my heart even more. I know every parent loves their child, but I knew how immensely my parents love my brother. He was their baby and their only son. They delighted in him so much. They laughed so hard at every joke he made. No one could make my dad laugh quite like my brother could.
Later that morning, we all went to my parents’ house. Family members and close friends began coming to our house to grieve with us. My dad didn’t bother to shave the stubble on his face, and my mom didn’t care to wash her hair or put on make up. Every time another aunt or uncle or cousin or close friend came over, my parents would weep again as they gave each person a hug. It was so unreal, and it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. My brother was so young. Everyone loved him so much.
I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to lie down for a little bit, but then decided to go back to my house to shower and change my clothes.
As I drove the two miles to my house, I remember thinking, “My family will be sad for the rest of our lives.” There seemed to be no other option.
I turned on a worship album from Bethel Music while I got ready. My brother loved the music from Bethel. I changed into a t-shirt that David had bought for me a few years ago. As the music played, the song “Faithful to the End” came on. It wasn’t a song that I was familiar with, but at the end of the song, the bridge included a reference to Psalm 23:6. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Just hours after my brother’s death, the song from my phone’s speaker came to me,
“Surely Your goodness and mercy,
It will follow me,
It will follow me,
Yeah, surely Your goodness and mercy,
It will follow me,
Yeah, surely Your goodness and mercy,
Oh follow me.”
When I heard those lyrics, I knew God was using that song to remind me that He was still going to show His goodness to my family. I was struck how the Bible verse includes the phrase “all the days of my life.” It felt like the days of my life when David was with us could only be good. How could the days that David was no longer with us be okay? Yet the verse says, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”
In the midst of all the weeping on that day, that is the one thing that I remember the Holy Spirit speaking to my heart.
Running after Me
Later that evening my sister Shari finally made it in town after flying in from Missouri. She had endured airport lines and the delayed flight to finally make it to us. Mom and Dad held her as she broke down in their arms. Dad motioned for Sara, Rachel, and me to join in the hug as we wept together. My parents were pulling all their children close in their sorrow, and as I joined the hug, I looked over my shoulder because my heart knew I had one more sibling who was supposed to be in this hug. I was looking for David, and I didn’t even realize it. It was one moment of many that I knew he was supposed to be here for this, but he’s no longer with us. But we called for David’s wife Stephanie to join us in this embrace. We all sobbed together as our hearts yearned for David. David’s mother, David’s father, David’s sisters, David’s wife, hearts breaking together.
Later I told my mom, “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so bad if we all didn’t love each other so much.” But we do love each other so much, and it does hurt so bad.
Over the next few days, the Holy Spirit continued to remind me of the truth in Psalm 23:6. As I was trying to fall asleep at night, I listened to a song called “Surround (Fight My Battles)” by Upperroom. I had probably listened to this song almost a thousand times in the past year, singing along with it as I did dishes, folded laundry, or drove in my car, praying about the specific challenges I had been facing at the time. But on this day, I realized it also quoted Psalm 23:6. The second verse of the song is…
“In the valley, I know that You’re with me,
And surely Your goodness and Your mercy follow me,
So my weapons are praise and thanksgiving,
This is how I fight my battles.”
I knew that God was showing me this verse again. I knew that He wanted to assure me that He was still good even in our loss and pain. He wanted me to see that His goodness was going to follow our family all the days of our lives. During those days, I didn’t want to talk about anything fun or anything good happening in people’s lives because I was so engrossed in my grief. So I probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear this from other people at the time. But I did want to hear it from God.
As we prepared for David’s celebration of life service, my dad shared the options of worship songs with Stephanie and the rest of us that the worship team could sing for David’s service. One of the songs was “Goodness of God” by Bethel Music. I didn’t remember hearing this song before, but in the bridge it shares a beautiful paraphrase of Psalm 23:6:
“Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me,
Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me.”
I knew this was the third time in 3 days that God was speaking this verse over me.
At the beginning of David’s celebration of life service, we stood to worship together. As the gathering of friends and family sang praises to God together, I felt God’s presence with us. I know thousands of people had been praying for God to comfort my family in the past few days, and in those moments, I felt the Holy Spirit give me a glimpse of heaven. A glimpse of God’s presence, a glimpse of God’s goodness, a glimpse of the reality that my brother is currently worshiping God in heaven, a glimpse that God has been good to my brother because he is with Jesus in heaven now free from all pain on earth.
As we sang, I lifted my hands in worship. I remember I lifted them as high as I could, even standing on my tip toes at one point, because I couldn’t get my arms high enough. I wanted to give God praise for being so good to give us eternal life.
When we walked out after the service that evening, the sunset was spectacular—perhaps the most beautiful I have ever seen in person. Everyone believed that God gave us that sunset to know He is with us.
I don’t know how to describe my grief. I wake up each day, and before getting out of bed, I ask Jesus to tell Dave that I love him and miss him.
Whenever I sit by his grave and pray, these days I usually just pray, “God, I don’t understand.”
Some days I still want to scream, “God, don’t You know that I had to watch my little brother be buried in the ground??!!! He was doing so much good with his life! We needed him here! He and Stephanie wanted to have children, and he would have been the best dad! I wanted to be an aunt to his children, and I wanted him to continue to be an uncle to mine. Jesus, I don’t understand.”
Often during each day, something will remind me of my brother, and I will put my hand on my heart, sigh, and whisper his name, “Dave.”
I still don’t know how he isn’t here with us anymore.
A few months ago, I heard the author Lysa TerKeurst say that in the midst of suffering, she reminds herself of these three truths:
That’s all I can say for now.
I’ll share more tomorrow.
*If you'd like to view my brother's Celebration of Life service, you can view the video here.
**If you’d like to listen to the songs I referenced or the podcast with Lysa TerKeurst I referenced, here are the links:
"Faithful to the End" by Bethel Music
"Surrounded (Fight My Battles)" by Upperroom
"Goodness of God" by Bethel Music
"Episode 126: Lysa TerKeurst" on the That Sounds Fun podcast with Annie F. Downs
Mary works at Brookville Road Community Church, where she leads children's ministry and women's ministry. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.