Last night I witnessed something truly exceptional. I saw my friend, a faithful minister, a good friend, and a doting father say goodbye to his beloved four-year old daughter with more dignity and faith than I could ever muster. For those of you who don’t know, the tornado that ravaged Middle Tennessee deeply impacted a friend of mine in an unbelievably tragic way.

I first met Matt Collins in Marion, Kentucky on the secluded campus of West Kentucky Youth Camp around 2008. From the very first time I met him, I liked Matt. He was a giant, red-headed, ball of energy, fun, and genuineness. Over the next few years, we spent a week each summer in Marion with our youth groups and a tight-knit group of young ministers and their friends.

As our group slowly began to separate, Matt moved to Cookeville, Tennessee and I wound up in Tompkinsville, Kentucky to begin my current work. We found ourselves an hour away from each other and stayed in touch. He had me come speak down there, I returned the favor here. We even got together for lunch and sporadically touched based with phone calls and text messages.

Throughout the years, I’ve considered Matt to be someone I deeply respect. If I had a big decision to make, I wanted his counsel. In the days since the storm and the news that broke about the Collins family, I’ve said it as much as possible, Matt is a person who made my life better by simply being a part of it.

In the storm, Matt’s young daughter Hattie passed away. The circumstances are beyond horrible. His entire family was injured and they are still recovering physically and mentally. Their neighborhood is full of families that lost everything, 18 people died in their town, and countless people have been displaced. The catastrophe in Cookeville is overwhelming and it will take a long time for life to resume its normal routines.

After everything happened, I tried to reach out to Matt but it was very difficult. I was able to communicate with one of his best friends and pass along a message. I hope he received it, but if he didn’t, I know he knows how much people were praying for him and how much they wanted to help.

Late last week, news about Hattie’s visitation and funeral was made public and I was determined to attend unless something unavoidable came up. I tried to get some others to go with me, but ended up traveling down to Cookeville last night by myself for the visitation. Driving down there I found myself unaware of what I was about to walk into. My expectations were all over the place. I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be sad, joyful, poignant, or a little bit of each? I didn’t know how I would react seeing Matt face-to-face.

I didn’t know if I’d have the words to tell him how sorry I was.

I’ve been to funerals and visitations for children (even given the eulogy), but this one was worse. Hattie’s death seemed so unnecessary, so tragic. I found myself unable to wrap my mind around the circumstances. The fact that I have an almost four year old daughter named Maggie didn’t make it any easier. I couldn’t help but see my Maggie every time a picture of Hattie appeared on one of my social media feeds.

When I walked into the building, the first thing I noticed was the size of the line. Hundreds of people had showed up to pay their respects and let the Collins family know they cared. Surprisingly, the line moved very fast. I thought it was odd, until I got to the sanctuary. Near the entry, there was a sign posted which said no hugs or handshakes were necessary because Matt and his wife were still recovering from their injuries. Snaking through the auditorium I realized this was no normal visitation. The hugs that last forever, the handshakes that imply so much were nowhere to be seen. In their place, were nods of sorrow, eyes full of tears, and words that were measured, yet sincere. One thing that caught me off guard were the smiles and laughs. Knowing Matt, they shouldn’t have, but they did. I was expecting this to be the worse room I had ever walked in to, but it wasn’t, it was something else entirely.

I had played the conversation with Matt in my head over-and-over again before I got to the front of the line. I had debated what to say, how to say it, and would it even matter over and over again. I had hoped to be helpful, but I knew, deep down, my words would be just a few in a night of many.

The thing that kept me puzzled was the face of my friend. Matt was stoic, strong, and quite simply, braver than I could imagine as I got closer and closer. He wasn’t breaking down, running away, or shirking the moment. I found myself drawn to his actions, his response to people, and the smiles I inexplicably saw from his face. I was amazed, how can he smile? How can he even sit there, ten feet from his baby girl’s coffin? Like most visitations, there was slideshow playing of Hattie’s pictures. Right before I got to Matt, a series of pictures of the two of them played. I almost lost it looking at that sweet girl hugging and loving her father. I knew at that point, I don’t have anything to say.

When I got to Matt I sputtered out how sorry I was. I told him how beautiful his daughter is. I told him I’m here, less than an hour away. I told him I’d be around. I wish I had said more but that was all I could get out. I wish I could have thought of something more poignant, impactful, more helpful.

I wish I could have said more…

Then I saw Matt’s face. Away from the line, one-on-one, I saw the face of a man I didn’t expect to see. He was sad, his eyes seemed heavy, like they could barely stay open, yet they were present. He grabbed my hand as I put it on his knee. He said, “thanks for coming, thanks for caring.” He looked me in the eye and I knew, he’ll be okay. Maybe not today or any time soon, but some day. The Matt I knew wasn’t there, a new Matt, one I’ll forever be grateful to know had replaced the man I once knew.

I can’t put into words how encouraged I am by Matt today. If the circumstances were reversed. If that was my Maggie in the coffin, I don’t think I could have set there. I don’t think I could have looked everyone in the eye, held back my frustrations, my anger, my sadness. I don’t think I could have been what Matt was. The goofball I’ve spent so much time with is a man I deeply respect more than words can describe. I’ll never forget the peace that permeated his face.

Yesterday, I was shocked that one of God’s servants could do what the world believes to be impossible. Matt sat there, without giving up, with what I believe is more hope and trust in our Lord than I have ever seen. He sat there and reminded me of my favorite characters from Scripture. He reminded me of Job, of Paul, and even my Lord. He reminded me why I believe in the power of the Gospel. He reminded me why my brothers and sisters never cease to amaze me. He reminded me of Jesus. He seemed so broken, but unwilling to give up. He seemed so unsure, yet unwilling to give up on God. He seemed to be everything I hope to be when my moment of great sorrow arrives.

Over the years as a minister, I’ve gone to hundreds of funeral visitations. I’ve spoken at dozens. I’ve buried both parents, two grandparents, and several uncles and aunts. And through it all, I’ve never worn a face like Matt’s yesterday. I never stood there so peaceful.

I won’t speak for Matt, and I won’t dare tell you what he was thinking, but I can speak to what I saw. I’ve known him for close to fifteen years, I’ve shared so many good moments with him but this was the first truly tragic moment. I can now say, I respect him so much for the strength I saw last night. If I had to put it into words, I’d say Matt had a “peace that passes all understanding” last night and I’m in awe of my friend’s strength.

I don’t know many people who could bury their daughter with such a visible faith and hope, but I know what I saw. I’m thankful I know someone who has lived the words of Psalm 23, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.” I’ve always been thankful to know Matt Collins. I’ve always been thankful to call him my friend. Today, I’m thankful he taught me more than I could have ever imagined. He taught me in just a few short minutes what faith, hope, trust, and devotion looks like.

Today, all I want to say is thank you Matt. You taught me something special last night. I now see and believe you can endure this -that means I can endure whatever’s coming my way, even the unthinkable.

If you’d like to help Matt and his family financially, follow this link