THREE ARE BETTER THAN ONE

How God Comforts Abundantly in Loss through the Grief of Others

No worries. I’m not misquoting the sacred text in Ecc. 4:9-12.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Two are better than one. No doubt about it–for all the reasons Solomon lists for any number of difficult circumstances. Today I’m grateful to find my two is a three.

Man with financial or sentimental problems

My journal entry this morning began this way:

1/18/17

Not my favorite day of the year. I write this at the kitchen table. I’m looking at the very place on the tile floor where I collapsed in a flood of tears three years ago. Nancy had just uttered those horrible words, “Josh is dead.” You really never do get entirely over burying a child.

Then the phone rang. I knew he would call. He hasn’t missed a January 18 yet. He won’t ever, if he can help it. “E” is too well acquainted with grief himself to drop this ball.

That’s especially true because for years the circumstances were reversed. I used to call him every January 19. He and his bride lost their daughter years ago. I was their pastor at the time. I presided over the funeral.

It means the world to me when this brother calls. It has everything to do with another significant passage of Scripture–2 Cor. 1:3-5.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

No one comforts in loss more abundantly than someone with a shared grief. In a nutshell, here’s what my friend did as Jesus’ agent on yet another day of mourning/remembering in my life.

One, he connected. He took initiative. This is a busy man with enormous responsibilities in a major parachurch ministry. He found time to care for me.

Two, he listened. After asking me how I was doing, he listened quietly with the occasional affirming “yes” or “hmm” that assured me of his undivided attention. Just being able to express the gamut of my feelings without fear of judgment helped so much.

Three, he identified. He shared his own experience of visiting his daughter’s graveside the day before. He talked about how hard last Christmas was getting all those cards with pictures of children and grandchildren he will never have. He understands.

Four, he counseled. Not in an overt way. He used the back door approach–perhaps not even realizing what he was doing. He reminded me of some advice I had given him about sharing the hurt honestly yet humbly with the Lord.

Five, he suggested. “Curt, what do you think of this? What about you, me, and “R” getting together at some point?”

Here’s why my title has the number three in it. We both have a mutual friend who lost his daughter some years ago on January 26. I officiated that service too.

“Great idea!” I said.

Three men of sorrow acquainted with grief getting together to comfort one another with the comfort gained from the Father of mercies and God of all comfort?

I can hardly wait.

And I’m glad January 18 rolls around only one time a year.

Birthday Burnings and Pleas for Mercy

Josh and Me (2)

Josh,

You would have turned 37 today. Mom and I may not have necessarily enjoyed the pleasure of your company this very day. You would likely have pulled a double at the restaurant. But we would have caught up with you on your day off, maybe even watched the Super Bowl this Sunday, played perhaps with properly inflated balls.

I would grill you a ribeye, medium rare, just as you liked it. Mom would have baked you one of those killer “Black Magic” cakes – a Heff birthday tradition. We would have sipped a Zin brought by you purchased inevitably above my pastoral price point. And the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 would have smiled upon us: “There is nothing better for a person than he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

But you are gone. I miss you.

Love,

Dad

Those horrible words sink in yet another heart-stabbingly relentless time. Just when I thought I survived January 18, the 28th brings another of grief”s battering waves.

Once again, where does a grieving father turn? He goes to His father above. And He never disappoints.

There this miserable-memory morning I read these words from another familiar-with-suffering servant:

Job gives utterance to a mood which is not foreign to us when he says, “Am I a sea, or a whale, that You set a guard over me?” In certain moods of anguish the human heart says to God, “I wish You would leave me alone; why should I be used for things which have no appeal to me?” In the Christian life we are not being used for our own designs at all, but for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus Christ. He has prayed that we baffled-to-fight-bettermight be “one with Him as He is one with the Father”; consequently God is concerned only about that one thing, and He never says “By your leave.” Whether we like it or not, God will burn us in His fire until we are as pure as He is, and it is during the process that we cry, as Job did, “I wish You would leave me alone.” God is the only Being who can afford to be misunderstood; we cannot, Job could not, but God can. If we are misunderstood we “get about” the man as soon as we can. St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” God never vindicates Himself, He deliberately stands aside and lets all sorts of slanders heap on Him, yet He is not in any hurry. We have the idea that prosperity, or happiness, or morality, is the end of a man’s existence; according to the Bible it is something else, “to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” When a man is right with God, God puts His honor in that man’s keeping. Job was one of those in whom God staked His honor, and it was during the process of His inexplicable ways that Job makes his appeal for mercy, and yet all through there comes out his implicit confidence in God. “And blessed is he, who is not offended because of Me,” said Our Lord (Oswald Chambers, Baffled to Fight Better: Job and the Problem of Suffering, Discovery House, 1990, p. 41-42, emphasis added).

I’m not a 21st century Job. Not even close. But I do need mercy. Thus I appeal.

Sovereign God, if I belong to that privileged company “Guardians of Your Honor,” and I believe I do, only by grace, then burn away as You please. But have mercy on me for I am but a sinful, grieving man dealing with this birthday’s burnings. I admit it. I sometimes wish you would leave me alone. But not so much that I entertain offense at my Savior and abandon my implicit confidence in You.

SPURGEON’S SORROWS, MINE AND YOURS

Josh thinker

Grief casts a long shadow. At least 365 day’s worth. One year ago today we lost our firstborn son, Josh, or, as he liked others to call him, “Thee Heff.”

Life-threatening cancer proved my effective tutor in 2005. Gut-wrenching loss brought its mastery instruction in 2014. I’m learning, reluctant or not, much in the school of sadness, perhaps most importantly this: some pains in life visit and determine to stay. I don’t expect grief ever to release its hold for the rest of my life. The words, “Josh is dead.” altered my experience forever. I’ve heard other loss-sufferers say such things. I thought I understood. Now I really do.

I find solace this tortuous anniversary weekend in the reading of a book. (Read books. They change lives.) Zack Eswine, thank you for writing Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. In its provision, providence smiled on this sad heart as I read through its 144 pages the last two days.

Any Baptist preacher of the Reformed tradition (others as well) treasures Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Few preached with greater anointing. No one wrote more sermons. Calvinistic, gospel zeal pulsed through his veins in degrees of which I can only dream. With reading Pastor Zach’s book I added a new dimension of appreciation for this giant of the faith – how his near lifelong battle with depression helps me cope with my sadness and in turn comfort others in theirs.

I have long known about Spurgeon’s trouble with melancholy. I did not realize, however, its root for the man in one horrific event early on in his preaching ministry (see p. 19). It brought catastrophic grief, grief, believe it or not, I honestly imagine greater than my own. It prompted this comment from the author, borrowing from a Spurgeon sermon entitled “Weak Hands and Feeble Knees”:

For some of us, we’ve been unable to live in any other scene but the one that crushed us. We were brought so low that we never held up our heads again. It’s like we will go from that time forth mourning to our graves. Circumstance haunted us and went on. Depression came but never left. It haunts us still (p. 29).

Pastor Zack joins our hands with “Charles,” as he fondly calls him, and walks us through his journey. He invites us to view it as “the spurgeons sorrowshandwritten note of one who wishes you well” (p. 23). And well we should. The author has served the reader admirably with numerous citations from Spurgeon’s work on this challenging subject. He has thoroughly mined the precious ore of insight to be gained from one who suffered so greatly and dared talk so freely about it from his influential pulpit. Pastor Zach also shows us from Scripture the reality of sorrow. Additionally he borrows from numerous other works on the subject. He accomplishes a lot in so short a resource. Though I wish I could ask him humbly and gently, “How could you leave out Lloyd-Jones’ classic Spiritual Depression?”

Who should read this book? Easy. Any sufferer of depression and its close relatives, sorrow, sadness, and grief. Here you will find compassion, understanding, hope, and help. Pastor Zach inserts along the way distilled lessons from Spurgeon’s experience that ease the burden of “heaviness of spirit” (p. 46). While not all will agree with or like some of his prescriptions (e. g., medication as necessary), there is plenty of spot on assistance to glean especially from part three (Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression).

Caregivers, pastors, and otherwise “one another” gospel-shaped Christians who want to do 1 Thessalonians 5:11 well will also want to read this book. Pastor Zach takes particular aim against “God-talkers” and insensitive Job-like comforters. He pleads for more of us in the helping trade to adopt compassion and understanding in dealing with the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in this broken world. May the tribe increase.

Gratefully, Pastor Zack leads us from the lesser story of Charles Spurgeon, as instructive, yet incomplete as it is (there are some cautions to hear along this path) to the greater story of Jesus – the Chief Mourner (p. 86) – the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He even shows tenderness to the skeptic on looker who’s own loss may venture her to wade into these pages though not sure at first what to make of this pastor’s God-talk. You can give this to a seeker and not worry so much.

Thanks to our good friends at Westminster Books, I scarfed up a bunch of these for a mere $5 a piece. Lord willing, you can find them in the OGC resource center next Sunday.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the place Spurgeon did, especially after my most recent post, Never Again. But I affirm the truth of it in ending my anniversary reflections on loss:

I am sure that I have run more swiftly with a lame leg than I ever did with a sound one. I am certain that I have seen more in the dark than ever I saw in the light— more stars, most certainly—more things in Heaven if fewer things on earth! The anvil, the fire and the hammer are the making of us—we do not get fashioned much by anything else. That heavy hammer falling on us helps to shape us! Therefore let affliction and trouble and trial come.

They most certainly will. And His grace, as always, will most certainly be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).

 

ANYBODY WANT TO BUILD A PLAYGROUND?

 

Josh joyful'

When I imagine how Josh, our son who passed away in January of this year, would greet the notion of Orlando Grace Church constructing a playground in his memory, I think this image, one of my favorite ways of remembering him, best captures the essence of things. At least I hope it does. Or maybe this one:

Josh Happy in hole

Either way, “The Joshua Place Playground,” a happy place for children for generations to come, Lord willing, gets assembled and constructed the weekend of Friday, November 14, and Saturday, November 15, of this year. So far we have seen over $21K come in towards this $25K project. We learned this past week that the playground company plans to donate the sign for the area! It will read:

The Joshua Place
“Be strong and courageous!”
Joshua 1:9

I don’t even want to tell you how much that little detail normally costs. Many thanks for the sister who went to bat for us on that one!

Have to admit, I swallowed hard last Monday in our initial planning meeting. The city has approved our site plan. The equipment gets ordered this week. BUT WE WILL NEED AN ARMY OF VOLUNTEERS COME NOVEMBER. I’m calling on the terrific people of OGC, Josh’s beloved coworkers from the restaurant service community, and anyone else, family and friends alike, who want to help The Joshua Placeon either or both for all or a portion of those two days, to let your intentions be known. All you have to do to sign up is respond to this post. Or, if you prefer, you can email me at revheff@gmail.com. I really, really, really need you to let me know if you are coming. We can’t afford to have too few volunteers (a minimum of thirty per day are required). But we can’t really afford to have too many as we don’t want folks just standing around with nothing to do. So please, take just a moment before leaving this page to respond. If you can’t come, but would like to donate some food and refreshments or to help out in any other way, that would be great to know too.

We will need your energy, your back, your tools, and your heart to get the job done. We will feed every stomach that reports for duty. If you have any questions about the project, one of our deacons is on point, but for those of you outside the OGC community, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to try and answer them. By the way, a proper dedication of the playground will be scheduled once the project is completed and the fence around it erected. More on that in the future.

May I say this to close? As Nancy and I continue to walk through the grieving process this challenging year, we are so grateful to the masses of folks who have added to our comfort in so many ways. Our huge thanks in advance for everyone who will help make the playground a reality. We anticipate this aspect of our journey to contribute to our ongoing healing in the most significant of ways. SDG!

When Words Don’t Fail

words fail

I consider Nancy and me fortunate in more ways than one. In this season of loss, there is one notable mercy that stands out. Our comforters in grief, by and large, have excelled. None of Job’s tribe here. More than not in our pain we have heard “I don’t know what to say.” To which I typically reply, “That alone brings me comfort, because words truly fail in the travail of grief.” Others who have walked this path have often told me a different story. I hurt for them.

However, sometimes words don’t fail. Proverbs 25:11 moments do happen.   I experienced that this morning when I opened my Facebook page. I found an “apple of gold in settings of silver” on my wall. It comes from a dear brother whom I miss greatly. He too belongs to the unenviable fraternity of those who have buried a child – in his case, more than one. It was my privilege to minister to him and his bride in their multiple losses. Today he returned the favor way beyond anything I ever offered in the way of comfort to him. Here is what he wrote:

I’m reading a biography of Samuel Adams, and today I read of the passing of his first father-in-law, the Reverend Samuel Checkley, in December 1769, after 50 years of ministry. Checkley’s wife had recently died and 11 of his 12 children predeceased him. Some excerpts from his obituary made me think of you:

“He was uncommonly gifted in prayer. His voice was very pleasant, and his delivery without affectation, natural and graceful. His preaching also was serious, affecting, scriptural, plain and useful. His piety was deep and effectual, his religion hearty, and his devotion unaffected and fervent.” It noted that of Checkley’s twelve children, only one survived him, and said that those losses and the death of his wife “greatly affected his spirits, and impaired his constitution, tho’ he bore up under them all with very exemplary patience and christian resignation.”

His successor in the pulpit, Penuel Bowen, preached the following Sunday that Checkley “really esteemed religion the only support under the sorrows and afflictions of life, (a large share of which he had,) and used it himself in this view; so he was abundant in recommending it to others for the same valuable purpose: his discourses were almost all in good measure filled with savory matter for the consolation of mourners, and the encouragement of those who were afflicted and cast down.”

Don’t misunderstand. When Bowen used the word “religion,” he did not mean empty formalism. He couldn’t possibly have commended self-saturated moralism. Legalism will NOT carry you through the valley of the shadow. Striving to perform a list of do’s-and-don’ts before God will leave you sadly wanting.  Ministers of Bowen’s day used the word “religion” in the best sense of the term. He meant the gospel. Jesus is enough. More than enough. That’s true religion – hope set on the One who suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18).

If you pray for me at all, and I know that many of you do (thank you!), please pray that I imitate more thoroughly the faith of Samuel Checkley, as I continue to emerge from the hard providence of death at my doorstep.

John, you make me want to be a better pastor. Thank you.