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.

RADIO INTERVIEW ABOUT ORLANDO TRAGEDY

My Conversation with Frank Reed of KLTY Dallas-Fort Worth Concerning the Mass Shooting

pulse

God wastes nothing.

He continues to surprise in the way He redeems my nearly three year journey through suffering and loss.

The latest evidence of that came with a text from long-time friend and radio personality, Frank Reed. He asked if he could interview me about the Pulse nightclub massacre for his morning show.

I consented hoping and praying by God’s grace to make the most of the opportunity  for the gospel.

It aired this morning.

You can listen to the audio on the Orlando Grace Church website.

WHEN SERVANTS COME AND GO

Yikes-So-many-people-are-leaving-the-church-1206x678

And they do, don’t they?

When people move on from our churches for any number of reasons, it can take its toll on a lot of things, including the unity of a fellowship. Not too long ago our own body experienced what seemed like an inordinate number of transitions. It can leave us sad, especially if we felt particularly close to so-and-so. It can even lead to resentment, if it seemed to us that a family left for not so good a reason. Worst case scenario it can discourage so greatly that we find ourselves tempted to withdraw from the community thus adding further threats to the peace.

The loss can be palpable.

Comfort and perspective on this score abound in 2 Tim. 4:9-18.

Do your best to come to me soon. 10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. 12 Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 16 At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul writes from death row. He experienced a degree of relational loss which defies the imagination. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. All who are in Asia? Really? Good grief! Which of us can claim that much pain from abandonment?

Comfort Insight #1

Gospel partnerships matter—a lot. Can you feel Paul’s sense of urgency. Do your best to come to me soon. He needs Timothy badly, just like we need one another.

Comfort Insight #2

Gospel defections hurt—a lot. Paul longs for Timothy because Demas bailed on him. Some worldly tractor beam locked on and lured the man away. How is this a comfort? In my experience, normally God’s servants move on for mostly reasonable or at least relatively benign reasons. Fortunately we don’t often feel the sting of wholesale defection from the faith. When it does happen however, it can crush us.

Comfort Insight #3

Gospel assignments change—a lot. Paul’s “who’s who” near the close of his version of a last will and testament reads like a Rick Steves’ travel log. The record shows servants moving all over the Empire. Here’s the deal. The sovereign God moves the pieces on the board according to His own good pleasure for His own good purposes in His own good timing (Psalm 115:3). We bow the knee and cover our mouths that we not sin with our lips.

Comfort Insight #4

Gospel reinforcements compensate—a lot. Paul sees in the changing landscape of partners a choice opportunity to bring John Mark out of the missionary doghouse and back into the battle (Acts 15:36-39). Very useful for service, he calls him. We’ve already seen God add some choice additions to fill critical posts at our church. We can expect more just as we can expect even more departures. God is good on both counts.

Comfort Insight #5

Gospel transitions galvanize—a lot. Or they can. When servants came and went, good reasons or bad, Paul testified that the Lord stood by Him at every turn and gave him strength. What a testimony! If the comings and goings of God’s people in our churches prompt us to draw nearer to Jesus and the strength He supplies, then we’ve gleaned something very good from that which often hits us very hard.

servethechurchHas your church recently undergone some redeployment of its most valuable resource—people? Look to the Lord to stand by your side and give you strength. And double down on your community commitments with those servants His good grace permits you to retain. They need you more than ever.

But bank on this: He will bring choice reinforcements in His own good time. Until then, He gives and takes away; blessed be His name.

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.

When Blooming Youth Is Snatched Away

blooming youth

Few hymns bring me more comfort or more pause in our unexpected loss of our 35 year old son than this classic by Anne Steele, published in The Christian Hymn Book for the Sanctuary and Home (Dayton, Ohio: Christian Publishing Association, 1875).

When blooming youth is snatched away
By death’s resistless hand,
Our hearts the mournful tribute pay
Which pity must demand.

While pity prompts the rising sigh,
O may this truth, impressed
With awful power–I too–must die–
Sing deep in every breast.

Let this vain world engage no more;
Behold the gaping tomb!
It bids us seize the present hour,
To-morrow death may come.

 The voice of this alarming scene,
May every heart obey;
Nor be the heavenly warming vain,
Which calls to watch and pray.

O let us fly, to Jesus fly,
Whose powerful arm can save;
Then shall our hopes ascend on high,
And triumph o’er the grave.

Great God, thy sovereign grace impart,
With cleansing, healing power;
This only can prepare the heart
For death’s surprising hour.

The Church & Infertility

infertility11

I don’t pretend to get this. Nancy and I never suffered the trial of infertility. We have known and know even now dear brothers and sisters humbling themselves under the mighty hand in this journey (1 Peter 5:6-7). We see the hurt. We feel the pain. We ache with the longings that go unfulfilled. Still, without walking a mile in those shoes, it makes it tough to identify as well as one might wish.

Jeff Cavanaugh has written a helpful blog post on this subject for the Gospel Coalition. He speaks from his own agonizing experience. It opened my eyes as to how the church can powerfully comfort but also unwittingly afflict folks bearing up under their inability to conceive. He explains:

I’m painting a bleak picture of infertility here, I know. There is no way to ignore how painful it is. It’s certainly the biggest trial my wife and I have ever faced, individually or together. But God has used this trial to grow us spiritually and demonstrate his love for us in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. And the church—that network of loving, supportive, prayerful relationships we have in Christ’s body—has been used by God to comfort and sustain us and others like us.

That’s not to say relationships in the church are easy when you’re struggling with infertility. Those aforementioned feelings of isolation and alienation are real. Friends in the church have seemed thoughtless at times, not considering how things they say might be hurtful; at other times they’ve been awkward, aware of our struggles but at a loss for what to say. Often the strain has been entirely our own fault—we’ve promised in our church covenant to “rejoice at each other’s happiness and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows,” but sometimes jealousy and bitterness sap our motivation to do any rejoicing or accept any comfort.

Naturally I long for my church and all gospel-grounded ministries to act like the comforting network described in paragraph one. However, I realize too readily how easily we can miss the boat messing up as in paragraph two.

I encourage an entire reading of “How the Church Makes the Trial of Infertility Better (Or Worse).”

May Jesus and His gospel enlarge our hearts to enter the struggles of saints battling this hard providence as well as a host of others as we have opportunity.

Beware of Christmas Idols

Christmas idolatry

John finishes his first epistle with this practical exhortation: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. The holiday season brings its own unique challenges in this regard. If John wrote to us in our time and culture regarding Christmas and its false god’s pitfalls I suspect he might specify at least the following.

Keep yourself from the idol of possessions. Consumerism tops the list of things that can tempt us to seek our satisfaction in something other than Jesus. The Lord made it plain. We can’t serve God and money (Matt. 6:24). Determine to keep your spending in line with God’s plan for your stewardship.

Keep yourself from the idol of comfort. People often suffer from forms of depression at this time of year. Blocked goals, unmet expectations, pangs of loss, among other things, can tempt us to seek refuge in any number of counterfeit gods. Over indulging in food and drink, endless hours in front of the TV or surfing the internet, substance abuse, relational dependence, these and other strategies of self-medicating and escape have their root ultimately in digging broken wells rather than drinking from the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13). Take refuge in the Rock that never runs dry.

Keep yourself from the idol of control. Whether the circumstances surrounding idealistic plans for Christmas and New Years or the people in our lives with whom we engage in this season – family, significant others, friends, and acquaintances – who may or may not cooperate with our agendas — exerting power by way of manipulation, guilt, threat, passive aggressiveness or any other sinful strategy designed to make others comply with our demands boils down to a dependence upon things outside our control that fail to deliver the happiness we invest in them. Let a “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16-18) ethic rule your spirit at every turn of events that doesn’t go the way you hoped.

Keep yourselves this Christmas from the counterfeit gods that tempt you through the power of the living God made yours by your union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 6)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summarized the point of the text:

Jesus’ loving care in thoroughly preparing His own for their mission points yet again to His identity as Messiah that we might believe in Him. Indeed there is nothing He cares so much as our faith, genuine faith that treasures and keeps His commandments. And why are they not burdensome, to use 1 John 5:3 language? Because of the Trinitarian provision for our aid in obedience – the gift of the Spirit in helping us, the coming of the Son in the resurrection for assuring us, and next time, Lord willing, we will consider the indwelling of the Father, and not just the Father but the Son as well, both promising to make their home with us. Amazing!

Praise God for the Trinitarian provision for operation-saving-faith-resulting-in-obedience!