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.

Resting on God

Josh Wedding

One month ago today my beloved firstborn, Josh, breathed his last.

Our lives have changed forever. Bereavement leave has come to an end. I’m back to my second week of work doing what God has called me to do. Each day differs. Some days I feel more productive than others. Mostly I feel like I just get by with the best I can do with the things that matter most. Support abounds. Comfort flows. Grief throbs. Grace suffices.

In all of the new normal, whatever that is, nothing better describes how I’m pressing through the Titanic ache in my soul than this Puritan prayer of old, from the Valley of Vision, entitled “Resting on God.”

O God, most high, most glorious, the thought of Thine infinite serenity cheers me, for I am toiling and moiling, troubled and distressed, but Thou art for ever at perfect peace. Thy designs cause thee no fear or care of unfulfilment, they stand fast as the eternal hills. Thy power knows no bond, Thy goodness no stint. Thou bringest order out of confusion, and my defeats are Thy victories: The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

I come to Thee as a sinner with cares and sorrows, to leave every concern entirely to Thee, every sin calling for Christ’s precious blood; revive deep spirituality in my heart; let me live near to the great Shepherd, hear His voice, know its tones, follow its calls. Keep me from deception by causing me to abide in the truth, from harm by helping me to walk in the power of the Spirit. Give me intenser faith in the eternal verities, burning into me by experience the things I know; Let me never be ashamed of the truth of the gospel, that I may bear its reproach, vindicate it, see Jesus as its essence, know in it the power of the Spirit.

Lord, help me, for I am often lukewarm and chill; unbelief mars my confidence, sin makes me forget Thee. Let the weeds that grow in my soul be cut at their roots; grant me to know that I truly live only when I live to Thee, that all else is trifling. Thy presence alone can make me holy, devout, strong and happy. Abide in me, gracious God.

My Son’s Obituary

No one should have to write such a thing. To every parent who has ever lost a child, my aching heart goes out to you.

For reasons of wise stewardship given the cost of newspaper obituary listings, Nancy and I have opted to publish this notice via my blog and the various social media connections to which it is linked:

Joshua James Heffelfinger, known to many affectionately as “Thee Heff,” age 35, of Orlando, Florida, passed away unexpectedly at home Saturday, January 18, 2014. Born January 28, 1978, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, he grew up and lived most of his life in the Central Florida area. His first spoken word, “ball,” turned into a love for sports, including Josh Weddingbaseball, football, basketball, and bowling. Early on he got hooked on everything Star Wars and never lost his enthusiasm for anything related to the film saga. He graduated from University High School and earned an A.A. Degree from Valencia Community College. A career in the restaurant business started at Disney’s Rainforest Cafe and then progressed to over ten years of serving at Emeril’s Orlando. He successfully completed two of four levels of sommelier certification to enhance his knowledge of wines and increase his and others’ dining pleasure. He was rich in friendships, many of which he cultivated by frequenting Sportstown Billiards. Known for his charm and wit, his favorite quotation was, “A wise man speaks when he has something to say; a stupid man speaks because he has to say something.” He is survived by Curt and Nancy Heffelfinger, his parents, and Joel Heffelfinger, his brother and best friend, along with many other members of the extended family as well as a host of dear friends and acquaintances. A memorial service for Josh is scheduled at Orlando Grace Church, 872 Maitland Ave., Altamonte Springs, Florida, at 11:00 AM on Saturday, February 1, 2014. A light lunch will be served in the fellowship hall after the service. “The Joshua Place” playground for children fund has been established in his memory by Orlando Grace Church for construction on the church property. Tax deductible gifts can be made to the church in his name and sent to the church office or brought to the church on the day of the service. For more information call 407.660.1984.

Our deepest, sincere, and heartfelt thanks for the outpouring of support in the way of tears, cards, gifts, meals, calls, texts, emails, posts, and especially prayers. We feel rich beyond our wildest dreams in terms of that which, humanly speaking, matters most – the love and care of others.

What Can Miserable Christians Sing?

Got your attention with that one, didn’t I?

I first heard this provocative question while listening to Mark Dever’s latest audio offering entitled, False Conversions: The Suicide of the Church on the 9Marks website . Good stuff as always from him. You can listen to the audio here.

Honestly, I don’t remember the context in which he brought up the question, the title of an article by Carl Trueman. But it caught my attention because some voices have chirped in my ear lately (more than usual and all well meant) about some aspects of our worship music at OGC. Now we certainly want to be open to feedback about our choices in corporate worship so as do the best we can in coming before the Lord in singing and praise, but I find this an excellent occasion to toot my colleague’s horn in one very important respect.

I appreciate A LOT of things about our chief musician. Among them is the range of emotional identification in the songs he selects that includes lament. I suspect he takes his cue from a number of things in that regard (if you know the man, you know exactly what I mean), but especially the fact that the psalms in Scripture, the Bible’s own hymnbook, consist much of lament, longing, grief, even downright agony. Life is like that. For many, loss and the pain that accompanies it, make up a good bit of their life experience at any given time. What do suffering saints sing then when they come to church? Not that there isn’t room for them to hope in the triumph of the resurrection and the truth of the gospel. But shouldn’t they/we be able to embrace and engage the minor key songs of worship life along with the major, especially when trials assault and afflict?

Trueman argues we should, we must, make room for such as these, especially given psalmody and the nature of its content as well as the consequences of limiting our selections to only the upbeat and happy kind of tunes. He writes:

A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

You can read the rest of his article here.

Believers mired in misery must grow to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10) to be sure. Jesus promises us His brand of joy independent of circumstances as we abide in Him (John 15:11).

But the Man of Sorrows who wept in the face of great grief (John 11:35) must have sung from the Psalter and entered into lament when the seasons of life warranted it.

And so must we.

Good Counsel for Helping the Bereaved

Today I learned of another couple in a different state who lost their nine month old son about three years ago.

They offered this testimony of what help brought comfort in their time of need:

For us, meals was essential as I had no appetite to cook, grocery shop or even eat unless someone told me to eat and placed food in front of me. We had meals delivered to our house, in a cooler outside so I didn’t have to answer the door and talk. We had meals for months, which was such an answer to prayer. Maybe going to the grocery store weekly or just bringing over essentials like paper products, milk, eggs, etc would also be so helpful. I know for me it was the cards, the emails and the love that people demonstrated to us that really meant so much. reminding the parents monthly weekly or daily that you have not forgotten and that you are praying is so encouraging. Knowing that people were praying was essential. The other thing is to talk about the child and not try to ignore it or not bring her up. It is so painful when people try to avoid talking about our son like he never exisited. I tell people all the time that it is not helpful when they avoid the subject or exclude him from our life. Of course it is painful to live without him but keeping his memory alive is what I need. People do not cause us more pain when they bring up our child as it is on our mind constantly. I think just embracing their pain and being willing to grieve along with them is what means the most.

May the Lord give us grace to love the Waltons at least as equally well.

All Is Precious

Today’s message from John 14:25-31 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Jesus rebukes His own for their failure to enter into His joy of heading back to the Father in glory. They are far to self-absorbed with their own grief to see the bigger picture. He loves them even in the sting of rebuke. If you loved me, you would have rejoiced.

Do we consider everything from Christ’s hand, including His rebukes, as precious?

Octavius Winslow encourages us to do just that:

Receive as precious everything that flows from the government of Jesus. A precious Christ can give you nothing but what is precious. Welcome the rebuke – it may be humiliating; welcome the trial – it may be painful; welcome the lesson – it may be difficult; welcome the cup – it may be bitter; welcome everything that comes from Christ in your individual history. Everything is costly, salutary, and precious that Jesus sends. The rude tones of Joseph’s voice, when he spake to his brethren, were as much the echoes of his concealed affection, as the softest, gentlest accents that breathed from his lips. The most severe disciplinary dispensations in the government of Christ are as much the fruit of His eternal, redeeming love, as was the tenderest and most touching expression of that love uttered from the cross.

May we find everything that Jesus sends precious, even His rebukes of our beyond-what-is-necessary, self-absorbed grieving of loss.

A Tale of Four Households

By tale I don’t mean fiction. Each family referenced in this post once existed or does now actually exist. These tales relate fact, some of it hard-to-swallow, down right mind blowing truth.

Household #1 – Ezekiel the prophet’s.

Every year as I read through the entirety of the Bible I always come up short when I reach Ezekiel 24:15-18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

God employed His prophet during unique times of judgment ministering among His people during exile in Babylon. The Lord put numerous difficult requirements upon Ezekiel in the object-lesson-like way He spoke to rebellious Israel through the prophet, but none more staggering in its implications than this one. He slew His servant’s wife, none other than the delight of his eyes. The sovereign Lord of the universe, at a stroke, struck down the man’s bride. Additionally, to suit His purposes of pressing home conviction for Israel’s hardness of heart in the face of judgment, God prohibited Ezekiel from demonstrating any grief (Ezek. 24:19-24).

Remarkably, Ezekiel treasured the Lord more than the delight of his eyes and did as he was commanded. This man did not worship at the altar of his marriage. His wife was no idol. God’s purposes trumped everything, even long life with his beloved, in this servant’s journey toward a better country (Heb. 11:16).

Household #2 – Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr.’s

Dr. Sproul, a teaching fellow at Ligonier Ministries, lost his wife, Denise, at the tender age of 46 this past Sunday morning after three different battles with cancer. She left behind not just her bereaved husband, but eight children as well, ages 2 to 18. I represented the OGC leadership at the memorial service the morning of this writing, extending our condolences and assuring of our prayers.

Not surprisingly, given the affinity for Reformed theology in the Ligonier and St. Andrew’s families, all who spoke waved high the banner of God’s sovereignty over the hard providence of loss, not at all unlike the account of Ezekiel 24. “The Lord took her home” and phrases like it were spoken without reservation as if this were something God had done. The Lord gave and He has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). Fortunately for Dr. Sproul Jr. and all in attendance, no prohibition of grieving held sway over the sorrowful yet rejoicing occasion (2 Cor. 6:10).

I am told our dear sister went home to her reward to take up residence in the suite Jesus had prepared especially for her (John 14:2) around 6 AM that Sunday. I am further told that the St. Andrews family gathered for worship as usual later that morning and that Dr. Sproul, Jr. attended. I count him among that brave and happy band of brothers who, even in the grip of staggering loss, resolves to do as God commands.

Household #3 – Mine

Today Nancy and I mark our 37th anniversary. This morning I went to a colleague in the gospel’s memorial service for his bride. Tonight I will take my bride to a restaurant and celebrate nearly four decades of covenant marriage and ministry partnership. The irony of the confluence of these things on the same day was not lost on me, especially as a cancer survivor enjoying over six years cancer free after my life-and-death battle with the disease in 2005.

As I drove to the memorial service, I asked. Why me, Lord? Why do I get to dine with the delight of my eyes while this man with a far greater stewardship of ministry and breadth of impact than I will ever have buries the delight of his eyes this Christmas?

Only one answer suffices – the sovereignty of God. The same banner flies over all three households. “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Cor. 4:7). “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me (John 21:22)!”

Whatever the providence, bitter or sweet, hard or soft, good or bad, in life and death, for the follower of Jesus who loves Christ more than life and wife and breadth, there can be only one response at ever turn. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15). By His grace and through His power we will do as He commands as High King of heaven, God the Father over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:6).

Household #4 – Yours

Providence shapes your experience this Christmas season and into 2012 and beyond. All your circumstances, past, present, and future come through the hand of the One whose counsel stands accomplishing all His purpose (Isaiah 46:10) and works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

In all those providences, one question remains. Will you do as He commands for His glory and your greater joy?

Prelude to a Dying Savior’s Last Words

Sunday’s message from John 13:31-38 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summarized things:

Because of Jesus’ great care in preparing His own for His departure, we should believe in Him as the Messiah, God’s Son – His pointing to glory both of the Father and the Son, His providing for grief in the New Commandment to love one another, and His protecting from guilt in the predicting and praying through betrayal. Have you put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah? His miraculous works commend Him to you. His astonishing claims do the same. And His compassionate care for His own beckons you to trust Him. No one will ever care for you as thoroughly, lovingly, and completely as Jesus. Believe Him today!

The Way of the Devoted in the Throes of the Desperate

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his little book Lament for a Son, writes of the loss of his twenty-something boy to a fatal mountain-climbing accident. He asks:

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief” (p. 34).

Were we to have accompanied David from Aphek to Ziklag in 1 Samuel 29-30, delivered from one trial only to encounter a fiercer one, perhaps no words would come in the face of such momentous grief. I can imagine David traveling the miles from Aphek thinking, how gracious of God to extricate me from having to go to war against my own people (see chapter 29)! But life is like this. Just when you think things can’t get worse, you suffer another staggering blow. David and his men return to Ziklag to discover nearly the worst – the city burnt to the ground and their families taken captive, destined, no doubt, for a future of slavery and abuse.

Their reaction is understandable in v. 4. Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep. Even David mourned in grief, his wives taken by the marauding Amalekites. For him however, grief came in an even greater wave as v. 6 records. And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter of soul, each for his sons and daughters.

On top of staggering loss for David comes devastating threat. His band of men pin the blame on him for the turn of events. Their bitterness of soul overflowed in making their leader the scapegoat for whatever reason. David can attest to the truth of Psalm 34:19 – Many are the afflictions of the righteous.

The good news in the midst of this horrifying text is that he can also testify to the truth of the remaining half of that verse. But the Lord delivers him out of them all. David models for us an important principle for responding to trials, even the worst of them.

In the throes of desperate circumstances the devoted intentionally make their way toward God in every respect.

And the first way to do that is to find your strength in God (1 Samuel 30: 1-6).

At the end of v. 6, Ziklag smoldering around him, family taken from him, embittered comrades preparing to stone him, what does the man do? But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. He strengthened himself. The force of the Hebrew verb is reflexive. This is a choice he made. David takes an intentional direction. He moves toward God not from Him. He doesn’t blame God, he doesn’t rail on God, he doesn’t question God; he strengthens himself where? In the Lord his God (emphasis added). Yahweh is not just Israel’s covenant-keeping, faithful God; He is David’s God. This is David demonstrating the force of his words in Psalm 23:1 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (emphasis added).

David possesses composure and takes courage in a way no one else on the scene at Ziklag seems prepared to do. He finds strength in God. Perhaps he remembered a former day in the Wilderness of Ziph, on the run from Saul, where he found strength in God, but not of his own accord. First Samuel 23:15-16 records:

15David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. 16And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. 17And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.”

In the throes of those desperate straits, God sent him Jonathan, his fiercely loyal, covenant-bound friend. He helped fortify David’s weary hands. He had the right words in the suffering. You shall be king over Israel. He reminded him of the promise and decree of Yahweh. But here in 1 Samuel 30 there is no Jonathan. Deeper currents of spiritual commitment now course through the veins of David as he draws nearer the throne. On this occasion, though all desert him, he will find his strength in God alone. He will preach to himself the promises of God that do not fail. He will live and breathe the words of Psalm 73:25-28.

25Whom have I in heaven but you?   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail,   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  27For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;   you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28But for me it is good to be near God;   I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

Andrew Bonar, Free Church of Scotland pastor, did just this in the face of stunning loss.

[He] wrote in his diary for October 15, 1864, of his grievous “wound”; Isabella, his wife of seventeen years, died, apparently of complications following childbirth. He wrote that on the day of her death he had, according to his custom, been meditating on a Scripture text between dinner and tea. On that day it had been Nahum 1:7 – “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (RSV). Bonar adds, “Little did I think how I would need it half an hour after (quoted in Dale Ralph Davis’ Looking on the Heart, p. 172).

Countless numbers of devoted saints through the centuries have turned to God in His word to find their strength in Him. They treasure His presence there. They calculate the certainty of His promises. They remember the virtues of His character. They come forth like Job in 13:15 – Though he slay me, I will hope in him. The way of the devoted in the throes of the desperate leads toward God in every respect. They find their strength in God.

Do you find yourself in the throes of desperate straits? Is there no Jonathan to strengthen your hand in God? Maybe the Lord would have you move toward Him in dependence upon Him alone for the strength only He can give.

When Deity Dissolved Over Dying

Today’s message from John 11:28-37 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here is the quote by B. B. Warfield characterizing the depth of emotion displayed by Jesus as fundamentally rage.

It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, “as a champion who prepares for conflict.” The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but — as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative (compare especially, verses 24-26) — a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.

Praise God for Jesus our champion who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10)!