Help for a Grieving Spouse

Recently, a friend of mine who’s a pastor in New England lost his wife after a long battle with cancer. Now a widower with two small children under age seven, I wanted to give him something to help him process his grief. I sent him A Grief Sanctified: Through Sorrow to Eternal Hope by J.I. Packer.

9781581344400Here’s the publisher’s description:

Their love story is not one of fairy tales. It is one of faithfulness from the beginning through to its tragic ending.

Richard and Margaret Baxter had been married only nineteen years before she died at age forty-five. A prominent pastor and prolific author, Baxter sought consolation and relief the only true way he knew- in Scripture with his discipline of writing. Within days he produced a lover’s tribute to his mate and a pastor’s celebration of God’s grace. It is spiritual storytelling at its best, made all the more poignant by the author’s unveiling of his grief.

J. I. Packer has added his own astute reflections along with his edited version of this exquisite memoir that considers six of life’s realities-love, faith, death, grief, hope, and patience. He guides you in comparing and contrasting the world’s and the Bible’s ideals on coping with these tides of life. The powerful combination of Packer’s insights and Baxter’s grief gives you a beacon if you are searching for God, a pathfinder for your relationships, and a lifeline if you are grieving.

Whatever the circumstances of the reader, the book is a beautiful love story.

Learn more about Packer’s A Grief Sanctified here.

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When The Heidelberg Hits Home: An Update

I wrote and posted this a year ago. Since then, my now departed friend’s wife’s (now a widow) cancer has gone in complete remission. The Heidelberg’s truths are sweeter and truer now, even through tears, than a year ago.

Yesterday a dear family friend unexpectedly died.

He had heart problems for all of his adult life and was frequently in the hospital. His family and friends always knew that the Lord could call him home at any time. Still, the news of his passing is shocking.

Along with my friend’s heart condition, his wife recently discovered she has cancer. She just began chemotherapy. Her next treatment is scheduled for tomorrow.

They have three children.

My friend grew up in the Dutch Reformed theological tradition and had a deep appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism. When he was younger, it was more of a love/hate relationship. But as he grew older, he grew wiser, and his love blossomed for the Heidelberg. He was even teaching it to the youth of their local PCA church here in the Twin Cities. He knew the Heidelberg inside and out, and wanted his children to do the same.

So when I heard of his death yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember the Heidelberg’s famous first question:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10

1 1 Cor. 6:19-20
2 Rom. 14:7-9
3 1 Cor. 3:23; Titus 2:14
4 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2
5 John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11
6 John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:5
7 Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18
8 Rom. 8:28
9 Rom. 8:15-16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14
10 Rom. 8:1-17

Herein lies rock solid and comforting truth that will sustain his wife and children in the uncertain days ahead:

In life—and death—their bodies and souls belong to Jesus Christ. They are set free from the devil’s tyranny. Not a hair can fall from their heads without the Father’s will. All things work together for their salvation. Eternity is real. Jesus is watching over them. They wholly belong to him. He is faithful. (Repeat)

It’s times like this when a supposedly dry, erudite, 450 year old theological teaching aid becomes something more: moving us from mere knowledge about the Triune God and ourselves in light of who he is to remembering, and perhaps experiencing, beautiful and glorious communion with him. Even (especially?) in times of unexpected suffering and loss.

The Heidelberg—a musty, outdated and irrelevant catechism?

I don’t think so.

As for my now departed friend? His need for the Heidelberg is obsolete, as he is now joyfully basking in the eternal presence of the Triune God to which it speaks.

God in the Wasteland

Yesterday a dear family friend unexpectedly died.

He had heart problems for all of his adult life and was frequently in the hospital. His family and friends always knew that the Lord could call him home at any time. Still, the news of his passing is shocking.

Along with my friend’s heart condition, his wife recently discovered she has cancer. She just began chemotherapy. Her next treatment is scheduled for tomorrow.

They have three children.

My friend grew up in the Dutch Reformed theological tradition and had a deep appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism. When he was younger, it was more of a love/hate relationship. But as he grew older, he grew wiser, and his love blossomed for the Heidelberg. He was even teaching it to the youth of their local PCA church here in the Twin Cities. He knew the Heidelberg inside and out, and wanted his children…

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David Brooks on The Art of Presence

David Brooks of The New York Times writes about the Woodiwiss family, who’ve experienced almost unbearable trauma over their two daughters’ tragedies. The Woodiwiss’ wrote a blog piece setting out how to better help those suffering tragedy and trauma. Brooks recounts raw lessons they’ve learned—and are learning—in an article titled “The Art of Presence,” which ought to be required reading especially for pastors, but also for all Christians seeking to help others amid gut-wrenching trauma. Brooks writes:

Ashley [the mother] also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.

Brooks shares six lessons gleaned from the Woodiwiss’ on cultivating the art of presence:

  1. Be there
  2. Don’t compare, ever
  3. Bring soup
  4. Don’t say “you’ll get over it”
  5. Be a builder
  6. Don’t say “it’s all for the best” or try to make sense out of what happened

Read Brooks’ article “The Art of Presence” here.

When The Heidelberg Hits Home

Yesterday a dear family friend unexpectedly died.

He had heart problems for all of his adult life and was frequently in the hospital. His family and friends always knew that the Lord could call him home at any time. Still, the news of his passing is shocking.

Along with my friend’s heart condition, his wife recently discovered she has cancer. She just began chemotherapy. Her next treatment is scheduled for tomorrow.

They have three children.

My friend grew up in the Dutch Reformed theological tradition and had a deep appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism. When he was younger, it was more of a love/hate relationship. But as he grew older, he grew wiser, and his love blossomed for the Heidelberg. He was even teaching it to the youth of their local PCA church here in the Twin Cities. He knew the Heidelberg inside and out, and wanted his children to do the same.

So when I heard of his death yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember the Heidelberg’s famous first question:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10

1 1 Cor. 6:19-20
2 Rom. 14:7-9
3 1 Cor. 3:23; Titus 2:14
4 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2
5 John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11
6 John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:5
7 Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18
8 Rom. 8:28
9 Rom. 8:15-16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14
10 Rom. 8:1-17

Herein lies rock solid and comforting truth that will sustain his wife and children in the uncertain days ahead:

In life—and death—their bodies and souls belong to Jesus Christ. They are set free from the devil’s tyranny. Not a hair can fall from their heads without the Father’s will. All things work together for their salvation. Eternity is real. Jesus is watching over them. They wholly belong to him. He is faithful. (Repeat)

It’s times like this when a supposedly dry, erudite, 450 year old theological teaching aid becomes something more: moving us from mere knowledge about the Triune God and ourselves in light of who he is to remembering, and perhaps experiencing, beautiful and glorious communion with him. Even (especially?) in times of unexpected suffering and loss.

The Heidelberg—a musty, outdated and irrelevant catechism?

I don’t think so.

As for my now departed friend? His need for the Heidelberg is obsolete, as he is now joyfully basking in the eternal presence of the Triune God to which it speaks.

An Open Letter to Clarence the Angel (From the Film It’s a Wonderful Life)

Dear Clarence,

At the outset, please forgive me if this letter seems a bit disjointed. I’ve never written an angel before, so I’m a bit imagesnervous!

What’s the occasion of this, my very first “Angel” letter? I realize it’s a tad tardy, but it’s regarding the movie that made you famous: Frank Capra’s iconic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve watched it for nearly every year I’ve been alive, and have even passed the tradition on to my growing children. Indeed, for much—perhaps even the majority?—of the United States (even Christians) Christmas is nearly synonymous with the movie. A Christmas passing without watching it? Unthinkable! Just recalling that famous line by one of the Bailey girls, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings!” gets me all misty-eyed. After all, you got your wings by helping George, right? Way to go!

However, as much as I deeply appreciate the film on many levels, I’ve had a budding concern. Really it’s not so much a concern as it is—how shall I put it?—a mild disagreement. I know, I know, lowly old me disagreeing with you, an angel. What nerve! Please allow me to briefly explain.

After you save George from attempted suicide and he gets a harrowing glimpse of what life would be if he never existed, almost in passing you comment, “You see George, you had a wonderful life. Don’t you see it would be a shame if you threw it all away?”

Now by any measure, it would appear George Bailey certainly had a wonderful life. (By “wonderful” I’m inferring images-1you mean “great” or “delightful”?) He had a beautiful wife, four kids, a home to call his own, and friends galore. His list of achievements is legendary:

  • Saves Harry (his kid brother) from drowning, who then goes on to become a war hero;
  • Keeps his wife from becoming an old maid;
  • Rehabilitates and rescues alcoholic Mr. Gower (his childhood boss) from inadvertently killing someone and rotting in jail;
  • Saves his dad’s business;
  • Averts the lovely Violet from becoming a prostitute;
  • Prevents Bedford Falls from becoming “Pottersville.”

At the movie’s end he almost had everyone eating from the palm of his hand. (I could make a comment about how that final scene may be interpreted as an act of worship, i.e. how they all enter his home dumping money on the table and breaking forth in song, but I really must focus!)

Back to my mild disagreement. Not to sound all curmudgeonly, Clarence, but is it really a wonderful life? I don’t mean exclusively for George Bailey, but for the whole of humanity. Can it be said—even for the Christian—that life is wonderful?

Yes, I concede there are moments in life where one can say, “That was wonderful!” I’m not discounting the many blessings, episodes of sheer exhilaration, joy, beauty and awe.

But surely you know how we are a fallen race, ruined and marred by sin and it’s ongoing, decaying effects. Even theimages-2 most sanctified Christian is not immune to a difficult marriage, job loss, miscarriages, cancer, the ebb and flow of friendships, unexpected tragedy. Life is hard, even considering wonderful moments.

Consider Jesus: did he live a wonderful life? (He is the Suffering Servant.) What about the Apostle Paul and the early church? Even today, I think of some of the most mature Christians I know who, even amidst life’s highs, would seriously question if this earthly life is “wonderful” (in the truest sense).

Does following Jesus mean one will have a wonderful life? Instead, Jesus promises a joyful life, even amidst significant suffering. In theological language, to expect a wonderful life now is to have an over-realized eschatology. We’re living between two worlds, the now and the not yet.

In other words, Clarence, the reason this isn’t a wonderful life (in the Capra-esque way)—even for the redeemed—is for this simple reason: Life this side of glory is not the way it’s supposed to be—even for George Bailey.

So this Christmas I’ll break out the hot cider, huddle the kids around our bulky T.V. with spotty reception in our cold basement and once again watch It’s a Wonderful Life, anticipating lines from memory. But this time, Clarence, I’ll do so thinking of the Redeemer who one day will make all things right in a world gone terribly wrong—even for the George Baileys among us. To think otherwise (especially for the Christian) is to prepare oneself for a life fraught with unremitting despair, disillusionment and despondency.

Rest assured, I’ll still robustly sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!” and mean it with all my heart. As Augustine once wrote, “…a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”

Jesus help us.

Advent Blessings,

Michael

—(Originally written for Desiring God)