The Perils of Sacred Music

20181218_200824Two nights ago, we opened our Christmas gift to each other: we attended a superb performance of Handel’s MESSIAH at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. We are both very familiar with this magnificent oratorio, and hearing it live adds to the wonder of it.

This is not a concert review, but I do have to comment on a couple of things about the performance. There were a few disappointments.

Many people in the audience were clearly ignorant of either the piece or concert protocol. They insisted on applauding after every aria and nearly every chorus, which was distracting, to say the least. Embarrassing, actually.  Perhaps for the sake of time (due to the excessive and inappropriate applause,) the conductor deleted the chorus, “Lift up your heads.” Odd.

The soloists included a counter tenor, which was disappointing to me. I just don’t like counter tenors much. In fact, I don’t even like the idea of counter tenors, and I store them in the same locker with ballerinos. I have heard some good ones–the one who performed in MESSIAH last April on the day I landed in Israel was excellent, and he didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies. The counter tenor on our recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a master of the craft, no denying it. But I’d much rather watch a pretty  woman with a beautiful contralto voice than a pretty man with a pretentious manner and an annoying vibrato. “If you’re going to sing like a woman, then be a woman,” is what I say. The American soprano was terrific–she looked more like a young soccer mom than a highly-decorated international vocal star, and her voice was like a bell. The baritone had a great set of pipes, but his performance was a little wooden, I thought. The tenor was excellent–crystal clear diction, a very pleasing timbre to his voice, and an honest, humble approach to both the music and the text–little to no ornamentation, and facial expressions that reflected at least an appreciation for the text, if not a clear understanding of it.

Which brings me to my real reason for this post.

For a child of God, singing sacred works like MESSIAH is worship. For an unbeliever, however, even listening to such things is perilous. To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

Before we went to the NAC the other night, we had prayed several times that God would use the text of MESSIAH to convict both the performers and attendees of their sin and their need for the One of Whom they were singing–“the “Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Canada’s multi-talented Governor General was in the 80-voice choir again (she sang with the Ottawa Bach Choir in a performance we attended last February.) She has made some harsh and derisive public remarks about creationism, the Bible, and those who believe it. I observed on the way home that I can’t imagine how an astronaut (the Governor General was one) who denies the existence of the Creator can sing MESSIAH with a straight face. My wife replied that this is like the vain repetitions of the Jews against which Jesus taught, and the empty traditions with which she grew up as a French Roman Catholic.

National-Arts-Centre-177-DSAI-NAC-credit-doublespace-photographyWe wondered aloud about how many of the hundreds of people who filled Southam Hall on Tuesday night actually believed what they were hearing. We pray that God will use what they heard to assault their hearts in the night and give them no peace until they find it in the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the things for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55.9-11)

God, make it so with those Tuesday night concert-goers. Bring conviction, not more condemnation.


The Ante-Magnificat

four_col_Magnificat_MSI don’t celebrate Christmas. Not really. And I don’t say, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” because I don’t believe He was ever there. At least not in what our culture has come to know as Christmas. But before you paint me with pine tar and turkey feathers and run me out of town on a yule log, please hear me out.

What we call, “Christmas,” today is an event fueled by commercialism, secularism, romanticism, and paganism.  I have no problem with celebrating the birth of Christ. None at all. I love Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” I like turkey and cranberries. I give special gifts to the people I cherish. I value time with my family. I like the smell of balsam firs and freshly-baked cookies. I enjoy times of quiet contemplation and nighttime walks in the snow. I love reading O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi” and “Gian-Carlo Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” But none of these things has any real bearing on the Incarnation.

So when December rolls around, I begin doing two things every year: studying the gospel account of the birth of Christ, and listening to Handel’s MESSIAH. Each of these activities helps me to focus on my real appreciation for this time of year, disconnected as it is from the more likely timing of the Incarnation around Passover. One of my goals as I undertake my annual reading and listening is to learn something new.

This year, Madeleine and I are reading Luke’s account of Christ’s birth together. In Luke 1, I was struck with two things.

The first is the fact that Zechariah, John’s father, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, ask the Angel Gabriel the same question: “How?”

Upon hearing the announcement of the barren Elizabeth’s delivery of a son in her old age, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (LUK 1.18) Gabriel tells him he will be mute until John’s birth: “…because you did not believe my words.” Zechariah’s question is related to the possibility of John’s conception.

Jesus’ conception was even more improbably than John’s, though they were both miraculous. When Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, she also asks, “How?”  Her question concerns the process of Jesus’ conception, not the possibility: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (LUK 1.34) She believes the angel, but wonders how God will bring this about.

The same question. Two different reasons for asking it.

The second thing I noticed this year is Mary’s summation of her exchange with the Angel Gabriel. After he explains how she will conceive and tells her that Elizabeth is already pregnant, he reminds her that “…nothing will be impossible with God.” (LUK 1.37) In the next verse, Mary responds simply, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Would that God would give me Mary’s believing heart and submissive will!

The Other Side of the Gospel

I recently read the compelling testimony of Rosaria Butterfield. Once an outspoken liberal lesbian intellectual, she put her trust in Jesus Christ and her life was transformed. She cites a passage in John 7 that made a deep impression on her as she listened to a sermon on this text:

“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” John 7.17

During the feast of Sukkot, Jesus was in Jerusalem and teaching in the temple. His wisdom and grasp of the Old Testament Scriptures astounded the Jews, and they asked themselves how He could be so learned without having had any formal education. On what authority could He say such things?

Jesus’ response in verse 17 has huge implications. As Rosaria Butterfield recalls her own experience,

“But God’s promises rolled in like sets of waves into my world. One Lord’s Day, [the pastor] preached on John 7:17: “If anyone wills to do [God’s] will, he shall know concerning the doctrine” (NKJV). This verse exposed the quicksand in which my feet were stuck. I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. I expected that in all areas of life, understanding came before obedience…But the verse promised understanding after obedience.” ~ Rosaria Butterfield

To many, especially those who fancy themselves intellectuals, the Bible seems illogical, unreasonable, untrustworthy, and even nonsensical. (Many of those who would level such charges have never actually read the Bible, but that is another matter.) Others say that a gospel which requires nothing for one to do is too simplistic to be true.

Jesus tells us that the questioning of His authority–and, hence, the authority of Scripture–indicates an unwillingness to obey God. The human heart is set against God, so anything that seeks to correct and redirect it is viewed as false and unreasonable. In his personal testimony of coming to Christ at Princeton University, Dr. John Whitcomb observed that if we seek to argue for the authority of Scripture on an academic level, we put the skeptic on an intellectual pedestal from which he or she will never step down. This is so true.

The issue of Jesus’ authority or the Bible’s authority is not an academic or scientific issue. It is not principally a matter of the head, but of the heart. If a person is sincerely interested in pleasing God, he or she will accept the authority of the Scriptures. To many, the Bible appears to defy reason. But, on the other side of the gospel, the new believer immediately realizes that it is the only thing that is truly reasonable. So many things quickly start to make sense–even the evening news.

A will to obey brings the ability to understand.

Love ‘n Hugs!


One year ago today, at just after 5 AM, my precious companion of over thirty-eight years slipped peacefully into the arms of the Saviour she loves. Donna had endured the ravages of pancreatic cancer with courage, grace, hope, humour, and a keen desire to finish well.

She did.

We all miss her, and we will never forget her. She provided a model for selfless love that few people I know have ever matched. The impact she had on people all over the world continues to amaze me.

14305437_10154572869324515_3178632645292685268_oYou may remember this photograph of a giant amaryllis we had in our home while Donna was ill. On the morning she died, I turned around to look at the plant and discovered that the fourth and final bloom had opened during the night. It seemed providential—a picture of what our Father is doing in the lives of His children. He tends us and nurtures us so we will flourish wherever He plants us, conforming us to “the image of His Son,” but we will not be in full bloom until the moment we see Him face to face.

DJ’s amaryllis illustrates the discipleship process for me. God wants to use me to help others bloom spiritually, and He wants to use them to help me do the same. This is our purpose in life. She understood that, and she accomplished it more effectively than most.

On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank all of you who have prayed for us, have expressed your love and concern in generous and practical ways, and have ministered to us with your many messages of comfort and encouragement. We could not have gotten through this difficult year without you. We are enormously grateful.

One of the verses that sustained Donna throughout her fifteen-year struggle with cancer was Psalm 94.19:

“In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul.” (NKJV)

I thank God for the wonderful years He gave Donna and me as companions, lovers, teammates, parents, grandparents, mentors, and siblings in the Saviour. And I am thankful that I serve the one True God, the “God of all comfort,” Who produces beauty from ashes, brings joy in the morning, and upholds me with His steadfast love.

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” PSA 116.15


Make Yourself Comfortable


It’s MESSIAH time again, as it is at this time every year. I usually begin listening to Handel’s monumental work in early December, and play it many times before Christmas. It has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I have most of it memorized. I never tire of it, and every year I determine to learn something new, something of value to my soul that will help me to grow closer to the Subject of the oratorio.

It didn’t take long this year. After the intense orchestral prelude, the tenor sings:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” ~ Isaiah 40.1-2

That first word–“comfort”–hit me like a bus. It’s what I need this year. I began to think about comfort and Christmas, but especially about comfort and Christ.

Isaiah is speaking to Israel, but His words reach into the nation’s distant future, when her King will return to decimate her many enemies and establish theocracy as global governance with righteousness, justice, and peace. Given the state of God’s chosen people in Isaiah’s day (and ours) and the magnitude of their impending judgment, the promise of comfort would have come as a welcome reassurance to a believing Jew.

Comfort–real, lasting comfort–comes from God alone. Despite their best intentions, even the most dearly loved family members and most well-intentioned members of the Body cannot provide it without His help. Comfort is God’s domain.

Isaiah looks ahead to Israel’s restoration. Her geographical and political restoration have already occurred, as Isaiah and many of the other Old Testament prophets said it would millennia ago. Isaiah asks rhetorically,

“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” ~ Isaiah 66.8a

The unexpected answer is, “Yes!” On 13 May 1948, Israel did not exist. On 14 May, it did. At 4:16 PM on 14 May, Israel did not exist. At 4:17, it did. Regardless of what one thinks of the Jewish people, Israel is here to stay. God clearly stated in many Old Testament Scriptures that He would take them back to the land He gave them through their patriarch, Abraham. And there they are. He also promised that He would make them a righteous nation–one that would truly love and obey her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s promise of comfort to Israel also comes with the promises of  peace and pardon–neither of which Israel enjoys now.

Still looking ahead to Israel’s final restoration, Isaiah writes,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”     ~ Isaiah 49.13

And again,

“I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets  himself to destroy?” ~ Isaiah 51.12,13

How can God offer comfort to His people? To anyone?

Paul of Tarsus, the Turkish Apostle, answers this question in his second canonical letter to the church in Corinth:

“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 affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 1.3,4

Jehovah God is the “God of all comfort,” and the Lord Jesus–God in Flesh, Immanuel, “God With Us”–spent the bulk of His ministry comforting the afflicted. He healed the sick, restored hearing to the deaf, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, fed the hungry, reassured the sorrowful, and cast demons out of people possessed. After His resurrection, when He was about to return to the Father, He told His disciples that He would give them another Comforter–another Helper–who would be with them forever:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”                       ~ John 14.16,17

Those who do not have the Holy Spirit, or do not even believe He exists–cannot know real comfort. The laws and trappings of religion, the traditions of families and cultures, even the ministrations of loved ones cannot approximate the comfort that comes from The Comforter.

Why is comfort on my mind this Christmas? This is the first Advent season in forty years that I have experienced without the marvelous woman I married in 1977. Only the “God of all comfort” has been able to treat the wound in my heart, which may seep for years to come. But His grace is more than sufficient, and the “comfort and joy” of which the familiar carol speaks has been our portion as we have celebrated this Christmas together without our beloved wife and mother.

But, as Paul says, comfort–like grief itself–is a stewardship. It is not something to simply receive. It is something to pass on to others who need it. Perhaps you need comfort this Christmas, as well. Seek it from the One Who can provide it because it His very nature. The Incarnation is not just about a Baby in a manger. It is more about a Saviour on a cross and a King on a throne.

Donna is not with us, but God is “with us,” and she is with Him. Together–she from there, we from here–we look forward to that glorious day in which the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will rule the earth with righteousness, justice, and peace.

Comfort and joy.

Hips, Thighs, and the Nanaimo Factor

15380497_10154880210114515_1394830291038030524_nMany thanks to my good friend Jeff Buckman for introducing me to the sport of snowshoeing. Having spent most of my adult life in the Great White North, I shouldn’t have needed a guy from Pennsyltucky to perform this essential function. Nor should I need a guy from Michigan to introduce me to ice fishing, but my colleague Joe Stinson will be doing that this winter. But I digress.

This morning I took off down a narrow, frosted trail near the Ottawa River on my new Red Feather snowshoes. I’m an enthusiastic cross country skier, so I wondered how I would enjoy trudging along at a much slower pace, walking like a toddler with a load in his Huggies.

Neither scenario proved to be true. My gait was pretty much as it usually is, despite the additional width of the shoes–and I don’t walk anywhere slowly, either with or without snowshoes. I have to say, it was every bit the workout that skiing is–a very different movement, but with poles, a great way to get some much-needed exercise. In Jeff’s words, “It is fun–just another way to enjoy the snow.” Jeff is an avid downhill skier, so he should know. And now I know, too.

Whenever I use the words, “hips” and, “thighs” in the same sentence, I recall an incident that Donna and I still laughed about many years later. We were in the waiting room of our doctor’s office in Nova Scotia one time when a schoolgirl came by selling Girl Guide cookies. We bought some, but the lady next to us said to the girl, “My mouth says, ‘Yes,’ but my hips and thighs say, ‘No.'”  Donna borrowed that quip many times over the years.

Medical researchers and practitioners alike tell us that as we age, men and women collect our excess weight in different places. In men, fat goes to the gut; in women, it goes to the butt. Diagnostic imaging at Walmart will confirm this.  (If Donna were reading over my shoulder, she would have just slapped me lovingly on the back of the head and said with her delightful giggle, “Rob–delete that!” But she isn’t, so I won’t.)

So ladies, if you’re interested in firming your hips and thighs, etc., I highly recommend snowshoeing. (I know some of you will be, especially after all those holiday goodies. I call this the Nanaimo Factor. If you’re not Canadian, you won’t understand this medical jargon and will have to come up with your own factor.) That’s the region of my body where I really felt it today–far more so than when I ski. You’ll feel it there, too–of this I have no doubt. In fact, after shoeing a few kilometers, your hips and thighs may be on their knees begging you to go home.

Snowshoeing seems like a great family activity, as it can be mastered immediately by anyone who can walk. Poles help with equilibrium and lend an additional aerobic element to the motion. The sport can be enjoyed anywhere you find snow–no grooming is required, or even desirable. (I’m talking about the trail’s grooming, not yours. But wait until after your shower, which you will need.) It’s about blazing your own trail, exploring uncharted territory, and all that. A word of caution from a seasoned professional–don’t attempt using your snowshoes in a hard-packed, icy parking lot as you’re going back to your car. The teeth of the crampons may grab the ice and stop the shoes dead, resulting in serious injury to your face, your pride, or both.

One final comment about snowshoeing. Cross country skiing is a very enjoyable and therapeutic solo activity for me–especially at night, under a full moon. Somehow, snowshoeing seems different. It’s a little like drinking mate, the tea that is such an integral part of the South American cultures I so dearly love. It’s okay to do it alone, but I think it would be much more enjoyable with a partner.



Memories of My Kitchen Diva


She would have loved this day–a snowy, blustery morning presaging the brutal winter we’re supposed to get this year, which she also would have loved.

1622144_10152217882154515_1070802655_nBut days like today were made for her. She would have been in the kitchen–one of her two favourite rooms in the house–all day long. There would be something bubbling or simmering on every burner. One pot would undoubtedly be filled with butter and applesauce for her amazing fruitcakes–my mom’s recipe, and the only fruit cake I’ll eat.

The oven would be cranking out raisin tarts, Nova Scotia oat cakes, sugar cookies, sour cream cookies, lemon squares, date squares, Nanaimo bars, shortbread, biscotti, and a few other things she’d “like to try this year.” The CD player would be blasting Il Divo, The Tenors, Sarah Brightman, Celtic Woman, or The Barra MacNeils, and she’d be singing at the top of her lungs. (She’d probably be begging to put on some Christmas music a week early.) The counters would be covered with pans and canisters, spices and tools and measuring cups. The sink would be piled high with items needing to be washed, and, if I were home, she would be calling up to my office every time there was something I could lick. At every opportunity, she would sit down right where I’m sitting, on the high leather chair at the end of her “baking centre,” and conduct multiple conversations with her family, her many Facebook friends, or her international daughters who needed encouragement, advice, or a “good talking to.”

Never again.


As I try to implement Donna’s look-ahead-cook-ahead policy today, I am feeling so grateful for her legacy–a legacy of good food, but also of the sheer joy she had in preparing it for our family, for our many guests, and for me. We didn’t eat out of boxes or cans. Our children grew up eating their mom’s home-baked, honey-whole wheat bread and real food made with fresh ingredients in her own kitchen. My daughter and daughters-in-law cook the same way for their families, and I know this made Donna very happy. The thought of eating processed foods almost nauseates the whole lot of us.




But for me, there is a downside to this blessing–the death of my Kitchen Diva. Now, I’m fending for myself in a space that was hers for so long, an incompetent interloper struggling to eat well and still do my work. And now, her work, too.

If you are reading this and you are a man who is married to a good cook, thank God for a precious gift. Bless her often with praise and frequent hugs and kisses. Appreciate what she puts on your table and the huge effort she makes to put it there. Get her the tools she needs to do it to her satisfaction. Join her in the kitchen–it’s her playroom. Help her clean up. Remind your children just how good they have it. Brag her up to the whole world.

And learn to cook.


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Service

The sight both shocked and moved me.

A beautiful young woman was in my kitchen, on her hands and knees. As her body rocked rhythmically back and forth, she blew tendrils of dark hair away from her face as, with both hands gripping a towel, she scrubbed the floor. She grew up in a wealthy and privileged Middle Eastern home where the floors were cleaned by a housekeeper. When she wanted something as a teenager, she bought it–regardless of the cost. When she needed to be picked up at university, her father sent his big Mercedes and a driver.

Yet, here she was–scouring my kitchen floor. Just before she cleaned the toilets.

This girl and her husband had come to Canada as refugees, and Donna and I met them when she was five months pregnant with their first child. They quickly became part of our growing international family, and we grew to love them as our own children. We were in the delivery room with them when their precious little girl came into the world. We were often in their home, and they in ours. Even so, to see her on all fours with a rag in her hands is an image I won’t soon forget. And shouldn’t.

mopWhen Donna was first diagnosed with a pancreatic tumour, messages of hope and encouragement came to us from all over the planet. Throughout our life together,  we had developed an extensive network of friends and colleagues, and they immediately came alongside to help us endure the anguish of a critical illness and its possible consequences. As Aaron and Hur did for Moses, they “held up [our] hands,” which soon grew weary from anxiety, sleeplessness, and exertion. One of our international “daughters,” a young woman from Saudi Arabia, made us a whole stack of delicious, ready-to-heat-and-serve dinners. Two stacks, actually–one for Donna without any seasoning, and one for me with all the seasonings she knows I love. She even made a couple of dozen servings of kunafa, one of our all-time favourite Middle eastern desserts: cheese hiding in a nest of shredded phyllo that is baked and then drowned in syrup. All of these dishes were pre-cooked and neatly packaged in disposable aluminum pans, each lid inscribed with the list of the ingredients inside and either “Dad” or “Mom” written at the top. When she brought this wonderful gift, we were dumbstruck.

The day after my wife was told her cancer was at Stage 4, I had to leave for a week in Los Angeles. God arranged the circumstances so that a dear friend of ours from the Boston area arrived to stay with Donna while I was gone. Her arrival was providential. She sat on the couch or on the edge of Donna’s bed for hours. They laughed, cried, sang, read the Scriptures, and prayed together. Our guest went on a shopping spree and purchased all kinds of things–lavender bath salts, an expensive shower chair, food–that would make Donna more comfortable and her care more efficient. She had cared for a cancer patient before, and she even brought a large quantity of supplements and high-protein smoothies so Donna would be sure to get the nutrition she needed.

People brought meals. They offered to drive us places, clean our house, run errands, and do our shopping. They sent us gift cards. Our new teammates, who arrived in Ottawa just two weeks after Donna’s initial diagnosis, offered to do absolutely anything we needed–despite having four children to care for and a huge list of immigration-related tasks to complete. Friends brought or sent gifts they thought would bring a measure of cheer to our home. Someone gave Donna what can only be described as a Jacuzzi for her feet. (One of life’s greatest physical pleasures, in her mind, was a long foot massage.)

One of our overseas colleagues left her daughter and newborn grandson to come and visit Donna for several days. While she was in our home, she asked me if there was anything I could think of that would make Donna more comfortable. I had no idea, so she made a suggestion: a double recliner with electric controls that would make it easier for her to adjust her posture and get in and out of the chair, and would enable me to sleep sitting next to her rather than across the room on the sofa. Co-workers in the organization with which we work collected enough money to purchase a beautiful La-Z-Boy loveseat. During the final weeks of her life–until her last three days–she only left that chair to go to the washroom.

Another friend drove eight hours from New Hampshire with a young friend of hers, a girl we’d never met. The girl came along just to meet my wife and to play the piano and sing hymns for her.

Our greatest blessing through the entire ordeal was our children. They all came together with their tribes–there were 16 of us living in our small townhouse, with gusts of up to 21 when our parents and siblings visited–and then all three came by themselves just before Donna died. They cooked, cleaned, and went to the pharmacy. They organized Donna’s medical records by making a binder that accommodated virtually every scrap of information her case demanded: her ever-changing medication schedule; events like vomiting, loss of appetite, or severe pain; when and what she ate; if and when she moved her bowels; and contact information for absolutely every person involved in any way with her care. Even some who weren’t. We took this binder with us whenever we went to see a doctor or took Donna into the emergency room, and the medical staff was amazed at the detail and organization. The men helped me with practical matters around the house. They brought all kinds of things for the children to do while they were here, and even though the house was jammed with people and all their stuff, the time was as delightful as such a time could ever be. Later, when the end was in sight and the children came back so they could be with us when their mother went to glory, they told me, “Dad, just make a list of things that need to be done, and we’ll do them. Don’t worry about anything–you need to spend all the time you can with Mom, and we’re here to make that happen.” I still can’t believe all they did for me, with wisdom, maturity, and precision amid the emotional turmoil of their mother’s impending death. They even did all of the legwork for the funeral arrangements, and sought the counsel of close friends who provided a wealth of practical information regarding how to go about burying a loved one without having to take out a second mortgage.

A man I know asked me how the funeral home handled payment for their services. I told him they required 25% down and the rest on the day of the burial. He responded by saying he wanted to pay the balance.

“Do you have any idea how much money that is?” I asked.

“Yes, I do. That’s exactly why I want to pay for it.” I was gobsmacked.

We were astonished at the care we received from our provincial medical plan–not only medical, but also logistical and even emotional. The home care nurses were compassionate and, for the most part, highly competent. People delivered pharmaceuticals to the house as late as 11 PM if we needed them. Our pharmacist called the provincial office on one occasion to plead our case because she thought we had been improperly charged for a case of food replacement drinks. Near the end, a doctor would come every day if required. One even stood at our door for some time, with tears in her eyes, speaking with our children. Because of the excellent care, Donna was able to stay at home until she died–seeing the things that were familiar to her, listening to her favourite music, being read to, and enjoying privacy and quiet when she needed it. She slipped into the arms of her Saviour surrounded by her husband and three children.

I’m a fixer. So was my wife. I’m also a do-it-yourselfer, something that could made Donna roll her eyes and sigh. (Once, I decided to start making my own tofu. Enough said.) I don’t like other people doing for me what I can do for myself, especially if I feel obligated to pay them or if I think I can do it better. I’m a more private person than my wife was, and I am uncomfortable with people in my space when I’m not. I have grown accustomed to doing things a certain way, and change can frustrate me.

Both before and after my wife died, I had to acknowledge that without the help of my family and  friends, I would have drowned in a flood of concerns with which I was unfamiliar. Pride is what makes it hard for me to accept the service of others. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. But if I love to serve other people, and believe that God would have me to serve lavishly and selflessly, then I should allow others to serve me that way, as well. God holds them no less responsible to love, to serve, and to give than He holds me.

My wife’s critical illness, my loss, my grief, and my inexperience with my new reality all represent opportunities to allow others to serve me the way I hope I will serve them. God has given some the gift–and  all the responsibility–of serving those who think they don’t need to be served, but really do.

So, I’ve had to embrace service. From others. To me.


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Speed Bumps


I’ve moved my office from the dining room of my friends’ vacant home to the patio, which backs onto a 9-hole golf course. It’s in a grove of pines and there are song birds here to provide a sweet melody behind the staccato, syncopated rhythm of my keys. The place is too gorgeous and the afternoon too perfect to work indoors.

As I was traveling here yesterday, I did some reading. At the airport I was previewing a new book written by a friend of mine, to be published in the spring. On the plane, I finished Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves. This was the first of many books on grief that I was given after Donna died, but the last one I completed. The only reason I can give is that I got tired of reading books about this troubling subject and even got too busy to grieve properly myself. As I finished reading this godly woman’s story–her husband died of cancer in February, 2007–I realized several things.

First, the reason I appreciated this book so much is that the author’s experience, even the nature of her family and work, so closely paralleled my own. With all due respect to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the many authors and practitioners who have followed her, I don’t believe grief can be easily quantified. While there may be common elements in everyone’s experience (the most obvious being the loss itself,) grief is visceral, spiritual, social, mental, emotional–and, above all, intensely personal. It is not clinical. Some of the books I read were more helpful than others. Richard Baxter and C.S. Lewis touched me  profoundly, unexpectedly. David Knapp’s I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss offered a wealth of practical help, even though its primary audience is not the grief-stricken themselves. But Groves’ book was comforting and encouraging in countless ways. I’ll share some passages from it later.

The second thing I realized is that I am not anywhere near the end of this path of grief. During these past months I have pushed myself physically, socially, personally, and professionally, and I’m not sure if that was always wise. In the last couple of weeks, especially, I’ve experienced bouts of extreme melancholy, tears, and stabbing pains in my soul. Just about anything can set them off, and as much as I try to recover my wits and move on, when I’m alone I still struggle. I think it’s a matter of pacing. Perhaps I have tried to grieve the way I walk–always as fast as I can.

reservoir-park-damIn the third place, I realized when I got here that God wants to use this short respite to allow me to grieve some more. I have a pile of work to keep me busy–mostly writing projects, and principally, my book manuscript. But something Elizabeth Groves said in her book hit the mark. She had recounted several divinely-tailored blessings her family experienced during her husband’s long illness and just before his death. One was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and his sons to attend a professional football game together. It was a barn-burner, won in the final seconds by their beloved hometown Philadelphia Eagles. They had been given tickets for seats on the 30-yard line behind the Eagles’ bench, and her husband even had a small wall right in front of him on which to rest his foot (this had been a concern when they had received the tickets, as he had blood clots in his leg.) The experience was perfect in every possible respect, and her sons will never forget it. Elizabeth wrote:

“The Lord may not care about who wins a football game, but he does love his children and he delights to pour out that love in personalized, intimate, generous, overflowing ways. He does it all the time, for all of us. But I don’t often notice. I go around living as if things ‘just happen’ or ‘just work out,’ rather than realizing that they come to me directly from God’s loving hand…Throughout the year Al was dying and beyond, we were loved beyond all imagination, not only by God directly–through his Holy Spirit and his Word–but by his people. What we received was vastly beyond anything we deserved and was deeply humbling. It’s the kind of thing that is so overwhelming, so gracious, so unmerited, so far beyond measure, that it makes you just bow your head in grateful silence. There are no words that are an adequate response to such love.” (pp. 108. 158)

That resonated with me, and I realized that this very trip is just such a gift: the generosity of precious friends who also loved and miss my wife; the beauty and charm of this region; the welcoming solitude of a beautiful home; the ridiculously cheap airfare and the offer of another friend’s extra car for two weeks; eager and competent people to “mind the store” and look after my house while I’m gone. And I may even get to see some of my children and grandchildren in the bargain! This didn’t “just work out.” Last year, just two months before Donna’s diagnosis, our family took a two-week road trip to Nova Scotia together. Then, we viewed it as a trip-of-a-lifetime. Now, we see it as a precious gift of God to His unsuspecting children.

Thank you, Father.

One thing that hit me when I was reading is the fact that Donna and I never really got the chance to say an official goodbye, “alone together,” before she lapsed into a medically-induced coma three days before her death. In some ways, her homegoing couldn’t have been more of a blessing: she slipped quietly into the arms of Jesus surrounded by the four people she loved most in the world, in the familiar comfort of her own home. Donna and I had talked often about heaven and my desire to join her there soon. We told each other many times a day that we loved each other (through the years of our marriage, we tried never to let a day go by in which we didn’t say, “I love you” at least once) and we had no “outstanding balances” of sins or personal grievances between each other. For that I am immensely grateful. But I so wish I could have given her a proper send-off to glory, with a long kiss on her lips and a gentle embrace of her fragile, ravaged body and a final, “Thank you for the years of exquisite joy you have given me. I love you more than you’ll ever know, and I’ll see you soon.” Even as I type this, tears are streaming down my face.

Finally, I realized the value of the Body of Christ. I have had to go through this process without the benefit of a local church to support me. I am surrounded by people I love and who love me back, and I know I can call on them whenever I wish. We spend time together and they have been a huge help to me. I treasure them beyond words. Some are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that spiritual kinship has the power to uplift and sustain that people who don’t know the Lord cannot fathom or even imagine. Technology has helped to bridge this gap somewhat–the 800+ people in our private Facebook group and many personal friends who have prayed and shared passages of Scripture and words of comfort and encouragement have been a huge blessing. But God designed a local church to be a family, a body, a building–with each of its parts connected to, supporting, and being supported by the others. I’m so thankful for my brethren in our TAPESTRY FELLOWSHIP and also for those all over the world who have been siblings, vital organs, and bricks for me.

So I go on now, facing these two weeks with a fresh perspective and thankful that my gracious heavenly Father has bestowed on me such a lavish gift. My time here is like a speed bump–a warning that I may be traveling too fast and a way to slow me down lest I bottom out.

I want to share three more passages from Elizabeth Groves’ book:

“Theologians talk about ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification.’ Justification is about Jesus paying the price for our sins by his death on the cross: the innocent voluntarily dying in place of the guilty. Sanctification is about the Holy Spirit gradually transforming us to be more like Jesus. Unlike the makeover shows on TV, however, this process takes a lifetime and will not be finished until we get to heaven. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is both incredibly patient and fully committed to the ultimate transformation, because the change is often v-e-r-y slow.” (pp. 92-93)

“The benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection were real and brought genuine relief and blessing. The gospel doesn’t necessarily alter the circumstances of suffering in our lives. Suffering is real and painful, and it may continue to be painful for a long, long time. The gospel didn’t change the fact that my children were still without their dad. Al was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t erase the pain and grief of that for my kids. But the gospel does set our suffering in the context of a bigger reality–that Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death, and already his victory is turning back its effects. One day sin and death will be entirely eradicated, and as his people we long for that day, but even now we experience a foretaste of it. Even now that reality brings hope in so many ways.”            (p. 162)

“Finally, knowing God as our Father–a loving, merciful, generous, faithful, kind Father–made a difference every single day…knowing that Jesus had defeated death and opened the way to heaven for his people took the sting out of death and undid our grief. I ache for people who face death–their own or a loved one’s–without the companionship of God or the hope of heaven. Thankfully, God’s family is not exclusive; the Father is delighted to welcome people into it.” (p. 207)


The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sense and Sentiment


24 September would have been our 39th wedding anniversary.

I returned the night before from a week-long canoe trip in Algonquin Park, and I’d planned to continue “going dark” until today so I could spend our anniversary uninterrupted, alone with my memories.

(I’m getting ahead of myself with this post–I have a half dozen or so other other pieces on grieving to write before I’m through. But this one is fresh in my mind, so I’m going with it.)

Last week I went to a local florist and ordered a big bunch of white daisies for the occasion–daisies were Donna’s favourite flowers and the ones she carried in her wedding bouquet. My intention was to visit her grave yesterday and put them in the bronze vase that slides up out of the marker and then slides back down so the caretakers can mow. I thought our anniversary would certainly be an appropriate day to visit the cemetery.

On the way home from Algonquin, I rethought the whole thing. I could almost hear my wife asking, “Rob, why would you want to go there and mourn my death, when you can stay home and remember the wonderful life we shared? Nobody’s even going to see those flowers if you put them there (this was her practical side speaking), so why don’t you take them home and enjoy them yourself?”

10320528_10152769789874515_1791706950900169756_nAnd that’s exactly what I did–the sensible thing, the thing I know Donna would have encouraged me to do if she could. Wasting perfectly good flowers on a cemetery was not her style. Nor was mourning death when one could celebrate life.

I was dreading this anniversary–the first one without my darling. 24 September was perhaps the most important day of the year for us. Most years we went away for a three-day romantic tryst at a boutique hotel or B&B in a place we’d never visited before. In 2014, we took a road trip through Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It was one of the best times we ever had together–talking, laughing, singing, reminiscing, planning, eating, taking in the spectacular scenery, and delighting in one another without the distractions of home and work and other people.

Last year was a different story. Donna was not well, though we didn’t yet know why. We had a nice day together in downtown Ottawa and found a special café that has since become my favourite. But our usually festive and romantic mood was overshadowed by  pain. My “Firecracker” was fizzling.

On my drive home from Algonquin Park the other night, I stopped in the village of Barry’s Bay for supper. I bought the schnitzel special, and the three dessert choices included were pecan pie, bread pudding, and something called, “Hot Love.” Anyone who knew Donna knows exactly which of those she would have ordered, and can imagine the witty comment that would have accompanied the order. As I sat and ate my bread pudding (I’m not a fan of vanilla ice cream, even when it’s oozing hot fruity goo of some kind) I pictured her in my mind, smiling flirtatiously at me as she slid that first spoonful into her mouth. I yearned for her then. I yearn for her now.

I didn’t visit Donna’s grave yesterday, and I don’t know when I will–maybe at the first anniversary of her death, unless it’s -44º C again. I struggled in my mind with the compulsion to honour her memory by going to the cemetery, but then common sense–one of Donna’s greatest qualities, and a treasured legacy to me–took over. A clear biblical theology makes visiting the graves of redeemed loved ones unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy, as it forces one to look backward instead of forward–to mourn rather than to anticipate; to recall the unspeakable anguish of sharing pain and witnessing death rather than to revel in the certainty of resurrection and eternal life in the unimaginable glory of heaven.

Absolutely nobody would have benefited from such a visit. She wouldn’t have–rejoicing with the Lover of her soul, she is beyond caring about what I do or about anything that goes on in this broken world. I know I wouldn’t have–just thinking about that grave brings tears to my eyes as I type. Going there would have conjured up the horrible images that I’ve been trying to get out of my mind for over seven months. I would much rather remember Donna as the beautiful, energetic, vivacious, passionate, delightful woman I loved for over forty years.

So I stayed home. After doing the laundry at 6 AM and restocking my refrigerator a few hours later, I stopped at the florist’s and picked up the daisies. I brought them home and put them in a vase. They’re beautiful, and they fill my heart with warmth and make me smile as I remember how many times I picked wild ones for my lover when she was here. They always delighted her.










I spent several hours in the afternoon looking through the things she had put in my grandfather’s big black steamer trunk that sits at the foot of our bed–memorabilia from her childhood, her school years, and from our life together. There’s a lot more in the basement, but I think I’ll wait to go through that with my kids.

I had never seen some of the items before, but the rest precipitated a flood of memories. She had saved many cards and letters. Some are intimate and passionate, and they brought back a deep sense of longing. Some are hilarious (especially the birthday and Mother’s Day cards from our kids) and made me laugh out loud. Some are poignant and gut-wrenching, as the scores of cards she kept after her leukemia diagnosis in 2000. As I sat with my back against the black chest and relived so much of my life with this one-of-a-kind woman, touching photos and clippings and some of the personal items I kept, I thanked God through my tears for the years He gave us. I am truly a blessed man.

20160924_181240When Donna and I weren’t able to get away on our anniversary, we would often stay home and cook a special meal together. That’s what I did last night. To mark the occasion, I prepared something I know she would have enjoyed: freshly-baked rustic bread dipped in good olive oil; cedar-planked salmon with maple and mustard glaze; polenta with shrimp, cheese, and fresh oregano; and vegetables tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasted on the grill with the salmon. I washed it all down with Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider, the delicious beverage we enjoyed on our wedding night at the Sheraton Hotel in Valley Forge, PA, and followed it all up with dates stuffed with bleu cheese and baked until the cheese oozed onto the plate. (We got this 20160924_191702idea from a cider salesman in the Eastern Townships in 2014.) Even though Donna wasn’t here, I imagined us working together, listening to the opera as we did every Saturday, talking non-stop except for frequent breaks to kiss and flirt. I have to admit I stopped to weep a few times, but I enjoyed a day full of precious memories.

Since DJ wasn’t with me, I forewent the candlelight on which she always insisted when we ate “alone together.” And I cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes before I went to bed.

Had she been here, we would have left them until morning.




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