The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Suggestions

Did you ever notice that when you get sick, everyone you know becomes a doctor?

“You need to drink lemon water every morning. And make sure it’s warm.”

“Your body is too acidic.”

“I’m taking a supplement that really helps me with that.”

“You need to drink less coffee.”

“You need to drink more coffee.”

“My aunt had the same thing, and she was bed-ridden for the last nine years of her life.”

“Have you heard about pulling?”

“Chiropractors? Bah! What do they know?”

“I’d recommend carrot juice. Make sure you buy organic carrots, though.”

“I think you’re gluten-intolerant. You need to stop eating grains.”

“Man, that sounds bad. I’d see a specialist, if I were you. The sooner, the better. It sounds like you need an MRI, and probably surgery.


People mean well, and they want to help. So they jump into your circle of pain and speak from their own experience or that of people close to them. The process is the same with suggestions as it is with sympathy.

When we told our friends that Donna had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, their response was seismic–a tsunami of sympathy and concern. We were humbled and overwhelmed. People who loved us expressed themselves with heartfelt eloquence, and as Donna’s disease progressed, they assured us not only that they were praying for us daily, but also that they were weeping with us as they experienced vicariously the anguish of our impending separation.

Many offered suggestions–books on nutrition for chemotherapy patients; links to websites; anecdotes and advice related to the practical aspects of dealing with cancer. Some of these were helpful, and we were profoundly grateful for the love that prompted each of these gestures.

Indulge me as I rant for a minute. I know there will be medical people reading this, and I don’t want to offend you. I know practitioners who are not only exceedingly competent and well-trained, but also committed to their patients’ well-being and selfless in their devotion to them. The exception proves the rule. I am speaking in broad generalities, and my words are those of one who has experienced firsthand the sincere compassion, practiced competence, and astonishing accommodation of an enviable–albeit broken–medical care system. My observation about the medical industry in North America is that it is just that–an industry. Physicians treat symptoms. Most don’t promote wellness or practice preventative medicine, and few–by their own admission–know anything about nutrition. Despite loud crowing to the contrary, the industry seems to be searching not for cures, but for new treatments. There is a huge difference. (For instance, if a cure for cancer were found, the CEO of the American Cancer Society would have to look elsewhere for his million-bucks-a-year salary.) Sorry if I sound a little cynical. I am.

When Donna died, I expected friends to send suggestions. I was not disappointed. Along with hundreds of cards and encouraging notes, I received a number of books on grieving. A few were good. Others were predictable and generic to the point of being glib. I ordered C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and read it with the same admiring fascination as I have his other works. He wrote from my spot in the circle of pain, as if standing in my shoes. He lost his wife to cancer, and found that writing about his own grief was more helpful than reading about other people’s. That’s where I am. Having said that, other books I have found helpful are, J.I. Packer’s A Grief Sanctified (his re-telling, with commentary, of English Puritan Richard Baxter’s loss of his beloved wife); I Didn’t Know What to Say, by David Knapp; and Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves (the book I’m reading now.) Lewis’ famous, The Problem of Pain is on my summer reading list.

Grieving, while it involves universal elements, is a profoundly personal matter. Right after my wife’s death, I contacted four men–three colleagues and a friend from Boston whom I have not seen in years–who I knew shared my space in the circle. One lost his wife to breast cancer when they were both in their twenties and had a toddler. The wife of my friend in Boston died of cancer some years ago. Another, also a young father, lost his wife suddenly and shockingly during a medical procedure–surgery, as I recall. The fourth man’s first wife also died of cancer, and Donna was instrumental in introducing him to his new bride–something that brought her great joy and satisfaction.

I asked these men to be an email support group for me, and they readily agreed. I knew I had to source my suggestions carefully, and used several criteria. I chose:

  1. Men. Women have a different outlook on life, and while as a married man I found that infuriatingly helpful, I felt I needed the perspective of my own gender this time.
  2. Christians. I wanted to hear from men who share my worldview, my love for the True God and His Word, my assurance of eternal life, and my confidence in my Heavenly Father to restore joy and purpose to my remaining days here despite my loss.
  3. Friends. I wanted men whom I knew and trusted, men who would be frank with me– not mincing words, making assumptions about my ability to cope, or glossing over important matters of which I might be unaware.

These men have helped me more than they will ever know. They have been transparent in articulating their own despair and confusion. They have been bold and candid in their exhortations to me. They have encouraged me and taught me. I am immensely grateful.

By nature, I don’t accept suggestions readily. I prefer to do my own analysis and seek my own solutions. That is not a good quality, but it is part of my fallen character. The shocking decline and death of my beloved companion of 40 years shook me to my core. I realized that to immigrate to the world of grief without the help of experienced travelers would be foolhardy. Even dangerous.

I’m grateful I didn’t try to slip across the border undetected.




How the World Got to Be the Way It Is, Part 3

Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus said He would come back. What’s taking Him so long?

As Peter predicts in 2 Peter 3, the scoffers in the last days–our days–will ask this question, among others. Though they may not ask it directly, their worldview includes the premise that the return of Christ is a ludicrous notion. (Remember, scoffers have an agenda–to live as they please without God holding them accountable for anything.) So to acknowledge Jesus is returning requires that they acknowledge He is alive–or He couldn’t return, right? To admit He is alive would be to admit He rose from the dead, which would mean He is who He said He is–eternal God in human flesh.

And that would ruin everything.

But scoffers go beyond ridiculing the return of Christ, Peter tells us in verse 4. They also claim that “…all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (As we’ll see, they don’t actually believe in creation, but this was the only reference point Peter had when he wrote these words.)

This is a stunning prophecy. Peter was not a scientist, but he foretold one of the most pivotal shifts in how the scientific community views the known universe. Here’s what one ready source,, says concerning what has come to be called the theory of uniformitarianism:

In the mid-seventeenth century, biblical scholar and Archbishop James Ussher determined that the earth had been created in the year 4004 BCE. Just over a century later James Hutton, known as the father of geology, suggested that the earth was much older and that processes occurring in the present were the same processes that had operated in the past, and would be the processes that operate in the future.

This concept became known as uniformitarianism and can be summarized by the phrase “the present is the key to the past.” It was a direct rejection of the prevalent theory of the time, catastrophism, which held that only violent disasters could modify the surface of the earth. Today, we hold uniformitarianism to be true and know that great disasters such as earthquakes, asteroids, volcanoes, and floods are part of the regular cycle of the earth.

“We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” (James Hutton, 1785)

British scholar Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) popularized this theory in his important work, Principles of Geology, which was first published in 1830. In it he postulated that the present represents the cumulative effect of small changes over very long periods of time. Interestingly enough, one of the sites Lyell visited while formulating his ideas was the famous “fossil cliffs” at Joggins, Nova Scotia, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of Lyell’s disciples was Charles Darwin, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He studied medicine at Cambridge but then decided to pursue his passion as a naturalist. Darwin’s embracing  of Lyell’s uniformitarian model and his abandonment of whatever belief in God he may have once had were two of the most significant choices in his life. He is deemed to be one of the most influential scientists in history, and for good reason. He died an avowed atheist, and his theory of evolution by the “law” of natural selection, though it is now being questioned by many in the scientific community, has shaped modern thought perhaps more than any other single concept. Not only has it transformed public education in the West, but the ideologies–and their horrific implications–of men like Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler were also forged on the anvil of Darwinian evolution.

Marx’s 1873 German edition of Das Kapital contained the dedication,  “In deep appreciation – for Charles Darwin”. In a letter to his friend Ferdinand Lassalle, written in 1861, Marx wrote, “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle…Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ [the philosophical acknowledgement of final causes] in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.” (emphasis mine)

In his biography of Adolf Hitler, Ian Kershaw makes frequent references to  Hitler’s belief in “Social Darwinism”. To me, it is more than coincidental that Darwin, in Chapter 6 of his Descent of Man (1871) would write:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised (sic) races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world…”

In Psychiatrists: The Men Behind Hitlerwe read, “The names and writings of five historical figures emerge again and again in researching the historical antecedents of the Nazi movement in Germany–Malthus, Darwin, Nietzsche, Gobineau and Chamberlain…An examination of their writings yields some surprising clues to the Hitler enigma and the Nazi shame. One by one their ideologies have contributed to the mosaic of hate that Hitler and his accomplices embraced as a social and political philosophy. They were truly catalysts in a chemistry of hate.” (p. 9)

And no wonder. These authors go on to say, “Darwin’s own words reveal the perilous implications of expanding biological Darwinism to embrace Social Darwinism:

‘With the savages, the weak in body are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised (sic)  men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised (sic) society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly-directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.’

Later Darwin wrote a letter to William Graham, a professor of Jurisprudence in Belfast: “Looking at the world at not so very distant date, what endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised (sic) races throughout the world.’ ” (p.14)

And Peter whispers, “I told you so.”


I recently became re-acquainted with Job 28, which is an astoundingly eloquent treatise on wisdom, and worth memorizing. I encourage you to look it up now and read it for yourself. Several things are noteworthy in this passage.

First, it appears that in addition to his real estate holdings and enormous flocks and herds, Job also has some mining interests—or, in the very least, some interest in mining. The detailed description of mining technology, even in this most ancient of all canonical books, is too accurate to assume otherwise.

Second, at first glance it doesn’t seem like this chapter fits here. Two long speeches follow it, one by Job and one by Elihu. But as Daniel Estes suggests in his HANDBOOK ON THE WISDOM BOOKS AND PSALMS* (Baker Academic, 2005) this chapter fits beautifully into the theological and literary scheme of the book. It provides a perfect segue into the wrap-up by Jehovah Himself. To me, it is as if Job is saying to his friends, “Okay, I’ve listened to you guys for quite a while now, and though some of what you’ve said might be true, much of it has been nothing more than sanctimonious blather. We need to recognize that we don’t have the answers—that true wisdom is known only to God—and draw this conference to a close.”

In the final analysis, the best thing Job’s friends had to offer him was home delivery. Even God condemns them:

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (job 42.7,8)

Claims to and offers of wisdom abound in our world, and it does me good to read this chapter and be reminded that it cannot be found within myself or anyone else’s self but Himself. David told Solomon, who in turn tells me in Pro 4.5, to “get wisdom!” James, using a different analogy from Job, warns me that wisdom has only two places of origin: the character of God or the pit of hell (Jam 3.13-18) and that if my plan of action puts my own interests first at any level, the wisdom I am employing is hellish. This is a good but painful measuring device for my decision making. (From Carta del norte, 11 May 2009)

The Mystery of Christ

The “mystery of Christ.” Do you know what it is?

I thought I did, but then as I was reading in Ephesians and Colossians (at the insistence of Mark DeYmaz, the author of Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, the book I’m reading) I saw that Paul describes the mystery of Christ as the fact that the Gentiles have access to the Father through Christ just as the Jews did (Eph 3.4-6) and states that it was this message that put him in the slammer (Col 4.3). DeYmaz uses this to build his case for multi-ethnic churches, and as I consider these passages I am struck with the continuity of Scripture in this regard: the Temple being a house of prayer for all nations; Jesus’ “own” receiving Him not; Paul’s commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; the nation of Israel being grafted into the larger “olive tree” of believers; the tapestry of people strewn around the throne of the Lamb in heaven…

As I contemplate the way our churches have been established in this country and around the world, I see a serious disconnect in that we have allowed the Jewish community to pursue its Messianic approach and have also built monochromatic assemblies that often don’t reflect either the demographics of the communities in which they are located or the reality of the “mystery of Christ.” Homogeneity is far easier to produce than unity–but what an adventure we forfeit! . (From Carta del norte, 9 September 2008)

If you would like to read my abstract on the Borealis Project, our vision for international churches in Canada, please let me know by commenting on this post. If enough people do so, I may figure out how to include a link to it on my page. Here is Mark’s book: