Make Yourself Comfortable


103658921-gettyimages-109439900-530x298

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.

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Speed Bumps


speed-bump

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)

Save

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Sympathy


“I know how you feel. My dog died when I was eleven.”

I just read an excellent book by a man who has lost two wives, and included at the beginning of each chapter is a list of things to say or not to say to someone who is grieving. The opening sentence of this post might be on one of those lists. Can you guess which one?

Well-meaning people can say stupid things. While the loss of a pet can be traumatic and painful–it was for our family when Ebony, our beloved Labrador Retriever, was hit by a car in front of our house–it does not compare with watching one’s dearest friend and lover starve painfully to death before one’s eyes. Believe me–I know.

Sympathy. The noun comes from a Greek compound word meaning, “feeling together.” That’s what people are seeking to do when they offer us messages intended to communicate a degree of understanding of our situation when we grieve or encounter difficulty. They are seeking to include themselves in our circle of pain so we will know they care about us and want to help us bear our suffering on some level. That “circle of pain” is actually a series of concentric circles, with the smallest being composed of those people who have  experienced exactly what we are experiencing.

It is the nature of sympathy to seek to be in the smallest circle possible. For this reason, some people who mean well speak poorly. They try to imagine a personal experience as close as possible to our own, and then present it as a ticket of admission to our circle. My wife and I had fifteen years to learn how this works, starting when she was diagnosed with leukemia in April, 2000. As soon as the “C” word is mentioned, people start rummaging around for their tickets.

holding-hands

I have had to learn to accept all of these tickets, no matter how wrinkled, tattered, or illegible. Even if they were tickets to a different show. If one has never lost someone close, seeking to encourage one who has is like a first visit to a foreign culture–one is likely to commit a faux pas.

When we told our friends that Donna had cancer again, the sympathy came like a flood. It was heartfelt, and people went to a lot of trouble to articulate their feelings and their support.  They started to send us money and even gift cards, assuming Donna’s sickness would impose unexpected financial strain on us. They mailed cards and Bible verses. They emailed us. They assured us of their prayers. They posted greeting-card-like photos and poems on our Facebook pages. Some of them came to visit, traveling thousands of kilometers at their own expense to weep and pray with us and help with practical needs. They did everything they could to communicate their feeling-with-ness. Throughout the process, I don’t recall anyone saying something that wasn’t appropriate. My hundreds of feeling-with-ers  continue to be a huge encouragement months after Donna’s arrival in glory. Many have never lost a spouse, so their tickets are in the upper bleachers. But they cheer with gusto, and offer kind words and helpful counsel from their own experience with God’s “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace.”

Oddly, the Greek verb, sumpatheo, “to feel with,” does not appear in the New Testament. Another word, parakaleo, “to call alongside,” “to comfort,” “to encourage,” is the verb that comes to mind when I think of the sympathy my wife and I were called to embrace during our ordeal, and which I embrace now.

All three Persons of the Trinity are said to be paracletes, or comforters. Jesus told His disciples in John 14 that because He was leaving them, and He would ask the Father to send them “another Helper, to be with [them] forever.” (JOH 14.16) This implies, of course, that Jesus was Himself a Helper (parakletos,) and the word is used of Him in 1 JOH 2.1 to describe His advocacy for the sinning believer before the throne of God. As Paul mentions in 2 COR 7.8, the Father “comforts the downhearted.”It is in God’s nature to be a comforter.

The quintessential passage related to comfort is 2 COR 1.3-5:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

As the God of all comfort, He can comfort us in all our affliction. Why? So we can “comfort those who are in any affliction.” This goes beyond “feeling with,” beyond that series of shrinking of circles. It allows us to prescribe and apply the balm of God’s own comfort– wherever it hurts, and in whichever of those circles of pain we find ourselves. Sympathy falls short in that we cannot feel with people whose experience we do not share. Comfort transcends human experience because it comes from a God whose very nature is comfort, Who understands every human emotion and experience, and whose comfort is applicable to every kind of anguish we encounter.

And He desires that we be fellow-practitioners–His interns, if you will–in the healing of the soul.

 

The Essence of Grieving: Embracing Scripture


We were in the Ottawa General Hospital waiting for the oncologist to arrive for our first scheduled consultation.

We were scared. We were about to talk with a man we’d never met about a treatment we’d never experienced for a disease we’d already encountered. We were in this together–cancer is not a private affliction–and we didn’t know exactly what to expect.

We had to wait for 25 minutes in a small, spare, empty room. We were grateful for both the privacy and the time. We talked and held hands and wept a little, but we spent most of the time reading the Scriptures together. I have the Bible on my phone, so I scrolled through psalm after psalm–some that Donna requested, some that I chose, and others at random. Just before the doctor arrived, we talked about the phenomenon of Scripture, about how remarkable it is that one can receive such comfort from black marks on a white page. The  Word of God was having its effect on our hearts in a precious and unforgettable way. We were embracing Scripture; even more importantly, Scripture was embracing us.

IMG_8360

Some time later, the day we received the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer, a dear friend came to stay with Donna while I was in Los Angeles for a training course. When I got back at the end of the week, she asked if she could write a post on our secret Facebook page. We agreed, and she asked our friends to send us, among other things,  verses of Scripture that they thought would encourage us. Very soon, we began to receive a steady stream of index cards, some of them hand-decorated, adorned with biblical texts.  After reading and discussing them, we would put them in a box on our dining room table. Often after a meal or before bed–especially in the final weeks of Donna’s life–we would each take a half dozen or so out of the box and read them to each other, talking about the friends who had sent them, perhaps reminiscing about times we had spent with them, and allowing the sweet refreshment of the Scriptures to wash over us. I still have that box filled with Scripture verses, and will use it for some time. These passages, many of them from the Psalms, continue to bring encouragement, comfort, and the strength to take the next steps on this new path.

When Donna was diagnosed with leukemia in 2000, she was put in a UNC study group that would have enabled her to receive a bone marrow transplant at no cost. The process would have been complicated and taxing, but the physicians were optimistic. It never happened. Neither of her brothers was a suitable donor, so she was put on massive doses of Interferon instead–3 million units daily, administered by self-injection. Her body responded well to this treatment, and within two years her cancer had gone into full remission. But these were the worst two years of our lives. (I have always said that Interferon is the best-named therapy there is. It interfered with absolutely everything. On the long list of possible side effects, the only one she did not experience was hives.) Though Donna was only in her late forties–and, under normal circumstances, an extremely gregarious and optimistic woman–her treatment transformed her overnight. She heard me tell many people that it was like living with an 80-year-old mental patient. It was physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining, and it affected me nearly as much as it did her. She got to the place in 2002 where she told her oncologist that if this was the way she had to live, she didn’t want to live at all.

Early on in this process, she left our bedroom in the middle of one night just to be alone. She didn’t want to disturb me, but she suffered from insomnia and was discouraged and anxious. I heard her weeping in the living room, and got up to join her. I brought my Bible and told her she needed a massive dose of psalmacilin. (I coined this word that night to describe the Scripture therapy that would become such a vital part of our lives in the days ahead, and we have used the term many times since when we have needed the Psalms’ powerful antidote to sorrow, fear, discouragement, injustice, or uncertainty.) I held my darling in my arms and read to her for a couple of hours from the Hebrew hymnal. It was a precious night, and we spoke of it often thereafter.

IMG_8361

Above my kitchen sink there is a glass message board fastened to the bright yellow wall. On it is one of the last things my wife ever wrote–a verse from the Psalms that sustained her through many difficult times during the last fifteen years of her life. It sustains me now, and I have no plans to erase it any time soon–not only because I like to see something written in her elegant and familiar hand, but also because this simple truth speaks so eloquently to what I am facing in my own life.

By January of this year, Donna was very ill. After only her second chemotherapy session six weeks earlier, an abscess had appeared in her upper abdomen which resulted in a serious, painful infection that required the administration of a potent antibiotic and frequent draining by our visiting nurse. Since no chemotherapy was possible while she was fighting an infection, the tumor on her pancreas grew exponentially and the cancer spread to her liver. Donna’s appetite had disappeared–she was only able to get part of a smoothie down every day, and she was becoming increasingly emaciated. Sensing that her body was no longer able to tolerate chemotherapy even under the best of conditions (whatever they are,) her thoughts had turned to heaven. We had talked and prayed and wept together for days, and we were privately preparing ourselves for that phrase in our wedding vows that read, “…until death do us part.” Donna decided one night that she would not accept any more treatment. In the morning, she was afraid to tell me of her decision; but I had also been thinking that chemo would only postpone the inevitable–for only a short time, and in an unimaginable way. The choice between misery and glory was a surprisingly easy one to make. For her.

Together, we chose to refuse any further therapy except for pain and the management of her ascites. Tearfully, we told our children and parents of this decision, and as an extended family we began to  plan for Donna’s transition to her heavenly home. We went to the second consultation with her oncologist–just three days before the next round of chemo was to begin–prepared to tell him what we had decided. As we waited for him, Donna began to recite Psalm 23 to herself over and over in a halting voice. I joined her, and once again we wept and held hands and embraced with the passion and tenderness of 38 years together and the certainty of our impending separation. Yet, by the time the doctor arrived, we were dry-eyed and collected, and Donna was able to tell him in a steady, confident tone that she was ready to meet her Saviour and had chosen to forego medical intervention that would delay her.

I have already written about the effect Psalm 103 had on our family, and this psalm was read at both of my wife’s memorial services. I asked a friend to read Psalm 23 at her  Ottawa service and to preface it simply by saying that this was one of the first passages of Scripture she had memorized as a child and that it had brought her immense comfort during times of intense pain and anxiety. Anyone who knows this psalm understands.

No one can explain the power of the Word of God to do what it does in the heart of the believer. The Bible is not mere “black marks on a white page.” It is as it describes itself, “living and active.” (HEB 4.12, ESV) Its effect can be profound, unexpected, and immediate. A sentence can change one’s perspective forever, and alter the course of one’s life.

In my grief, as in other times of intense anguish, I don’t need to explain Scripture. I need to embrace it.