My Tools For Overcoming Grief (Part Two)

In the last post, I discussed a few items that have helped me as I work through my grief in the loss of my father. Today, I mention three more that have been instrumental in restoring some sense of balance and stability in a challenging time.

Fasting –

Scot McKnight, in his excellent book on Fasting, makes the case that the Biblical point of fasting is to have an intentional spiritual response to a sacred moment. I thought of this as I was trying to think of ways to work through my grief.

The death of my father was a sad sacred moment that I needed to fully acknowledge and commemorate through my actions. So, I marked out a couple of days on my calendar, told my wife what I was doing, and went for it. It was kind of a forced way of remembering my dad.

So many times we choose to try to forget or even hope that we wouldn’t think about our loved one so much. I chose to make every hunger craving or pain an invitation to think about my Dad, his life, his legacy, and our times together. To thank God for him and to seek out God’s comfort in my sad reality.

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There are many things I could say about these two days but they are hard to express. The main result was a balancing of my physical, spiritual, and emotional states. My physical side needed to be more tied to my spiritual rather than my emotional side – more faith and less bitterness, more trust and less anger, and more outward focus and less self focus. My spiritual side needed to go deeper and further rather than staying on the surface where my emotional side could take over. And my emotional side needed to find the healthy emotions such as love, hope, peace, and joy and not dwell on anger, bitterness, and envy.  My time of fasting helped bring more balance to these states.

Talking –

There are some people who will tell you everything they possibly can about a situation they find themselves in, whether you asked them about it or not. I am not one of those people. I assume most people don’t want to hear it so I don’t bother; they would rather talk about themselves than listen to me. But, in the face of life and death, I couldn’t play my usual, “I’m okay,” game. It would have been an obvious lie.

So when people ask me how I am doing regarding my Dad’s death, I try to express more of what is truly going on. I will speak about how difficult it has been, the things I have learned, the challenges of the particular moment, and what has been hard moving forward. A few friends from work have asked me for lunch and I have taken the opportunity to elaborate on the challenges of the summer and how I am trying to move forward. Though I do not like talking about myself for long stretches, it has been rewarding to be open and honest about what I am going through and sense the legitimate concern and kind words of a friend.

Dancing – 

In the last post, I mentioned how the Psalms have been helpful to me in dealing with my grief. Psalm 30 includes a line that reads, “You turned my wailing into dancing.” I don’t know what kind of dancing the Psalmist was thinking of when he wrote that but my kind of dancing included Kool and the Gang.

I had bought a CD of Kool and the Gang’s Greatest Hits for one of our daughters who enjoys a little funk in her music selection. One day as I was returning from work, a little beat down from the day and my circumstances, I hear that my daughter is playing the CD in the living room. Instead of dragging all of my stuff to my room and trying to decompress on my own, something moved me to dance to the music. It was spontaneous, fun, goofy, and a great relief. It was also a sign that I don’t have to be ensnared by sadness forever, that God is providing moments of joy and fun and that it is okay to let loose every now and then.

 

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My Tools For Overcoming Grief (Part One)

In the weeks since my dad’s death, I have tried to do a spiritual check in on myself and recognized that I am struggling. I am out of balance. I am stretched thin and lack a lot of stamina when it comes to spiritual things. I am barely able to provide emotional awareness to my family and I tend to turn in on myself instead of look outward for much needed companionship and support.

I am grieving, I know, and I am not just being hard on myself or trying to rush the grieving process. But, if there is something that I can do now to keep myself from sinking too far into despair or bitterness, I need to try it. If there is something that would be beneficial to me, even in the midst of a dark time, there is no reason to wait. Despite the hurt and difficulty, God wants to help and desires that I seek out means to allow his grace to come crashing through like a tidal wave.

So, I would like to share with you the tools I have used to help me get through my grief. If you are struggling with anything, perhaps some of these tools might be beneficial to you as well.

The Psalms –

Two Psalms in particular have risen to the surface of my awareness. In one of those times when particular passages get mentioned in multiple venues and contexts, I figured I needed to pay attention to Psalm 30 and Psalm 77. In Psalm 30, there are lines like, “weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning;” and “you turned my wailing into dancing, you removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy.”

Psalm 77 begins with…

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
    at night I stretched out untiring hands,
    and I would not be comforted.

but later says …

I will consider all your works
    and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

Eugene Peterson says that all prayer ends in praise. Many Psalms were reminders that I can’t just remain in my sadness and despair. There is a time and will be a time when I need to consider all of the Lord’s work and begin to turn my tears into joy. The Psalms can guide me through that.

Music –

I have always been encouraged, convicted, and inspired by music. I look back on dry periods in my spiritual life and can recognize that there was a consistent lack of music.

For several weeks, I was having to drive three hours back and forth from my home to where my parents live. That gave me many hours to listen to music and to find comfort and peace there. I found myself gravitating towards the texture of the music rather than the content of the lyrics. I needed sounds that were comforting and uplifting in a sad sort of way. I know, a very specific formula. I found it in a collection of 6 songs by Andrew Bird. Many of his songs, and the way he uses instruments, just wash over you and then carry you away to a reflective place. I was in a reflective mood and needed to tap into this side of me.

 

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard –

Throughout this summer, I have been reading this classic by my hero, Dallas Willard. I have read it several times since 2002, the year it came out, but this time was different and it was incredibly comforting and motivational.

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If you haven’t read it, Willard describes the vision and the means for having Christ transform all of the parts of the self including our thoughts, emotions, will, and social dimension. With each description and process for transforming a certain part of myself, it was easy for me to evaluate what progress I have made in 15 years. Then you throw in being in the arena of struggle, pain, service, and loss, and it is like a Minor League player stepping up into the big leagues.  There was no denying my progress and also where I needed to improve. I saw areas where God has done some amazing things in my spiritual growth but I also saw some areas where I have neglected to do my part and little growth had risen to the surface. I was comforted and convicted at the same time. That is a great place to be in your spiritual life.

Next time: Three more tools for overcoming grief.

 

Blogging In Crisis

How do you write when you would rather just sleep?

How do you write when everyday you feel like you have just been run over by a bus?

How do you write when you have been drained of every ounce of profundity or insight?

How do you write when just getting up in the morning to go to work is your greatest accomplishment for the day?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have gotten off my usual pattern. For months, I would put out two blog posts a week. I haven’t been able to do that this summer. I lack the mental, spiritual, and physical capacity at this moment to keep to that schedule.

All of my posts recently have centered on my dad’s illness and death and my part in that equation. From a spiritual sense, that is about all that I can address right now. Before this summer, I would have post ideas brewing days before and when it was time for me to write something, my thoughts would be primed and ready to go. But lately, the only thought I have brewing regarding this blog have been, “I hope I can get at least one out this week.”

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I haven’t lost my morning routine. I have remained consistent, yet not up to date, with my Apprentice Experience reading. I even exercise regularly. But expressing myself beyond my rawest emotions and most evident reflections has been difficult.

I write this not as a way to whine or to elicit sympathy but to tell you part of the toil that struggle and grief can take on a person. I also write this to give you a marker for how I am doing with my grief.

When I get back to two posts a week and can start writing about subjects that don’t involve disease, struggle, and death, then you will know I am doing better. I am just not there yet.

Where Is God When It Hurts?

During the final months of my dad’s life, I learned that God takes care of you even when you think he isn’t taking care of you.

There were many prayers for my dad, and myself, that went unanswered. Prayers for his healing, prayers for his ease of mind, prayers for an easier situation for my dad, as well as for my mom and my sister and I. Those prayers seemed to go unanswered.

But all around the situation seemed to be evidence of God’s care for us in profound ways.

One such incident occurred the day I returned to work after a few days of helping my Mom care for my dad. These few days were some of the lowest points in the slow awful process of his cancer. He had become non-communicative and his attempts to walk and conduct just the most routine of movements had become almost impossible. We were forced to start looking at options for care outside of our own capabilities.

I was beat down and frustrated and helpless. Still, I had to work and fulfill my duties of my job.

A computer in our area was not logging on correctly and the usual fix was to climb underneath the computer station and start to mess with the chords. As I was doing this, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I saw that it was a torn out piece of paper with some words on it. I figured it was just trash and would quickly discard it. But, I did take a look at the writing and noticed these words:

“Cast all of your worries on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

Who knows how long that piece of paper had sat there, maybe weeks or maybe even months before I found it. And for me to find it at one of the lowest points of one of the lowest moments of my life was no mere coincidence or good luck. God was providing for me, was encouraging me, and was reassuring me of his great care.

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When my dad died, my wife was out of the country on a mission trip. The care and love that she received from the local believers in Zambia demonstrated that God’s love and provision is available half way around the world. The day he died, 22 girls at a Girl’s Retreat, which my wife help lead, sought and received Christ’s gift of salvation.

In the absence of my wife and her present support, three of the staff members of our church drove 170 miles to attend the funeral. Also, three colleagues at work made a similar trip to demonstrate concern, compassion, and support. Two of my longest and dearest friendships were represented and found me before the funeral to bring me encouragement and comfort.

I could go on and on in demonstrating how God was present and moving during this time.

Sometimes, as we look for God’s big miracles we miss all of the thousands of little miracles all around us. My dad was lost to us too early and under great strain and suffering. There is no denying the awfulness of his disease and what it did to his mind and body. I don’t understand why it was necessary for him to go through all of that and why we had to watch it happen. But in spite of that grim reality, I saw God work. I felt God’s comfort. I experienced God’s provision. I tasted his goodness. God was with me and with my family and with my wife. He never abandoned us.

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

—Frederick Buechner, Godric, 96.

 

My Dad Taught Me What Mattered Most

My dad passed away on July 8. I tried to honor him at the memorial service by offering some remembrances. Here is a condensed version of those remarks.

My dad was a simple man. I say that in the best possible way.

He knew the power of a handshake and taught me such power. Just a few days before he died, he still gave me one of his patented handshakes.

He taught me that life wasn’t about comparison but an opportunity to get the most out of your ability. To this day, I tell our girls each day as they go to school to, “do your best.” I learned that from my dad.

He taught me that little things can make a big difference. My parent’s neighborhood is set up like a circle. Everyday, when he was able, my dad would carry each neighbor’s newspaper from the driveway to the porch. On trash days, he would roll the big trash cans from the curb to the house so that the neighbors wouldn’t have to do it. This sounds like a small thing, but just about every neighbor I talked to after his death mentioned his kindness to do this day after day.

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I mentioned that my dad was a simple man. A good way of thinking about simplicity, as it relates to a person, is they know what matters most. My dad knew what mattered most.

Before he retired, his job sent him to schools in small towns around the area where my parents lived. Instead of cranking up his favorite song or listening to talk radio, my dad would turn everything off and pray and meditate and sit in silence. What a simple yet profound thing to do in our day and age.

One Easter growing up, I noticed something strange at the dinner table. The rest of us were enjoying our meal but dad was just drinking orange juice. He wasn’t broadcasting it but he was fasting in response to the sacred event. I had never been exposed to this before and this action really had an impact on me. My dad took his faith serious enough to sacrifice something.  What was I willing to sacrifice?

Not too long ago, my dad and I were on a long trip out of town. He took the opportunity to tell me, “If there is anything I have done or said that hurt you, I am sorry.” Here was a man in his sixties asking for forgiveness. He was at the age where most men don’t think they owe anybody anything. You are supposed to be set in your ways by then. It takes a real man to go first in a situation like that. Unfortunately, I wasn’t man enough to return the favor and tell him that if there was anything that I did that disappointed him or hurt him, I was sorry.

What mattered to my dad was consistency, integrity, love of Jesus, family, connections with close friends, and kindness to others. These are the things that should matter the most to all of us.

May we all practice this kind of simplicity.

 

The Awful But Essential Need To Consider Our True Neediness

No one chooses to face the depths of their ruined heart.

Because we never seek this out, sometimes God has to force us to come to grips with our true bankruptcy of spirit. This usually occurs through some kind of tragedy or crisis or wilderness time. These are times when we come face to face with our own limits and realize we have little of what it takes to truly make it, to truly change, to truly be like Christ.

As my Dad faces death due to Cancer, I have had constant and ugly reminders of the depths of my selfishness, childishness, spoiled nature, and general immaturity. I talk a big spiritual game but this crisis has shown me that I am more than willing to manipulate even the most serious of situations towards my own comfort and wishes. I have fantasized about scenarios surrounding my family that might benefit others but basically only benefit me and my agenda.

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I have discovered that my capacity for compassion has limits, that my willingness to trust God is lacking, and that I want growth but on my own terms.

So I repent of my need to manufacture good for myself and put myself at the center of the universe. I want you Lord more than I want comfort for myself; more than I want my agenda; more than I want things to be easy.

Not my will but yours be done.

Reality Bites: What We Can Count On

This was originally posted in April.

Grow Up Blog

In Wichita, James Bryan Smith talked about reality. He said that reality is “what you can count on.” He also referenced Dallas Willard’s definition of reality as “what you find out when you find out that you are wrong.”

Are there things that we can count on that are constantly hiding behind our wrong assumptions? I think there are.

In this life, I can count on getting angry. I can count on desiring something that I don’t have. I can count on being disappointed with another person. I can count on making mistakes. I can count on feeling helpless at times. I can count on not having all the answers. I can count on needing help from another person.

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I don’t think anyone can dispute that this is reality for every person who walks the face of the earth. We are limited, frail, and needy people…

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God is Speaking, Are We Listening?

God is present to his people, he is with them. If there is anything we can learn from the life of Jesus is that God was with him and part of Jesus’ mission was to provide a way for God to be with all of his people, even in the difficult times.

I have seen some difficult times of late, yet God has been with me in surprising and miraculous ways.

What has happened of late is that the books I am reading have had significant insights that touch on exactly what I am going through. Sermons I hear preached, not only have some encouraging words but are addressing the exact situation that I am going through. Podcasts that I listen to discuss things like prayer with the exact questions that I have about prayer but were afraid to ask.

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As much as I like to talk about God’s presence and work in my life, I am always hesitant to force my sense of God’s handiwork in every situation. I am cynical by nature, and don’t trust my own motives and desires in these situations to give me an accurate picture of what is truly happening.

But, like I have stated here before, the more you experience God the more you are able to recognize when he is at work. The more you begin to expect God to show up in a variety of ways. Though lately, I have experienced a heaviness and a burden that has been uniquely difficult and challenging and I have been angry at the way that God has handled my situation, I have also been overwhelmed at how often He shows up. He hasn’t left me or forsaken me, even in my darkness. And it hasn’t just been platitudes and spiritual pats on the back, it has been deep words of encouragement, surprising messages individually designed for me, and discussions, interpersonally or intrapersonally, that have been what I was looking for without knowing what I was looking for.

Just this past weekend, it was J.R. Briggs’ discussion of wilderness as the training ground for God’s chosen people. It was a sermon from Steve Queen on Romans 8 as a reminder that all things work for good for those who love Him. It was a podcast from Renovare on C.S. Lewis and how he wrestled with how to pray and the function and benefit of prayer. I didn’t go intentionally seeking these things out at these exact moments to receive these exact words. God sent these items to me and probably others if I was paying attention.

Though I have had plenty of words with God about how he has done things, I haven’t been surprised to see him work in this way over and over. My relationship with God, through Jesus, has taught me to expect God to show up. It still amazes me, though, how He is present and ready with just the right words at just the right times.

Are Difficult Times Required In Order To Grow?

Since I have been writing this blog in earnest over the last year, I have chronicled the amazing times, the heartbreaking times, and the really hard times.

This past year has presented some of the richest and most profound times with God I have ever experienced. But as soon as I experience a spiritual high, the next week will bring devastating news about my Dad’s battle with Cancer. An enriching breakthrough spiritually might be happening in the midst of the most difficult moments of my professional life. There is joy and pain often mixed in the same day, sometimes the same hour.

I began to ask myself, are the times of great spiritual growth preparing me for the struggles and the obstacles or are the obstacles and struggles providing the framework for the times of significant growth? Does the crucible of change and improvement with God have to be struggle, hurt, and difficulty? Or was the growth already there and I just needed the difficulty to demonstrate and contextualize the growth?

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I guess what I am trying to say is that I am thankful for the difficulties while at the same time wishing and praying that they would go away. I know that good will come out of struggle while often trying to avoid it.

Jesus himself asked that the cup he had to bear would pass from him but then prayed that if that couldn’t happen, may God’s will be done. I feel that I understand this sentiment on the tiniest of levels and I am starting to see that God’s will is the best place for me to be.

Just don’t make it too hard, Lord.

Lament: When It Is Not Okay and That Is Okay

Lately, I have found expression for my own frustrations and disappointment in the Psalms of Lament. The thing about these Psalms is that they are honest and emotional while acknowledging the reality of God. I find this an incredibly healthy way of interacting with God. I decided to write my own modern lament patterned after Psalm 3.

Lord, where can I find dedication to your Son!

Why do the once faithful seem to move away from you the first chance they get?         Why are they so weak in the face of personal difficulty or challenging social situations?

Many say, “I once believed, until this happened.” Should a few poor situations really push people away from you?

But you have given me an assurance of your faithfulness to me.

Even when I have faced my own bad situation, at church and otherwise, I have never wanted you more Lord.                                                                                                     You have been with me and others through Wilderness times.

Don’t let your church be sullied by unbelief, modern sensibilities, controversies, reduction of the mission, or scandals.                                                                                       Give no one ammunition to bring down your name in response to your church’s example.

From you comes blessing, living water to sustain us, peace, and direction for the future. May your blessing be on your people.