Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thankful for our Living Hope

Following Micah’s death, I thought I would spend a lot of time at Micah’s graveside at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. It turns out I haven’t. While I know that other grieving parents feel close to their child at the gravesite, this has not been the case with Heather and me. For Micah, Lakewood Cemetery has no current significance whatsoever. He is not there; our point in going there is simply to remember him and to grieve our loss.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I am so grateful for the living hope we have in the resurrection. I am grateful for the fact that, through Christ, we will someday see Micah again. One day, Lakewood Cemetery will have significance to Micah—it will be the location from where his body rises and meets his Savior. In 1 Peter 1:3, Peter says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

In the book of 1 Thessalonians, Paul is encouraging the church at Thessalonica not to grieve as unbelievers do, those who have no hope. Why? “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17.

Similarly, in John 6: 39, 40, Jesus tells his disciples, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” In a recent sermon, Pastor John Piper notes that the Greek word for “nothing” in verse 39 is unusual in that it is a gender-neutral word. Based upon the context, it appears that Jesus used this specific word to indicate that He will lose nothing of us and raise us in our bodies.
Jesus cares about our bodies, even Micah’s little body, and will raise him up, as he died, on that last day.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the significance of our resurrection. “…For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts o the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

Pastor Tim Keller interprets the phrase “death is swallowed up in victory” to mean that the resurrection does not merely end suffering, though it does that. Tim Keller, The Problem of Evil and Suffering. The “swallowing up” of death means that everything sad, everything horrible, everything heinous will be “brought up” into the resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus will use everything about sin, death and evil to make the resurrection better. The resurrection will not merely be compensation for evil, death and suffering, but restoration. While I have no sense, at this time, as to how Micah’s death will be “swallowed up” in Christ’s victory, it is our hope in the restorative power of the resurrection that keeps us going.

About the resurrection, Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “I believe like a child that sufferings will be healed and made up for, smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man's Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world's finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened...” Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamozov. Page 235-236, cited by Keller.

We are so grateful for this living hope in the resurrection. We can go on living in the hope that Lakewood Cemetery will prove, someday, to be a significant place for our little Micah.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dedicating Our Children to God

Heather and I had the privilege of dedicating Micah to the Lord on Mother’s Day, 2009, at Bethlehem Baptist Church. We were excited to share this day with our friends and family. The Lord planned for Pastor Kenny Stokes to lead the dedication service at the downtown campus that morning and to dedicate Micah.

In dedicating Micah to the Lord, Pastor Kenny recited the following words of dedication:
“Together with your parents who love you dearly and this people who care about the outcome of your faith, I dedicate you to God, surrendering together with them all worldly claims upon your life in the hope that you will belong wholly to Jesus Christ forever.”

During the days leading up to the dedication service, Heather and I recall having discussions about whether we could “surrender all worldly claims” upon our son’s life. Were we really called by God to relinquish all worldly claims on our son’s life? Certainly, our prayer was that Micah would belong “wholly to Jesus Christ forever.” But does God really call us to give up all of our claims? Don’t we have at least some entitlements to our son, such as health and longevity?
Our society assumes we, as parents, have certain entitlements to our children. Parents complain to teachers or coaches when “their” children are not given each and every opportunity for athletic or academic successes. Christmas card letters written by boastful parents suggest that they live vicariously through “their” children’s grandiose achievements.

Jesus knows and understands the love that parents have for “their” children. In fact, He alludes to this love in discussing the high cost of being His disciple. In Matthew 10: 37, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus’s words are particularly remarkable because He demands that we prioritize our relationship with Him above all else—including those personal relationships that we hold most dear to us.

In making this remarkable claim about the cost of being a disciple, Jesus assumes that we will naturally hold our sons and daughters closest to us. Indeed, Jesus was confronted with suffering parents on several occasions throughout his ministry, and he seems to have often responded sympathetically to the plain of these suffering parents. We know that he healed Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21), he raised a widow’s only son (Luke 7:11) and healed the official’s son (John 4:46). Jesus understood the suffering in each of these parents. In each of these instances, Jesus listened to their pleas for a miracle and granted their requests for “their” children.
Most parents are given, by God’s common grace, a desire to love their children. Jesus indicated, through word and deed, that we should love our children. For us, it was a tremendous blessing to be fully invested emotionally in Micah during his short life. This engagement was a good, God-given blessing, despite the significant, seemingly bottomless grief caused by his death.

The prayer dedication recognizes, however, that all of us, including our little children, ultimately and eternally belong to the Lord. Romans 14:8 says, “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” We do not possess our children—they ultimately belong to God. All of our worldly claims on our children – no matter how much we love our children, and no matter how much we hurt when they are gone, are ultimately subservient to the claims of our Creator and Sustainer.

Job’s response to the devastation in his family is a great example to us, because his response includes not only (1) the natural emotional response of losing his children but also (2) his recognition of the superseding claims of the Creator. Following the tragic death of his children, Job tore his rob, fell to the ground and worshipped God. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Job could have had a possessive attitude not merely with his material possessions, but particularly with regard to his children. But Job’s perspective on God’s sovereign provision over him, taking the form of both abundant provision and unspeakable, cataclysmic loss, is largely the reason why we find his attitude so exemplary. While Job mourned the loss of his children, he never questioned God’s sovereignty or God’s goodness. Job didn’t resolve his grief by deciding that he, in fact, wasn’t suffering all that much, or that his children were not worthy of his love and affection. His response was to fully mourn his loss while still continuing to trust in God’s goodness to him.

For us, fulfilling the commitment of Micah’s dedication means to fully mourn the loss of our little Micah while also trusting in God’s goodness to us and God’s goodness to Micah. It means to become fully emotionally invested in the life of our second child, now in utero, as well as any future children, without regard to the risk of loss. I pray that I have the same attitude as Job—worshipping our Creator and Sustainer because whether we live or die, we ultimately belong to the Lord.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Week at Smile Again Ministries

Heather and I just returned from 5 days at Smile Again Ministries. Smile Again Ministries is a ministry created and run by Pat and Judy Misener for grieving parents and siblings.

In 1988, Pat and Judy suddenly and unexpectedly lost their teenage daughter Michelle (“Mickey”). For the past 12 years, Pat and Judy have been counseling parents through Smile Again Ministries, even while Pat served as a pastor for several different churches. This past October, they opened a lodge in the Brainerd Lakes area, which they have called “White Tail Lodge.” The Lodge is located on a beautiful 15-acre property on a small lake, and is ideal for hosting up to 2 families at a time. Grieving parents and siblings can come to White Tail Lodge for 3 to 7 days at a time to receive extended grief counseling. At Micah’s birthday celebration, many friends and family members donated toys in Micah’s memory to Smile Again Ministries. We were able to provide these toys to Smile Again, and the toys will become a permanent part of the children’s play area at White Tail Lodge.

Not only did Heather and I enjoy long walks together around the White Tail Lodge property, but we benefitted significantly from our counseling time with Pat and Judy Misener. Here are a few thoughts that came out of our time together:

1. First, we talked about taking the steps necessary to make our marriage a priority. According to various statistics we have seen, the divorce rate among couples who have lost a child is between 80-85%. The Miseners are among the 15-20% whose marriage has survived the loss of their daughter. While there are many ways in which we want our lives to be a living legacy to Micah, perhaps the best legacy to our son is to stay together. When we see Micah again, we would like him to say to us, “Well done, Mom and Dad. Even though you were grieving my loss, you guys stuck it out together. I am so proud of you.”

2. Second, we need to make the choice to live to God and die to bitterness. Pat and Judy said that Micah’s death will cause us either to become better or bitter. While we can (and should) work through this period of asking, “Why God?”, it is crucial that we choose to trust God even in the midst of our questioning and pain. Clearly, the Miseners have become “better” (i.e., more reliant on God and His grace) because of how they responded to the tragic death of their daughter Mickey. While we can struggle with God over the “why,” we must keep the “Who” (Jesus) always foremost in our minds.

3. Third, we feel called to provide practical assistance to grieving parents. Following Micah’s death, so many friends and family members surrounded us with love and practical support. Whether that support took the form of emails, telephone calls, home-cooked meals, restaurant gift cards, or cleaning and household supplies, we were so blessed. However, not everyone who loses a child will have the same support structure that we were blessed to lean on. Based upon the experiences we’ve gained we hope to provide practical experience to others. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. In addition to maintaining a strong marriage, we hope that one of Micah’s legacies will be our love and practical support towards those who lose a child or sibling.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Trusting in the Audacious Claims of the Bible

We received a gift of a framed card that reads, “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.” This card is on a bookshelf in our home surrounded by numerous framed and unframed pictures of our little son. In many different ways, including the wonderful birthday celebration we had for Micah last week, we certainly treasure memories of our son. We are so grateful that Heather was able to be a “stay-at-home mom” during Micah’s short tenure here on earth. We are so grateful for our many pictures and videos of him. We are so grateful for these memories.

Many friends and family members have shared how Micah’s death has made a deep and positive impact on their lives. Several friends of ours who have young children have told us of the opportunities occasioned by Micah’s death to talk to their children about death and about eternity. Many of those who attended Micah’s funeral were moved by Pastor Kenny’s sermon to focus on how life is “not about us.” We are grateful for the fact that Micah’s life and death has caused people to consider “the big picture.”

But the source of our comfort is not chiefly in our memories of Him, nor in the positive influence that his life and death have had on others. The source of our comfort mainly lies in the words of this 2,000-year old book, the Bible, a book that claims to have in it the very words of God. The audacious claims of this old Book about God and his love for Micah have made all the difference.

This book claims that the same God who created the earth desires to be in a personal relationship with each of us. The book claims that the creator of the universe cares about each and every one of us. The book claims that, in order to create a personal relationship with us, God took the form of a man, Jesus, and came to earth. Jesus taught his followers how to live and how to have a personal relationship with God. Before Jesus, the garbage in our life that makes us imperfect in comparison to the perfectly loving and powerful creator of the universe made a personal relationship with God impossible because of the incongruity between our character and God’s character. But the book claims that through the suffering and death of Jesus, Jesus himself took the punishment for our garbage, for our sin, and that through this suffering and death we can have a personal relationship with a holy and perfect God.

Finally, the Bible claims that for those who have been made “perfect and Holy” by Christ Jesus, we can look forward to an eternal life with Jesus. 1 John 5:15 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” For those who pass from this earth as followers of Christ, this heaven is immediate. Jesus told one of the criminals who was with Him on the cross that, “…today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.

Micah was too young to have the opportunity to make a conscious decision to follow Christ. But based upon numerous promises found in scripture, we believe that the work of Christ on the cross “covered” Micah, and now Micah has the gift of eternal life. The central promise upon which we rest our hopes, the truth that brings us greatest comfort, is the audacious, counter-cultural claims of the Bible that Micah is happier now, in Heaven, than he ever was with us during his short time on earth.

In Psalm 16:11, King David says, “You have made known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” In Philippians 1:23, the Apostle Paul indicates that these pleasures far outweigh any benefit to him of remaining on earth. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Jesus Himself stated, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:1-3.

Because of the work of Jesus, Micah is now in God’s presence. The pleasures that Micah is now enjoying make all of our greatest earthly pleasures inconsequential. “That [Micah] missed earth’s pleasures of marriage and children and food and friends do not cause him the slightest regret. He took a much shorter route to the One in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures for evermore. “ John Piper, Funeral Meditation for Owen Glenn Shramek, found at

The audacity of our Christian faith is that Micah is now better off than he ever was during his 9 months on earth. Our only hope, ultimately, lies nowhere outside of this 2,000-year old book. Our hopes for the future and our hope for significance through this otherwise meaningless, seemingly indiscriminate suffering rises and falls together with this Jesus of Nazarath, who died for our sins, who rose again from the dead on that Easter morning 2,000 years ago, and who now reigns and rules over all things, from the decisions of world leaders to little peas stuck in the throats of little boys.