Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Micah's Homegoing - One Year Anniversary

Today marks the one year anniversary of Micah's death. In honor of his "homegoing," I have created a slideshow of some of our favorite pictures. Thanks for your love, prayers & support. Cory, Heather and Owen.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grateful for the Gospel

“Well, you guys just need to do what works for you.” Heather and I heard these words of advice again several times this past week, as we have numerous times over the past year. We have found that this is good advice and right. In many ways, we had to start from scratch to find the right daily routines for us in our grieving. We have had to consider the right “form” of our lives.

In “God’s Grace and Your Sufferings,” David Powlison lists a number of ways in which we could lessen the anxiety surrounding suffering. Among other things, we could take yoga classes, get some “distance from the problem,” or throw ourselves into work. But Powlison says that “none of them gives you high joy in knowing that your entire life is a holy experiment as God’s hands shape you into the image of his Son. None of them changes the way you suffer by embedding it in deeper meaning.” David Powlison, God’s Grace and Your Sufferings, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, Piper & Taylor, eds., p. 165.

While there are benefits to considering how and whether certain routines in life affect grief, none of these decisions will ultimately substitute for the meaning within our lives. The one and only cure for the melancholy from our mourning for Micah is being grateful to God for the gospel. Anything other than God Himself would not be sufficient to persevere over the course of a lifetime.

If we focus on the objective truth of God’s great love for us, demonstrated in Christ, then we will have the power to overcome melancholy. In Colossians, Paul says to the church, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:11-14 (ESV, my emphasis).

There are all sorts of ways that we could try to deal with our grief through forgetting Micah or avoiding his earthly history. We could become alcoholics or workaholics or become addicted to shopping or drugs. We could try to focus on other aspects of our circumstances, such as our second son Owen. It seems to me that, outside of our hope in Christ, the only way to break out of melancholy would be to try various means to either (i) forget my circumstances as they relate to Micah and his history or (ii) convince myself that I don’t (or didn’t) really love Micah all that much or that his death was not that big of a deal. These methods merely avoid the grief in our own minds, and will only work so long as the circumstances are right. These methods of dealing with melancholy are “dark” in the sense that they are not grounded in objective truth.

Paul suggests to the Colossians that the key to endurance in all earthly circumstances is the joy in knowing what Jesus Christ has done for us. Even in light of the reality of our son’s tragic death, we have many reasons to be filled with joy, to be thankful, for what it means to be part of Christ’s Kingdom.

Thankful for Knowing Christ

We are thankful for the actual knowledge of God’s plan for salvation, which is found in His Son, Jesus Christ. In previous ages of human history, only certain elements of God’s plan were made known through the prophets. But now, the mystery hidden for ages and generations has now been revealed to us. To us who have heard of, and trust in, the good news of Jesus Christ, “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of Glory.” Colossians 1:26-27.

We should be thankful for how rich we are merely by reason of the knowledge of this mystery. This "mystery" is that we have been saved by God, through Jesus Christ, for all eternity, not because of anything we have done, but because of God’s grace towards us. Ephesians 2:8. We have been forgiven of all of our imperfections (our sins), have been justified by God and therefore qualify to be members of His Kingdom. We have reason to be thankful because of this inheritance, this gift, of undeserved membership in His Kingdom. Take away all else in our lives, and we still have everything we need in the Kingdom of Christ.

Thankful for Purpose in our Suffering

As difficult as it is to walk through this past year of grief, we are so thankful that God is not wasting our sufferings. We are grateful that God is working through our sufferings to make us more like Jesus. Left on my own, my personal character would likely become worse, not better, following my son’s death. These tragic events have already caused bouts of anger, bitterness and melancholy. Without Christ, these bouts would become entrenched character traits. Indeed, without Christ, I was “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [I] once walked, following the course of this world…carrying out the desires of [my] body and the mind, and [I was] by nature a child of wrath…” Ephesians 2:1-3.

But now, the glory of this “mystery” of the gospel is that Christ now actually lives in us. In living within us, God works in us "to will and to work for his good pleasure" so that we can live a life pleasing to God. Philippians 2:13. Our sinful reactions to emotions arising from temporal circumstances no longer need hold sway. According to Colossians 1, God gives us the power to have patience and endurance to have joy even in the midst of the most difficult temporal circumstances.

And our joy comes from knowing that these difficult temporal circumstances will eventually pass away and we will enjoy God eternally. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18.

Thankful for Micah’s Salvation

Next week, we will have endured one year since Micah died and went to be with His Savior. Over this past year, we have been so grateful for the hope that our little son is now in the physical presence of our Lord and Savior.

Samuel Rutherford was a 17th century pastor and theologian who was one of the authors of the Westminster Confession. Amazingly, all of his children from his first marriage and six of his seven children from his second marriage all died before him. To a bereaved mother of a little girl, Samuel Rutherford wrote, “Do you think that she is lost, when she is only sleeping in the bosom of the Almighty? If she were with a dear friend, your concern for her would be small, even though you would never see her again. Oh now, is she not with a dear friend, and gone higher, upon a certain hope that you shall see her again in the resurrection? Your daughter was a part of yourself; and, therefore, being as it were cut in half, you will be grieved. But you have to rejoice; though a part of you is on earth, a great part of you is glorified in heaven.” Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford ( Edinburgh : Banner of Trust, repr. 1973).

What ultimately “works” in grief is not just the "forms" of our life, but the meaning, the substance, we attach to our sufferings. Heather and I can be thankful for what Jesus Christ has done for us and for Micah, for what God is currently doing in our lives to make us more like Him, and for what joy awaits us at the resurrection.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Dark Night of Grief

In the darkness of our grief, we have often resonated with the words of the psalmist in Psalm 88:
“…For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;

I am a man who has no strength,
Like one set loose among the dead,
Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Like those whom you remember no more,
For they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
In the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
You have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
My eye grows dim through sorrow.” Psalm 88:3-9 ESV.

Psalm 88 is an unusual Psalm in that the chapter does not end on a confident note; there is no “ray of sunshine” or hope or promise for how God will redeem the suffering. It is suffering and only suffering. While there is an implicit recognition of the sovereignty of God throughout the Psalm, there is not an explicit resolution to the Psalmist’s sufferings. So why is this Psalm even in the Bible?

In his article entitled “Waiting for the Morning,” Dustin Shramek says that Psalm 88 is in the Bible “so that when suffering and pain come and we are between the affliction and triumph in the midst of the questions, pain, and clouds of doubt, we may see that what we are feeling is normal. It has all been felt before, and all the questions have been asked before. We are not the first. We are not alone. And we are not in danger of losing our faith (at least not yet).” Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by Piper & Taylor, p. 184.

Shramek and his wife lost their son Owen in 2003. Following Owen’s death, members of their church tried to encourage them to get through their grief by providing them with “pat” theological comments or encouragements. Dustin felt that while these fellow members meant well, what they really wanted was for the Shrameks to get through their grief quickly. Shramek believes that, in times such as these, we should not move “so quickly from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between.” Shramek, 179.

In 1 Peter 4:12, Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Do we really believe the Bible’s promise that we will suffer? Or are we secretly hoping that the Bible is not true when it comes to promises about suffering? We should not be surprised that Christians suffer, and that this suffering really hurts. Psalm 88 shows that God expects us not to minimize the pain of our present sufferings.

The Apostle Paul exhorts all believers to bear with each other’s sufferings as “one body.” In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 Paul says, “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.” In 1 Corinthians 12: 26 Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

If we as Christians are to effectively bear burdens collectively, as a body, then we need to be genuine in our grief. If we are those trying to encourage or uplift others in suffering, then we must be willing to plumb the depths of suffering with others, to wait patiently with them during those “dark nights” of the kind encountered by the Psalmist in Psalm 88. If we are the one in the midst of the suffering, then we must be honest in our own grief with others.

(1) Supporting Others in Grief

Most Americans, and most Christians, are very uncomfortable around grief. We don’t like the openness and honesty that comes from having to deal with others grieving. We also have the good intention of trying to “fix” people’s problems; this is true even in grief. We find ourselves employing our education and background to find a way out of the problem.

But nothing can “fix” the grief of a lost child. For those of us who are supporting others in the midst of the grief, we should not be afraid to enter into the dark night of grieving with our co-workers, small group members, family or friends. What are we afraid of? After all, what can separate us from the love of Christ? If God to love us through “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword,” (Romans 8:35), will not God allow us to keep our faith through the emotions that come with these circumstances?

If God is sovereign over space and time, then could not He be working in our lives, even during these periods of our mourning when we do not feel any blessing from Him? Just because we do not feel God’s abundant blessing upon us does not mean that he is not working through us. For us, I trust that God is working Micah’s death and our grief for His eternal purposes and our good regardless of how we may feel at a given moment.

(2) Allowing Others to Support You in Your Grief

Heather has helped me realize that I have often glossed over my own grief. In certain contexts and relationships, it is clear that when a person asks the question “How are you doing?,” they do not really intend to elicit a genuine response. In these cases, I generally provide them the answer to the rhetorical question that they are looking for. However, even in situations when I know that a person really wants to know about us, I have often provided less than genuine responses.

The temptation is to be seen as “having it together.” I want to put my best foot forward, to speak the language of the church, to give the “Sunday School answer.” This type of attitude, which Jesus rebuked among the Pharisees, puts religious form over substance. It is seeking a superficial relationship with people rather than a genuine one. To be superficial and disingenuous about our sufferings is essentially an attempt to minimize the pain so that we can keep things at a superficial level. But to minimize the scars in my own life is also to minimize the superseding power of God to strengthen us to triumph over it, in Christ. As the Psalmist says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” Psalm 34:19. By God’s power, I should wait in eager expectation for my deliverance from this present suffering, even if I must wait until death to be relieved of it.

So when we encourage co-workers or friends who have lost a loved one, do not be surprised or turned away by “the eyes that grow dim through tears.” Let us bear one another’s burdens in love, regardless of whether we think that they are praying enough, attending church enough, or saying the right things. And if we are suffering, do not be like me, but be genuine in your grief so that you let others bear your burdens along with you.