Five things I want the grieving to know about death

One: It’s not wrong to hate death; our Lord hated it also.

He broke up every funeral procession He came to by raising the dead.  Scripture calls death an enemy (I Corinthians 15).

Two:  Scripture says death is out of business.

“Shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  Jesus promised that.   “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).

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Laying aside the earthly. You might want to get ready for this.

“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  (2 Corinthians 5:1)

“We do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:4)

My wife gets attached to cars. I do not.  Recently, I gave my 2015 Camry to my oldest granddaughter.  I’ve done that several times before–starting with the ’96 Camry to my son many years back, later the ’05 to a granddaughter, the ’09 to our twin granddaughters, the ’13 Honda C-RV to my son, and now this one.  I’m happy to pass them along, and as one might expect, they enjoy getting them.

To me a car is a thing, an instrument we use.  My oldest granddaughter names them.  The ’05 is Sandy and this ’15 is Pearl (names based on their colors).  Like most cowboys in the old west, I don’t name my mounts.  I take good care of them and have them serviced by the dealer on the recommended schedule, and thus have almost no trouble from the car.  But when it’s time to replace it with a newer version, I’m happy to let it go.

Think of that as a parable.  We let things go so they can be replaced by something better.

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And now, I’d like to say a few words to my fears

“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Psalm 116:7).

Fears crop up from time to time.

They co-exist right alongside my faith, like tares among the wheat (referencing Matthew 13:30).

My faith and my fears are not friends, you understand, nor are they unknown to one another.  They have fairly well existed alongside one another from the beginning, so they are well-acquainted, in the sense that competitors on the gridiron who do battle in repeated contests come to know one another intimately.

I identify with the fellow who, when told that all things are possible if he could believe, answered, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24).

What do I fear?  Let me count the ways.  (I do this knowing full well that fears love to be given room and attention and energies, all of which serve to feed this cancer, causing it to mushroom.)

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Just You Wait.

“I would have despaired had I not believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord. Be strong. Let your heart take courage. Yes, wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14).

I believe.

I believe I will see.

I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord.

I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord (over there) in the land of the living.

Without that faith, I would have despaired.

Believe or despair. Those are the choices.

There are no other alternatives.

No matter how we try to dress atheism up as a noble choice of clear-thinking people, its only logical outcome is darkness and oblivion. The only thing such a philosophy produces is despair.

The Lord’s goodness will be on full display in the “land of the living.”  This world is not the land of the living but of the dying.  The land of the living lies just over the hilltop.

It awaits the faithful.

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What I am learning about grief

We grieve, but not “as others who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13).

No one volunteers to become knowledgeable about grief.  Life hands you the assignment by robbing you of someone whom you love dearly. Suddenly, you find yourself missing a major part of your existence–an arm and a leg come to mind–and trying to figure out how to go forward.

You discover this ache in you goes by the name “grief.”  Synonyms include mourning. Sorrow. Loss. Bereavement.

Without warning, you find yourself experiencing an entire new lineup of emotions–all of them devastating–about which you had heard only rumors before.

The second discovery you make is people think you ought to be able to help others deal with it. Surely, they imply, if you have come through it and lived to tell about it, you must be wise.

I’m so unwise.

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A grief symposium

“You need to lead a grief symposium,” she said. “So many people need encouragement.”

That was a new thought, in some ways.  And one for which I was unprepared.

I promised to pray about it and give it some thought.

I know so little about grief.  It doesn’t seem like too long ago when I was thinking death seemed to have skipped our family altogether. My parents were living into their mid-90s and all my siblings were alive and well, into our 60s and beyond.  And then, maybe I spoke too soon….

Our youngest brother Charlie died in ’06, our Dad in ’07, and Mom in ’12.  Our brother Glenn went to Heaven after that, followed by my brother Ron’s only grandson Micah, in his mid-20s.  And then my wife of 52+ years died in January of this year.

The hits just keep on coming.

As a veteran pastor, I know a great deal about funerals. And, having cared for hurting families over these decades, I thought I knew a lot about grief. I did, but it was all from the outside. I was an observer, a reporter, never a participant.

These days I’m learning about grief from the inside.

So far, the main thing I’ve learned is I don’t much like it.  Grief accompanies bad things in our lives.  Grief saps the joy out of our days and robs us of sleep at night.  It takes away our appetite and dampens our enthusiasm for the activities that used to fill the spaces in our lives.

Grief is an erratic guest in my house.  Some days he does not show up at all, and then suddenly with no warning, descends in full force and causes the tears to flow.  HIs visitations are triggered by the oddest of prompts, everything from an old photograph to a forgotten note in a file to something written in the margin of the Bible.  Sometimes grief’s presence is like a dark cloud over the house and at other times a jab with a pointed stick.

A symposium, says the dictionary, derives from the Greek and originally meant a drinking party (sym meaning ‘together’ and the rest of the word being a cousin to our potion).

“Can you drink of the cup from which I will drink?” our Lord asked His disciples (Mark 10:38).  He had in mind suffering, whereas they wanted something less bitter.

Grief can be bitter. It can rouse bad memories, deliver overwhelming guilt, and call forth forgotten anger even.  Grief leaves an unwelcome aftertaste.

I wonder if my grief over Margaret’s passing is typical.  For that matter, I wonder if any grief is typical, or does every human carve a new path through this awful swampland, one never traveled before and his or hers alone.

It’s been over 7 months now since my wife drove herself to the nail salon down the highway and, according to the ladies there, sat in the chair, coughed a couple of times, and collapsed.  After five days on life support with no response whatsoever, she was unplugged and died the next morning. The mahogany box with her ashes sits where we placed it then, on a small round table just to the side of the chair in the living room in front of the window where she read her Bible and kept her study books.  A framed photo sits nearby, one of several pictures I took last year when we visited the English Tea Room in Covington, Louisiana.

I cannot type this without the tears flowing.

Mostly, I look at the photo and smile. She was having a good day then. Sometimes I talk to her as I pass through the living room or sit nearby at the dining room table at the laptop working on articles for this blog.  But I think the same thing as when I visit the graves of my parents and brothers in the church cemetery outside Nauvoo, Alabama: They are not here; they are as much with me at the family farmhouse as they are here.  If  they are with the Lord, and if He is with me–which He is–then, aren’t they with me also?  Same with Margaret.

I understand so little about any of this.  Introspection does not come naturally for me. But I’m trying.

We see through a glass darkly.  We know in part.  We walk by faith, not by sight.

The jabs or stabs of grief that hit me from time to time–less frequently now than earlier,  I notice–seem to be a combination of so many things, but mostly just sadness from missing her.

If we could break down the grief and analyze it chemically, with a weight of 100, let’s say, perhaps it would be composed of the following:

1) The first 40 parts would be love and sadness.  I miss her touch and the sound of her voice. Even at the age of 70 plus, her voice was still youthful and sweet.  And the touch of her hands was so healing and comforting.  I miss her counsel, even when it was not always what I wanted to hear.

“That’s boring,” she might say when I read an article to her I was working on.  Or, “Who do you think would be interested in reading this?”  I smile at that memory.  We all need someone in our lives who can speak such truth to us, knowing their saying it will not jeopardize the relationship.

And I miss that.

As a good wife, she knew a thousand things about running a home we husbands have no clue about. She knew medicines and food preparation and psychology.  And she knew her Bible. In her memorial service, Pastor Mike Miller held her Bible up and said, “You will know Margaret was a serious Bible student when I tell you she had Leviticus marked up!”

2) Another 20 parts would be guilt.  I should have loved her better and told her more how special she was to me, how lovely were her eyes, and what a vital role she had played in my life for nearly 55 years.  I should not have left her so often when our children were small to visit church members in the hospitals when she needed me a hundred times more than they.  Why did I travel to the other side of the earth to draw an evangelistic comic book for the missionaries–being gone from home a full two weeks when our children were 8, 11, and 14–and give her hardly a thought while I was engaged in such pleasurable activities?  I was so self-centered.

And yet I know.

This is how life is.  No one is faultless, not even she.  I’m well aware I could fill my days and nights cataloging my absences, my preoccupations, and our misunderstandings, but there is no point in this. My dad often worked double shifts in the coal mines to provide for his family of six children, leaving mom to manage us.  Margaret’s father drove a Greyhound bus and was usually gone overnight.  It’s how life is. But still….

3) Perhaps another 15 parts would be pure gratitude.

I’m so thankful for the Lord leading us together in 1960.  I can recall something I would never have told her in a million years: I never felt the usual stuff we associate with fairy-tale romance–the elevated heartrate, the loss of appetite, the preoccupation with thoughts of her, and a thousand other such stuff of movies and Harlequin romances–but I knew from early on that God had chosen her for me and me for her.

The years proved that.  She was a good mother and a loving wife, and she became a great companion in ministry.  She was bright and intellectual and a constant reader. She was not a writer in the way her husband tried to be but she had great instincts as to what sounds right, which word would go better in that place, and when something was working.

I’m glad for our years together, for our love, for her beauty, for our children, for memories and laughter and ten thousand things.

Her last ten or fifteen years were increasingly painful, due to a combination of troublesome health issues.  She never liked me to tell people what they were when I explained that “No, my wife will not be accompanying me on this revival.”  She would say, “Just tell them ‘My wife has health problems.'”  So I did.

She was often in such pain she would say, “I can’t go on living this way.”  And when the Lord took her in late January, He did it in a moment.  As painful as this way–surely, the worst pain I have ever known in my years–I’m eternally grateful to Him for taking her without suffering.  I’m thankful she did not linger on a sick bed for months or even years.  And I’m thankful she was with people when this happened, and not driving on the highway when her collapse could have been tragic for so many.

4) I have no clue what the last parts would be.

Introspection is not my thing.  I’m not good at this.  Margaret was the psychologist in the family.  We used to tease that her choice of a movie involved people having nervous breakdowns, whereas Joe wanted nothing but Mayberry.  I would insist that this was because my days were filled with trouble and conflict and heartaches–I am a pastor, after all–and for rest, I need something light-hearted and relaxing.  But she was the deep thinker and the analyzer.




On the shore, waiting to cross over to the other side.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6).

Suppose you are 95 years old, as my friend Bill is. You buried your wife of over 50 years some six or seven years ago, and you have serious health issues now.  So, you begin to think of transitioning from this earthly dwelling to your heavenly existence.

The minister–that would be me–comes to see you in the rehab hospital.  And he asks some probing questions.

Can we talk about this?

This morning’s paper contained a tiny article about the Fort Morgan ferry that runs across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island.  The cost for one car and two passengers, this fellow said, is $20.50.  That’s up considerably since the last time my wife and I rode it with our grandson.  Grant was about six, as I recall.

We had arrived at the ferry landing and took our place in line with other cars. I bought the ticket and we were milling around waiting for the ferry to arrive from the other shore.  Grant was apprehensive.

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Humor and grief in ministry…hand in hand

“There is….a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).

The doctors at Houston’s M. D. Anderson Medical Center confirmed to Ted that the lung cancer had indeed metasticized to his brain.  “Perhaps six months, more or less,” said the doctor when Ted asked how long he had.  The worst news imaginable.

However, that night the doctor called his room.

“I’ve been studying the brain scans,” he said. “And I believe yours is Primary Lung Cancer which has moved to the brain.”  He went on to say that Primary Brain Cancer is not treatable, but a metasticized Primary Lung Cancer behaves differently in the brain and is often treatable.

There was hope, after all.

When he got off the phone, Ted explained this to his family. He was quiet a minute, then said, “Well, you know it’s your basic bad situation when you’re praying for lung cancer!”

And they laughed.

Can you weep and laugh at the same time?

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The pictures we made at the hospital and cemetery

My daughter has been posting some photos which I would just as soon didn’t ever see the light of day.  It’s not that they’re bad pictures or that I don’t love the people in them.

They were shot either at the hospital where my wife lay on life support for six days or at the church in the luncheon following her funeral.  And they all have one terrible thing in common.

We’re all smiling.

I’ve noticed this in photographs our family has made in years past.  We would be at the funeral of my parents or a beloved aunt or uncle, and after the ceremonies have ended and people are milling around greeting one another or saying their farewells, someone breaks out a camera and begins grouping us.  And without fail, we do it.

We all smile.

I suppose it’s because we were taught from childhood if someone points a lens in our direction, we smile.  I certainly ask every person who sits before me to be sketched to smile.  Everyone looks better smiling, “including you,” I tell them.

But sometimes, it feels like a smile is out of place.

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Adjusting to the new reality

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

I had to rewrite my resume’ today for our blog and for a program where I’ll be speaking soon.  That’s when I realized that somewhere the material should state that I was recently widowed.

How exactly does one do this? And what’s the best way? And is it absolutely necessary? And why does it hurt so badly to type in those words?

One of the decisions I find myself making daily is whether or not to tell the person I’m talking with that everything has changed in my life.  Does the lady at the dry cleaners need to know? Margaret never came in, so they didn’t know one another.

I told a complete stranger at Walmart today.

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