Thursday, December 25, 2014

When Comforting Someone Who's Suffered a Loss - Here's What NOT To Do

 There are many right ways of helping someone who's just lost someone very dear to them. Unfortunately, there are many WRONG ways of offering comfort, and in my experience, most people do it wrong, even when they think they're doing it right.  I learned this following two very personal losses (the death of my 17-year-old son, and the suicide of his mother/my wife) eight years later when her unresolved grief became too much to bear).

Here are my experiences, and the lessons I learned from them.

Some years back, my son died instantly in a one-car crash while driving to early band practice at his high school.  We'd delayed letting him get his driver's license for a year (until he was 17) because we felt he first needed to demonstrate responsibility.  He'd only been driving for 8 days when he crashed.  The autopsy showed no signs of alcohol or drugs - he merely lost control while driving too fast, skidded out and hit a tree.  His seat belt wasn't enough to save him.  Those are the facts.

I reached out to many people for comfort - connecting with my fairly extensive online network of "list-friends."  In return, many people reached out to me o offer me comfort.  But instead of offering real help, most of them only made matters worse.

As they "offered comfort," I was shocked to learn how few really knew how to do that, and how many tried to help me by using this occasion to ease their own grief, while claiming to try and help me with mine.

When someone is in grief - when someone has suffered a great personal loss - the last thing he or she wants is to be burdened by other people's losses. 

To say, "I know how you feel, because I've lost someone, too, and I'm here for you ..." that shows compassion and deep understanding.

But to say, "I know how you feel because I lost my second cousin in a car crash, she'd been drinking and slammed into a bridge abutment on I-95, and lingered in intensive care, like a vegetable, for six weeks until my uncle had to pull the plug on her, it was the most horrific thing ever ... so yeah, I know how you feel ..." not so much.

In fact, I'm here to tell you that this approach does NOTHING for the grieving person, except add to their pain and suffering. That all-too-common approach is all about the "comforter" actually trying to reach out for comfort, to process his or her own grief.

I was inundated with so many stories of other peoples' losses - all of them pretending  to try and help me (and most of them believing that they were helping me).  But what they were actually trying to do was to work out their own grief. I had just lost my son, and I was in no shape to offer a shoulder to anyone else for their own loss. Yet that was what they expected of me - that I would lend them a shoulder, and commiserate with their loss. 

I'm sorry, but the death of my son does NOT equate to their loss of their second cousin ... to some extent, a loss is a loss, yes, but the closer the person, the deeper the loss.  And the more recent the loss, the more jaggedly painful.

But this is what happened, over and over - and believe it or not, one person actually tried to show that he understood my loss because he'd just lost his dog.  His dog!

If you are reaching out to comfort someone who's just experienced a tragic loss, it's OK to say, "I understand your grief, because I've suffered a loss, too."  But leave it at that. Don't work out the terms of your grief on that person.

Instead, after acknowledging having once experienced a non-specified loss, go on to say, "knowing what a loss feels like, I am here for you - in any way and every way that I can help." 

But then, instead of putting the responsibility for your help on the sufferer by saying, "how can I help?" - go ahead and offer several specific ways you can help. Ask, for instance, "do you need food?  Do you need someone to be with you, so you're not alone?  Do you need someone to drive you to the funeral home?" Offer those, or some other material support, then say ... "or anything else you might need, just know that I'm here for you."

Finally, don't forget the power of God, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  You could, of course, say, "I'll pray for you and the person you lost."  But don't just leave it there - take it a step further.

 For instance, ask, "would you like me to pray with you right now (in person or by phone)?"  Then, assuming they say yes, make sure your prayer is all about the person who's suffered the loss (not your own loss), and about how God can and will help that person. 

Going a step further, if the lost person is known to you to be a person of faith (i.e., someone you believe has accepted Christ), you can also talk about how that lost person is now with God.  But if you don't know that for a fact, don't go there ... the person who's just suffered a loss may be agonizing about whether their loved one IS with God.

If you have a favorite comforting scripture, a psalm or words of Jesus (or Paul, or anyone in the bible who comforted someone), share that, too. If you don't remember the verses verbatim, take a moment to look that scripture up (write it down if you need to) before calling - or calling on - someone to help with their grief.

So please, if someone you know suffers a loss, make your comfort specific to them.  Offer meaningful help and support - but don't just offer generalities, offer meaningful specifics. 

Not just, "I'll pray for you," but "can I pray with you right now." 

Not just "I understand, because I recently lost my pet goldfish" but "I understand because I've suffered a loss, too, so let me help you specifically, by doing a, b and c."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Faith in the Marketplace

Today in The Blaze, there was an article about one pastor's outrage against Disney and a Magic Kingdom Christmas celebration.  The word “Christmas” had been left off of a Disney billboard in Orlando, in a message advertising Disney World's popular holiday-themed Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

Right up front, let me say I found the pastor's concern over leaving the word "Christmas" off of the billboard message a bit odd, since the event itself (which he and his family have attended for eight consecutive years) is itself a profoundly secular event.  It has few - if any - truly Christian overtones. It's a typically Disney party for kids of all ages, celebrating the holiday season, but not the birth of Christ.

I read the pastor's comments with interest.  Some years ago, I had been personally active in the "war against Christmas" kerfuffle, at a time when it did seem that everywhere we looked, people and businesses were actively working to take "Christmas" out of the Christmas holiday. 

However, as I reflected on that former passion and this current situation, I saw some differences - perhaps in what is going on in society, and perhaps what is going on in me.

I still actively and vigorously oppose those organized atheists who use the threat of court costs to force municipalities and schools to ban Christmas celebrations. However, for me, that opposition is more political than theological, and it also highlights my own resentment against bullies.

This Disney deal, it seems to me, is different, and the issue here is theological rather than political.

I am a proud and (I hope) dedicated Christian; however, I don’t look to (or expect) secular corporations to carry my message of faith for me. Pastor Eddie DelValle of With Love Ministries is of course entitled to his reaction.  Viscerally, I might have reacted the same way on seeing that billboard for the first time.  However, for me, that would be the end of it, and here's why.

We Christians live in a secular society ... we cannot expect the secular world to reflect, let alone promote, our beliefs

We Christians live in a secular society, and I believe that  we are both misguided and misleading ourselves if we expect the secular world to reflect - let alone promote - our beliefs. If we boycotted every secular corporation that failed to carry our banner for us, we’d be limited to shopping at - or interacting with - just two kinds of companies.  Those whose owners have real faith and want to share that faith (Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-a come to mind) or those cynical secular corporations who proclaimed our message, not out of faith, but out of greed.

Frankly, I’d rather be ignored than be pandered to ...

While I do NOT want to deal with corporations or organizations that actively espouse an anti-Christian message, or which, by their actions, support an anti-Christian objective, I can't think of all that many organizations that fit that mold (except, perhaps for MSNBC and CNN, and a few other actively-hostile news media outlets). 

However, there are some businesses Christians can't avoid, even if something they do is distasteful.  For instance, all pharmacies are required to sell morning-after abortion pills, and as someone who's not a supporter of abortion, I find that distasteful. However, there are no alternatives I'm aware of, so I continue to do business with CVS Pharmacy.

I have also worked with and for clients and employers who personally profess either a lack of belief or an active disbelief. However, I deal with them in a purely secular role, and see no problem with that, since their businesses do not reflect their lack of faith or actively oppose mine.

So what's my bottom line here?  Disney is a secular corporation, and in our free country, they are free to celebrate - or not celebrate - Christmas as they choose.  That is their business, not mine.  I am free to do business with - or ignore - Disney. However, I have two grandkids who LOVE Disney movies, TV shows and products, and because of that, I'll very likely continue to "shop Disney" for Christmas presents. 

This does not offend, nor does it threaten, my faith

And I guess I encourage Christians, including Pastor Eddie DelValle, to pick their fights with a bit more care.  If Disney were actively trying to undermine Christianity, that would be different. But they're just trying to make a buck in December, which makes them not anti-Christian, but quintessentially American.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Miracles Do Happen - Here's Mine

The dictionary defines miracles as: An extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.

In my own words, a miracle is some event that "cannot happen" under the laws of physics, but which happens anyway, in a fashion that defies rational explanation.

By either definition, miracles do happen.

In fact, I believe I'm living proof (literally, living proof) that this is true.

Here is the story of my miracle.

It was probably about 20 years ago. I was out of work, deeply depressed, facing economic collapse and struggling with the aftermath of a broken marriage and the rocks and shoals of a second marriage.  I felt a failure - I didn't seem to be able to provide for my family, or to accomplish in myself anything that I'd set out to do.  There seemed no way out.
There seemed to be no way out. I decided to end my life
I decided to end my life - in retrospect, for me it would have been the coward's way out, but at the time, it seemed my only real option in a world spinning out of control. However, I had life insurance and I didn't want to leave my family destitute, so I decided to stage my suicide so it looked accidental.  A gun-cleaning accident.

First, I left a note on the kitchen table for my wife to find - not a suicide note but an "I'm out in the garage cleaning my gun" message.

Then I loaded and cocked my Springfield full-frame 1911A1 semi-automatic pistol, and mounted it, barrel up, in a bench vice.

An aside for those who don't know anything about guns in general, or this pistol in particular, I need to describe a bit about how this pistol works.  It's germane to this miracle, so please bear with me. 

The Springfield 1911A1 is based on the US Army's sidearm pistol, the Colt M1911A1 - the .45 caliber pistol used by US forces in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. It is still the weapon of choice for many special forces soldiers, as well as serious target shooters and those who are serious about self-defense. 

More than 100 years after it first entered service, this timeless handgun remains popular for two reasons. 
  • First, the pistol remarkably powerful - if you hit something, it will go down and stay down.  
  • Second, the pistol is remarkably mechanically reliable - it does what it's supposed to do (i.e., to fire) every time, without fail.
Also, while it goes off whenever it's supposed to, it also has three different kinds of safeties, so it doesn't go off unless you really want it to.  The "last line of defense" is called a "grip safety."  You have to actually be squeezing the grip (the handle) of the gun to release that safety - without that, the gun cannot fire.

So, back to my miracle.  I had the gun mounted in the bench vice, pointed upward, so I wouldn't have to hold it.  Then, resolved to do what was needed (in my muddled and desperate mind), I pressed my forehead against the barrel's gaping mouth - right between my eyes, and just a skosh "north" of my eyebrows.  I squeezed the grip safety tight, and then I pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

That's not possible.  This 1911A1 is a purely mechanical piece of machinery, no electronics, nothing that could possibly cause it to not fire.  But despite that indisputable fact, the gun didn't fire.

I stood there for a space of several seconds (it seemed like hours, but it could only have been a couple of seconds), increasingly puzzled by what hadn't happened.

Then, thinking that I was going to have to do a bit of "gun-smithing" to figure out what went wrong, I released the grip safety and began to pull my head away from the gun barrel's opening - and the instant that my forehead was out of the line of fire, the gun went off.

That's not possible, either.

Mechanically, the gun HAD to go off when I squeezed the trigger.  It really had no other option.  And again, mechanically, the gun could NOT go off several seconds after I'd squeezed the trigger, and after I'd released the grip safety. 

John Browning's masterful pistol design just did not work that way.

The blast was deafening - I couldn't hear out of my right ear for weeks - and the hole in the garage ceiling was unmistakable.  However, that was a side-show.

The instant I heard the gun go off, I was flooded by what I know in my heart was a very clear and unmistakable message from God Himself, a message that suicide was not for me. 
An unmistakable message from God Himself, a message that suicide was not for me.  Period.

Since that time, nearly two decades ago, I've had many even more difficult times in my life than I'd faced on that day. I've lost a son to a single-car accident, and my late wife to her own suicide in the aftermath of our son's tragic death.  Those were the worst, but I've faced many other challenges in life.

Yet I have never again been tempted by suicide.

God spared my life in a miracle, an action which defied known laws of physics, but which nonetheless happened.

Sometimes the Answer is "No"

It is a tenet of my faith that God answers prayers.  This is something I believe with all of my heart, a belief bolstered by the many times that God has answered my own prayers, in ways that were - to me - put the reality of those answers beyond question.

However - and this is hard for many Christians to accept, as I've seen for myself - sometimes the answer to that prayer is "no."  When you're asking for something that is outside of God's will and plan for your life, God doesn't ignore that prayer, but He might just answer by saying "no." 
 God doesn't ignore that prayer, but He might just answer by saying "no"

In other blogs I've written here, I have talked about how God said "no" to Jonah (I'm not confused here - this is not about how Jonah said "no" to God). After Jonah realized that he really did need to follow God's command, he went to Nineveh where he preached doom.  To his surprise and disappointment, the people and the king of Nineveh did hear Jonah, and believed in what he was preaching, and repented.  Real sack-cloth and ashes time, honest and meaningful repentance.  God heard their groans of anguish, saw the true repentance in their hearts, and spared Nineveh the doom Jonah had foretold.

Jonah, whose people (the Israelites) considered Nineveh their sworn enemy, had looked forward to God's judgment. When it didn't come, he prayed to God to follow up on that promise, to smite the Ninevites.  God heard Jonah's prayer, but the answer he gave Jonah was a resounding "no."  Even though Jonah had (admittedly, reluctantly) done as God had commanded, and even though Jonah was indeed a prophet of God, God heard his prayer, but told him "no."
God heard Jonah's prayer, but God told him "no"

Which brings me to a very personal side of this issue, personal for me.  In 2007, eight years after our son had died in a one-car accident in September, 1999, my wife Karol was going through unimaginably deep suffering because of that loss.  Many years earlier, she'd lost a son who was born with profound, unsurvivable birth defects.  Following his inevitable death, she had never been able to properly grieve, and that loss festered in her soul.  Then nearly 20 years later, our son died in that awful crash.  Once again, she had been unable to properly grieve, and that loss, too, festered.  Even worse, the two boys' birthdays - and the anniversaries of their deaths - came very close together in calendar terms.

Each year from July through September, Karol went through an anguish that had to be seen to be believed.  This year, for reasons not clear, the suffering seemed to be worse.  Despairing of what I could do for her, I turned to God, and prayer.  Using the Psalms as my focal point - especially the ones in which David cried out to a God he felt had forsaken him - I prayed as I had never done before.  My prayers were daily events, often lasting hours, and filled with all the power of the emotions I was feeling.  And I asked others to pray for her as well - online prayer groups, our local church, friends - and those efforts were not in vain. People did pray for Karol.
People did pray for Karol

Still, her crisis seemed to deepen.  I knew God was listening - He had always listened to my prayers, and had often answered them in ways nothing short of miraculous - yet things only got worse for her.

Finally, I thought there was a change. She seemed more at peace, and things seemed to be returning to normal. We made plans to do things we enjoyed - something we hadn't done in weeks, perhaps months.  She even asked me to go to the store (at her request, and by my own choice, I had literally not left the house for a week - both of us were unwilling for me to leave her alone), so - feeling things had turned a corner, I went to the store to restock on groceries. 
Yet something didn't feel right

Yet something didn't feel right - I felt deeply that something was wrong, but I didn't know what.  I tried to call her, but she didn't answer, and for some reason, my blood ran cold.  I raced home, only to find the bedroom door locked.  It took me five minutes to disassemble the lock, and when I came in, I found Karol dead on the floor.

I called the police, who treated me like a murderer (no surprise there, and not really part of this story). More importantly, I called our priest.  She interrupted her vacation to rush to our home - to say last rites over Karol - and later she told me that she'd felt no evil there, that Karol was now finally at peace, a peace she had been unable to find in this life.
Karol was now finally at peace, a peace she had been unable to find in this life
I had prayed to God to help Karol find peace - in this life - but His answer was "no." 

That was hard for me to accept, and I "took' a vacation from God" as I came to terms with it.  I didn't stop believing in God, and I wasn't angry at God or filled with blame for Him.  Still, I needed to step back and come to terms with this, and God was gracious in letting me know that this was just fine with Him.

In mulling over what happened, I came to believe that His ultimate answer to my prayer was "yes, but on My terms" - Karol found peace she was so desperate to find - not in this life, though, but in the next life.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Romans (If God is for us, who can be against us?) vs. Jonah - Is there a conflict?

Chapter 8:31 of the Book of Romans (New International Version) offers one of the most comforting promises in all of Christianity:  "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  Can there be a greater promise found anywhere in the bible, short of John 3:16?

This can be exemplified by Jonah.  After initially defying God, Jonah repented, and God saved him.  Got was "for him," and not even a monstrous fish could be against him.  Johan had defied God because of two fears he had relating to carrying out God's commandment to him.  God then taught Jonah two lessons that echoes down to us over three millennia.

Most people understand that the first message of Jonah was simple and direct - if God commands you to do something, even if you find that thing frightening or even "wrong," do as God commands.  When considering Jonah, I find that most of us don't go farther than
"When God says, "go," you'd better go."

When God says "go," you'd better go ... 

Consider the second message of Jonah - perhaps an even more important message in light of the Great Promise found in Romans 8:31.  After repenting, Jonah did just as God commanded, preaching a powerful Jeremiad against the sinful city of Nineveh. He proclaimed God's destructive wrath was coming in 40 days.  But keep in mind that, while he did God's will, this message was not in his heart.  He had two fears buried deep in his heart that had kept him from eagerly embracing God's command.

One fear was for his own life - he and his people despised the city and King of Nineveh, and it wasn't unreasonable of Jonah to assume that the city and the king of Nineveh would return the favor.  In spades!

This fear, however, did not come to pass - Jonah was given free access to the city, unmolested by the people or King of that great city.  However, Jonah's second fear did come to pass.  His powerful message from the Lord was heard, by both the people and the king of Nineveh. They immediate took Jonah's message to heart, donned sackcloth, fasted and prayed to God to spare them.   In His mercy, God did spare them.

Not without pressure, Jonah finally had done just as God commanded.  But when his hated enemy, Nineveh, was spared, Jonah felt betrayed.  He'd done as God commanded, but what Jonah wanted in return was denied him - God, it appeared, hadn't been with him.   

And when you consider what Jonah had done for God, God's response may seem to fly in the face of the promise found in Romans 8:31 - "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  

Jonah had been there (eventually) for God, but in performing God's mission, Jonah's heart wasn't in it.  God desired Nineveh to repent and be saved, but Jonah's most heart-felt desire was to see his hated enemy smitten by Jonah's own all-powerful God, just as he'd preached.

Jonah's most heart-felt desire was to see his hated enemies smitten by Jonah's own all-powerful God

Though there might appear to be a conflict, there is not really one between the Grand Promise in Romans and God's seeming abandonment of Jonah after the preacher's mission had been accomplished. This lack of a real conflict, however, is true only if you understand that there is an unspoken subtext to that Great Promise. 

That subtext comes to light when you read the full story of Jonah, especially that short, powerful book's final chapter.

The Question isn't so much, "is God on our side?" as it is "are we on God's side?"

As I pointed out in my recent blog about Jonah, the question isn't so much "is God on our side?" as it is "are we on God's side?" 

The promise in Romans 8:31 is based on the subtext premise that, through giving our lives over to Christ, we leave the realm of the flesh and enter the realm of the spirit.  In that sense, we are on God's side, and when we are on God's side, God is indeed "for us," on our side.

Though saved, we are not immune to humanity's flaws and failures.  Like Jonah, having given ourselves over to God, we now think and expect that God is now on our side, and will - therefore - do and act on our desires, rather than on his plan.  

But that's got it all backwards.

God planned for Jonah to preach repentance to the Ninevites.  However, despite Jonah's heartfelt desire for God to smite his mortal enemies, God also planned for the Ninevites to have an honest opportunity to repent and be saved.  And when they did faithfully repent, He indeed spared them.  

Jonah was confused, frustrated, angry - and he felt so betrayed that he asked God to end his miserable life.  That's frustrated!  Jonah felt betrayed - when it counted (to Jonah), God wasn't on his side.  

Jonah felt betrayed - when it counted (to Jonah), God wasn't on his side. But in truth, it was Jonah who wasn't on God's side.

But in truth, it was Jonah who wasn't on God's side.  

Though Jonah preached God's doom on the city, the prophet not-so-secretly did NOT want Nineveh to actually hear his God-inspired words.  Jonah was just going through the motions.  He couldn't wait to climb into his ringside seat and watch "his God" destroy "his enemies."  When God showed mercy to Jonah's enemies, this proved to be a bitterly hard lesson for Jonah, perhaps even harder than being swallowed whole by a great fish.

And for those of us 21st Century Christians who revel in the Great Promise as spelled out in Romans 8:31, it is essential that we remain focused on that second vital lesson from Jonah.

To have God on our side, we must first make sure that we are on God's side. 

To have God on our side, we must first make sure that we are on God's side.  Then, God will be for us, and, indeed, who can be against us?

* John 3:16 - New International Version: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Statement of Personal Faith in God, Jesus and the Spirit

This is my statement of faith.

I believe that faith is a journey, not a destination.  I believe we were put here by God to experience His love, and to grow in faith.  I believe that suffering is an important tool in that faith journey, as it calls us back to God when nothing else will.  I believe that God is there to help us, but he expects us to help ourselves.  He expects us to act on our faith, even as salvation is not based on works or deeds, but on faith alone.  But I believe that inner faith without external manifestations of that faith is a slender reed, and a hollow one.

I believe in God and He shapes my life, provides me guidance (when I listen) and sees me through troubled times.  I believe in Jesus as the one true son of God, the author of my salvation.  I believe in the Holy Spirit of God, and have (at critical points in my life) felt touched by the Spirit of God.  The Trinity remains a mystery to me (as, I suppose, it was meant to), but I believe in God the Father, I believe in Jesus the Son and pathway to salvation, and I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I believe in the Bible as the primary source of God's message to humanity (and to me).  I reject those who claim that the Bible was solely the work of man, as that denies the reality of divine intervention.  The experiences in my life have proved to me the divine nature of the Bible.  I find spiritual value in both the Old and New Testaments, but in cases of a conflict, I believe that the New Testament (and Jesus) were created to refine and replace the Old Testament.

I believe in baptism as a vital step in a person's faith journey.  However, I believe that infant baptism is symbolic of the intent of the infant's parents, family and godparents to raise the child in faith, but it doesn't "confirm" adult salvation.  That adult salvation requires informed and committed faith, demonstrated by baptism, to "count" as baptism.

I believe Jesus meant what he said about the Eucharist, and those faiths that don't include communion with every church service are (at best) misinformed.  I believe that Satan exists and is active in this world, and that he is a major part of every person's faith journey.  As I believe that Satan exists to tempt Man, I believe that Hell is the destination of those who hear the Gospel and refuse to accept it. 

I believe in the life everlasting for those who believe in God and in the saving power of Jesus.

However, I have no real idea of what Heaven is like, or how Hell works.  Those answers have not been shown to me. 

I do not know how infant baptism works, but I believe that God accepts into his loving arms all infants and children who die while still too young to profess faith.  I also do not profess to know what happens to those who die having never been introduced to God and Jesus - as they saying goes, "that's way above my pay grade."

I believe that God created the universe, and that He created mankind, but I do not rule out the possibility that he used Evolution as a tool for doing so - God is infinite, and those who try to constrain him set themselves up to judge God - always a bad idea. I am not saying that God used evolution - I am saying that in His infinite wisdom, he used whatever tools he chose (and that evolution might - or might not - have been one of them).

I believe that, just as Jesus used parables, God might have been using parables in His teachings about Adam and Eve in the Garden, or about Noah and the Flood, or about Jonah and Leviathan.  The literal truth vs. the parabolic truth of these is not important to my faith.  What they tell me about what God wants of me is vitally important, just as the lessons of Jesus' parables are far more important than the name and zip code of the Prodigal Son.

This is not all of my faith, but it reflects a significant part of my faith as God has shown my faith to me at this point in my life.