When Is It Right To Die? – A Book Review

when is it right to dieIt’s been fifty years since Joni Eareckson Tada became a quadriplegic after diving headfirst into the Chesapeake Bay in 1967. Over that time, she has risen above not only the challenges that came with her accident, but also from a stage 3 cancer diagnosis and countless other challenges that have come her way. She’s experienced the will to die, depression, and despair that so many others in similar situations to her own have experienced. Her ability to write “When Is It Right To Die?” is supported not only by the research that she has done over the years, but also by the vast experience that she has personally undergone. In short, her expertise it not simply theoretical, it’s experiential as well.

It’s been more than twenty-five years since the original edition of “When Is It Right To Die?” was released. Tada admits in the preface to this new edition that twenty-five years ago, her hope had been to provide a, “primer of sorts to readers whose only exposure to euthanasia was the occasional headline.” She goes on to say that much has taken place in the past twenty-five years to support the idea that people have the “right to die.” That change in the two and a half decades between editions was what led Tada to update her original book.

Tada writes in the introduction, “I am convinced that the principles that guided me and my family through the nightmarish maze of depression, suicidal thoughts, suffering, and death can help others. What we learned as a family can benefit other hurting families.” This is why she wrote and updated this book.

“When Is It Right To Die?” was a gut-wrenching read for me. So much of the conversation around end of life issues seems to hinge on so many factors. Financial. Spiritual. Emotional. Mental. There have been numerous high profile cases that have been highlighted in the media which have focused on these issues. Terri Schiavo. Brittany Maynard. Many of the names of those who were thrust into the spotlight of this important topic may stir in us a world of emotions. Those names will certainly stir up controversy in specific circles.

Tada writes from her own experience, her own research, and she writes with a candor and empathy that let her reader know that the end of life which seem to be reduced to purely mechanical and almost robotic decisions are actually far more complex than many, on both sides of the issue, have fully admitted. How do an individual’s decisions about their own end of life impact themselves, their families, God, and others? While the right of the individual seems to have gained the greatest focus, there is no denying that these decisions and their impact are far more impactful than just the individual.

But there are also a host of difficult questions that need to be wrestled with in order to have a better understanding of just how nuanced the conversation is around end of life issues. Have individuals who have wanted to avoid painful suffering in the end actually cut short their lives prematurely? What defines personhood? Have individuals who have been removed from life support without their consent really been in the perpetual vegetative state that others have claimed they have been in?

As a Christian, Tada sees the value of human life through a different lens than those with no faith background. She holds to the belief that we are created in the image of God and each of us is valuable, regardless of our abilities or inabilities. Taking a life prematurely, in her opinion, seems to contradict this belief.

Tada also mentions other options at the end of life. I was grateful for her mention of hospice as my own experience with my parents and hospice was incredibly positive, especially during a very difficult season of life. The resources and options that are available before the death process has begun may be more numerous than some would admit. She encourages her readers to do their own research and consult a host of counsel regarding advanced medical directives and living wills. Be informed in order to make informed decisions.

“When Is It Right To Die?” was made so much more poignant to me considering who Joni Eareckson Tada is and what he has experienced in her life. Half a century as a paraplegic in a wheelchair coupled with just what she has accomplished in those five decades has given her a stronger voice in this conversation. Her perspective is thoughtful and sensitive, but she is not afraid to express her opinions. Having explored end of life issues before, this book was incredibly helpful. I think that it could be equally beneficial for those who have been seeking a means by which to explore the subject. Even if you are coming from another perspective other than a Christian perspective, the insights that Tada shares can be helpful and I didn’t feel that she ever became preachy in how and what she shared.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Going to See the King

ELVIS - 1957.jpg

When you grow up in the church, going to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, you learn all of these church songs that seem to implant themselves in your brain for years to come. That’s usually not a bad thing, depending on the cheese factor of said songs. Being a musician, I have a tendency to think in song lyrics at times, and after 43 years, there are a whole lot of lyrics and songs stored in the neurons of my brain.

As I contemplated my visit to Graceland, I began to sing a song that I heard once upon a time:

“Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King,

Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King…..”

Of course, the song was referring to a different King, but I chuckled as I sang it in my head, with my family around me wondering what might be going through their crazy dad’s (husband’s) brain.

There’s something about going into someone’s house, being inside their domicile, standing, sitting, walking where they once did the same. You see what they saw every day, you step into their shoes, even for a brief, few moments. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you become them, but you certainly see things in a different light.

As I think about the fact that Elvis and his family have their final resting place at Graceland, I think about others who have chosen to lay their final remains in the places that they love. Having just been to Lynchburg in the last few months, I think about Jerry Falwell choosing to be buried on the grounds of Liberty University, the school which he founded and built from the ground up.

I guess is comes back to legacy, what are we leaving behind? Why do people choose to be buried in the places they loved most while they were alive? It’s not like they’re still enjoying it, right?

Today, we’re going to see the place “where the king slept,” and I’m pretty sure that we’re going to find out that Elvis has left the building. I’ll see what thoughts occur to me as I walk the place where the King walked, step where he stepped, and get a window into his perspective, even if it’s for just a few short hours.

Ending the Drought

flower in the desertIsaiah 43:18-19

 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert. Sometimes we’re seeking a place of rest, a place of comfort, a place of nourishment and restoration, but instead, we’re given desolation.

The Israelites had to walk through the desert for forty years before they could finally find their home in the land that flowed with milk and honey, the Promised Land. Even when they got there, the news wasn’t what they expected. Some of the spies who had gone into the land only saw the inhabitants that were in the land rather than trusting God to provide what he had said he would provide.

My deserts seem to always fall during the months of Autumn. At least since college, I have had a love/hate relationship with the months of September, October, and November. They stand as an annual reminder to me that all things come to an end, that all things must die, that there is life and death in a cycle that turns.

But even in the midst of the desert, there is life. It might be found in a small plant, maybe a cactus, an animal, a small stream or brook. Sometimes we have to search far and wide to find it, but it’s there. Sometimes, we just simply need to be still and wait.

There is a way in the wilderness, there are streams in the wasteland, but they might not always look like how we thought they should look. But they’re still there and we can again find life in the midst of a bleak landscape.

Love and Death and Memories

Our family road tripping continued with more adventure this summer. We started out our adventures a few weeks ago when, on our way down to Orlando in our family van, the transmission blew out on us. It was fortunately under warranty and a friend graciously loaned us an extra vehicle that fit our entire family. While it was a bit smaller of a vehicle, we were so grateful for the generosity of this friend.

We came home to find that the initial transmission replacement was not adequate, so we waited a second time, knowing that we had another road trip coming up. Once the transmission was replaced, other stuff started happening to the van. Sensors quit functioning and were replaced but lights continued to go off and we continued to scratch our heads. You know that it’s not good when the mechanic gives the car back to you and says that you would be better off going to the dealer.

After going to a dealer close to home, we thought that we were in the clear for our trip to Connecticut. After getting the car back from the dealer, I test drove it on the highway, on the back roads, and all around town, putting a decent amount of miles on it to ensure that we would be okay for our trip.

We left at our usual 4AM time slot and got about an hour and a half from home before the car started acting up again. There’s nothing like the tension one feels in one’s shoulders and back while driving another five and a half hours wondering whether or not your car is going to make it to its intended destination while packed with belongings, family, and all.

We made it to our destination and dropped it off once again at a car dealer to see if our problem could be remedied. We quickly realized the difference between the pace of life and busyness back at home in Virginia versus in Connecticut where much of our family resides. In Virginia, we dropped the car off and got it back fairly quickly. In Connecticut, we waited a few days just to have it seen.

Amidst all of this, we attended a family wedding and had a chance to catch up with family that we only see a few times a year. The wedding was simple and fun and we enjoyed our time together. That night, our adventure would continue.

I woke up the next morning to texts from my brother alerting me that my uncle, my father’s brother, had passed away during the night. My wife and I had hoped to have a chance to see him before this happened. His health had begun to decline more rapidly over the last few months and we missed an opportunity to gather with family a few months back when they knew that the time would be short until his passing. Life doesn’t always afford us the breaks and getaways that we desire, and that was one time when it didn’t. Weekends are always tough for pastors to get away.

I spent the better part of that day processing through the news of my uncle’s death. I could spend a whole lot of posts expounding on the life lessons that I have learned in the last few days, and I expect that I probably will. There is much to be shared about redemption, about reconciliation, about love, about grace, and about forgiveness. There is much to be shared about family, about brotherly love, about protection, and about stories that sometimes come to us much later than we would have hoped.

I’m looking forward to sharing in the days ahead. As I said to a friend when she privately offered condolences to me over the loss of my uncle, I have seen the fingerprints of God throughout this situation. I haven’t tried to look for God in the midst of every circumstance, he made himself abundantly known in the midst of every. single. One!

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Shrinking Tomb

Right after my mom died, we all assumed that my dad was going to continue to live on his own. I was still finishing up seminary at the time and flew out to Minnesota just a few days after my mom’s funeral. So, imagine my surprise when midway through my week in St. Paul, I received a phone call from my dad telling me that he was in the hospital. He assured me that everything was okay and that he would be fine, but I should have known better.

Dad had lost a lot in a short time period and it would be difficult for just about anyone to recover from that kind of loss. A career. A home. A wife and partner. The familiar. The convenient. The comfortable.

Dad continued on his own, living in the townhouse that was supposed to have served my parents throughout their retirement for the next four and a half months. Then, well, you know what they say about something hitting the fan?! That Christmas may very well have been the worst Christmas in my forty plus years.

Dad was in the hospital for a few weeks, he recovered enough to leave but not enough to be on his own. We were uncertain what would come next for him. I tried to be as sensitive as possible in the midst of my father’s frailty. He had been pushed into so many things in such a short period of time that I didn’t want to find myself guilty of being one more person pushing him into something that made him uncomfortable or sad. So, we held on to his townhouse, hoping that one day he would be strong enough and well enough to get back there again and live on his own.

That day never came.

When I would go down to visit my dad, we would generally go out to lunch, maybe stop by the cemetery to see my mom’s grave, and then stop by the townhouse. Sitting there in the townhouse at the dining room table, opening up the mail that had come, I think it still gave him a sense of control, a sense of solidarity, and a sense of independence. I’m not exactly sure how it felt for him all of those times, but eventually, it was just me going to the townhouse and to the cemetery.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was visiting two tombs. Although the townhouse still contained most of my parents’ belongings, it was empty, cold, and lifeless. Sure, there were memories there, but it was as if time had stopped and every time that I set foot in there, it was as if I was walking into an alternate universe where time was suspended for however long I chose to stay. Just as Edmund, Lucy, Peter, and Susan had set foot into the wardrobe transporting them to Narnia, so the townhouse had a similar effect on me. The difference was that while the Pevensie children were in the wardrobe time was suspended, the townhouse acted as sort of a time vacuum to me. The time that I spent there seemed to pass quickly without me fully realizing it.

Over time, I realized that visiting the townhouse wasn’t too much different than visiting the cemetery. They were both tombs, of a sort. One was warmer, an larger, and better decorated, but they both contained something that was no longer there, except in my mind. In that townhouse I could find myself reliving memories, getting lost in daydreams, and simply remembering what used to be.

We embraced the difficult task of getting rid of everything that we did not want to hold on to, helped (thankfully) by a friend who ran estate sales. In the months before the townhouse finally sold, it felt more and more like a tomb as there was nothing there anymore, no furniture, no pictures, no clothes, no sign of what used to be, just emptiness. We transported the remaining belongings to a storage unit not far from my house after the townhouse sold.

One afternoon, not long after the townhouse sold, I found myself driving to the storage unit. As I opened the door, the remaining belongings still held that smell, you know, the smell of my parents. Not sure I can explain that in a way that would do it justice with words, but it was the same smell that hit me every time that I walked into the townhouse.

I realized in that moment that the tomb had gotten smaller. It had gone from townhouse size to storage unit size. In some ways, it was a fitting metaphor for my grief. Not to say that my sense of loss over my parents felt any smaller, but it seemed that I was better able to handle it and on some level it had somehow shrunk from the size of a townhouse to the size of a storage unit.

In the absence of the townhouse, I’ve not got many reasons to frequent Williamsburg. There are no trips to the townhouse, nor are there any trips to the cemetery. My trips to the storage unit are limited, but I know that one day, in an effort to eliminate expenses, we will need to eliminate that storage unit as well.

The tomb is shrinking.

Entering into this Lenten season, it seemed fitting for me to come to this realization. After all, the culmination of the Lenten season has to do with the discovery of an empty tomb and, beyond that, all of the implications that come with it.

When faced with the emptiness and loss of what was, it’s easy to linger on it, allowing it to diffuse into our souls and somehow convince us that it’s the end. Facing the emptiness of the townhouse and the condensed memories that take up the storage unit, it’s a reminder to me that there is hope beyond tombs, I can picture in my mind that storage unit being empty one day, and I think it will be symbolic to me, in a way, of the hope that remains in the midst of emptiness.

The tomb was empty, the clothes remained, but the body was gone. Jesus was gone. In much the same way, Mom and Dad are gone, the tomb is empty. Sure, there are still earthly shells of what used to be, but the lifelessness and emptiness that seems so palpable point me to a picture of hope, reminding me that death is not the end.

Some people give up things for Lent, they take part in a fasting of sorts to focus them on the meaning of the season. I’ve never been one to do things simply because everybody else does and I don’t think that I will start now. In fact, maybe my visits to the “tomb” might become more frequent in the midst of this Lenten season. Visiting an occupied grave may serve as a fitting reminder to me that there was an empty tomb that was visited many years ago and the implications of its emptiness are as relevant today as they were back then. In addition, the ramifications of that emptiness ring loud and true today and on into eternity, so if that’s what tombs remind me of, bring it on. Nothing like finding a little hope in the midst of emptiness.

Living and Dying

How_to_Die_in_OregonThe last 24 hours have been an incredible time of conversation and learning for me. It’s times like this that I look at our technological culture and marvel at the opportunities for individuals to grow through all of the mediums and media outlets that we have. Like any tools, they can be used for benefit or for harm. The choice of which way to use them is up to each individual, but I choose them to be used for my benefit and learning.

Yesterday, I posted some of my thoughts about Brittany Maynard and her decision to “die with dignity” as the law in Oregon permits one to do (you can read the post here). After reading my post, a friend suggested that I watch the documentary “How To Die In Oregon.” Another friend and I engaged on the topic through messages and helped me to see how I could have better communicated what I had said. I was grateful for both recommendations and conversations and I set about to find the documentary and watch it.

It was heartbreaking, it plucked the emotional heart strings of the viewer, invoking all kinds of emotions within me. I think that the filmmaker did a fairly good job trying to be as objective about the subject matter as possible. While I think there might have been better examples that could have been used for both sides of the argument, that’s simply speculation. Real life examples are what they are and I would guess that, although the law allows this in Oregon, that everyone takes advantage of it or is willing to have their specific case highlighted in a documentary. The film primarily followed a middle aged woman who was dying of liver cancer. She had the prescription filled for the medicine that she would take to die but would only do it when she felt that the disease had progressed to unbearable. The film gives a window into her world, her life beyond the expected date given to her by doctors, and it ends with her taking the medicine and passing peacefully, the scene only seen by the viewer watching silhouettes through the curtains of an outside window like a stalker.

It was an educational piece to see others, and to be honest, it made me relive my own experience with my mom and her last days with cancer. Anyone who has traveled the road through cancer diagnosis and treatment knows the roller coaster ride that it can be. After the ups and downs of treatment and hope in a possible surgery, my mom elected treatment to simply extend her life a little longer and try to have as much quality of life as possible. Her last few months may not be easily defined as “quality” but we were all grateful to have had her. The week before she died, she was taken to the hospital because in taking the solution for her upcoming CT Scan, she got sick. That was her last hospital visit. She went home on a Thursday with hospice care and was gone the following Tuesday. What we experienced in those six days was something I would never wish upon anyone. While there were sweet and tender moments, from the moment my mom began receiving morphine, she was hardly responsive. I was grateful that her last days of suffering were cut short.

As I wade through this difficult topic of end of life issues, I am learning more and more every day. Let me share some of what I have learned:

– Much can be learned when we actually take time to listen to each other and express ourselves in a calm and collected manner. I had some great interactions with people yesterday who helped me to see again the importance of words and how they are used. I saw how saying one thing can easily be misconstrued if I am not careful. It helped a communicator like me think harder about how I can sharpen up my communication skills. I can never stop learning.

– Things are rarely as black and white as the extremes of an ideological vantage point would make you believe, especially when you are calling the shots based upon speculation or the experiences of others. When the experiences are your own, it seems that all bets are off and the blacks and whites of extremism tend to blur a little bit.

– Convictions are only as strong as the testing that they have experienced. Let’s face it, we can speculate all we want about how we would react in a particular situation but until we are actually in the midst of it, it’s hard to know just how we might react. Convictions are important, but even more important is the testing of those convictions. If you have established and developed strong convictions, I think that it’s important to test those convictions to see how they hold up under scrutiny and challenge. If you haven’t had your convictions tested and tried, expect them to be flimsy and fragile under the weight of uncertainty and trial. They will not hold up well. Trials and tests are the foundation upon which we can build our convictions.

– I learned that a friend of mine’s co-worker is Brittany Maynard’s husband. I was amazed at how God had put her in such close proximity to him. She asked me to pray for him and his family. I have been and will continue to do so. I do not envy the decision that he and his late wife felt like they had to make. I do not envy the experiences that they had to endure. My heart breaks when I think about what could have been with them, in much the same way that my heart breaks when I think about what could have been had my mom lived as well.

So, all that being said, let me share my convictions:

– I believe that every life is of value, whether it was planned or unplanned, whether it seems unvaluable or not. I have seen parents of severely disabled children take such care of them and demonstrate Christ’s love to me and everyone around them as they selflessly care for these who may be considered the “least of these.” I have heard the stories of these parents who have been told by doctors that the life of their child is not valuable. I believe that we are created in the image of God and the value of a life is not easily defined by what people can or cannot do or by a specific quality of life. Quality of life is a very subjective term that can change as easily with a person’s geographical or financial status as it can a person’s mental status.

– I believe that there is hope beyond death. I believe that there is a God who created us and who loves us. I believe that his son, Jesus, came to live, die, and rise again so that those who profess faith in him might experience that same life, death, and resurrection. I believe in a hope that extends beyond what I can see, feel, and even think. I believe that all of creation was impacted by the sin of humanity and that it is not operating as it was originally intended. We see but a glimpse of God’s glorious creation and its purposes, one day we will see it in full.

– I believe that end of life issues are important to talk about, to think about, to discuss, and even to debate. I don’t like to think about the need for anyone to suffer. I also don’t know what kind of a slippery slope we might be creating by beginning to “play God.” While I see the desire and intention of people to avoid the agony of a prolonged end for themselves and their loved ones, I know how strong the human will is and how powerfully it can surpass all expectations or predictions.

– I believe that God is sovereign and that the timing of everything is in his hands. That’s why I get concerned about taking it upon ourselves to mess with that timing. I trust that God’s timing is perfect, even when I don’t understand it or like it. I might not know why his timing is as it is, but I trust him and I trust his heart.

Over these last few days I have felt deeply for a family who I don’t know personally. As I said, I have felt that I have had to relive some of my own experiences as I’ve read and thought about theirs. I hope and pray that Brittany and her family have a hope beyond this life. I believe that they made a choice that seemed best to them. While I can’t say that I agree with that choice, I also know that my disagreement comes as an innocent bystander who is looking on rather than experiencing the pain, anguish, and hurt that they have had to endure. My heart aches for what might have been between Brittany and her family had she lived.

While you might not agree with me, I hope you can at least hear the things that I have learned and the things which I call convictions. My hope and prayer is that we can come together over issues similar to this one, regardless of which ideology we hold to, in order to better learn from each other, to love each other, and to sharpen our own convictions.

How To Take A Life

BrittanyMaynardOne of the first things that I read about on Monday morning was the self-elected death of Brittany Maynard, the 29 year old young woman who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer a little less than a year ago. As I went through my day, I received news that a former co-worker’s elderly mother had passed away and that my wife’s middle aged uncle had passed away. Needless to say, my mind kept returning to the news of this young woman who decided that she would take drugs to assist her in her death rather than allow her disease to take its course.

There are many people coming down on both sides of this case. To be honest with you, I might have seen this case differently before taking an ethics class in seminary and before experiencing the slow deaths of my own parents. The thing is, it’s one thing to watch someone who has lived a full life die, it’s another thing to watch someone who is seemingly in the prime of their life experience a slow, painful, and possibly humiliating death. Well, at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

It’s not easy to watch someone you love dying slowly. Just because you know what’s coming doesn’t make it any easier. Sure, unlike sudden deaths, you have time to prepare yourself as best as you can, but that process is still a difficult one and no amount of preparation can stop you from feeling the pain, loss, and grief of someone being gone.

In Brittany Maynard’s case, it would seem to be a textbook tragedy. She was in the prime of her life, newly married, and seemingly healthy. How could this possibly be? How could her husband of one year simply stand by and watch her body begin to crumble?

I’m not naïve enough to think that I could speculate what I would have done had I been in the same position as Maynard. Speculating one’s possible reactions to a situation which hasn’t been personally experienced can be dangerous.

I can remember a car ride with my mom as we went from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment, trying to determine the best course of action. I remember the tears streaming down her face as I held her hand. I remember her whispering, “I’m scared” to me as I sat there feeling that roles had seriously reversed, that the one who had been such a source of strength and comfort for me was now looking to me to provide some strength and comfort to her.

I can’t imagine how “watched” my mom felt as she was expected to process all of this information and make decisions all at the same time. I know that she was scared. I know that she was uncertain. I know how the whole thing played out.

I also know where my mom put her hope. I know that she didn’t believe that death was the end, and I’m right there with her. I know that even though she had temporarily hoped in doctors and medicines and her body, she had a greater hope that went far beyond just those things.

I don’t know what Brittany Maynard put her hope in. I know that she had more hope in the pills that she would eventually take to bring her life to an end than she had in the doctors who were treating her. It seems somewhat ironic to me, that she would put so much trust in those pills and the fact that they had been prescribed by the very doctors who claimed that they couldn’t treat her.

I don’t know what would have happened had Maynard not taken those pills. I don’t know how much she would have suffered. I don’t know how much dignity that she would have lost had she made the decision to not end her life. I don’t know how her husband and family would have dealt with it all. I won’t even speculate.

Here’s what I do know though. I do know that there have been times when things that seemed so certain to people became incredibly uncertain when things didn’t turn out the way they thought that they would. I know that there have been people who have been handed diagnoses that seemed bleak and irreversible who are still around. I know that despite the certain diagnosis that they received, those “certain” doctors were scratching their heads and wondering how their certainty changed to uncertainty when the impossible took place. I’m not saying that Brittany Maynard would have been healed, but it’s a possibility.

But even if she hadn’t been healed, is it possible that there could have another outcome? Is it possible that her bravery could have been shown through her facing of uncertainty and impossible odds? Is it possible that there might have been another way? I honestly don’t know, and like I said before, it’s probably not worth speculating, but I certainly would like to think that there was a better way.

Finding New Meaning

While my mother was struggling through her cancer treatments, she exuded strength. In fact, I remember one trip that we were taking in my aunt and uncle’s minivan in those early weeks after the diagnosis. We were between doctor visits and I sat next to my mom in the back of the van. I just held her hand and did my best to console her. I remember hearing her sobbing softly next to me and feeling so helpless and broken inside, unable to really help her. I asked her what was wrong and she simply said, “I don’t want to be a wimp.

Well, “wimp” is hardly the word that would describe her in the final six months of her life. Her strength seemed to increase and somehow she seemed to hold it together better than the rest of us. When it was clear to us all that her disease would be terminal, it seemed that she willed herself to die. I think that she could have stuck around for longer, but the idea of meeting her granddaughter whose birth was still a few months away was probably heartbreaking to her. Why meet someone who you would have to bid farewell to in no time at all?

After she died, I discovered some Bible verses that she had written down on some scrap papers on her nightstand. They were taken from Isaiah 61:1-3. The verses that always stood out to me, the one that I shared at my mom’s funeral was verses 2 and 3, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

In the time after my mom’s death, that verse came up over and over again. Even now, three years since her passing, it still continues to emerge from the depths every once in a while. The first time it emerged was during a communion service the night before my seminary graduation (you can read about that here). A friend of mine had the verses painted on a canvas for me as well.

Recently, a friend who lost her husband last year shared the verse and I was struck by something that I hadn’t noticed before. As I read these two verses, I kept looking on them as things that my mom was reading to bring her comfort, and I have no doubt that they were, but the people who are spoken of at the end of these verses are not the ones who have gone on. My mom is not mourning, she is not in despair. Those who mourn are left behind and it is them who need to have their garments turned into garments of praise and to have their spirits turned from despair. It is them who will be oaks of righteousness, planted for the Lord’s splendor.

As I read my friend’s post, I looked at these verses from a completely different perspective and realized that part of my journey through grief is the testimony that I have as I struggle, as I despair, as I mourn. As I exchange beauty for ashes, joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for a spirit of despair, God can use even that to make a difference. In the midst of weakness, I can be an oak of righteousness, displaying not my own strength, but the One who gives me strength.

As my friend reminded me, it was an example of the living and breathing Word of God, continually speaking to us, calling out to us in the darkness, and meeting us where we are, shaping and forming us in the midst of our journey. What a great reminder it served to be for me.

Reminders – Director’s Cut

I’ve asked 2 good friends and loyal readers to share their favorite blog posts.  Over the next few months, I will be sharing their thoughts and insights that they have shared with me regarding some of these posts.  I hope that what they share will add some new insights to some of my previous posts.

[Conveniently, this post is one that was favorite by both of my friends:

Lesley writes: This post is sad, yet beautiful because I can truly relate to what reminders of many loved ones, especially my mom, means to me. This post is special to me because I (not by name) am mentioned in it. I gave Jon a gift, without being aware of what the significance of it would be. This was especially powerful because it was a clear sign and direction of the Holy Spirit at work through our Heavenly Father. This post was steeped in spiritual significance.

Wanda writes: For those of us who have lost one or both parents way too soon, having something that was unique to them can evoke wonderful memories – what they liked, what it was like when you hugged them, and, yes, what they smelled like. Something so simple can soften the blow of not having them with you and can give the gift of stepping back to a happier time when they were still on this side of heaven.]

Having recently passed the 3 year anniversary of my mom’s passing, I constantly find myself surrounded by reminders of her. Most of them were intentionally placed there by me, but there were others who either intentionally or inadvertently helped to set these reminders up for me.

My mom’s favorite flower was the gardenia. Every Mother’s Day, my father would go to the florist and buy Mom a corsage that she could wear. It was made of gardenias. My aunt and uncle, who live not far from where my parents lived for their brief time in Williamsburg, have a gardenia bush in their front yard. After Mom died, some people whom I serve with in my church asked my wife what they could do to help me remember my mom. Her suggestion was to buy a gardenia bush to plant in our backyard. After they came out and planted it, someone sent me a plaque that I put right underneath it to remind me every day of my mom. Right around the anniversary of Mom’s death this year, the gardenia bush bloomed to provide me with a sweet smelling and visually stunning reminder of her.

My mom loved lighthouses. I think they were a reminder to her that even in the midst of the darkest, stormiest, foggiest night, there was still the light of Christ shining through in the midst of the storm. She had lighthouse soap dispensers, lighthouse candles, lighthouse tissue holders, lighthouse stained glass ornaments, and tons of other things throughout the house. In fact, the house was decorated solely by her, and she made it her own. Lighthouses were a big part of that decoration.

After she died, I found a picture of one of the lighthouses in North Carolina. It seemed a good reminder of her and a way to honor her, so I had it framed and put it up on the wall in our house. It’s a constant reminder of the same thing to me that I think lighthouses were to her, that in the darkest and stormiest of times, God is still there shining light in the midst of it all.

Mom loved the beach too and the theme of lighthouses and the beach together bring a smile to my face. I have some great memories of going to the beach with her during the summertime growing up. She always prided herself on how long she could make things last and she had this beach chair that she had for what seemed like 20 years. Somehow or another, she managed to keep it in great shape. While cleaning out the garage at my parents’ townhouse, I discovered the chair and it both made me smile and broke my heart at the same time.

Not too long before the 2 year anniversary of my mom’s death, a friend of mine who didn’t know my mom gave me a gift. It was at a time when I was particularly struggling with my own grief and loss. All that she knew of my mom was what she had read in my blog or shared in social media. Needless to say, when I opened up the gift, I was incredibly surprised to find a set of windchimes. Tears came to my eyes as I recalled the many times that I had sat in the kitchen or living room of my parents’ house in Connecticut and listened to the windchimes that my mom had hung up out on her porch. She loved windchimes and it was such a fitting tribute to her. But the amazing thing was that my friend had no idea how fitting it was, she just saw them and felt like she had to get them for me.

In the midst of grief, it’s really easy for those who haven’t experienced it to say, “Just move on, get past it.” It’s easy for others to condemn the stories and the tributes and reminders that we have of those we have lost. But once you experience it for yourself, you have a deeper understanding, it makes you much more sensitive to what loss is all about.

I don’t think that these reminders are a bad thing. I don’t see them as means by which I hang on to the past, they just act as reminders of all that I had with my mom, all the love that we shared together. But they also serve as reminders to me that death is not the end. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” We have this hope in Jesus Christ that we will once again be reunited. As I look at all of these reminders, that thought alone can bring a smile to my face.

The List

It seems that most people that I talk to who have faith in God have a list. Now, I’m not sure whether it’s a real list or if it’s a list that they’ve compiled in their brains, but this list is purported to be made up of all of the questions that they plan to ask God when they come face to face with him. Somehow, I get the feeling that there might be somewhat of an overwhelming feeling when that actually happens, causing them to forget the list if it’s simply stored within their heads. So, I think I’ll write mine down.

My anger with God rises and falls and I have to face it from time to time, acknowledging its presence and coming face to face with the grim reality that although I believe in him, I still struggle with the decisions (or seeming indecisions) that he makes at times. I struggle with his blatant ignoring of requests to intervene in the areas of peace, hunger, cancer, and many other issues and situations that seem to impact us all. Of course, his hand is at work, but I don’t always see it and in the midst of my own selfishness, I struggle.

On the heels of the third anniversary of my mother’s death, I was hit with the news that another saint breathed her last after succumbing to cancer…….and I was angry.

I was angry not so much that God hadn’t healed her but that she got sick in the first place. The same could be said of my mom, my anger stemmed more towards the sickness coming at all and not so much at the “not being healed” part. More importantly, again from a selfish standpoint, I was frustrated not so much by what was gone but by what was left behind. It’s always seemed the case, to me, that those we wish would stick around end up leaving far too soon.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, there might even remain some of those whom we kind of wish had been taken. Don’t gasp in horror! If you are REALLY honest with yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about, those people who seem to be fueled by piss and spite, those who seem to take vindictiveness, criticism, and bitterness to a new level of super villain proportions. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether scientific experiments had been performed on these individuals to see if all of this spite and bitterness has acted as a kind of preserving agent, like formaldehyde, prolonging their departure from this world while the rest of us suffer.

But the sweet, gentle, loving saints seem to leave us behind, asking questions, scratching our heads, compiling our lists.

The Psalms have often been a solace and resting place for me in my time with God. My mom showed me a method of getting through them all within a month’s time and it has stuck with me for years since. Their raw honesty and forthrightness remind me that God can handle honesty, disappointment, and even anger. The question is what do we do with those things once we discover that they’re there.

While taking a preaching class in seminary, I preached a sermon on Psalm 131. It’s a very short Psalm, only 3 verses, but those 3 verses struck me in a powerful way, particularly the first verse, “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

After listening to his friends ponder what might have brought upon his recent clash with disaster, Job continued to believe in God. When God finally spoke to Job, he asked him where he had been while God was laying the foundations of the world. In many ways, Psalm 131:1 seems to remind me of the same thing, that God is in control and his ways are not my ways, that his knowledge is higher than mine and I just can’t understand. His ways are too wonderful for me, but it doesn’t always stop me from trying to understand them……..and coming up short pretty much every time.

Yes, a saint has left this world and another one of God’s children has entered his eternal kingdom. It doesn’t change my disappointment, but it does help me to keep things in perspective. We continue here on earth with hope of the resurrection. We don’t always like it, we’re not always happy with it, but we know that there are some things that are just too wonderful for us to know. I guess I’ll just have to keep adding to that list.