Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Grief, Regret, and the Gospel

     In a few hours it will have been a year since my sister went to be with the Lord, and My Dad has asked to write a guest post about some of what he has learned this past year and his journey with grief. It is my prayer that this would provide insight to those who have not yet experienced loss and encouragement to those who already have.

     Regret.  This is one of the major struggles with which persons experiencing grief over the death of a loved one must deal.  Because we are fallen people living in a fallen world, no relationship is perfect.  We all have failures.  We all have things we wish we had done differently, said differently, or could change in some way.  Death crystallizes this emotion because it is now too late to repair any aspect of the relationship.  The survivor experiences grief upon grief.  There is the grief of the loss and the grief and guilt of the memory of personal failings.

     Mercifully, for the most part, I was spared many of these feelings of regret in the case of my daughter Rachel.  It’s not that I was a perfect father or that our relationship didn't include the normal tensions and failings that everyone experiences.  It’s just that Rachel and I were close.  We were always close.  I was confident that she knew that I loved her and that when she died our relationship was not broken or damaged.

     But there was one regret. And it was huge.

     I did not help my daughter prepare to die.

     The situation was made worse in my mind because, in addition to being Rachel’s father, I was her pastor for her entire life.  Assisting people with end of life issues is a large part of the job description.  I’m supposed to be there to help in those times.  Rachel is not only my daughter but my sister in Christ.  When the chips were down the most, I failed her.

     I remember vividly when the issue began.  It was May.  Rachel had only been home from the hospital for about a month.  I was assisting her to transfer from her wheelchair to her bed so that she could retire for the night.

     “Daddy, am I going to die?” She asked quietly but urgently.

     God was gracious in that moment to place words in my heart and mouth.  I knelt by her bed close to her face. “I’m not going to lie to you honey.  This is bad.  I don’t know how this is going to come out.  We are going to pray and we are going to seek every treatment possible but I can’t promise you how this will end.  But I can promise you that you will never be alone.  I will be with you every step of the way.  Your mom will be with you every step of the way.  And God will be with us all and will never leave us at any point.”  Then we cried together. Doreen joined us and cried also and then she got into bed with Rachel and held her through the night and slept with her while I slept on the couch in the next room to be as close as possible.

     Looking back on that moment I am amazed at how well it went.  But something happened in me that night that wasn't good.  I became terrified that I would have to answer more questions just like that. I didn't think I could bear it.

     So from then on, every time that we got ready for bed, I immediately got out one of her books so that we could read.  I read until she was exhausted and went to sleep.  I tried to minimize any opportunity for her to bring up the subject again.  I couldn't face it.  The hurt was too great.

     I think she sensed my struggle because she never asked me about it again.  She reached out to some other ministers in her life.  I will always be grateful for the ministry of Pastor Scott Sundin and Pastor Jim Scott as well as our chaplain and grief counselor at Crossroads hospice for helping my daughter in that time.  I didn't resent in any way her looking to them for assistance.  I was thankful she could turn to them.

     But after she died, the feelings of guilt and regret weighed heavily upon my heart.  I ministered to others but I could not minister to my own daughter.

     How does a person deal with these emotions?

     I received some unexpected help one day from a friend in my church.  He too was going through a recent grief and had experienced a number of other deaths in his life.  We were meeting for lunch and sharing.  The environment felt safe so I shared this struggle that I had not voiced to any other living soul.

     “Am I allowed to respond to that?” he asked after hearing me out.

     “Yes, of course” I said and braced myself for the chastisement I knew I deserved.

     “I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit.  You stayed in the room.  That took courage.  If she had needed to talk to you she knew where to find you every night.  If you had run off somewhere else, that would be different.”

     Sometimes the answer can be as simple as seeing the situation in a different light.  No, I didn't do everything that I wish I had done for Rachel.  But I stayed in the room.  In God’s grace, I was able to keep my promise.  Doreen and I were with her every step of the way.  The entire family was with her when she passed.  We sang to her and prayed with her, held her hand and stroked her hair until she was gone.

     But what about situations where the answer isn't so simple?  Sometimes real hurt and wrong has been done.  What then?  Even in my circumstance, seeing the situation in a different light only provided a partial relief.  Where is the answer?

     The gospel offers good news for those struggling with regret.  Christ Jesus bore the sin and failures that we committed.  There is real forgiveness.  No, the relationship can’t be fixed, the past can’t be undone and we may have to grieve that fact.  But we do not have to live under the burden of the guilt.  Our shortcomings do not have to define us. Jesus took that burden upon Himself on the cross.  We minimize His sacrifice when we continue to hold on to our guilt and shame for broken relationships.  We must embrace the truth of the gospel for that which cannot be fixed. 

     If the deceased loved one is a believer in Jesus then the gospel offers a double comfort.  Not only am I forgiven for my failure and sin but my daughter is comforted in the presence of Jesus.  Rachel is right now in the company of the God in whose presence is the fullness of joy.  She is not wasting one milli-second thinking, “Boy, dad really dropped the ball the last 6 months of my life.  What a disappointment.”  No, she no longer has those kinds of memories and thoughts.

     The gospel is the good news that the Perfect One, God the Son, paid for my sin.  My sin, my guilt, my shame, and my regret do not define who I am. 

     God was faithful to provide for my daughter the counsel that I was unable to supply.  And God continues to be faithful to provide to me the cleansing and healing that I need to walk on.

     Life can be full of regrets.  The death of a loved one can cause these regrets to overwhelm us.  Against these regrets we hold up the cross.  Instead of wallowing in regret let us receive the forgiveness of God Who, in Christ, can make all things new.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Things I Learned About Pastors from Growing Up a PK

      It's pastor appreciation month! This is a time that is near and dear to my heart because church ministry is the vocation of many members of my family. My grandpa was a pastor. My Dad is a pastor. My father-in-law is a pastor. Two of my uncles do youth or music ministry. My husband served briefly as a youth minister. And my brother is studying to go into the ministry.

     Having this many pastors in my family has given me a unique perspective and a great deal of respect for the people behind the titles. Unfortunately, too many people view their pastor and other people in ministry as saints who have achieved an unattainable level of perfection and holiness. This places unrealistic expectations and added stress on those in ministry. Parents assume youth pastors have all the answers and can fix their teens; church members often isolate their pastor because they don't allow him to be real. So here are a few things I have learned about pastors from watching my family members (specifically my Dad) serve in church positions.

     First, a pastor's first ministry is to their family... not the church. God established the family before He created the church. Also, one of the biblical qualifications of a minister is that they must be able to manage their household. This includes striving to raise godly children. If I have learned anything from being a parent it is that godly children do not magically appear. Raising godly children requires a great deal of effort, attention, and prayer. I am blessed in that throughout my life, my father made it a priority to minister to our family first. To this day, Saturday nights are almost always reserved for family time.

     Which leads me to a similar point, pastors rarely get days off work, especially if they are bi-vocational. Pastors don't have a strict regular schedule. They have late night phone calls from church members, emergency hospital visits, church committee meetings, counseling sessions, etc. Many of these things become essentially "overtime" work. For bi-vocational ministers like my Dad, they work a 40 hour work week like everyone else at their secular job, then fit in studying and sermon prep during their lunch breaks, early mornings, or Saturdays. The two days off from their secular job are spent preparing for Sunday and teaching Sundays.

    Because of all this work, your pastor will at times get "burnt out," but because they are the leader, they can't check out of ministry. Believe it or not, your pastor is... human. I know, it's hard to imagine. Your pastor gets tired, at times feels overworked, and experiences the whole range of human emotions. Pastors get discouraged when they feel like God isn't working or when they don't see results from their work. Pastors don't always know God's direction. Just like everyone else, they experience times of struggle and times where they want to quit.

     Another thing I have learned is that pastors know about the vast majority of any and all drama that happens in the church, and it can be a burden. Regardless of how amazing a church is, people will disagree. There will be personality conflicts. Couples will have disagreements, and children will be rebellious. Many of these problems will be taken to the pastor for prayer and advice. With this knowledge comes inevitable worry which is at times overwhelming.

     So next time you are at church, I would encourage you to really take a look around at the people who serve. Whether it is the pastor, youth pastor, music minister, Sunday school teachers, etc., really look and see what they are doing for the church. Pray for them. Encourage them. And join them in service to lighten the load.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Finding Joy in the Waiting

     In any stage of life, I think waiting is one of the most difficult things God asks us to do. Patience is not a natural state for any person, but it is a character trait that God often requires us to exhibit. We wait to graduate high school. We wait to get married. We wait to be at an age where we can start a career or a family. We spend a great deal of time waiting.

     It is in these times that I have found it the most difficult to be content. Currently, I am waiting to have a baby. While I only have to wait a few more days, I have noticed that my attitude has become increasingly short-tempered. I have allowed my physical discomfort and heightened hormones to rule my attitude and at times steal my joy. Rather than focusing on the blessings in my life, I have allowed my mind to focus on only on the wait. Yes, this wait is almost over, but if I don't confront this attitude now then it will only continue after this wait time is over. At that point, will I only focus on waiting until Jude is sleeping through the night? Then will I focus on waiting until I can stop breastfeeding or until Autumn finally cooperates with potty training?

     If I don't check my mindset, then life becomes perpetual waiting for something "better" without noticing the joys of today. Patience and rejoicing are not my strengths, and it seems that God has to frequently remind me of these lessons.

    At this point I have to challenge myself to focus my mindset on finding joy and thankfulness in the everyday and the mundane instead of just waiting for next phase in life. What will you rejoice in today?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such thing there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23

Monday, June 23, 2014


     Brace yourself. You are in for a full-blown Mommy rant.

     People are constantly telling me how much my daughter is like me. And it's absolutely true. She looks like me, has a strong-will like me, is very verbal, and loves music. Since my daughter has turned two, I cannot count how many well meaning people have told me that my daughter is "paying me back" for how I was as a child. I can't seem to get her to be quiet when we pray at church, so people tell me "Well, that's just payback." She throws a fit; "Welcome to payback." She tells me "no;" "That's payback for you!" It's a common phrase that gets thrown at parents. I understand that these well meaning people are really trying to say, "Wow, you must have your hands full." But for a moment, can we just think about what is really being communicated. What is really being implied is that my daughter is my punishment for my toddler/childhood/teenage bad behavior.

     This is not how I view my child.

     Yes, at times she is difficult. Yes, at times she screams and cries. Yes, at times she and I go to battle. But she is two. Welcome to toddlers. God did not give me this child to punish me or to make me realize that I made my parents' lives difficult. If my son doesn't sleep for months after he is born, it wont be because God is paying me back for having colic as a newborn. God gave me these children as a blessing

     Psalm 127:3 states, "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward." This doesn't exactly sound like "payback" or punishment to me.

     Yes, I realize that I have probably taken this too personally, but it is my fear that my childhood anger will be imposed on my daughter. I fear that because she is like me that people will assume that she is going to fall into the same sins I did. So being told that she is "payback" reinforces those fears.

     So here is my request: when speaking to parents about their children, can we just ask ourselves a few questions. 
  •       Is this encouraging?
  •       Is this beneficial?
  •       If not, does it even need to be said?
     *Sigh* End rant.

Monday, March 24, 2014


     If you could have peered into my heart over the past month, I'm sure you would have seen a shriveled, ugly mess. I had pulled away from the Lord, neglected my quiet time, and then became angry because the Lord was silent. Two months ago, the announcement of a restructure at my husband's job all but pushed me over the edge. My thoughts were "Really, God! Aren't we dealing with enough!" And I became angry. I was angry that life continued to be troubled and uncertain. I was angry that I didn't feel peace (granted, I wasn't exactly seeking the Lord's peace). I was angry that the Lord hadn't placed me in a little protective bubble until I had fully recovered from the loss of my sister.

     Then Jacob was presented with the possibility of another job that would offer our family more security. I was immediately convicted about my heart's condition, and knew that I was undeserving of this blessing. But I was not ready to give up my anger. I held up this job as a spiteful test, almost taunting God to prove His goodness, all the while feeling like God should withhold it to punish my heart.

     About two and a half weeks ago, while everything was up in the air, I glued a smile on my face, and drug myself to Bible study, where, of course, conviction slapped me between the eyes. During the lesson, the Bible study leader reminded the group that "very often God does not take time to speak to us unless we turn aside to hear Him." And silently sitting there, I let my anger go, and I recommitted to seeking the Lord. I began to find new joy in the Word that I had neglected. I began to look for small, daily ministries that I could do. I returned to doing the things that I knew I should do. And the Lord was faithful to His Word in Psalm 40:1-2:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
Out of the miry bog
And set my feet upon a rock
Making my steps secure.
The Lord has graciously delivered me from the anger I had been experiencing. His undeserved grace continues to extend to me regardless of my emotional state. He pulled me out off the depression I had helplessly sunk into like quick sand. And the job no longer mattered as much because I finally recognized that God is good regardless of the result.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Isolation of Grief

     It has been nearly a month since my sister passed away. Shock has worn off, and grief has really begun to take its toll. Although the Lord has given me a tremendous joy by allowing me to discover my pregnancy shortly after Rachel passed away, the extra hormones, fatigue, and nausea have not exactly made grieving easier.

     As I have been trying to process everything that has happened over the past year, the lie that I am all alone in this has been creeping into my mind. Of course, the best lies are those that contain an element of truth. The truth is that no one outside my immediate family understands what the experience was like because no one else experienced it first hand. No one other than my family carries the memories of the last year. No one else understands what it was like to rejoice when Rachel made small improvements, all the while being horrified by the knowledge that we would soon be watching this process in reverse. No one else understands what it was like during the last two weeks of her life when my brother, sister-in-law, and I essentially moved into my parents' house because the burden of being away from her was too great. No one else watched when her pain pump malfunctioned and her eyes became wild with pain, and we were helpless. No one else spent the last week watching her for hours just breath and counting the seconds between her breaths because she developed Apnea. At times, I have nightmares about these memories that haunt me.

     In some very real ways, no one else really understands, and we are alone.

     But just because others don't fully understand doesn't mean they are disqualified from empathizing and sharing in my burden. At times, I have allowed myself to believe the lie that I am completely alone in this struggle. But then God has graciously sent along someone with these words: "I know that I don't understand what you are going through, but I am so sorry you are experiencing this." Sounds simple, but the effect is profound because the words were genuine and heartfelt. At other times, God has sent me friends who just quietly listened to my anguish. In these instances, the Lord gently reminds my heart that I am not alone.

     But even greater than that, I have a God who knows my heart intimately, who has been there with me in every moment. He knows my every emotion and thought from the past year. I have been so comforted by Hebrews 4:15-16 which states, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need." It is because I have a God who intimately sympathizes and understands that I can confidently know He will extend me grace and mercy during times of need. When I come to Him in prayer, He never responds with "I have no idea what you are going through." Rather, Christ is called "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:). I take great comfort in having a God who understands.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Lessons from 2013

     2013 obviously will not go down in the books as the easiest year of my life. But as difficult as this year has been, I have learned so much about the Lord. Many of these lessons were things that I have known on an academic level since I was a child. However, this year I began to understand these things on a deeper and more practical level.

     1. At times life is too overwhelming to live a day at a time. Sometimes it is too hard to see the end of a day, and the only way to remain sane is to repeatedly carry my sorrows, anxiety, and anger to the Lord on an hourly or momentary basis. During Rachel's final days when we were all essentially on death watch, I never knew what each day would bring. Would she decline today? How much? Will her pain be controlled today? Will she die today? These unanswerable questions tormented my mind until I learned to frequently escape into the Lord's arms. I would pour out my heart and vocalize my frustration with the fact that I could not understand what the Lord was doing. When I was frustrated because the Lord allowed her to remain and struggle after she was unable to move and communicate, I had to repeatedly cast down my cares as I felt my anxiety rise. I learned that I have to trust the Lord in this moment, then trust Him again when the next moment arrives.

     2. God is sovereign and His timing is perfect. Clearly, I do not understand everything the Lord is doing with His timing, but He has been gracious to show me momentary glimpses into His timing. Rachel was diagnosed with her cancer just weeks after I finished my student teaching. So I was able to be available to assist my family. The Lord also provided me with an online tutoring job that allowed me to remain accessible to my family. the timing of these events provided me with flexibility so that I could spend a significant amount of time with my sister. Thus, I grew closer to her. I saw the beauty of her heart during this struggle and came to truly admire her.

     3. Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is a purely emotional state of being, and in the past month, I have not experienced a lot of genuine happiness. Sure, I have had moments with my husband, daughter, other family members, or friends that have brought me happiness, but those have primarily been brief distractions. However, joy has been much more abundant. Joy is a choice, a worldview, an attitude about life. I am joyful that my sister Rachel has been perfectly healed and is now in Heaven. But, I am not happy about it because I miss her here on earth. In combating despair, I have to choose to focus on an eternal perspective and on the things I can be joyful about.

     4. Truth is crucial. My heart lies to me on a daily basis. My heart tells me that I'm alone, that God has forgotten me, that no one cares, and so many other lies. This year, I have learned to cling to the truth because it will set me free (John 8:32). I have learned to tell my feeling they are wrong and dwell on the character and promises of God rather than letting my mind run wild. I have begun to learn to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5)

     5. Compassion is truly beautiful. As previously stated, I learned so much about compassion from my sister. In her final weeks, she was comforting others as they grieved. And it was beautiful to watch. It was a beautiful display of the strength and grace of God. In those moments, I didn't see a sick and dying 22 year old; I was Christ shining through her. I saw the beauty of her heart.

     I haven't set any resolutions for 2014 nor am I super excited about new beginnings because grief doesn't end with the beginning of a new year. This next year will be hard because each holiday and event will be my family's first without Rachel. I do not know what joys and hardships this year will bring, but I do know that God will still be good. He was good last year when I miscarried a pregnancy. He was good when He perfectly healed Rachel in Heaven. He is good. And He will still be good this year, regardless of what comes.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Psalm 13:5-6