Dealing with Grief

I am much more acquainted with grief than I used to be, and now that I’m acquainted I have a different experience reading about grief. I’m going through the Odyssey again and this time I’m really noticing how the Greek’s mourned and handled mourning. Reading the descriptions I can think “yeah, I basically know what that is like” and I can enter into that part of the story much more that I have before. And I know that nearly all the original listeners could have similarly related, at a deep level, to the sorrow felt by Menelaus on learning of his brother’s murder, or of Odysseus’ mourning the death of his comrades and his long years away from home. But their mourning was not like ours, grown men and mighty warriors throwing themselves to the ground or sobbing uncontrollably in public, with no shame. Really, they knew how to mourn and we do not.

This burden that we live under, we like to think that it has been lightened by science and medicine. And we have made real improvements. But the burden is still there and in some ways the lie that we’ve softened it only makes it worse. We are not in control, we are subject to forces compared to which we are ants and grains of sand. At least the Greeks knew it!

But, also in the Odyssey is the idea of lessening the pain by forgetfulness - the release of sleep and the intoxication of wine. These are temporary and not permanent, but even so I just really find the idea of dealing with pain by forgetting about it distasteful. I mean, I understand - death and broken relationships and betrayal and evil are these crushing weights and how could we ever look them in the face and stand up under that weight? Part of my distaste might be that temperamentally I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. I especially remember a particular counseling session where I was talking about how I hang on to pain and my counselor said “wow, you’re going to be hurt by the world”. And oh, was he right. I just hang on rather than letting go. So maybe I am just trying to turn my dysfunction into a virtue.

But if I’m going to live in this twisted, terrible world, I don’t want to have to cope by pretending it is better than it is. I want to sorrow and grieve but still have the courage to stare it in the face and know that it didn’t break me. Only that sounds impossible. As small and weak as I am, how could I not be broken?

This is not the kind of post where I tell you I’ve figured out how to do that impossible-sounding thing. But the thing that gives me hope is Hope itself: a hope in the final victory of Good over all the crud that we go through down here; a hope that Life is as much stronger than death as death is stronger than me.

I’ll leave you with a song that expresses this crazy hope, and the confidence I’m searching for.


Eulogy for my Dad

This is the eulogy I gave at my Dad's funeral. He died on July 6, 2016.

Family was so important to Dad. He loved his kids, and gave himself for us. He sang us to sleep at night, songs I still sing to my kids. He loved to work with his hands; he gave us a treehouse and a play house in the backyard. He loved green and growing things and surrounded himself with them. He always had a money-making scheme, and a lot of them actually worked - buying a storage locker and sell the contents, or buying an old car and flipping it.

 Although his own father died when he was 4, and my mom grew up in a single-parent home as well, they gave us a more stable home than either of them had known growing up. He took his role as provider seriously and worked hard for us. His care was self-sacrificial and focussed on our needs over his own. And even when he was dying it was sometimes hard to know what he wanted for himself.

 This has been my closest experience of death, and it has really brought home to me the vulgarity of death, which consumed his body like that. Standing by him shortly after he died, I thought “That’s not right, it isn’t him, he shouldn’t look like that!” But I was also reminded that this is not the end. In II Cor. 4:13-18, Paul writes:

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
And that was Dad’s life. He lived it for others and for Jesus, and now he is in glory, waiting with us for all things to be made new. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.



Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
-Rich Mullins

I’m still recovering from and processing one of the most painful seasons of my life, seeing how it’s changed me and looking for where God is. And the thing that most stands out to me is the idea of sojourning, that I don’t really belong here. I feel so much less attached to the world and the things that are here than I used to.

This is not exactly a dark-night-of-the-soul experience, but I think it’s analogous. I think God is weaning me off my love of the world - not just the material goods but even, and more importantly and deeply, the contingent goods that we can become too attached to and hold on to. And when those are ripped away it hurts a lot, and it changes you. The world is a horrible place! It’s full of pain and hurt and betrayal, even inside the church, and I don’t want to be here!

It’s been a long road. Last spring I was on a silent retreat trying to process the hurt that I was carrying over the way way we and friends of ours had been treated by some of the clergy the year before, and an accompanying deep unhappiness at church. Romans 5:3 stood out to me: “... we know that suffering produces endurance”. I wrote “Endurance I want! Suffering, not so much… although it’s kinda embarrassing to call this suffering”. And indeed, in the grand scheme of things this was hardly up there very high on the scale of sufferings.

But it was big to me. There was good that came out of that: I spent a lot of time with Jesus’ commands to “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”, and I understand a lot better that I used to what that means and how to do it, even when I don’t always succeed - and that was legitimately a gift. But, it still sucks when church is not a safe place.

I jotted down in the margin of a piece of scratch paper, “Could this be preparation for something bigger?” I mentioned this thought to Emily when I came home from the retreat - I wondered if this in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-not-that-bad hurt, even though it felt pervasive and overwhelming, was a kind of training wheels for something else that God was trying to prepare us for. And we both said “I sure hope not!”

The very next week Emily, who had stayed late at church busy with some choir responsibilities, came home in tears and distraught, and a chain of events was set in motion which culminating in her firing a few weeks later, and a relational meltdown the size of which I had thought could never happen to me.

But, it did happen. And I, who have this need to be vindicated and understood, had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t fix it. God is the judge, not me. It’s his job to make everything right, and one day it will be. But until then we carry on, not holding on too tightly to anything but Him, and crying out “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”


reading and e-readers

I've owned a Kindle for several years now, and I love it. But after an initial period where I tried to move all my reading to the kindle, I'm dialing back a bit. Any new technology not only enables us to do new kinds of things, but also changes how we act - our behavior patterns and habits (John Dyer has a great discussion of these things in From the Garden to the City). E-readers make some things much easier than paper books, but they also make some things harder, so that they tend to change how you read in subtle ways. This is not a bad thing, but it is important to be aware of it so that you can make conscious, informed decisions about how you read rather than just falling into the patterns suggested by a particular new way of reading.

Some things that e-readers are not very good at:

  • Reading books you want to have a relationship with. There are certain books that you read over and over again, that you curl up with, that you scribble in the margins, that helped you get through a difficult time, for which re-reading gives you a familiar, comforting sense of place - "I'm home". There are some books you live in and with - a Bible, a prayer book, etc. You can never have this kind of relationship with an ebook because it is disembodied. You can still underline and make notes in an ebook, but the personality is not there - in fact I've stopped making notes at all because I found them difficult to access (on my device anyway; it might be easier on a touch-screen reader), more time-consuming to enter, and not very helpful for those reasons.
  • Studying a book. You lose a sense of place in a book; cross-referencing what you are reading with a previous section might take just a few seconds in a paper book. In an e-book you will not do it because it is too hard to find the section you are thinking of. Ebooks do have full-text search, but even so it is more trouble and there is a nagging worry about whether or not you'll be able to get back to where you were when you're done cross-references, simply because there is no sense of place in the text.
  • Saving you money. It is true that e-books are generally a little cheaper than a new copy of a book; but not by much. And if you are really price-conscious, used copies of books can be had on Amazon for less than the price of an e-book almost all the time. The exception is public-domain texts, which I'll get to in the next section.
  • Owning a book. All ebook stores currently have very similar licensing: you are purchasing a non-transferable, revokable license to read the book; you are not actually purchasing the book itself. Your rights are severely limited compared to paper books: you cannot re-sell it or even give it away; you have limited (legal) choices about how and on what devices to read your books; your right to the book could even be revoked at any time (this is rare, of course, but Amazon has done it).
  • Having a conversation about a book. Because paper books have covers, other people can see what you're reading. This can be a conversation-starter around the house, in a coffee shop, in an airplane, etc. When I'm reading an e-book it could be Plato or a romance novel for all anyone else can tell (which, incidentally, is why romance novels are so popular as ebooks). This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for.
They are very good, on the other hand, at:
  • Reading novels or any book that you intend to read straight-through, front-to-back. I do find kindle reading very immersive; it is easy to get lost in what you're reading and this fits well with novels which tend to draw you in. Long novels are especially compelling; Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are a fantastic argument for a kindle. I find that this covers about half the things I want to read; but my reading tends toward the academic and for most people it would probably cover a significantly higher percentage.
  • Reading older public-domain texts that are hard to obtain, out of print, or only available in expensive editions. There is a lot of really good content that can be obtained for free or very inexpensively. Free versions, though, are generally very poorly formatted. Usually I prefer to spend a few dollars on a version that has better formatting.
I still love my kindle, but I'm putting more thought into trying to use it for the kind of reading it is good at, and not for the kind of reading it isn't.


Reading Orthodoxy: Authority and the Adventurer

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. The final chapter, 9, is this week.

This last chapter has a lot going for it, and I’m happy to end on a high note after an ambivalent impression of the last few chapters.

I’m still fairly ambivalent about the project of defending Christianity by defending Christian Europe. It seems that Chesterton gives Christianity credit for all the positives, and explains (rather dismissively) all the negatives as a failure to live up to its own ideals. Still, there is plenty that is unique about Europe and I do think that much of it can be credited to Christianity. Even the most secular scientism presupposes Christian values (cf. Nietzsche).

At any rate, there was plenty in this chapter for me to latch on to. Tellingly, I greatly enjoyed the “apologetics” digression, though to Chesterton it seemed like no more than a necessary bore. But Chesterton is right about materialism dismissing miracles based on dogma. There are only a handful of miracles a Christian must believe based on dogma; practically all reports he may evaluate carefully and weigh the evidence. The explanations available to a Christian are not in conflict with the explanations available to a materialist, they are a superset of them. Christianity is not harmed by showing that a miracle was a fraud (save perhaps the resurrection); materialism really is harmed, and fatally, by showing a miracle is not a fraud. And so they adopt an epistemology that guarantees a miracle can never be proved not to be a fraud. I once had an atheist admit to me, almost in these words, that if a miracle were unrepeatable that was grounds for denying that it was real; but if it were repeatable then it would not be a miracle either, simply a lawlike property of nature (here Chesterton might interject that all laws are miracles!).

I’ve often thought you could take Hume’s argument against miracles, with the immense weight it places on humanity’s experience of the world, at face value and still come up with a good argument for miracles (though, strangely, you might not be able to rationally believe in any particular one). That dead men stay dead is enormously well attested. But as Chesterton points out, across all times and places the existence of the supernatural is also enormously well-attested. You can’t accept one body of evidence and not the other without presupposing your conclusion.

But the most powerful idea in this chapter was of Christianity as a living teacher to the soul, and that resonates deeply with me – though to me it is less important if Christianity explains Europe; it certainly explains me. The living teaching I find in the Bible and the church explain, tutor, and nurture my soul in new ways all the time.


Reading Orthodoxy: The Eternal Revolution and The Romance of Orthodoxy

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapters 7 and 8 are this week.

I’m in the strange position of tracking less and less with Chesterton’s argument as he starts discussing Christianity more directly.

This is definitely an argument for Christendom primarily, and the doctrines of Christianity itself only indirectly, insofar as they produced Christendom. In chapter 1 Chesterton claims to be defending Christianity as defined in the Apostle’s Creed, but the focus is definitely on Christian societies and the benefits of Christianity to society.

In chapters 7 and 8, Chesterton makes the case that the ideals of Christianity are actually a better foundation for the goals of secularism, than secularism itself is. Christianity provides the best basis for the reforming of society, for liberty, for love, for democracy. The flow of the argument is wild and creative, as you can expect from Chesterton. But.

In the first place, presenting orthodoxy as nearly synonymous with Christendom, and with Christianity’s capacity for social change, seems to be a small version of Christianity. It is great that Original Sin grounds democracy and equality; and that the Trinity grounds our love for others. But are these the most important things that can be said about Original Sin and the Trinity? Strangely, in a book so focused on narrative and story, he is not telling the story of fall and redemption.

Second is the question of Christianity’s record at some of these social issues. Chesterton says “It does not matter how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful.” But I think it matters a great deal, especially in an argument such as this, when Christianity fails to imitate its ideal. If Christendom bears little resemblance to the invincible force for social good that Chesterton describes (particularly from the vantage point of a secularist), the obvious conclusion is that Chesterton has mischaracterized Christianity, not that it has just failed to live up to its ideal.

I find the argument much more compelling as a call to Christians for social involvement, and a reminder of the resources we have to draw from to that end, than as a defense of Christianity against competing philosophies.