Since grief is such a big subject, there isn’t a single definition that covers it. A commonly used definition is “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.” Let me illustrate. Last week I attended a conference that involved several hundred cross-cultural missionaries, some of whom were former Seminary students of mine. I received two invitations to teach a short-term class on prayer (my favorite subject to teach) in two different countries, far removed from my Texas home. I want to accept the invitations so bad I can hardly stand the possibility of having to decline. But my doctors don’t think too highly of the possibility. Following the X-ray, MRI, Myelogram and CT Scan of my neck, I was told by my surgeon, that I have a serious bulging disk in my neck and the day I feel numbness in my arms or tingling in my fingers, or feel dizzy, or fall, he will meet me at the hospital for emergency surgery. Neither of these places where I have been invited, offer a very good alternative to the emergency surgical facilities in my home town. Across the years, I have made many trips to far-away places, when my physical condition was somewhat questionable. But I’ve never been this old before. One of my doctors challenged me to “Think about age, before making plans!” So, I’m having an “emotional reaction to loss or change.” You don’t have to be my age to suffer grief – from a variety of causes, most of which are far worse than mine. So, if you are grieving today due to “emotional reaction to loss or change” do what I did. Remembering Psalm 119:28 (NASB) where the Psalmist cried out, “My soul weeps because of grief; Strengthen me according to Your word.” I went to the Word where I found two verses in Ecclesiastes: “In much wisdom there is much grief and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 NASB) and “Remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting” (Ecclesiastes 11:10, NASB). Employ much positive wisdom today and move on with life.
Referring to an annoyance, or a nuisance, as “a pain in the neck” is a colloquial expression that dates from about 1900. My first “pain in the neck” came when I was fifteen years old and was involved in an automobile accident, sustaining a broken second vertebrae of my neck. The healing took nine months. It literally was an annoyance, and a nuisance. Due to recent pain in my neck, I underwent an x-ray, an MRI, a Myelogram, a CT Scan, consulted with my primary care physician, a sports chiropractor, and a surgeon. The result showed a couple of bulging discs, and the need for eventual surgery – another annoyance/nuisance. Ever have a “pain in the neck” – an annoyance/nuisance? While the words annoyance and nuisance do not appear in the Bible, nor does the term, “pain in the neck,” there is a similar term. The Apostle Paul shared about his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). For him, it was an annoyance/nuisance, a “pain in the neck.” “Pain in the neck” or “thorn in the flesh,” While Paul and I describe different conditions, we have God’s response in common – “My grace is sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I don’t know what my future holds, but I know, as did Paul, that God’s grace is sufficient. Whether you have a “pain in the neck” or a “thorn in the flesh” or some other description of an annoyance/nuisance, God’s grace is likewise sufficient for you.
To my surprise, the church announced their high-attendance Sunday goal and then prayed that God would help them to reach it. I was only their Interim Pastor, so was not in on the setting of the goal. When I asked how they arrived at the number, the answer was that it was ten more people than they had last year on high-attendance Sunday. Why do we ask God for things we know we can achieve in case He doesn’t? Were they afraid to ask God for fifty or a hundred more people? Afraid that the God who responds to our requests, “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask” (Ephesians 3:20), would not respond and thus they would look bad, like people of little faith? Had they never heard of the law of large numbers – invite 1000 people, 100 would show interest, and 10 would show up. I encouraged them to refrain from asking God for what they could do for themselves – then give God the glory. After all, which is worse, to set a goal for ten and reach it, or set a goal for fifty and only reach twenty-five? Pray big this week. Why not pray so big that if God is not in favor of your request, it will fail.
How quickly some of the things we build get destroyed. From the time I started public school until I graduated from High School, my family lived in six houses. Five of them no longer exist. The first church I remember attending now has all new buildings. The two buildings where I took all of my major and minor courses in college – both gone. The football stadium where our college played their home games – bulldozed over. The first church I served as Pastor – disbanded and the building destroyed. The first apartment in which we lived following marriage – dilapidated and unused. I spent fifteen years doing collegiate ministry on three campuses. The Baptist Student Centers on two of those three campuses have been destroyed in favor of new Centers. The denominational building where I shared an office for several years – destroyed in favor of a new building. My favorite baseball stadiums – all torn down! In the midst of so much destruction, I am glad that not everything is destroyed, but that some things remain. Jesus shared a parable to teach disciples that whatever is built on a solid rock, will stand firm (Matthew 7:24-27). Life does not consist of the buildings we build, but of the things we build on the rock-like promises of God. What are you building this week that will last?
I made yet another emotional trip to Tennessee, this time to pick up several boxes of my late brother’s possessions – another trip I thought I’d never need to make. The trip home with the boxes was strangely like bringing him back home to Texas. Born in Houston (ten years after my own Texas birth), he was raised in Nacogdoches, graduated from High School in Nederland, employed by the Canaan Records division of Word, Inc. in Waco. With Canaan, he helped produce and promote recordings by The Happy Goodman Family, the Florida Boys, the Cathedral Quartet, the Lefevres, and many more. Transferring to Tennessee, he met and married Linda, and spent the majority of his life there, involved in the Southern Gospel music industry. Among other things, he wrote a monthly column for “Singing News” magazine. He was described by those in the industry as a walking encyclopedia of Southern Gospel Music. His memorial service was more like a Gospel Music concert with several groups singing and others of the industry speaking – for more than an hour and a half. His death was unexpected, as was the return home to Texas, of some of his possessions. His earthly remains abide in Nashville, and some of his earthly possessions now abide back home in Texas, but his eternal home was established when he was young. While his death was an untimely shock to those of us who remain, his heavenly house was prepared and awaiting his arrival (John 14:1-4). There he abides today. See you at the house, Bob.
What does a real friend do? I now have a new answer to that question. It was a sickening feeling to arrive at my hotel and begin unpacking my luggage only to miss seeing the small zip-lock bag containing my prescription medication. A call home revealed that the bag was indeed ready for the trip but was sitting on the counter in my home bathroom. It never made it to the luggage, thus was not available when I unpacked in another city, in another country. Several text messages between my doctor and I revealed the sad fact that he could not call a Pharmacy near my hotel and give the prescription since he was not a registered physician in the country where I was needing the medication. However, he did go the “second mile” and call a pharmacy across the border and they were able to fill 2 of my 3 prescriptions. Friend #1 – my doctor. However, my schedule was full and it seemed impossible for me to cross the border to pick up my medication. Enter “second-mile” friend #2 who drove across the border, picked up my medication, and at the risk of being arrested for crossing the border with someone else’s prescription medication, delivered the pills to me. These two men have been my friends for many years, but last week, by going the “second mile” they demonstrated again what genuine friendship means. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus said if someone needed you to go with them for one mile, you should, “Go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). How could you be a “second mile” friend this week?
I’m about to try something I’ve not done before. For many years I occupied the Chair of Prayer at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and taught a very popular course on prayer each semester. I’ve also used those class notes to teach prayer on Sunday nights or Wednesday nights in churches where I served as Interim Pastor and furthermore, lead numerous prayer seminars in churches over the years. I’ve never used the notes to preach a series on prayer on Sunday mornings. Now I find myself serving as Interim Pastor in a church with no Sunday evening service and located too far away for me to be there on Wednesday evenings. So, I have reworked my class notes into five sermons that will be delivered on the five Sundays of next month. Why do I do this? I assume that if the disciples of Jesus needed to be taught to pray (“Lord, teach is to pray” Luke 11:1), modern disciples need the teaching as well. I did have one student tell me they wanted to take a class from me, but did not need the class on prayer, since they considered themselves a genuine prayer warrior, possessing the spiritual gift of intercession. I asked them if they had ever prayed till their sweat turned to drops of blood? The response was just a blank stare. I followed with, “That’s the way Jesus prayed (Luke 22:44) and I doubt if you have perfected your prayer life until you pray like Jesus.” The student signed up for the class and later wrote me a note, expressing thanks. I’ve often wondered if that student ever prayed till sweat turned to blood. So, how’s your prayer life?
There really is something about presence that is meaningful. Its why people visit grave sites to leave flowers and a dozen other objects of meaning. Its why people keep a container of the ashes of a loved one in their home. We do what we must do to cope with what we can’t quite accept. Somehow, we navigate what is before us, even as we grieve. Amid my own recent grieving process, I discovered the following from Ann Lamott, an author with a rather unconventional approach to Christianity: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” During their own set of difficulties, Moses instructed God’s people to refrain from taking advice from the wrong people but rather said, “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Deuteronomy 13:4). He might well have added, “and even if you dance with a limp, you must keep on dancing.” I’m dancing with a limp today but thank God for the wonderful gift of memory and whatever it takes to keep it alive.
We celebrated our wedding anniversary last week and were reminded that our wedding prayer of commitment was sung, not spoken, and one word was changed: “My heart, my life, my all I bring to Christ who loves me so; He is my Master, Lord, and King, wherever He leads (I’ll) we’ll go.” We began as a team and have remained that way all these years. Need proof? We’ve lived in eight cities in two states, including thirteen addresses. We’ve traveled together to thirty-two states and thirty-nine foreign countries. Since I’ve done some travel alone, my individual numbers are a bit higher (all 50 states and 59 foreign countries), but not without the prayer support of the home-front. We served two churches as pastor and wife, three campuses as collegiate minister and wife, one denominational entity, and one seminary. We have shared in five sabbatical leaves in places such as Boston; Calgary; Hong Kong; Vancouver; Bonn, Germany; Milan, Italy, and one assignment that had us traveling throughout the Central & Eastern European Region of the International Mission Board. With various degrees of wifely involvement, we have served twenty-four interim pastorates. We began singing “wherever He leads” and fifty-four years later “from the ends of the earth we have heard songs” (Isaiah 24:16). Had we known on August 8, 1964 that “wherever” would include all of this, we might have had a different song sung at the wedding. Then again, we might have decided to do it all over again, the same way.
I had two visits with doctors a few days ago: one for losing my voice and the other, my six-month physical exam. All said and done, I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. It seems I have a body/mind disconnect. According to one doctor, I am refusing to let my mind dwell on my age, so it makes plans as though I were younger. However, my body knows how old I am, and reacts to the plans accordingly. The throat issue was partly seasonal, and both doctors agreed that I needed to take it easy, slow down a bit, and take more breaks. My grandfather used to put it this way: the mind writes checks that the body can’t cash. His comment was long before the semi-famous quote from Captain Tom “Stinger” Jordan in the movie “Top Gun”: “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”. Besides, my grandfather didn’t have much of an ego, and I don’t think he went to many movies. He just worked hard six days a week and went to church on Sunday morning, then to the Waco, Texas train depot on Sunday afternoon to “watch the passenger trains go through.” That was his form of a relaxing change-of-pace, and it seemed to work for him. It wouldn’t take me long to watch the two daily passenger trains that go through Fort Worth these days, so I’ll need to find another diversion. Bottom line conclusion: I’ll just keep sharing “the word. . . in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and attending baseball games in season, and other sporting events out-of-season. Then when God is finished with me, the season will be over.