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Category: Grief

Nine years later, the pain remains, but God is still good

Today marks one of the two worse days of my life. Nine years ago this morning, in a span of one hour, my postgraduate dreams and career in academia evaporated and my life cartwheeled into a world that was–and somewhat remains–unclear, unknown, and undefined.

This was the day I sat across from my doctoral examiners and was told in no uncertain terms how much they hated my dissertation. I remember vividly the final walk of humiliation–barely able to breathe–down the path and out of the university, the phone call home telling my wife it didn’t go well, and the day I left England for the last time only to return to word weeks later that a contract for a job I loved would not be renewed.

The first couple of years were the darkest. I was numb, lost, and filled with self-loathing. I couldn’t sleep, my blood pressure skyrocketed, and my whole body ached. I had frequent anxiety attacks. Yes, there were times I prayed that my heart would mercifully stop beating or that my brakes would fail just before my car slammed into a retaining wall. As time crept on, I started writing, saw a counselor, and tried to somehow move on from the complete mess that had become my life.

Nine years later, with a book published and hopefully at least another couple to follow, I have gained some perspective. Time doesn’t heal, but it can serve as a buffer. This year, however, the emotions flooded back with more intensity. This ninth anniversary is the first I had to face at the age of 50. I still wonder what God is doing with my life. And I certainly don’t have a career or a ministry at this point that would carry my wife and I into retirement (which seems ominously closer at 50 than it does at 49). In many ways, my life’s trajectory remains uncertain.

As of now, writing is the only thing I have got. I am so thankful for the publication of Losers Like Us (from a real life publisher no less)–that truly was a miracle. And I truly am thankful for every sale to this day. But rarely does writing make a sustaining career. It offers no guarantees. Yet it remains the only path God has shown me.

The future continues to look uncertain. Not bleak, just uncertain. I would be lying if I said I have not grown weary of the uncertainty. I truly wish God would reveal his plans even just a little. But God is not obligated to fulfill my wishes like a genie freed from a lamp. He is a big God. And he is good.

Like a single candle flickering in the darkness a thousand feet a way, I have hope. I hope that my life has clarity even though I myself might not see it, that we will be somehow taken care of as the days march on, and that my wife’s sacrifices caused by her husband’s chaotic life will be honored.

Nine years after the horrible day in England, I can say I have hope in this big, good God.

But I still feel the pain.

As good as God is, I will always feel the pain.

2002, my first visit to the British University for my postgraduate studies.
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The virtue of saying nothing

ap_shooting_dc_160612_4x3_992-900x675It’s been quite an emotional week. If it weren’t so sad and tragic, it would have been absolutely bizarre. When news broke of the massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. America followed its new pattern: one millisecond of shock and horror, then an avalanche of finger-pointing and political posturing.

Before the blood was even dry, we jumped to exploit raw emotions, jockeying for any political advantage we could get. We blamed immigration, guns, conservatives, progressives, Christians, Muslims, homophobia, prayer, God’s wrath, and my favorite, the lack of safe spaces for the shooter to question his sexuality. We managed to blame everyone and everything but the guy who shot up the place.

And in the midst of all of this jockeying, the victims and their families cried and grieved and started down the painful road toward healing.

The tragedy in Orlando should have brought us together as a nation. Instead, it created a cacophony of political blame, insults, mockery, scolding, demands, attacks, and counterattacks which are not helpful.

So I sat down to see if I could write something – anything – which might be.

But I’ve got nothing.

This is curious. Given all of the garbage which has passed through social media and the press, there are plenty of comments and opinions to answer. Yet I have no response.

What could I say that hasn’t already been said? What could I possibly contribute to the discussion? Absolutely nothing.

Will offering opinions or commentary ease the suffering? Will critiquing the callous inhumanity of journalists, politicians, and social media know-it-alls show that I care more than they do? No.

As families start the process of burying their loved ones, I know that there is nothing I can say, and that saying nothing is the best response.

I am beginning to see that all of the finger-pointing and posturing in the secular world is similar to what we do in the Christian one: hitting grieving people with scriptures like Romans 8:28 (“…all things work together for good to those who love God…who are called according to his purpose”). We can’t explain suffering and it makes us uncomfortable, yet we still want to show how much we care. So we place blame and demand action which, like quoting Romans 8:28, makes us feel better but solves nothing and doesn’t help the one who suffers.

So if platitudes, rhetorical arguments, and knee-jerk reactions don’t help, is there anything we can do?


We can be present in the suffering. We can stop assigning blame, spouting clichés, and demanding quick fixes. We can pray for the victims’ families. We can ask God to bring comfort through the body of Christ. And we can do all of this silently, fervently, continually. We don’t even need to announce that we are doing it.

The truth is,  this massacre will not be the last. Our world is broken. Evil exists. And shouting down our political opponents does nothing to promote healing.

After a week of shock, it seems right to be still and seek God. Only he can fix this.


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The paradox of the bells

01f3de4d7e0148b5b4f93d30cdc65338At Christmas I often reflect on the incongruity of peace amid conflict, hope amid despair, light amid darkness. I am reminded of the simple paradox that light can push back darkness, but darkness cannot overcome light.

And nothing expresses this paradox better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1864 poem, “Christmas Bells,”  later set to music as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

We seldom hear the peal of church bells anymore, but in Longfellow’s time it was prominent in every town—especially at Christmas.

On Christmas Day 1864, our nation was enveloped in the darkness and despair of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow was struck by the joy and jubilation of the Christmas bells.

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

A couple of years earlier, Longfellow’s wife had died due to injuries from a fire; and more recently, against his wishes, his son Charles had joined the Union Army and had been critically wounded in battle.

Overwhelmed by grief, Longfellow struggled to reconcile the joy of the bells with the hopelessness of death and the destructiveness of war.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

In 2012, I experienced similar incongruity when America was rocked to its core by a string of December shootings.

On December 14, a shooter killed his mother and then, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 children and 7 adults, including himself.

On December 21, another shooter in Frankstown Township, Pennsylvania, fatally shot three people and then was killed in a shootout.

But before either of those events, on December 11 a gunman opened fire in Clackamas Town Center—a mall just a couple of miles from my home in Portland, Oregon— killing two people and then himself.

I remember standing on my front porch, surrounded by Christmas lights, watching the police and press helicopters circling overhead in the dusk.

The innocence of Christmas was lost for me that night.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of anticipating Christ—the one who came to save humanity once and for all. It is supposed to be a time when schools and malls are filled with laughter and singing and visits from Santa.

Not a time of screaming and running for cover.

Not a time of of loved ones grieving over bloodied bodies.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

The next day I drove over to the scene of the shooting, just to be there. As I drove, the radio was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Casting Crowns version). It wasn’t the first time I had heard it, but this time it struck me at the deepest level.

As local folks tried to comprehend and grieve the ravages of the shootings, I thought of Longfellow struggling to understand and grieve the ravages of war, including his own son’s injury.

Then I thought of the very first Christmas—a time that was equally dark. In first-century Palestine, there was suffering, oppression, and terrorism. There was prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Just as in 1864.

Just as in 2012.

Just as in 2014.

Since Adam left Eden, it has never been any different.

Yet in the darkness, the bells proclaim that Christ was born to deliver the world from sin, and to set all things right.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Longfellow never lost faith because of the paradox of a beautiful world torn by war and violence. Instead, he listened to the bells. And in their joyous clamor, he found hope.

For those glorious bells proclaimed that God is here; he sees pain and injustice; and one day he will reconcile all things to himself.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

In ancient Eden, in first-century Palestine, and in America today, the darkness and self-destruction of this world was, is, and always will be overcome by Jesus, the Light.

Casting Crowns Perform ‘I Heard The Bells.’ from casting-crowns on GodTube.


* From the database of Longfellow poems at (a website of the Maine Historical Society). It should be noted that when the poem was set to music as a carol, Longfellow’s third stanza (“Till, ringing, singing on its way…”) was moved to the end and his fourth and fifth stanzas were omitted.

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Pile it on, part 1

pile-of-stonesRecently, for the second time this spring, I got The Question again. Knowing my trauma since losing the PhD and my joy at getting a book deal, a close friend asked me: “Dan, standing where you are now and looking back, do you find yourself grateful for the road that brought you here?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to remember the times when God really seemed to “pile it on” – the pain, the agony, the humiliation. However, after hearing that question twice within a few weeks, from two different people, I realized God was doing the asking—and he is unrelenting. So I knew I had to answer.

Yet why the hesitation?

After all, I have a book scheduled for publication this summer—and that’s great news. If my dry, narrow-focus doctoral dissertation had passed rather than failed, there’d be no book; instead, there would be only the dissertation, gathering dust on a back shelf in a remote university library, with virtually no chance that anyone would ever read it. In fact, if my dissertation had passed I’d have no hope of redemption—because without pain and failure, there is nothing to redeem.

Shouldn’t I be able to see that by now? Shouldn’t I be thankful for my story—for all of the heartbreak God has brought me through, and for everything he’s done since? Sure, I’ve carried grief and regret so searing, so mind-numbing, I felt like I barely survived. But in hindsight, wasn’t it worth it?

My head knows the right answer. My head knows I should be grateful for all that has happened, including the wretched road that brought me to where I am. My head knows, and even believes, that “all things work together for the good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

My heart, however, has wanted to kick in the teeth of every person who spews that verse as if it were an instant fix. My heart still feels the shock of hearing my examiners reject my dissertation. My heart still remembers the torment of lying in bed like a corpse, telling myself to breathe. My heart still knows the disgrace of leaving England as a failure, having to face everyone back home, and losing my job just a few weeks later.

In hindsight, yes, I can see that those dark times may have had a purpose—yet my suffering felt so great, so overwhelming, that my stubborn heart doesn’t want to let it go.

But maybe we’re not meant to let it go—at least, not in the way we sometimes think. Maybe it means more than that.

Our society loves to get past pain as quickly as possible. We relieve our physical ills with fast-acting painkillers, so we want to relieve our emotional and spiritual ones the same way. We do everything we can to avoid and deny anything that hurts. But such avoidance and denial is not scriptural—and it does not produce spiritual growth.

Like us, the Israelites wanted to dodge pain. Their trek from Egypt to Canaan was filled with heartaches they would have preferred to avoid. It was a two-week journey which, due to detours caused mostly by sins and failures, they somehow managed to cram into forty years. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years of uncertainty, misery, and death. Forty years of conditions so bad that they actually begged to go back to their former life as Egyptian slaves.

It wasn’t a good time.

But that period was bookended by two miraculous water-crossings: First, before those forty years, God had parted the Red Sea and the Israelites crossed over from being slaves in Egypt to being free people in the wilderness. Second, after those forty years, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed over from being nomads to being a true nation, settled in the Promised Land.

And during that second water-crossing, something different happened. At God’s instruction, each tribe carried a stone from the middle of the riverbed to the opposite bank and Joshua built the stones into a memorial (Joshua 4:7), saying:

“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” – Joshua 4:21-24 (NIV).

Make a pile of stones? Really? Seems like an odd request. Why did God have them do that?

I think it was because he knew the Israelites, like all humans, had short memories. Sure, he had delivered them from Egypt by parting the Red Sea; but then came forty years of wandering in the wilderness. By the time they were ready to cross the Jordan River, virtually everyone who had been an adult during that first miraculous parting was dead. The children born afterward had only heard about it. Maybe it didn’t sound real to them. Maybe they didn’t even believe it had happened.

So God gave a repeat performance: he parted the Jordan River, just for their generation. New generation, new miracle. And in the future, when their descendants would see the pile of stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?” – then the people could tell about all of their failures, all of their pain and suffering, and how God had brought them through.

The purpose of these events was not to show how cool and special the Israelites were, but to show how powerful and merciful God is. If there hadn’t been any difficulties, there couldn’t have been any deliverance. Just as in my own story, without pain and failure there can be no redemption.

To me, the river stones can represent the pain in our lives—memories so raw and sharp-edged that we wouldn’t wish them on anyone. These painful memories break the water as it rushes around them, and they break us too. They crush us, even grind us to powder. Though we shouldn’t dwell on or obsess over them, we should remember them. In fact, we must remember them. Because, piled together, they attest to God’s salvation. Each painful memory becomes part of our monument of remembrance – a monument to God’s work of mercy and grace.

My friend’s question still makes me hesitate, because my heart still remembers the pain. But my painful journey is now a part of my story. It’s a part of who I am. So when people ask, I can say: Yes, despite the pain, I can still be grateful.

So go ahead…pile it on.

Because there’s one thing that is always true about a pile of stones: It always points toward heaven.


Hope in the sting of loss

February is always a difficult month for me because it marks the anniversary when my doctoral dissertation died a sudden and violent death. February is the month that I flew out of England for the last time.

This February, like the last six, was not a happy time. I approached it with a sense of dread, grief and sadness, still feeling the pain of the loss of my work. This February, though–the sixth since my postgraduate research went sideways–I had the joy and thrill of a recently-signed book deal, and with it a sense of newness. It is a new chapter. Perhaps a sense of hope. Yet I continue to grieve. The loss still stings.

I feel a little like Job–specifically, Job in the final chapter (Job 42). Job’s ordeal is over. He has had his audience with God (although God’s response was basically that he is God, and he does not have to explain anything to us). Job’s friends have been directly rebuked for giving him such crummy, off-target advice in claiming his trouble was due to sin (with Job, ironically, then interceding on their behalf). His wealth has returned and his siblings have joined him in a feast.

And he has ten sparkling brand-new children—seven sons and three daughters—the exact number of children he originally lost, crushed to death under a collapsed roof. Further, to take the whole reward thing up a notch, these three daughters are described as the most beautiful in the land (verse 13).

This epilogue bothers me. It smacks of a “happily-ever-after” fairy tale. It wraps up the drama in a package that’s just a little too neat. Did Job stop grieving simply because he was divinely upgraded to a better, more beautiful Family 2.0?

A new blessing doesn’t lessen the grief of loss. And continuing to grieve in a time of blessing is not short-sighted or sinful.

For a plant to live, the seed must die. That doesn’t mean the seed never existed. Out of the death of my doctoral dissertation was born a book deal. And this book may end up being more widely read than a dusty old dissertation in an obscure university library.

Still, I grieve the loss of those seven years of work. And I celebrate. Typical of the God of resurrection, this God brings life out of death. For Job, his new children were born out of death, perhaps a metaphor for a new chapter in his life: reminders of hope in a context of death. That doesn’t mean his other children never existed. Perhaps, when he surveyed the second batch of loving faces around him, he was able to fondly remember the first batch—and perhaps, in grief, to celebrate.

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