The saplings in our lives

I called my friend Barry when I was deep in grief and unloaded all my burdens on him.

I was angry. I was angry with people and circumstances that day. I spewed all my frustrations on my friend that sunny afternoon.

After my release of emotion I apologized for my rant. He replied, “Mike, if you are in the same place a year from now I’d be worried about you.”

Many years earlier before the death of my son Barry and I had a conversation about anger while sitting on his back porch.

He pointed at the enormous white pine in the back yard and made an observation.

He said, “You see that tree? When it was a sapling you could walk up and pull it out very easily with your hands. But now it has deep roots and years of growth. It will take a lot of hard work to remove it now.”

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Every rose has its thorn

Grief still lingers.

I suppose that many around me that know the story of the loss of our son, and 3 other loved ones are happy for us when good and positive blessings happen in our lives.

We get all the smiles, congratulations and pats on the back and all the while grief still lingers like a nagging tooth ache. We smile through our pain and are conflicted in our emotions. Happy occasions become occasions for pain and grief is always under the surface of our smiles. Most people don’t see it or get it but some understand it because they have also been there and done that.

We smile, not necessarily because we are happy but because sometimes the smiles are all we have to disguise our pain. Many times we want to bolt and fly like a bird to our mountain. I recall multiple times when we have bolted. Times when my wife and I go to remote places to hear the waves, escape people and find solace. These are well meaning people who are truly happy for the blessings that are coming our way, but naive as to the pain that is present in life’s blessings for those who grieve.

We sit in our beach chairs and remind ourselves that it’s not their fault, they just don’t know, they have not walked this path or worn these shoes. Oh how often I have wanted to be in a state of ignorance again and to not know what I know all to well today.

Every rose has its thorn in grief. We see its beauty and smell its fragrance but for those who grieve we handle the flower by its stem and it pricks us. The pokes are painful and bring both tears of joy and sorrow in times of blessing.

In the days since the deaths there have been engagements and weddings.There are college graduations coming next May and in June our youngest son Jared will marry his high school sweetheart. We are happy but there is always a thorn that will poke our souls. We guard ourselves from the pain, the dull ache occasionally becomes very sharp and departs somewhat slower than when it arrived.


The moment

This is how we roll in grief for now. I hope that someday I can see the rose and smell its sweet aroma and not be poked by a thorn. But, for now, every rose has its thorn. When I feel the pain I am reminded of the one who understands my grief and was himself pierced and felt the sting of death for me. Jesus is the beautiful fragrant rose, he is the Lilly in the valley. My hand feels the thorn but his hands took the nails and he understands my grief. He takes my hand in his and comforts my soul.

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Jesus took the thorn and I am healed. Someday I will enter his garden of roses that is free of every thorn. Until then, I suppose, every rose will have its thorn.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5b)

The big picture we cannot see

No matter how tragic my story of grief has been I am quite often confronted with stories of  losses more tragic than my own. I am left muttering, “I can’t even imagine.” Losing a child is a unique grief, a fraternity of sorts whose dues are higher than we ever wanted to pay. I don’t have to imagine what that is like, I know the depth of sorrow it brings. I felt that weight again today, I felt it for a woman who lost her husband and two sons.

Today I read the heart wrenching true story penned many years ago but it reads like front page news. It is a story that has all the right components and intrigue to keep my attention. There is crisis, tragedy, grief, love, rescue, romance and a wedding leading to a happily ever after. I read the ancient biblical book of Ruth and found myself captivated as though I was reading it for the very first time.

Naomi is a grieving widow who left Bethlehem with her husband and boys because of a famine. They settle in Moab but she loses everything and decides to return home to Bethlehem alone. The events in her life were part of a bigger picture that she could not see.

There are some things I noticed about Naomi’s grief that brought me to tears today. As I walked in Naomi’s skin I picked up on a couple of helpful reminders for the broken hearted.

Beware of bitterness

Naomi becomes bitter at the fact that her daughters in-law have no husbands and no children. Naomi’s (whose name means pleasant) life is unpleasant and bitterness is setting in. She loves her girls and is willing to lose them too so that they might have a new start in life. This was just another bitter pill for her to swallow. She said to them, “No my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the Lord has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:13b) She pleads with them to go back to their people and marry, but Ruth insists on returning with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Naomi believes God is against her because of her hardship and the bitterness grows. She in danger of making bitterness her new identity. When she arrives in Bethlehem with Ruth she actually renames herself. God renames many people in the bible, he names Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel and Simon to Peter. Each name given by God has their new identity weaved in the meaning. God did not rename Naomi, she took it upon herself and defined her new identity and gave herself a new name. I asked myself if I have taken an identity that God has not assigned or given me?

The town was buzzing at the return of Naomi, she must have looked much different because of her grief. “The whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; (pleasant) call me Mara (Mara means bitter) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity on me?” (Ruth 1:19-21) 

Anger towards God and circumstances is a real dangerous place to stay. I was reminded that I must guard my heart and not allow grief to make me an angry and bitter person. There is a temptation to blame God, blame others and blame myself when life gets dark and difficult. Was Naomi right in her conclusion? No, there was much more happening that she could not see. The same is true for me as well. I constantly need to be reminded that, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Difficulties in life are going to come and rob us of happiness but  joy is different than happiness. Joy is not connected to our circumstances but is anchored in hope, a hope that sees the future. Paul speaks to this matter, he said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in  us.” (Romans 8:18) How can joy be found in a life filled with pain, grief and sorrow?

Joy is rooted in a historical event. The friends of Jesus were going to grieve terribly after the crucifixion of their friend. Jesus knew this and spoke of a joy that no man or circumstance could alter or take away. Jesus said to them, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22) The Lord walked out of his tomb and appeared to the disciples. Thomas needed to see for himself and Jesus did just that. “Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” That was good enough for Thomas but what about us who don’t get to see? Do we get the same joy that they received? Jesus also said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed (happy, joyful) are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:28-29) For the Christian our hope and joy is anchored in a historical event.;The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Peter says to us, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Peter 1:8)

When I think of genuine joy rooted in a future hope I think of my mother in-law Linda Philo. 15 years of serious sickness and the death of 2 grandsons 10 months apart brought her much sorrow and pain. She died 6 weeks after my son Jacob and she died with a joy that could not be taken from her. She was known, and is know for her encouraging smile and her sincere joy despite the many hardships she faced in this life. When I get down I think of her spirit, I remember her joy that was rooted in our shared hope in the risen Lord. He is our hope and joy that no man or circumstance can take away.


Linda Lou Philo

This is much bigger than me

Snap shots and intagram is about all we get in the big picture of what God is doing in our lives. This is another lesson I was reminded of in the story of Ruth and Naomi. Who knew what God was going to do? This is true for me as well in my story of grief and pain. What I learn from this book is that there is a bigger picture that I don’t see and it’s not all about me. Actually the short story of Ruth really isn’t about the people in the narrative. It’s a quick peek into the providence of God working in humanity to bring about his promised Messiah. This is a story about Jesus and his family tree. This is the big picture that Naomi could not see.

God promised childless Abraham a son and through his lineage the entire world would be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3) Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Naomi, a Jewess, loses two sons and her husband then returns to Bethlehem bitter. Ruth comes with Naomi and marries Boaz. Ruth gives birth to Obed, Obed has a son named Jesse, and Jesse gives birth to king David. King David is promised that the Eternal King (Jesus) would be  in his lineage. (2 Samuel 7:16) Jesus was conceived by the Spirit in Mary (as promised in the garden of Eden Genesis 3:15) and in him every nation has the promised blessing of eternal life in his name. Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

The promise to Abraham and to David are being fulfilled in the Instagrams and snap shots found in the book of Ruth. There is a purpose in the pain, this is much bigger than them. Little did Naomi know that he Canaanite daughter in-law would be a part of the big picture that God was painting.

If you like happy endings and a great story read the short book of Ruth. In all the grief and pain there is a good God working his plan together to accomplish his desired good end. (Romans 8:28) I will give you the ending but there’s allot of good stuff in-between chapters 1 and chapter 4. Take the time to read it, you will be glad you did.

Naomi’s bitterness  left her and she became joyful once again. “And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:17) I noticed that the name Mara that Naomi chose for herself was never used in reference to her. Life became pleasant for her again, she was not bitter and she was given joy from God despite all the sorrow. This is my great hope in my troubles as well.

The book of Ruth reminds me of many things I need to consider in my journey of grief. I don’t know why God allowed my son to die at 22. What I do know is that God is good and has good intentions for me all the time. I cannot see the big picture but God does. I am reminded to not allow anger and bitterness to be my identity and to rob me of the joy of the Lord. In the end I am again reminded that I am just a snap shot in history and this is His story and it’s all about Jesus and not me. There is a big picture that I cannot see but someday I will, and on that day I will no longer walk by faith. On that day my faith will be be sight.









rest in the desert


All sunshine makes a desert, but when in the desert look for an oasis.

I guess if I could define my life before grief I could use the word sunshine. Three healthy kids, a loving wife, stable jobs and a cape cod in the country.  Life certainly wasn’t without trouble but overall we enjoyed mostly sunny skies and only a chance of rain.

But somewhere between heaven and hell I find myself in a desert wasteland called earth. My wilderness storm came suddenly and without warning, leaving the landscape of my life barren and stripped of the comforts that sunny days provided. The eye of the storm has passed followed by dark overcast skies over the last 18 months. I am starting to see some breaks in the clouds, the wind seems to be dying down a bit and I feel I can come out of my shelter for a walk around.

Being a Christian didn’t give me a free pass on suffering in this life. Jesus suffered and so will I. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) What about me, how can I endure the storms and be an overcomer? John tells me, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world- our faith.” (1 John 5:4)  I look to Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith. He has both killed death and provided me life, holding my hand in all my desert wanderings.

All sunshine makes a desert, but when in a desert look for an oasis.

430 years in Egypt and the time of the Jews deliverance came as promised to Abraham by God centuries before. Moses was sent to deliver them from the bondage, and by faith he kept the first Passover and that night were delivered from the hand of their oppressors. By faith Moses led them through the Red Sea  and by his faith he led them into the wilderness towards the promised land. Three days into the desert and there is no water to be found. Water was then found but they found it bitter and undrinkable. “And the people complained against Moses, saying what shall we drink? So he cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters the waters were made sweet.” (Exodus 15:22-25) What can I learn from their wilderness experience?

As a Christian I have been delivered from death by Christ who is my Passover lamb. (1 Corinthians 5:7) By faith I follow him out of bondage and start my journey to the land of milk and honey by following the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

In the journey I can expect desert wanderings and come across bitter water to drink. Some of my most basic needs in my journey can be the greatest tests along the way. We come to pools of bitter water, we are thirsty beyond measure and all we do is complain and never pray. We forget that the tree of the cross has been thrown in the bitter waters of life and made them sweet for us. In all our sorrows we have a savior.

“Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35) The Lord invites the thirsty to drink from his sweet pool. “Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money , come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

All sunshine makes a desert, but when in the desert look for an oasis.

After the bitter pool of Marah the Israelites traveled on in the desert journey. “Then they came to Elim, where there were 12 wells of water and seventy palm trees ; so they camped there by the waters. (Exodus 15:27)

After coming to the bitter waters, after the bitter pools are made sweet and as you continue on your wilderness path remember to look up. There is always an oasis in the wilderness for the people of God. It is a place of shade and sweet relief from the blistering sun. The water there is refreshing and plentiful restoring the weary soul.

It’s been 18 months since my son died. I guess if I wanted I could stay at the bitter waters, complaining, prayerless and faithless. Or I can remember Jesus who makes all my bitter waters sweet in my journey of grief and follow him to an oasis of rest.

I feel I am at an oasis at the moment. I am truly thankful to God for this time of rest for my soul. But like the Israelites of old, the time at the oasis will end and they must enter into the wilderness and move towards Canaan. Most of that generation died in the wilderness because of unbelief. But by faith Caleb left the wilderness and obtained the promises of God. God commends him by saying, “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land which he went, and his descendants shall posses it.” (Numbers 14:24) 

There is much to learn from the examples of the Hebrews. One thing that God will not tolerate forever is a complaining and grumbling spirit in our wilderness journey. Be thankful for the bitter pools that God has made sweet. When trials come, afterward look for the oasis of rest. When all are afraid and fearful to enter into Canaan by faith remember the spirit Caleb which God notices and rewards. And always try to remember…

All sunshine makes a desert, but when in the desert look for an oasis. 

Life with lemons; enduring the holidays

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Somehow I think the person who coined that phrase never lost a child. In concept I get it but in reality the lemonade is just as bitter as the lemons. Oh sure, it can be watered down and sweetened with artificial sweeteners but it is still sour. It has been 18 months since Jacob died and my life is good, life is certainly better, but bitter at the same time. Lemon’s will always be on the grocery list of our life, lemonade is lemonade no matter how you squeeze the fruit and try to doctor up the taste.images-3

The holidays are on the horizon now and more lemons are on the menu for me. I admire those who are able to drink the bitter drink, making the best of a very difficult time of year. But it’s just not me, I will do my best to endure this second holiday season without my son. Enduring is the best I can do.

I feel the weight and the dread starting to build already. Grief will compound itself, find its release and then repeat itself all over again. Grief is like Old Faithful, you feel the pressure building and know that the geyser is going to blow regularly. This will be the pattern for me the next couple of months and it will continue after New Years day. Jacobs birthday is March 3rd and the day of his death is the 26th. Maybe I will enjoy a menu with less lemonade next April.

The holidays are a bitter time for me now, I expect this to change, but for now I wish it all away. It is so strange to dread the days that you once enjoyed so much in life. There are many good memories from those times, they are memories that I have not opened because of the hurt they will pull out of me. I’m not ready yet, in time I will be.

Grief will not allow me to be happy yet. The holidays cannot change this, they actually add to the pain I feel. I will probably cry and feel my guts turn when I hear the first Christmas song of the season. Music still causes deep pain for me. I can’t run fast enough from it- it’s everywhere I go and I want to pull the plug on it all. It’s not as bad as it was in the beginning, I could say that I hated it at the first but now I’m not as bothered by it. Music actually has become the way I measure my sorrow.

This is how I discover how my heart is doing. Proverbs 25:20 says, “Whoever sings songs to the heavy heart is like one who takes of a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” (ESV) I can measure my sorrow by my reaction to the music I hear. If it makes me shudder and to bristle like a coat removed on a cold, damp day I know my heart is heavy. If I can walk through a store and hear music without being overwhelmed emotionally I know my heart is healing. I never listen to it deliberately, but when it confronts me where I cannot escape I can monitor my healing by how I react to it.

I am doing the best I can with the lemons in my life. Lemonade is lemonade no matter how you squeeze the fruit. Water it down, sweeten it up it’s all has the same bitter aftertaste. The holidays will never be the same for me and I expect that someday that the lemons will stay in the grocery bag and not come out for Christmas, but not now. Not yet.

A dear lady in our church lost a son 23 years ago this month. Jacob was just a newborn when he died. She said to my wife soon after the funeral that someday the memories would become sweet for us. We are not there yet, we prevent ourselves from remembering- probably for our protection and possibly to our harm. Perhaps the greatest gift for us both would be to remember the sweet times of Christmas past. A little more sweetener in the lemonade would do us some good I guess. What would I like, one lump or two? Two please! Maybe it will help me endure until January 2nd ,2016.IMG_0267