Where’s the Grief?

National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” news broadcasts have been telling stories of some of the people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. So has Lester Holt on the NBC evening news. The New York Times recently published the names of thousands of the deceased on its front page. Our nation crossed a terrible threshold this week: 100,000 people have been killed by COVID-19, the plague that has infected more than 1.7 million Americans.

This is not fake news. This is not a hoax. Our nation’s respected public health physicians and scientists have no reason to lie to us about this dangerous and mysterious disease. People are dying. Doctors, nurses, and first responders are risking their own lives to care for them.

Thoughtful people of faith are praying, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray for an end to the pandemic. We pray for a cure or an effective vaccine. As we pray shall we not also take time to grieve? We want to think happy thoughts. We are inclined to turn away in denial. We numb our brains with social media and Netflix. We tell ourselves that those who have died are far away and unknown to us.

Can this be the right response to the tragedy of this historical moment? I wonder if a failure to grieve these losses will exact an emotional toll at some future time. I remember a time in my own life when I experienced the sadness of a great loss. I did not face the situation in an emotionally mature way. I denied my feelings of loss. I did not talk to anyone about them. Instead, I put on a brave demeanor and tried to be strong. It was fully a year later that depression hit me like a sledgehammer! I have learned that this was a delayed grief reaction, the result of a failure to grieve in a healthy way at the time when I most needed to do it.

Grief is a normal and appropriate response to a severe loss. It is not evidence of weak faith or moral defect. Sooner or later every person has to face the reality of death, separation, and loss. No one escapes. The New Testament reminds us that believers sometimes experience grief, but not without a final hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Two other examples come to mind, Job and Jesus. They show us constructive expressions of grief. They did not deny their sadness. They poured out their hearts in lament. In Job, we find a man expressing his grief in anger, doubt, depression, fatigue, and regret. His physical pain has him praying for death. Yet through it all, he retained his faith in God and affirmed his belief in his eventual resurrection (Job 19:25-26).

If Job’s grief was for his personal suffering, our Lord’s lament was for others, for the people of Jerusalem. On at least two occasions he voiced his sorrow over the city’s rejection of God’s kingdom (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41-44). What brought Jesus to tears was the realization that the city’s course was set for destruction. His was vicarious grief expressed for those who would not know what they could have known of God’s freedom and peace. They had refused to “recognize the time of God’s coming” to them in the person of Jesus.

The Lord’s lament for others is a lesson for us. If we find it hard to empathize with the sorrows of others, perhaps we should pause to think more deeply about what they are going through.  We hear of victims of the coronavirus who spend weeks in isolation, and who must die alone, because of the danger of contagion. We hear of families who cannot honor their loved ones with traditional funeral rituals. No gatherings of friends. No compassionate hugs. Their grief is solitary. Can we weep for them? Can we pray for them?

I heard this week of a local family whose husband and father died of the disease. The wife was asymptomatic and under quarantine. At the graveside service for her husband, she and her son had to maintain physical separation. And they were the only ones present for the burial! This story is being repeated daily, thousands of times, all over America. Do we really understand the emotional toll this is taking on our fellow citizens? Do we really think there will be no delayed trauma, possibly expressed in unhealthy ways?

A friend of mine is grieving. She is approaching the anniversary of her husband’s death, a great sorrow. She told me about her way of facing down the emotional triggers that lead to doubt and fear. She does it in the same way she faced her grief as he was dying. She writes, notebooks filled with memories and prayers. She talks, freely and honestly, with trusted confidants. She prays, with the assurance that as she comes near to God, he is coming near to her (James 4:8).

I think that is precisely what we should be doing for our nation. Lamentation is an appropriate way to pray in these circumstances. Our nation is facing unprecedented and universal disruption. Grief is a normal response. Intercession, for our nation’s leaders, for clinicians, for scientists engaged in a search for a cure, and for victims and their loved ones, is always right. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Praise to Jesus is also required, lest we forget that he is “the Living One who was dead and is alive forever and ever” (Revelation 1 :18)! Those who die believing in him are now very much alive (John 11:25). This is the assurance that will carry us through grief.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner 

Unlikely Pilgrim

Unlikely Pilgrim

This is a piece I wrote several years ago after a solo hike on the A.T.

Unlikely Pilgrim: Further Adventures on the Appalachian Trail — Summer 2013

In addition to the backpack that I carried on my A.T. trek last June, I was carrying some unnecessary baggage. Being a chronic worrier, my sinful tendency is for thoughts to revert to what-ifs: time-consuming, energy-depleting concerns about things that may never happen. Of course there were  legitimate concerns for important ministry responsibilities, relationships to be nurtured, people to be helped, big projects to be tackled and real problems to be solved. “Who is adequate for these things?” cried the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 2:16). Me too.

So as I set out on my solo hike, one big motivation was to seek some quality time alone with God, enjoying the peace and beauty of his creation. The mountains of Southwest Virginia, in the Jefferson National Forest, provided a perfect retreat for this unlikely pilgrim. I had lots of uninterrupted time to think, to worship, and to turn my concerns over to the Lord in prayer.

Unlikely PilgrimTry to imagine the morning in the mountains. Stillness. Silence. No sounds except the whisper of the breeze stirring the leaves overhead, or raindrops striking the tent, or sometimes the songbirds waking each other. In that environment I began each day with my Bible reading and prayer while still in my sleeping bag. This was followed by the simple pleasure of morning coffee in the coolness of the dawn.

The Lord seemed to impress on me a verse from the Psalms. I thought about it over and over as I hiked along the trail. “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). During my week in the mountains several impressions came to me, derived from this text.

“This is the day which the Lord has made.” He made this world and He made it good. Being in the unspoiled wilderness reminded me that “By faith, we understand the universe was created at His command,” and “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and “The Lord gives us richly all things to enjoy.” This is true not only of nature but of time. “My times are in your hands,” said the psalmist. Solomon wisely opined, “To everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

It occurred to me to confess to God, “This is a day you have made for me. It is all I have. This time and place are all I have. This moment, this beautiful moment of solitude and peace is all I have. I do not have next year, or tomorrow, or even tonight. I do not have the next bend in the trail. I have this moment to take this step forward. I have this time and only this time to live. It really is foolish to worry. Jesus was right about that.”

“Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Okay. This is telling me I have a choice. I am being called to choose optimism over anxiety and self-doubt. I am being called to “rejoice in the Lord always.” When Paul wrote those words, he was a prisoner whose plans for his work had been interrupted by false accusations, beatings, and injustice at the hands of those who should have been upholding the law. Instead of complaining, Paul chose to rejoice in the Lord. My petty anxieties were nothing in comparison to Paul’s troubles.

So I said to the Lord, “Help me to rejoice in You right now.” I believe He answered that simple prayer. I chose to rejoice in the gospel. I found myself thanking the Lord for the indescribable gift of His Son and the salvation he purchased with his death at Calvary. As long as my iPod held out I listened to Handel’s “Messiah,” which is the gospel set to glorious music. I rejoiced in Easter truth, singing along with the choir, spoiling the peace around me: “For as in Adam all die; even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It was thrilling. The Lord really did help me to rejoice in His salvation!

I got to share the gospel by giving some gospel booklets to some fellow hikers whom I met on the trail. The Lord gave me the privilege of engaging some of them in spiritual conversations. Another answer to prayer.

I rejoiced in the Word. As I hiked I quoted promises from scripture I had memorized. This became another source of joy. For my Bible readings I read and marked and meditated on the gospel of Luke. I was reminded that it is the Word of God that turns doubt into gladness.

I rejoiced in God’s creation. From the top of Chestnut Ridge (4400 ft elevation), after a long and difficult climb, I had the privilege of seeing the famous valley known as “Burke’s Garden,” a beautiful panorama of Virginia farmland. This breathtaking view is available only to those who are willing to hike to see it. The vast forests of green, the tiny creatures who make surprise appearances, the wildflowers, the deer, the rushing streams all conspired to prompt joyful praise.

I rejoiced in the kindness of strangers, evidence that all people are created in the image of a generous God. Once when I had run out of water, I arrived at a location where I had expected to resupply from a spring. The spring was dry. Fellow hikers came along and shared their water with me.

As I chose to rejoice in God’s work around the world I prayed for all the missionaries I could think of. It was encouraging to remember that God’s Word is not bound and the gospel of Jesus is penetrating spiritual darkness everywhere.

“This is the day…I will rejoice in it.” I have only this day, this moment in time. I should savor it as God’s gift to me. I want to learn to live life in the present. There is “a time to be born and a time to die.” In between are moments which are to be treasured as gifts from God.

A song surfaced in my memory. It was written back in the fifties by cowboy singer and movie actor named Redd Harper. I believe he was converted to faith in Christ through the ministry of Billy Graham during his Los Angeles evangelistic crusade. Here are the words as I remembered them from my childhood and as they came back to me on the Appalachian Trail.

I’m following Jesus one step at a time. I live for the moment in His love divine.

Why think of tomorrow? Just live for today. I’m following Jesus each step of the way.

The pathway is narrow, but He leads me on. I walk in His shadow. My fears are all gone.

My spirit grows stronger each moment, each day; for Jesus is leading each step of the way.

The most difficult parts of the hike were the long uphill climbs with a heavy backpack. When I would stop to catch my breath, I could look up the steep incline ahead and start to wonder whether I could make it. It was a psychological test as well as a physical one. “I can’t make it. I have too far to go.” That kind of self-talk is self-defeating. There were times when I had doubts.

Of course the options are getting lost in the woods and maybe dying out there. Or getting sick or hurt and becoming a terrific inconvenience to others. Or going on. Not continuing is not an option.

It didn’t take too long before I learned something important. Instead of looking at the difficult climb ahead, when I stopped to rest I could look back down the trail with a sense of accomplishment for what I had already achieved. Instead of worrying about whether I could make it to the top of the mountain, I could concern myself with the next few steps. “I don’t know for sure what I am capable of doing, but I certainly can take the next step. The Lord gave me the strength to come this far; He’ll help me make it the rest of the way.”

That’s a good life lesson for an unlikely pilgrim. One step at a time.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner 

Appalachian Trail Memories

Unlikely Pilgrim

This weekend Connie and I had planned to be in Kentucky for our granddaughter Maddie Faulkner’s high school graduation. Unfortunately, because of the current national crisis, the trip was canceled. We had also planned to return to the beautiful Virginia Highlands where I was to connect with my daughter Anna for another section hike on the Appalachian Trail. That has had to be postponed. The Trail has been closed to hikers during the recent health emergency. I have had the Trail on my mind as I have maintained social distancing here at home. Today’s entry is a retelling of a story I wrote in 2013 about a solo hike on the A.T.

Impressions from the Appalachian Trail – Summer 2013

The Appalachian Trail was inspired by architect and philosopher Benton MacKay who proposed, in a series of articles and speeches in 1921, a footpath that would follow the crest of the Appalachian Mountain Range. He recommended “the outdoor culture” of the wilderness as a desirable alternative to the stress of urban life and the mechanization of the industrial age.

Appalachian Trail MemoriesThe trail was mapped and built by volunteers in the 1930s. It became part of the National Trail System established by Congress in 1968. In cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, it is maintained by regional clubs of volunteers who are members of the Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

The A. T. is the oldest of the long-distance hiking trails, extending over 2200 miles from Springer Mountain in North Georgia to the northernmost peak of the Appalachians,

Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine. The trail passes through 14 states, eight national forests and two national parks. Its highest point is Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokey Mountains.Appalachian Trail Memories

Those who hike the trail say they do so for various reasons, adventure, physical challenge, a search for quietness and solitude, love of nature, psychological reflection in a time of personal crisis, or spiritual renewal.

Thru-hikers want to hike the length of the trail in one season. Others make it their goal to hike the entire trail in sections over a period of several years. Day hikers may not seek to cover the entire trail, but they enjoy the beauty, quietness, and the awe-inspiring majesty of the mountains and the immensity of the wilderness.

I was introduced to the trail in 1964 by the girl I was to marry. I met Connie when we were freshmen in college and she bragged about the fact that the A.T. went right through her hometown, Damascus, Virginia. In subsequent years I became more familiar with the trail culture by talking with hikers and outfitters in and around Damascus. The town is famous on the trail as a good place for thru-hikers to “re-supply.”

In the spring of every year Damascus hosts “Appalachian Trail Days,” a festival of food, mountain music, and a hikers’ reunion; they come by the thousands from all over the country. It is considered to be one of the best regional festivals in the Eastern United States.

When Connie and I would return with the family on vacation to the beautiful mountain region that is called the Virginia Highlands, I would venture, first on short day hikes of a few miles, then later on longer section hikes, backpacking, and camping. Over the years, especially as I have gotten older, the appeal of solitude and time alone with God, amid the beauty of creation, has had a healing effect. “He restores my soul,” takes on a special meaning as I walk and pray.

In June of this year, I hiked 77 miles of the trail in one week. I carried a pack that weighed a little less than 35 pounds. There was a lot of climbing and there were times when I was exhausted. I did this because I wanted to add to my miles completed on the trail. I wanted to find out what I was physically and psychologically capable of doing. I admit it was a test of endurance, the hardest thing I have ever done physically.

Even though it was difficult at times, the experience was deeply satisfying. It taught me about myself. I was reminded that there are many things I can do without. One of the appealing things about backpacking is simplicity and clarity of purpose. The hiker carries everything on his back; food, water, sleeping bag, tent, and extra clothing. To be on the trail for more than a day requires a hiker to adopt a completely different lifestyle.

Appalachian Trail MemoriesFriends have asked lots of questions about the hike. Did it rain? Yes. What did you do? I put on rain gear and a rain cover for my pack and kept walking. The sound of rain on one’s tent is a wonderful inducement to sound sleep, the deep sleep of pure exhaustion.

Were you ever in danger? No. Did you see any bears or snakes? Not this time. But I have seen bears and a rattlesnake on previous hikes. Where did you get water? I used a hand pump with a ceramic filter to purify the water from springs and streams. I did not get sick.

Did you ever lose your way? No. The trail is well marked and most hikers have maps or the A.T. guidebook to point out landmarks and water sources.

What happens if a hiker gets hurt or sick on the trail? Fellow hikers come along periodically and people on the trail are usually helpful and friendly. There is cell phone service in some places. Hikers are encouraged to carry whistles to call for help in emergencies. Everyone has a first aid kit.

Appalachian Trail MemoriesWhat did you eat? Instant oatmeal and coffee in the morning and a dehydrated meal reconstituted with boiling water in the evening. A tiny lightweight stove boiled the water. I had decided the camp stove I had was too heavy. No, there was no need for a campfire. I munched on snacks of jerky, energy bars, and nuts during the day. It is very important to stay hydrated and every hiker is aware of how much water he will need for the day.

Are there shelters? Yes, the A.T. clubs build and maintain them. They were good as rest stops and places to talk with other hikers. I slept in a shelter only one night. I preferred the solitude of tent camping alone.

In a future article, I will share some of the life lessons I brought back from my week on the trail. I had great times with the Lord every morning. I had photocopied the gospel of Luke and that was my main spiritual food. It occurred to me that our Lord hiked the length and breadth of Galilee, Judea, and surrounding regions with His disciples. He must have been quite an outdoorsman.

This thousand-word missive is already too long. Thank you, patient reader. If you have other questions or comments, share them.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner 

My Children’s Mother

One reason my children are great parents is the good example of their mother. Connie Thompson Faulkner is the living quintessence of the ideal wife and mother described in Proverbs 31. For that reason, this week, “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Proverbs 31:28).

My Children's Mother

When Connie and I married almost 52 years ago, I was out of my mind with romantic love. I loved her truly and well then, and I still do, but I had no idea what a treasure she would prove to be as life unfolded. We became parents early and often. It did not take me long to recognize that she was born to be a mother. An only child herself, she said she always wanted to have lots of children.

She knew what she was doing. By that I mean she always seemed to know the right thing to do in every parenting situation. She loved nurturing her babies. As they passed through the stages of childhood she taught them, prayed and played with them, encouraged and guided them.

When they entered adolescence, she understood how to adapt her parenting style without sacrificing her standards. She gave them gifts of emotional security, confidence, healthy independence, and the expectation of excellence. Above all, she gave them a good example.

She was the first piano teacher for our eldest son who is now a professional church musician. She coached our daughter to a win in a state-wide scholarship pageant. She knew what she was doing because she had won a few of those herself. She loved being a wedding planner. That was a good thing because our first three children were married the same year! Later she was a supportive presence when grandchildren came along.

After twenty-five years as a  stay-at-home mom, Connie went back to the profession she was trained for. She excelled as a teacher. I told her more than once that she should write a book on classroom management and it should be titled, “The Happy Classroom.” Her income helped pay for college tuition for our two youngest children.

Words are inadequate as I try to describe what it meant to me to have such a partner in the service of the church. She loves the Lord and she loves people. The people of the churches felt that love as she, in different seasons through the years, mentored younger women, taught Sunday School, sang in adult choirs, and directed children’s and youth choirs. She did it all in a way that seemed effortless. She gave of herself freely.

She has the gift of hospitality and she has always been ready to open our home for groups and individuals in connection with our ministry to people. The meals she prepared and the desserts she baked added joy to every gathering. As far as I know, she never caused our children to feel neglected. She found ways to include them in what we were trying to do in ministry. This contributed to their emotional intelligence and their understanding of service.

Second only to life in Christ, I consider Connie to be the best gift God ever gave me. I could not ask for a more loyal, loving wife. She is strong in character, good sense, and compassion. I am sure that this weekend her children, Jay, Carrie, Mary, Anna, and Michael, will join me in praising her with these words from Proverbs 31: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (vv. 29-30).

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner 

Why I Preach the Bible

Why I Preach the Bible

When my brother Steve graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary, the commencement speaker was Dr. J. Vernon McGee, the renowned pastor, and Bible teacher. His address to the graduates was based upon 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.”

He must have repeated the theme “preach the word” twenty times in that message. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and do just that! I knew that was my calling in life and his words were a reminder of its importance.

As a young person, I had grown up in a thriving church. Our pastor invited guest Bible teachers to come to speak in annual Bible conferences. I remember being enthralled as well-known teachers such as Dr. McGee, Warren Wiersbe, Lehman Strauss, Theodore Epp, Oswald J. Smith, Walter Wilson, and others explained the scriptures. Their straightforward expositions of the word showed me the power and relevance of the Bible.

At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, I studied under scholars who were committed to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible and to the importance of biblical exposition. Studying the Bible as a seminary student helped forge the conviction that the power in ministry is not in the rhetorical skill or emotionalism of the preacher. The power of God is in the written word itself.

A survey of Psalm 119 reminds us of this. Here are a few excerpts. “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word” (v. 9). “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (v. 11). “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path” (v. 104). ” The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (v. 130). “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal” (v. 160). “Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (v. 165).

There are churches that are organized to provide support groups and lay counseling programs. Others are organized around evangelism and world missions. Some churches emphasize the priority of worship. Some promote social action. All of these are important ingredients in healthy churches. I believe they are derived from, not substitutes for, the systematic exposition of the Bible.

What is biblical exposition? In the words of John Stott, it is, “bringing out of the biblical text what is there and exposing it to view.” The text in question may be a sentence, a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a whole book of the Bible. (I once heard Dr. John Phillips deliver an exposition of the entire book of the Revelation in one forty-minute message!) An exposition explains the meaning of the text, shows its relevance, and helps the listener apply the scripture to life.

There is no substitute for the expository teaching of the Bible. Dr. W. A. Criswell was so committed to it that during one 17 year period he preached through the entire Bible from his pulpit in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. I did not try to do that in my preaching ministry. But I was committed to teaching the Bible book-by-book and verse-by-verse.

James I. Packer once said that “the Bible is God preaching.” Thus the authority in biblical preaching rests not in the personality or style of the preacher, but in the word of God itself. The word is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). It reveals Jesus Christ to us and enables us to understand how to receive God’s salvation. No wonder we preachers are told to “preach the word.”

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner