Goldenrod

The best thing that’s happened recently is fall. The towering beeches, maples, and oaks are clothed in color. Orange and yellow are too bland as descriptors. Reach into your metal-themed colors and call them copper, gold, bronze, and rust. (All colors related to metal, I realize). Also, one of my favorite colors, goldenrod (which reminds me of my favorite jacket ever, the vintage thrift store bargain I wore through college).

Yep, just a thumbnail swatch of goldenrod. Satisfying, isn’t it?

A week ago I was driving with a friend through his corner of Flanders when the gold, copper, bronze, rust, and goldenrod were suddenly alive – by which I mean the sun broke through the clouds. Yesterday I was at a seminar in Leuven and I had to go outside during a break to admire the trees in the sunlight. Even though I enjoyed the seminar, I wanted to wander through the trees for a couple hours.

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In the absence of mountains, trees will have to do for natural beauty. And these trees hold my attention all right. Clouds and sunlight are quite attractive too. I do miss Central California’s warm winter sun a little, but adding clouds to the mix adds interest. It’s more like my home city of Seattle, where the frequent gray makes the appearance of the sun seem like a resurrection has occurred.

We did recently see some hills; we traveled just over an hour to the Ardennes, a hilly forested region of quaint and gentle beauty. We checked out the cave of Remouchamps, which includes a long boat ride on a subterranean river. We also checked out a nearby hilltop, as well as an ice cream shop.

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The hike I planned for the next day started out through a wet cow pasture. That mistake got our feet soaking wet. Finally, we found and followed the somewhat randomly placed signs and made a loop through the village and then out of town into the woods.

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After the hike we conquered Belgium’s highest point. With a little help from the platform on top, it’s exactly 700 meters tall. There’s a reason Belgium and the Netherlands are called the Low Countries. Next summer I must visit the Alps.

That sunny day motivated us to check out a well-known nature area nearby. Although it was again gray, there were interesting things to find.

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I realized that it feels different being a foreigner here than in Mexico and Honduras, where Rebecca and I have also spent significant time. In Latin America, we looked different, so we constantly surprised people by speaking the language. Here we look the same and surprise people by not speaking the language. The former was easier. I get tired of saying, “Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands,” (I only speak a little Dutch). I started an accelerated Dutch class, but even that was stultifyingly slow. I’m above level one (My name is… I come from…), but I didn’t think I could test into level two. So now I’m looking for a private tutor. I figure that refocusing the hours spent in the class on tutoring and conversation partners will accelerate my language acquisition.

Part of the adjustment process includes the feeling of foreignness, which I sometimes experience as irritation. What in the world do these road signs mean? Is it really necessary to print a tag for my vegetables? Why are you trying to cut me off then flashing your lights at me? Feeling irritated at things makes me feel guilty, like I’m disrespecting the culture. I’m hesitant to even write any of this, because I should say I love it here, Belgium is awesome. I am enjoying it here, mostly, but there are still things to get used to. It takes time, they say, for a place to feel like home. Language will help. As friendships develop more that will make a difference too.

I love the church. That didn’t take any adjustment period. I am still getting to know people. Every time is a delight. The only problem so far is that I like everyone so much there’s no way to spend enough time with them all. In addition to people, there’s a near constant opportunity to try new foods: Iraqi, South African, Ethiopian, Filipino (okay, I’ve already tried that one), and of course Belgian. Home-cooked Belgian food has been fantastic.

Lest you think we are spending all our time exploring parks and taking pictures, let me assure you I have been busy. Quite busy. As I fulfill my calling, the pastoral role continues to fulfill me: preaching, leading, praying, counseling, etc. I’ve always liked the variety. I’ve even done a funeral already. It was emotionally difficult to be with grieving people, as I still grieve myself. But the message I preach continues to give confidence. One day, the bright and glorious sun of the resurrection will shine indeed.

 

I admit, this one is slightly retouched to bring out the glowing colors. In heaven, I suppose everything is retouched. So the goldenrod will really stand out.

Working, Grieving, Enjoying

It has been good to be fruitfully busy again. Though it had bright spots, the summer was brutal. We bounced rootless from place to place, waiting for our visa to come through. We grieved, we worried, we argued.

Here in Belgium, ahh, we can finally settle down. We can finally work again. For a while I thought the sadness over Peter’s death was lessening. I realize it was only sinking deeper, like floodwaters dissipating into the ground. But the percolating sadness has filled a hidden reservoir of sorrow.

A young man here surprised me with his deep question last week: “What are you praying about?” I don’t tend verbalize a lot of prayers right now, I told him. When I come before God, when I am aware of God’s presence, I am also aware of Peter. Not that Peter is present, I am just aware of him and aware of my sadness. So to come before God means to grieve. I bring my sadness to the presence of God. Which is fine. It’s not that I have no comfort. It’s that sorrow is now a part of who I am. Sorrow is also a part of who God is. Jesus suffered. The Father grieved.

Several people here have shared how they can understand our sorrow. With good reason. One woman lost a profoundly handicapped teenage daughter. Some have suffered multiple miscarriages, never having children of their own. One person lost grandmother, father, and brother in a short span. We have met many immigrants and refugees. Some fled because of threats against their life. One young man lost his three brothers when they left their country with no plan but to search for a better life. He has heard nothing from them since the day they left. A short time later, he left too. When he arrived in Belgium he asked a doctor to help him commit suicide; life didn’t seem worth living. One man stopped believing when his brother was shot dead in his home country in the Middle East. These last ones all became Christians here in Belgium.

Last Sunday we baptized several new believers. In addition to the trauma they sought to escape by coming to Belgium, they have now been disowned by their families for following Christ. Someone told me, “I lost my family twice. First, when I left home. And again when I became a Christian.” And yet they say it is worth it. “The people of this church loved me when they didn’t even know me,” one said. “Jesus has given me peace,” said another.

We ache for our son Peter. All these others ache for their lost loved ones. All of this raises a profound question: What is life about? Children get cancer and die. Families run from violence. People die in random accidents. What matters in life? What mattered to my son Peter was the love of God. “Why would someone think that death would separate you from the love of God,” he said a couple weeks before he died. “Death is how you get to God’s presence.” The apostle Paul willingly faced persecution, prison, beatings, and death. What mattered to him was Christ. “To live is Christ; to die is gain,” he wrote (Philippians 1:21). Suffering helps you see that this is true. Nothing else really matter. Nothing else really lasts.

 

Okay, ready for something lighter? I am.

We have enjoyed our time here so far. We are just starting to venture out in exploration of our new country. I’ve got some pictures for you.

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Cycling here is much more fun – and safer! – than in California. There is always another park, another castle, another estate to find. The city is full of old buildings, bridges, tunnels, hidden courtyards, cathedrals, passages under things that look like the city’s old ramparts. And open air urinals hidden in the shadow of the city’s main landmark, the Cathedral of Our Lady (I almost included a picture).

 

Language learning is enjoyable, although frustratingly slow, even with a supposedly accelerated class. I succeeded in telling a store clerk tonight that I was looking for garbage bags. And I asked if they were really all out of bread. Those are my most recent successes. He had to ask three times if I wanted the receipt, though. Conversations with our very friendly neighbor are 50% failure.

I referred to the church council’s chairwoman as the stoelvrouw. Someone said, “Chair. Woman. That doesn’t work.” The same group had a good laugh about my retranslation of the Dutch word for a vest. In Dutch they call a vest a bodywarmer. I found this intriguing, because it’s a borrowed English word that isn’t used in English. Imagine saying, “Hold on a second, let me just put on my bodywarmer.” So I translated the word into Dutch (with a little help), lichaamsopwarmer, and they almost fell over laughing. That’s how it sounds in English!

Oh, I’ve learned some other interesting phrases. Mediageil means attention whore. Appropriate? I’m not sure. One night we were curious about how to say butt in Dutch. Katherine had learned one version from her friends at school, but we wanted to check. Google translate gave us the word kogelvanger. When I reversed it from Dutch to English, it said it means “bullet catcher.” I asked a Dutch friend and he said “Kogel. Bullet. Vanger. Catcher. I don’t know what that is.” Rebecca says it’s actually in the dictionary though. I posted on facebook about the glorious mistranslation of some math homework, thanks to Google translate. Here it is again.

A young man here has taught we a couple slang phrases. Banglijk, which literally means frightening, is like the slang use of “sick” or “cool” in the United States. I suppose “awesome” is more exact. “Mercikes” is a mash-up of French and Dutch. It still means “thanks.”

To all my readers, you’re banglijk! Mercikes.

Dutch-English bilingual people, how does this work? Vang je later!

Weakness, Power, Secularism, Faith

When I applied for the position as pastor at Antwerp International Protestant Church, I sent in my Curriculum Vitae, which is like an expanded resume. It had all my strong points on it, of course. In my inaugural sermon here I preached on a passage in 2 Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul says “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” Those things open the door to God’s power and grace. So in my first sermon here I shared a CV of my weaknesses. Particularly after this last year of uncertainty and loss, I am more aware than ever of my weaknesses. (The video of this sermon and others can be found on the church website, by the way).

I appreciated the fact that Peter was mentioned in the service in which I was installed as pastor. I was moved by the prayers of the congregation. One woman had the kids of the church make cards for our family. In our weakness we were welcomed with grace.

Our first month in Antwerp has been busy, but it has been goed bezig (“good busy”) as the Flemish say, or lekker bezig (“sweet/nice/tasty busy”) as the Dutch say. Busy with what?

  • Rearranging the house
  • Renovating the office
  • Getting the kids started in school
  • Figuring out where things are
  • Getting lost in city traffic and construction
  • Getting to know my excellent assistant pastor Jan (pronounce it like “yawn” – it’s the equivalent of John)
  • Building teams for various ministries
  • Meeting with dozens of people from the church

In meeting with church members, I have heard stories of people who were atheists, agnostics, and Muslims; I have heard stories of people who grew up in stiflingly religious forms of Christianity, in which ten out of five hundred people would take communion when offered – the rest were too terrified and unsure of their election; I have heard stories of some who grew up knowing and loving the Lord. There are no more than a handful from any given country. I think we have five continents represented. What do all these people have in common? All have discovered the grace of God.

There are some here who hope to someday return to their home countries. Others hope to never return. One young couple from the Middle East said that if they are denied asylum and forced to return to their country, they will be killed. Under Sharia law the punishment law for their apostasy is death. Europeans and Americans commonly think that Muslims should adopt a more moderate form of their religion. The people I have met here who come from Muslim backgrounds say they have never encountered moderate Islam. Westerners wish the stream of immigrants and refugees would become like them: non-religious. But secularism doesn’t tell a very compelling story. We are seeing a number embrace Jesus as Lord.

On a recent trip to Dordrecht, Netherlands

Belgium, like most of Europe, is nearly complete in its secularization. In Belgium, a historically Catholic country, the artifacts are still in place – cathedrals and chapels are everywhere – but hardly anyone practices Catholic faith. I thought at first that perhaps this lack of exposure presented the possibility of people encountering the vibrancy of the gospel, church, and mission for the first time. I am afraid that the teaching of religion in the state schools, however, effectively inoculates people against Christianity. The metaphor of a vaccination is precise: in inoculating people against a disease, a tiny amount of the actual disease is injected into the blood stream. The body creates antibodies, preventing infection. A small exposure to a watered down, insipid version of religion leaves people feeling like they are familiar with Christianity. In reality, they have only been exposed to Europe’s new religion, secular humanism, but dressed in Christian terminology. Isaac’s religion teacher told the class, “There is no heaven or hell. Heaven is when something good happens to you, and hell is when something bad happens.” Our son Peter died in May. He faced death without fear because he believed in the real heaven – the presence of God, who loved us and gave himself up for us.

I have found the Belgian people to be somewhat reserved, as we were warned. Greetings are rarely given on the street. But our neighbors have been wonderfully friendly, as have been other parents from the school. With some people we inevitably talk about faith because they ask what I do for work. Some are blunt: “we have outgrown religion.” Others say in essence, “We don’t really believe anything, but we still baptize our children and have them take their first communion because of tradition.” There are a few who identify themselves as practicing Catholics.

An unexpected request came to the church soon after I arrived. A young man was asking for help, as he felt trapped by evil.  His intense story was met with skepticism everywhere he turned. Desperate for help, he sent emails to 20 churches. “Those things don’t happen,” he was told. Apparently even many churches in Europe are secular. The short story: we are handling the case with prayer and love. After his first Sunday at our worship service (a long drive for him to attend), he said, “I felt something today that I’ve never felt before.”

In addition to a clear explanation of the gospel with reasons to believe it’s true, people also need to encounter the gospel. The power of the Spirit is one way. A sense of love from God’s people is another. Power and love is a great combination. Include unity in diversity and you have a picture of the kind of church we already are and will grow into even more.

 

Several people have asked if there is a way they can financially support the church here. I have told people that the church is self-supporting, but extra gifts are always appreciated. Here’s how you can give:

US dollar checks can be written out to International Church Services, Inc, with AIPC written on the memo line. These donations are US income tax deductible. Send them to:

International Church Services, Inc

802 Carriage Court

Augusta, GA 30909

USA

 

Bank transfers are also possible. For this please contact the church treasurer Jart Essink at gerard.essink@googlemail.com.

 

People have also asked about our home address. Here you go:

Veltwijcklaan 297

2180 Ekeren (Antwerp)

BELGIUM

 

I plan to write again soon with more of an update on our experience in a new land and family activities. And some photos, of course.

Welkom Op Antwerpen*

* I have been corrected on my Dutch grammar. You say “welkom op” (meaning “up” or “on”) to an institution, such as a school, but “welkom in” to a city. So “Welkom in Antwerpen.”

We arrived in Antwerp five days ago to find a number of small house-warming gifts at the furnished manse (flowers, fruit, muesli, cards) and not so small (bicycles, on long term loan from the former pastoral couple who now work with refugees in Sweden). Another bicycle was brought to us a couple days later. Before the worship service on Sunday a couple dropped by with a large bag of other goodies, including chocolate, nuts, and lunch boxes for the kids. We returned from Sunday’s worship service with homemade barbecue sauce (from one of the few Americans in the church), cake, and more. We were told to stop by a woman’s house later to pick up a large home-grown pumpkin. Rebecca somehow strapped the beast of a squash to the back of her bike.

Our house from the back.

We gave away most of our household items when we moved out of our home in California, and we have received many things here. We also give and receive encouragement, prayer, instruction, and so on. It is as if Jesus himself is at work around and through us. Indeed, the church is called the body of Christ. This is one thing it means to be the body of Christ: to give and to receive.

Our first Sunday with the church I did not preach, but enjoyed leading communion and heard an encouraging sermon from a guest speaker. Conversations after the service continued until 1:30 in the afternoon, when we were invited to lunch at a family’s home nearby. After lunch we walked to the park (at their local castle, of course) where there was a festival in progress. We watched a hip-hop dance routine with one young man dressed as the Joker and fifteen or twenty girls dressed as some other super villain I didn’t recognize. As we walked to the bounce houses our Dutch friend chuckled, then explained: “The man making announcements just said, ‘I’m not allowed to leave this stage, so is there a volunteer who could bring me a beer?’ That’s typical Belgian,” he said.

Also typically Belgian, apparently, are open air urinals. You could get arrested for trying to pee in one of these in the US.

There is another typically Dutch/Belgian thing that has quickly gained popularity among the younger members of our household: chocolate sprinkle sandwiches.

The Dutch also swallow filleted raw herring, sometimes accompanied by diced onion. The Dutchman who showed me raved about the health benefits of the Omega 3s and 6s. I didn’t think I could handle a whole fish, so I tried just a bite. “Why not just fry it real quick?” I asked. “It would still have Omega 3s.”

“Ahh, you’re ruining it that way,” he said.

Both individual and cultural tastes come to the fore when sampling the cuisine of a new region It is a strange thing that the same dish can delight some and horrify others. Those differences in opinion can lead people to take offense, or they can lead to humor. One friend here thought our “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins) sounded terrible. So we brought some over and laughed at the faces she made. We are greatly enjoying the local cheeses. There are ridiculously cheap gouda and brie in infinite permutations – and more expensive types of cheese as you go up the scale. Nate suddenly decided last night that he likes brie cheese. “It tastes just like butter!” he said with surprise. And we feast on fresh breads, which you put through the slicer yourself at the grocery store.

Then there is the food that Wikipedia describes as “meat-based.” Belgians invented one of the most popular foods in the world when someone deep fried French cut potatoes. Fries are sold here at frituurs (almost as ubiquitous as Starbuck’s). Other deep-fried Belgian foods haven’t found the same worldwide fame, though. When we visited here in June, I asked the man at a frituur what was popular besides fries. “Bitterballen,” he replied. I placed an order, eager to try a local favorite. I can report that bitterballen are, in fact, “meat-based.” Imagine a soft, sticky meat paste. Now imagine that this meat paste is formed into balls, coated with bread crumbs, and deep fat fried. This deep-fried “meat-based” paste with a crunchy crust is bitterballen. Friends here acclaim this dish and its larger, sausage-shaped cousin, the kroket. One Flemish friend, however, dismissed frituur food as “mystery meat.” Americans prefer their meat paste in other forms, such as tubes: Americans are estimated to eat 70 hotdogs per person per year.

Changing topics, school starts on Friday. The kids are all a little nervous about starting school in Dutch, a language they don’t understand. Until then, we continue to adjust things in the house to our style and preferences, get to know the area, and meet with new friends. Our welcome has been literally warm – as in the weather. Belgians continually tell us, “The weather is not usually like this.” Between our different trips here we have spent something like twenty days in Antwerp. We have yet to see it rain, which it supposedly does all the time.

On the zip line at the park next to another castle. We biked there.

Changing topics again, this is the first post I have written in a long time that does not mention Peter. Except that now it does. We still miss him of course. I was moved to tears when the assistant pastor prayed at length about Peter’s life and testimony in the worship service on Sunday. The body of Christ shares both joys and sorrows. There are many in the church here, just as there were in California, who know sorrow deeply. We are not alone in that. Sharing communion, as we did Sunday, is a sharing in both the sorrow and joy of Christ.

I have been impressed with the church’s strengths: hospitality, friendship, evangelism, discipleship, diversity, and flexibility. These gifts are in the church from God, largely through the previous pastor and his wife, I believe. I am very pleased to have a very capable group of leaders to begin working with. They, along with the assistant pastor and some help from the interim pastor, have done well keeping the church moving forward in a year and a half without a full-time pastor.

As a pastor, these things I have heard make me happy and excited about the potential of the church:

“I want to be baptized.”

“I know the basics of the Bible, but I want to learn more.”

“I want more discipleship.”

“I want more training.”

“We are thinking of starting a Bible study in our home.”

“I’m ready to start another course on the basics of Christian faith if there are people who are ready.”

 

I am eager to begin baptizing, teaching, training, and leading.

Farewell

Our visa has been approved. Here we go to Belgium. If all goes according to plan (but it hasn’t in a long time!) we will leave in just over a week.

Here is the important bit for those who are local. There will be a farewell gathering this Saturday, August 19 at 2pm at Gateway Community Church at 353 E. Donna Dr in Merced. There will be a chance to share memories and say goodbye. We are also eager to have everyone pray for us as we go. Want to bring something? Sure, you can bring a dessert or lemonade or something if you like. We’re not doing a full meal.

 

The visa process has whipsawed us back and forth between eager expectation and discouragement.

Here are the documents you need to turn in. Actually, it’s these documents. No, it’s these.

Ask the consulate for a reference number. That’s just a local reference number. You need a different one to check the status of your visa application. No, there is no other reference number.

The documents didn’t arrive in Belgium. They will be sent electronically.

The visa will take 2 weeks. It will take 6 weeks. It will take a few months. It could take 9 months.

Your visa has been approved.

 

The back and forth was not unlike the back and forth of Peter’s treatment. The tumor is shrinking! The tumor is growing. The tumor is shrinking! The tumor is growing. Three times. I have told God we would like a season of renewal. It hasn’t come yet. Perhaps he sees fit to set us greater challenges. Why not? I suspect, though, that once we arrive in Belgium we will get a good season. Along with a new set of challenges, of course.

The back and forth made it hard to celebrate the news. We won’t really celebrate until we have arrived. The travel itself is still a hurdle considering the crisis of our travel last time.

Our six year old asked, “Can we have mussels our first night in Belgium?” Mussels are popular there.

“Probably not the first night, but the first week,” I said. That was enough to make him happy. Nate and I are the seafood lovers. Peter was too. Now we are outnumbered by the ones who are unmoved by the beauty of a mussel, so we will have a private party. (Or are there any Antwerpers who wish to join us?)

Since the last time I wrote, I went on two more two-night backpacking trips. Once with a friend. That trip was perfection. All our choices turned out to be the right ones. Should we set up the tent? Yeah, let’s set it up. As the last stake goes in the ground the rain and hail begins to pound. Should we climb to that point or go up this way? We ended up doing a fun walk along the ridge. And wow, look behind us, we didn’t even notice that.

Should we camp at Granite Lake or Granite Basin? Granite Basin was picture perfect.

Seeing a blond bear was a bonus.

I also took my oldest on a father-son backpacking retreat. We caught lots of fish, jumped off cliffs into the water, watched the glow of a forest fire, saw another fire on top of the distant mountains (no wait, that’s the rising moon, big, bright and orange), went off trail to climb a peak, talked about Peter, talked about manhood, and sex, and growing up. It was good.

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On the last morning, I stood in the sun’s early warmth staring out across Lady Lake to the peak we climbed the day before. I cried, thinking about how I can’t share these moments with Peter anymore. Sorrow is now mixed in with everything else.

There have been some bright points, but it has been a difficult summer. There is no good place to grieve, but being unsettled, unstable, and unable to plan for the future has made it harder. We’re not sure what is grief and what is everything else. We are sure that grieving is in the background of everything now – relationships, emotions, backpacking.

What is the goal of grieving? To return to normal? To recover? Those aren’t possible. The best description I have heard of losing a child was from a memoir of a family whose 19 year old daughter died suddenly from an aneurysm. The father said, “It’s like an amputation. It will heal, but you’re still missing a limb.” What I hope for through my grieving is to become like those I admire: full of sorrow, full of joy, full of compassion, full of love, full of Jesus. I have been blessed to know saints like this, whose faith is an encouragement and inspiration. Pray for us.

To our friends in California and the rest of the US, farewell! I look forward to the work ahead of me as pastor of Antwerp International Protestant Church. I will continue to write. Continue to stay in touch.

 

Waiting

Jesus went to his death calmly, “like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7). Peter also faced death with an amazing calmness. I recorded a sermon on John 10 for my church in Antwerp last week (the assistant pastor needed a Sunday off as he and his wife expect a baby at any moment). In the sermon on Jesus the good shepherd, I said that Peter faced death the way he did because he heard the voice of the good shepherd. Peter is now with the shepherd of his soul, full of joy. Seeing his faith strengthened us, but we still have a lot of living still to do and it’s hard to live with joy when we miss our son. Suffering, loss, and grief are difficult, but inevitable, so we are doing our best to do our living and grieving with the same sort of courage we saw in Peter as he was dying.

I wrote before about the physical symptoms of grief and stress that pounced on me without warning. That has calmed down considerably. We are now mostly just waiting. We are staring at a wall. We have no idea what’s happening on the other side of the wall. Attempts to communicate with those on the other side of the wall result in conflicting and confusing pieces of information. But someday we expect our visas to come flying over that opaque wall of bureaucracy. Then we can begin to plan again. A schedule and some work would be good for us. We really hope to be in Belgium before school starts on September 1, but basically we know nothing. Actually, one of the leaders of the church in Antwerp called their home office and found out that the paperwork was submitted June 2, but it has not arrived/been registered with the home office yet. That means more waiting. Our Belgian friends shake their heads at the system they know all too well. We understand a little bit of the maddening wait endured by immigrants and refugees as they try to get legal status in a new country. But they are stuck in a civil war, poverty, or persecution. We are not.

My desires for what I wanted to do during our wait were simple: hike, write, and visit family and friends. We have visited people in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and California. Reconnecting with old friends was especially helpful for me. After anxiety, the next chapter in my grief was sullenness – sometimes I just don’t feel like talking. All I really want to talk about is Peter, but I can’t really announce to every group, “Let’s talk about my grief.” Conversations with people who know and love us from 20 years ago have been much easier; we skip past the small talk altogether and get to the how is your soul type of questions. It has been a blessing to talk with people who aren’t afraid to ask about our sadness or to share it with us. We have shared the grief of others as well. Sharing sorrow doesn’t eliminate it, but it does make it shared. And that is something. Even more important than grieving with others, we share the sufferings of Christ and he shares our sufferings with us. Also, Rebecca’s spiritual director reminded her recently that there is always One who understands about losing a child.

We also shared with some friends the last of the bugs, rattlesnake, and other delights left over from Peter.

 

As it has been difficult to talk, we depend on others’ initiative of friendship to us, their ability to ask good questions, their understanding when we don’t respond promptly. It is even more difficult than usual to stay in touch because we’re bouncing from place to place. “Are you even in the United States?” people have asked. This is a time when we depend on receiving love and friendship more than we are able to give back. So please, do contact us, but don’t think that a lack of response means we don’t appreciate it.

It has also been difficult to pray. When Peter was sick and dying, my prayers had a burning focus, an intensity born of desperation. To be honest, I miss that a little. What I really miss, of course, is Peter. There are a thousand things that remind me of him. I left my Kindle on a plane, so I adopted Peter’s Kindle Fire as my reading device. I discovered a folder he created for the apps he didn’t use. How I miss him!

The intensity of prayer is gone along with Peter, the constant subject of my prayers. As I find it difficult to pray, I depend on the prayers of others for us.

I haven’t hiked yet as much as I would like, but that would be hard to do. A few days in the Olympic Mountains with my kids and my dad was wonderful. As we climbed Dirty Face Ridge (our six year old loved the name) to the top of Mt Townsend we had a close-up view of the rugged Olympics around us, and to the east the familiar landmarks of the Cascades. As my kids scrambled up a steep, gravelly path around a cornice of snow to a pass above our campsite, my heart was happy. But Peter would have been the first one to the top. So I was also sad. Thoughts of Peter now color everything, so it is hard to just be plain happy. Still, the solitude and beauty of the wilderness is restorative.

 

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A day hike with Rebecca in the Desolation Wilderness a few days ago was anything but desolate. I look forward to more days of hiking in the weeks of waiting ahead of us. (Look closely to see the man crossing a slack line over the gorge).

If I’m not hiking I hope to be writing. I haven’t written a blog post in a long time. There is plenty I could say and I am filing away possible ideas, but the time and energy I have had for writing (not enough!) has gone mostly towards a book. I have written an outline and a few rough chapters of a book I am calling Unafraid: My Son’s Miraculous Death from Cancer. How’s that for a title? I will share our story of fear and fearlessness, along with reflections on the questions that naturally come up when a child dies of cancer, like If there is a God, why do kids get cancer? Why does God allow people, especially children, to experience such pain? Isn’t heaven just a fairy tale we tell ourselves to feel better? What reasons are there to believe in God, the resurrection, and heaven? And How does a person recover after loss? (I’m still finding our the answer to that last question). I will use real conversations I had with Peter in the responses to those questions. Any suggestions on how to find an agent or a publisher?

So Peter’s death has been difficult. Of course. It has made it hard to pray, hard to talk, hard to just be happy. One thing we haven’t experienced, though, is a crisis of faith. The Bible teaches us to expect suffering. Jesus told those who set out to follow him to take up their cross. Plus, we knew that the world suffers. Why not us? We can say with conviction, “God is good.” We are waiting for his good kingdom to come.

Surprised By Grief

I wrote some of this from Iceland, where we unexpectedly spent a couple days after I passed out on a plane. More on that later. I started writing this in the USA. I am now finishing it in Antwerp, Belgium.

I have been surprised by grief. Not surprised that I have experienced grief, but surprised at the forms it has taken.

It has been a month since I watched my son Peter take his last breaths. The memory still makes me shudder. The moment Peter stopped breathing I began howling. The horror of my grief came tearing out of me, cycling through every octave in my vocal range. This was nothing like what you see in movies. This was the pain of my soul facing the incomprehensible fact that my son, from one moment to the next, was gone forever. If there were people in the adjacent rooms, they heard me wailing. This howling did not surprise me. I had felt it in me. I knew it would come. What does surprise me is that I have never heard anyone talk about it. Our grieving in America takes place predominantly in private; so I have walked with people through their grief, but had never seen behind the curtain. I share this so that others will know what grief can look like.

Coincidentally, after I wrote the above, I heard part of an interview with an anthropologist on the National Public Radio show Invisibilia. Renato Rosaldo and his wife Shelly lived among the Ilongot people, a remote tribe of the Philippines known for headhunting; that is, they decapitated people. Renato worked hard to understand their emotional world. Every word he learned had its equivalent in Engligh, except one: Liget. He thought at first that it had to do with energy and productiveness. “But then liget exploded out of that definition into an emotional landscape he had never before encountered.” (The article is here and the podcast is here). When he played back an audio recording of a loved and respected tribal member who had recently died, the room went silent and the faces of the men gathered showed rage. It made them feel liget, they said. “It makes us want to take a head, they told him, over and over. It makes us want to take a man’s head and throw it.”

The anthropologist Renato was astonished at this emotion they expressed. He had no category for it. Until, some years later, in another part of the Philippines, his wife fell to her death. After the funeral, an emotion which began when he looked at his wife’s broken body continued to grow. One day, while driving, he felt its pressure growing inside him. He pulled to the side of the road. If I had thought of it when writing about my grief at Peter’s death, I would have described it as in the article: “a howl came roaring out of him.” In that moment Renato knew, this is liget, the terrifying emotion he had observed as an anthropologist. The closes he could come to describing it in English was “high voltage.” When I heard this, I thought, “That’s what I felt.” The desire to behead someone in response remains foreign to me, although I can understand how the roaring could turn to rage. Burying one’s grief by causing it in another seems unhealthy, to say the least. But American ways of dealing with death seem unhealthy as well.

When Peter died, I felt like my howling would never stop. But grief is surprising; eventually I calmed down. The moment we met our kids at home it all began again, although at less volume. Crying with children can’t last forever. Our daughter asked me suddenly, “Why does it sound like you’re laughing sometimes when you’re crying?” And after we had all cried together on the bed for some time our six-year-old said, “I’m hungry.”

The next surprise was how good I felt. I cried often the next few days, but not as much as I expected. We scheduled the funeral for just four days later. It felt better to have the service sooner rather than later so that it was more connected to the event of Peter’s death. I cried during the service, but made it through the sermon without tears, much to my surprise. We actually enjoyed dinner with family after the service – at the restaurant that hosted Peter’s Make-A-Wish event. I told people in those days that we were doing remarkably well. We felt lifted up by everyone’s prayers. We missed Peter terribly and cried for him often. But we also felt amazingly well at the same time. Sometimes when I found myself thinking about something other than Peter I felt like I was betraying him. I felt I should be sadder. I should think about him without ceasing. I was surprised at how light I felt. We planned a trip to Belgium in early June to visit and check out schools for our kids. We put in our 30 day notice on our rental house. These felt like the right things to do. I thought we might need more time to recover, but we felt ready to move on.

The next surprise of grief was the physical symptoms that sprang on me without warning. While driving one morning I felt a tightness in my chest. Like a balloon inflated just behind and beneath my sternum – bloated, hollow, uncomfortable. I felt like I wasn’t getting full breaths. My heartbeats felt irregular. These physical symptoms triggered anxiety, which made the symptoms worse. Was I feeling lightheaded? I should pull over. Is there something wrong with my heart? Could I have a tumor in my stomach? Over the next few days I cycled through lack of appetite, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, tingling in my legs, and often that tightness in my chest and strange heartbeat. I found myself holding my stomach muscles tight without realizing it. When I relaxed them, strangely, my stomach felt bloated and I became more aware of my breathing, which never felt quite normal.

My anxiety had me second guessing our decisions about moving out of the house and making a trip to Belgium. My anxiety and fear make me all the more amazed at my son Peter. He faced his diagnosis of cancer, the uncertainty of treatments, and the certainty of his death without anxiety, fear, or complaint. I feel something in my chest and I quake with fear. God grant me the courage of my eleven-year-old child!

Is this what grief feels like? It’s not what I expected. I found an article about how grief causes physical pain for some people. It was reassuring to hear that I am not alone, that what I have felt is not a sickness, but stress. They say that everyone grieves differently. I am sure this is true. Despite being acquainted with many grieving people over the years, I was surprised by the physical symptoms of grief. It wasn’t that I thought about Peter, felt sad, then experienced physical pain. The symptoms came out of nowhere. Despite my mind feeling clear, just below the surface the grief was still rolling. That grief comes to the surface in many ways. Some of the things that make me cry:

  • Looking at one of Peter’s drawings. Seeing his wildly creative personality in them, I wonder what he would have created ten years from now. This one would require interpretation from Peter.
  • Whether he was healthy or sick or dying, they all make me think of what we have lost. No matter the situation, though, he was almost always smiling. Which again makes me think of the great source of joy that is now gone.
  • Memories – of Peter playing in the creek with his sister after a backpacking trip, or sitting next to me on the couch at Easter, or conversing at the dinner table, or just about anything.
  • The suffering of others, whether reading about Jesus’ death in the Gospels or thinking about my father-in-law’s Parkinson’s disease, or thinking of a three-year-old we know with a prognosis as grim as Peter’s. It is good to be sensitized to the suffering of others. I never felt it from the inside before.
  • Watching a middle-aged woman at a worship service break out into a full dance. Why? Because I know she loves the Lord and I do too. I just don’t think I could dance right now, but I’m glad she can.

I am not surprised at what makes me cry but I am sometimes surprised by how long and hard I cry. I find that tears often make me feel better, though. I would take tears of sadness over the strange symptoms that feel like anxiety, or that trigger anxiety. That’s what has really surprised me in my grieving. I expected sadness, depression, not physical problems and feelings of anxiety. I realize that I am not always very in touch with my emotions. The advantage is that I am not incapacitated by grief. The disadvantage is that the grief builds until it forces its way out. So now I set aside time to think about Peter, to grieve on purpose. Writing in a journal helps. Writing for others, as I do here, helps too. I hope that it may help someone else in their grieving too.

In the midst of my anxiety, when I feel that balloon inflating in my chest, I talk with Rebecca, cry, and feel the confidence, “We’re going to be okay.” God has seen us through a lot. I have had one major long-term battle with anxiety/depression/a dark night of the soul before. As God did before, he will bring us all through this present grief, and me through the anxiety that has come with it. Even in the middle of it I know deep down, in the words of the Psalm that carried me through the last six months: “I remain confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14). We received a card from a family a few days ago with that verse written in it. It came as a reminder from God.

So what happened in Iceland? We flew all night from San Francisco to Reykjavik. None of us slept. We all require a horizontal position for sleep, unlike the happy family of four behind us that slept through the entire ten hour flight. At the end of the flight our oldest son had just fallen asleep, but I had to wake him up during the descent. “I feel horrible,” he mumbled thhickly. His face was white, his lips had no color. “You need to lay down!” I said, seeing he was about to pass out from sheer exhaustion. We transferred to a plane bound for Amsterdam, which is just a three hour flight. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this, dad,” he told me. Anxious about him and my wife and other children, I suddenly began to feel unwell myself. “I’m going to pass out,” I said. Next thing I remember was an awful feeling of confusion, of fighting through the blackness to figure out where I was and what was happening. I was taken to the hospital, where every test came back normal. Of course. All I needed was to lay down and I would recover. It has happened before. It’s called vasovagal syncope and I have a bit of history with it. I can count five times when I have passed out and about the same number of near misses. I actually thought that I might have an episode when Peter’s death came. What I got instead was liget. The buildup of stress pounced on me later, with physical symptoms, anxiety, and surely contributed also to me passing out on a plane. I feel bad for the poor people strapped into their seats unable to escape the vomiting man regaining consciousness on the floor beside them. I will be talking to some doctors about what can be done about vasovagal syncope and anxiety, by the way.

Iceland is a quiet, cold, and beautiful country, despite being nearly treeless. Rebecca had always wanted to visit, just not in these circumstances. I found a lot of lupine on the bluff above the bay.

Now I am sitting in the sun room of our future home in Antwerp, Belgium. (We’re just here visiting. We expect to move later in the summer). My body refuses to sleep on non-California hours, so I have been up since 4:00am. I am already grateful for the expansive wooded park across the street and for this beautiful room. Both will be restful and restoring.

Here, friends, is a window into the soul of a suffering man, a month of grieving. But I am suffering as one who is united with Christ, the man of sorrows. Can I say once more: “I remain confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

 

“How Are You?” (and higher quality video w/ slideshow)

First, here is the link to a higher quality video of the memorial service for Peter. The slideshow is also visible on this video, unlike the video on facebook. https://vimeo.com/217748027. Yes, you may share it. We don’t want our son’s death sensationalized, but as I said at the funeral, Peter’s life preached a better sermon than I ever could. Good stories are meant to be told and good sermons are meant to be heard.

 

“How are you?” A lot of people have asked us that, and for good reason: our eleven year old son died nine days ago, after suffering for six months with cancer.

Well, we cry every day. We miss our son. We are tired. We don’t feel like having a lot of visitors. There is a low-grade depression that sometimes seeps in. It still seems unreal that he isn’t with us. The number five feels incomplete. There are constant reminders of his absence. He is always on our minds.

But we are doing remarkably well. We are not incapacitated by grief. We are not hiding. We are not numb. We are grateful for Peter’s life and so, so glad he was unafraid of death. We are confident that he is in God’s presence, which is light, and life, and love, and joy. We can say with confidence that God is good, and he has been good to us. The words of 2 Corinthians 1:5 are very real to us: “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” How are we doing – are we suffering, or are we comforted? Yes.

There are a few reasons why I think we are doing so well:

  1. Our grief was spread out over several months. If, back in November, he had been diagnosed and died the next day (which was possible), our experience of grief would have been much different. Instead of a sudden drop, we were lowered down in several stages. That gave us time to prepare ourselves and Peter. We grieved together while he was with us.
  2. Peter’s fearless and uncomplaining attitude gave us strength and confidence. For a kid with a tendency to whine, this was an unexpected gift of God.
  3. We feel the prayers of so many people. I am well aware that not everyone experiences so much comfort in their grief.

 

“What are you doing?”

Our kids are back in school, but there are only two weeks until the end of school. And then the ball that got stuck begins to roll again, and we expect a straight track to Belgium now. I thought we would need a good bit of time to recover enough to be ready for the move, but we are finding that we are eager and ready to go. My work here is complete; the only thing keeping us here was Peter’s illness; a new adventure will be good for us all, so sooner is better than later. So we put in our 30 day notice on our rental house today, we are collecting the documents we need to apply for a visa. When the application is in and we are out of the house, we will spend time with family and friends, we may travel, we will hike, and I will write.

I have a book incubating. I’ll let you know when it breaks out of the shell.

One place we may visit en route to Belgium is a certain spot in Scotland. The first song played in Peter’s slideshow is by the Piano Guys, who film videos of classical and cover songs (often combined) in beautiful locations around the world. This video was filmed at Eilean Donan castle. Peter had decided that this was the place he wanted to go after cancer was behind him. As with many experiences in the future, a visit there will include heavy shades of sadness. We will go and remember our beautiful and beloved son.

 

 

“How are you doing financially?”

So many people have been so generous, and we are so grateful. Our oldest son saw some checks yesterday and I said, “Now you know that there are a lot of people who love us.” I know that is what you wanted to communicate; the message got through. So now you can direct your generosity to another person, another cause. Again, the words of the Apostle Paul have become a reality to us: “It was good of you to share in my troubles…I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied” (Philippians 4:14, 18).

If this isn’t clear enough, let me say it another way: Please stop sending money to us. Send it somewhere else. Again, I would direct you to Partners International. Or International Justice Mission. Or World Impact. Or Voice of the Martyrs. Maybe in six months or a year I will have a project with refugees in Antwerp that you can support. But don’t wait for that. There are people who need your help now.

The Funeral

A conversation from Monday, May 8:

“Peter, are you ready to see God face to face?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to meet Jesus?”

“Yes.”

Peter Irenaeus Nelson was unafraid to the end, which came at 6:15pm on Tuesday, May 9. He died in the confidence that he would enter the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy. We are grieving, but comforted in the knowledge that he is with our Lord Jesus.

A memorial service will be held for Peter  at 3:00pm on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at Gateway Community Church, 353 E. Donna Dr, Merced, CA 95340. For those unable to attend, a recording of the service will be available online shortly afterwards. As a pastor I preach, but Peter’s life itself was a better sermon that I could ever give, a testimony to the power of the gospel to disarm death itself. Join us in sharing Peter’s story, grieving his tragic loss, trusting in the great love of God, and celebrating the resurrection.

As we are expecting a large number of people at the service, there will not be a time for public sharing. We would like to hear your memories and stories about Peter though, and especially what you might have learned from him (I learned a lot from him). Anything that you would share publicly at a service you can share in the comments here for all to read.

If you are thinking of giving flowers or a gift, Peter would have liked you to give to children with needs in other parts of the world. Peter often prayed for children without access to medical care like he had. Consider giving through Partners International or Unicef.

My Bones Suffer Mortal Agony

Things are difficult. How could it be any different? Suffering and death are things to be endured, not embraced. Instead of expounding on the specifics of what exactly we are facing at the moment, I will just share some verses from the Psalms that give voice to some of the things we are feeling. I find it comforting to know that at least the writers of the Bible were familiar with pain and suffering – and all the emotions that come with them. More than that, Jesus himself knows pain and suffering.

 

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?

 Psalm 6:1-3, NIV

 

14 My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
15 My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.

Psalm 22:14-15, New Living Translation

 

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you-

 Psalm 42:4-5, Easy to Read Version

 

I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

 11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

Psalm 42:9-11, NIV