Rare Bird — Book Review

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

I have read many books over the past 55 years, ranging from theological to history to biography to technical. Of all of them I would have put two books in the above category, until now.

Weak and Loved by Emily Cook (about her daughter’s seizures)

And She Was a Christian by Peter Preus (about his wife’s suicide)

Now, the third one, Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson (about her son’s death). This is a book about her son’s death and the family’s journey in the trail afterward. 514slwUS0PL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_

I had read her blog accounts over the past 4 years, getting bits and pieces of the story. Yet I did not have any further insights. This book covers the details of Jack’s death, and immediate reactions. But even more Anna reveals the depth of the loss and the path that she and her husband followed, and their daughter.

Anna writes in such a way that she draws the reader to want to be at the river’s edge shouting for someone to help Jack, or Anna, or Margaret, or Tim… She reveals the torment, the futility, the “what-ifs” that inevitably arise in such circumstances. The tale of tragedy and the brokenness of life was gripping, and I wanted to read it all in one sitting.

But I could not. The pain, the agony was too much. At one point I couldn’t read it for 5 days, it was too overwhelming for me. I can’t even imagine the days for Anna and the family. She couldn’t put Jack’s death and her life aside for even an hour, like I could with the book.

Anna offers insights throughout a 2-3 year process of living with this. As a pastor I have seen people respond with love for the family when a death occurs, but often the continual support begins to wane after a few weeks or months. She doesn’t give us a short snapshot of this process. Because there is no short snapshot. Instead she walks the reader through the long path of grief. Anna also describes the changing nature of her grief, letting us see the depth of grief, but also the extent of the grief. Not very often do people learn about what she went through without having gone through the experience itself. Anna provides a flashlight through her own experience so that we can walk that path, yes, in a sense with her, but more importantly with someone close to us who is walking that path.

We lost our son for many years, not through death, but through prison and then him going missing for 17 years. Many times in my own despair I thought, “If only it would end. The unknown is too difficult.” We grieved throughout that period. But after reading this book, I realize that even an end does not stop the hurting, the loss, the grieving.

In another way, though, Anna helped me to realize something of our grief based on what she experienced. There were things, events, etc. we could not participate in or go to. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries were not celebrated because the pain was too much. Sometimes people were constant reminders of what we lost. Anna describes this sense of loss so well.

I also found that I could not share with many people what I was experiencing (it took many years for me to learn how to communicate), because I realized that many people didn’t understand, and sometimes what they said was hurtful (even though not intentionally). Anna also shares with the reader the sense of gratitude for those faithful people who stood by them in the darkest days, weeks, months, and yes, years. Loving, helpful people who sometimes just allowed her to cry. We experienced Christian friendship like that, too.

When I was stationed in the Navy in 1974, my only uncle died at age 49. My grandmother was 64 at the time (two years younger than I am now). I remember standing beside the casket and she said, “No parent should ever have to bury her child.” That memory is clear to me today as it was 41 years ago. And Anna’s book is a monument to those words.

And yet… my grandmother continued to live through that. And Anna has lived through this loss. This book is a book of loss, despair, anger, frustration, courage, and strength, all because of God. As Anna explored aspects of death and coming to grips with it, she shows to the reader, the winding path she is on, but ultimately the path which Jesus walked with her. This is a book of help and hope for everyone. It is memoir of loss and love, and the God who is present through it all.

Looking back now, because the sense of loss was so close to me, yet nowhere near the loss that Anna and her family experienced, I don’t think I could re-read it right now. It is too emotional for me. I marvel that Anna could even write what she did. And I am very grateful for what she did. It truly is…

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

Thanks, Anna, for opening your heart on such a personal, deep level.

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Reflections on Christmas

This year Christmas has been a true blessing. Christmas Eve worship was God-honoring and a blessing. Christmas day was the same. And then today, we had the most in worship in a while. Great music all three services, great congregational singing. After divine service on Christmas day, we had an enjoyable meal with friends.

This was also a lonely Christmas. In April, we learned of the death of our sons’ birth mother. She actually died in late 2013 (in Korea) but we didn’t find out about that until the end of April. It affected our younger son more than we thought. And in the process, it was a loss for us as well. In a way it was surprising loss for me, but as I have pondered this, I realize that even though we had never met, we had a very close connection. We pray for our sons’ sister as well, since she no longer has her mother, and has never had a connection with her brothers. Maybe God will open doors there as well.

In June, my wife’s younger brother died after several years of battling cancer. We had the privilege of knowing he came back to faith in Jesus earlier this year. So our visit with him in June (just a week before he died) was filled with Scripture, prayer, pleasant memories, and a warm but also sad goodbye.

We also saw my mother in June, celebrating her 88th birthday. Very good time of conversation, love, and sharing Jesus. She died near the end of August, dying less than 18 hours after moving into an assisted living facility. In my time of reflection since then I realized she was the closest relative I had, a person who knew me and could me my moods, etc. Yes, loneliness, but also a deeper joy of knowing her, and being known by her. In the same way , but deeper what Paul wrote: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Galatians 4:9).

Then one of my closer friends growing up, much like an uncle to me, died in October (my only uncle died in 1974 and I had only seen him 4-5 times in my life). So many good memories of our time playing guitar, and even more he was always encouraging in my playing. We worked together a few times. He was big, strong, and a hard worker; and he was a devoted follow of Jesus.

Then there is our family in the church here in California. The people are so kind to us, welcoming us from the beginning. We celebrated with a group one night playing guitar and singing, plus feasting on great food. Even more, they have been very supportive and encouraging throughout the 4½ years we have lived here. They are true brothers and sisters in the faith in so many ways.

Then there is the larger fellowship in The American Association of Lutheran Churches (TAALC) who have been a true blessing. At the National level Dr. Leins (Presiding Pastor), Pastor Dean Stoner (Missions and Development), and Bonnie Ohlrich (Executive Secretary to Presiding Pastor and Seminary President) have been a joy to serve alongside. Then we have the seminary professors and all our seminary students. They continue to challenge me in my faith and in my teaching of the faith. What a joy and blessing to know each of them.

This Christmas has been a special blessing: remembering the birth of our Savior, and all the gifts God continues to shower on us. And then to have shared lives with several people who are no longer with us. But each has enriched my life, and I learned more about them and the God who loves unconditionally in Jesus Christ.

 

God’s wonderful deeds

Stability in unstable times or God’s wonderful deeds. The past few months have been unstable times. An emotional roller coaster of both good and bad. And yet, God…

This Psalm is an appropriate reflection on this time for me.

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;

I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.

I will be glad and exult in you;

I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

(Psalm 9:1-2 ESV)

My brother-in-law had been away from the Lord for more than 40 years. Early this year, the Lord reached him and brought him back to faith in Christ and the Church. He confessed Christ, and the last few months of his life, he regularly received the Lord’s Supper. We saw him on our visit to Minnesota in June. What a delight to be able to read the Bible with him and pray with him each time we saw him. He died (June 21) eight days after we left Minnesota; he was 62. Through his faith in Christ he received the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

At the same visit, we were with my mother. She had been faithfully living in the Lord the past 24 years. We also knew that she was declining in health. We knew it would probably be one of the last times we would see her. She died August 23, after being in hospice less than 24 hours. Through her faith in Christ she received the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

As I have recounted on this blog, the past 37 years of our life with and without our older son have been challenging, defeating, discouraging. But in late July we received a letter from him. He is in prison, which we expected, even though we had not heard from him or heard anything about him in seven years (and 10 years before that). But the letter was life from death. He confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, and he has been reading the Bible, praying daily.

Then this last week we received another letter from him. He is still reading and praying, but he is admitting the spiritual struggles he has. In a way this is a huge step forward for him. His life in Christ, like for all Christians, is not an emotional high, but a “now and not yet” existence. The best part—he is finding stability in unstable times. Through faith in Christ, he, too, will receive the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

Prior to my breakdown in 1998, each of these events would have mounted into crisis for me. I would have stuffed the emotions, tried to care for others, and carry on is if I were okay. But not so, now. I am so thankful for what God has worked in me (and there is so much to work through!) the past 17 years.

Thus, this summer has been a time of lost, grief, loneliness, sadness. But the summer has allowed me to grieve in my own way (we didn’t go to either funeral this summer). And that was best for me and my wife. We each grieved, but not with a heavy weight upon us. This allowed me something I had never experienced. I had nothing to give to others in their time of need, and so I didn’t. Prior to 1998 I would have felt guilty, given into expectations.

But in my grief I needed to be comforted by God, not trying to give something I did not have, felt. And I was comforted by God’s promises. Thus, as I reflected on the deaths and what was lost, I was able to reflect on what God had worked, in rather unexpected ways—grace, as always, from God. And I am comforted. Through faith in Christ I, too, will receive the crown of life.

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

So in this unstable time, God’s promises sustained me, us. And so another Psalm reflects my heart at this time:

I love you, O LORD, my strength.

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,

my God, my irock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

(Psalm 18:1-2 ESV)

This is one of God’s wonderful deeds.

 

*Note: The crown of life of Revelation 2:10 is στέφανος (stephanos), not diadem. So also the crown of righteousness used in 2 Timothy 4:8.  Hence the image I used is one of Christ’s victory, namely the crown of thorns.