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A life lived with terminal illness – and with hope

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary thanksgiving service for the life of an extraordinary man – although he would never have allowed anyone to call him that.

douglas-and-alison

Douglas Mark’s desire was that his thanksgiving service (which he planned himself) would be ‘a time infused with joy and thanksgiving’ and that is exactly what it was – just as his life had been.

Douglas had lived with cancer for 10 years and had been through more than 40 chemotherapy treatments, but he refused to say that he was ‘battling with cancer’ or ‘coping with cancer’. He ‘lived with cancer’, fully accepting that this was part of the journey which God had chosen for him. He demonstrated joy as he trusted God with every detail of his cancer.  One of his favourite sayings was this:

 Life is not waiting for the storm to pass – it is learning to dance in the rain.

 

Douglas trusted God and that was clear right till the end of his life. He believed that it is more important to trust God than to understand Him. I am sure that it was that unshakeable trust in God which gave him the joy which characterised his life as he lived with cancer.

At the seminar which he and his wife Alison gave at New Horizon this year – which they called ‘Living with terminal illness, and with Hope’ – he said this about joy:

Joy is a self-assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, a quiet confidence that ultimately everything will be alright and a determined choice to praise God in all things.

Douglas had chosen to praise God in all things. When asked how he was, he used to reply, ‘I’m thankful to be as well as I am’. His prayer was that he look for signs of God’s faithfulness every day.

Douglas and Alison were passionate about encouraging Christians to model to the world what it’s like to live with the hope of heaven in the face of death. They spoke in many churches and other places, encouraging Christians to live out their faith in this way.

Alison gave a very courageous tribute to Douglas yesterday, in which she said this:

Don’t allow what you don’t understand about God to destroy what you already know about Him.

As Douglas’s health declined in recent weeks, Alison refused to talk in despairing tones, choosing rather to say that Douglas was ‘edging gently home to heaven’. What a beautiful picture. And that is exactly what he did. There’s no doubt that he has heard his Lord and Saviour say ‘Well done’ as He welcomed him home.

He leaves a legacy: not just a life well-lived, but the challenge to us to live our lives well. For Douglas and Alison, that meant living their lives in the light of eternity and through the lens of eternity. It was that perspective which gave them the courage and faith to live with cancer and hope, at one and the same time.

To download a copy of the seminar which Douglas and Alison gave at New Horizon, go to http://newhorizon.org.uk/resources/mp3-downloads/

The Pain of Losing a Baby

Following my blog about miscarriage, I have heard from several friends who have very courageously shared their stories with me. I’m sharing parts of them here, to help us all learn more about this whole topic. It’s clear that the loss of a baby – at whatever stage – is a profound experience which these mums recall today as if it were yesterday.

What helped you through your experience?

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A 12-week old fetus

At first, what helped me was encouragement and care from my friends, most of whom were church friends.

The thing that was most helpful was the encouragement I received from other moms who had experienced miscarriages. Most of them had lost the babies early in the pregnancy and not as late as I did. But their empathy was precious.

One nurse helped just by rubbing my back as my body shook from shock.

It was helpful to have friends around.

My sister’s words “I just wish I was there to give you a hug” brought comfort and validated my experience.  That was the key…. I just wanted someone to say it was ok to feel sad.  I wanted my pain to be recognised and validated.

The knowledge that many people were praying for me gave me great comfort.

The experience of feeling that God was in control. Theologically I had always believed this, but this time I also experienced it in my feelings. I knew I was dying (they later confirmed this, saying that it was a miracle I was still alive) and yet I began to look forward very much to being with the Lord.

Previous to (this experience) I had been very ill and had had to lie in bed a lot. During that time I filled my mind with the Word of God and listened to quite a few sermons. I recommend filling your mind with the Word of God …. In crises like this He will bring it back to your thoughts. It helped me in bearing the pain.

Visits from dear Christian friends who came and prayed. Some just sat quietly by my side. Helped to make me comfortable, plumped up pillows, adjusted the blinds, asked me where they would like me to sit so that I would not have to turn my head uncomfortably to see them. Didn’t talk too much…. just came and sat quietly, a comforting presence. Not asking too many questions.

I was in a lot of pain and after the major abdominal surgery I wasn’t allowed painkillers because my liver couldn’t take them. Every cough, every movement, every visit to the bathroom was agony. Some of these friends were a great help with all of that, especially the trained nurses, and other sensitive people.

It was a great help that (my husband) kept so calm throughout the ordeal.

The…surgeon was quite a compassionate man. He visited me briefly every day to check on progress, and had just the right kind of reassuring touch, which helped to heal me further. The staff around you can heal you or hinder you. There is no doubt about it.

What helped me was eventually sharing what I had gone through with someone I trusted as I had kept it a secret initially. She encouraged me to grieve for my baby. I found this helped me to release all the pent up feelings I had kept hidden.

 

What was not a help to you?

A …nurse took it upon herself to pronounce that I must have sinned greatly for God to put me through such an ordeal. I responded that while I certainly wasn’t without sin, I wasn’t aware of any great deliberate disobedience. Needless to say I didn’t find her contribution to my recovery in any way helpful.

What did not help was when I told someone about losing my baby who had also had a miscarriage they said my loss was not the same as theirs as I had lost my baby at an earlier stage. This made me feel that my loss was not as significant.

Were there things that the medical professionals could have done differently?

Been more sympathetic, they were very matter of fact and clinical. They actually told me it was a good thing as it showed I could get pregnant as we had been trying to have a baby for three years. Even though I miscarried they said I should be pleased I had been pregnant.

When I lost the baby, I felt betrayed by the medical staff who couldn’t anticipate what was happening and didn’t prevent my miscarriage. Also, they had no answers….ever for WHY I lost the baby, and what I could do to prevent it happening again.

The medical staff were not attentive duing 12 hours of labor and delivery….Finally, after 12 hours, the baby was born … into a bedpan. And that is how she was presented to me a few minutes later….in a bedpan. When I returned to my room, the nurse aid walked in to give me a bath. She cheerfully asked me “Is this your first baby”? I told her I had lost my baby. She apologised. I was on the Obstetric ward with all the new mothers and babies…in a room with another woman who had miscarried. It would have been helpful to put us in private rooms isolated from the crying babies and happy mothers and guests.

The medical staff …. were really good. They kept me living in hope. Which in a sense was good but really not good. I think being real in love and truth would have been better for me. You see I knew by my loss of blood that it was really not going to be. It broke my heart lying in there for six days and then the following day I was taken to theatre for a D&C.

I was put into a side room – a kind gesture, but unfortunately it was in the maternity suite.  The nurses were more used to dealing with happy outcomes and, sadly I felt, ill-equipped when things did not go well.  Comments such as: “Sure you’re young, you have plenty of time to try again” , while maybe true, did not help. I couldn’t wait to get home.

Were there things that your friends and family could have done differently?

One thing that was NOT helpful was a comment from (someone who warned) me that ‘others would be watching’ me and how I handled grief…. that I should take care to keep it in check! Or that I should consider the effect my behavior might have on others.

I only had one visitor who wasn’t helpful. She immediately launched into all the medical problems of lots of other people she knew, her own medical problems, on and on she gabbled, couldn’t enter into my situation at all, and I wasn’t sorry to see her leave. But she was the one and only visitor in all that time who affected me like that, thankfully. Most were brilliant.

I kept it a secret which I now regret. Only my husband knew but I think he found it hard to really identify with how I felt. Perhaps I should have been more open so people understood why I was acting differently. It was my way of coping but I don’t feel it was the right way.

A church member, on my return to church after the miscarriage, quoted a verse to me: ‘Be thankful in all circumstances’. That was clearly not the time to quote a verse like that!

I hesitate to say this but some of the deepest hurts came from family.  I know my mum struggled to see me distressed but her comment “well I’ve had (x) miscarriages; you just have to get over it” didn’t help, in fact it made me feel that my feelings of deep anguish were abnormal.  This, together with a comment from another family member, “I’ll come and see you when you pull yourself together”, only made me withdraw and feel ashamed that I felt so bad.

What was the hardest part for you personally?

At the time I lost the baby I was one of 11 ladies in my circle of family and friends who were expecting babies. I was reminded, with each of their births, of my grief.

My hopes, expectations and plans I had already formed were all shattered. I had longed for this baby for three years and was ecstatic when I found out I was pregnant and subsequently devastated when my pregnancy ended.

Probably the hardest comment I heard/hear is that it was a miscarriage. It wasn’t. It was a baby at 36 weeks who should have lived. I think having a miscarriage must be way more painful than many people think, but carrying a chlid 8 months is a different experience (in the same way, losing a child after he is born must be still more excruciating.) Time is the healer, although I suspect the pain of loss is always there…

I feel the worst thing about losing my wee baby was the fact that I love children and she was mine. Emptiness. No grave to remember her by.  The worst thing was my sister who had a baby around the same time.

It was hard that my husband experienced grief much differently than me. Because he didn’t go to the funeral, he didn’t have any relationship with this baby and his own grieving was much quicker. Even today, it doesn’t affect him a lot, whereas I think of (the baby) when I see (a child of the same age)….. I felt quite alone through it all.

How did you deal with the loss from a spiritual point of view?

I felt that God had let me down.    I remember cooking supper in the kitchen and suddenly weeping. I put my head down on the counter top and was crying. My husband walked in and asked me what was wrong. I said, ‘I just lost a baby’!?! He said, ..’but that was 2 weeks ago’! I really was surprised how quickly he had moved on and how I was alone with this grief.

I did not know why the Lord had allowed this to happen. I knew that these things happen all the time. But 5 months into the pregnancy, the baby had personality for me. We named her. I am happy when my children, now, remember that they have a sister waiting to greet us in heaven.

I know my baby was a girl only cause I was so emotional one night and I prayed to God to show me what I’d lost  – a boy or girl. And in the dream that evening was a baby girl in a pink blanket on my knee.

I know my grief was compounded by the belief that it was not acceptable to feel so bad.  I had to hide my tears and pretend that I was ok.  I felt shame, for my tears but also for the thought that maybe I had inadvertently caused the miscarriage.  I found it difficult to pray.  I didn’t feel angry at God but I felt ashamed that I felt so bad.  I would have liked to to talk to someone who understood the mix of emotions and who could gently and sensitively direct me to God’s truth, love and acceptance.  I have learned so much from this experience and I hope it has made me more empathic.

I am grateful that all of that happened. I have understood better what others go through, I have understood what people suffer with anxiety and panic attacks as well as chronic pain. The whole experience has certainly not, in the goodness of God, been a wasted experience, and I have never regretted it. 

The only thing that helped me finally resolve the question ‘why’ was that I would be specially qualified to encourage others who would experience the loss of a baby through miscarriage.

A grave or burial?

I have one regret. It was not proposed to me that I could have had a private memorial service and arrange for a dignified way to bring this life episode to a close. I am sure my baby was incinerated without ceremony. But in my defense, I had never done this before. I wasn’t prepared for the decisions I should have been making. And the medical staff never offered me an option.

The fact back then there was no burial services left me with no grave. They just D&C you. Family went silent on me, except for my mum who said it wasn’t meant to be. My husband felt it but it is different for a man; we women carry everything and never forget dates and times; men think differently.

The surgeon came with a little jar holding the foetus. I was sleeping at the time, and I wish I had taken a better look when he woke me up. I especially wish I had asked if it was a boy or a girl. Even so, it helped it to sink in that we had just lost a wee baby, and I often thought back to that afterwards. He told me there had been ‘a lot of infection’ which they had now removed. That is quite a clear memory which has remained with me afterwards, even though I was dozy at the time. I think that is a helpful thing to do.

Memories

Going through it 20 years ago seems like yesterday.

I remember my experience of my miscarriage as if it were yesterday.  In reality it was 25 years ago.

Memories of this time of my life don’t preoccupy me unduly or define me. But it certainly was an extremely difficult time for me. It is difficult to revisit it, but I am quite happy to share my experience. I am fairly certain my experience is being repeated many times. If what I share of how I lived my experience can be helpful, that pleases me.

You can see how 25 years later it is still all so vivid in my mind. I still cry when I hear of miscarriages, and i still cry when I hear of abortions. Though I think I am over the grief of losing this little one.

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on this Pauline.  The tears are close to the surface as I write this but as I read your experience it has helped me to know that that is ok.

We need to be there for one another, to let each other know that our grief is OK.

I would just like to thank all of these friends who have shared their stories so courageously. This is holy ground. And it demonstrates what a profound experience the loss of a baby is, as well as how personal a thing it is to each mum. Just as there is no ‘right’ way to grieve any loss, there is no right way to grieve the loss of a baby. And one thing is sure: the passing of time does not erase the memory of the loss. 

Jacque Watkins, a nurse who works with newborns and their parents, has written very sensitively about the experience of sitting with a woman who is losing her child through miscarriage. Jacque says this:

To grieve with another in the silence of their presence, THIS is holy work.

 

 

Miscarriage – what’s the big deal?

I lost my first baby at 7 weeks. So I was barely pregnant, certainly not ‘showing’ – so what was the big deal? Wasn’t it just like a late period?    weaned child

Miscarriage is one of those subjects which some people shy away from; others would rather not think about; and still others don’t understand.

The NHS defines it this way: ‘A miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy during the first 23 weeks‘.

Why, at only 7 weeks, was it such a big deal to me?

  1. It was my first pregnancy and I had experienced quite a bit of difficulty in conceiving so my Big Question was ‘Will I ever be pregnant again?’
  2. I believe that life begins at conception so, although I was only 7 weeks pregnant, I did consider my miscarriage the loss of a baby I had longed for.
  3. The circumstances of my miscarriage were traumatic. I had gone for a scan and there didn’t seem a to be a heartbeat so I was admitted to hospital.
  4. I was put in a ward with women suffering from all kinds of things. The woman in the bed next to mine was actually waiting for sterilisation and I could hear the doctor talking to her, ensuring that she understood that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children – while the life of my first child was ending.
  5. My husband wasn’t called; the hospital was short-staffed; occasionally a nurse checked on me, but no one was with me while I passed clots of blood – while I lost my baby and my dreams.
  6. The clots of blood I had lost were treated as ‘clinical waste’ – in fact, if I remember correctly, they were referred to as ‘the products of conception’. I heard them being incinerated while I wept alone. This is not so much the case nowadays, although it may still be the practice in some hospitals – see this link at the Miscarriage Association. But my baby was not just clinical waste – he/she was already a human being. ‘Around the eighth week of pregnancy…you may be able to find the sac and enclosed fetus….There is evidence of eyes that are sealed up and buds forming for arms and legs.’ (http://www.newkidscenter.com).
  7. My husband arrived at visiting time and was still not told what was happening – it was only when he came around the screens and saw me that he knew we had lost our baby.

How did I recover?

  1. Physically, I had a D&C (dilation and curettage) to ‘clean me out’ afterwards.
  2. I had a good gynaecologist who explained that often miscarriages of first babies are as if the body is having a trial run – that gave me hope for the future.
  3. Emotionally I grieved the loss of my baby but that was helped considerably by the fact that my husband called him/her ‘our baby’ – it wasn’t just that I had miscarried; we had both lost our baby. By the way, I think society needs to recognise the sense of loss for husbands as well as wives.
  4. Spiritually, as a Christian, I believed that my baby was now in God’s presence and that gave me hope that I would see him/her again one day; I was also filled with a sense of peace as I reasoned that, if God is a God of love, then nothing – not even a miscarriage – could change that. That gave me peace.

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a]neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:38.

 

God’s silence does not indicate his absence

Both platform speakers at New Horizon 2014 really talked about the Sovereignty of God – Vaughan Roberts from the book of Daniel and Malcolm Duncan from the Sermon on the Mount. It was a week packed full of great teaching – sobering teaching, challenging teaching about suffering and persecution and the sovereignty of God.

On the Thursday night, Malcolm got up to speak and announced his passage for the night (Matthew chapter 7, I think it was), then quickly changed his mind and said we were going to look at the story of Lazarus instead.

After he read the Scriptures, he shared part of his own story. His earliest memory is of tapping on glass – the glass of the inside of an oven door. His father called him ‘Stupid No. 4’ all his life and it was only when Malcolm turned 30 that his dad called him by his Christian name. All of his life, he longed for his dad to become a Christian and he had a recurring dream that he was giving his dad communion and having the pleasure of hearing him call him his ‘brother’. So you can imagine how devastated he was to receive the news that his dad had suddenly died.

Malcolm screamed at God – ‘Why, God?’ – over and over and over again. He was in total anguish. And he had to take his dad’s funeral. He almost stopped at the point where he was to commit his dad’s body to the ground ‘in sure and certain hope’ – and it was only his unsaved brother whispering in his ear that he could do this that made him go on.

That set the scene for the story of Lazarus. Just as Malcolm had wondered where God was, so Mary and Martha wondered where Jesus was – and why He hadn’t come. Malcolm expounded the passage with so much pastoral sensitivity, sharing insights like these:

Sickness and suffering are never indications that God doesn’t love us.

Silence does not indicate His absence. He has promised to never leave us.

We struggle with death because we were made to live.

Mary and Martha brought their pain to Him – because they couldn’t bring their praise. And that was alright with Jesus. He understood. He entered into their suffering. He saw the disruption of death. He was greatly disturbed in spirit. He gives us permission to break our hearts. It’s OK to bring Him our pain when we can’t bring Him our praise.

The end of the story was not the tomb. Death was a tunnel through which God brought Lazarus – through to light.

Why did He let him die? To prove that He had the power to bring him back from death.

God doesn’t cause our sufferings but He is glorified in our responses to it.

Malcolm invited us to stand to our feet to show that we were offering our pain as worship if in our grief we could not praise God but still wanted to trust Him. He then sang a song of blessing over us. Tears flowed.

In the Prayer Tent afterwards, we ran out of chairs as people came for prayer.

You can get a summary of Malcolm’s talk here:

http://newhorizonni.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/his-presence-in-our-pain/

What a blessing!

When tragedy strikes

The whole community in N.Ireland is reeling at the news that Ulster Rugby player Nevin Spence, along with his brother and father, were killed last night when they fell into a slurry tank on their farm in Hillsborough, Co. Down. 

It is such a shocking, horrible waste of life. One moment these 3 men were working on the farm together, the next they were dying in what must have been a dreadful death.

Facebook and Twitter are flooded with tributes to Nevin and prayers for the whole family. We all want to say something, we need a forum to express our sense of outrage, our shock, our horror, our support for the rest of the family as they try to come to terms with what has happened.

Spence’s Ulster team-mate Ian Humphreys tweeted: “Devastated to hear the news about Nevin Spence and his brother and dad. Prayers with all his family… RIP Nev, you’ll never be forgotten.”

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said on Twitter: “Deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy in Hillsborough this evening. My thoughts and prayers are with family at this time of devastation.”

After the initial shock, we gather our loved ones closer and once again take time to appreciate the life we have and the relationships we enjoy.

Northern Irish golf star Rory McIlroy expressed his sympathies, tweeting: “Just heard the tragic news of Nevin Spence and his family. Makes you cherish every day you have on this Earth.”

There is a lot of talk in the press about Nevin’s faith. It was no secret that he had a personal faith in God, as this article in the Irish Times demonstrates:

‘He is extremely friendly and proud of his Christian background, but doesn’t want this admission of faith to get him special treatment.

“Listen, I’m making as many mistakes as you or anybody in the street, I suppose I just have to hold up my hands about it. I’m not perfect, I don’t want to be put on a pedestal as I know my own limitations.”

Like his team-mates, Spence grew up in a Christian home, but at school started to challenge the faith he had been brought up in.

“I don’t think it’s too unusual. I suppose I went off the rails, I don’t mean I was into drugs or anything like that, but I turned my back on Christianity, but something was always pulling me back.”

Spence still lives in rural Northern Ireland, in a small town where he goes to church twice a week and everybody knows his background. Yet, he is unwilling to give talks just yet.

He stresses that this isn’t due to shame, but simply because he is still learning a lot about his faith himself. Spence never believed he could be a professional rugby player until late in school, and is delighted that he can be a Christian in his chosen profession.

“The Ulster team is a great place to be a Christian. It’s funny, Paul Marshall and I would help each other at training, if we catch each other swearing or whatever, it’s just good to know we’re looking out for each other.

“There’s a group of 30 lads here, and the banter won’t change amongst us, nor would I want it to. There’s no divide amongst the Christians and the non-Christians. For me the Bible is about actions speaking louder than words. I’ve just got to be careful my Mum doesn’t catch me swearing on TV again.”

In a country where religion has been the cause rather than the solution for many problems, this special group of Ulster rugby players are determined to keep using their own brand of muscular Christianity at Ravenhill as long as their careers endure.’

How poignant that last sentence is: Nevin Spence’s career has not endured very long, his young life has been cut off.

And we are left to wonder Why? It is the question in all of our minds, if not on our lips. Why such senseless waste of human life? Why do 3 men from one family die in such a tragic accident? Why do 3 people who trust God end up dying in a slurry tank? Why?

I don’t believe any of us can answer that question. We don’t know why.

But we do know a few things which perhaps it’s good to remind ourselves of at a time like this, as we gather our loved ones closer:

  • Accidents happen in this broken world – and none of us are immune. In fact the Bible tells us that we will go through hard times. “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.
  • Life is precious – we should treasure each day. “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Psalm 90:12.
  • We can turn to God in the midst of our confusion and shock and horror. He can deal with our sense of outrage, injustice, bewilderment. He may not give us the answer as to why this tragedy happened – but He has given the answer to all human suffering when He gave His only Son to die a horrible, shocking death when He was still a young man. When Jesus gave His life, when He suffered, He was bearing our pain as well as our sin. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering” Isaiah 53:4.

So don’t let us run away from God in our sense of horror at what has happened. Let us run to God. He can handle all of our questions, our tears, our anger. There is nowhere else to run to. Let us run to Jesus. There we will find the solace and comfort and love that we seek. For as we weep, inwardly or outwardly, at this tragedy, we can be sure that God weeps with us. This is not the way the world was meant to be. And this is not the final word. One day God “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.” Revelation 21:4.

Meanwhile – until that day – let’s run to God with all that perplexes and distresses us. In Him alone our hope is found.

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

“In Christ Alone”
Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music

Old age, death and Maundy Thursday

Today I’ve been thinking about old age (see previous post) and death – two serious subjects for a beautiful spring day.

My father is struggling with the effects of dementia and it’s the anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law. Death and old age.

What is there to look forward to? Old age is often not pretty. The description of it from the book of Ecclesiastes (quoted in my previous post) is so apt:

‘Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.’

It often includes physical, mental and spiritual challenges. And after the struggles of old age, what then?

As I am caused to think today about the death of my mother-in-law (which itself was a struggle), it would be easy to think there is not much to look forward to at the end of our lives, apart from pain, suffering and the anguish of separation from our loved ones.

But today is Maundy Thursday and we are also thinking about the death of Jesus Christ – and that death makes all the difference. All the difference to our lives and all the difference to our deaths.

Francis Schaeffer talks about the importance of Jesus’ death when he writes about His Transfiguration and what Moses, Elijah and Jesus talked about when they met together:

‘What would you think would be important enough to discuss at such a moment?….The only subject worthy of conversation at this moment was Jesus’ coming death….If Jesus had not died, if he had turned aside (as Satan tried to make him do so many times), if he had, in Peter;s words, actually had pity on himself and not gone on to the cross, everything would have been gone. There would have been no hope for Elijah, translated or not. It would have meant the end of Moses, the disciples, and everyone else, because the redemption of everything depends on the single focus point of Jesus’ death…..Jesus’ resurrection is certainly important. So too are his ascension and his teachings. But the welfare of every believer and the entire creation depends upon his death.’

It is the death of Jesus on the cross that makes sense of my life – and will make sense of my death. Because Jesus died, I can face tomorrow – whether life or death. When He died, He removed the sting of death.

‘“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (I Corinthians 15:55-57).

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
‘Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

3 Perspectives on the story of Lazarus

From three different directions recently I have been reminded of the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Firstly, Alan spoke about it in a recent church service, where he looked at the story from the point of view of the progression of Martha’s faith through the story. You can read about it on his website.

  • At the start, Martha believed that Jesus loved her brother.
  • She believed that if Jesus had been present, he could have prevented the death of her brother.
  • She believed that even though her brother had died, Jesus was still powerful.
  • She believed that her brother would rise at the last day.
  • She believed that Jesus was the Christ.

Alan says: What an amazing moment it must have been for Martha to realise that the power of resurrection, which she affirmed as part of her faith, was present, incarnate in the man called Jesus.

As the resurrection, Jesus promises that for anyone who dies believing in him, death will not have the final word. As the life, Jesus promises that anyone who believes in him will have a quality of life that death cannot touch.

It is one thing to make these claims. (I could claim to be able to fly between tall buildings: the fraudulence and futility of my claim would be revealed at the first attempt). By commanding Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, Jesus demonstrated the reality of his claim.

Then I came across this story again in Elisabeth Elliot’s Daily Devotional, where she was looking at instances in the Bible where deliverance did not come – at least not in the way or in the time expected by those who prayed.

She asks: What did the household at Bethany not do that the Widow of Nain had done? How shall we align it all? Who rates and who doesn’t? Whatever it is that we might have chosen to say to them in the days following their experience of death, we would have had to come to terms somehow with the bleak fact that God had done something for others that he had not done for them.

From the vantage point of two thousand years, we later believers can, of course, see that there was something wonderful in prospect, and that it emerged within a very few days. But of course this line would have been frosty comfort for Mary and Martha, if we had insisted to them, “Well, surely God is up to something. We’ll just have to wait.”

And yet what else could we have said? Their experience at that point was of the utter finality of death, which had thrown everything they had expected into limbo. For them there was no walking and leaping and praising God. No embracing and ecstatic tears of reunion. Only the silence of shrouds and sepulchres, and then the turning back, not just to the flat routines of daily life, but to the miserable duel with the tedious voices pressing in upon their exhausted imaginations with “Right! Now where are you? Tell us about your faith now! What’d you do wrong?”

The point is that for x number of days, their experience was of defeat. For us, alas, the “x number of days” may be greatly multiplied. And it is small comfort to us to be told that the difference, then, between us and Mary and Martha’s experience of Lazarus’ death, is only a quantitative difference. “They had to wait four days. You have to wait one, or five, or seventy years. What’s the real difference?” That is like telling someone on the rack that his pain is only quantitatively different from mine with my hangnail. The quantity is the difference. But there is, perhaps, at least this much of help for us whose experience is that of Mary and Martha and the others, and not that of the widow of Nain and Jairus and that set: the experience of the faithful has, in fact, included the experience of utter death. That seems to be part of the pattern, and it would be hard indeed to insist that the death was attributable to some failure of faith on somebody’s part.

There is also this to be observed: that it sometimes seems that those on the higher reaches of faith are asked to experience this “absence” of God. For instance, Jesus seemed ready enough to show his authority to chance bystanders, and to the multitudes; but look at his own circle. John the Baptist wasn’t let off–he had his head chopped off. James was killed in prison. And the Virgin herself had to go through the horror of seeing her Son tortured. No legions of angels intervened there. There was also Job, of course. And St. Paul–he had some sort of healing ministry himself, so that handkerchiefs were sent out from him with apparently healing efficacy for others, but, irony of ironies, his own prayer for himself was “unanswered.” He had to slog through life with whatever his “thorn” was. What do these data do to our categories?

But there is more. Turning again to the disclosure of God in Scripture, we seem to see that, in his economy, there is no slippage. Nothing simply disappears. No sparrow falls without his knowing (and, one might think, caring) about it. No hair on anybody’s head is without its number. Oh, you say, that’s only a metaphor; it’s not literal. A metaphor of what, then, we might ask. Is the implication there that God doesn’t keep tabs on things?

And so we begin to think about all our prayers and vigils and fastings and abstinences, and the offices and sacraments of the Church, that have gone up to the throne in behalf of the sufferer. They have vanished, as no sparrow, no hair, has ever done. Hey, what about that?

And we know that this is false. It is nonsense. All right then–we prayed, with much faith or with little; we searched ourselves; we fasted; we anointed and laid on hands; we kept vigil. And nothing happened.

Did it not? What angle of vision are we speaking from? Is it not true that again and again in the biblical picture of things, the story has to be allowed to finish?

Was it not the case with Lazarus’ household at Bethany? And is it not the case with the Whole Story, actually–that it must be allowed to finish, and that this is precisely what the faithful have been watching for since the beginning of time? In the face of suffering and endurance and loss and waiting and death, what is it that has kept the spirits of the faithful from flagging utterly down through the millennia? Is it not the hope of Redemption? Is it not the great Finish to the Story–and to all their little stories of wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins as well as to the One Big Story of the whole creation, which is itself groaning and waiting? And is not that Finish called glorious? Does it not entail what amounts to a redoing of all that has gone wrong, and a remaking of all that is ruined, and a finding of all that has been lost in the shuffle, and an unfolding of it all in a blaze of joy and splendor?

And finally, I read a prayer by Scotty Smith, taken from his book ‘Everyday Prayers’ which is also reproduced in a daily devotional form. Scotty based his prayer on the verse from this beautiful story, ‘Jesus wept’:

Dear Lord Jesus, this may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but it’s immeasurably long in terms of comfort and encouragement.  Your hot, compassionate tears, shed outside of Lazarus’s tomb, are one of the greatest showers that has ever fallen upon the face of the earth. You wept a waterfall of mercy and grace; a river of kindness and peace; a torrent of tenderness and strength.

You knew that within a matter of moments, your friend would breathe again. You knew he’d walk again. You knew you’d enjoy Lazarus’ company very soon. And yet you wept so full-heartedly, as you allowed yourself to feel the implications of his death. Those privileged to see your sacred fury and great sadness, offered profound commentary, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).

Jesus, we’re so glad you are such a tenderhearted Savior. Many of us will soon face the death of a loved one. Some of us have recently buried a friend, a parent, a spouse, or most painfully, a child. Others of us are coming upon the painful anniversary of great loss. Thank you for validating the pain, the emptiness, the confusion, the great sadness we feel.

At times, like Lazarus’ sister, we cry, “Lord, if only you’d been there”, and you don’t wince, roll your eyes or shame us. You never glibly say to us with impatience, “Get over it.” Rather you say with great understanding, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Because no one hates death more than you. No one. Perhaps some of your tears outside of Lazarus’s tomb were offered knowing he’d have to go through the whole rotten dying process again—such is your hatred of death. No one feels its horrid implications more profoundly. No one grieves its ugly violation more deeply. No one is more looking forward to the day of “no more death” (Rev. 21:4) than you. And no one has done more to put death to death, than you.

Today we rest our sobered and saddened hearts on your shoulder, with the peace and comfort that comes from knowing you as “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The last enemy will soon be a long gone enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). And because of your resurrection, we sing in advance of our resurrection, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). How we praise you! How we exalt you! How we rest our heavy hearts in your loving hands! So very Amen we pray, in your grave-robbing name. Amen.