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grief

The Dead Man Came Out

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Allowing or Causing

Near the end of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) confronts Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in a speeding train. After a fierce fight, it becomes plain that Batman has won, and Ra’s al Ghul expects to be killed. “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” he asks Batman. “I won’t kill you,” says Batman, “but I don’t have to save you.” That distinction, between killing and failing to save, is what sets Batman apart from the criminals and from the vigilantes in the League of Shadows. As the audience, we feel the justice in the distinction: killing a man is morally different from letting him die.

Or is it?

What about a doctor who refuses to perform a life saving operation on a child because the child belongs to a hated enemy?

Good Mary, Bad Martha?

I know about Mary and Martha from Luke chapter 10. Martha complained to Jesus because Mary was not helping her with dinner. Jesus rebuked Martha for her anxiety about many things and refused to make Mary help out. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). I’ve heard dozens of sermons echoing Jesus’ praise for Mary, making it easy to approach the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection with the notion that Mary is good and Martha is bad.

Both sisters make the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think it is important that we see this statement not just as a fact (Too bad you weren’t here; you could have done something) but as an accusation (Why did you delay coming? You could have prevented our brother’s death, but you didn’t). The sisters were hoping for a healing that never came. They knew that Jesus endangered himself by coming. The Jews were seeking his life. The last time he was in Judea, the crowd had picked up stones to stone him, but he had eluded them. So Jesus had good reason for not visiting at all. John makes it clear, however, that it was not concern for his life that held him up. Jesus deliberately let Lazarus die. He tells his disciples, “[F]or your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” His purpose in letting Lazarus die was to strengthen the faith of his followers.

If a mere man were to do such a thing, we would be appalled. We would call him callous and unfeeling for letting a good man die so he could have a teachable moment with his followers. John intends to astonish us with Jesus’ audacity. Here is a man behaving in a way that only God is allowed to behave. Only God allows good people to die young without being guilty of wrongdoing.

There is a difference, though, between Martha’s accusation and Mary’s. Martha immediately follows up with an astonishing profession of faith: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” What tremulous hope flickers in that affirmation! Even now. You could have prevented his death, but even now you can ask God for anything—anything!—and he will give it to you. Martha believes—incompletely to be sure, and with fear and trembling—that Jesus can raise her brother from the dead.

To make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha does what we all do. She tries to take comfort in knowing that her brother will rise again at the last day. But what comfort is there in the all-too-present grief from knowing that your loved one will live again in the distant future? Doctrine is cold comfort. It is also academic. Trust in that future resurrection may bring some comfort into the present, but we can’t test it in any meaningful way. What does it matter now whether the doctrine of the resurrection is true?

Jesus will not allow Martha to take refuge in doctrine. He tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Then, “Do you believe this?”

Do you really believe, Martha, that God will give me whatever I ask? Do you really believe that I am the source of all life? Do you really believe that death is not the end for those whose life is entrusted to me?

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Martha makes her most extraordinary profession of faith. Her trust is not in cold doctrine but in the warm presence of the living Christ who stands before her. Trust in a person is so much more complicated than trust in a doctrine. The doctrine will always behave the same way. It will not ask more of you than you think you can do. It will not make any greater demand on you than to assent to its truth. But Jesus might do anything. He has already let Lazarus die. He can raise him to life. But will he? In declaring her faith in the person of Jesus, Martha allows him to be, really to be, in control of the situation. I trust you. Whatever you do will be right.

Martha returns to her sister, her heart poised on the knife’s edge of faith. She tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her, and Mary goes to him right away. Mary makes the same accusation as her sister, but there is no accompanying profession of faith. Both sisters share an offense against Jesus. We sent for you and you did not come. If you had been here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. You let him die. You could have prevented it.

The Offense

Jesus makes no excuses for letting Lazarus die. Elsewhere in John, Jesus claims to do only what he sees his Father doing, so we can assume that it was God’s will and purpose for Lazarus to die. Jesus tells us why: “[I]t is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Lazarus will die for my glory. Jesus lets Lazarus die, lets Martha and Mary experience the grief of his loss, lets them experience doubt and anger and fear and turmoil, all to bring glory to his Father and himself. What kind of God is this, who aggrandizes himself at our expense? John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Jesus loved them, and he let them suffer.

There is an important lesson here, especially for parents. Our natural inclination is to prevent our children suffering. We want to protect them and keep them safe. No matter how old they get or how capable they become, we want to keep them from getting hurt. But growing up requires suffering. No one can become mature without experiencing pain, loss, trouble, grief, despair, discomfort, sorrow, remorse,―the list of life’s hurts is endless.

Fortunately, Jesus shows us how to allow suffering. We do it with compassion, by suffering with those who suffer. The glory of God is not just in raising the dead. It is in dying with them and then raising them. It is not just in healing the sick. It is in being scourged and flayed for our healing. It is not just in delivering the prisoners. It is in descending into hell to deliver them. The glory of God is no light thing. It is weighty and majestic. God himself endures suffering to achieve his own glory. Should we be surprised if he asks us to suffer, too?

How easy it is to be offended at a God who allows suffering! How hard it is to trust him! Trusting God is work. It is not for the fainthearted. It is not for quitters. It requires persistent, unrelenting effort. But consider the rewards. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Lazarus died. Martha and Mary grieved and were offended at God. But Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and many put their faith in him. The faith of those many was not possible without death and grief and offense.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks Martha.

Many have become offended at God. They have buried their offenses to cover up the stench of corruption in their relationship with God. Jesus wants to call out the dead man. Allowing him to do so will be painful, but enduring that pain will result in lasting faith for ourselves and for others. In your suffering, seek God’s purpose, and allow him to glorify himself.

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A Lack of Grief

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My mom died on April 2nd of last year. Before she died, I used to wonder how I would react to news of her death. I never thought I would have the deep and terrible sadness that I’ve seen in some people. I’m just not like that. But I did imagine missing her and grieving in my own way. Instead, I’ve hardly grieved at all.

I shed a few tears at her bedside when she was dying. I even got dewy-eyed at her funeral. But it was hard to be really sad knowing that she herself was ready to go and even looking forward to it. She was the one who insisted on not being kept artificially alive, who told the doctors to disconnect the machines that could only prolong her death rather than bring healing or hope. She was the one who welcomed death.

What sadness I did feel seemed more like self-pity.

Of course, I miss her. I always enjoyed talking with her, although our conversations had become less and less frequent. In recent years we were not close, not because of any rift between us but because I lived 9 hours away and had a family of my own who needed me more. I have grieved less than I thought I would. I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps I really am Mr. Spock.

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Indecision

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Read and comment on my blog.

My nephew, David, posted the following on his Facebook wall about a year after losing his younger brother in a car accident.

It interesting how much one’s views can be altered by experiences. Before my little brother’s death I was an organ donor. It’s seemed like a simple decision at the time. As I checked the box on the drivers’ license form, I distinctly remember thinking,  “I’m not going to need them. Heck, might as well let someone else who does have them.”

Then my little brother, Scott, got into his car drove off to meet his older brother, Marshall, for a concert. He never got there. Scott was an underage consenting organ donor. He was declared brain dead sometime early on  the Saturday morning following the accident. No brain activity, no blood flow in his brain. He was dead. He would never wake up. Yet he was on life support, most of the rest of his body unharmed. A perfect donor patient. At this point my family had a decision to make. Did we want to go through the organ donating process with Scott’s brain-dead body, or did we simply want to unplug the machines and let the rest of his body realize it was dead? My family decided that Scott would have wanted to be a donor. If Scott had not been a minor, we would have had no say in this matter. He would have been a consenting organ donor of legal age to make the decision for himself. And so my parents got to sit in the hospital for two days and watch their son be dead but not dead. I finally made my way home on the afternoon of the first day, and I saw my little brother for the fist time. He looked like he was sleeping. I wanted to shake him. “Scott, wake up! We’re all here for you, buddy.” He did not wake up. He would never wake up. I sat with him a while. At one point a cheery nurse came in and checked his vital signs. She was very pleased to see how fast his body had come out of shock. Finally, on Sunday evening they wheeled Scott off to the operating room where they harvested his organs. He was finally, truly dead. I remember, it was raining. The organ donating process had taken a heavy toll on Scott’s loved ones, especially my parents.

At that point I decided: I was not going to be an organ donor. I simply could not put my family through that again. I was so adamant about it that I took a permanent marker and blacked out the word “Donor” on my driver’s license. A few weeks later, I was going through security on my way to Korea. The security lady looked at my driver license and said “You don’t want to be a Donor?” I looked her straight in the eyes and said adamantly, “No I do not.” A few weeks after that, I went to the DMV. I was prepared to pay the $35 in cash to have them print me an new driver’s license. I wanted three things changed. I wanted a “Good” picture taken, I wanted my address updated, and I wanted my donor status changed. I told horror  stories at work and warned people to think twice about becoming a donor.

And then my parents told me about a chance meeting they had with the man who got my little brother’s heart. My parents were both very encouraged by meeting him and realized that the agony of dragging out my little brother’s death had allowed someone else to live. After hearing Mom and Dad talk about him, I wanted to meet this man whose life my brother’s death had saved. For the record, I have not changed my driver license back. I’m still mulling over whether I ever will.

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