Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Just Shall Live by Faith

Following the death of our son Micah, we have had occasion to ask the question—Why, God, why? Why did you take our son from us? Even if you have not lost a child, you may have also asked the same question of God. Whether your suffering has taken the form of death, cancer, sickness, divorce, or unemployment, you have had occasion to wonder what God is doing through these circumstances.

In the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, the prophet Habakkuk had the distinct privilege of hearing God respond to his “Why?” There, Habakkuk questions God’s plan for the nation of Judah. Despite repeated warnings, the nation of Judah continued to fall deeper and deeper into idolatry and further and further from God. The northern kingdom of Israel had been annihilated by Assyria about 130 years earlier. Now, because the southern kingdom of Judah will not turn away from its idolatry, God has decided that He will chastise the nation of Judah.

In Habakkuk 1:6, God tells the prophet what He is about to accomplish: “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [also known as the Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own." God predicts to Habakkuk that the nation of Judah will be handed over to the Babylonians. Amazingly, God will use an evil king and his evil army to annihilate God’s chosen nation.

You can almost hear Habakkuk’s incredulous response to this. What!!! You are going to deal with Judah ’s idolatry by allowing evil King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy us? You are dealing with the idolatry in your own people by allowing a far more idolatrous and evil man to triumph over us? If you are a just God, how can you let this happen?

Pastor Wilson Benton says that God gives Habakkuk a two part answer to his concern: a “partial” answer and a “profound” answer. Wilson Benton, A Profound Answer to the Pressing Question, Why? Be Still My Soul, edited by Nancy Guthrie.

First, God assures Habakkuk that just because Nebuchadnezzar will be used to punish Judah does not mean that he himself (or his evil, idolatrous nation) will escape punishment. In fact, over the course of five “woes,” God describes the coming punishment of God and of His own coming glory. God is telling Habakkuk that someday, the idols of the Babylonians will break, their bloodthirsty arms will stop swinging their swords, and their self-aggrandizing mouths will become silent. Eventually, the one to whom all attention and honor is owed will receive it. “The Lord is in His Holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk 2:20.

Second, God gives Habakkuk the simple yet profound answer, “The just shall give by faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. God is calling us to trust in him, to believe that He is working out circumstances in our lives for our ultimate good, even when we have no clue as to how such terrible things could be for our benefit. “God’s ways of preserving and purifying his people are mysterious to the believer; and yet God calls his suffering people to show faith that God’s purposes for the world will at last prevail.” ESV Study Bible, 1720.

A few minutes after my son Micah died, my brother Scott, who was in the room with us, asked if he could read from scripture. He read, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:33-36.

Scott’s scriptural encouragement was appropriate because, in such moments of grief and loss, when we have no earthly explanation for what has transpired, we must be reminded that God’s ways are often incomprehensible to us. We are temporal, finite beings, living in space and time without understanding half of what God is doing through us. We cannot understand God’s multi-multi-variable calculus involved with every decision.

My firstborn son’s earthly body lies still in the grave. We cannot enjoy birthday parties, holidays together, or continue our bedtime stories. We have no other option but to trust in the sovereign goodness and favor of God, even in the face of seemingly irredeemable suffering. We do not know how one little life lost to a little pea in July of 2009 impacted others; what impact that impact had, in turn, on others, and on down the line, perhaps for years and years to come. And we can hardly begin to grasp the joy of Heaven. We do not yet feel the touch on our skin of loved ones long departed but now embraced, or the laughter and joy of communion with all of the saints.

It was because of Habakkuk’s faith in the sovereign goodness of God, even in days of tremendous hardship, that allowed him to sing,
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the field yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no heard in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” Habakkuk 3:17-19.

Praise be to God, for He has brought salvation, and will one day return in power. When he returns in power, then all of this, our present suffering, will be redeemed, and all of the "whys" will be silenced. I pray that we bear our present sufferings in joy, praising Him for what He has done and what He will do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Prayer- Why Bother?

Before Micah was even born, Heather and I prayed for him. Once born, we continued to pray for him. During his dedication service on Mother’s Day, 2009, we committed ourselves to raising him so that he might, during his lifetime, make a commitment to Jesus Christ. During those 24 hours between his loss of consciousness and his death, we prayed and prayed that he would make a miraculous recovery. But God chose not to answer our prayers in the manner we desired.

Rather than causing us to doubt the power of prayer, Micah’s death has caused us to come to grips with our own limitations and how utterly dependent we are on God. We continue to pray even though, as was most clearly demonstrated in Micah’s situation, God does not always answer prayer as we wish. We pray not out of a strong willpower to achieve certain ends but out of powerlessness.

In short, we pray because we are weak. If you have ever sat on the deathbed of a parent, sibling, spouse or child, holding your loved one in your arms as death overwhelms them, you know what it means to be weak. If you have ever lost that which is most precious to you on earth, you know what it means to be weak. If you lay awake at night, tossing and turning because you realize that you cannot control or begin to understand God’s mysterious ways, you know what it means to be weak. As I sat next to Micah’s bedside during the course of his 24 hours on life support, I realized that my son’s life would forever change mine. At the time I didn’t realize that, through the grief that followed, his death would help to remove my illusions of self-sufficiency.

Heather and I now pray for Owen because, in our weakness, we realize how dependent we are on God for Owen’s every breath, for his life, and for his salvation. In "A Praying Life," author Paul E. Miller says that Jesus wants us to approach God with the humility and trust of a child to his father. Miller says that just as children do not “filter” the types of requests they make before God, so also we should approach God in prayer without any “spiritual mask.” Miller, A Praying Life, 33. We should pray for what we want, being attentive to God’s will and whether our requests are consistent with God’s will.

As Pastor Stokes recently pointed out to me, Jesus himself prayed, on the night of his betrayal, that the Father would spare Him from the cross. Jesus prayed for what he desired. Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42. Pastor Stokes noted that Jesus prayed this even after telling his disciples that he would go to the cross. Thankfully, Jesus abided by the Father’s plan, a plan that included Jesus’ torture, death and sacrifice on our behalf.

About our prayers, Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" Matthew 7:7-11.

So, not only are Heather and I praying for Owen, but we are praying for things that we want for Owen. Last Wednesday, Heather made an appointment with Owen’s pediatrician for the pediatrician to examine Owen’s head, which appears to be growing in an unusual manner. There, the pediatrician was concerned that Owen may be suffering from fused plates on his head, and ordered that X-rays be taken of his head. If that is indeed the case, then a reconstructive surgery would be required, and fairly soon. Of all places, these reconstructive surgeries are conducted at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, the same hospital where Micah died.

After a day of praying, and enlisting others to do the same, the radiologist called last Thursday and indicated that he believed that Owen’s head plates are overlapping, not fused. It is my understanding that if the plates are indeed overlapping, then no such surgery would be required.

While this health issue is one that is not highly unusual in our age of advanced medical technology, Heather and I want to avoid additional anxiety over health issues. We very much want our children to be healthy. Even over issues that don’t appear to be life threatening, we want to avoid the trouble and burden of such health issues. So we are praying, in our weakness, that God would cause Owen’s head to grow normally and avoid the surgeon, his tools, the waiting area at Children’s Hospital, and all of the associated anxiety. I believe the Lord wants us, through prayer, to continually submit ourselves in reliance upon Him for Owen’s health and life.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Past, Present, Future

When I travel to Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis to visit Micah’s grave, I have had occasion to consider the nature of grief and how my faith in Christ impacts the manner in which I grieve Micah’s passing. My faith in Jesus Christ has far-reaching implications on how I view the past, the present, and the future. And I’ve come to realize what I am really hoping for when I visit Micah’s grave at Lakewood Cemetery.

The Past.
Lakewood Cemetery is an old cemetery filled with many grave markers. Most of these markers are modest, although others are ostentatious, even obnoxious. These monuments and memorials detail the achievements of the deceased which, according to the most obnoxious markers, were very grand achievements. For many who grieve, the past is about the deceased person—about their accomplishments, their hobbies or interests, their passions, or about the financial legacy they left behind. For someone grieving apart from Jesus Christ, one must dwell on the past, because there is no present. All of those accomplishments detailed by the monuments are now over; all of the busyness of life, all of that human effort and activity is now still, buried in the midst of worms six feet under.

When I go to Lakewood Cemetery, I am like all the other mourners in that I, too, think about the past. I recall with great pleasure those tender moments of love and affection with our little son. I am so glad that Micah was with us, even if it was for only 9 months. But unlike those who grieve without Christ, our reflections on the past do not end where the memories of our loved ones began. For me, the redemption of Micah’s legacy did not happen at any point during his 9-month earthly life. His legacy is tied in to that event that occurred 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ conquered death on our behalf. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Jesus Christ took upon himself the penalty for sin that was due to us—death and an eternal separation from God. As a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, the death that should have been ours has been redeemed with the promise of eternal life.

Ultimately, in looking to the past, our focus is on God, not on Micah. While I relish our pictures, our memories of Micah from the past, we have much more reason to be thankful for what Jesus Christ did in the past. Jesus redeemed Micah’s death, and his eternal destiny, when he died and rose again, thereby defeating sin and death. As a Christian grieving the death of his son in a graveyard, I do dwell on the past—but the place where I try to dwell is on the cross, not Micah’s gravestone. The cross makes all the difference for a Christian grieving his son in a graveyard.

The Present.
Without a belief in Christ, then no matter how one “dresses up” life and death, you believe that the present is really all there is. As a result, you must “live for the moment.” Eat, drink, and be merry today because once dead, you believe that the life you’ve lived has no ramifications on your now extinguished soul. Present circumstances completely dictate one’s joy and fulfillment. And for the life of a loved one that has been extinguished, all one can do is live in the present gratification of knowing that the deceased loved one made full use of their past opportunities for living, however brief that lifetime was.

In contrast, those of us following Christ through grief are walking contradictions – filled with inexpressible joy at the hope of seeing the resurrection, even while, at the same time, deeply wounded by scars—scars from such things as bone marrow cancer, divorce, or a son lost to choking on a pea.

On the one hand, we are filled with great joy in knowing that each new day brings us closer to seeing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ returning to us in glory. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14. This is not a fairytale; this is real. Our present joy arises in knowing that we really will see Micah again.

But on the other hand, even it hurts so very much to be separated from our son for now. Author Nancy Guthrie, who lost two infant children, says, “We have a hard time finding comfort in our future hope under the crush of the present pain. Resurrection can seem so religious, so unreal, so far removed.” Guthrie, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow, 126. The Resurrection is certainly the only hope in making any sense of this mess of tears, anger, hurt, depression, denial and sadness. But even while living in this hope, God has appointed us to endure this heart-wrenching grief.

Thankfully, the Bible does not evade the reality of how hard our present circumstances press against us. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul uses the word “groaning” to describe how we await the Resurrection. Romans 8:23. Paul gave no false misrepresentations about the suffering that will be faced by Christians. “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” Romans 8:36, citing Psalm 44:22.

Jesus himself understood the pain of living in the present even while living in the sure hope of future resurrection. He recognizes the severity of our grief and suffering in the present age. In John 11, we are told that Jesus had been away from Lazarus when Lazarus was very sick, then died. Martha, Lazarus’s sister, tells Jesus, “if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” John 11:21-22. Martha was not referring to how Jesus would ultimately raise her brother at the resurrection of all the dead. (See John 11:24) Rather, Martha wanted Jesus to rescue her brother from death now. She wanted to be relieved of the crushing burden of her present grief.

In response to this “temporal grief,” Jesus does two amazing things. First, Jesus was himself so overcome with emotion that we are told that he wept. John 11: 35. Regarding Jesus’ sorrow, the ESV Study Bible states, “Jesus’ example shows that heartfelt mourning in the face of death does not indicate lack of faith but honest sorrow at the reality of suffering and death.” ESV Study Bible, 2046. Even though he possessed resurrection power, and even though he knew that he was about to exercise this resurrection power, Jesus wept. Through his weeping Jesus demonstrated his bond with his friends and how burdened he is by our suffering. Second, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. We are told that Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” John 11: 43. Surely if he grieved over the temporal loss of his friend Lazarus, he grieves along with us now in the midst of our sufferings.

Without eternity in Christ, I don’t know of any hope for the future. But those of us grieving in Christ, we believe that the future is when all of this grief, heartache, and suffering will be redeemed. The future is bright, for it is filled with the radiance of God’s glory, demonstrated by the resurrection power of raising those men and women, young and old, from all ages past, who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ.

Heather and I have said that Micah’s death has given us a yearning for heaven that we really should have had even before Micah’s death. Along with so many others who have lost loved ones, the death of our son has caused us to look with increasing ardor past our present circumstances towards the coming resurrection. But for now, we must wait patiently for that day. “But if we hope for what we do not have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:25.
Ultimately, I think I go to Lakewood cemetery to wait the coming resurrection. Here, at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, I wait for that moment when, just as Jesus did with Lazarus, and just as He will do to all of our loved ones who died in Christ, Jesus will say, “Micah, COME OUT!!” We live in the present, but we wait. Let’s continue to wait for the resurrection, for the day of our redemption is drawing near.