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.

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