The Opposite of Love

220px-Elie_Wiesel_2012_Shankbone

Elie Wiesel, 2012

I am saddened to hear of the death of Elie Wiesel aged 87. He has inspired many, many people. He showed what it means to live the life you have been given and to make something new and worthwhile from the broken mess of evil.

The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, the opposite of life is not death but the indifference to life or death.

~ Elie Wiesel, September 1928 – July 2016

Buchenwald_Slave_Laborers_Liberation

Elie Wiesel is on the second row, seventh from the left, pictured in 1945, days after liberation at Buchenwald concentration camp (image from Wikipedia)

Saying Goodbye to Joy

When he had finished speaking, [Jesus] said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 

Luke 5:4-6 (NRSVA)

There are two lessons here. The first is that the abundance of God happens unexpectedly. The second is that doing what God desires sometimes seems to make no sense, but after the act of trust, i.e. doing what we think God wants us to do, we will see what the reason was. I suspect that some acts of obedience are only fully understood once we’re with God.

My friend, Joy, lived around 200 miles away with her husband, Caleb. About 18 months ago I sensed a strong ‘God prompt’ to call her. I was tired. I didn’t want to do it. Also, I really don’t like phone calls very much, unless it’s close family. I prefer to talk face to face. But the God prompt was strong. I knew I couldn’t not do it. So I called.

Joy and Caleb were in the middle of watching telly and it was apparent that I was interrupting (not that they said anything other than that it was nice to hear from me). I  think I told them that God had prompted me to phone. They, being believers themselves, were happy enough with this, although they couldn’t figure out why, either, and so after a few minutes of chit-chat we hung up. During the call, Joy mentioned some abnormalities in her latest blood test. She had undergone a kidney transplant several months before. She said the doctors wondered if they needed to adjust her medications.

A couple of weeks later Joy was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. Caleb was distraught as the days and weeks ticked by and Joy did not respond to any treatment. Two months after the phone call Caleb texted me with the news of Joy’s death.

A week later I travelled the 200 miles to the funeral and was so glad I did. It was clear that Joy had touched the lives of so many people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to canonise her. She had her faults, same as everyone. But as my husband and I often agreed, Caleb and Joy were two of the loveliest people we’d ever known. Their quiet humility was the loudest shout for the presence of Christ. Joy didn’t suddenly become a saint because she wasn’t there any more. She was already genuinely lovely. It was a heart-wrenching joy to be at her funeral, because she had been the same lovely person to every single person she ever met.

I don’t know why God took her so early. I don’t know why dear Caleb had to say goodbye so soon. I can understand why God would want to keep her and I know Joy is truly home. That brings such comfort. I also know now that God graciously allowed me to say goodbye to my friend, even though, at the time of the phone call, it made no sense.

On Grief

Sometimes I look at my son and wonder how he can be so self-absorbed, so utterly self-obsessed that the sun, the moon, the stars and indeed the entire universe seem to revolve around him. Then I remind myself: a) he has autism, this is his default mode, and b) he’s a teenager. What I don’t usually do is look at myself in the same way. Yet that is what I have been like, these past few weeks since my father-in-law’s funeral. I was glad when my mother-in-law seemed calmer, more settled and less teary, not just for her sake, but because I didn’t want to carry her emotional burden. My husband, too, has been remarkably calm and collected and because of this I have not really paid much attention to his quiet grief. I have felt sad for him, but glad that I didn’t have to deal with the ‘fallout’ of his loss. In part, I know this is because I am struggling with my own PTSD-related stuff, health problems, blah blah blah… and also fighting against my past co-dependency which made me feel in excruciating intensity everyone’s pain but my own… but this is my husband, the man I cherish. There’s no excuse; I have been selfish.

 

Last night my husband confided in me, and shared something which made me realise that his grief is ever-present, that he is struggling, he is sad, but it is just not in his nature to draw attention to himself. Also I suspect he is so used to being there for me that he forgot I could be there for him too – and so he has kept his head down and ploughed onwards, ever onwards, working hard and taking care of all of us. I was chastened. I spent time considering Jesus’ responses to grief:

‘As they approached the city gate, it happened that some people were carrying out a dead man, the only son of his widowed mother. The usual crowd of fellow-townsmen was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

Then he walked up and put his hand on the bier while the bearers stood still. Then he said, “Young man, wake up!”

And the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus handed him to his mother.’

Luke 7:12-15 (JB Phillips translation)

 

How beautiful, how unexpected! Jesus saw the woman had lost, in her eyes, the whole world. In the context of first century occupied Palestine this also meant she had probably lost her means of survival. Widows couldn’t own property or have a trade. Women did not have the same status as men. This is why later, in James’ letter, he exhorts those who would call themselves Followers of Christ to show love and care for ‘widows and orphans’ (James 1:27). I can only imagine the enormity of grief that this woman felt, first losing her husband and then her only child. She must have been in the very depths of despair (that much I can imagine – I have been in that swamp). Jesus saw the funeral procession. He knew that she was a widow, and that the coffin contained her only child (whether he knew this from divine inspiration or because someone told Him, we can never know). The Phillips translation puts it very simply ‘When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”‘ Even though His own mother would stand at the foot of the cross and watch her son die horribly, painfully, Jesus felt sorrow for this woman. I love how the Phillips translation renders this as Jesus saying “Don’t cry.” More than this, I love how the final line in verse 15 is that He ‘handed’ the son to the mother. Jesus offered the grief-stricken woman the gift of her beloved son, even though He knew He could not spare His own mother from her ordeal (what a heartbreak that must have been).

 

The gift of Life is the same gift given to each one of us when we choose to follow Jesus. This is a different life than just a biological breathing and heart pumping (in Greek this is ‘bios’, and is a measurable event). When Jesus talks about ‘life in all its fullness’, it is the Greek word ζωή (zoe). This ζωή is the act of joy-living, of being… It’s hard to explain and I’m not a theology scholar. To put it into context, ‘the enemy of zoe [Life] is sin’ says James Edwards, Professor of Religion at Jamestown College – read more here – and we all know that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (hence life-in-all-its-fullness is the opposite).

 

Anyway, I was also thinking about what happens when Jesus is with His disciples and learns that His friend, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, is gravely ill. He announces that Lazarus’ illness is ‘for God’s glory’, which must have seemed very odd to the disciples – but then I imagine that life as a disciple was one long stream of wonderful, albeit puzzling, happenings. For example, the previous chapter speaks of Jesus walking around the temple getting up people’s noses and talking about sheep…

sheep

I digress… Jesus doesn’t dash off to Lazarus’ side, or even run to comfort Mary and Martha. He hangs around for another two days, and only then announces that they’re going back. The disciples are even more puzzled. Hang on a minute – we were there a few days ago, you were talking about sheep and a bunch of people threatened to stone you for blasphemy… and we’re going back? I can almost hear them! I know that’s what I would have been thinking. But Jesus knew what was happening – He knew that even though none of it appeared to make sense, it would all come together for good. Hmm.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

~ Julian of Norwich c.1400

 

So Jesus takes His followers back to Judea, back to the Mary who had wiped His feet with her hair and anointed Him with perfume, back to the Martha whom He told “Hush… Stop – sit and listen like Mary is” or something along those lines, when she was all flustered trying to be the ‘perfect’ hostess (how many of us would have done the same?!). Jesus walks back to the village of Bethany, and it is all – seemingly – too late. Jesus is wonderful, I mean, they know that. He healed the sick and made the blind see and the lame walk. But Lazarus isn’t ill; He’s dead. Four days dead by the time they arrive – and everyone knows death is final. There are no second chances – and in every death we witness, we also experience the echo of our own future selves. We each know that our time will come, too, to step through the door marked ‘no return’. There is a grief just in this knowledge. When we mourn others, we also mourn ourselves.

 

And then we have dear Thomas. I love what Thomas says: “I suppose we might as well go. Then we can die with him.” o_O Glass half full kind of chap – I bet he was a real joy to be around… Thomas reminds me of Eeyore. Yet Jesus doesn’t chastise Thomas. He just walks. I love how Jesus accepts our stupidity, our pessimism, our unbelief – and loves us anyway, just like Thomas! I believe that, although He was both fully human and fully divine, Jesus had not experienced this smallness of self, this aloneness of being frail, being mortal, sinful and stuck. These things come from our own desperate, earthly selves. We are all small, and alone, when it comes down to it, without Christ.

The Passion of Christ, El Greco

The Passion of Christ, El Greco

 

Jesus had never experienced this for Himself, because He had never experienced being cut off from God, which we all are as a result of sin. This is why later, on the night He is betrayed, He prays for His disciples and all who will follow – i.e. you and me – and asks that ‘they all may be one, [just] as You, Father, are in Me and I in You’, (John 17:21 Amplified)

 

 

 

 

Anyway, so they arrive in Judea to a four-days-dead Lazarus and his distraught sisters and this time Mary, who once knelt as she wiped His feet with her hair, again kneels at His feet and this time cries out – a real heart-cry, the cry of the broken, the wounded, the distraught (the human?).

When Jesus saw Mary weep and noticed the tears of the Jews who came with her, he was deeply moved and visibly distressed.

“Where have you put him?” he asked.

“Lord, come and see,” they replied, and at this Jesus himself wept.

John 11:33-35 (JB Phillips translation)

I don’t believe Jesus wept because He was grieving for Lazarus. Why would He do that? He already knew He could raise Lazarus from the dead. No, He wept because He understood the sorrow and the smallness and the aloneness that comes with being fallen and frail and human. He knew and understood. In this moment He truly became ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ as the King James version poetically says (Isaiah 53:3).

Man of Sorrows

                The Man of Sorrows                      Master of the Borgo Crucifix

‘“Take away the stone,” said Jesus. “But Lord,” said Martha, the dead man’s sister, “he has been dead four days. By this time he will be decaying ….”

“Did I not tell you,” replied Jesus, “that if you believed, you would see the wonder of what God can do?”

Then they took the stone away and Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of these people standing here so that they may believe that you have sent me.”

And when he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with grave-clothes and his face muffled with a handkerchief. “Now unbind him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go home.”’

John 11:39-44

That last bit is so beautiful. It is so ordinary, so down-to-earth: ‘let him go home’. Our God-become-man fully understands our smallness, yet here He does it – the biggest miracle – raising the four-days-dead Lazarus, undoing the death-knell that tolls for all. In this resurrection we are given the first glimpse of something beyond mortality. In this raising of Lazarus God shows us there is a different way to live – He takes our grief and replaces it with zoe.

And, you see, that’s what He meant when He was starting out, with that first remarkable declaration in the synagogue – the one that (also) caused an uproar:

‘He stood up to read the scriptures and the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book and found the place where these words are written—‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’.

Then he shut the book, handed it back to the attendant and resumed his seat. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him and he began to tell them, “This very day this scripture has been fulfilled, while you were listening to it!”’

Luke 4:16-21

The Holy Trinity, El Greco

The Holy Trinity, El Greco

I don’t know if all this has made sense. I have had a rest day today as my health is not been so good. It makes concentration difficult. This blog post has taken hours, but I had the sense of something that needed to be said – things that needed to be communicated. Thank you for reading this far and apologies if any of it has been muddled.

In conclusion, I pray for all who grieve. I pray for my Frank, that He might draw near to You, Lord of heaven and earth. I pray that You will use me to comfort him, and to comfort my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. May they be blessed with the peace that passes understanding. I pray for all who read who have been filled with sorrow and acquainted with grief. Thank you, Lord, that when You walked this muddy earth You walked right alongside us, and experienced all that it means to be human – the joy, the tears, even the mundane. Thank you that you showed how much You loved us by taking on the mantle of sin and suffering and grief. Thank you that we can ask You to share our pain and to relieve all of our burdens. May we learn, day by day, to rest in You. May we know when to speak, and when to be silent, by grace, and to love one another as You would have us love. In Jesus’ precious name we pray. Amen

Strange Times

We had a rather unexpectedly sad end to 2013, as my father-in-law passed away. He was not a well man and had been in and out of hospital many times over the past year. He was readmitted on Boxing Day morning (we got a phonecall at 3am) but they initially said he had a cold and would soon be out again. Sadly, on 30th December we received another phone call saying he was struggling to breathe. Frank and his sister were with him at the end, and we are thankful that he was in no pain.

Now we are in the middle of funeral arrangements and surreal conversations with my mother-in-law, who has dementia. One is not quite sure how much she remembers. The undertaker visited yesterday – a very pleasant man. I had the curious experience of perusing a catalogue of funeral flowers. Some of the photographs of wreaths and bouquets looked so bright and cheerful, as if celebrating a birth or a wedding. I can’t imagine my father-in-law ever wanting anything like that. He was a very straightforward man – rather like my beloved Frank.

The strangest thing is that there has been no element of shock, because Frank and his sister had been confronted with the idea of their father’s imminent death quite a number of times over the past few years. The idea of loss has already been confronted, so (I think) while they are both sad, it is not overwhelming.

In the 90s, when my grandmother died, she and my grandfather had been visiting us for Christmas (I was a teenager) and as soon as they arrived my Nana complained of feeling unwell. She had been in very good health up to that point, and was an active, mentally healthy lady. She died about three weeks later. Grief visited our house sudden and huge, shattering everything in its path for months. I didn’t dare to laugh or smile, in case I inadvertently intruded on the grief of others.

One thing that probably has made a difference is that my father-in-law was a believer, so we know without doubt where he is now. He was a regular preacher for many years, the last time being in 2012. It is comforting to know he is safe in the arms of Jesus – and this brings with it a sense that he is not so far away, after all. Lots of friends have been praying, and I think this has brought comfort.

The children of course have had lots of questions, especially the eldest, because of his autism. I have said to them that life is a journey and we are not home until we reach heaven, where Jesus is waiting for us. On the evening after he died, little Chip led us in prayer: “Thank you, God, that Grandpa is with you. We ask that you keep him safe and look after him. Amen”

 

“O Lord, our Lord,
    your greatness is seen in all the world!
Your praise reaches up to the heavens;
it is sung by children and babies.”

Psalm 8:1-2a