Honest Grief

Meditation on John 11

Mary and Martha prayed. They sent their message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”, and implied in that message is a request: “… so come save him!” That’s clear in the frank statements of both sisters upon first seeing Jesus after Lazarus dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus, they knew He had healed others, and they knew they had a special bond of friendship with Him, so they prayed in faith for Jesus to come heal their brother.

But He didn’t come.

You can imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the heads of Mary and Martha. Did they place too much faith in Jesus? Perhaps He isn’t really as powerful as they believed He was. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ friends, right? Or did He not really care about them as much as they thought? Is Lazarus not he whom Jesus loved after all? Does He really love Mary and Martha?

Maybe it’s easy for you to imagine because for you, like me, these questions and doubts are too familiar. We have all, or will all at some time, experience loss and grief of some kind. We’re all gonna die, and we’re all going to lose loved ones to death. And when we go through this, we are often left with confusion. Does Jesus love us, because if He does… why this? He promised to hear our prayers, to grant our requests, right?

It’s important for us to understand, though, that these weren’t the private or bitter thoughts of Mary and Martha. They give us an example of how to walk through grief in a way that is both honest and faithful. The sisters both tell Jesus boldly that they know He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, and didn’t. Mary weeps at His feet. But Jesus doesn’t rebuke them. Rather, He receives their complaints and enters into their grief alongside them. If the sisters had let their grief and doubt drive them away from Jesus, if they had become embittered against Him, it would be a different story. But they both, in faith, let their grief and questions drive them to Jesus. 

Of course, Jesus did hear the prayer of Mary and Martha. And He did act. But He didn’t act in the way they wanted. He answered their prayer, but rather than giving them only what they asked, He gave them something better. Jesus is all-wise. In the face of impending death, we ask for things to remain the same- stop death, let our loved ones remain. And of course we do- our finite eyes cannot see what God can see. Jesus gives Mary and Martha something better than what they ask: He lets His servant pass through death in order to be transformed in resurrection. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t simply preserve life, He transforms. He brings new, glorified life. 

Jesus doesn’t only bring this resurrection life to Lazarus, though. Jesus brings new life to the sisters, as well, through their grief. John wants us to know at the outset of this story that “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” But Mary’s anointing of Jesus hasn’t happened yet- that comes in the next chapter, chapter 12. Mary would anoint Jesus with ointment in worship, John wants us to understand, but not until she has anointed His feet with her tears in grief. Passing through grief, and unexpected joy, was necessary for Mary’s transformation as a disciple of Jesus. And we know by faith that our trials, our pain, our grief, works toward this same end. Jesus hears us. Jesus loves us. And He is giving us more than we can ask or think. Through grief and death, He transforms us into disciples who bear the image of a Lord who glories in laying down His life.

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A Duel to the Death

“A modern man,” said Dr. Pym, “must- if he be thoughtful- approach the problem of marriage with some caution. Marriage is a stage- doubtless a suitable stage- in the long advance of mankind towards a goal which we cannot as yet conceive; which we are not, perhaps, yet fitted even to desire. What, gentlemen, is now the ethical position of marriage? Have we outlived it?”

“Outlived it?” broke out Moon. “Why, nobody’s even survived it! Look at all the people married since Adam and Eve- and all as dead as mutton.”

“There is no doubt an interpellation joc’lar in its character,” said Dr. Pym frigidly. “I cannot tell what may be Mr. Moon’s matured and ethical view of marriage-”

“I can tell,” said Michael [Moon] savagely, out of the gloom; “marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.”

-Michael Moon and Dr. Cyrus Pym, in G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive.

Lessons for my Son: Where Wisdom in Found

I will be writing a series of posts containing short lessons for my son, who is due to be born in February. These are lessons I hope to pass on to my son, and they may range from the spiritual to the quip, essentially being lessons in manliness.

The first, and most foundational, is timeless wisdom from Solomon to his son.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

 

 

Learning from Aidan of Lindisfarne; or, The Choice of a Name for my Son

My son is due to be born in February. Charity and I have named him Aidan James, after Aidan of Lindisfarne, 7th century missionary to Nortumbria.

By the early 7th century, England was swarming with the pagan Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They pushed the Celtic Britons out of their territories into Western England and Wales. The Britons both feared and despised their pagan foes, and certainly did not understand that God would call many of their foes to Himself.

And so it was that the Gospel would come to Northumbria from the Irish. Corman was sent from the monastery of Iona, but returned saying that these people were too stubborn and hard-hearted. Aidan stood up among them and stated that Corman was too hard on the people and ought to have given them first the pure milk of the Word before they could learn “the more perfect lessons.” It was determined that Aidan was the one to go to the people of England. His patience, humility, and wisdom were what was needed for the task.

Aidan established his monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, and from there traveled throughout Northumbria. King Oswyn often traveled with him as his translator, Aidan walking almost everywhere he went, establishing churches, monasteries, and schools and helping the poor. It is said that he used his time while journeying to study the Scriptures and meditate on Christ, and teaching those with him to do the same.

Bede tells the story of Oswyn giving Aidan a fine horse for his journeys, which Aidan passed along to a beggar. Upon the king’s angry questioning, Aidan asked “What sayest thou, king? Is yon son of a mare more precious in thy sight than yon son of God?” An Irishman, indeed.

Bede further says of him,

He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men of the world. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.

Aidan embodied true Christian religion: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

While Augustine (not of Hippo) brought the Gospel on papal mission to Canterbury, Aidan of Lindisfarne may be the true “Apostle of England.” England North of the Thames was the fruit God’s work through the efforts of the Celtic mission led by Aidan and his disciples.

It is my prayer that my son, Aidan James Hanby, will be granted by God the same passion for the spread of the Gospel, love for people in need, and selfless and passionate spirit as Aidan of Lindisfarne.

O loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the peace of a cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England, and endowed him with gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Collect of the Feast of St. Aidan

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Lightfoot, Joseph. Leaders in the Northern Church.