A Journey Companion

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

John 11:28-44 (NIV)

Having someone who can empathize with you and assist you in removing those aspects which hold you back in life is a great gift. We all need a person in our life who will walk the journey with us. The person may only be a part of the journey for a short period or for the whole of the journey. Who the person is may change as we continue down life’s path. These particulars are not important. What is important is recognizing the blessing we receive from having such a person on our journey with us.

For Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Jesus was such a person. We are not told how Jesus became so close to Lazarus and his two sisters. John records two stories in regards to Lazarus and Luke mentions Lazarus once. The first story John records is the one we read from today. Later in John’s Gospel he will tell of Jesus coming to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. In the second story Jesus eats at the house and Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. Luke shares another story of Jesus coming to the house but does not mention Lazarus, only Martha and Mary. There is definitely a bond between Jesus and the three individuals.

Two aspects of what we read today stand out. The first is verse 35. Often referred to as the shortest verse in the Bible, it contains only two words, “Jesus wept.” The significance of these words is they demonstrate to us the empathy and love Jesus has for these two women and those who were mourning. This empathy and love make Jeans someone who is valuable on life’s journey. Even though Jesus clearly knew what was about to happen, he still stood beside those grieving and spent time with where they currently were before leading them forward.

Second aspect which stands out is found in verse 44. The final sentence of the verse when Jesus instructs the grave clothes to be removed so that Lazarus may go, or be free to live again, is important. Jesus is telling them to remove the things which bind Lazarus to his previous life and hinders the man from living the new life which Jesus has now given him. Again, Jesus as the companion on the journey is a blessing because he assists in removing that which holds a person back from living life to the fullest.

Jesus is always the right companion to have on the whole of our journey. He empathizes with us exactly where we are. He weeps with us, laughs with us, lies awake with us, and celebrates with us. Jesus has given each of us new life. With the gift, and as he journeys with us, he assists us in removing the grave cloths from our lives so we are able to experience and enjoy this new life.

Invite Jesus to be your companion on life’s journey. You will not sorry that you did!

A Celebration

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:1-9 (NIV)

This is the time of year when we are engaged in a lot of celebrating with a lot of food. The year in which we are in  has seen a lot more modification to our celebrations due to the pandemic. Still, many reports indicate that people are making a lot of food at home this year. Celebrations have moved from public venues to more intimate and private gatherings in homes. Either way, the celebrations continue.

Isaiah speaks of the greatest celebration yet to come. He shares how the Lord has broken down the ruthless powers of the world. The manner in which God has looked out for the disadvantaged is recalled. All of this leads up to the time when the Lord will prepare a massive celebration. Isaiah tells us that at this banquet, the best food and drink possible will be set before us. The party favors include the destruction of death and the end of sorrow. All will be honored and lifted up. He tells us that at this celebration the Lord’s saving actions will lead to great rejoicing.

Many of us long for an end of the pandemic. I am sure that when the virus finally is under control, there will be celebrations to the magnitude which have not been seen since the day World War II ended. Yet, even as large and impressive as our celebrating might be on that day, there is no comparison to the celebration of which Isaiah foretells. Try to envision singing and dancing of all people together without any conflict or animosity.  Let your mind taste the richness of the food and drinks of which you will partake. Imagine never having to fear illness, grief or death ever again. These are the promises of the Lord. Your invitation to the party is waiting.

The Question

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

1 Peter 1:1-12 (NIV)

Is it better to know something is going to happen in advance or accept situations as they occur without advance notice? If you are like I am, the answer to the question is… it depends. There are some items like the cost of repairs, the plans for a weekend, or the arrival date of guests which I want to know in advance. I do not wish to know when something which I cannot control is going to happen because I do not want the added worry. If we knew the negative impact of certain situations, we may never take the risks of stepping out of our front door. There clearly is an important balance which must exist in our lives regarding advance knowledge. Managing that balance is not always within our control.

Today’s passage comes at the start of a letter attributed to Peter. He is writing to a group of exiled Christ followers. But the concept of being exiled here is not necessarily one of being removed from one’s home country but more the sense that a follower of Christ is now like an alien resident in the world around them. Peter speaks of their suffering and grief. They likely were ridiculed for their beliefs and felt like outsiders. A picture of living a difficult life if you are a follower of Christ emerges here. Peter says that their journey through this is evidence of their belief in Jesus Christ, his resurrection, and the promised inheritance. Even though they had never seen Jesus, they believed. Peter assures them that the grace which comes to them was that of which the prophets had spoken.

My question at the start confronts me as I read this passage. Some think that if a person becomes a follower of Jesus, the person’s life will become easier. Peter makes it clear here that this is not the case. The suffering and grief did not go away for these followers. In fact, it seems to have increased. Now my original question  can be adjusted a little and applied to becoming a follower of Christ. If you knew in advance that there would continue to be suffering and grief after becoming a follower, would you still choose to follow Jesus? This is a question which you may have asked yourself before. The question may come up at various times in your life but nuanced a different way because of the current situation at the time. There is nothing wrong with asking the question because it gives us an opportunity to reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ, his resurrection and our promised inheritance. Consider how you would respond to the question today.

Time to Rebuild

The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:

“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

I was cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 (NIV)

Having grown up in and spending a majority of my adult life thus far in the Midwest, I have seen many tornadoes and the destruction which they leave behind. Standing in front of a home which has suffered the impact of a tornado creates a sense of awe, amazement, and grief at the same time. The apparent randomness of what remains standing and what is reduced to rubble seems to defy logic. A wall with a china cabinet against it and all its contents unmoved right next to a wall which is now laying on the ground in pieces causes one to scratch the head in disbelief. There are countless stories which emerge following a storm containing a tornado which seem too bizarre to be real. A person stands there, cries, and then moves into action to clean up and begin again.

Nehemiah stands in shock as someone might stand before a tornado-damaged home. Grief overwhelms him when he receives the report of Jerusalem’s destroyed city walls and burned out city gates. He sits and begins to weep. Then in the midst of his grief, he begins to fast and pray. His prayer was one requesting that God restore the people and the place which they had called home prior to the exile, one which their sin had brought upon them.

Reading about Nehemiah and his reaction to the news, I see a pattern to follow when we are faced with devastation in our lives. The physical destruction of a tornado, or in the case of the Israelites, an invading army, is not the only possible devastation which one may encounter. The loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of someone very close to us may have an equal impact on us. Nehemiah gives us an example of how to respond. Take some time to allow yourself to grieve. Life necessity may dictate how much time of inactivity is possible but there is no time limit on the grief. Whatever the case, make sure you allow at least some time to be inactive and cry. Then after this pause, engage in a period of spiritual discipline and prayer. Seek restoration from the Lord. Request the necessary resources to rebuild. Now, you are ready to determine next steps and take action.

It Is Okay

During my personal and professional life, I have experienced a fair amount of loss. Most individuals can make the same statement. There has been the death of family and friends. Loss of relationships have occurred. The death of cherished pets has happened. Changes in employment and locations where I have lived are parts of my life. Age and the process of growing older has brought about loss of abilities (and hair). Professionally I have had the honor of walking alongside others as they have experienced these types of loss and ones which are not mentioned. In each of these situations, one aspect has been similar and yet so different, grief has been present.

Grief is a part of life which is an unwieldy beast. The challenge in our experience with grief is that it is never the same in each situation and refuses to abide by a predictable time frame or predictable expressions. Grief is something which denies us the ability to be in control. However, well-meaning individuals and professionals have attempted to control grief and our responses to grief. The attempts are weak and often futile.

Since grief is an emotion, it is triggered by a variety of life encounters and situations. At times, we can experience grief but not even be consciously aware of what we are experiencing. This emotion manifests itself in so many ways, including physically and psychologically. Grief is also personal in nature like other emotions. At times, we may be able to see similarities in the manner in which we experience grief just as do others. Other times, our grief may be beyond comparison. In some situations, grief may become noticeable to us in small starts and stops. Or grief may come in waves with varied duration of time both in how long we sense it and how long there are breaks between waves.

In my experiences of grief in my life, as well as walking along with others during their times of grief, I have these observations:

  • There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Do not allow someone to tell you what you should be doing with your grief or judge how you live through grief.
  • Grief is not limited to times of death. Any time we have loss of any type in our lives, grief can be present.
  • Each person and each instance is different.
  • While there may appear to be various stages, these do not always exist in a neat order or repeat themselves. What does exist is the manner in which people deal with grief may have some similarities but also can be extremely different.
  • Do NOT put a time frame on your grief nor let anyone else attempt to do so.
  • There are no magic words or actions which can remove grief from your life or the life of anyone else. Grief is an emotion which takes its own course.
  • It is okay to grieve. It is okay to respond to grief as you feel is best for you. Every person and every situation is different. Grief operates outside of rules so do not put rules on how you respond to it.
  • Having a trusted friend or professional who you are able to honestly share your grief experience with helps but it does not magically remove the grief. Instead, it allows someone to walk alongside you through your grief and to remind you that whatever you are experiencing is okay.

I want to leave you with this one thought whether you are currently experiencing grief in your life or you can hopefully remember when you do experience grief — However you respond to grief and however grief enters your life, IT IS OKAY

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.