April 1, 2008

In Defiance of the Grave

2008 1509 page9 capLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN, FOR they will be comforted. . . .
I had never attended a funeral until I was 17. And of all the funerals to have been my “first,” this one was especially tough. It was for the newborn brother of a friend. The baby had been born early and had been in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) since delivery. From what I heard, he never went home.
Our little group of friends had been given special permission to visit the newborn in the NICU, garbed in gloves and masks to talk to him and touch him. Babies—especially sick babies—are known to respond well to the simple power of human touch.
I remember we all took turns going in two by two to stroke his tiny legs, talk to him, and watch his oxygen saturation level rise in response to our voices and touch. But then one day it all became too much for his little body, and he didn’t have anything left to fight with.
2008 1509 page9The casket was so small. You could carry it in your arms—it was not much larger than a violin case, really. It was white, and the baby lay inside it with a blue, fuzzy baby blanket around him and a tiny white teddy bear in the corner. What kind of eulogy could be given for someone so small, someone who hadn’t really “lived” yet? I don’t remember any of the words that were spoken that day, only the raw, palpable grief of his parents and his older siblings, who were in high school with me.
Then they closed the little box to take him away, and we gathered around my friend, holding her as she sobbed. We all sobbed. A few months before our high school graduation, there we stood, engulfed in grief, mourning.
And we were all blessed. Every one of us.
What Blessing?
Why are those who mourn blessed? It would seem to most that those who are mourning are in the worst possible predicament. They are grieving. They have been left behind. They have lost.
True, but they are still blessed.
If death were truly the end and the pain of grief held no hope of dissipating, all really would be lost. But it’s not. Jesus defied death, and believing in Him is our promise that we will too.
There are many forms of grief. And grieving over death isn’t the end of all. People grieve over lost marriages, failed investments, jobs lost. But I really believe that Jesus has a special place in His heart for those who are broken from the loss that comes from death. He Himself wept at the grave of His dear friend Lazarus. The Bible says He wept, not just at the sight of Lazarus’s tomb, but at the palpable grief of all those around Him who were hurting from their loss of a friend and brother. Scripture also says, “He was . . . moved.”1 Surely the heart of a gentle Savior is especially close to us when we are mourning. For in our brokenness over loss, His heart is turned especially near to us. He feels our pain, senses every grueling moment of the loneliness, heartache, and despair.
I came across a devotional message on the Internet the other day that really spoke to me. “Mourning has a special and eternal purpose for Christians. Selfish sorrow serves as a reminder that the world cannot truly satisfy. It reminds us that only God is the source of unending fulfillment. The sorrow caused by sin and alienation from God functions to reveal our deepest need and reminds us to bring the lost and broken to Him. For when we come to Him in our sorrow—empty, transparent, small, and weak, He lovingly draws us into His embrace, cleanses us by His blood, and fills us with His life. His very presence brings comfort and healing.”2
The Edge
I recall my grandfather’s funeral seven years ago. As the oldest grandchild, I had to say a few words. And being in the line of work that I am in, it also fell upon me to write his life sketch for the funeral program. I remember it being an emotional task, to say the least. Emotional, but hopeful. As I wrote and summed up a spectacular life on paper (all the while dabbing at tears), the last statement I made about my grandfather filled me with instant peace, hope, and a sense of victory.
I wanted the gathered congregation to know that my grandfather had it best. He had lived a good life, known His Savior and followed Him, and was now asleep in Him. But the best part was (and is) yet to come. The eyes that closed in a hospital room gazing at his loved ones will open next to gaze into the face of Jesus. How awesome is that?
That in itself gave me, as a mourner, such hope, such confidence, and such an edge! An edge? Yes, an edge! An edge over death. One of my favorite verses in the Bible sums up the power that is ours in believing in Christ’s victory over death. And when you read it and claim it as your own, how can you not feel that in your mourning, you are really blessed? “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”3
Knocking the Sting Out
If you’ve ever attended a graveside service and watched a casket being lowered into the ground, the word “sting” is a pretty accurate description of what it feels like. Now multiply that feeling by a million if the person being lowered into the ground belonged to you.
Our pain at the loss of someone to death endears us to Jesus, but I believe He really calls us to remember this particular beatitude when faced with this sorrow. He tells us that in our mourning we are blessed, and He promises us His comfort. And should we believe that? Absolutely, yes!
When you lose someone to death, you mourn. But when you belong to Jesus, oh, what the mourning brings!
Jesus conquered the grave. He has conquered death, and it has no victory over us. Very soon we will shout the words of 1 Corinthians 15:55 with absolute defiance when graves are ripped open and the King restores life to those who lost it. It’s going to happen, and I can’t wait.
Blessed are those who mourn? Yes. You’d better believe it!
1John 11:33.
2www.crossroad.to/Bible_studies/Beatitudes/Matt3.html; accessed January 8, 2008.
31 Cor. 15:54, 55.
Wilona Karimabadi, a graduate of La Sierra University in Riverside, California, is the managing editor and marketing director for KidsView, the Adventist Review’s magazine for children.

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2008 1509 page11 capT WAS MOURNING THAT BUILT MYRA Ortega’s trust in God.
The 30-year-old woman, of Syracuse, New York, watched as her boyfriend was killed in June 2006.
It started out as a day committed to family time. Ortega, her boyfriend, Albert Maeweather, and their son, Latrell, went to Maeweather’s sister’s home for a barbecue. According to Ortega, in the midst of the gathering, Maeweather got into an argument with his sister’s neighbor. The disagreement escalated, and the neighbor began shooting.
A bullet hit Maeweather, 33, in the back and pierced a main artery. Ortega ran to his side in time to say, “I love you.” She wanted to say more but didn’t want to scare him by making the situation seem more grave.
By the time Ortega reached the hospital, Maeweather had died. She and Latrell, 5, were alone.
2008 1509 page11The shock of Maeweather’s death lasted for months.
“My way of getting over Albert’s death was never really thinking about it,” she said.
She pushed herself to do everyday necessities to care for Latrell.
She didn’t seek comfort from Maeweather’s family, and her own family lived 150 miles away in the Bronx.
“No one was there to console me,” she said. “The person who was my psychiatrist and who listened to me was God.”
Two years before the tragedy, Ortega’s mom had advised her to give prayer a try. After the shooting, Ortega agreed to try it.
The nightly commitment turned into a source of comfort and strength.
“[Some would say,] ‘If there was really a God, that wouldn’t happen,’” Ortega said of the events in her life. “But things happen. This is the world we live in.”
Her experiences have drawn her closer to the Lord.
“There’s nothing like talking to Him,” she said.
When she felt afraid, she shared her worries with God and He made her feel safe. When she needed comfort, “He put His arms around me because I felt so cold and alone,” Ortega said.
It was that simple trust in God to supply what was needed that caught my attention the day I met Ortega.
We met in December, after someone tried to rip the copper piping out of her apartment building, causing the entire complex to be without water.
A pink sign hung outside the building, deeming it unfit for habitation. Discarded junk mail and trash lay wet and dirty on the entrance floor. The stairs to her third-floor apartment creaked and moved unsettlingly under my feet. The long hallway to her apartment was dark.
Ortega said she hadn’t had hot water in the four days prior to the attempted theft. She heated water in a large silver pot on the stove to wash her son and herself.
Though the situation wasn’t ideal, she wasn’t complaining. She thanked God for a roof over her head, saying others without a home had it much worse.
“Regardless of what I’m going through, I’m thankful because I’m blessed,” she would later explain. Ortega knew whom she could turn to and knew He gave her the strength to survive.
To those mourning the loss of a loved one or in a difficult situation, she gives the same advice her mother gave her: “Pray every day, and you will see a difference.”
Michele Reaves writes from Syracuse, New York, where she is a reporter for the Post-Standard.

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2008 1509 page12 capT WASN’T UNTIL ASHLEY FELL IN LOVE WITH another man that she realized how alienated she had become from the man she married. They had marched through their daily lives for 15 years with no romance, only occasional lovemaking, and even less heartfelt communication. Long-standing conflicts went unresolved. Tensions mounted. Counseling was unaffordable, unavailable, and too painful an admission of failure. Friendships were too fragile for heavy disclosure. Compensation strategies set in, with Ashley escaping into social circles and her husband withdrawing further into his “cave.” When Mr. Sensitive floated into Ashley’s circle of friends, she had little defense against powerful emotions and unfulfilled longings. Careening into a full-blown infatuation, she had met an enemy greater than her moral resolve. An intoxicating but unsustainable relationship followed, the aftermath of which found Ashley more alone than ever. Guilt and shame stacked themselves on top of feelings of rejection and loneliness. She hadn’t cried so hard since infancy.
Finally spilling her story out to her pastor, she wrestled aloud with an aspect of God’s love that often eludes us. Ashley’s words were: “I know that God helps those who suffer because of misfortune. I know He cares for the victims of injustice. I know He comforts the downtrodden. But does He help us deal with the pain we bring upon ourselves? What about when our suffering is the result of our own choices? Does He help even then?”
Ashley’s pastor was blindsided by this. “Uh, well—u’mmm,” he fumbled. “It’s, well, like . . . h’mmm . . .” Not wanting to present God as soft on sin, he hesitated to present Him as the Redeemer that He is.
2008 1509 page12This is the great anxiety of those of us who value right living. We fear the popular sentiments of grace as something that sweeps up after 
sin so that we can sin again. Sin’s consequences are God’s teachers; we know that. We don’t want to obscure that reality with flowery words and shallow comforts. And so when a sin-stricken soul cries out for a God who will help them bear the burden of their own just deserts, we say, “Uh, well—u’mmm . . . it’s, well, like . . . h’mmm.”
If Ashley had spilled her story out to Jesus, He would have said, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4, KJV).
If Ashley had then retorted, “But I did this to myself! It’s my sin that makes me mourn!” Jesus would have replied:
“The mourning I speak of is true heart sorrow for sin. Ashley, you are separated from God by a gulf of sin that is broad and black and deep, and you mourn in brokenness of heart. Such mourning ‘shall be comforted.’ God reveals to us our guilt that we may flee to Christ, and through Him be set free from the bondage of sin, and rejoice in the liberty of the sons of God. In true contrition we may come to the foot of the cross, and there leave our burdens.”1
If Ashley had then replied, “But I’m also suffering because of wrong done to me. In fact, there’s a very fuzzy line between my sin and my husband’s sin! He emotionally abandoned me, and I reacted. My reaction was wrong, but it was provoked by his actions. And now I’m left to face my broken marriage all over again!” Jesus would have said:
“If received in faith, the trial that seems so bitter and hard to bear will prove a blessing. The cruel blow that blights the joys of earth will be the means of turning our eyes to heaven. How many there are who would never have known [Me] had not sorrow led them to seek comfort in [My arms]!”2
Perhaps at this point Ashley would have begun to take heart. Perhaps she would have seen that although God won’t be trifled with, He will be fled to for refuge, even from deserved sorrow. Perhaps God could transform the shock of her own sin into a catalyst for a deeper walk with Him, a walk that would empower her to wrestle more effectively with a damaged marriage. At the end of the day she might even find herself counseling others who had likewise through bad choices added sin to sin and sorrow to sorrow. Drawing from her own experience would enable her to point them to a Savior from sin’s entire tangle of woes—the pain that provokes sin, which brings guilt, which harbors more pain, which starts the cycle again. Eventually Ashley could become one of Jesus’ special sin-cycle busters, a tool in His hands, comforting others “with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
Our zeal for God’s justice must not eclipse our fervor for His mercy. The two combine seamlessly in His love. When we sorrow because of our sins and others’ sins, God stands ready to help us pick up the pieces. Pieced-together lives become His instruments of ministry to other broken ones. Sin plus sin plus grace equals ministry. God really is that good.
1Adapted from Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, pp. 9, 10.
2Adapted, Ibid., p. 10.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is an author, singer/songwriter, wife, and mother. She lives in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania.


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2008 1509 page14 capN NOVEMBER 23, 2007, THE TONLE SAP River claimed the life of five young Singaporeans. Among them was my friend, Reuben Kee. He was only 23 years old. His body was the last to be found. At the memorial service Reuben’s parents provided 200 seats, but so many people came that they spilled onto the car park. Many came forward with personal stories of how their lives had been positively impacted because of Reuben’s kindness and talents. He was a disciplined and loving servant leader of Christ.
Reuben is not the only person who is missed dearly. Every day someone loses a parent, a child, a friend, a loved one, and their absence is no less painful—and no less mourned. To the surviving family and friends, the grief can seem insurmountable. For Reuben’s family, their belief in the eternal salvation of Christ provided hope and assurance that one day they would be reunited with Reuben. Still, it is evident that their hearts were broken.
Death is not the only condition for mourning. An opportunity lost because of indifference, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a marriage, the loss of esteem from embarrassing mistakes, the loss of health to sickness, and so forth—we mourn and seek comfort at those times, too.
2008 1509 page14In the second beatitude Jesus promises that those who mourn will receive the comfort they sorely need, comfort that will sustain them through the despondent hours of choking despair. Someone once wryly remarked that Jesus seems to be saying in Matthew 5:4: “Happy are the unhappy.” However, Jesus is not implying that we should look upon the causes of mourning—death, loss, sin, etc.—as blessings in and of themselves. Instead, comfort comes after coming to grips with the conditions we are mourning.
Since sin entered this world, suffering and sadness are a way of life. But just as the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference, the opposite of mourning is not laughter, but denial. We cannot experience the “peace that passes all understanding”1 until we have allowed ourselves to grieve. The shortest verse in the Bible is appropriately “Jesus wept.”2 Even Christ mourned.
To mourn is not a sign that God is absent in our life. It is not an indication that God is judging or angry, distant or silent. Instead, we grieve because we compare what is with what should be, and we feel the pain of loss. Whether self-inflicted or undeserved, we mourn our losses.
And through the mourning we become real to the people around us—transparent and authentic. It opens us up for others to know. What we mourn for and grieve over reveals who we are. If we mourn our lack of status, it betrays our values. If we mourn abuse, it exposes our heart. Yet, while it may reveal to us our position in the map of spiritual and emotional growth, it is not a litmus test for God’s reach.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”3
God comforts us by sharing our grief. God comforts us through His Word. God comforts us through friends and family who are His hands and feet in serving us. God comforts us with the hope of heaven.
1See Phil. 4:7.
2John 11:35.
3Matt. 5:4, NASB.
Faith Toh, a radio producer and host for a Christian station, writes from Singapore.