This past week has had highs and lows which were a little more extreme than usual. I had the privilege of going to Singapore and teaching at the S-Word Evangelical Free Church. They were gracious servant hosts and the congregation was wonderful—I will have more to say about the trip next week. My mother-in-law, Juanita, had been praying for the trip and was excited that God gave us the opportunity to minister in Asia. She had been a little sick, which at 92 can cause concern, but when Joy saw her on Friday she was on the mend. Joy got up on Saturday to a beautiful morning and later received a call that her mother had taken a turn for the worst. She and my daughter Jennifer and son-in-law, Jason, went to spend time with her. She passed into the presence of the Lord on Saturday evening. Due to the time zone differences, she went to be with the Lord while I was teaching on Sunday morning in Singapore. I considered not doing a blog this week but realized that Juanita would have encouraged me to write. She had a real heart for people.
I met her nearly 47 years ago when as a teen age sort of juvenile delinquent I met her daughter, Joy. She accepted me and I later found out she had begun to pray for me. 3 years later I officially became part of her family when I married Joy—Juanita has always treated me as a son. I love mother-in-law jokes and we were good at kidding with one another but she wasn’t ever really a mother-in-law but instead another mother. She was our prayer warrior. She had, it seemed, a special express connection to God and if we really needed God’s ear and didn’t feel like we were getting through, we would get her involved. Things would happen. She was concerned that those who were without Christ would come to salvation and she built relationships with her care givers in the retirement homes where she lived in her latter years. In a number of cases they were from other countries so she would have us track down Bibles in their own languages to make it easier for her to teach them and they could read it for themselves.
Juanita has in recent years been telling us she is ready to be with the Lord and of course, we were not ready for her to go. So, it is with mixed feelings, especially in the afterglow of a great time of ministry in Singapore, that we, as a family and friends, prepare for the funeral. We will grieve separately and corporately. We will each grieve a little differently. Even as I write I find it difficult not to weep while I type (very inconvenient). Yet, this is also a time of celebration. The reasons for the seemingly conflicting emotions are simple. Our grieving is for a loss we are suffering while Juanita has gained something. Some reading this will wonder what I mean and my response shapes an apologetic or defense for mourning. Though the primary reason for my trip to Singapore was to guide the church through the teachings of Bill Gothard, my approach involved two important concepts: context and definition.
Death is not a cessation of existence. The one who was living has not ceased to exist or gone into some mindless unfeeling state. Death is “separation.” When Adam and Eve sinned they died spiritually (and began the process of physical death) or were separated from God. When we as humans die physically our spirit is separated from our body and although our body returns to dust our spirit goes somewhere.
In writing to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul starts on this very subject in 1 Thessalonians 4:13:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
Joy and I have been to funerals of unbelievers and it is a sad time indeed. I clearly remember the funeral of someone with whom Joy had played volley ball. They read poems that suggested she may now be a star in the sky while playing songs like “Send in the Clowns.” The grief was overwhelming and the absence of some was staggering to us both. Since she was not a believer we could not even offer words of comfort or hope to the bereaved.
The Apostle Paul did not want the believers who resided in Thessalonica (and by extension us) to succumb to that sort of grief. Sometimes what isn’t said is as important as what is said. He did not say not to mourn. That is important because I often heard it said to those who have suffered loss to just move on with life that their loved one is with the Lord. For a believer, grief is almost never directed at those who are gone but at those of us who remain and have lost our ability to interact with them directly. We are mourning our loss. He went on to explain why we should not mourn like those who have no hope in verses 14-18:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
A core doctrine of our faith is that Jesus not only died but “rose again.” He is somewhere (in heaven) and has those who died in faith were separated from their bodies but they are “with him.” How do we know that? Because He “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” When will be bring them? When He returns to collect those of us who are alive and remain. We will have a great reunion of family, friends, and even those who are believers that we never met in this life! Paul develops this in 1 Corinthians 15. He also tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8:
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
We have a similar insight from David in 2 Samuel chapter 12. As his son with Bathsheba was sick and dying, David refused food and comfort and was pleading with God to spare the child. The child passed away and David, to the surprise of his servants, got up, cleaned up and ate. The servants registered their confusion and David responded in 2 Samuel 12:22-23:
While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.
“I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” tells us 2 things. First, the child IS somewhere. His existence continued but was separated from his physical body. Second, wherever he is (with the Lord) David will go and meet him there.
And so, we grieve our immediate but actually only a temporary loss of my mother-in-law. I will grieve the lack of opportunity to pick on her and the loss of the power her prayers brought to our personal lives as her kids and to her grandkids as well as the power her prayers brought to our ministry. But we will rejoice that she is where she wants to be, with her Lord and her family and friends who went on before her. We will grieve and rejoice and from time to time I will think of the lyrics of a song which the late Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ended their television show with, “Happy trails to you. Until we meet again.”