By Jill Briscoe
Paul knew what it was to suffer the “loss of all things.” Several hundred years after the Babylonian captivity, a new church in Corinth was encountering grave difficulties. Christians were being persecuted, hunted down like animals, and killed. Some of the men, women, and children would have been Paul’s own converts. Yet Paul knew they were with Christ, which was “far better.”
Sitting by my dying mother’s bedside, I realized she would soon be released into life—real life, eternal life. As I sat there, I picked up my New Testament and went to my internal “waiting room.” As I listened to my mother’s labored breathing, I reread in John’s Gospel the story of Jesus standing outside the tomb of Lazarus. He shouted,
“Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came—bound up in the grave cloth, his face muffled in a head swath. Jesus told [those watching], “Unwrap him and let him go!” (John 11:43-44, TBL)
As I read these words, I looked up. My mother’s face was still. I was suddenly searingly aware that her labored breathing had stopped. I looked down at my Bible, huge tears of grief splashing onto its pages. Through my tears I read again that great shout of the Lord’s: “Lazarus, come out!”—and then I saw in my mind’s eye what had just happened. I saw, in my terrifying “now.” My mother had “come out” as Jesus had called her name, and in my mind’s eye I saw that one she’d given me birth, who had been bound hand and foot with the grave clothes of cancer. Jesus was telling those who stood around her tomb—the angels themselves—to “unwrap her and let her go”!
“And she that was dead came forth,” I murmured, my eye following the story in John 11. A great flood of joy began to immerse me in its warm waves of praise. The nurse came into the room. “She’s home. No more might, no more pain, no more tears, no more dying!” I said simply. The nurse cried. And so I sang her my song born out of my overwhelming grief and loss. A song of comfort and of joy. The words of my song were: “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
The tomb can be a place of both fear and comfort for the believer. There is the fear of losing the familiar and loved one, and yet the joy of knowing that for those who have gone to be with the Lord, there is an incredible environment waiting for them where Jesus Himself is and where loved ones who have preceded us wait for us.
The problem is that what is best for them is worst for us! We cannot but mourn their passing. Like Martha and Mary weeping at Lazarus’s tomb, we believe the only thing that could ever bring some vestige of peace and comfort to our life would be to have our beloved “Lazarus” returned to our arms again.
But think of it from Lazarus’s perspective. The story is told in John’s Gospel. Lazarus gets sick and dies. Probably in that day and age his was a premature and painful death. It appears the illness was sudden. Within a week of the sisters’ alerting Jesus to Lazarus’s illness, their brother was dead. Actually, he was dead to Martha and Mary, yet more alive than he had ever been! He was in a place where flowers never fade, no one ever gets sick again, and things beyond his wildest dreams or imaginings were happening. The Bible says, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Lazarus was surely thinking, It’s heaven to be in heaven!
Then Jesus came to his tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” Can’t you hear Lazarus groan, “Oh no!” I’m sure he said, “Not again. You mean go back to suffer and die a second time? Must I leave ‘here’ to go ‘there’?” Yet he had to respond to the voice of Resurrection and Life standing outside his earthly tomb – so he obeyed.
But who benefited? Lazarus, or Martha and Mary? Sometimes we have a very poor view of heaven, don’t you think?
In the hospital room on my knees, I knew that what was worst for me was best for my mother and I took down my harp from the grief tree and got ready to sing a song.
I sang my song many times in the days following my mother’s death. I sang it to the people of God, and I sang it to nonbelievers. And many listened to me, because even nonbelievers have loved ones who get sick and die. Even nonbelievers have to sit beside their parents waiting for their breathing to stop. They need to know there’s a waiting room where God is to be found. There is a sanctuary inside a forgiven sinner, where comfort is given, hope is birthed, and joy – incredible joy – is waiting for us.
There is the fear of losing the familiar and loved one, and yet the joy of knowing that for those who have gone to be with the Lord, there is an incredible environment waiting for them where Jesus Himself is and where loved ones who have preceded us wait for us. Our comfort in our grief and loss is to know that those we love so very much are seeing our Lord’s face. Though they are out of our arms, they are into His.