Reflections on the Death of a Loved One

Last Friday I went to my uncle’s funeral. It was a wonderful ceremony and a fine memorial for a fine man. My uncle, Rick, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which made the end of his life very difficult. He was diagnosed with the disease in August of 2003, and it quickly began to exact a devastating curse on his body. For the next 9 years my uncle and his family experienced a long and devastating death.

The funeral itself was a happy time. Rick’s life before the disease was outstanding. His life was marked by a profound love for God and for others. The church was full of people eager to testify the how he was a blessing to them. When it is time to bury a loved one, it is so encouraging to know that they loved the Lord, and more importantly, the Lord loved them.

Yet, there remains a question that seems heavy on many of our minds. Why would God allow this kind of suffering, especially in a family who loves Him so dearly? I don’t claim to know the specifics of why God chose to allow my uncle to suffer, but I do think I can make two claims with confidence.

1. Suffering is not necessarily the result of a specific sin. Certainly, suffering only exists because sin has entered the world. Without sin there would be no suffering, and this is one of the things that makes heaven so exciting. Yet Jesus makes it clear that specific instances of suffering should not necessarily be linked to specific sins. Jesus makes this clear in an interaction with his disciples in John 9:2-3.

And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parent, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3)

When my uncle died, no one there believed that his sickness was a result of his sin. His life was characterized by obedience and love for God. Yet, he lived in a fallen world and the effects of sin affect the world indiscriminately. There is no point in tracing every instance of suffering back to some sin which produced it. Instead it is enough to know that a fallen world is a hard place, liberally offering pain and suffering to all its inhabitants.

2. Suffering is not without purpose. While the effects of sin are indiscriminately distributed, it does not follow that they are without purpose. Jesus explained that the suffering of the blind man was so that God might be glorified in him. In that story, Jesus proceeded to heal the man, demonstrating himself master even over the effects of sin. Yet many other times, in fact more often than not, healing is delayed until after death so that the believer and those around him or her can experience a different aspect of the glory of God.

This was certainly the case with Paul. Consider Paul’s own testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

God allowed Paul’s suffering, and I believe my uncle’s suffering, for the same reason, to serve as a reminder of our need for Him. Rick’s life served as a sign pointing people to Christ, his death was no different. It reminded us of our frailty and our overwhelming need for God’s mercy. It reminded us that we are weak, but God is strong.

John Newton – I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow
Perhaps the greatest poem on this topic was written by John Newton, the author of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” His hymn, “I asked the Lord that I might grow,” explains in excruciating detail how God uses suffering to accomplish His purposes.

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know;
And seek more earnestly His face.
Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair!

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins–and give me rest!

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part!

Yes more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe!
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds–and laid me low!

“Lord, why is this!” I trembling cried,
“Will you pursue your worm to death?”
“This is the way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may seek your all in Me!”

There is no doubt that Newton understands that suffering has a purpose. The only question left is, “is it worth it?” Newton asks for grace and faith, but the price he pays for it is dear.  What reward is worth the suffering that Newton describes? What reward is worth the long and devastating death that my uncle and his family endured? The reward must be, and most assuredly is, greater than the suffering.

John Newton only hints at the great reward. He is taught to seek his all in Christ. Paul explains the reward much more explicitly in Philippians 3:8-11.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The reward of suffering is Christ. This is why we can count it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds, because it leads us to Christ. The process is certainly long and hard. We must be taught to persevere. We are taught the painful lessons required to learn character. But at the end, there is hope (Romans 5:3-5). There is Christ. The suffering that Newton describes and the suffering that my uncle and his family endured are not worth it if we expect some cheap reward. If the reward is something small, a better job or better friends, the price would indeed be too steep. But this is no small reward. The reward of suffering is Christ. For Him, no price is too high.

My uncle knew Christ and is today in heaven, free from the suffering that characterized the last ten years of his life. Yet, I cannot escape the conviction that he perhaps endured suffering for more than himself. Perhaps, his suffering can be our tutor as well. My prayer is, I believe, the same as his would be. That as we remember how his body failed, we will learn not to trust in our own bodies. We won’t rely on our strength or our wits. We won’t presume to have many more years before we must face our creator. Instead, we will begin now to strive for the great reward, the surpassing worth of know Christ Jesus.

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You Know This…

You may not know this, but my wife, Kanon Simmons, has started her own blog called “You Know This….” You can find it at www.kanonsimmons.blogspot.com.

The major point of her blog is to talk about natural law. But before you start yawning, I assure you that it is actually interesting, both her blog and the topic. Natural law refers to the the knowledge of right and wrong that naturally exists in every person, even if they have never heard of the Bible.

It used to be that everyone simply recognized that natural law existed. People assumed that everyone knew that certain things were right and certain things were wrong. For instance, everyone knows that murder is wrong. You don’t have to convince me that murder is wrong, I just know it. This innate knowledge of right and wrong is what the founders of our country referred to when they said, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Today the notion that everyone naturally knows that certain things are right or wrong has fallen under suspicion. There are actually some people who suggest that the only reason we think murder is wrong is because we have been taught that it is wrong by our culture. In their minds murder may be wrong for you, but you can’t say that it is wrong for everyone.

I am really excited that Kanon is going to start blogging about natural law. The topic is fun and I think her writing is fun. I hope you read her blog along with me. I am confident it will help us become better thinkers about ethics, politics, and Christian living.

When Marriage Goes Bad

In the last post I pointed out the amazing price Christ paid so that we might be a beautiful bride. You would think that in light of this kind of love we would respond by loving Him without reserve. Yet, the truth is, many of us find that we repeatedly fail to love God with all our hearts, our souls, and our minds. While we may be ashamed that we fail to love as we ought, I wonder how often we stop to view our lack of love through the eyes of God. Ezekiel 16:4-32 helps us understand that our failure to love God rightly is much worse than we might realize. I will include the text below for you to read.

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.

But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his. You took some of your garments and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore. The like has never been, nor ever shall be. You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore. And you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread that I gave you—I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey—you set before them for a pleasing aroma; and so it was, declares the Lord GOD. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them? And in all your abominations and your whorings you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, wallowing in your blood. 

And after all your wickedness (woe, woe to you! declares the Lord GOD), you built yourself a vaulted chamber and made yourself a lofty place in every square. At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring… How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!

God asks, “how sick is your heart?” The answer is clear; more sick than we can even comprehend. The picture is indeed bleak as we consider the depths of our depravity. If we fail to consider how bad our state is, if we remain self-confident, “building vaulted chambers for ourselves,” then there is little hope for our souls. Yet, if we consider our sins and “remember the days of our youth,” then hope remains. It is in this lowly state that we can join David in praying the words of Psalm 51.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

The Most Costly Wedding

It seemed like the news was full of weddings today. I believe all of wedding interest in the news is in preparation for the April 29th wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. However, in my humble opinion, there is a much more exciting wedding coming in June.

One of the articles that I saw this morning discussed just how extravagant, and expensive, weddings are. According to Tom Barlow, the author of the article, the most expensive wedding in recent history cost over 100 million dollars. The second most expensive was the Prince Charles and Diana wedding. Barlow says the Diana’s dress alone was $15,000. But it’s not just royalty weddings and celebrity weddings that are expensive. Barlow claims that the average US wedding costs $24,000.

If you are like me, you may think this isn’t simply extravagant, its exorbitant. But before we are too quick to pass judgment, consider what Christ paid for his wedding day. Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-27,

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

When held next to the death of the Son of God, $100 million dollars becomes an embarrassingly meager expense. He gave His life so that His bride would look stunning on their wedding day. No wedding, and no marriage, will ever be as extravagant and glorious as that of Christ and His church.

And the most amazing part… we are the bride! We are the beneficiaries of this great gift! In response, how in love with Christ ought we to be? How eager to know Him and serve Him? How committed to walk worthy of our groom? How committed ought we be to living as one who is holy, without spot or blemish?

Till Death Do Us Part

Marriage is only 3 months, 3 days, and 17 hours away for me now. It is a truly exciting prospect. In my last post I tried to show just a glimpse of what a wonderful privilege I believe God has given me.

At the same time, I recognize that this privilege is also a responsibility. In 3 months, 3 days, and 17 hours I am going to promise to love Kanon, to the best of my ability, in a way that reflects how Christ has loved me. That is a seriously tall order because “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I am under no misconception that love is easy. Jesus loved me in a way that cost his life. I see no reason that my love for Kanon shouldn’t bear similar marks of sacrifice. Today, while reading Justin Taylor’s blog, I came across a video of a man who understood and lived out this truth.

Taylor’s blog post is about Robertson McQuilkin who “resigned his post as president of Columbia Bible College and Graduate School, in order to care for his beloved wife Muriel.” Muriel had begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and was now in constant need of care. McQuilkin resigned in 1990 and his wife stopped recognizing him in 1993. Ten years later she went to be with the Lord at the age of 81.

My favorite thing about McQuilkin is that he seems to recognize that caring for his wife is both his duty and his privilege. It is his duty because he is her husband and he has vowed to love her in sickness and in health till death do us part. It is his privilege because he loves her. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame.” Certainly the cross was a sacrifice, but Jesus also considered it a joy to bear the cross so that he might redeem his bride, the Church.

Justin Taylor ends his post saying, “May God make us men like this.” That is my prayer. If you want more information about McQuilkin click the link below to take you to Taylor’s blog. Otherwise, enjoy the video!

Till Death Do Us Part

Pals

Though it has little to do with interpreting the Bible, I am excited to announce that I am now engaged to Kanon Raulerson. If you are interested, I am going to record a brief history of our relationship.Kanon and Nathaniel

August 24, 2007
August 24, 2007

I met Kanon several years ago when she came up here to Raleigh to visit her sister, Kara, who was going to the seminary at the time. Kanon decided to come up to here for seminary too and moved up around August of 2007.  Kara had just started hanging out with Tanner (my roommate), which meant we all hung several times during her first few weeks in North Carolina.

My first impression of Kanon was that she was incredibly pretty, but also incredibly quiet. Even though she came over to our house several times, I am not sure that she ever said more than 5 words. It wasn’t until October that I saw her personality start coming out.

October 20, 2007
October 20, 2007

Kanon and Kara were planning a trip to DC. It just so happened that I was going up there for a wedding so we all carpooled. The three of us stayed at a friend’s house and when I wasn’t on official wedding business we hung out in Washington, DC. Perhaps it was Kanon’s love for our nation’s capital or perhaps it was listening to her sing “Fancy,” but this was the first time I began to realize how much fun Kanon is.

October 27, 2007
October 27, 2007

When we got back to Raleigh I decided I needed to spend a little more time with her. I called her up on the last week of October (the 27th to be exact) to ask her to go bowling. I bowled a particularly good game (at least for me), and beat her by 100. I must have been bragging a little too much because as we were leaving she told me that she could never like someone who was a good bowler. Then, perhaps as a response to my wounded expression, she assured me that I was not a good bowler. To this day I still don’t know exactly how I should have interpreted that statement.

Over the next couple of months we hung out quite a lot. We would often go out with Kara and Tanner, but since they were officially dating by this point, we had plenty of opportunities for just the two of us to hang out. I took her to her favorite restaurant (Waffle House) and we took several trips to Barnes and Noble to study. All the while, the more time we spent together, the more I liked Kanon. By the beginning of 2008 I felt like I needed to tell her how I was feeling. After several attempts, in which I couldn’t find the courage to broach the subject, I decided to bring it up on our way to Barnes and Noble one Sunday after church.

As I began my speech, which I had rehearsed several times in my mind, I noticed Kanon’s expression turn to horror. To my dismay, she didn’t see this coming at all. She never really thought of any of the the things we were doing as dates (in hindsight, I can understand why a trip to Waffle House doesn’t strike someone as a date). She just assumed that since my friend, Tanner, was hanging out with her sister all the time that I might need a friend. And since her sister was always hanging out with Tanner, she needed a friend too. So, by March of 2008 our relationship was very well defined, we were just friends.

October 17, 2009
October 17, 2009

Whenever you get shot down you need a little time to lick your wounds. For the next couple of months we were a bit estranged. But as time marched on we started hanging out again. It turns out that being “just friends” is a pretty good way to get to know someone. Kanon and I ended up spending a lot of time together as just friends. We still had the same circle of friends, we both helped out with the youth group at our church, and we were both in the same small group. Our little circle of friends went to movies together, the fair together, and plenty of other things together.

But, to be honest, I could never really see myself as just friends with Kanon. The more time we spent together, the more time I wanted to spend with her. I found myself always looking for reasons to go talk to her. No matter who else I was talking to I always seemed to have one eye on her. It was becoming painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to view Kanon as just a friend. When the summer of 2009 came I realized that I had one year left and it was now do or die.

I remember one particular night as a sort of turning point for me. We were at our friends’ house (the Bowers). While we were there she got an email from a guy in her class who was asking her out. She responded with some sort of polite refusal. But Greg Bowers, to whom I will be eternally grateful, saw this as a golden opportunity. Greg pointed out that she was asked out all the time but was never willing to date any of these would be suitors. Then he asked her the most normal question that anyone would think to ask. “Why don’t you date these guys, what are you waiting for?”

Kanon explained that she wasn’t interested in just dating some guy that she didn’t know. Dating, to her, was a completely awkward enterprise. What she wanted was to be such good friends with a guy that she didn’t have to go through some awkward get to know you stage. She wanted to be such good friends with a guy that one day she would just realize that she was in love with him.

I immediately thought, isn’t that what we already have? I also immediately came up with a strategy. I had one year to show her that we were in the most natural easy relationship possible. We loved hanging out together. We could talk to each other for hours about every topic under the sun. We watched the same TV shows, had the same friends, and had really similar aspirations for our lives. All I had to do was help her realize it.

02b43-60373_510443102534_176300478_30299865_7219911_nFrom August to December Kanon and I hung out all the time. I did everything I could think of to spend time with her. I tried to go to every event that she was going to be at. I offered to ride with her every night after youth group to take one of the kids home. I even started bargaining to get gift certificates so I could take her out to eat without it seeming like a date. And all along I kept liking her more and more.

By December it must have been getting somewhat apparent that I spent as much time with Kanon as possible. She was constantly fielding questions about what was going on between us. So one night, after Kara and Tanner’s Christmas party, the two us were driving back to Wake Forest when she decided to bring it up. I decided it was time to come clean. I confessed to her that I definitely still liked her and had for just over 3 years.

Kanon got quiet. She said she was surprised, but I am not sure that I really believe it. Regardless, she needed some time to process everything. She was now faced with the reality that we couldn’t be just friends anymore. Fortunately for her, we were leaving for Christmas break so she had a little time to think through things.

With all my cards on the table, I spent January and February trying to pull out out the stops. Some of our best dates were during these two months. I began buying presents and writing long letters. Those two months were both exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. Every date, every gesture, every interaction seemed like one last plea for her affection. Until, finally, on February 19, 2010, Kanon said that she was ready to begin dating.

October 18, 2010
October 18, 2010

The last year has been the best year of my life. We have moved from being just friends to being in love. I have moved from dreading her graduation and the day she would move away, to promising to spend the rest of my life with her. While the process has been challenging at times, it has also been good. Kanon has been my friend for over four years, over the last year she has become my best friend.

On our way home from DC on Sunday Kanon received a text message from Nicolle Bowers that summarizes exactly how I feel. She said, “It is the best thing in the world to marry your best friend.” Kanon is my best friend and I couldn’t be any more excited that I get to marry her.

February 13, 2011
February 13, 2011