John and Pam were lingering by the casket after the funeral was over.
Here is what I shared at the funeral service about the peculiar grief that my son John and and daughter-in-law Pam are going through:
A photographer came to the hospital just after Ben’s birth to capture Ben—his face, his hands, even his feet. This is my attempt to take a photo of our hearts.
I am struck by the peculiar grief that John and Pam are going though. Part of their grief will always be hidden to us. Proverbs 14:10 says, “The heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger shares its joy.” But from my limited perspective, what are some of the peculiar griefs that John and Pam are facing?
First, how do you grieve for someone you have barely know? John and Pam would have longed to have their baby alive for just ten minutes, to have seen his eyes or even have heard a good cry. John said, “I’ve never wanted so badly to hear a cry.” If they could have had their child for ten years, they would have wrung every minute out of those ten years. At one point John said, “I would have loved to have had a son with a disability.” So oddly enough because of love, Pam and John would have preferred to increase their grief.
The second peculiar grief is naming their baby. How do you name your son when the name was connected with promise, with hope, with life? Like Naomi, whose name means “pleasant”, do we change our name to “bitterness” so we don’t have the double agony of the loss of a son and the agony of a broken hope? Or do we like the Babwisi, the poor tribe in western Uganda where my mission worked, not name our children until they are a month old because so many of them die as infants? It seems inappropriate, out of place, to hope.
Finally, it is hard to grieve for someone who has already gone on. Pop Pop and Jill used to talk about getting rid of their spacesuits. As far as we know, Ben died on March 9 and was born on March 10. The natural order of life was reversed. We feel dislocated.
So what do we do with these three peculiar griefs?
With the first grief, “How do you grieve for someone we barely knew?”, by faith we make him known. We honor Ben. Like Eowen, the elf princess in The Lord of the Rings, who choses her love for Aargon over a safe, but plastic eternity, we chose to love even though it increases our grief. Ben looks like Pam. He has John’s blond hair. At the moment of Ben’s birth, Pam was happy at the gift of a son that God had given her. John said how proud he was of Ben. Courtney made Ben known through her poem. We don’t forget his memory.
With our second grief, by faith we name our baby. We name him Benjamin Edward Miller. Later in the day on March 10th, John emailed me this note:
When everyone left Pam asked me how I was. I told her that naming our baby Benjamin was the hardest and most important choice I’ve ever made in my life. I wanted so badly to name him something different than the boy we fell in love with. Giving him a name solidified that we lost, permanently, our little boy. Dad, I told her you changed the dedication in your new book to Benny and we both wept for joy. Pam had no idea. God doesn’t want us to forget him; he wants us to have faith in what we cannot see. There was never a boy like him in all history, and there never will be another. Here are some of his pictures. Here’s my son. I can’t wait to meet him.
Benjamin Edward Miller is such a big name for such a tiny man. Like our Benjamin, the Benjamin in the Bible never said a word. The tribe of Benjamin were warriors, the sling throwers of Israel. The Benjaminites we know well are Saul, Jonathan, and Paul, all strong men, warriors. Benjamin means, “son of my right hand”, the hand of power. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 1 that God always takes the weak things of this world to shame the mighty.
Benjamin is at the heart of the Bible’s first redemption story. The first family story in the book of Genesis is a murder. Cain murders his brother Abel. But Genesis ends with another brother Judah offering his life for his brother Benjamin. Judah releases the family curse by taking Benjamin’s place. Judah’s distant son, Jesus, would also offer his life as a ransom and break the curse that hangs over all the family of humanity. We are all Benjamin, in need of redemption.
What do we do with our third peculiar grief, “How do we grieve with someone who has already left?” The answer is simple. We leave with him. Our treasure is in heaven and, according to Jesus, hearts always follow treasure. I’ve lived with a woman who because of suffering in her life has for 27 years had one foot in heaven. Jill talks about heaven every day. Like Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, we look for a better country. We long to go home.
I’m so thankful that Jesus didn’t go through the stages of grieving. He never made it to the final stage of acceptance of death. He hated death. The result is that he messes up every funeral he goes to. He just doesn’t do funerals.
At the funeral of a widow’s son outside of Nain, he walks into the middle of the procession and tells the widow, “Be not weeping.” Be not weeping because in ten seconds I’m going to raise your son from the dead. Be not weeping because in two years I’m going to break the power of sin and death at the cross. Weep not.
At Lazarus’ funeral, he deliberately arrives four days late. After seeing Mary, Martha, and their friends weeping Jesus bursts into tears too, but John is at pains to tell us that is not Jesus primary emotion. Twice John says that Jesus was enraged as he began to move towards the tomb. Translators find Jesus’ anger so uncomfortable they always hide it. B. B. Warfield, the Princeton scholar summarizes Jesus’ feelings in his essay The Emotional Life of Our Lord:
The distress of May and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its violent tyranny. Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed….it is death that is the object of his wrath, and him who has the power of death, Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His whole soul is held by rage: “as a champion who prepares for conflict…” What John does for us…is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus as he wins for our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf.
Best of all Jesus messed up his own funeral by walking away from it when they were in the middle of the preparations! One day the sky will rip apart and the warrior, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, will return, this time without disguise, and destroy death once and for all. Death will never separate us again. We’ll get to know Jesus and Benny face-to-face. Come quickly Lord Jesus!