Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Under the Power of Melting Grief

Under the Power of Melting Grief

At times stringing together the words “grieving” and “ministry” can be oxymoronic. My mind recalls one pastor who lost his wife while she was giving birth to their second child. Because of congregational and peer pressure to “keep it together” and “be a good example,” outwardly he displayed no signs of grief. He even officiated at his own wife’s funeral.

Inwardly, privately, what a difference. He experienced ongoing hallucinations of his deceased wife and barely was able to care for his own needs, let alone those of his two children.

Where was this pastor, where are we, recruited into the unbiblical nonsense that grief is, well, unbiblical?

Biblical Sufferology

Many have developed splendid systematic theology models that counter this hideous idea that grieving is somehow less than Christian. Rather than duplicate their studies, in the brief space that we share together in this column, I’d like to share the true story of a prince of preachers and his response to the loss of his dear wife.

Many know the name Richard Baxter (1615-1691) as one of England’s foremost pastors, authors, and theologians. Fewer know of his wife, Margaret (1636-1681). Twenty-one years younger than her more-famous husband, Margaret struggled throughout her life as a fear-ridden, highly strung, overly-sensitive, painfully perfectionistic soul.

After nineteen years of marriage, Richard lost his soul mate when she passed at age forty-five after eleven days of delirium. Her reason had almost wholly left her, as she had longed feared it might.

Less than a month later, her grieving husband—the world-renowned pastor—wrote to tell the world of his grief. First published as A Breviate of the Life of Margaret, The Daughter of Francis Charlton, and Wife of Richard Baxter, John T. Wilkinson reprinted it with the beautiful title Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love Story.

Baxter prefaces his memorializing with the candid admission that it was, “. . . written, I confess, under the power of melting grief.”
[2] Knowing the likely criticism for such openness, Baxter continues, “. . . and therefore perhaps with the less prudent judgment; but not with the less, but the more truth; for passionate weakness poureth out all, which greater prudence may conceal.”[3]

Did you catch his meaning? In our weakness, not only are we strong in Christ, we are all the more honest as Christians. In our grieving, we do not and should not conceal the truth of tears this side of heaven.

In Depth of Grief

Perhaps even more remarkable, it was not simply the shock and nearness of Margaret’s death that left her husband so frank. Years later in his autobiography, Baxter expresses how his wife’s death left him “in depth of grief.”
[4] Interestingly, the original editor of Baxter’s autobiography suppressed this phrase. (Some things never changed.) Fortunately, truer historians have uncovered it—for the benefit of all who dare speak the truth about sorrow.[5]

Richard Baxter understood the truth that it’s normal to hurt—even for “full-time Christian workers.” His entire biography of dear Margaret is a tear-stained tribute to the affection they shared and the sadness he endured.

Mingled Hurt and Hope

Of course, Baxter also understood the truth that it’s possible to hope—for all Christians. Listen to his mingled hurt and hope.

She is gone after many of my choice friends, who within this one year are gone to Christ, and I am following even at the door. Had I been to enjoy them only here, it would have been but a short comfort, mixed with the many troubles which all our failings and sins, and some degree of unsuitableness between the nearest and dearest, cause. But I am going after them to that blessed society where life, light, and love, and therefore, harmony, concord, and joy, are perfect and everlasting.

Perhaps one reason why we practice denial is our fear that entering our grief might so consume us that we will be overwhelmed with worldly sorrow. Baxter’s Christian experience reminds us that this doesn’t have to be the case.

We can look fallen life squarely in the eyes, admit the truth that it is a quagmire of pain and problems, and still live hopefully now if we also look toward life in our heavenly world to come.

In the last paragraph of his tribute to Margaret, Baxter succinctly combines these two realities. “Therefore in our greatest straits and sufferings, let us comfort one another with these words: That we shall for ever be with the Lord.”

Shakespeare’s Romeo said, “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.”

Baxter might add, “He fears facing scars who never embraces the truth that by Christ’s wounds we are healed.”

[1]J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1997, p. 13.
[2]Ibid., p. 56.
[4]Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxteriannae, 1696.
[5]Packer, p. 197.
[6]Ibid., p. 57.
[7]Ibid., p. 149.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part 4

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part 4

What have we learned and what can we learn from the mothers of the church fathers? We learn to listen to the silenced voices.

Listening to the Silenced Voices

When we listen to the silenced voices of the forgotten Church Mothers we lean back hearing a megaphone blaring, “Women are worthy!” Remember, this was nearly 2,000 years ago—not exactly an era perceived to be the height of the women’s movement. Yet again and again, the great Church Fathers consistently testified to their spiritual debt to the great Church Mothers.

When we listen to the silenced voices of the forgotten Church Mothers we lean over to hear a calm, quiet voice whispering, “Women are God-empowered.” We do not detect even a trace of arrogance or anger in these powerful women. In fact, it seems that they would blush at the word “powerful.” Rather, they would choose the word “empowered.” These Church Mothers saw themselves as God-called and God-empowered lights in the darkness. They reflected the light of hope coming from the Son of God as they journeyed gently yet confidently with other women and with men.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part III

Mothers of the Church Fathers,
Part 3

When discussing the great Church Fathers, names like the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) come to mind, as do John Chrysostom, and Augustine. However, in most cases, we truly have forgotten their mothers: Emmelia, who we just considered; Nonna, the mother of Gregory of Nazianzus; Anthusa, the mother of John Chrysostom; and Monica, the mother of Augustine. It is to this lost tradition that we now turn our attention.

Monica: Spiritual Friend and Spiritual Director

The name of Monica, mother of Augustine, is perhaps the best known of the Church Mothers whose voices we have heard thus far. What we know about Monica we learn almost entirely from her son’s autobiography Confessions.

Monica was born in North Africa near Carthage in what is now Tunisia, perhaps around 331 AD, of Christian parents, and was a committed believer her entire life. She married an unbelieving husband, Patricius, a man of a hot temper who was often unfaithful to her. It was her greatest joy to see both him and his mother ultimately receive the Gospel. Monica also spent years suffering over her son’s pagan lifestyle until his conversion and commitment to Christian ministry.

Reconciling Her Family

In the Confessions, which Augustine addressed to God, we hear of her reconciling witness to her wayward son. “In fact, as a boy I had heard about the eternal life that had been promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God’s lowering himself to our pride, and already I was stamped with the sign of the his cross, already seasoned with his salt from the womb of my mother, who put great hope in You. . . . My fleshly mother was disturbed, because she more lovingly brooded over my eternal salvation, with a pure heart in Your faith.”[i]

Coming to faith, Augustine described a scenario to which every believing mother with an unbelieving husband can relate. “Thus already I believed, as did my mother and all the household, my father alone excepted, who nonetheless did not drive out the authority of my mother’s piety so that I did not believe in Christ, inasmuch as he did not yet believe. For my mother busied herself in order that You might be my Father, my God, rather than he, and in this matter You helped her so that she might overcome her husband, to whom she was subject . . .”

Christian mothers need to hear Monica’s voice. She confidently spoke and personified the reality that a mother’s piety can drown out a father’s irreverence. She also reminds mothers that they do not have to be both mother and father. In the absence of a believing father, Monica pointed her son to his ultimate Father, rather than trying to be a surrogate father.

Of course, none of this implies that Monica was indifferent to her husband’s spiritual plight. “She concerned herself to win him for You, speaking of You through her behavior, by which You made her beautiful, respectfully lovable, and admirable to her husband. Moreover, she thus endured the wrongs to her bed, so that she never had any feuding with her husband on account of this matter. She waited for Your compassion to come upon him, so that believing in You, he might become chaste.”

Monica lived to see the fruit of the seeds of life that she planted. “At last she won for You even her own husband, now at the end of his earthly life. In him as a believer she did not now bewail that which she endured when he was not yet one of the faithful.”

A Ministry Beyond Her Home

Monica’s ministry extended beyond her home. Journeying to join Augustine in Milan, the faith that she exercised with her family strengthened her to comfort, console, and bring courage even to sailors in a storm. “Already my mother had come to me, strong in her piety, following me over land and sea, secure in You against all dangers. For during the hazards at sea she comforted the sailors themselves (to whom inexperienced travelers at sea customarily go for consolation when they become anxious), promising them a safe arrival, because You had promised her this in a vision.”[v]

Augustine reserved his final testimonial to his mother’s spiritual direction for her spiritual conversations with him in her dying days and hours. “Thus we were talking alone together very sweetly, forgetting past events and stretching out to those ahead of us. We were seeking between us in the presence of truth, which You are, to think how the future eternal life of the saints would be, the life ‘which eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor had it entered the heart of man’ (Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9). We opened wide the mouth of our heart to the supernatural streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You, so that being sprinkled from it according to our power of comprehension, w might in some way reflect on so great a thing.”[vi]

Picture it. Mother and son. Leaning on a window, viewing the garden of their house, talking of eternal hope, knowing that she would soon be leaving this world behind. Imagine the encouragement in the midst of sadness that Monica brought her son.

“And when our discussion arrived at the conclusion that the pleasure of the carnal senses, however great it may be, in however great corporeal light, seemed not comparable to the pleasantness of that life, indeed, not even worth speaking about, we raised ourselves by our more ardent passion toward Him, and we gradually traveled through all corporeal things and Heaven itself, whence sun and moon and stars shine above the earth. We were still ascending by our inner reflection and speech. We admired Your words. We came to our minds and transcended them, that we might reach the region of unfailing fruitfulness, where You feed Israel forever with the food of truth . . .”
[vii] Nine days later, in the fifty-sixth year of her life, and in the thirty-third year of Augustine’s life, Monica passed from life to death to eternal life.

Augustine expressed his grief mingled with hope. “Then gradually did I call back my earlier feeling for Your handmaid, her devout conversation with You, her gentleness to and compliancy with us in holiness, of which suddenly I was destitute. It was pleasing to weep in Your sight for her and over her, for myself and over myself. And I released the tears which I had restrained, that they might flow as much as they wished, spreading them under my heart, which rested in them, since Your ears were there, not those of a man, who would interpret my weeping in a haughty spirit. And now, Lord, I will confess to You in writing. Let him read it who will, and let him interpret it as he will, and if he finds a sin in my weeping for my mother for a small part of an hour—a mother who was meanwhile dead to my eyes, who had wept over me for many years that I might live in Your eyes—let him not laugh, but rather, if he is a person of lofty charity, let him weep for my sins against You, the Father of all the brothers of Your Christ.”[viii]

Augustine wept. He lost his best spiritual friend. He lost the most important person in his life. He lost the earthly mother who led him to know his heavenly Father. Augustine grieved. But he grieved with hope because Monica had encouraged him with words of life.

[i]Clark, Women in the Early Church, pp. 246-247.
[ii] Ibid., p. 247.
[iii]Ibid., p. 252.
[iv]Ibid., p. 253.
[v]Ibid., p. 247.
[vi]Ibid., p. 254.
[vii]Ibid., pp. 254-255.
[viii]Ibid., pp. 257-258).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part 2

When discussing the great Church Fathers, names like the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) come to mind, as do John Chrysostom, and Augustine. However, in most cases, we truly have forgotten their mothers: Emmelia, who we just considered; Nonna, the mother of Gregory of Nazianzus; Anthusa, the mother of John Chrysostom; and Monica, the mother of Augustine. It is to this lost tradition that we now turn our attention.

Anthusa: Lamenting Loss, Gripping Grace

Endeared as one of the four great doctors of the Church, John Chrysostom was born in 347 AD in Antioch, Syria and was prepared for a career in law under the renowned Libanius, who marveled at his pupil’s eloquence and foresaw a brilliant career for him as statesman and lawgiver. But John decided, after he had been baptized at the age of twenty-three, to abandon law in favour of service to Christ. In his renowned pulpit ministry, he emerged as “Golden Mouth,” a preacher whose oratorical excellence gained him a reputation throughout the Christian world.

Unfortunately, we know little about John’s upbringing and even less about his mother, Anthusa. What we do know should resonate with every woman who has ever been left bereft of a husband.

Anthusa repeated her story of widowhood to her son when he planned to leave home at age twenty to share a residence with his best friend, Basil. John recounts the scene.

“But the continual lamentations of my mother hindered me from granting him the favor, or rather from receiving this boon at his hands. For when she perceived that I was meditating this step, she took me into her own private chamber, and, sitting near me on the bed where she had given birth to me, she shed torrents of tears, to which she added words yet more pitiable than her weeping, in the following lamentable strain.”

An Emotional EKG

Anthusa then shared and bared her soul.

“My child, it was not the will of Heaven that I should long enjoy the benefit of thy father’s virtue. For his death soon followed the pangs which I endured at thy birth, leaving thee an orphan and me a widow before my time to face all the horrors of widowhood, which only those who have experienced them can fairly understand. For no words are adequate to describe the tempest-tossed condition of a young woman who, having but lately left her paternal home . . . is suddenly racked by an overwhelming sorrow, and compelled to support a load of care too great for her age . . .”

Though distressing, in many ways hearing Anthusa’s candor is refreshing. Sometimes we have the false impression that the “saints of old” sailed through life’s sorrows without a single word of complaint or even a blip on their emotional EKG. Anthusa reminds us that this is fictitious. She also modeled for us the great Old Testament tradition of lamentation, which is so vital in the sustaining process.

Grace from Above

Anthusa offered insight into the healing process as she shared with her son how she survived and eventually thrived.

“None of these things, however, induced me to enter into a second marriage, or introduce a second husband into thy father’s house: but I held on as I was, in the midst of the storm and uproar, and did not shun the iron furnace of widowhood. My foremost help indeed was the grace from above."

In the midst of the storm and uproar, our foremost healing help is always grace from above.

[i]John Chrysostom, Treatise on the Priesthood, book 1, paragraph 5, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. IX.
[iii]Ibid., emphasis added.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part 1

Mothers of the Church Fathers, Part 1

When discussing the great Church Fathers, names like the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) come to mind, as do John Chrysostom, and Augustine. However, in most cases, we truly have forgotten their mothers: Emmelia, the mother of Gregory of Nyssa; Nonna, the mother of Gregory of Nazianzus; Anthusa, the mother of John Chrysostom; and Monica, the mother of Augustine. It is to this lost tradition that we now turn our attention.

Nonna: Stirring Up the Gift of God

The two brothers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, along with their close friend and fellow theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, are the principal formulators of the classic doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory of Nazianzus was the son of Gregory and Nonna. He became the Bishop of Constantinople and a preacher of orthodoxy who wrote extensively on both theological and devotional topics. After the victory of Nicene Orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople I in 381, Gregory of Nazianzus retired as a bishop and led a monastic life.

Long before he became famous, his lesser-known mother guided his spiritual life and that of his father. Nonna was born around 300 AD and passed away on August 5, 374 AD. Gregory described in glowing terms her holiness of life and the beautiful conformity of her actions to the highest standards of Christian excellence.

To her example, aided by her prayers, he ascribed the conversion of his father from a strange medley of paganism and a heretical Christian sect. Unwilling to accept his status as an unbeliever, Nonna “fell before God night and day, entreating for the salvation of her head with many fastings and tears, and assiduously devoting herself to her husband, and influencing him in many ways, by means of reproaches, admonitions, attentions, estrangements, and above all by her own character with its fervour for piety, by which the soul is specially prevailed upon and softened, and willingly submits to virtuous pressure.”

Strong Medicine

When so many Christian wives today struggle with how to relate to a beloved unbelieving husband, Nonna’s example provides hope and direction. She certainly was no “wallflower.” Her method of reconciling combined the strong medicine of reproaches and admonitions with continual doses of character and piety. We see in her example the power of persistent prayer and the plan of God to combine prayer and action in all our reconciling relationships.

Her ministry to her newly saved husband did not end at reconciling. Gregory went so far as to attribute his father’s spirituality and ministry success to Nonna. “But she who was given by God to my father became not only, as is less wonderful, his assistant, but even his leader, drawing him on by her influence in deed and word to the highest excellence; judging it best in all other respects to be overruled by her husband according to the law of marriage, but not being ashamed, in regard to piety, even to offer herself as his teacher.”

Shepherding the Shepherd

Her spiritual guidance was so extensive and intensive that when Gregory the Elder became a bishop, he learned how to shepherd from her example. At his sister’s funeral, Gregory of Nazianzus said of his father and mother, “This good shepherd was the result of his wife’s prayers and guidance, and it was from her that he learned his ideal of a good shepherd’s life.”
[iii] Here we have a Christian wife guiding her husband. More than that, we find a wife teaching her husband how to shepherd. In Church history, women have not taken a back seat to anyone in providing reconciling and guiding.

Nonna’s ministry did not stop with her husband, but continued with her son. Like Hannah with Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-28), Nonna committed her son to the Lord and His service even before Gregory’s birth. Reflecting on it years later, Gregory noted about his mother, “That which concerns myself is perhaps undeserving of mention, since I have proved unworthy of the hope cherished in regard to me: yet it was on her part a great undertaking to promise me to God before my birth, with no fear of the future, and to dedicate me immediately after I was born. Through God’s goodness has it been that she has not utterly failed in her prayer, and that the auspicious sacrifice was not rejected.”

What enabled Nonna to maintain such a relentless prayer life? “These were the objects of her prayers and hopes, in the fervour of faith rather than of youth. Indeed, none was as confident of things present as she of things hoped for, from her experience of the generosity of God.”
[v] Nonna believed in a good God with a good heart. She knew that her God was a generous rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). In the ebb and flow of soul care and spiritual direction, Nonna embodied the truth that it is our certainty about God’s generosity that leads to our capacity to minister steadfastly.

[i]Gregory of Nazianzus, Catholic Encyclopedia, “Funeral Oration on His Father,” oration 18, paragraph 11, emphasis added.
[ii]Gregory of Nazianzus, Catholic Encyclopedia, “Funeral Oration on His Sister Gorgonia,” oration 8, paragraph 11, emphasis added.
[iii]Ibid., oration 8, paragraph 5.
[iv]Gregory of Nazianzus, Catholic Encyclopedia, “Funeral Oration on His Father,” oration 18, paragraph 11.
[v]Ibid., paragraph 12.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Legacy of Macrina the Elder

The Legacy of Macrina the Elder

Macrina the Elder learned the Christian life in the school of suffering. She was born sometime before 270 AD in Neocaesarea in Pontus (Asia Minor). During the persecution of Diocletian, Macrina fled the city with her husband and they lived in hiding in a forest near Pontus for seven years, nearly starving several times.

The family of Macrina is a fitting place to study women soul care-givers and spiritual directors. They are unique in the history of Christianity. Her grandsons, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, both Church Fathers, are the most well known of her lineage. However, they are not the sole reason why posterity has long revered Macrina’s family. She nourished three generations of Christian leaders passing the torch of faith from herself to her daughter Emmelia, and then to Emmelia’s children Macrina the Younger, Peter, Basil, and Gregory, all of whom history has honored as saints. Most importantly, “what is pertinent here is the fact that the family recognized the women to be the guides directing them all to their spiritual ends.”[i]

Truth and Life

Her grandson, Basil wrote admiringly of his grandmother’s mentoring. “What clearer proof of our faith could there be than that we were brought up by our grandmother, a blessed woman. I am speaking of the illustrious Macrina, by whom we were taught the words of the most blessed Gregory (Thaumaturgus), which, having preserved until her time by uninterrupted tradition, she also guarded, and she formed and molded me, still a child, to the doctrines of piety.”

What a fascinating concluding phrase, “formed and molded me . . . to the doctrines of piety.” Macrina’s discipleship model focused not just on doctrine, not just on piety, but on both—truth and life. In this, she followed in the heritage of the Apostle Paul who passed on the faith to Timothy with these words: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them . . .” (1 Timothy 4:16a, emphasis added).

Like Macrina the Elder, her daughter Emmelia took an active role in the spiritual formation of her children, particularly her firstborn, Macrina the Younger. Gregory of Nyssa tells us in his vita of his sister: “The education of the child was her mother’s task; she did not, however, employ the usual worldly method of education . . . but such parts of inspired Scripture as you would think were incomprehensible to young children were the subject of the girl’s studies; in particular the Wisdom of Solomon, and those parts of it especially which have an ethical bearing. Nor was she ignorant of any part of the Psalter, but at stated times she recited every part of it.” Indeed, “When she rose from bed, or engaged in household duties, or rested, or partook of food, or retired from table, when she went to bed or rose in the night for prayer, the Psalter was her constant companion, like a good fellow-traveler that never deserted her.”

Like mother, like daughter. Emmelia’s guiding emphasized truth and life by inculcating the “ethical bearing” of Proverbs. She also followed the pedagogical insight and teaching methodology of Deuteronomy 6:7, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the road, when you lied down and when you get up.”

From Generation to Generation

Her life lessons stuck. Macrina the Younger discipled her younger brother, Peter. She “took him soon after birth from the nurse’s breast and reared him herself and educated him on a lofty system of training, practicing him from infancy in his holy studies” and eventually became “all things to the lad—father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice.”

In turn, Peter applied well his sister’s life lessons. “Scorning to occupy his time with worldly studies, and having in nature a sufficient instructor in all good knowledge, and always looking to his sister as the model of all good, he advanced to such a height of virtue that in his subsequent life he seemed in no whit inferior to the great Basil. But at this time he was all in all to his sister and mother, co-operating with them in the pursuit of the angelic life.”
[v] In later years, Peter and Macrina the Younger administered the double monastery at Annesi, discipling yet another generation of young believers.

Again, Macrina’s family followed the discipleship model of the Apostle Paul who exhorted Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Macrina the Elder’s family mentored four generations and beyond. Macrina the Elder provided guidance to Emmelia; Emmelia provided spiritual direction to Macrina the Younger; Macrina the Younger discipled Peter; Peter mentored those at the double monastery; and those at the monasteries passed the torch of truth to still others.

[i]Ranft, p. 26.
[iii]Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Saint Macrina, paragraphs 962c-964a.
[iv]Ibid., paragraph 972c.
[v]Ibid., paragraph 972d.