Grieving, Hope and Solace is the title of a book written by Al Martin (cruciformpress.com, 116 pages, 2011). It comprises a series of sermons preached after the death of his wife Marilyn after 42 years of marriage. The author sent me a copy when I experienced a similar loss last year and I found it helpful.
To be reminded in a most fresh and applicatory way of the Christian hope was the most satisfying and lasting benefit I received from the book. How we need to appropriate these truths of the glory that lies before every believer, but there was something else. I also enjoyed in this book the personal references to Al Martin and Marilyn that gave an immediacy to the preaching and put windows in the sermons. We often remember the illustrations when the doctrines taught in a sermon begin to fade, and so it was with this fine book. There is little I know of the details of Al’s conversion, and in the early years, when he set alight the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference in Leicester and considerably increased the number of those attending, I was more interested in this fascinating example of his popularization of the Reformers and Puritans and the leaders of the Great Awakening and the application of the truths they loved to our age in his American perspective. All true preachers have done this, Serbs, Zambians, Americans and Welshmen (even!) are accomplishing this today. I have wanted to preach like them. But as the years have gone by one also gets interested in the lives of men of God. How did God deal with such ministers as Lloyd-Jones, John Murray, Jerry Bridges and John MacArthur? Their biographies or auto-biographies, have been almost as helpful to me as their writings. The glimpses given in these sermons of Al Martin’s pilgrimage are very sweet and that is what I want to share with you.
On Marilyn’s actual death: “After being in a coma for three days, on September 20, 2004, at 6.20 a.m., just as the sun was rising, Marilyn died. I saw and heard her expel her last breath. Although in many ways she had been taken from me incrementally during her battle with cancer, that wretched disease, the reality of the finality of death and the radical separation it effects, swept over me. A few moments later, as I picked up her lifeless body, I found myself asking the question, ‘What precisely has just happened to Marilyn? What has she experienced, and what is she experiencing now?’ Immediately I knew that if I would grieve as I ought, I had to be able to answer that question out of the Scriptures with absolute certainty” (p.7). So this series of sermons were the fruit of those questions.
On Marilyn’s acceptance of the fact that she was dying: “Marilyn had her CT scans taken at a local hospital on a Monday morning. The following day I would drive to the hospital and pick up both the films and the cardiologist’s report. I would go out to the parking lot and sit in my car and read that report. Then I would call Marilyn on my cell phone and convey to her what the report revealed. On one particular Tuesday, in March 2004 (six months before she died), the pathology report contained both good and bad news. When I called Marilyn and appraised her of that fact, she asked me to give her both the good and the bad. The good news was that the nodules in her lungs had not grown. The bad news was that there were now multiple metastases in her liver. When I read that portion of the report to her over the phone, her reflexive response, couched in words I shall never forget, was this, ‘Well, dear, I am going home.’ There was no hand wringing. There was no string of questions concerning God’s right to bring her to this place in her life’s history . . . God had chosen for her ‘by what kind of death [she] was to glorify God’ (John 21:19)” (pp.27-28).
How Marilyn became a Christian: “When Marilyn was two years old, her parents divorced. She was placed in the sole custody of a kind and caring but utterly pagan and irreligious father who was an outspoken agnostic. However, gospel seeds were sown in her mind and heart by one of the housekeepers whom her father hired to look after her while he as at work. At age 19, while Marilyn was in her nurse’s training, God brought some vibrant your Christian women across her path who lovingly witnessed to her concerning her need of the salvation offered to sinners in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit watered those earlier sown seeds of gospel truth and blessed the witness of those other young women to bring Marilyn into vital union with the Lord Jesus. She became a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“When I met Marilyn, two years after her conversion, she was still living in the flush of her first love of Christ, as was I, having been converted just a few months prior. Nothing mattered much for us except talking and singing about the Lord Jesus, reading the Bible and praying together, and passing out tracts along with other young men and women inflamed with a passionate love for Christ and a burden to bring the gospel to those around us. It was evident that God had indeed taken out Marilyn’s heart of stone, given her a heart of flesh, and made Jesus Christ the ‘pearl of great price’ to her. He had implanted within her a passion to be holy and to be like Christ . . . Yet, all that God had done in her subsequent to her conversion at age 19 until her home-going at age 73 could be put in a spiritual thimble compared to the ocean of grace poured upon her and into her the moment she breathed her last. In an instant, her spirit was purged of every last vestige of remaining sin, and she was endowed with the moral perfection of Christ himself” (pp. 35-36).
How Al Martin was helped to deal with the death of his wife: “In those first days after Marilyn’s home-going, in my effort to handle the deep and crushing grief of my loss, I sought to frame into little maxims the various aspects of the biblical principles with which I wrestled, I would repeat these words to myself and they helped me greatly: Albert, think more of what Marilyn has gained than of what you have lost. I reminded myself again and again that she had gained that which is the burning desire of every true believer, even her complete and final release from all sin. If you were to dig down through the various layers of the heart of a true Christian, in the deepest subterranean level you would discover a passionate longing to be done with sin forever and to be holy like Jesus. As we grieve the loss of our loved one, will not the nature and measure of our grief be moderated to knowing that the departed now and forever possesses in full the very thing for which she her or she so deeply yearned? Would we really want out loved one back in this realm where, in the sovereign plan and purpose of God, we experience only the first fruits of our salvation?” (pp.37&38).
Another way that comfort came to his servant soon after the death of Marilyn. “For several months after the death of Marilyn I would awake every Lord’s Day morning especially conscious of the aching loneliness of being a widower. As I would make my way to the kitchen to prepare my morning coffee, I tried to picture what that day would be for her in the presence of Christ. I imagined her looking down at me with a pitying yet sinless look and saying, ‘Oh Al, you poor creature, still tied to the “body of your humiliation,” There you are, trying to wake up thoroughly before you go to your study to worship and pray. I have been worshiping all through the night while you slept, and I’m not a bit tired. I will be worshiping all day today, and I know it will not be a wearisome activity. I will not lack words to give vent to my felt joy and gratitude, nor will I struggle to find abundant substance for my praise. My spirit has been released from every sinful inhibition and distraction. When you go to bed tonight, weary through your labors among all God’s people, I will still be engaged in worship. No night, no weariness, no need for sleep – nothing now nothing now but blessed rest from all the struggles of the life I lived when I was still there with you.’
“I do not believe that our loved ones actually view us here on earth, for I see nothing in Scripture to warrant such an assumption. Rather I have shared this bit of fantasy to say that in the midst of our grief, that dwelling upon what our loved one has gained will strengthen and encourage us, lightening our load, and make it easier for us to exercise personal discipline, so that we may carry out our obligations before God more effectively” (pp. 76 & 77).
Yet another way that comfort came to Al Martin was corporately, through the fellowship and counsels of fellow Christians: “For two weeks after Marilyn died I enjoyed the companionship of my dear oldest daughter and my godly older sister, herself a widow. They stayed in my home, cooking meals, keeping house, and being ‘sanctified blotters’ for my grief and tears. One day when my daughter and my sister had returned to their respective responsibilities I thought, ‘If ever I needed the support and the strengthening influence of the body of Christ, it is now.’ Throughout my ministry I had taught the great truth that the body of Christ must minister to itself in love, I regularly preached and counseled God’s people to remember the biblical injunctions to ‘weep with those who weep’ and to ‘bear one another’s burden.’ So I went to the phone and called one of the families in the church with whom I had especially strong ties of friendship.
“When the wife answered the phone I asked her a strange question. I said, ‘Do you know how to put some water in your soup?’ Of course the dear woman wondered what in the world I was asking. I repeated the question and then simply stated that I was inviting myself over to their home for supper in order to give them an opportunity to fulfill those many biblical injunctions concerning the ways in which God’s people should minister one to another. One might say adding water to your soup, stretching it to feed a guest, is one way to accomplish that.
“Over the next few weeks a number of church families received a ‘water in the soup’ call. Spending time in the homes of many people thus became a wonderful means of grace, both for them and for me. We would sit about the table sharing incidents from Marilyn’s life. When this sharing precipitated my tears I shed them unashamedly and without apology. Often their tears mingled with mine making these precious brothers and sisters mediators to me of the disposition and heart of my sympathetic Saviour” (pp. 91 & 92).
There are benefits in memorizing great texts of Scripture about the hope of heaven: “How well I remember an incident many years ago when an older and godly ‘Mother in Israel’ in the congregation died. Her son, whose family she lived with, had adopted three children, each with severe mental and physical handicaps. The elder was a boy named Dusty. Although Dusty had the intellectual capacity of a 3 or 4 year old, he and his grandmother were very close having lived together in the same house essentially all his life. Dusty was in his early teens at the time of his grandmother’s death, and he grieved deeply when she passed away. Shortly after the death of this dear saint in my effort to comfort Dusty I encouraged him to memorize portions of 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. I used the words found in the King James Version for their consistent rhythmic cadence. I said to him and then we said together over and over again, ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord . . . absent from the body, present with the Lord.’ I can never forget how Dusty would break into a broad smile from that point on whenever we spoke of his dear grandmother. Sometimes, when he would see me at a distance in the church foyer, he would smile and repeat these same words, ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord.’ Those words of truth enabled that boy to grieve with great hope and ever joy” (pp.42&43).
How all our sufferings are a means of hurrying us to heaven: “Many years ago I was privileged to visit a cemetery in Scotland where some martyred Covenanter Christians were buried. I came across a statement on one of those tombstones that made an indelible impression on my mind. Speaking of those who had been martyred at the instigation of apostate religious leaders, the inscription was, ‘The prelates’ rage did but chase them up to heaven.’ The murderous hatred of these persecutors could do nothing more than hasten these loyal believers to heaven. Likewise, cancer, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, car accidents, and whatever other means God may choose to effect our physical death then all that these things can do to the children of God is to ‘chase them up to heaven’ to enjoy in the full consciousness of their existence, the blessed reality of complete rest” (pp. 64 & 65).
The grave our ‘resurrection beds:’ “Up until Marilyn was diagnosed with cancer, we had spoken occasionally about the necessity of obtaining burial plots. Not until we were well into her six-year battle with cancer did we finally obtain those plots. And from the very beginning of our taking legal possession of them, Marilyn identified them as our ‘Resurrection Beds.’ In the last months of her earthly sojourn, when it was evident that God was permitting the cancer to take its toll upon her body she embraced with noble grace and dignity the many indignities connected with the loss of much of her physical beauty and strength. I vividly remember kneeling by her bedside, just a few weeks before she died, and saying to her, ‘Sweetheart, when God is done with you in the day of resurrection, you will be so beautiful that I will not recognize you. God will have to introduce me to you.’ Yes, at the Lord’s return, she will be raised from her ‘Resurrection Bed’ in a glorified body! She lived in that hope! She died in that hope! She still throbs with that great ultimate hope, even in the presence of Christ. As long as I remain here on earth I will continue to share with her the same hope. And should the Lord Jesus delay his coming in my lifetime I trust by the grace of God, to die in the same hope” (p.82).
Through suffering a pastor’s heart is revealed: “A dear sister in Christ, a member for 35 years in the church in New Jersey where I was a pastor, went to be with her Lord after a lengthy battle with kidney cancer. Her husband, one of my closest personal friends, asked me to pay tribute to his wife at her memorial service, and I gladly complied. Two days after the service he asked me if we could spend some time together. When we shut the door behind us in a comfortable private setting, this dear brother said, ‘Well, Pastor, let me tell you why I am here, Now that my wife is gone I am sailing in uncharted waters. I’ve not been here before but you have. Tell me what I need to know and do in order to honour my Lord as I face the future alone.’ For the next hour I attempted to unpack some of the major elements of biblical truth and their practical application that God had used to comfort and minister to me in my grief after Marilyn’s death. In some respects, that hour with a grieving brother was one of the most precious pastoral ministries that I have experienced in the 46 years of my labor in that assembly” (p.89).
Remarriage after the death of one’s wife: “In the weeks before her death Marilyn, fully aware that she was dying, yet perfectly lucid in mind, spoke clearly to me regarding her desires for me after her death. She couched these desires in three straight-forward assertions and directives.
- Having lived with me for 48 years, Marilyn had come to the settled conviction that God did not mean for me to be alone, but that in due course I should remarry. On this point she was emphatic.
- Should God choose to bring the right woman into my life, I should not be bound by any man-made time-frame for remaining a widower.
- In choosing another wife, I should not simply choose a worthy woman on some objective grounds. Rather, Marilyn’s desire for me was that I would ‘fall madly in love.’
“To make sure I understood her wishes clearly Marilyn also disclosed these three desires to my oldest daughter who in turn related them to me confirming my understanding” (pp. 103&104). Eleven years ago Albert N. Martin married Dorothy, a godly woman of exceptional Christian character, in what has been a God-blessed union. Everyone will profit from this helpful book.