I have a dear friend who was widowed a few years ago. Since then, she’s stretched herself to live her life’s goal, which is to be a writer. There’s nothing like death to teach us how to live, is there? She’s worked hard. And she’s grieved hard.
This year, she entered a play writing contest and garnered one of the ten winning spots, out of thousands of entries. Did I mention I’m darned stinking proud of her? She wrote about the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death and visiting her mother with dementia and how those things didn’t always mesh well together. In one quick scene, a nurse at the assisted living comforts her with some theology and philosophy regarding death.
Watching the video, I felt a jolt of recognition. Those were my words. Those were sentences I had said to help my friend. We’d sat at the local Corner Bakery as she talked and cried about the blows to her faith and her guilt and anger about God, the universe, and everything. I’d answered with what I believe about God and death.
The words had meant enough to her to find their way into this award-winning play, now seen and heard by I don’t know how many people. They’d found their way into her heart.
I cried watching that video. I cried for her pain. I cried for her children. I cried for the privilege of having God use my simple, tentative words to begin healing a broken heart. There is nothing, nothing that brings more joy to a pastor, or a writer, than this. We know that James warns we ought to watch our words and our truth carefully, because teaching others is a holy, sacred trust. We know we get it wrong too often.
The trust of God and humans cannot be taken lightly. Hearts and souls long to be healed.
Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect.
We’re talking about what it means to be incarnate this month in church. For Advent, I wanted to discuss the meaning of incarnation (embodied in flesh). I want us to consider how we, too, are incarnate in the lives of others, not in the sense that we are deity but in another definition of the word—“A person showing a trait or typical character to a marked degree.”
As believers in the Christ who became flesh and blood, breath and body, how do we show his character to a marked degree? Are we being incarnate in our communities, our families, our churches, our world?
Are we being incarnate in our random conversations that we don’t know will have an impact down the road? Is Christ’s character there at the table in our Corner Bakery?
To “invite Jesus into my heart” isn’t a prayer for a ticket to heaven. It’s an invitation to Christ to be incarnate in my life, body, tongue, and mind. It’s an invitation for me to be incarnate, albeit in my own flawed ways, in my world.
I can’t get past that. I don’t want to get past that. I shouldn’t get past that. Words matter. Words heal or break. Words construct or deconstruct faith and hope. The Word gives me embodiment in others’ lives. What comes from my mouth, or keyboard, should show his character to a marked degree.It’s a sacred trust.
This spot was empty in July. I had a newsletter and blog ready to send. It only needed a push of the button on the 4th or 5th. Instead, I found myself on a plane on the 5th, headed for Connecticut. I didn’t want to go.
Let’s start at the beginning. 35 years ago, I said “yes” to corresponding with a pen pal in Sing Sing prison, New York State. It was a program set up by Prison Fellowship. Wally wrote to me faithfully. He called (collect) every week. I was less faithful at writing, but I at least chatted on the weekly calls. Really, he chatted. I mostly listened, until the timer cut us off.
Through releases, returning to different prisons, drug episodes, homelessness, a terrible marriage choice, and more jail sentences, Wally and I kept writing and kept finding each other. I also moved, four times, and before the internet, keeping tabs through that was harder than you think.
Wally was a faithful friend, and also a professional thief and drug addict. Humans are a little complex that way. Someone on twitter last month asked me why I would choose to help a man she considered less than worthy instead of people more deserving. I didn’t answer. The question didn’t merit response.
If a person can’t see the humanity of a man because he’s homeless and addicted, I refer them to Shakespeare. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Humans are all equally the image of God. Wally’s soup kitchen friends, whom I met in Connecticut, are not lesser images than those of us pontificating with our on keyboards how we would weigh human worth. God’s breath in our lungs gives us all enormous weight we’re too frail to carry on our own yet too glorious not to.
I got a call on Friday July 1st that Wally had chosen to enter hospice care for his stage 4 lung cancer. I didn’t blame him at all—it was the right and dignified choice of a man who has had little choice over the entirety of his life. I started checking flights.
Friday he was resigned but feeling OK. He could be in hospice for a few months. Monday they told me he was worse, but still, he could live for a few weeks. Tuesday, they called again and said he might not make it through the day. My plane was at 6pm. It got canceled, and the assistant got me on an earlier flight. Earlier, meaning I had to leave immediately.
A lot of us were praying I’d make it in time, but when the plane landed, I had a message to call the hospital. I did, and the information was what I’d feared. We’d lost Wally just an hour or two earlier, while I was in the sky between Chicago and Hartford. I guess I’m not the first person to cry in an airport.
Wally had named me his next of kin and medical power of attorney. Wading through Connecticut law looked daunting, and the gratitude I have for the hospital staff and everyone else who gave me both assistance and compassion is enormous. They did everything so well and so kindly. At some point, I’ll be the recipient of his ashes, the dust that we all return to the only thing left, except the beat up wallet and phone I carried home.
Friends, I’m still processing.
Processing the grief of a life that could have been so much better with a family who encouraged rather than abused (and a functional, redemptive prison system).
Processing the sadness over never hearing “God bless and you know I love you. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers,” on every single sign off to a phone call or letter. Every one, for 35 years.
Processing the trust that a man who had learned not to trust anyone put in me to make his life and death decisions.
Processing the love that the staff and clients of his favorite place, the soup kitchen, had for him that overflowed in a memorial service right there in the kitchen that I was blessed to conduct.
Processing how I witnessed, for two days, the reality of the dignity of every human life. Most of all, I’m a witness to Wally’s life, the longest running one he had. So I’m telling his story, because he deserves that. We all do.
My youngest daughter got me started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. We’re a musical theater family, so she knew the show would click with me.
I knew the dad would die. I also knew I would sob, because I sob at toiletry commercials or a beautiful turn of phrase. What I didn’t expect was how much that death would break me both with memories of my own dad (who loved to dance with me, as hers does) or with the crushing communal grief we all share in COVID’s destructive ramifications. I sobbed, not just for Zoey but for me. For our friend Lauren, who lost bother her parents in one week. For my father-in-law living alone. For modern widows and orphans, all of whom have grieved too soon.
When should we expect to lose those we love? What is the precise time span that we can accept life on earth has been adequate? Exactly where is that line between when we shout angrily at the sky in defiance at a death too soon and when we sigh resignedly at a life well lived?
Much of popular Christianity tells us to accept that death is a natural part of existence. Cue Simba, the circle of life and all that. We ought to celebrate our loved ones’ lives and carry on, not take too much time to cry in the dark, quiet hours of the night.
Somewhere between losing my mother-in-law, studying Genesis with the congregation, and watching COVID numbers mount, I decided something. I don’t believe that anymore.
With Dylan Thomas, I believe unapologetically in raging against the dying of the light. Going gently has never been my form, after all. Yet, theologically speaking, we have room for our rage.
Humans began this world with a life-giving tree in a garden and a mandate to flourish. We will end in a city and a veritable forest of trees of life, healing and wiping away all tears for eternity.
But what do we do with the in between?
How might it have changed the way we all spoke to, argued with, and cared for others in a pandemic if we had taken the time to articulate a good theology of what we believe about death? Not where we believe our souls will fly to—but what we tell others about the purpose, or lack of purpose, behind the great equalizer.
I’ve been told many things about death over the years since I lost my first significant person—my sister when I was fourteen. Some phrases have no place in our theology of death. Everything happens for a reason. It was her time. Many others, meant to console but succeeding only i
There is tension between closing our eyes in peace knowing whom we will see when next we open them and aching to continue the joys and efforts of our lives.
There is mystery in the truth that God didn’t create us for death and yet we die, without omnipotent intervention.
People die, and they usually die when there is still so much more they want to do. That doesn’t mean God was finished with them. It means God is potent enough to carry on the universe without our individual contributions.
A few years ago, I stood contemplating the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Rockport, MA. I felt the weight of a new pastorate, a struggling church, the school work I was just beginning there, family illness, and more. Looking at the water, I felt God speak calm to my burdened soul. The weight of the world was not on my shoulders. My shoulders are frail and finite. They are a drop in that endless water I watched land on the shore in meandering waves. The water goes on. It always will. The individual drops matter, their stories and deeds contribute to the fulness of the ocean, but they aren’t the whole.
A good theology of death accepts this tension.
A healthy view of death from a Christian standpoint doesn’t insult the love that neither death nor life can separate us from by implying that God always intended to pull a bait and switch on us with that Tree of Life in the garden.
Nor does it bargain with the Creator, presuming on our prideful faith to keep us safe from life’s plagues.
A good theology of death refuses to bank its integrity on claims of certainty—the God we see in Job can burst those at will. It admits that we aren’t certain. We don’t know the reasons. We cannot, as Gandalf counsels, see all ends.
Don’t go quietly into that good night. Rage. It’s OK. Jesus raged at Lazarus’ tomb. Rage at death and joy at the afterlife can coexist. Peace and anger can shake hands over a deathbed. They’re not opposite entities. They’re twin ends of the same cord, held in tension before a mystery we cannot, try as we will, resolve.
In September, I stood in some International Dark Sky Parks in Utah, staring at the stars in more abundance and brilliance than I’d ever seen them. Lights studded the sky from one horizon to the other, constellations I’d never seen clearly visible. Only occasional car headlights in the distant parking lot disturbed the complete liquid ink of the night. My husband practiced his astrophotography, while I risked sore neck muscles tomorrow for the immediate wonder tonight.
During this Advent season, I want, at least figuratively, to go where sound and light make no dent in a quilted black kaleidoscope sky. I want to sit, in the fulness of a silent night, and look at the glory above my relatively insignificant head.
Advent, the province of stars, makes me long for both darkness and light. I long for and believe in the Light that no darkness can overcome. I’m grateful fort His presence in a world that needs that kind of piercing hope.t
Yet we wait, too, and we wait so often in the dark.
There are things we can see only in the dark.
Slighted stars, not usually bright enough for attention when they compete with city lights. I want to notice the overlooked.
I want to choose to see, as Matthew did in his genealogy of Christ, those whom history has ignored and privilege has deemed invisible.
The power of grief shows up in the dark, and I want to appreciate again that blessed are those who mourn. I want to weep with those who weep. Fellow stargazers, afraid of beacons that mercilessly glare on their still open wounds, are willing to be vulnerable in darkness. I want to sit with them and hear their stories.
Waiting patiently on the Lord, being still and knowing who God is, come easier in the darkness, when we already move slower.
Pinpricks of hope. The camaraderie of quiet. My own smallness in the universe. Like stars, these all appear more accurately and acutely in the dark.
I, like so many, am afraid of what I can’t see. I fear treading beyond my safe circle of light. But what if there is another kind of light in darkness that I know little of?
It took a blazing star for the supposed wisest people to look for God. But Lord, let me discover you in the darkness. Let me seek what I cannot see. Give me eyes to find you where you so often went, after all. Amen.
I’ve been revisiting the story of Moses bringing this people out of Egypt again. You know—burning bush, wth? Pharaoh, plagues, lambs, all that MGM stuff.
After God gives Moses a woodshed moment at the bush, Moses makes his way back to Egypt to free his people. A little reluctant and frightened, at first he is met with excitement. Finally, a savior has come to free them!
Then Pharaoh digs in the talons deeper and makes life even more unbearable than it already was, which was pretty stinkin’ unbearable. He forces the people to increase their work while decreasing their supplies. Thus, the next time, Moses finds a less than enthusiastic crowd.
Ex 6.6-9 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’
Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.”
Did you catch that last part? They did not listen to Moses because of their discouragement. Other versions translate it their “broken spirit and how hard they were made to work,” and “they had become too discouraged by the brutality of their slavery.”
This last line struck me when I read it this time. I could not get away from it. I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before, or at least, I’d never paid attention. They believed—but they got too discouraged, too broken, because of the cruelty with which they were treated.
Make no mistake, that was Pharaoh’s intent. He planned that. When he authorized the increase in brick making with no materials to do it, he knew the result. The people would be too worn down by one more setback to dare to dream or try.
We’ve heard this story hundreds of times, and all of those times I recall, we’ve heard how the Israelites behaved horribly. They were unfaithful, reckless, foolish folks who didn’t believe and didn’t obey. I’ve never once heard this verse spoken of.
These are a people filled with trauma. They’ve suffered terrible degradation, dehumanization, oppression, and marginalization. For generations, they have no experience of freedom and no ability to govern or lead themselves.
The normal human response from and to trauma is exactly what we see—fear, confusion, comfort with the devil they know, inability to see that things are going to get better after they get worse, and anger at the person responsible for that worse part.
The gut-wrenching beauty here is that God knows this. He understands that they feel too broken to believe. So he continues to free them, bringing them out, showing them his power, and fulfilling his promises, regardless of how they feel or act.
He does this because that is who he is.
God is bent on good for his people—and he will not be stopped. He loves them through their trauma and brings them to the other side of the Red Sea, and beyond.
The story reminds me of another stretch in Scripture that’s rather notorious for its imagery. It’s a Psalm sung during the exile of Israel, much later.
By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem Above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one
who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock. (Psalm 137)
It’s one of my favorite songs in Godspell, beautiful and haunting. But the songwriter doesn’t use those last lines—the horrific ones about murdering babies. They’re not exactly lyrical.
The Babylonian exile was not a nice “pack up your things and get going” on a vacay. It was not Sound of Music. It was everything you know that modern tribal warfare is, and these people are not merely homesick. They are demoralized, exhausted, mourning loved ones, hopeless, dehumanized, humiliated. They’ve been beaten, raped, killed, and brutally taken from their homes.
This song speaks their emotion, and these are their honest, anguished words. It’s strikingly similar to how the Israelites felt in Egypt.
It tells us that he hears, sees, and knows his peoples’ pain, and he does not turn away from their expression of it.
Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s terrible imagery.
Yes, forgiveness and refusal to take revenge is God’s way for us.
Yes, it would have been wrong for an Israelite to actually dash a baby against a rock, and there would be no excuse.
But somewhere in here, we get the realization that God knows we grieve and hurt and fear, and He lets us do that.
That’s what going on in Egypt as well.
They’re grieving. Exhausted. Hopeless. They wanted to believe but it was just too much. In the middle of that, God sees and hears and remembers and loves.
He guides them out when they cannot see a way out.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
And I think that’s what going on for some people right now, as we enter 2021.
We’re OK. But we’re fortunate.
Many with mental health issues or addictions are still hopeless.
Many who are alone are still scared.
Those who have lost people are mourning.
And God sees and hears and knows.
Sometimes we as humans want others to hurry up with their hurt, grief, etc. We want to rush forward into 2021 and erase all that was this year. Many people will try for a do over, a forgetting, an obliterating of all that pain so that we can put it in the past.
But God doesn’t do that.
He sits with us.
He holds us up until we can walk on our own.
He weeps with us at our discouragement and hears our hurt.
We need to be willing to sit with pain, too. Ours or that of others. To sit with people or our own souls and hear them and give them permission to hurt. It could be the first best thing we do in 2021.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
He knows fear—My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”
He knows uncertainty—“Will you leave me, too?”
He knows loss—he’s been betrayed so many times
He knows grief—“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
He knows loneliness—“My God why have you forsaken me?”
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (John 1:5 NLT)
As I type this, I’ve just received an email telling me my dream trip, the one I’ve been planning for two years, has been canceled. As you read this, that’s where I should be.
I know as sacrifices go this year it’s not tipping the scale, but the trip was both symbolic and a lifelong dream for me, and I’m devastated.
December may host the darkest days of the year, but it seems for many that the darkness never lifted after last winter. When spring arrived, so did protracted global crisis. We’re entering the Christmas season tired, grieving, and anxious. Family togetherness probably won’t look the same. There could be members missing from the circle around our tree. It’s unlikely we here will have in-person church services for this important time of year, and that loss of community during one of the most-community oriented seasons of our lives cuts deeply.
The lights might be twinkling, but not a lot of people are singing “Joy To the World” in quite the same key they’re used to.
Into all this enters the promise of a baby in a manger wailing under a star whose wattage won’t quit. Nothing about that part of the story has changed. The Light of the world still came, still lives, and if nothing could extinguish it when John penned those words some 2000 years ago, nothing can in this year of woe either.
Think about the world Jesus entered.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, the people there lived under oppressive rule. They might not have seen Roman soldiers often, but they felt their presence. They knew the grasping greed of the tax collectors and their power to destroy a family already on the economic edge. They had seen crosses on the roadside, and they knew who usually hung there. Though their ruler Herod pretended to be a Jew, they understood his true loyalties lay only with himself.
They needed light to believe the darkness that pushed them into the ground and stole their breath could be pierced.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, most of the population existed in near-poverty, including Mary and Joseph. They subsisted, with a home and enough food, but they worked constantly, and one bad year could be the difference between survival and devastation. Jesus and Joseph would have carved plows, yokes, chairs, and bowls six days a week, unaware of this thing we refer to as leisure time.
They needed light to hope that their children’s lives could be better.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, mothers died in childbirth, children died of diarrhea and other results of poor sanitation in crowded areas, and everyone died in plagues. In cities, people lived sardined together in buildings with no modern comforts such as air conditioning or indoor plumbing. Alexander Hamilton famously sings that, where he came from (1750’s Nevis), many people lived “half as many” as twenty years. Jesus understood this, too—at 33, he had already lived close to the 35-40 average lifespan. (High infant mortality, however, skews that number.)
They needed light to see that the grave didn’t close out their life story and this difficult world was not their only chance to find peace.
This is the world into which the great I AM entered as flesh. The similarities of disease and injustice strike us clearer this year perhaps, but they don’t surprise the baby who took up residence in a musty feeding trough in a place whose capacity for sin he knew too well.
The darkness can never extinguish the Light of the world. All the pain and difficulty in Jesus’ world could not stop the blinding star from flashing its sign for all to see who wanted to see: “Come. Faith, Hope, and Love are born tonight. This Light cannot ever be overcome.”
We can be overcome. We can be overwrought and overworked. We can lose heart, and our courage to keep on can be extinguished. Those are the days we look to that star of Bethlehem we hang a facsimile of on our tree and remember: its incredible light was only a sign. Though it shone like a Fresnel lighthouse lens beaming its way out to a dark sea, it only pointed the way to the greater Light.
That Light shone in a wooden trough on a holy night in a cave long ago. It also shone out of an empty tomb behind a cast-off stone on a morning when all hopes had been shattered. The darkness cannot extinguish it. Death has no power over it. Neither pandemics nor racism nor ugly divisions can separate us from it. If we follow him, even when it feels like we’re walking in the deepest darkness, we can know that we are walking toward life.
“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8:12 NLT)
The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1 NLT)
I know this post ran for the first time not quite a year ago. But as we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I think it needs to run again. Because my friends, this is love. Don’t believe all the Hallmark-moment stuff. Especially don’t believe all the Insta posts and viral videos trying to convince you that love means a flashy proposal, a giant diamond, or a wedding that costs the average GNP of a small European country.
That is NOT love. That’s branding your relationship. A marriage is not a brand.
A marriage is this. The inevitable happened since this first ran–we did lose this wonderful woman. We will not recover.
This woman. She was my mom for over thirty years. Nearly twice as long as my actual mother was. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.
But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.
Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.
She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.
I am undone by this.
It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.
I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.
I do want to.
I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.
Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.
And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.
I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.
Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.
I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.
Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to.
If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.
While we anticipate the restoration of living things outside our windows, we revel in the reality that Jesus restored all things that were broken, winter-bound, and frozen in the icy grip of sin and separation. His resurrection accomplished in one breathtaking stroke a restoration of all that God originally called good.
Though it’s April when you’re reading this, and hopefully turning to spring where you are, I’m writing during the last days of winter. This morning, I got stuck in my driveway three times trying to get my daughter to her train. We have two feet of snow out there (more or less), and I’m longing for the beach I sat on last week in Puerto Rico, doing nothing but listening to the waves and wading out in them to snorkel for yellow-striped fish and elusive sea turtles.
I unashamedly admit I need that kind of restoration in the middle of winter. Winter in Chicago is not for the weak.
Lately, I’ve been seeking restoration more often.
I loved being back at The Glorious Table this month and sharing this message of restoration and encouragement when Easter time isn’t all the joy we expect it to be. Please jump over there to read the rest.
There is an ongoing struggle in our house. My husband sincerely believes that the garbage needs to go out on Thursday night, the night before the garbage truck comes. This is logical to him. He likes logic and, more than logic, he likes to know when things are going to happen. He is a total creature of habit.
I, on the other hand, have a different viewpoint on when the garbage needs to head outside. When it’s full. Or, worse, when it stinks.
Some times of year, it can really stink.
I like my schedules, but if something stinks, it needs to go, regardless of whether the city has scheduled its demise that day or not.
He has habits; I have reactions.
So there is another part of the story we started last week that piques my interest. And my nose.
After Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, the conversation between him and Martha that we began last week continues.
When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.”Then Jesus wept.The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!”But some said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance.“Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”
Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.”
Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” (John 11.33-44)
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. That means that there is nothing in our lives that is so dead Jesus cannot resurrect it. Not any big deaths in our lives, and not the small deaths either.
Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
Not financial issues
Not child issues
Not job issues
Not relationship issues
Not sin issues
Not medical issues
—Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes, we have to bury those things before Jesus can resurrect them. And sometimes? They will stink.
Jesus asks Martha if she believes who he is—the resurrection and the life. His real question, though, is this—Do you trust me? No matter what happens, do you trust me with your brother’s life—and yours?
We cling to those things that need resurrection, don’t we?
We know the marriage needs intervention, but we’re comfortable, at least, in our dysfunction. We don’t want to give our inch. What if he takes a mile? What if the immense work of changing the way we interact doesn’t change anything? What if we open up something that vomits all over us and never, ever goes back into its safe can?
Letting Jesus roll the stones out from in front of our messy marriage will stink, and we know it. But if we don’t bury what’s comfortable, we’ll never know the resurrection to what’s beautiful.
We know our relationship with our kids is tenuous, but listening and learning is hard. Believing the worst of them is impossible. Believing the worst of ourselves is uncomfortable. Learning boundaries and giving freedom threaten to break us in shards.
It stinks when we struggle with those we love most. But if we don’t bury what we have, he can’t raise it to what it could be.
We know we need to change some things for our health, or we need to accept that parts of the way we’d like to look or be are not going to happen this side of resurrection bodies. (I do not want to accept that.) Learning to live with physical limitations (not to mention saggy boobs) stinks.
But if I don’t bury my need to look and feel 35, how is he going to resurrect what is and make it what it can be? (Also, if I don’t bury my need to binge eat macarons and chocolate.)
We know He’s calling us to something more, higher, deeper—in faith, in work, in calling, in hope. But taking the steps toward that means burying what is for the dream of what might be.
It takes courage to let Jesus roll away the stones we’ve carefully placed in front of the smelly messes of our lives.
Oh, but look what can come walking out of the tomb if we let him.
Resurrection. Life. Renewal. Restoration.
All the fullness of life.
Do you know why “This Is Me” became the runaway hit song from Greatest Showman? Because we all know the feeling of hiding our mess. We know what it’s like to be afraid of revealing all that we are, the good, bad, and ugly, to a critical world.
We all long for the resurrection and life, not just in the future, but now, right now, in our mess today. It’s just that sometimes, we don’t long for it enough. At least, not enough to bury what is and let Jesus handle the smell.
Martha looks him in the eye. She knows it’s going to stink. She’s never experienced an actual resurrection before. It’s got to be frightening. She buckles in, nods her head, and says, “Yes, Lord. I believe.”
Our parents dutifully sent my sister (8) and me off to Sunday school every week (well, semi-dutifully) with a quarter in our right fist and shiny shoes on our feet to see what we could learn. We didn’t go to the church service afterward, and no one came with us. I have only hazy memories of a blue flannel Jesus and some woman telling me he was good.
One afternoon, my sister and I rode our bicycles in circles around the garage, and she told me all about the things she had learned—how Jesus loved her and died for her and rose again.
I told her it was all baloney.
I didn’t believe a word of it. I have no idea how I was so certain of that at six, but I suspect that I figured my parents must not really have believed or they would have gone with us. Also, blue flannel Jesus was terribly boring. Also, I probably didn’t like that my big sister knew more than I did.
It all seemed pretty clear at six.
Who knew that, long after I’d quit walking up the street to that little Presbyterian church, God had plans to capture me with his love anyway? Little atheists don’t know as much as they think.
Last year, we explored herea series of questions God asks. Today, because Easter and all. we’re going to look at a seemingly straightforward one:
Do you believe this?
Backstory: Jesus receives a message that his dear friend, Lazarus, is deathly ill. His sisters Martha and Mary, also his dear friends, are looking for him to come set things right. They trust him to show up big for them—but he doesn’t. In fact, Jesus chooses to wait a few days before setting off to see his friend—days he knows are precious.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11.17-27)
I’ve always loved this story, because it displays raw emotion mixed with real faith. Martha grieves—real grief, real tears. Real terror, because with her brother gone, who was going to take care of her and her sister? She knew what happened to two young women alone in that world. Her emotions ran out of her like spring rain swelling a waterfall. She is hurt, scared, grief-stricken, and confused.
Confused that the one she knew could help her didn’t come. She knew it—look at her words.
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She is too painfully aware that Jesus could have chosen to come, and she might not be in this despair. She is aware of something too many of the disciples don’t seem to be. Jesus is Lord of life and death itself.
She knows this.
This is why her response is so incredible to me. She knows he could have, she knows he didn’t, but she still chooses to believe.
Jesus’ response is perfect.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”
Do you believe this?
Jesus could not ask this question at a worse time. This is not a philosophical question for Martha. Everything is in her heart and her eyes. Her world is shattered. If there is a resurrection and a life, and if this man is in charge of it, it has to mean more in this moment than an “I’ll fly away” Hallmark special effect someday in the clouds.
It has to mean something now.
Why? Because he asks her this question before he does anything.
Her brother has not yet been raised from the dead. Jesus has shown no hurry to do so, or apparent interest. Yet he’s asking her if she believes right now, in her grief, in her heartache and horror, before she ever sees her brother unwind those graveclothes from around his face.
She’s known him for years. This family has the ease of old friends. The question is, does she really know him? Does she know him well enough? Has she studied his life, looked at his heart, listened to his words enough to really believe, even in this impossible moment?
That’s what he asks all of us, isn’t it? Have you studied me? Not about me, but me? Have you learned my heartbeat? Do you know what makes me joyful and what gives me sorrow? Do you understand what I am capable of? If you do, do you believe I am the resurrection and the life?
Now. Before I do anything in your life to prove it.
He’s asking her for a personal trust. He wants a relationship that can weather the storms ahead. He needs Martha to believe him no matter what happens, not for him, but for her.
If Lazarus had remained dead—if Jesus had chosen not to raise hm back to life—would Martha’s answer have been the same?
“Yes, Lord. I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
Blessed is she who has not seen and yet believes.
Even when we don’t see, do we know enough of who he is to believe?
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the raising up.
I am the Not Dead.
I am death you don’t win.
I am the death where is your sting?
I am the “no one can stop me from raising myself or you.” Raising you to and from all manner of things. If you believe before you see.
That’s been hard for some of us in this season. With news of people murdered while worshiping, children slaughtered while learning, white supremacists marching, and babies stolen from their terrified parents, it’s just hard some days to remind myself that I follow a God who proved there is no situation he cannot resurrect.
But I do believe this.
In fact, in light of the insanity that surrounds us, believing he is in control of all things not being dead is the only theology that makes any sense at all. (And my friend, we all have theology. It doesn’t matter if we believe Jesus is baloney—we still have one.)
Unlike my six-year-old self, I do believe this. It’s all there is to believe in a world that needs hope. It’s the only thing that can bring our deaths out of the grave and unwrap them before our eyes.