A friend of mine passed away a couple of weeks ago from leukemia. It’s beyond sad. He leaves two boys behind and an amazing wife and lots of friends.
I’m a seven on the Enneagram which means I hate pain. I like nothing of this story, although, there are these incredible rays of light within it, because my friend was a beyond amazing person who loved so well.
All of it got me thinking about all of the clichés we throw around around death, especially in Christian circles - or at least the ones I grew up in. Some I’ve quoted at memorial services - they aren’t all bad.
It’s better to go to a funeral than a wedding.
Some are terrible.
God has a plan.
God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
But, there’s one I don’t think is talked about enough: Jesus wept. The short context is that Jesus’ friend had died. Just at it’s base, it’s pretty comforting: the most enlightened human on the planet wept because he was sad at death. It’s so very human, it’s warm to think about. There is nothing enlightened about coming up with clichés to avoid the things we don’t like about life. (Good for me to remember.)
And yet, there is so much more to the story of Lazarus.
Which got me thinking.
But first, the story in a nutshell: Some friends tell Jesus that his friend Lazarus is sick. Jesus doesn’t seem overly concerned and says that it’ll be alright because the sickness won’t end in death. A couple of days later Jesus decides it’s time to head over to the town of Lazarus because Lazarus has “fallen asleep”. The disciples are confused. Jesus says Lazarus has died. Still pretty confusing.
They take the journey and when they get there, they find out Lazarus has been dead for four days. Well, they kinda already knew that. They are grieving. Jesus is told if he had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. He’s told that a couple of times, kinda like “Where the hell have you been?” Jesus responds with more confusing language about never dying and resurrection - which it seems people don’t purely get. Understandably.
Finally, Jesus sees them all mourning and he’s moved. He’s troubled. He weeps. The grief affects him, like it affects all of us. He has them roll away the stone calls Lazarus out - he raises him from the dead.
(If you want the full version you can read John 11)
A few things.
We tend to read these stories as literal. That’s fine. At its literal, it’s pretty confusing while also obviously pretty, miraculous.
Jesus wept even though he knew the whole time Lazarus was coming out?
Why again was he weeping then? Why did he play this whole game? Was he acting? Was he moved by others grief that he knew wasn’t deserved? Why didn’t he just end the whole thing faster?
How does this help me? Most people who die (that I’m aware of) don’t come back to life after 4 days.
So, what’s the point?
Mythical readings are generally so much richer.
There are all kinds of people metaphorically dead. Yes, they are breathing but they aren’t living.
It’s these kind of people Jesus weeps over. And over. And over.
It’s these kind of people who Jesus calls out of their tombs.
It’s these kind of people I don’t want to be.
Jesus is a bit of this representation of Love/Mystery in the Human. In that sense, he helps us not be those dead (but breathing) people.
You see, in short, my friend isn’t coming back. I wish to Hell like he was, for his wife and his kids most of all. But, I do know this: my friend lived when he was alive and that’s more than I can say of many people. Sometimes me. He lived big. He lived humanity. He lived impact. He lived love.
And, in a sense, because he was alive, he doesn’t die. You should hear the stories of him and his impact that are just now being planted all over this city - and that will turn into a forest of love at some point - as the stories continue to grow.
Where is Jesus in all of this? Everywhere. It’s Love/Mystery in the Human that calls us zombies out of our tombs. It’s Love/Mystery in the Human that weeps over wasted lives. It’s this Love/Mystery in the Human that offers a life that lives on. Maybe literal. Definitely real.
The story ends with Jesus saying “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” That’s bad ass right there.
Wait, who has been not letting him go?
What if all those friends and family represent bad culture? Bad spirituality? Interestingly enough, the next sentence is about the religious elite - they don’t like the fact that this guy Lazarus has found life. They tend to keep people in tombstones. In fact, they say “If this guy Jesus goes on doing stuff like this, they’re going to take away our temple and our nation.”
In other words, if people keep waking up like this, we are going to lose our religious power and our national power. So, they prefer people in grave clothes, stuck in tombs. They get to keep their power.
Okay, so all that to say this: I already miss my friend, obviously. But, it’s true, it’s better to go to a funeral than a wedding… why? I’m reminded that there are forces fighting the kind of life my friend lived, and I’m encouraged to resist those forces like he did: to impact the world with the kind of energy he did, and plant the seeds of Love (great song by Tears for Fears) and Mystery that can be found in us Humans… even when we weep.
Take off the grave clothes? Yes, definitely that too.
Jack Gilbert wrote an amazing poem that I found when my friend was first diagnosed. I’ve been reading it a lot.
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.