I was recently watching a television show on which the main character was experiencing some difficulties: he’d just discovered that his marriage was falling apart, his job was in jeopardy, and everything he’d known was turned upside-down. He gets in the car, tears in his eyes, and starts the engine.
He hears a preacher on the radio: “God’s only limited by what we believe! So I want you to believe that you can become all that God’s created you to be. You can overcome any addiction, you can overcome any disappointment…”
The character, almost angrily, turns the radio off with a quick flick of his hand. He is sad. He is lonely. Somehow, the quick fix doesn’t seem hopeful here. I don’t blame him.
There are lots of strategies we’ve learned for pain-avoidance. All sorts of things might take the edge off. Some of us overwork ourselves, preferring a life of deadlines, stress and adrenaline to anything that hurts. Others numb ourselves with whatever drug we can get our hands on: Vicodin, vodka, cheeseburgers, television. Then there are the pretenders, those who show up to church on Sunday mornings with wide smiles and platitudes.
Perhaps this is why the story of Lazarus might befuddle us– beyond the enormity of the miracle, that is.
“Jesus wept.” At one time in my life, this verse was good for winning Bible Memory Competitions; since it is the shortest verse in the bible, I could quote it even though, unlike most of the other Bible verses I knew, it was not put to song. But one does not remember things solely because they are short. These two words were a story to me, I now realize, a rounding out of a mysterious savior and God.
Jesus was… sad. His friend was gone. And even though this was not yet the end of the story, even though Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, knew what would happen next, he wept for Lazarus and for Lazarus’s family.
This Jesus does not brush aside his deep pain. He could have skipped this part, of course. He could have raised Lazarus as soon as he heard his friend was sick. He could have walked into the house and said, “Don’t worry! God is in control” or even “God is only limited by what we believe!” But pain is part of this story, just as it is part of what it means to be human.
When we, in the church, deny the pain that people experience every day, it seems disingenuous at best, heartless at worst. Instead, we should do as Jesus did: we should have compassion; we should suffer with. In doing so, we have the opportunity to show the grace of God to the people around us. Author and researcher Brene Brown has said, “Faith and church was not an epidural for me at all; it was like a midwife who just stood next to me saying, “Push. It’s supposed to hurt a little bit.”
This is a high calling, I think. Midwifery.
And I would be remiss if I did not reiterate: the miracle comes. Jesus raises Lazarus after he’s been in the tomb for four days. So long that his sisters couldn’t imagine rolling the stone away because of the smell. So the preacher in the car was not wrong. Please hear that. Jesus even says, in verses 40-43: “Did I not say that if you believe, you will see the glory of God? […] Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” We must believe that God is better than even the goodest God we can imagine. But if you have ever been on the birthing side of a birth, well, you know that you’ve gotta struggle a bit before the baby gets born. There’s grace in that, too.
Recently, my husband, a pastor, received a handwritten note from a parishioner in which she shared some deep secrets and pains she’s carried since childhood. Though we’ve known this woman for years now, something clicked the day we got that note. She had struggled since she was a young girl, not knowing exactly how to handle the scars or the deep hurt that came along with it.
The note made me wonder how many parishioners out there were carrying similar burdens. Probably each one, to some extent. They sit in the sanctuary every Sunday. They need to hear about this tenderhearted binder up of sorrows, this Jesus who weeps with us, who invites our pain and sorrows along with our praise and rejoicing. The Jesus who will sit with us, on our worst days, nearer than we even realize.