thegoodenoughpastor

Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Death”

Tombstones and Death Wraps

In John 11, we find the story of Jesus raising dead Lazarus to life again. Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, had been seriously ill. Jesus delays coming to his aid, even when Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send an urgent plea for Jesus to help.

Lazarus dies.

Finally, three days too late, Jesus shows up. The girls let him have it. Had Jesus cared enough, He could have healed Lazarus and spared them all of heartache.

Jesus shares their grief, but is undeterred in His intentions. He has a method to His apparent tardiness. He’s laying the groundwork for something big, something that will catalyze faith in those involved.

Jesus doesn’t allow their emotional reactivity to distort or rattle His sense of self. “I’m the resurrection and the life, here and now. Lazarus’ death doesn’t change any of that. The story isn’t finished yet. If you dare to believe it, a resurrection is about to take place.”

Mary, Martha and the disciples look on, understandably perplexed by the events unfolding before them. Jesus tells the crowd to roll away the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb.

Martha can’t keep silent at this point. “It’s been three days, Jesus. What are you doing? This is ludicrous. It’s not proper. Don’t toy with us like this. There will already be the stench of death.”

Jesus holds His ground. Their doubt doesn’t become His own. He pushes them to trust, to dare, to see beyond the conventional. “Believe and you’ll see the glory of God here.”

The stone now out of the way, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Once out, Jesus turns His attention to the onlookers, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Belief breaks out in the crowd.

While this is one of the all-time great stories, for a long time it made me uncomfortable. It goes back to an experience in college.

I was involved in a charismatic student group that was caught up in the hyper-faith teaching. We were told that faith was measured by results. You pray, you get exactly as you pray–an obvious indication you have faith that God rewards. You’re successful.

You pray, you don’t see prescribed results–well, a faith-failure. God is not pleased.

This put large amounts of pressure on the members of our group to compete with each other over our levels of faith. My hunch is that we faked each other out for the most part. After all, who would really know if we actually paid our school bill on time, or if we got that prime parking spot we prayed for?

But something happened one fall semester that threatened to expose my faith for the sham I feared it was. A friend of mine got married the summer before. One weekend, he and his new wife were in a head-on car wreck, and his wife was killed instantly.

I grieved for my friend for his unspeakable loss. But a thought began pestering me. If I really had faith, I would be able to raise my friend’s wife from the dead, just like Jesus did with Lazarus. In fact, not only could I, I should do it. I had a responsibility.

I sat through her funeral, tormented. A real man of faith would stand up in the middle of the funeral and create a Lazarus moment. But I stayed glued to my seat, immobilized by fear and doubt.

Fail!

Shame taunted me.

Thankfully, I’ve since grown through that stage of my Christian formation. My theology has matured. I now understand faith differently.  But the Jesus and Lazarus story has always carried a level of discomfort.

I recently experienced a new insight on the story. I was visiting with a man who was describing the impact his abusive childhood is having on his life. He has bought into a belief system that says he possesses little personal value, is not allowed to voice his opinions, and cannot state what he wants and needs. He’s adopted a life pattern of placating those around them, particularly  his spouse and family members.

It dawned on me that this person is wrapped in the grave clothes of false beliefs and ineffective life strategies. This bondage limits his capacity to experience the joy of loving and being loved. The stench of death hangs heavy on him, snuffing out each flicker of life.

But like Lazarus in his death wraps, the person God created is still in this man, buried under his pain, beliefs of worthlessness and ineffective relational patterns. God continues to see his value and potential. The real person, the authentic expression of who God made this man to be, waits to be released, set free to live.

Jesus uttered three commands that play into the release of new life and freedom.

“Remove the stone.”

“Lazarus, come forth.”

“Unwrap him, and let him go.”

There are layers upon layers of meaning here, no doubt. In simple form, I see this as a dual process.

One, we have a role in setting others free. We help remove their tombstone and undo the death wraps of false beliefs, pain, unworthiness and bitterness. We carry the privileged responsibility of speaking words of life and healing. We offer practical, hands-on assistance where appropriate.

Second, in our own Lazarus experience we’re to exercise personal responsibility. When Jesus calls us out of our grave, it is ours to respond.

It’s this second area that I’ve been working with lately. I’ve come to realize that I can stay in my tomb of shame, refusing to let the wrappings of failure to come off. Or, I can dare to experience resurrection, leave my tomb and step back into living, with all the joys and risks involved.

I’m realizing anew that once we taste the death of failure or pain, we can allow our tomb and grave-clothes to define us. Yet underneath is the person God created long before the death of failure, pain and shame got its hold on us.

That’s how He defines us.

That person is the real us.

He intends to set that person free.

When that person comes out of the tomb and is unbound, we discover we’re good enough.

Dare we latch on to Jesus’ promise that He is the resurrection and the life–right here, right now?

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Wrestling with Loss, Pain and Faith

I’ve been talking to a guy who recently experienced a significant loss in his life. A close family member died at a very young age. He’s struggling coming to terms with his loss, his sense of powerlessness when it comes to death, and questions about God’s involvement with this death. He’s convinced that God is testing him  to see how much pain and discomfort he can tolerate.

I’ve struggled with knowing how to respond to his questions and his pain. I don’t share his beliefs about God pushing him to the limit, but I’m taking  it slow as far as challenging his assumptions. If I were in his shoes, I have no idea how I might struggle with my faith. Pain has a way of distorting our thinking when it’s raw and fiery.

I have to admit that I was a bit relieved when our last conversation ended–relieved that once we parted I could go back to the comfort of being insulated from first-hand pain. I returned to the safety of my own theology. While I genuinely hurt for him, I needed to create emotional and theological space.

I noticed some weariness in my soul as he left. I was thankful for the distance.

That all changed the next afternoon. While relaxing after Sunday church, I got a phone call from our oldest son. I could tell immediately something was not right. His got straight to the point. “Something bad happened. We lost Juan. He’s no longer with us,” he said.

Juan was one of my son’s best friends. Just two weeks earlier, Juan was in our home as he served as a groomsman in my son’s wedding. We all immediately fell in love with him. We instantly recognized the qualities and personality strengths in Juan that our son had told us so much about. We celebrated and laughed with Juan. His smile exuded the generous spirit he possessed.

And now, just as suddenly, he was gone. A freak car accident–one that seems so random and senseless–claimed his life.

I grieve for my own sense of loss, even though I only got to meet Juan briefly. But much more, I grieve for my son and his new wife. They lost a dear, dear friend. The impact and implications of their loss is only just beginning to hit them. There will be layers that will unfold over time.

Hearing the pain in my son’s voice over the phone was nearly unbearable. It still torments me.

The wrestling of questions that my friend expressed are now my own.

I find myself resonating with Mary and Martha as they conversed with Jesus after their brother, Lazarus, died. The first thing out of their mouths was, “Lord if You had been here, our brother would not have died.”

My version is, “I know you care Jesus, but couldn’t you have prevented that accident? Would it have really been that difficult to alter Juan’s timing just a few seconds so that he could still be with us? So my son and his wife (and all of Juan’s family and friends) wouldn’t be suffering now? And what about my friend’s daughter? You could have kept her alive, too.”

At this point, I join with my son in saying, “It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

I do find some comfort and strength in Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus emphasized to the grieving sisters that this resurrection isn’t some far-off idea. He is the resurrection and the life right now, in the present moment.

While that encourages me, I am a bit envious of the sisters’ experience. Jesus acted right then and there in bringing Lazarus back to life. They got immediate relief.

We’re left to wait and to struggle with our faith and what it means for us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, now, while we still have funerals to go to. While we have empty places in our lives. While we have children who are experiencing immense pain.

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