The lights were dimmed softly when I walked into the room. There were twenty or so people in the room, gathered in a lumpy circle around someone I could not clearly see. As the circle parted slightly to allow me to join them I saw a young mother, sitting in a rocking chair holding a bundle, beside her stood a young father. In the circle were grandmas and grandpas, cousins and best friends, sisters and brothers who’d come to see the baby – and tell him goodbye. The room in which our stories were converging was one on the pediatric intensive care unit at our local children’s hospital and the baby, Mark*, well he was dying – and I – I was the chaplain on duty that night. Everything that could be done for four-month-old baby Mark had been done and yet his decline continued. His young parents – just 18 and 19 – had done what many parents do – they decided to release him from ongoing medical interventions that were painfully preventing the immanent and inevitable.
So here I was, at 2:30 in the morning, an intern, the rookie, the chaplain present to love them and walk with them through this valley. Mom was rocking gently, her tears spilling onto his tiny race-car blanket while dad stood by, shifting from foot to foot, occasionally placing his hand tenderly on her shoulder. When I introduced myself to her she asked everyone to leave, everyone except her home pastor and myself. Pastor Bobby, a 50-something Baptist minister in blue jeans and cowboy boots looked at me – ME – expectantly. I knelt at mom’s side and said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She wept openly and said “I’ve prayed and prayed for Jesus to heal him and I know Jesus can if He wants to, but I guess Jesus just needs Mark in heaven with Him instead.”
Oh and my heart broke, I wanted to tell her that Jesus does not need your baby to die, or to tell her something that would not leave her thinking that God is a cruel God who makes tiny boys suffer in order to gain anther angel, but of course this was IN NO WAY the time to talk to her about a theology of suffering and death, heaven and hell or to discuss the nature of God or debunk our transactional way of praying.
But I had been walking around in that theology in the halls of the hospital – and the Lazarus text, among others – was particularly weighing on my mind. See early in my work in clinical pastoral education someone offered the Lazarus story as a way to work with grieving parents and I had to do a whole lot of workin’ and prayin’ to get there. The pleading of mothers and grandmothers, fathers and uncles for God to heal their child, even to bring their child back – these were too heavy and made the Lazarus text feel cruel, feel like a withered promise never to be fulfilled again. But I was never able to shake the text, no matter how I tried, for that is the way The Word works. It stayed at my heels inviting me to pay closer attention. Believe it or not, this liberal Christian really believes there is a deep and lasting truth in those ancient texts and it is up to us to work and pray faithfully so that we may hear God’s Word for us today.
When we look at the Gospels we do find stories of healing and resurrection. Unlike in the Hebrew Bible where folks who die have the decency to stay dead, in the Gospels people are popping out of graves and lurching around as Jesus and his followers travel and perform signs and wonders. Jesus heals many, resurrects Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus. Much later, after Jesus had left His earthly ministry, Peter calls forth Dorcus from death. But of course they did not heal all the sick nor raise all the dead.
Jesus did come to open up a paradigm shift regarding living, dying and being but it is easy to misunderstand this new way. So what does the Christian testament about the life of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will, teach us about grief and suffering, about the presence of death? One thing we know for certain is that a life of piety, a life lived as near to perfection as possible will not stave off suffering or death. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus, so far as we know, is the only perfect human life, lived wholly oriented toward the will of God and his life, suffering and death are hard evidence that goodness is no protection from pain, Jesus knew every level of pain, emotional, spiritual, and physical unto death.
So what then do we do with this Lazarus text? If we take it at first glance as we often do, we can be satisfied with a miracle story, the exhibition of God’s power in the incarnation of Jesus. This is in fact the meaning of this encounter right? Yes and more, always more. Other things, deeper things are happening beyond the raising of the dead (not to say that is not enough!) But speaking to me out of this scripture is the striking depiction of Jesus’ grief.
The culture of mourning, explored throughout the bible – the highly ritualized wailing and mourning is the state in which Jesus finds the community when he (finally) arrives in Bethany. Martha is bold – Where were you? You could have stopped this! Jesus is clear and resolute with Martha that her brother will live again this day, not in the end times but today. But when Jesus encounters Mary, and the throng of mourners he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus, our God revealed, weeps.
When I asked the family in the PICU if they wanted to pray, mom whispered, “Oh yes.” “For what should we pray?” I asked. “For Mark to be able to go on home, I’ve told him and he just won’t let go.” So we prayed – a prayer of lament and thanksgiving, a prayer for release. And then we were silent – and we all cried in the silence – the truest prayer of all. Silence and tears in the face of this death – so tiny and so huge.
Without the Lazarus story I would still be ashamed of my tears. I was initially sorry I had cried, I mean I am the chaplain, I should be steady and tear free, right? This is their story, not my story. But no, that is not right. It is our story. Jesus wept. Jesus, the ultimate chaplain who could do what no chaplain or doctor could do, wept.
As Thomas Merton puts it, “Jesus is the theology of the Father, revealed to us.” Jesus, fully God and fully human, is our best chance to understand God. It is possible to dismiss the weeping of Jesus as superfluous, and theologians have, but I would rather not take anything in the Gospel as superfluous. So what does it mean when Jesus weeps? The author of John has clearly indicated that Jesus knows full well he will raise Lazarus. The Gospel of John gives us a picture of Jesus was fully aware and intent – in control of every aspect of His ministry including his own crucifixion. So why on earth would Jesus weep if he knew for certain that his beloved friend would live again this day? Could it be that Jesus was simply moved to tears by the overwhelming scene of mourning with Mary clinging to his feet in despair? Yes that is part of it – for Mary could not see beyond her despair – Mary who could not apprehend hope in the presence of God. Is Jesus weeping for the suffering that lead to death, a suffering that he will not erase any more than Job’s suffering was erased when he was restored to health, given a new family.
Or could the grief that took hold of Jesus, took hold of God, in response to knowing in a new way the suffering of all humanity, from the beginning to this very moment – the struggle to be human, to suffer and die? And could Jesus be weeping for His story, which will unfold at a more rapid pace after Lazarus rise.? Jesus will die at the hands of the very people he loves so – the very people with which he mourns. Perhaps that is the true miracle of this story – that God took into God’s self the depth of our suffering in a new way – and wept.
After a while the broken hearted mom in that tiny dark room, holding her dying son – well – she asked for the baby fingernail clippers. Without the hint of a question in his eyes, dad moved into action, rummaging around in the overstuffed closet and found them in a pale blue gift bag, covered with storks and little angels. Out of the bag spilled a handful of baby shower gifts, – bottle-brushes, diaper ointment, rattles – the gifts of life, of a future that will never be. Dad deftly unwrapped the clippers and brought the little steel promise over to mom and she said to him, “No, I need you to.” And there they were, dad tenderly clipping the nails of his dying son, mom’s hand cupping his tiny head, mom cried and dad 19 and pimply, with a look of wise, pure love – clipped. Pastor Bobby and I looked away, stepped back from this intimate moment, a moment that felt so futile and so holy. Those things that are important in the days, hours and minutes before the death of our beloved – those are the things to which we are called to orient our whole lives in the face of the certainty of a death that will claim us all. We are called, as co-workers in creation with God – to walk along side and be a tangible reminder that those who suffer and those who are grieving are loved and valued by God.
Rather than notions of a transactional, vending machine God, who steps in and intervenes to save the innocent, cure cancer or stop the murderous rampage – we cling instead to the notion that God walks along side us in our suffering. Our holy companion on every journey even unto death – for God has walked all the way to death too. All the way and beyond. And that is where we are, in Gods loving embrace, that is where baby Mark, wrapped in the shawl of God’s love, – in life, into death and beyond. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A reflection on Mark 6:1-13 previously preached, in slightly different form, at Kirkwood UCC a couple of summers ago.
Although we’re just a couple of weeks into June, here in the south it already feels like we are deep in the thick of summer. It brings back tangible memories of the hot summers of my childhood.
Oh – summer days were sweet bliss as a kid growing up just a stones throw from downtown Atlanta. I spent my days with roaming packs of peers, tumbling from front yard to front yard, with worn out flip-flops and sticky hands looking for melting blacktop to dare someone to dip a toe into. Our house was always full of activity and my mother seemed to me the most gracious mamma in the world. She was always so welcoming and warm, friendly and funny.
All summer long there were folks over, jellying plums, canning tomatoes, pickling cucumbers or playing Rook well after the lightening bugs had winked out for the night. And mamma was generous with my friends. There was always an abundance of snacks and Kool-Aid for anyone I happened to be running around with those summer days. And mamma was patient. Man alive, we would run in and out, screen door snapping shut a 100 times a day and she rarely hollered for us to knock it off.
Seems like there was frequently an extra kid at the supper table – the twins next door loved mom’s fried chicken, and Karen, from down the street, loved mom’s spaghetti, mostly because the served with it toasted hot dog buns rich with butter and a touch of garlic powder.
Kids from all over the neighborhood seemed to end up on our front lawn, playing freeze tag or one of our made-up-on-the-spot-games like Tornado! or Volcano!. When we’d come in panting like a bunch of worn our hunting dogs, mom made sure that coins emptied from my dad’s pockets that sat in an amber bowl were close to the door so we could run in and scoop up enough quarters, dimes and nickels to chase down the ice cream truck whenever it would come crawling by like the most delicious music box in the world. Anyone with me could grab what they needed from the bowl – mom said everyone needs a good rocket pop on a summer day.
It was roaming around on a rare solo patrol (yeah, we could still roam around solo back then) one late summer day that I met Traci. I was looking for someone else getting shewed out of the house and into another itchy August day.
I knew her family had moved into the neighborhood at the beginning of the summer – I mean EVERYONE knew – you see, her family was the first black family to move into “OUR” neighborhood, at least the first I knew of because mom and dad had been talking about it a lot. When I turned down her street on my morning rounds, I saw her in the shade of her carport playing with barbies – she had the new Barbie Airplane – and I was drawn into her yard.
Our sophisticated introductions sounded something like this:
“I like your Barbie airplane – I have it too” said I.
“Yeah – I like the little cart for the drinks” she said
“Do you have a pilot – a Ken or GI Joe?” as I drew closer
‘Yeah – but he is missing an arm” she grabbed his war-torn body
“Well that’s ok, I have a barbie that is only a head but I like her anyway”
We laughed a good kid-size belly laugh.
“Do you wanna bring your barbies over to my house and play?”
“My name is Kim”
“My name is Traci, I’ll go ask my mom.”
And I ran home, breathless to gather up all my barbies strewn in every room of the house – even head-only-Heidi.
Soon there was a knock on the front door. Now no-one used the front door – we all came and went through the carport door – so mom and I went to the door together.
Traci and I stood looking expectantly through the screen door – black hair and red hair bound tightly into pigtails with large plastic baubles – fists full of scraggly barbies. And as my mom glared through the screen, her hand squeezed my little arm and she pulled me into the suddenly cold shadow of the teeny foyer – and through clenched teeth she said,“You will have to play with HER outside.”
And my chest tightens with shame today to remember those words – because in an instant I understood that this little girl, who loved Barbies like me – was not a welcome guest in my mother’s house. And my stunned eyes looking up at mom saw a different person than I had seen earlier that morning.
In our scripture for today, when we follow Jesus into his old neighborhood we see that he did not get the reception some folks might have thought. His ministry up to this point had been powerful. Healing withered hands, leprous and paralyzed bodies, ceasing an unending flow of blood – casting out demons and raising a nearly dead child. His childhood pals, the kids that had hung out in his mamma’s yard with him couldn’t see him as a great, wise and especially not holy. I mean, who did he think he was? He was certainly not a welcome rabbi in his home synagogue. As a result of the towns-folks restricted faith and outright rejection, his power here, in his home town – in his own backyard is constricted to a mere trickle.
So he moved on to the outer villages to bring a good word and healing presence. When he sent the disciples to homes to teach and heal, he was clear in his orders – take nothing with you, subsist off the hospitality of the villagers – and if not welcomed – then Jesus commanded “as you leave shake off the dust that is on your feet (and pay attention here) as a testimony against them.” Now we have likely heard others use this passage to point to the gentle way in which we offer the gospel to others and quietly retreat if it is not received. And true – if the message is not welcome don’t force your way into their homes because you can not force your way into their hearts. But there is more to this passage than a shrug and a shuffle to the next home. There is a testimony against the in-hospitality of others.
See, hospitality in the ancient near east was no light matter. It was in-hospitality of the most violent kind that was enough to wipe Sodom off the map. In a desert climate – and for a people who knew what it was to be lost, to be a stranger in a strange land, the hospitality of others was a matter of life and death. To receive a stranger into your home and graciously transform that stranger into a guest was a strict social responsibility and an act of obedience to God. A part of this responsibly was the ritual of foot washing, offering hot and weary travelers the chance to literally cool their heels. It was the custom in those days to provide in every home a bowl of water – a respite for dry, dusty tired desert heavy feet – this was a necessity and a gracious act that welcomed the tired stranger into the shade and comfort of your home and this act was part of turning the stranger into an honored guest. Hence the significance of Jesus command to shake off of dust from their sandals – it was a symbolic gesture pointing to feet never received, never honored – and God disobeyed.
That day so many summers ago in my own life, I was crushed by the stark realization that my mom’s hospitality had limits – and I’d found her first limit based on color. Much later I would personally and painfully run smack-dab into another limit.
So I went outside, embarrassed that Traci might have heard, or that mom’s words were visible, all pink and crusty like calamine lotion on bug bites. We played – we had a great time – but I was ashamed to invite her over again. After that day I would go to her house and play – her house and yard where I was welcome to come and go out of a snapping screen door as much as I wanted.
As time passed the realities of life in the south, life in public schools filled with children bussed from other neighborhoods, helped shaped the way I saw the world. I just grew up sharing erasers, stickers and green jello with folks from all all walks of life. I saw the world much differently than my parents to be sure. As I matured I became determined to NOT be like my mother – I would not dismiss (or hate) a stranger at first sight. Yeah but there is more to it than that (there always is).
As it turns out, it’s diversity of lived faith that seems challenge the limits of my own hospitality. I mean I am so open to many paths to God, I truly believe that the ways in which the world longs to be in relationship – the many religions by which we codify our longing – are all so beautiful and good. I’ve been blessed to walk many paths on my own journey – all of which combine to make me who I am today.
But here’s the rub. I have spent the last decade building a little planned community with white picket fences around my faith – living, eating, worshiping with people who think, believe and live their faith much like me – even though few of them look like me. I want to be surrounded by people who share my theology of God, of God’s love – embracing, forgiving, liberating. Jesus patiently hearing my prayers. Of myself as flawed but loved by God, as a child of God, made in the very image of God. All peace and accepting love.
Here at my blog – in rich and challenging diversity – standing at my screen door are the hearts and minds of strangers – bearing ideas not always so welcome in my home.
I have been here before. Back when I was still a little newbie in seminary, in class one afternoon were talking about God’s love and most folks in the room (myself included) seemed to know and use the word LOVE as if it could only be perceived in one way, patient, kind, all encompassing, constantly forgiving – tender. Then a voice from the other side of the screen door reminded us that concepts of God’s love are not universal – that different traditions understand God’s love quite differently. Some – many in fact, regard God’s love and stern – tough love that can judge a deed and punish the wrongdoer. My classmate used the phrase “God loves me too much to leave me just like I am”.
And a lifetime in the Baptist church came streaming in like so many mosquitoes through that screen door, nagging at me, irritating me, raising the old welts. And I remembered God’s love differently – well as more – than what I had watered down my own understanding to perceive. The stranger reminded me of a requiring God. A God to whom I was required to show MY love through obedience and worship.
It is important to understand that Jesus’ message was not a negation of previous understanding of our relationship with God, not a full reversal of the Law – but an embodied explanation of the Law. According to the Gospels, Jesus meant for the people of his day to understand that God is way MORE than you might have previously understood. That what God requires IS love. Jesus said that the greatest requirement is to love God with all your heart mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.
Like my own father, who loved his girls madly (and who loved him right back), to whom I am still expected to show my love by intentional respectful obedience, God can be and should be understood as a God of Law – but that Law – and friends this is important, that law is LOVE. Not some mamby-pamby loving God with flowers in her hair hugging the whole world – but a God whose law demands justice for the poor, the marginalized That in fact is the crux of the Law – commandments that require of us to be in deep relationship with God, and commandments that require of us to be in just relationship with one another. The stranger may be talking about micro-managing laws – but my understanding of the law is a Gospel understanding. Jesus – God incarnate – living out what exactly is meant by laws – breaking Sabbath laws, cleanliness laws and institutional hierarchy to extend a radical hand of hospitably – to everyone.
So I challenge you (I hear me – I challenge myself too) to be intentional about inviting the stranger – hearing and understanding differently. I pray that we Christians will repent from our ways divisive, us and them ways and really welcome one another to the table. That is really all that scary word “repent” means, metanoia is a change of mind and heart that lead to a change in actions.
You know my mother never really repented of her racism, but in the closing year of her life she most certainly had a deep and real change of mind, heart and actions as she related to me and my wife. We were reconciled but it took me a few more years to shift in such a way that I could understand her better (another post, another day).
I pray to God, that with Jesus’ help, my heart will always remain open to the stranger. That I am able to treat the other – other person, other ideas, other theology – as an honored guest– for if I restrict my understanding of God, of Jesus and the work of Grace in our lives then I am culpable of constricting God’s powerful love in my life.
As I understand it, Jesus offers transformation that promises to work two ways. If you invite the Stranger in – as you are transforming Him into an honored guest then He has the power to transform you.
Gracious and loving God, oil the hinges of my heart that it may swing wide and welcome You in the face of the stranger.
I feel a disclaimer is warranted. As much as I pray to remain open to the stranger I can not overstate that I am not praying to be open to mean-spirited trolls and aggressive bible drive-bys any more than I am willing to naively open the door of my house to a thief or known violent offender. Real conversations where we both assume a humble and graceful posture are always welcome.