Monday, March 30, 2020

The Grieving Conversation

John 11:1-45
Lent 5 / Year A

Today is the fifth and final Sunday in Lent.  Next Sunday begins Holy Week with the Blessing of the Palms and reading of our Lord’s Passion.  And this is our final “Big Conversation.”  Let’s call this one “The Grieving Conversation.”  Of course, it is more than this, but it certainly is this as Jesus speaks with his friends Mary and Martha after the passing of their brother Lazarus.

Many of us have been in the place where Mary and Martha are in this reading.  We know first-hand what it is to lose someone close to you.  And we know what is comforting and helpful and kind and loving at such a time and, sadly, we also know what is not.  I suspect most of us have had a well-meaning friend say or do the wrong thing at the worst possible time.  You know the comments:

·         You need to put this behind you.

·         It was not meant to be (or the alternative… it was meant to be).

·         He brought this on himself.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         You must be strong.

·         Why are you still crying?

·         She wouldn’t want you to be so sad.

·         You are still young; you can always remarry.

·         You never really got to know the baby.

·         God wanted him more than you.

·         Heaven needed another angel.

·         God will never give you more than you can handle.

·         I know just how you feel.

And, in spite of what you might think, we clergy can be some of the worst offenders.  A woman named Candace shares her experience:

I was devastated when I lost my husband to brain cancer just 12 weeks after diagnosis.  I was not able to get back to church after his death and I wondered why the pastor didn’t call and then, after 3 months, he did call and wanted to visit.  As soon as he arrived he told me that God had often used him to heal the sick but since he had prayed for my husband and he died, it must mean that God was trying to get my attention.  So I asked him, are you saying it’s my fault that my husband got cancer and died?  And he replied it’s something you should think about.  I know it is difficult knowing what to say after a death but that comment was just plain cruel!

I think I would describe it with words even harsher than “cruel”.

We know why people say these things.  We sense their need to fix everything.  We get why our pain makes them uncomfortable.  We even understand the urge to assign blame in order to make sense of what has happened.  We get it, but this doesn’t make it any easier to tolerate.

Here are a few things you might consider saying when you speak with a friend who is grieving:

·       I am so sorry for your loss.

·       I wish I knew the right words to say, but I don’t.  Just know I care.

·       I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.

·       You and your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers.

·       My favorite memory of your loved one is…

·       We all need help at times like this.  I am here for you.  What can I do?

·       I am always up early (or late or free during the middle of the day – whatever is true for you).  If you need anything or just want to talk I am only a phone call away!

·       Try giving a hug without saying anything at all.

My father died when I was twenty.  No one in my social group had been through this experience and, as a consequence, no one knew what to say or do.  So my friends went in one of two directions.  There were those who didn’t know what to say and because this made them uncomfortable, they avoided me.  And then there were those who didn’t know what to say and it made them uncomfortable, but decided to stay by my side even though they could not “fix” the situation.  I have never forgotten their courage to demonstrate compassion while being completely vulnerable and helpless.  Sensing they cared about me more than their personal safety and comfort meant the world to me.  It said more than words ever could!

Looking at today’s text, it appears Martha accepts her brother’s death and draws on a deep faith.  She states her belief Jesus could have prevented the death, but even now – after four days – God will do whatever he asks.  Mary, on the other hand, is overcome with grief.  She mourns.  She weeps. Lamenting consolers surround her.  She states only that her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there.  It feels more like a complaint than a statement of faith.  Caught up in the force of Mary’s emotion, Jesus is overcome himself and weeps, even to the point of being “greatly disturbed.”  It is one of the moments when we gain insight into the fullness of his humanity.

Perhaps the story of Jesus raising Lazarus puzzles you.  It does me.  It feels like Jesus “fixes” the situation in a way we would all love to happen when we lose a loved one.  Through a single prayer and a simple command – Lazarus, come out! – he turns mourning into dancing and grief into gladness with the ease with which he converted water into wine.  But raising Lazarus from death is not the same thing as resurrection and this is not his ultimate destiny (or ours).  One day – some day – Lazarus will die again and this time he will rise in glory, as we all will.  Jesus’ act doesn’t “save” his friend from dying.  It merely delays the ultimate gift of new life one day he will receive.

One day each of us will transition from this existence to a reality we can scarcely imagine.  I like how the burial prayer refers to “the grave and gate of death.”  When I think of this gate I picture the gates in St. Paul’s front wall.  Dying is like walking down the street and turning into our church property by passing through the gates.  I see the front doors, which look so inviting as the seasonal flags flutter majestically in a gentle breeze.  To the right is the Columbarium and Cross.  On the left is a stately magnolia tree.  And all around tulips are in bloom.  In an instant life is changed, not ended.  But for those of us still walking down the street (or as the burial office puts it, “who are still in our earthly pilgrimage”), we feel acutely the pain of separation and lose as our earthly connection to one we love and need comes to an end.  It is real and it hurts. 

The wisdom of the ages reminds us the best way to go through this kind of pain is together.  When someone dies, we mourn and grieve together.  The closer we are to the person who dies the deeper it disturbs.  So we hold each other close and help as best we can.  We accept what is and do what we can while being at peace with what we cannot do to provide comfort.  And we put our faith in the one who is the Resurrection and the Life in the hope we will one day be reunited with all those we love but see no longer.