Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45 Russell Eidmann-Hicks Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were best friends to Jesus. He would stop in to their home on his way down to Jerusalem, staying for days, laughing at their family stories, filling up on their home-cooked meals, sharing their faith. Suddenly Lazarus died – and their stable family and friendship were blown apart – thrown to the winds, scattered to the swirling chaos of grief. The remaining three had to come to terms with Lazarus’ passing and re-forge their own relationship after his loss.
Like others going through the upheaval of grief, it was a wild rollercoaster ride. One moment would have them flying up, sharing joyful memories, basking in love, and then the bottom would drop out and down they would plummet into weeping and heart-sickness and the confusion of emptiness and loss. Grief is a wild ride, tossing our lives tumultuously up and down.
Peter Wehner wrote this in an article in the NY Times entitled: After Great Pain, Where is God? “Last month I checked in on a childhood friend whose 13-year-old son committed suicide last year after struggling with a brain injury. He told me, ‘I’ve stopped crying every day, which is a major transition.’ He added, ‘I spent more than a year trying to get him well and keep him alive, and only in recent days have I finally, mostly, lost that mode of thinking. I don’t have to do anything now because I can’t.’ Yet in his dreams, my friend said, his son is still alive and he’s checking on him to make sure he’s OK.
“Another lifelong friend recently died of colon cancer. His wife wrote me, ‘I wish I could tell you that we are walking this journey with courage and faith, but that doesn’t really describe our situation at all. The outward courage feels like a ruse to convince ourselves that this immense pain will subside in time, and the weakness of our faith is showing its shallow limits.’”
In his book A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis describes his own journey of grief after the death of his beloved wife. Weher writes: “It nearly shattered him. In writing about his bereavement, Lewis described what it was like to go to God ‘when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.’ He added, ‘Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
Grief, as these voices witness, can be devastating, a lost, lonely, confusing slog through a waterless desert. It saps our reservoirs of well-being, and drains us of inner peace. Just when it seems we’re back on our feet, we get ambushed by a song or a smell or a memory or a photograph, and down we slide into the muck and mire. Like a rollercoaster that not only takes you up and down, it can knock you side to side with powerful feelings of hopelessness, confusion or anxiety – at least at first.
We find this in our story from John, in which each person goes through a tumult of conflicting emotions. Jesus waits for four days before making the journey to Bethany, and then Martha confronts him on the road. “If you had been there, my brother would not have died.” These were her first words to him. Perhaps this can be heard as a statement of faith – confidence in Jesus’ power to heal. Or it could be an accusation – a cry of disappointment and betrayal: “If you had been there, my brother would not have died!” Grief is often mixed with anger, with rage at life’s capricious changes that pull the rug out from under us, sending us tumbling down steep inclines of despair and uncertainty. Martha then takes a deep breath and regains her composure, and affirms ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ She chokes back tears of frustration, and reclaims her faith. Jesus says to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus offers her a deeper foundation of hope and grace, as she struggles to understand her loss that has caused her world to crumble around her.
Then her sister, Mary, goes on her own rollercoaster ride, when she comes to Jesus with the same issue, that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not be gone. SO WHY IN GOD’S NAME WEREN’T YOU THERE? Instead of getting into it with him, Mary simply melts into tears – sobbing – and then everyone else around her begins to weep as well, leaving no room for chatter. At this point Jesus himself goes on a slippery slide of grief and he careens down into the pit of despair. He is deeply moved – and breaks into tears. He isn’t immune from grief. No, in the words of Isaiah, he is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Jesus careens down into the depths – but then rolls up to the other side – affirming that after the downside of grief can come hope and healing. The ride doesn’t stall in the valley but keeps climbing up the other side. “Where have they laid him?” he asks – and goes to stand just outside of the tomb. He calls on the depths of his connection to Spirit, the power within to confront the dark – and he calls: “Lazarus come out!”
Lazarus, come out! Out into the crowd of stunned onlookers stumbles their now living friend who had perished, wrapped in stained bandages, blinking in the sunlight. “Unbind him and let him go!” God calls life out of death. God calls us to unbind the wrappings of grief – and to walk out into the light – after the darkness of despair. God makes a way where there is no way. God calms the sea when the boat is about to sink; God brings a just man cruelly crucified back to life. Jesus teaches that no grief, no sorrow, no hopelessness, no fear, no despair can separate us forever from God.
Peter Wehner writes about hope and healing in the midst of grief: “It’s not that people of faith, when they’re suffering, deny heavenly hope; it’s that in being reminded of this hope they don’t want their grief minimized or the grieving process overlooked. All things may eventually be made new again, but in this life, even wounds that heal leave scars.”
“For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering. There is some solace in knowing that while at times life is not easy for us, it was also hard for God. And from suffering, compassion can emerge, meaning to suffer with another. That disposition, in turn, often leads to acts of mercy….I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.”
The rollercoaster ride of grief does eventually bring us all the way back around. We eventually find solid ground under our feet and stumble out into the sunlight. But we come out wiser, more loving, with souls deepened by suffering, with heart wider to the pain of others. We come out with new appreciation of the fragility of life, and of the beauty and wonder of living.
In Berlin in 1908, a 21-year-old Polish pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, was lonely, hungry, and in debt, his career at an impasse. He felt there was nothing left for him but suicide; the problem was finding a way. He had no gun, no poison, and the idea of jumping out of the window was revolting. (“I might have to go on living with broken arms and legs,” he explained.) He chose strangulation with a belt from his robe. He went into the bathroom, stood on a chair, and secured one end of the belt to an overhead hook. Then he tied the other end around his neck and kicked over the chair.
The worn-out belt immediately came apart, and Rubinstein fell on the floor with a crash. For a time he lay where he had fallen, weeping. Later, going to the piano, he cried himself out in music. Afterwards, though, on the street, he saw the world as if reborn. It was so beautiful. The famed pianist never forgot what the experience taught him; “Love life,” he said later, “for better or for worse, without conditions.” (Arthur Rubinstein, My Young Years, Knopf, 1973, pgs. 254-255)
Unbind him and let him go! That is the cry that comes down from Christ. God enters into the places of deepest suffering and sorrow with light. God rolls back the stone that shuts out the day. God even unbinds us from our prison of grief and longing; allows us to move out into the light once more, to take off our bandages of sorrow and emptiness. Jesus releases us from our coaster rides of shame and despair with words of hope and comfort. Unbind her and let her go!
Last Thursday evening I saw a play that my daughter wrote performed by a group of dedicated actors at Emerson college in Boston. Suzie wrote the play about an experience she had a number of years ago about the suicide of her best friend from her summer camp – a sudden and devastating loss that transformed her life and threw her into a tumult of grief. The play begins with five actors – all parts of herself – speaking at the boy’s, Charlie’s, funeral. Each character is devastated, and speaks not only to the audience, but also to Charlie, who walks silently through the play. The next scene is of the characters, about a year later, wrestling with their grief and depression as they speak to a therapist- describing the agony of loss, emptiness and anger. Finally, the last scene has the characters rediscovering support from each other and a sense of hope in their grief. Their memories of Charlie are no longer agonizing, but have now become comforting and uplifting; they speak to Charlie with affection and caring – rather than resentment or confusion. Their grief has begun to heal; they are beginning to piece their lives back together and regain the joy of living.
The rollercoaster eventually pulls back into the station. We find ourselves back on solid ground. Ups and downs subside. Life unfolds anew. We can resume our lives from the tombs of sorrow. Come out! Jesus cries. Let go. Allow healing light to knit our hearts back together. Find faith rooted in renewal with the words: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Amen.