The Empathetic Jesus

A few weeks ago I preached on comfort. The sermon, which I forgot to record, is still being talked about with parishioners. I was curious, it was interesting, but when something like this happens with parishioners I ask myself, what resonated so deeply?

Not to sound too judgmental, but often times I wonder how much common sense is really preached from the pulpit. So often our theology is toxic, especially around grief. God does not “need one more angel in heaven” and we are not always comforted that our loved ones “are with their king.” Because we are selfish and we want them with us (Steel Magnolias in case you didn’t catch the reference.)

And don’t even get me started on “you’ll see them again in heaven” because honestly, that’s not even Christian Theology.

So I preached on the real pain of grief and what Jesus did to bring about real comfort. Here’s the story, it’s long, but worth it:

The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Empathy in grief is not easy, and Jesus gives us a road map. Here’s what I see:

Establishes Trust – Jesus has a relationship with this family, so when Lazarus is sick Mary and Martha send for Jesus. The area in which they live is a dangerous place for Jesus, the religious leaders are after him and could be deadly for him, but he shows up no matter the consequences. Also, he waited a few days, I mean “to show God’s glory” but still, he shows up even though Mary and Martha might be mad, because you never regret showing up, even if they are mad…

Meets Them Where They Are – We know the personalities of these sisters from a previous story. In it, we know Mary is the emotional one who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens, and Martha is much more practical doing housework. In our story Martha meets Jesus, she has a piece of her mind she wants to give him. Notice the exchange, Jesus has a very heady theological conversation. “Your brother will rise again.” But when he meets Mary there is no talk of resurrection, but he met her emotion with silence and emotion. Jesus weeps. It is a beautiful moment, but no less beautiful then his exchange with Martha, because in both circumstances he opens himself to their feelings in the places they are.

Defuses Tense Situations – Both Mary and Martha blame Jesus for their brother’s death. I think this is a crucial part of this story for us, as we blame Jesus a lot in our grief for taking away that which we love. Notice that he responds by not responding. In their grief both Mary and Martha need someone to blame, and Jesus is the target, and instead of shouting back at them, “That’s a damn lie” he simple holds them in their grief and says nothing. It’s the grief talking, and empathetic Jesus ignores the hurtful words and loves them in the midst of it all. This story could have ended very differently if he took the accusations personally, but he didn’t, he knew that we lash out at those whom we love most because they’re safe.

Remains Present – Immediately after the part of the story I quoted Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and yes, it is miraculous, but even though Jesus knows what will happen, he weeps with Mary and talks with Martha. He remains present in their grief because the pain of it is real, and always will be. He honors them and who they are by remaining with them in it, despite knowing it will get better. He is not too quick to make it all better, even though (unlike us) he can make it better immediately. Instead he remains present with them.

There’s a lot we have to learn from Jesus, but this, is so very important in so very many ways. Think about someone who is grieving. It could be from a loss of life, a relationship, a medical diagnoses, and take a page out of Jesus’s book.

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Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell

Binding Up the Brokenhearted

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners… Isaiah 61:1

In the 3rd chapter of Job, he curses the day he was born. He curses the countless celebrations and miraculous joys of conception and birth of a new born child. Not any child. Him. His life, anyone or anything that took pleasure from this event. And anyone who helped make it happen. God, his parents, the community, everyone. He curses the day, the people, and the miracle.

When I counsel people in the midst of depression I have them read this scripture out loud during a session. Now, when someone is going through a tough time, especially to the point of feeling they are better off dead than alive, it is not unusual to turn to the book of Job.

The story is misunderstood, the book is avoided in so many ways like the plague. Next to the book of Revelation we avoid Job. It’s messy, and even more complicated than you can imagine when you study it from as a scholar, which I have not. But when I talk to my friends who are specialists the nuances are unbelievable.

I am not a Bible Scholar. I am a practical theologian and pastor. So I will not speak to the historical context and meanings of the book, what I want to speak to is how we have turned this extremely complex book into a guide on how to be humble in the midst of suffering, and how to “chose happiness” and how to hold on to hope that “all will be restored in the end.”

No, No, No, No, No, No, NO!

So why would I point a deeply depressed person to the scripture that talks about feeling hopeless? Because the world wants us to get over it, to give us- “it all happens for a reason” “it’s your choice to feel this way” and “time heals all wounds.” And the response I get is this, “This is exactly how I feel, how did I not know that this was in the Bible.”

I had a dream last night that I was sitting in the courtroom as a young African American man was put on trial. He was innocent, yet was convicted. In the dream I had the sense that he was one of the hundreds of young African American men killed by police. Yet he wasn’t dead, he was on trial, and was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. The hopelessness overtook him. Later I went to see him get transported and he started to run.

I stopped him, I promised to come visit him in jail. I told him we would study Jeremiah together. I told him to read Job 3 before I could get to him, that he was not in this alone. He asked me if I was a teacher, “no,” I said, “I’m a pastor.” He collapsed into tears and I held him.

I assured him I would see him as soon as possible and put him on the transport. Then, I couldn’t find my shoes, because, dream…

We like to tell the story that Job was a good man, horrible things happened to him. His friends came along and in their attempt to be supportive told him to “buck up” then God teaches him who is really in control. Job, “in his faithfulness”, stays true to God and in the midst of terrible, terrible pain, he endures, and in the end he remarries and proceeds to have the same number of male and female children, he becomes rich again, and all live happily ever after.

What? NO.

You cannot replace the death of a life, the death of a marriage, the death of children, the loss of everything you held dear, including the ideal of prosperity gospel. That if you remain true to God, God will reward you. All is NOT restored. All is NOT healed.

There are some wounds that cannot be healed, there are some things you cannot will into existence, you cannot force someone to love you, or just “get over” your depression, or protect yourself from betrayal if you are in a relationship. You can, as Job does, sit in it.

You can “remain faithful” as Job was, and how did he do that? By cursing and rejecting the crap, and allowing the Spirit of the Lord to sit with him. To allow God to tell and scream at him too. To recognize that life is hard and sad, and really, really sucks, that God is in control, sure, and that too sucks for Job. By holding God accountable, by holding his friends accountable.

Nothing was restored for Job, but he was able to move on. The pain of life could not outweigh the goodness that he knew was out there. However, it is not that he moved on that is the point, it is how he was able to. He grieved, really, really grieved his losses. And that, that is the true message, the true grace, and the part that (just might) hurt the most.

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Time

Time. Time after time.

Today they are releasing the 911 tapes from the Newtown shooting last year. Just so you know, I will not be listening to them, I cannot. Just knowing they will be released makes me want to drive to my daughter’s elementary school and hold her tight. Also, I think it’s terrible timing, just days away from the year anniversary.

Time

But as the Advent Photo of the Day calendar told me today’s word was time, I went out to the graveyard at the church. A few weeks ago when my aunt was visiting we were looking at the gravestones, she notices these three graves, all children, all of the same family.

Meet the Parks children, or at least what we know of them from their gravestones (from left to right), sons and daughter of William & Charolilla Parks.

Clarence Everett- died August 18, 1866 1 year, 2 months

Maggie Owens- died July 16, 1875 4 years, 6 months, 13 days

Seymour Gowan- died July 5, 1875 2 years, 3 months, and 3 days

They lost 3 children, within 9 years, the last two 11 days apart. I do not know what tragedy took these babies away from their parents and loved ones, but their headstones begin our cemetery, there are many other children buried here, but not three from one family and so close together.

I know they are long gone from this world, but my heart breaks for their grief, my heart is in pain for their memory of what was and what was lost. They say time heals all wounds, I do not believe this to be true. However, the pain “lessens” because it gets integrated into a new way of being, one of the ways this happens is over time.

These marble stones will stand as long as possible in our cemetery, marking the lives that lived only a small time on earth. Time has worn these stones, but time has marked their journey also.