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.

25-14-5-20-19-31-0m

Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell

Belonging

This last year has been horrendous. I can’t even tell you all the things. The people that know every story of the last year are sick of me (they just have to be). They love me and say I’m not a burden, I am SO grateful, but this year has been more than “drama” it’s been nonstop pain, sadness, depression, circumstances that could have been prevented and some not. Loss after loss after loss.

Every week my therapist braces himself. I don’t think a week of this year has gone by without him tearing up at least once a session. Do you know what it’s like to have your life so broken that your therapist cries for you? Consistently!?!

For the last 2 years I have waited to fall part. I’ve been worried about myself. I’ve had to let others worry about me. I’ve had to let others help me in ways I couldn’t refuse. I worried, they worried. How long can I handling being under this amount of stress? How much more can my body take? Physically? Emotionally? Spiritually? When will this end? The most hopeful and promising things the people closest to me have said is, “I will not be the next thing.” (*Deep Breath*) “May it be so,” I pray.

This past week the Jenga tower fell.

477395855_e1aa3d92cf_b

Over the last two years pieces have been removed one by one slowly, the tower was close to falling over and over and over again, but this week, finally, the piece that held the tower up, tipped the scales. I have never felt so hopeless. Ever. Where did I belong? To whom did I belong? If one more thing happened I can’t handle it. Where would I go? Who would I lean on? Then, in full traumatized fashion, there was a moment of needing to push those people away before I had a chance to get hurt. Then I stopped.

When a Jenga tower falls it never completely falls, there is at least the base, maybe one or two left on the second level. I reached out to the base when the tower fell. The people that will never leave, the people that will never betray, the people who will take me seriously when I say “it’s bad.”

Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

I am a complicated woman who has had a complicated life. Like Naomi, I have lost much. Not everything. But enough. People have left as it got too hard for them. I let them go, some freely and willfully, others with gnashing of teeth and covering myself in ashes. But to those Ruth’s in my life, I say thank you. You have bound yourself to me, and deserve more than I could every repay.

You have bound yourselves to me in the worst of times. I am a child of God, always, but you have proven and insisted that I also have other family. No matter my name, no matter my city, no matter my heritage. I am my beloveds and my beloveds are mine. God help them, as they have insisted: they will go where I will go, they lodge where I will lodge, their people shall be my people and their God, my God. They will not be the next thing.

I am not alone, I belong.

Slow Motion

My new favorite band is Phox. I was introduced to them a few months ago, and I’ll admit it, I can’t get enough. Some days, I have days where my eccentricities come out, and the playlist jumps around, other days, I listen to one song over and over until I get sick of it. This is the case today with Phox’s “Slow Motion.” Stop reading and watch the video, then play it again as you come back to the blog and finish reading. Go ahead… I’ll wait.

First, Phox should be your new favorite band too. Second, there’s an amazing clarinet solo and dance party- Who does that?!? Unreal. Third, there isn’t anything about this song that doesn’t fit my mood today and my life right now. There is no doubt that I’m moving in slow motion, and given my personality, it’s my first instinct to see that as a bad thing. But it’s not. I’m slowing down I’m feeling the feels, I’m moving out of survival and into a new normal. I’m not there yet, but it’s a slow movement toward those things. The hard part is that the world seems to be moving around me going at hyper-speed.

The majority of the video is spent with her at a party, and while others seem to be carefree, she carries a weight. That weight is sustained throughout the video. Sometimes she is alone in her melancholy, other times, she seems to be joined by the rest of the band. But even when joined their weight is individual (all facing one direction or away from each other), it is not shared as the joy and laughter seem to be.

This really struck home to me. It is easy to share in joy, and joy is contagious. I even smiled at the dance party because it looks fun, people are having fun. It even makes me want to hate hipsters less (okay… maybe not). But what about melancholy? It’s lonely. Others can “be there” with you, others can accompany you, but really you are alone with the weight, the hurt, the anxiety. It’s important not to rush the process out, but it’s not like joy.

Last night I spent a few hours in prayer. I allowed myself to feel all the feels, feel the weight that was on me, feel my heart break for those whom I love in similar situations, let my heart break for where I am in life, that I have to integrate the dark and the light of life and understand that this is a continuous challenge, but a necessary and healthy one. I asked myself, as I often do in these kind of prayers where it hurts. I mean physically, where does it hurt?

I’ve been asking myself this question for years. It started with a clergy coach who was teaching me to be a “non-anxious presence” during meetings. She told me to locate in my physical body where the tension was manifesting itself, when I could release that tension physically, then I could also mentally release the tension. It helped.

A few years later I read a poem by Rabia of Basra (c. 717-801) a Sufi poet. She said this:

“Show me where it hurts, God said, and every cell in my body burst into tears before His tender eyes.”

So when I hurt, I now ask myself this from God, “Show me where it hurts.” I just observe, try not to judge. Last night the pain struck directly to my heart and I mean in my heart. Yes, my chest but on the left side of my body, there is actually an ache in my heart, it’s not on the right side. Locating where the pain is physically manifesting itself allows me to feel and experience the sorrow that is beyond tears. For the cells of my body are crying out. The pain doesn’t immediately disappear, but it’s a way to live in the midst of the fog. In the midst of the slow motion that my life is moving in, while everything around me seems to be moving forward.

If you too are moving in slow motion or know someone who is this practice is worth a try. After some time experiencing the pain physically it will be time to release it, but not internalize it. Today, as I went through the rite of the Sacrament of Communion at the local hospital and I read these words from Jesus:

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – Matthew 11:28-30

My experience of God is this, when God asks me where it hurts and I can allow the pain to be exchanged between us in prayer, the burden lessens. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but it does. This is my hope and my peace.