A couple of days ago I went to the memorial service of a man who, at the time of his death, was just three years older than I am. My middle-age mortality motor's red light went on as we pulled into the church parking lot. But it was a false alarm. Nothing could have been farther from my mind for the next two hours than my fragile physical grasp of this temporal life. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy to be there. Reality is rarely easy. But it was right and transporting and ultimately of priceless value. The man we remembered that day had suffered a long and wearing illness. Death was a relief. He was, as many articulate mourners testified, the real thing: A genuine Christian...giving and loving. Caring for others always at the sacrifice of his own needs. A tender, open father and husband whose role modeling oozed health and stability into all members of his family and far beyond. To a room full of believers there was little doubt he was presently among the list of heaven's most recent citizens. Free at last from the pain and pallor of his last days on earth. To be there was to share in a fragrant bouquet of emotions. Now relieved, now heartbroken, now gratified, now frustrated. I cried at several points, marveled many times, sighed the old human wheeze, "What ya gonna do?" at other moments. It was a whole lot of life (oddly induced by a death) jammed into two hours. For many, many reasons I'm so grateful to have been there, but let me just share one of them here.
This morning while making time for devotions (I've skipped the last five days and often allow even longer "fasts" in my soul feedings) I came upon the story of Lazarus's resurrection in St. John's Gospel. I've read it before but this time was through eyes still red from the other day's weeping. As Dinah Washington once sang, "What a difference a day makes". Every character now had a modern counterpart from the other day. As I recalled Martha's (one of Lazarus's sisters) straightforward grief (John 11:20-21) , I saw my contemporary's two daughters as they read and sang their father's favorite psalm and hymn. Then in Mary (the other sister to Lazarus - John 11:32-33), I saw his wife, quiet and accepting in her unspeakable heartbreak and loss. ("How they loved each other," a friend remembered at the service.) And all the neighbors and friends who gathered around Lazarus's home were all of us filling the pews to overflowing. Real flesh and bone ache seasoned every line of St. John's text, so I could, as never before, enter into the true pathos of the story.
The only real relating problem I had was with Jesus. At least initially. When he first got the message about Lazarus's severe illness, His response was more global than specific...more "big picture" than personally involved. John 11:4 (NEB) says, " 'This illness will not end in death; it has come fore the glory of God, to bring glory to the Son of God'...there...after hearing of his illness Jesus waited for two days in the place he was." I think one can detect clearer here His eternal origins than at almost any other place in scripture. For here, physically distanced from the homestead of the bereft, immune, as it were, to the messy emotions of humans, He could speak of the larger goodness and wisdom in waiting a few days before coming to His friend's aid. He could talk in a language that was beyond disease and dashed dreams.
But then He came to the memorial service, sat in the pew with my family and me, heard the sniffles and half-caught sobs, the hymns washed down with tears. Then He saw the sorrow of lovers with their "arms wrapped 'round the grief of the ages".* And His heart broke just like yours and mine do. Holy drops of water filled His eyes, ran over the banks and glistened on His cheeks. At that very moment He deemed it okay, indeed fitting, to sometimes forget the "big picture" for the sake of grief's tiny, delicate, wrenching portrait. I saw for the first time why so little print is given to Lazarus's actual resurrection... seven verses out of an entire chapter given to the story. It was almost anticlimactic ... as if the real story consummated with the two words "Jesus wept."
Oh yes, His story (the global, big picture one) is large... the largest there ever was or will be. His glory is unfathomable, unparalleled and unprecedented. His salvation is for all and forever!
But His tears are as salty as yours and mine and at our most mangled moments that may be the greatest wonder of all.
* Quote from "In My Craft Or Sullen Art" by Dylan Thomas.