- Published: 05 April 2020
(take a deep breath).
I don’t know about you, but again and again, this past week I have found myself forced to stop and take a deep breath every now and then, to simply breathe in this unchosen journey through the season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting breath deep into the body helps create space that pushes against becoming overwhelmed, pushes against becoming energetically debilitated in these times which are in fact overwhelming.
It is overwhelming to be confronted by the suffering and death of so many in our world and it is overwhelming to process the implications of this pandemic both known and yet unknown, and it is overwhelming to figure out how to get through another day during this time of physical distancing. These are overwhelming times.
Our Scripture story for today speaks to overwhelming times.
The gospel story that is the lectionary reading for today is the story of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. I have pondered the story all week, struck by the irony of having a story about the raising of Lazarus in a time of pandemic when death numbers climb on a daily basis.
The gospel of John helps lay the foundation to the Christian faith through symbolic and metaphoric stories, and this story helps us understand what we mean by resurrection in its fullest breadth. We know people do not rise from the dead in our time and they did not rise from the dead when Jesus lived either; rather when we speak of resurrection we talk about both the journey from this life into the mystery beyond this life and we talk about resurrection in this life.
In fact, the primary focus of Jesus was teaching about resurrection in this life, by establishing the kin-dom of God in the now. We have a faith that talks about the abundance of life and invites people to live resurrection of healing and justice in this life.
Resurrection talk, then, engages with the realities of life, with life’s sufferings and travails. So take that breath again as we listen for wisdom from this symbolic and metaphoric story.
Lazarus becomes very sick and word is sent to his healer friend, Jesus, to come. Upon hearing the news, the story tells us that the holy in Jesus waits two days. The structure and words of the story indicates that this waiting is on purpose, the waiting is deliberative. In this story, the holy in Jesus embodies a practice of deliberative waiting.
Deliberative waiting intentionally creates space for the holy to work in the unfolding of life’s circumstances. In the course of my life and as I have shared spirit journeys with many of you, often the wisest course has been a pathway of deliberative waiting so that the healing pathway is able to present itself. Deliberative waiting is not avoidance, but a chosen waiting in those times when immediate action is not required. Deliberative waiting combats our desire for instant gratification and keeps us from letting our “now anxieties” overtake discernment.
Deliberative waiting is taking a breath. Within deliberative waiting, there is often ample space for learning and insight, space for discoveries that can only be make known because of the waiting.
Today, I simply identify this time of physical distancing in COVID-19 as deliberative waiting. We will come back to this.
Jesus waited two days.
A brief aside: For us right now facing weeks, even months of physical distancing two days doesn’t seem very long. One of the struggles in the gospel stories, is that the stories have the appearance of a “quick fix”; however, it is important to remember that these stories are cradled in the experience of Jesus as a faithful Judean who knew the sacred stories of the Hebrew people, especially the stories of the exodus and exile. Neither of these stories were quick fixes. Exodus was a 40-year journey through a desert and Exile was a 50-year separation from the homeland. Nothing quick about either of those.
Equally, these gospel narratives were written as “good news” to a people who were also facing ongoing difficulties and uncertainty. There were living in a time when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, living in a time when some of them faced persecution that was constant and much longer than two days, and lived in a time when some faced death. The gospel stories were written as “good news”, as encouragement, to provide energy to be faithful to the vision of Christ Jesus in the now, to live faithfully when the going was very tough, and to invite the healing energies of Christ Jesus into one’s present lived experience. These narratives were “good news” not just to the first readers but to all of us subsequent generations.
We return to the story: After two day, the holy in Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus but we learn that Lazarus has died. The holy in Jesus, steeped in deliberative waiting, is unpanicked by this death because, as the structure of the story reveals, the story teller is inviting the reader to imagine life in a larger way, to see the bigger story of resurrection.
This happens through conversation.
Upon arriving, the sisters of Lazarus converse with the holy in Jesus, first Martha than Mary. The conversations allude to a resurrection after death, but within the conversation the holy in Jesus directs the attention of Martha and Mary to resurrection that also happens in this life.
To emphasize this, the drama of the story heightens.
Confronted by the sisters of Lazarus, the holy in Jesus immediately asks to be taken to the place of death. Jesus goes to the place of burial and there the holy in Jesus weeps. The holy grieves. Each day that passes, we need to be reminded that the pandemic deaths are more than a tally. They are people, loved ones, a loss to our world. While the circumstance is overwhelming and hard to bear, we cannot become numb to these losses. The holy grieves. Jesus wept.
While weeping, the holy in Jesus remains unperturbed by those who criticized the deliberative waiting. The holy in Jesus asks that the stone that covers the grave be removed. Martha, in a moment of wry humour, suggests such an action is not a good idea given that the smell of decay would be significant. Wry humour helps a lot in difficult times.
Once the stone is removed, the holy in Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, and then, in dramatic fashion, the storyteller narrates a Lazarus inching a way out of the tomb still bound in grave clothes. The storyteller ends the narrative with the holy in Jesus saying, “unbind Lazarus, let Lazarus go free”.
Remember, this is a symbolic story from which we can gain spirit wisdom.
Note that the unbinding could not have happened if Lazarus had not died and been buried in the tomb. The dying happened in the time of deliberative waiting.
Note that Jesus is teaching about the necessity of unbinding that which is killing us, unbinding that which is squeezing the life out of us as a collective community and unbinding that which is squeezing the life out of us as individuals.
Note that this is a story of liberation, liberation from social injustice and liberation from individual pain, liberation from all that binds our spirits.
Note how we can apply this story to our experience of this overwhelming season of COVID-19.
It is a season of sickness, of death, this is not good
Right now, it is only week three of physical distancing. Physical distancing is a time of deliberative waiting, a necessary time because this deliberative waiting is what will lead to restoration, lead to healing, lead to a resurrection in this life.
The physical distancing may be much longer than we want, but it is not forever, there is a time when we will inch our way out of the tomb.
In the difficulty of this time, the holy both converses with us and grieves with us. And there are many conversations going on, learnings and experiences that are impacting us and forming us. Difficult times, while never chosen, teach us, and I hear lots of whispers of possibilities about how this pandemic, tragic and overwhelming and awful as it is, can illuminate some important and necessary changes in our lives and for our world, changes that might unbind us and set us free.
It is true, it is overwhelming right now, but may the wisdom of this symbolic story ground us in this time of physical distancing.