I am growing quite weary of death.
On my most profound, centered days, I welcome death as a necessary balance and teacher. On my most human days, I am quick to admit that death is a pain in the behind and I’m sick and tired of it breaking our hearts and disrupting our lives. Death has surely overstayed its welcome and I don’t know who invited it in the first place.
I’m tired of the emotional and physical paralysis that comes in the aftermath of death and significant loss. My body longs for days when I do not carry a knotted ball of unprocessed pain and loss in my chest and my upper back from compounding Black Death (the death of Black people that is ever present and prevalent) that I consume as I scroll through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. My body longs for days when children can be children and not fear school shootings, lethal encounters with the police, domestic violence, ruthless illness, and tragic accidents.
Take heart, fam, because those days will not come.
I know, doesn’t that suck!
Scripture is clear that death persists until the end of times. Yet, we trust death does not prevail.
So how do we sustain if we must be accompanied by this parasitic companion called death that seems to only take from us, in this journey of life?
Read John 11:1-45
This passage doesn’t make sense. Just like death doesn’t make sense. In the aftermath of the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, and 7 other folks in a tragic helicopter accident, I am sitting with a passage about the resurrection of Lazarus and it does not make sense. My inductive bible study training and my theological training have given me the tools I need to properly exegete this text, but I can’t because it doesn’t…make…sense in the world I am living in right now.
I’m unsure of the Holy analogy I can extract from a text in which the dead does not die, but indeed gets to come out of the tomb, while my dear friend’s mother is still laid to rest, Tamir Rice is still gone, my Nana is never coming back and the youth I’ve been working with at a local detention center are wondering why God took their mothers. Surely when the text calls Lazarus the one that Jesus loves, it is not communicating favoritism. I believe and I know Jesus loves all the people I just listed, yet they still lay asleep, not awakened.
Yes, there is some great, already but not yet, eschatological claim here. Sure, I get that. But my cry, and that of many, echoes the cries of both Martha and Mary in this passage as they had to fully experience the decline of their brother’s health and his eventual death. They cried for Jesus to come and he did not come in time, as they experienced it. And they both pleaded with him…
11:21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:32 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.”
Martha and Mary, unique in their temperaments and their interactions with Jesus, make the same resolved statement of pain and disappointment.
They both are certain that the presence and power of Jesus would have kept their brother from dying of his illness.
I trust that Martha and Mary believe what I believe, that death is too great an enemy for me to face alone and only Jesus has the power and authority to go head to head with it.
But why can’t death just be abolished?
Revelation 21:4 tells us that in the New Heaven and New Earth, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
But how do we live with this enemy until then?
I feel I have become way too intimate with death in the last eight years of my life, beginning with the murder of Trayvon Martin, followed by Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, LaQuan McDonald, John Crawford, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the brutal murders of Mother Emanuel AME 9. I could go on and on.
Death is sitting at our kitchen tables, in our backyards playing with our children. It is too close!
Many of us have found that following Jesus doesn’t make us more protected from death. In fact, following Jesus is what moves us closer to death as Thomas recognized in this passage when he insisted, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v. 16)
As I follow Jesus, I am invited into a wider kinship network of people whom I consider family, so there is more loss to experience and there are more loved ones to mourn. We have been called to stand firm at the places where the gates of hell are trying to prevail. Following Jesus, in some ways, means we have actively decided to be on the front lines facing death.
So how? How do we sustain in this journey?
If death is an ever-present companion in the journey of following Jesus, it has become imperative for me to invite another companion along the way, her name is grief.
She shows up as mourning, lamenting, anger, paralysis, laughter, uncontrollable tears, and binging comfort foods.
I’ve grown quite fond of grief. I used to think she was also an enemy until I got to know her and understood her intentions to liberate me so I can keep walking toward abundant life even as death persists.
Grief is a gift we’ve been given to remind us that our humanity is a good, natural thing. And she signals us to release so we are not emotionally constipated from all the loss we experience daily.
The most quoted line of this passage is verse 35 that says “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep” in some translations.
In Jesus’ human body and consciousness, he was moved by Mary’s mourning and moved by his own love for Lazarus, that he, too, felt grief and released it through tears. That makes sense to me more than ANYTHING in this passage, and I return to it over and over again.
Jesus knew resurrection was coming, yet he still wept because the death being experienced was worthy of tears. It was worthy of pause.
The thing about grief is that she is always accompanying you. Grief is that knotted ball of unprocessed pain and loss I talked about before; it’s that knot that no masseuse can work out in my mother’s back. Grief doesn’t accompany us only in an ethereal, metaphysical, intellectual way. We carry grief in our BODIES.
My invitation to you is to welcome grief as a companion. And in the same way we spend time with friends and fellow sojourners on this journey, develop practices of spending time with your grief.
Spending time with grief is how we sustain when death won’t get off our back.