Lent 6: Grieving faith...

John 11:17-27

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25J esus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

He was dead. Her brother was dead, and the person she knew could heal him had been two miles away... and he came too late. She didn't know how to make sense of it all. Too many questions. The grief, the loss, she felt was crippling. Debilitating. The rage was bubbling up inside her, even if she didn't know it. Most of all, her faith was shaken. Nothing was making sense.

We're talking about Martha here. You know, the one who in Luke's Gospel (10:38-42) was worrying about all the minute details of Jesus coming to visit. The one who was upset with her sister for just sitting there listening to Jesus while she was left to the preparations. We're talking about the logical one. The rational one. The detail-oriented one.

When she says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," I imagine hers to be a tone of anger, an attitude of contempt. This would not have been a pretty scene to watch. I imagine most of us would have seen Jesus coming, and after seeing the look on Martha's face, would have stepped away, out of earshot. Martha had not only lost her brother, but she'd felt betrayed and let down by her friend—a friend she knew had the power to keep this all from happening. Everything was unraveling, and yet she still manages to maintain her game face.

When my grandmother passed over a year and a half ago, I lost my game face. I remember the night I heard the news. Standing in the courtyard of our apartment building on the phone with a friend from her church who called to see if I'd heard the news only to be the one to break it to me, I collapsed to the ground with a scream that still haunts me to this day. The person I loved most in the world was gone. In that instant, I felt my faith shaken as if it had just been hit at full force by a sledgehammer, cracking down the middle, breaking into countless pieces. I remember being up for another three hours crying until I was practically dehydrated, taking one phone call after another. I remember the rage I felt.

If Jesus had shown up that night, much less 4 days later at the funeral, I don't believe my words would not have been as cool, calm, and collected as Martha's. In fact, I don't know that I would have been able to step within arm's reach of Him. I certainly would not have spouted off the doctrinal truths I'd been raised to believe. As far as Jesus was concerned, he could have gone to the top of the Sears Tower and jumped off.

When we face the loss of something or someone dear to us, the effects can be deep-reaching and long-lasting, sometimes taking years to heal. When John Wesley returned to England after practically failing at his missional efforts in Georgia, he felt his faith shaken to its core. The story goes that in a conversation with his friend Peter Bohler, Wesley was told, "Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Fake it until you make it.

While I believe Bohler's advice came out of sincere concern for his friend's emotional and spiritual welfare, I don't think it's universally applicable. It reminds me of some of the platitudes I heard after losing Nanny: be strong; it'll get better; she loved you so much; it was God's will, and countless others. They only served to remind me that she was gone, my heart was broken, my faith was shattered, and the questions just kept coming.

Before we can let our faith return to us, renewed, revitalized, and restored, we need to let ourselves grieve. It's okay to have doubts. It's okay to be angry and disappointed. God can handle it, probably better than we think God can. In fact, I think God welcomes it. In the same way that our human relationships need a certain amount of conflict in order to grow more deeply intimate, so also does our relationship with the Creator need some conflict. We don't need to spout off the platitudes. We don't need to fake it until we make it. We need to let ourselves feel the pain of loss, and to ask the questions that come to mind honestly, all the while prepared to not receive an answer, at least not right away. Real faith has to come from a place of being transformed, and as most of us know, transformation is often a brutally painful process. Before we can embrace whatever new thing it is that takes place, we need to grieve the loss of the old thing.

It's ok to say to Jesus, "This wouldn't have happened if you had been here." Maybe that's true, or maybe it isn't. We won't know unless we say it. We won't know unless we grieve.