My brother, Joe, gave me a journal in 1982, which began as a dream journal, but since I rarely remember my dreams, it became another well-intentioned, but unrealized endeavor, of which, sadly I could fill up a journal. Today on our back porch with a fire in the stove and rain on the horizon, I returned to that journal and began to write and this is what leapt from my pen. Okay, leapt is not exactly right because spell check has underlined it with one of those squiggly red lines, and we all know that spell check has the final word. Right? Plus I am prone to exaggeration, being a southerner, and like any southerner "worth his weight in salt," why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Anyway, thanks Joe for your belief and appreciation for my gifts, in which, I must confess others have had far more confidence and faith, than I.
Okay, so where was I? Oh yeah, what follows didn't exactly leap from my pen, but it came rather easily because, well I needed to write. After writing a good portion of the afternoon, and sharing with my dear wife, she suggested I begin a blog with today's entry. I reminded her that I already have a blog, and she reminded me that the only thing I ever post is the radio show. A program that Richard Higgs and I co-host on KWGS, Sunday nights at 7pm. In case you missed that obvious plug for our show, that was an obvious plug for our show. Anyway, after a brief discussion where I questioned the merits of one more person writing one more blog thinking they have something important to say that others should want to read, I conceded, because that is usually what I do in these situations regarding my wife, and secondly, I am vain enough to think I might have something worthwhile to say and truthfully, I believe everyone has something worthwhile to share with the world, and hey folks can read it or not, it's a free world and my feelings aren't going to be hurt. Okay, that is not entirely true, it might hurt my feelings a little, but I promise I won't lose sleep. Whew! Now that I have wasted your time with all my self-conscious ramblings, maybe I should get to my actual journal entry today.
I sometimes am granted a bit of clarity, but mostly I think we all are walking around in a partly cloudy haze and clarity is just a matter of degrees. Right now, in this moment, I think I am having more than a few moments of clarity, but one man's clarity is another man's mud. Mortality, it seems to me, is ice water thrown in the face of a stubborn, surly adolescent. It shocks awake, but remaining so is far more difficult. Are you still awake?
Attending church today at Trinity Episcopal, the Gospel lesson was about this very thing, being awake or awakened. We looked at John's beautiful telling of the Lazarus story. It is rich in detail, as is so much of John's Gospel.
In it we are told that upon receiving word that Lazarus was sick, Jesus tells the disciples he wishes to return to Judea, where the Jews had just tried to stone him. He chooses to put his life in danger for his friend, whom he deeply loves. Also, at this time, Jesus is already aware that Lazarus has died, so he tells the disciples he's going there to "awaken Lazarus from sleep." Then he tells them, plainly, that Lazarus has died.
Arriving in Judea he finds Lazarus had been dead in the tomb already for four days. At some point Mary, sister of Lazarus comes to Jesus along with a group of folks who were in mourning with her. All are weeping and we are told that Jesus is so moved that he weeps.
Here, I will digress for a moment to say that I have always found those two words of the Gospel, "Jesus wept," the most meaningful. In those two words, conveyed to me is a God who is fully human, and understanding of the complexity of human emotions. He is a God of love and empathy. For though, in his heart of hearts he knew the miracle that was to come, he did not dismiss the emotions of the moment and the grief that he felt in those whom he loved. Jesus was always rooted in the present, regardless of what he knew or didn't know of his destiny.
Ok, back to the story. Jesus has them take him to the tomb and once there he has them remove the stone at the entryway. Already there is "the stench of decay," we are told. Jesus thanks his Father and cries out, "Lazarus, come out!" At this, the dead man comes out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus calls out, "unbind him and let him go." Wow! What a story.
In her sermon, our priest made an interesting observation that she posed as a question, "what was that like for Lazarus?" I mean we get a sense of what it was like for the crowd, because as we read or hear this story, we are the crowd and we feel the sorrow, but also the anticipation, the wonder, and the relief, but was it the same for Lazarus?
I mean, he has to be thinking, "Holy shit, what just happened?" Since we are not told much about Lazarus reaction to being raised from the dead, I think God will be ok if we play around with filling in the blanks and see what good comes of it.
So, here is what I'm thinking, I was taught that heaven is a place of eternal, endless, perfect love, where we will reside with all the saints who have come before and after for eternity. It is a place where, hearts, minds and bodies will be made whole and a place of great joy. Also, I was taught that we arrive in heaven upon our death, so that means Lazarus had already been in heaven four days our time. Not sure how long that is in dog time and certainly don't know how long that is in God time. Ever notice that God spelled backwards is dog, and that both God and dogs are attributed with unconditional love? Just saying.
Now, back to where I was going with this. So one might imagine that Lazarus is in shock, standing there with the gradual dawning of where he is, and what he just left, he might be thinking, "what the hell? Not this place again." He might even think he was in hell, and feel like the rug had been yanked out from under him. I can just see the little cartoon thought cloud over his head as they remove the cloth from his head, reading, "leftovers again, I was just sitting down to a feast." I mean, remember the adolescent I mentioned earlier, well Lazarus is the teenager, pleasantly dreaming and a parent just tossed a glass of ice water in his face. Yikes!
Now that may seem cruel, but having experienced ice water on more than one occasion at the hand of my dear grandmother, who raised me, I can say with certainty, that woman was not cruel and was devoted to me.
Alright, so I know I have taken this story way out on a limb, but I promise to only bend it a little. No trees or faith will be harmed in the process.
So what can we learn from this story or should I say, "I learn" from this story, since you are free to find your own meaning?
Well as I have already indicated, it's a story that points to Jesus humanity and our universal capacity for grief. It is also a "miracle story" revealing the power and glory of God through the great faith of Jesus. Still not sure Lazarus saw it that way, but nevertheless to me, as an observer in the audience it's pretty astonishing and I can hear the teenager in me declaring "awesome!"
Now here is what I love about the Bible and the multi-layered truth found in its pages, even if I don't take everything literally, it is a living Word; meaning, wisdom, comfort and sometimes needed discomfort, speak to me from those pages. Often there are consistent messages of love and forgiveness and at other times I receive a whole new meaning in addition as I "evolve", yes, sorry, my fundamentalist brethren, I did say "evolve," but please don't get hung up on the word. I do not think I am a monkey, though my wife might disagree.
Where was I?
Oh, so I'm listening to the Gospel reading and then later to our priest’s sermon and thinking about "death," because, well, the story is about someone who died and death has, of late, been more on my mind.
It started two years ago when I had the "widow maker" on Valentine's Day. You don't need me to spell out the irony of that. I survived, as you can see, thanks to science and God. That should satisfy everyone.
Two stents later, congestive heart failure and trauma-induced diabetes II, I am not exactly bouncing back, but I would say my recovery, though not on the same level as Lazarus, was still quite remarkable. Within a year I was back working out 4-5 times a week, riding my bike to work, playing racquetball once a week and beating my long time racket buddy 90% of the time, unless you ask him. Within two years I'm sailing along controlling my diabetes without medicine and my cholesterol levels, with the use of medicine, were lowered to a level that, for me, was unprecedented. Then, remember that "rug" I talked about earlier, well it was yanked out from under me. I get the results of my echo cardiogram and I had my Lazarus moment, well sort of. "What the hell? This is messed up. This can't be right." My score had fallen from 45 to 25 in a little less than two years. What that means to you laymen, or should I say, "you lucky bastards that haven't had a heart attack," it means the heart ain't what she used to be. It's pumping, but at a quarter of what it was doing. Ok, a quarter is probably not right either, you numbers guys can do the math, I'm a poet. Here's how I would put it. It's the difference between a 16 year old hard on and an 82 year old erection, that is, before Viagra. It's working, just not up to speed.
So now I'm standing there with Lazarus going, "Not again. Do I have it in me?" I mean I was just getting comfortable with the illusion of living forever again. Well not really, because once you have encountered near death, or been touched by death in some real way, there's on illusion, there is just suppression or acceptance, or both. Notice I said suppression, not denial. Denial is no longer possible; suppression is the best you can hope for if denial is what you are after. Frankly I think most people are like me and it's a little of both, suppression and acceptance and any of you who say different, well you are in denial.
Seriously, I question the honesty of anyone who says I'm totally at peace with my maker and I accept whatever happens, even embrace it. Whoa, now I know you are lying. I mean I will give you that there's maybe a grudging acceptance at some point, sort of like a child being urged by a loving parent to try something completely foreign or even scary to them. The parent knows it's inevitably an experience they will have to encounter, so the kid is like "I don't wanna, but if you say so." I also take some comfort in that, in most instances the parent wasn't lying and it, whatever it was that we feared, turned out to be quite fun. "Okay dad, you were right, swimming is fun."
Now for me, acceptance is a process, about which I could wax poetic, but death is bored and yawning already, and saying, "Frankly, I don't give a damn," and so he, she, it doesn't, give a damn that is.
Now before any of my dear Christian brethren go ballistic on me, I'm not saying God doesn't give a damn. Quite the contrary. I mean, I believe God cares very much, otherwise, he wouldn't be promising eternal love, and joy, and a bunch of virgins (provided you are Muslim and I think martyrdom is also a requirement).
You see I believe the promise and believe, after death, I will be surrounded by love and some great music, but I have that now, so kill me if I'm not that anxious to leave. Ok, grant it, in addition, God promises all that multiplied 100 times, and no sickness or suffering. You can't get that here, so put that in your pipe and smoke it. Not really, unless you live in Colorado.
Anyway, I'm being silly now, as well as off track. I know this is a little confusing, but I must say the past few weeks have left me a little dazed, so be patient.
I'm aware that I may be coming across in a contradictory way. I prefer "paradoxical." I mean it was good enough for our Lord. However, I'm just trying to make sense and isn't that, after all, what we are all doing all the time, and maybe even what we were placed on this earth to do; if you believe that sort of thing, and I do. I don't think we are put here to make that right meaning, because who knows? Don't tell me your preacher, because your preacher might be that guy who shows up to protest military funerals and yell "this is god's curse on you because god hates queers."
I think we are here to try to make the best meaning, the one that leads to more love, more light, more grace.
God says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" and for many, the Bible points to the Way, the Truth and the Life, and contains within its pages the possibility of answering all of life's important questions. I agree, but, in my opinion, we just think we keep asking the wrong questions.
Remember when I said, it's a "process" or "journey" if you prefer, well I believe it's a journey where everything we ever needed, hoped, or longed for; everything we ever imagined possible is placed on the train, but we think the destination is the thing. So we ride along getting just enough glimpses of paradise to build anticipation and increase longing, but we are counting on the arrival to be the great unveiling and for some, perhaps even the great escape. I have no doubt that because they do, it will be so, but only because enough of the layers of mud from this world with all our pretensions, our self-absorbed obsessions, and our utter and complete failure to accept that we are loved unconditionally by a loving father, mother, presence, whatever. And, yes, had we eyes to see, we would have to know that the journey and the destination are one in the same. God was sitting next to me on the bench, punched my ticket, drove the train, and shared a meal. We would know that everything we needed and wanted was always right there on the train all along, and no luggage had been sent ahead or left behind. All aboard!