Reading: John 11:17-40
So here’s a little truth about family dynamics as it relates to birth order. Well, at least in my family. The oldest kid is the rule follower, the one who tries to keep the peace, and the bossy one. Bursts into tears when they think someone is mad at them, constantly strives for approval. The middle kid is wild. Does things any time the mood strikes, doesn’t take any crap from anyone, beats up people who hurt oldest kid’s feelings. The baby is the protected one. The one who has very definite wants and desires and is pretty used to people giving in to their demands. Has no idea of most family drama that’s going on because people think they need to be protected from it. Still gets an Easter basket at age 22, even after being married and having her own kids. This is how it works in our family. I’m the oldest, John Wayne is in the middle, and Helen Keller is the baby. John Wayne is 3.5 years younger than me, and Helen Keller is a whopping 11 years younger than me.
I think the 11 years part is why we all lie to Helen Keller all the time. I mean, we don’t call it lying. We call it protecting, but nevertheless, there is a big ball of family drama that she never completely understands because we just don’t tell her. When Mom was alive, we didn’t tell her because Mom didn’t want her to know about the foolishness that goes on in church leadership, or the hurt inflicted by people we trusted, or financial worries, or health scares. Then, when Mom was gone and Daddy was getting really sick, me and Uncle Jesse didn’t tell her. He might be the only person besides Other Half who knows how bad things really were before the transplant, how very nearly hopeless. But Daddy was pretty bad about protecting Helen Keller too.
There were many times when she, or even John Wayne, would call to check on Daddy and he would say, “I’m doing fine. I’m just a little tired,” and then I would go see him and force him to go to the ER because he could barely breathe or he had a fever we couldn’t explain, and when I would call to tell them they would be literally shocked because he told them how fine he was. I know it’s not necessarily fair, and it’s probably not even helpful at this point given that she is a grown adult and now has faced many a hard situation, but on some level, I think we believe that, if we know how painful life can be, the damage is already done. If she doesn’t, we can let her hold onto that naïveté a little longer, let the innocence remain for a few more days or months or years, and maybe she won’t turn out to be as damaged as the rest of us. Typing it out like this, I think our hearts are in the right place but we’re not doing her any favors.
Anyway, she sent me a text last week about the kids or work or something totally innocent, and I’m not sure why, but I unloaded all the things on her. All my things. All my worries and uncertainties with nothing held back. She took it like a champ, too. By the end of the little text confessional, she said, “On the bright side, life can’t suck forever. It has to get better eventually.” (It’s basically the equivalent of what Mamaw always says. “This too shall pass, darlin’.” One day she told me that and I said, “Well, it will pass or I will pass. Either way it’ll be done.” She wasn’t amused. I blame the Mark Lowery tapes of my childhood). Anyway, finally free of the need to protect Helen Keller from the worries of life, responded with, “I used to think that. But it’s been two years now.”
Later on my way home from work, I was thinking about the text message, and a thought came to me. I think that’s how God speaks sometimes. A thought we have that we’re not smart enough or intuitive enough to come up with on our own. It said, “You think it’s too late. Lazarus’s sister Martha thought that too.” I was a little startled by the profound truth. It’s a story in the Bible that I know well and have heard my whole life, but I looked it up again to get the details.
In this part of John (chapter 11), Jesus’ close friend Lazarus has been sick, and his sisters have sent for Jesus, but Jesus has intentionally held out on coming to help them. In fact, he waits 2 more days where he is before going to them. When He arrives, Lazarus has already died, and his sisters run to meet Jesus, telling Him how, if He had been there, none of this would’ve happened, but saying that they still know God is able. Martha is the one to speak her mind and tell Jesus, “If only you’d come sooner,” first. He weeps with the sisters, grieves with them, and then asks them to take Him to the tomb where the body of Lazarus has been placed.
I think I’ve done this a lot lately. Taken my questions to God and said, “I know you already know all this, but I still need to tell you about it. And I need to ask you why you didn’t help me? Why I was raised my entire life to trust that you would meet every need I had, and then you just let life run all over me.” I know a lot of people think that’s unholy and arrogant and rude, and I can’t help you make peace with any of that. I can only tell you that I believe God is big enough for my questions, and that He already knows I have them even if I don’t say them out loud, so why not just address the pink elephant in the room so we can all move on? Political correctness and the appearance of holiness while holding back your real problems from God is just plain exhausting and I can’t do it. I won’t do it. My faith is worth more than that.
And so, I ask my questions, and I take God on a tour of the ruins of my life. “Over there is where my mom is buried, God. You know, the one who died as the result of a completely avoidable surgical complication? And over there is my career. It’s still a burning wreckage of flames so don’t get too close. That thing wrapped up in gauze with a cast on its leg is my marriage— thankfully I think that one’s gonna make it, but it was touch and go for a while.” As if He wasn’t there for any of it. As if He doesn’t know. As if my scars are news to Him. Just like Martha when she showed God the grave of her brother.
The thing is though, that Jesus was undeterred by her assertion of Lazarus’s death. He told them to take away the stone that was closing the tomb. “‘But Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’” It’s too late. That’s what she was telling Jesus. Like I’ve been telling Jesus. “It’s been two years.”
The most amazing thing happens in verse 40. Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
That’s the real message that I was meant to hear that day. That maybe it has been two years, and maybe it does look too late, and maybe I don’t see a way for any sort of resolution that completely reverses the pain of the past, but all of that is only based on my limitations, not God’s. Just like Mary and Martha were angry and hurt and confused by what Jesus had allowed into their lives, so I have also been. Just like they felt it was too late, too hopeless, too far gone, so I have done the same. But also like them, maybe I can still see the glory of God if I believe.
When I had this thought, I sent it to Helen Keller and she responded with, “Well there you go.” Like “Here’s your sign,” (in the Jeff Foxworthy way, not the super spiritual way). So, Helen Keller, maybe we’ll try not to lie to you anymore, because our little conversation was pretty productive. So get ready for more of them. Game on.