I’ve cried a lot over the past two weeks. I’m thinking maybe a lot of us have. This virus has rocked our world in a way we didn’t really know it could be rocked. Even though we don’t have that many cases of infection in our community, our lives have been changed. The whole world has changed. And while we wait to see how everything is going to play out, we are stuck with this uncomfortable feeling, this weight on our chests, this tickle in our throats. That feeling is grief, and we are feeling it on a communal level as well as a deeply personal one.
I was reading an article this week from the Harvard Business Review in which David Kessler, the guy who co-authored the 5 stages of Loss book—you know: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance—was interviewed on how people can deal with the sense of grief they are feeling right now as COVID-19 sweeps across the world. He was asked, “What can individuals do to manage (how they’re feeling)?” His answer was pretty simple. Acknowledge it.
Kessler says, “Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.”[i]
In our Gospel text for this week you can see all five stages of grief at different points in the story. When Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, a clear euphemism for death, they deny what they already know to be true. It takes a clear acknowledgement of the reality of Lazarus’ death for the disciples to agree to accompany Jesus back to Judea where his life is already in danger.
When Martha meets Jesus on the outskirts of town we see a whole spectrum of feelings within her first three sentences. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Denial. Anger.“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Bargaining. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Acceptance.
Martha goes to collect her sister Mary. When they return the cycle starts again, this time with Mary echoing the words of her sister, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Denial. Anger. Sadness.
Then Jesus, seeing Mary and Martha’s grief and that of their friends, does something unexpected. He joins them in their grief, “Where have you laid him.” In turn, the mourners invite Jesus in, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus weeps with them. He does not lecture them. He does not ignore their grief and move straight to signs miracles. He stops and he weeps. He acknowledges the pain that loss brings.
I’ve cried a lot over the past two weeks. I imagine many of you have as well. I’ve fluctuated between all five stages of grief at different times, sometimes in different orders. I know you have too. Last Sunday we recited the 23rd Psalm together, “The Lord is my shepherd.” We were reminded that though we are currently walking through the darkest valley, God is with us (Immanuel). This Gospel text from John adds another layer to our understanding of God’s presence with us in times of trial. Not only is God with us, God enters into our grief and shares it. When we weep, Jesus weeps. In this time of social distancing, quarantine, and isolation—when we can’t gather together to comfort one another with a hug or a hand on the shoulder—it matters that when we weep, we don’t weep alone.
In the article I mentioned earlier, David Kessler offers a sixth stage of grief—Meaning—which comes after acceptance. He says, “I did not want to stop at acceptance when I experienced some personal grief. I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times.”
Throughout this story of Lazarus being raised, Jesus offers meaning for what is happening. It’s the first thing he says when he hears of Lazarus’ death, “This illness does not lead to death;” Jesus says, “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The thing is, neither the disciples, nor the sisters, nor the friends of Lazarus’ family can see or understand the meaning until Jesus did what he did and brought life and healing. While Jesus can declare meaning before the suffering ever occurs (remember that he spoke of his own death and resurrection) we can’t. We need to acknowledge the grief we’re in. We have to get through it first. Then we may begin to see the new life that comes after death.
Many of us are looking for the meaning of what we are going through right now. We want a reason. But we can’t jump to meaning too soon, friends. We need to wait and see what new life God will bring/is bringing after this is all over. If we go searching for meaning too soon, we usually make a mistake. I’ve seen people say that COVID-19 was God’s will. That God sent a virus to show us that we can’t rely on our governments, science, or the economy, but that we should instead rely solely on Him. That the coronavirus is God’s punishment for a godless people. Or, on the other hand, I’ve seen people claim that their faith in Jesus will protect them from the virus. That if they truly believe in the healing power of God, they won’t get sick.
Nothing about the story of Lazarus supports those claims. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus. Lazarus’ close relationship with Jesus didn’t keep him from becoming ill. Neither Martha nor Mary’s faith saved Lazarus’ life.
But meaning did come to Lazarus and his sisters, and to their friends, in the end. Jesus showed up, joined them in their grief, and God was glorified.
This thing we’re all going through will end eventually. We’ll get through it. Out of the grave God always brings life.
But we’re not there yet. At least I’m not. Easter feels really really far away. Right now, I think I’m somewhere between sadness and acceptance. I’ve cried a lot these past two weeks, and that’s okay. That’s what you’re supposed to do when the world seems like it’s falling apart. But I don’t weep alone. Neither do you. And I know that someday Jesus will yell out to me, “Lazarus, come out!” and I’ll stumble back into the light to be unbound.
[i] Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR3TECyNDeDfqfb8fZ5s43pnhHUrC08dZz4kABJxzH7w-9xhzfyo52S9zcI.