Lazarus, Come Out!
I have heard the story of Jesus raising Lazarus my entire life. I have a vivid memory of being in Bible class as a child. I was sitting on a rug covered with large, primary-colored circles. As a backdrop for the circles, this rug used to be white but was yellowed and worn from little shoe stains and little booger stains. There I sat along with three or four others my age who cared to listen to the soft-spoken woman who taught our preschool Bible class at a medium-sized church in a small town on a Sunday morning. I don’t remember her name, but I remember that she seemed calm and loving, a fact that I can only now, as an adult who has led a preschool Bible class, appreciate entirely. There she sat, perched on a small chair holding a flannel graph board in her lap and moving the characters along the board as she told the story. There went Mary and Martha. There went Jesus. There went the big stone rolling away from the cave containing the stinky dead man. In the great climax of the story, Lazarus came out of the grave wrapped like a mummy as Jesus called his name. His friends began to unwrap him and let him go. Our teacher told the story as if she were giving someone directions on how to get to the mall. She was matter-of-fact and to the point. I never took what she told us as anything other than absolute fact. Of course Jesus loved Lazarus. Of course Jesus delayed coming to see him while he was sick. Of course Jesus raised his friend from the dead after four days. This was Jesus we were talking about, after all. These were the facts.
In the last few years, I have learned to experience the stories from Scripture as more than just facts. I am learning to sit with the Scriptures imaginatively. It is ironic that I have just now learned this imaginative way of being with Scripture, because preschoolers are quite good at this. It is a real hoot to do this learning alongside my own preschool-aged children. After reading or discussing a Bible story, we will use our imagination to wonder about it and to imaginatively wander around it. “What do you wonder about this story?” I will ask them. And my boys will come up with all sorts of theologically robust questions and musings about the story. Such as, “I wonder if Lazarus farted in his grave clothes. If he did, I wonder if it smelled stinky when he was unwrapped.” While the answer to those questions are intriguing, as an adult I have found myself pondering different questions, which (like many good questions) may not have an answer.
This Lazarus story had always been told to me with Lazarus as the leading character. What strikes me now is that Lazarus is not the leading character; in fact he is barely even present in the 44-verse story that John tells in chapter 11. The reader knows Lazarus has died and knows that Jesus brings him back to life. My questions center on all that goes on between verse 1 and verse 44 from Lazarus’s perspective.
What is Lazarus experiencing in the grave?
Is he in heaven communing with God?
Is he in a holding zone somewhere between earth and heaven?
Is he annoyed with Jesus for bringing him back to earth when he had tasted heaven?
Is he grieving that he can no longer care for his beloved sisters?
The text doesn’t give us any of these answers. Lazarus is barely present in his own story. We don’t have his perspective. He doesn’t get to move or control the narrative. He doesn’t even exist most of the time. He is dead.
As I sit imaginatively with this story, I find myself identifying with Lazarus. I find myself in a season of life with God where I feel as though I am not the main character in my own story. This is the scariest and most vulnerable place in the world. It is a grave place. Like Lazarus, there are times when I feel stuck. I can’t move the story along from the grave. I don’t have control over when and how to move forward. I don’t have the ability to set the pace or manage the outcomes. And this can feel like death.
It can be disorienting to realize, within the narratives of our own stories, that:
I can’t raise myself.
I can’t heal myself.
I can’t fix myself.
And yet, there is an invitation from Lazarus.
Ian Morgan Cron says it like this: “Don’t let go of grief until it is done with you.”
Jesus waited four days before he came to bring Lazarus out of the grave. He could have come at Martha’s first call. He could have come after one day or two. Instead, he came intentionally when he did. He cried with his grieving friends and then he called forth the dead man.
Sometimes the spiritual life looks like Lazarus lying in the grave. Sometimes the spiritual life involves learning to be instead of do. To be called upon instead of making the call. So for today, I am going to sit here in the grave, and I am going to wait to hear the most anticipated words a dead person could ever hear: “Lazarus, come out!”