The Clock Stops

Session Date: 
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Bible Text: 
John 11:1-37


Fourth Sunday in Lent

Five-year old Johnny burst out crying when his beloved dog died. Scooter had been his constant companion, even sleeping at the foot of Johnny’s bed. Now the dog is gone, and little Johnny is a basket case. Johnny’s dad stammers a bit and says, “Uh, don’t feel bad, Johnny, we’ll get you a new dog.”

That’s Lesson 1 of Grief Management 101 in our culture; bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have a new dog, you won’t think about the old one anymore.

Years later, Johnny falls in love with a girl in his high school class. The world never looked brighter…until she dumps him. Suddenly a curtain covers the sun. Johnny’s heart is broken. He can’t eat, won’t sleep and he listens to the Beatles “Something” over and over in his room. He is a wreck. But mom comes to the rescue, saying, “Don’t feel bad, John, there are other fish in the sea.” 

Lesson 2: Bury the pain, replace the loss.

Much later, John’s grandfather dies—the one he fished with every summer and felt close to. A note is slipped to him in math class. He reads the note and breaks into sobs. The teacher sends him to the school office.

John’s father picks him up from school. His mother is weeping in the living room, and John wants to hug her. But his dad says, “Don’t disturb her, John; she needs to be alone. She’ll be all right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk.”

Lesson 3: Grieve alone. So, let’s review. Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone; let time heal; live with regret; never trust again. That’s our culture’s roadmap for dealing with grief and mourning.

When told his friend had died, in front of dozens, Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible is the most concise lesson for us all. Despite modern society’s discomfort with grief, the need to grieve, to mourn, has been part and parcel of our mortal existence since time immemorial. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots breaking out in cities all over America, Robert Kennedy—no stranger to deep grief—spoke to a crowd in Indianapolis using the words of the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom though the awful grace of God.” Acknowledging such grief is credited with staving off riots in that city.

In another ancient book, scripture, there are 20 different Hebrew words for grief or sadness and 13 different Greek words. The Greek John uses to describe Jesus’ feelings for Lazarus, the most profound of those 13 words.

We see this illustrated in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. The hilarity of a band of friends is interrupted by the sudden death of Gareth. His life partner, speaking at the funeral, uses W.H. Auden’s moving words to suggest that in grief we “stop all clocks, cut off the telephone…” and gather about the coffin. “I thought the world would last forever. I was wrong…For nothing now can ever come to any good…”

This is the true essence of mourning, the clocks stop. In Galilee, when Jesus grieved, mourning wasn’t rushed or hushed, or even cloistered. There is a physicalness to grief. Mourners would tear their clothes, scream and wail in agony. They would scoop dirt from the ground and shake it out over their heads. No one said to them “stay busy” or “he’s gone to a better place.” Lazarus had not “passed away,” as though on a trip to another town. Fredrick Buchner, describing this scene, notes “he was deader than a doornail!” Martha tells Jesus that after four days, “there is a stench.” Death is real and through history, mourners gather and linger together over their grief, as they do in Bethany. They shared time with those who mourned. They are comforted!

When his teenage daughter was killed in a car crash in Powhatan, everyone wanted my friend Jon Barton to “feel better,” to “celebrate” her life, then move on. But Jon didn’t want to “feel” better. He didn’t want to “move on.” He felt such a return, that if the clocks started moving again, he feared he would forget Katie. He did not wish to banish the hurt. And for a time, people fell away, unsure what to say the second, third, fourth time around. But Jon’s grief remained. 

Theologian Nicholas Wolterstoff’s twenty-five year old son died in climbing accident in the Alps. Wolterstroff kept a journal of his grief, eventually publishing a moving memoir entitled “Lament for a Son.” In his words, in grief, “every lament is a love song.”

Jon Barton’s lament love song for his beloved Katie has become a life-long mission to support organ donation. Like Wolterstorff, Jon’s pain is no longer raw, but it is ever with him. Eventually he was able to start the clock again as he became a champion for organ donation following Katie’s example. In death, her donations touched the lives of 87 different people!

Wolterstorff believed that after his son’s death, he would for the rest of his life look at the world, “through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not,” he noted. Dry-eyed, we may look right past the pain, the loneliness, the ache the person next to us continues to feel. Dry-eyed, we fail to see the pain, the mourning all around us in our world. 

For the Beatitude is not only about personal grief, it is corporate as well. Grief for the brokenness of God’s world. Remember the old Keep America Beautiful commercials when Iron Eyes Cody shed a tear after seeing pollution

In reflecting on seeing the world through the lens of his own tears, Wolterstorff reflected on the Beatitude: “When you and I are left to our own devices, it’s the smiling, successful ones of the world we cheer…We turn away from the crying ones of the world. Our photographers tell us to smile. “Blessed are those who mourn.” What can that mean?” His answer is our pathway for traveling the roadway of grief we all know and will know: “The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for the day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence….The mourners are aching visionaries. Such people Jesus blessed…The Stoics said Be calm. Disengage yourself. Jesus says, Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”

When Jesus wept, he both blessed our mourning, showing us the way, and showed us the very heart of God. We feel what God feels, we see as God sees, when we mourn. Jesus called us “blessed” for this.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it. That’s why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom. The rich one spends his life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in. Tears from God are always for everybody.”

Yet, in his grief for Lazarus, Jesus does not only affirm mourning our personal losses, and the grieving the losses of the world, Jesus also directs our way, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The Greek Jesus uses in Matthew 5 for “comfort,” has the same root word as that John uses when Jesus prepares the disciples for mourning his death by telling them he will leave a “Comforter.” At the end of the day, the Holy Spirit is in our lives to comfort and guide the pathway through the tears we feel and shed. As Augustine said, the gift of the Holy Spirit to our lives is nothing other than the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Godself. 

Psalm 73 puts it this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge.”

Mapping our pathway in life, we are invited to mourn, but not as the world, without hope, but as those with hope, and with the assurance that in grief, our true comfort is near, and welcoming the grief we share.

© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved