Sunday, April 10, 2011

If Only

My parents split before I turned two and my siblings and I grew up in the care of our grandmother. The refrain of “if only” was a big one in our household: “If only our parents had stayed together. . .” “If only we lived with our parents . . .”  “If only we had a normal family . . .”

I thought, as a kid, that our “if only” refrain was unique, but learned fairly quickly that most people have an “if only” or two, rumbling around inside.
A variation of the unresolved “if only” was used to humorous effect in the 2004 indie hit Napoleon Dynamite.
Middle-aged Uncle Rico is a former high school quarterback living in a camper van, spending his time regretting and reliving the final quarter in a state championship game: “If coach would've put me in fourth quarter…we would've been State Champions.”

For more than two decades, that “if” has defined him. He’s a caricature of the immature has-been, living an unresolved fantasy. He’s funny, but sad. Amusing, but a little too familiar.

In my years of ministry, I’ve heard many “if onlys”: “If only I’d done something sooner . . . .” “If I’d only been strong enough to say no . . .” “If only I hadn’t been drinking . . .”  “If only I’d followed their advice . . .”

Hidden in the refrain of “if only” is anger, guilt, regret, confusion. “If only someone had intervened . . .” “If only I’d listened . . .” “If I had just stayed home that day . . .” “If only I had made a different choice. . .”

Behind the conflicting emotions there’s often an accusation: “If God had really loved me, none of this would have happened.” “If God had heard my prayers, things would have turned out different.”

Just days before Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he heard that his friend Lazarus was sick, maybe dying. Urged to come help, he took his time and showed up days after Lazarus was dead.

Lazarus’ sister Martha met him on his way: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus  answered: “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha seems to have taken Jesus’ comment as a theological statement – a reference to a distant event: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus’ response is puzzling. It offers a promise in the present, rather than the future: “I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

Martha’s sister Mary, summoned with the news that Jesus was coming,  met him with with the exact same “if”: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Had the sisters been repeating this to each other? Was the refrain one they’d rehearsed in the days since their brother’s death?

In this case, Jesus responded with tears. Verse 35, the shortest in the Bible, says simply: “Jesus wept.”

So in this place of pain, confronted by the grief of his friends, Jesus affirmed something they didn’t seem to understand, and entered their grief with them, even though he was about to turn the grief to joy.

Weeping, he asked to be shown the tomb, asked for the stone to be rolled away, and in the face of objections from his friends (“But, Lord, he’s been dead four days!”) commanded Lazarus to come out.

When I think of resurrection, I think of Easter – still weeks away. But Jesus, there in the dusty road in Bethany, weeping with his friends, says “I AM resurrection.” Not will be. Not someday soon. Now. Today. Roll the stone away. Take off the grave clothes.

N. T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, says “When Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ he opens up several layers of redefinition: a new life through which new possibilities are available in the present.  The ‘life of the age to come’ is brought forward into the  present, so that believers can enjoy it already . . .”

Walter Bruggeman in The Prophetic Imagination talks about Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He says “The energy of this blessing word comes in the reality that God has alternative futures, that he is free to bestow them, and that futures are not derived from or determined by the present.”

Even as he wept with his friends, Jesus took their present reality and shaped an alternative future, full of joy.

I've been weeping and praying with friends and family of Thomas, a young man of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, who was critically burned and injured carrying children to safety from a burning building. His current reality is painful, precarious, and frightening. Yet Jesus is resurrection and life, able to shape alternative futures.

I've been weeping as well with the family of Emily, a young woman struck almost three years ago by lightening. She shows signs of resurrection beyond what any doctors hoped for, yet her current reality is constricted, and the burden on her family is great. “If only” looms large in the story of that lightening strike, yet Jesus, weeping, is able to bring full resurrection, and to offer a future not determined by the present.

I’ve been weeping with friends whose marriages have turned to great sorrow. And grieving for relationships that seem broken beyond repair. Grieving for lives that seem headed in tragic directions, in situations where intervention seems impossible.

I’ve been grieving, as well, over the brokenness of our nation’s economic structure. The divide between wealthy and poor, both nationally and globally, has never been greater. The powerful grow more powerful and use that power to further the divide. Those who seem to speak for reason are too often guided by invisible money and inappropriate influence. 

Yet, as Bruggeman reminds us, the transforming authority of Jesus is still valid, still available: “In his poverty he had the power to make many rich. In his hunger he had the capacity to fill others. In his capacity to grieve he had the power to bring joy and wholeness to others. In his person, which was nonperson in the eyes of the pseudokings, he had the authority to give futures to his constituency.” As resurrection and life, Jesus “made possible a future for the disinherited.”

As winter lingers, I search my brown yard for signs of life. Tiny threads of green, new life from grass seeds planted too late last fall, are peeking up through the dry, dead-looking lawn. Frail trout lilies are blooming, pale yellow in the drifts of dead brown leaves. A flourish of forsythia brightens one back corner. The hyacinths the rabbits missed are small clusters of promise, waiting for the next warm day.

Jesus said “I am resurrection and life.” New life breathes through the brown patches of this present reality; resurrection sings while we weep, surrounded by death. The future is not determined by the present. Weeping with us, Jesus says, “Come out. Take the grave clothes off.” God has alternative futures, and he is free to bestow them.

Hallelujah. In the litany of Easter, Hallelujah is still weeks away. But Jesus is resurrection before, during, after. Daily. Hallelujah.

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