Living with death

Visiting preacher duties again this Sunday past, and revisiting themes of life and death with the story of Lazarus. 
The story of Dry Bones from Ezekiel was also told, and for the meditation, we heard 'Plan Be' by Bruce Sanguine (If Darwin Prayed). 

Poetic reflections: from ‘Present on Earth – worship resources on the life of Jesus’, copyright © WGRG, c/o Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland. Reproduced by permission.

First, let's hear the story, told by my friend Elizabeth Green, on location. 

We are moving ever closer to death in our Lenten journey through the story of Jesus, approaching the arrest, trial and crucifixion.

Your Lenten theme, again, is show us how to live. This week, we ask, how do we live with the hard reality of life that is death?

Much on this earth passes away, in the universe, actually, for even stars die, be it so very far from here.

The story of Jesus shows us that often the path to new life, to renewal, even to healing, is through death, of one kind or another.

The story of Lazarus’s resurrection and of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones show us God as a source of life, renewal, transformation and healing.

As Ezekiel stands in the valley of Dry bones – Death Valley – I am reminded of the psalm we heard last week – did you?: even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … and the affirmation we hear there. You are with me.

Often in darkness, despair, the shadow of deaths of various kinds, God can feel as far away as the stars – or further.

One thing we can learn from our spiritual ancestors through the psalms is that lament, the expression of sorrow and feelings of distance from God, this wailing naming of hopelessness is, in fact, a courageous act of hope.

I want to share some meditations from a collection of reflections on the stories of Jesus, from the Wild Goose, part of the Iona community, to which I know some of you have a deep connection.

This first one is from a group titled ‘I sang for him’ (page 78 of Present on Earth)

I sang for him,
the day after my brother died.

I had gone to get him.
I wanted him to come,
just to be there,
just to let Martha and me talk,
feel we were understood.

He had already heard the news.
And that made it difficult to know
why he wouldn’t come,
why he was staying in the same place.

I was at my wits’ end.

I asked him, ‘What can I do?
What is there to do?’
and he said,
‘Sing …
but don’t sing a happy song.
Sing of how you feel and where you are, Mary.
Let God hear the trouble in your soul.’

So I sang.

I sang, ‘How long, O Lord?’

I sang, ‘God, why have you turned your back?’

I sang, ‘Lord, don’t be deaf to my cry.’

I sang all the old psalms that never get sung.

And he listened.
And when I couldn’t sing, for tears,
he kept the song going.

And now and again,
he’d hold my hand and give it a squeeze
and say, ‘God bless you, Mary.’

In reaching out for God, we can find that God is already here. In naming the grief, the pain, the confusion, anger – whatever – we give voice to our experience, go deeper into the emotions, and there we find God. In the depth of our humanity.

The psalms are an enduring affirmation that questioning God, railing at God for our grief and sorrow, are acceptable to God. Our lament, our anger, are welcome – for they are, themselves, a turning towards God. We bring all of life into our relationship with God, God into all of our living. Life – God is the source of life, so why would we hold any of it back from God?

Another imaginative reflection of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, on the death of her brother, this time from a group titled ‘Prayers that Jesus hears’ page 95, Present on Earth).

This is a prayer which Jesus heard:
‘Lord, if you had been here …
it wouldn’t have happened.’


They told me to restrain myself.

They told me that if I saw him,
I shouldn’t make out that he was to blame.

They said,
‘Your sister Martha has already told him
how you’re feeling.’

So, I put on a calm face –
well, as calm as you can
three days after your brother has died.

I ran out to the main road to meet him.

Then, suddenly, my composure went.
I put my arms around him
and clung to him in love and anger.

I said,
‘Lord, if you had been here …
it wouldn’t have happened.’

‘Lord, if you had been here …
it wouldn’t have happened.’

God hears that kind of prayer.

But how does God respond?

God, in Jesus, in the story of Lazarus, brings this man back to life.

Is this a miracle that tells us we will never die, or if we do, Jesus will come to the rescue and reverse our death?

Lazarus will die again, Mary, Martha; this is not actually about him or you.

As with so many stories told about Jesus, there are layers to peel back for the meaning that will itself encourage healthy, whole, life.

That Jesus raised his friend from death is not the meaning of the story. This story is not a heralding of the end to mortal death or even human suffering.

Grief is not abolished by God’s renewing love. Rather, with God’s renewing love, grief can be endured, can be a path trod steadily towards healing. It will, it must, transform, for life will never be the same again – but life cannot stay the same if we are to grow; if we do not grow, we, too, will be dead. This story is about the reason God came among us in Jesus – for our fullness of life.

And death must still be part of life – the small deaths and losses along the way that make space for something new to emerge, enhancing, enriching and encouraging fullness of life. The big, heart breaking deaths of those we love. Our own mortal death.

In Jesus waiting to go to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, going in their grief but not to prevent death, we might see an affirmation that death is part of life.

In his travelling to be with them, in his weeping, we see that so is grief; to grieve is to have loved and been loved, to acknowledge the pain of letting go.

God’s renewing love means not that we will not experience loss, death or grief, but, and this is what I am thinking hearing the story this time around it might say to us today, God’s renewing love, seen in Jesus’ raising Lazarus from death, is a sign that loss, death and grief do not have the last word, the last claim on our living.

The miracle of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from death is no pro forma for every death that follows.

It is a sign pointing to the greater miracle – life itself – and a reminder to be grateful, to embrace life, to seek fullness of life by being open to God, to love, to each other.

And so we rise, like Lazarus, not from mortal death to mortal life, but from countless other deaths, from the grief brought on by loss, from unhealthy ways of living, through the renewing energy of God, into ever-new fullness of life, into hope that life with God extends beyond our knowing into eternity, is given to us now in rich, deep fullness.



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