Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Saint of the Month: Kathleen Gahagen

I walked up two flights of stairs to the top floor apartment of the old Victorian house on Boyer Street, part of the students' residence at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I liked the house, and the top floor flat would be my home for my final year at the seminary. I'd driven back to Philly from my intern site in New York. It was a three-hour drive, and I was feeling tired and embarrassed. Although my internship had been a howling success, my marriage had collapsed at the same time. The top floor flat would be a bachelor apartment. It was a pretty gloomy time for me.

And then the sun came out. I found the door to the flat was standing open. I put the key into my pocket and stepped inside. The flat was empty of furniture, and the vacating tenant—a tiny, blond spark plug of a woman—was busily cleaning and packing the last of her belongings into cardboard boxes while Harriet, her highly irritated cat, scowled at her from a corner. She turned and, flashing me her enormous smile, reached out her arms to give me a hug.

“Hey, Owen!” she cried in her raspy voice.

“Hey, Keg,” I replied as we embraced.

The memory of Kathleen Erin Gahagen—or “KEG” to her friends—never ceases to bring a smile to my face. She was one of the first friends I made at LTSP. I was ten years older than she but a year behind her in seminary. As an upper-classman, she showed me the ropes, warning me about campus burglaries and firing my imagination with harrowing tales of her recent adventures as a hospital chaplain. She and her then-husband graciously invited me and my then-wife to join them for dinners and nights at the theater. Her joy and energy were infectious. I used to think how appropriate the nickname “Keg” was because she struck me at the time as a bubbly sorority girl who always seemed to bring the party with her.

I found her friendship a blissful respite during study breaks. She worked in the campus bookstore, and when I wasn't in class I'd browse the stacks and share gossip and student angst with Keg. She was always a listening ear, and she always made me laugh.

Our friendship was cemented in the summer of 1996 when, because of my background in public education, I agreed to take the position of principal of a tutorial summer camp at the Lutheran parish where Keg was serving her internship. Vicar Keg was my immediate supervisor. We worked together to finalize the camp's schedule and arrange field trips and enrichment activities for the student campers. I remember how impressed I was by her ability to connect with the teenagers who had been chosen as counselors-in-training, how she engaged them and taught them games to play with their grade-school-aged charges.

But the summer was something of a nightmare for me. I may be a teacher, but I discovered I have very limited gifts as an administrator. Indeed, just about everything that could go wrong with a summer day camp went wrong that summer. The health inspector showed up as the one and only cockroach I'd ever seen crawled across the kitchen floor. Food deliveries were late, as were the teachers who chronically missed their buses. The music teacher actually died and needed to be replaced. Neighbors complained of noise. Church members complained of mess. Discipline problems abounded. Unseasonable rain canceled many of our planned activities. A child accused a counselor of sexual misconduct. Parents were negligent in tuition payments, and the congregation took a substantial financial loss. I wished I had never agreed to take the job. Keg, however, took it all in stride. I remember commiserating with her during our one day off—the Fourth of July—as we enjoyed a rain-soaked barbecue on the porch of her city row home. “It'll be all right,” she assured me.

On the night of the closing exercises, after all the dust had settled, I asked Keg if she wanted to go out for a beer. The two of us sat at the bar of our local watering hole, two seminarians in clergy collars sucking down suds. I used her as my priest and made my confession. “Keg, I think I really f----d things up.” I poured out to her all the mistakes I thought I'd made in managing the camp, and concluded by telling her I'd hoped I had not lost her respect. She graciously granted me absolution, letting loose a raspy monologue on why she thought the whole venture had been a mistake from the start and all the errors in judgment she felt others had made before I had been asked to come aboard. She concluded her tirade by saying, "...and those campers were the worst bunch of brats I've ever seen in my life!" We had a good laugh about all of it, and I went home feeling greatly relieved. I'll always be grateful to her for that.

A year later we said our good-byes in that top floor apartment. She'd generously left me some cleaning supplies in the cupboard. She told me she'd pray for me and my soon-to-be-ex-wife, too.

“Where are you going?” I asked her.

She smiled proudly. “I've been called to Abiding Savior Lutheran in North Tonawanda, New York. It's near Buffalo,” she said.

“Never heard of North Tonawanda. Or South Tonawanda for that matter. But I know they'll be lucky to have you.”

“Yeah. One guy in the church said he's really looking forward to my coming, but he didn't think I looked like a lady Lutheran pastor. So I asked him, 'What's a lady Lutheran pastor supposed to look like?' He said, 'Like Martin Luther with breasts!'”

We laughed until we cried.

Now, I've never known if it was true or not, but the rumor always was that Keg celebrated her call to Abiding Savior by having the Luther rose tattooed on her thigh. I guess you have to admire her commitment.

Yesterday, while reading the The Lutheran magazine obituary page (and I guess I must really be getting old when I read that), I saw Keg's name. I had always known that she suffered from cystic fibrosis, but the raspy voice, the fragile limbs, and the omnipresent medicine pump seemed to be something she wore with casual indifference, just as she would choose a blouse or a skirt. Her illness was part of her, but it never defined her. In the back of my mind I understood that there was a chance she would not enjoy a very long life, but I never believed she would really die.

But today I feel as if another light has gone out in my life. I'm sure the people of Abiding Savior, where she served for sixteen years, are still missing her greatly—this spunky little character who told jokes and preached in her bare feet. I admire her dedication, and I believe through her great humor, compassion, and kindness that she was a true pastor in the very best sense of the word.

My prayers go out to her husband and family and to the good people of Abiding Savior. Rest in the peace you have earned, my friend, my colleague, my sister in Christ.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Seeing the Wounds (Reflections on Easter Two)

"Doubting Thomas.”

This poor guy. He really gets a bad rap. In this Sunday's gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 20:19-31) we hear the familiar story—appropriate for the Second Sunday of Easter—of the disciple who just won't believe in the resurrected Jesus until he sees iron-clad proof.

But, seriously, do you blame this guy? I mean, the resurrection is a pretty far-fetched story. What's more, it's just too good to be true. Dear old Thomas, who has just seen his buddy get crucified, is in no mood to have his chain yanked by believing good news and then getting disappointed again. I think most of us would react in pretty much the same way. Suppose, for example, you get a phone call or a text or something that says you've just inherited half a million bucks. That would be pretty good news, right? But would you automatically believe it? I know I sure as heck wouldn't! I'd want it verified. That's only human.

I suppose the point of this gospel story is found in verse 29 where Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Jesus has a point, too. Truth be told, we take things on faith every day. If we didn't, we'd never leave our homes. How could we begin anything at all unless we had some kind of hope that our efforts would turn out for the best? Faith is integral to life.

But what intrigues me about this lesson at this point in my life is the fact that Jesus identifies himself to his disciples in verse 20 by showing them his wounded hands and side. I guess he figured they wouldn't really accept what they saw until they saw his wounds. And Thomas, too, wants to see the marks of the trauma where Christ's flesh had been violated. He actually wants to touch the place where the nails have been and where the spear gashed the Lord's side.

I guess this is really human also. There 's something about us that needs to see another's scars before we know that person is genuine. We don't really know each other or believe each other until we can see the hurt. Only then do we feel the intimacy and know the trust.

Before I went into the ministry I was teaching at a small college in Southern California. I was having some trouble with my girlfriend at the time, so one Sunday morning I stopped by my pastor's office before worship to get his advice. Roger had been my pastor for about thirteen years. He knew me pretty well, and I really respected him. I found his office door was open.

Now, Roger was a pretty big guy. He was well over six feet tall and built like a wrestler. I was surprised to find that he was not at his desk but was sitting in a tiny armchair with his eyes closed, listening to classical music on a small boom box. The lights were off in the room. For such a big guy he seemed curiously serene. There was something I felt in the atmosphere of the room which filled me with a rare, reverent sense of peace and calm. Roger's eyes were closed when I entered. When he opened them, he had a sad and exhausted look, even though it was past ten in the morning and worship would begin shortly.

I couldn't bring myself to do anything to change the peace of that office. The closest armchair to Roger seemed too far away, and I didn't want to move a chair or have him move, so I impulsively sat down cross-legged at the pastor's feet.

I don't remember the specifics of that conversation, but rather than discuss my silly girl troubles, Roger shared with me an issue he was having with one of his children. It's not necessary to recount the details, and I'm not at all certain my memory would be accurate about them anyway as this all took place almost three decades ago. But what stays in my mind about that conversation is that my pastor had shared with me a situation which could only have been extremely painful and stressful for him and his family. Roger had shown me his wounds.

I felt closer to him after that, but I lost none of the respect I had for the man. What continues to impress me as I remember Roger—who passed away a few years ago—was his unassailable faith that God would see him and his family through their current troubles. And he was right.

Thomas had known Jesus as teacher, friend, spiritual guide, and crucified victim. Yet when he met him as fellow sufferer—and triumphant sufferer—he could finally exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

I try, as a spiritual discipline, to remind myself that in seeing the wounds of my brothers and sister—be they physical, mental or spiritual—I am seeing the holiness of Christ, my Lord and my God. And in such a realization I am killed and resurrected myself.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

PS-It must wound Jesus to know that, after almost 500 years, Lutherans and Roman Catholics still don't share together at the Lord's table. Now, are we going to be 'Doubting Thomases,' or are we going to move forth in faith? If enough of us bug the Pope about this, maybe we might get to see some action by the time we observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Hey! You've got nothing to lose. Just sign my petition by clicking here.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Christ is Risen Indeed!

I guess you could say that it “was her time.” Minerva, “Nerby” to her friends, passed away peacefully about two weeks ago. She was 103 years of age.

Jen, Nerby's granddaughter and a faithful member of Faith Lutheran, traveled to North Dakota for the funeral. It was both a sad and joyful occasion. Yes, the retired P.E. coach's family and friends would miss her, but they also rejoiced over the free-spirited life Nerby had enjoyed.

Nerby just never seemed to be bothered by anything. In more than a century of life, she had lived in a blissful certainty that all her gushing joys and tearful sorrows were safely in the hands of a loving and forgiving God.

Jen reported that Nerby's pastor had visited the old women at her deathbed. Nerby had stopped eating several days before and had lost the power of speech. She lay peacefully with her eyes closed, waiting to be taken home to the arms of Jesus. The pastor said some prayers. When he recited the Our Father, Nerby opened her eyes, looked directly at him, and attempted as best she could to mouth the words she knew so well. She was faithful to the end.

Jen's story put me in mind of the death of another dear soul, my friend the Reverend Howard Kuhnle. Pastor Howard had served eleven parishes and celebrated over seventy years in ordained ministry. He preached his last sermon on the occasion of his one-hundredth birthday. He lived on for almost a year after that.

I visited him on his deathbed. A foam mat had been placed on the floor next to him to prevent injury should the centenarian roll out of bed. Just like Grandma Nerby, Howard lay peacefully waiting for the end. I read some scripture and some prayers. When I recited the Our Father, the old man's eyes remained closed, but his arms shot straight up towards heaven, and he began to recite the prayer in a voice Charlton Heston would've envied. Perhaps he was imagining himself leading worship as he had for so many years. I don't know, but I remember leaving Howard's side with a feeling of tremendous peace.

Last December I traveled to Tacoma, Washington to visit my sister Maryanne. She has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and is now on hospice care. During our visit, she recounted for me an exceptionally vivid dream she had had just before her doctors recommended she cease aggressive treatment for her disease.

Maryanne told me that she had imagined herself in heaven being greeted by our earthly (not to be confused with our heavenly) father. Our dad carried under his arm our family dog, Pepe. Pepe had been a shaggy miniature French poodle. Dad loved this dog, and Pepe worshiped him with the slavish devotion of which only a dog is capable.

My sister recounted that, in her dream, she had called out, “Pepe!”

Our father, not one to overlook the importance of an occasion, immediately scolded her. “Do you know what has happened to you?” he asked her. “Do you know where you are?”

Oh, yes,” my sister told him. “I've died and this is heaven.”
“And you're excited about a
dog..?” he asked.

Of course!” she said. “Because if he's up here, then everybody's up here!”

I asked my sister if she was afraid of what was to come.

“Not in the least,” she said. “I know where I'm going.”

What beautiful lives the saints live!

In Matthew's Easter gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women seeking the body of Jesus at the tomb, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Matthew 28: 7) I've always loved this verse. “He is going ahead of you.” These words bring me comfort. Jesus has entered into the slop of this life, dealt with all the pain of it, and returned to the place from which he began. He's gone ahead of us, and there is no place in this life—be it physical pain, loss, betrayal, loneliness, hunger, helplessness, need, despair, or death—where Jesus has not already been.

And today, we celebrate that he has conquered it all.

Now, I'm not one for proclaiming a theology of glory, but for this one day out of the year I don't see the harm of it. The world did every sick, cruel thing it could think to do to Jesus, and yet he is still Lord. The resurrection of Jesus is the promise of the everlasting nature of our own souls. Saint Paul taught:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

Nerby, Howard, and Maryanne all lived their lives in this certainty. Their faith is courage in the face of death because of their assurance of victory everlasting in Jesus.

I don't know what Easter Sunday means to you, but to me the empty tomb is a reminder that all the mistakes of my earthly life and all of their consequences are but blinks in God's eye. We can live as people already resurrected, because all the sin and pain and chaos of this world which cause us so much grief and worry now have already been vanquished in God's time—even if we sometimes forget this.

Happy Easter, dear friends. May today be for you but one day in the everlasting joy of immortality.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

PS-As all Christian celebrate this holiest of days, let's raise a prayer that we may all celebrate together some day around the table of the Lord. Lutherans and Roman Catholics both believe that Jesus is with us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. If you believe this too, please sign my petition to bring both denominations back to the table. It's been almost 500 years. Let's bury the hatched! Just click here.

Washing Feet (Reflections on Maundy Thursday)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’ After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

Foot washing. It's the one Christian ritual which the Lutherans of my little parish in Northeast Philadelphia are a little squeamish about. But for me, I just love the drama of reenacting the events of Our Lord's passion. I think that our rituals have power—if we understand them, that is. What could better demonstrate the intimate relationship Jesus has with us and his call to servanthood better than washing someone's smelly feet?

Pope Francis has made a pretty big splash (no pun intended) in the news lately by the feet he's chosen to scrub down. Today, he washed the feet of elderly and handicapped individuals in an Italian nursing home. The most famous man in the worlds (or at least one of the most famous) has humbled himself before the feet of some of the most obscure and forgotten people in the society. Last year, the pontiff was even more outrageous when he washed the feet of teen offenders—some of whom were Muslim—in a juvenile detention facility.

Tonight, I'll wash the feet of eleven-year-old Kyle, who will be making his First Holy Communion at the Maundy Thursday mass. Kyle isn't exactly a juvenile offender (although he has a devilish enough gleam in his eye to suggest that he might have some potential in that department!), but he is a kid and I'm a middle-aged man who is his pastor and teacher.

And yet my baptism is no more special than his.

That's the point of the worship on this holy day. We are to recognize that there is no “least” or “greatest” in the Kingdom of God. All of us are called to be servants to each other and to the world. It's a celebration of Christ's injunction to love through sacrifice. We give up our own notions of self-importance or self-salvation.

Poor Peter (in tonight's gospel lesson) doesn't get this at first. He's still trying to micro-manage. He wants his Master to be an exalted person, and tries to “out humble” Jesus by refusing to let Jesus be his servant. When Jesus explains that they can never have the fullness of the relationship God has intended for them until Peter allows Jesus to serve him, he still tries to be in charge and directs Jesus how to wash him. Poor guy. He just doesn't yet get that it's not all about him.

But I feel for Peter. As one who spent many years of my miss-spent youth gleefully abusing alcohol, I had to come to the realization that I was pretty powerless over my own stupidity. I kept on blowing huge sums of cash trying to make myself feel like a big shot, risking my owns safety and that of others—to say nothing of endangering my health and my job and entering into some pretty toxic relationships. I finally had to come to a point where I could admit that I was a screw-up, I had no power to fix myself, and I needed someone else to help me.

I try to remember that when I eat the meal that Christ commanded us to eat in his memory. I've done nothing to save myself except give up and let Jesus do his work. And if I have the power to do anything at all in this relationship, it is only to try to emulate the humility Our Lord showed on his way to the cross.

I always wince just a little when, as I serve the wafer of Holy Communion and pronounce the words “the body of Christ broken for you,” the communicant responds with “thank you.”

Please don't thank me. I didn't hang on a cross for you. I'm just as messed-up and in need of grace as you are. Just let me be your servant. After all, Jesus commanded us to serve one another. He didn't suggest it or request it. He commanded it. And how can we refuse someone who gave us so much?

May God bless you during this Holy Season. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Little Kids Get It (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies   you have prepared praise for yourself”?’

(Matthew 21:15-16)

File:Zirl Parrish Church-Jesus entering Jerusalem 1.jpg

Your Old Religious Guy is kind of old fashioned. That's why I don't hold much with the relatively recent trend to celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Sunday of the Passion.” No siree! In my day, if you wanted to hear the Passion story, you came to church during Holy Week. So here at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia we observe the ancient, dramatic tradition of re-living the events in the last week of Our Lord's earthly life.

This Sunday, we'll shout “Hosanna!” and wave the palm branches to welcome Jesus into our midst. On Thursday I'll wash the feet of a first-time communicant just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Then we'll share the meal and conclude the service with the solemn stripping of all decoration from the worship space in mournful recognition of Christ's betrayal, arrest, brutalization, and humiliation. We leave the worship space in sad silence, only to return the following night to hear the story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion.

In the ancient Tenebrae ritual, the church is slowly darkened as the story unfolds. There will be no sermon, no communion, not even an offering will be received. The chancel will be draped in black. The cross will be carried in doleful procession. The seven candles, representing the seven times Our Lord spoke from the cross, will be extinguished. We will be left in darkness.

Last year, one of the beautiful teenagers who sings in our Praise Team remarked, “You know, Pastor, Easter seems so much more special to me now that I go through the services of Holy Week.”

Oh, praise God, I thought. That's the point. I can die content now.

But what about this day called Palm Sunday? What's the significance? A lot has been written recently about the last week of Jesus' earthly ministry. A bestselling book called Zealot by Reza Aslan claims that Jesus was a member of the Zealot sect, a group of radical Jews who believed religious purity could only be obtained once Israel was free from the taint of Roman occupation. Aslan suggests that Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a sort of Bay of Pigs misadventure—one intended to spark a popular uprising against the invaders but ending in tragic failure.

Another new book, How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman takes the view that Jesus was really more like an Essene, a very pious sect which believed God was in the process of overthrowing Rome without violent earthly opposition, and that Jesus would be crowned king of Israel once this apocalyptic overthrow took place.

Personally, I don't think Jesus was either Zealot or Essene. I think Jesus was Jesus. He came to the Holy City to preach God's righteousness. He came mounted on a baby donkey, a ridiculously humble, non-violent figure. He overturned the money-changers' tables in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13) because the money-changers were oppressing the poor and corrupting worship. But he didn't stop with a single act of protest. He went on to welcome into that sacred space the people the temple had always excluded—the blind and the lame—and he cured them (v. 14). Basically, he came to Jerusalem to speak out against injustice and perform deeds of mercy and compassion. Simple, right?

The little kids got this (v. 15). Children understand kindness. Do nice things for people, don't cheat or hurt them.

It was only the adults who were too enmeshed in their own games of power and rationalization to see the righteousness of God in Jesus of Nazareth. So they had to put him to death.

And he went to that death willingly.

For me, I've always seen in Palm Sunday the basic tragedy of being human: the fact that all of us on this broken rock we call the world are heirs to disappointment and pain. How often do we find ourselves asking how things which began with so much promise—a relationship, a career, a political administration, a life—can end with so much heartache? How can there be so much joy on Sunday and so much pain on Friday?

But—spoiler alert here—we do know the end of the story. And it wasn't on Friday. So wave those palms with gladness and hope. Cheer the one who has come, who has entered into our mess and struggle and, through his own odyssy reminds us that we will never fall so far as to be out of his reach.

Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Thanks for reading, my friends. May you all have a meaningful Holy Week.

PS-Still not too late to sign my letter to Pope Francis asking that Lutherans and Catholics share communion together again. If you belong to one of these two churches, why not give it a shot? Can't do any harm, can it? Just click here.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Life After "If" (Reflections on Lent 5)

One of the funeral directors here in Northeast Philly says he has me on speed-dial. I'm sort of the go-to guy for burying nominal Christians who haven't been to church since the Carter administration. While the members of my parish have been relatively healthy in the last few years, I'm still kept pretty busy presiding at the funerals of the “un-churched.” I consider this part of my ministry to be an honor, and I take it very seriously.

Of course, when one does anything in volume, one has to come up with some shortcuts. Subsequently, I put the funeral services I do in two categories: the sad and the tragic. I think we can agree that all funerals are sad, but not all are tragic.

Let me explain. Some deaths come at the end of long, well-lived lives. These are sad, but expected. Other deaths occur unfairly. These are the suicides, the accidental death, the murders, overdoses, and early-onset illnesses which rob a person of years which would otherwise have been enjoyed. These deaths are tragic. The death of Lazarus in this Sunday's gospel (John 11:1-45) falls into this category.

John makes it clear that Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Nevertheless, when Lazarus falls ill and the sisters beg Jesus to come and heal him, Jesus does not respond. The prayers for the Son of God's healing mercy seem to go unanswered, and Lazarus dies.

I guess one of the reasons why this story resonates with me so much is that I relate to the grief of losing a sibling. It is more poignant to me now that my sister is in hospice care. Yet even before her illness, I became aware at the various funerals I officiated how the death of a sibling affects a family. Sometimes I may be called upon to bury an elderly lady from some nursing home. Her children have been expecting Mom's death. The grandchildren too, and the great-grandchildren never knew Grammy well enough to miss her that much. But then an octogenarian woman appears clutching the handles of her walker. She is introduced as Aunt Ethel, the sister of the deceased. “You know,” she tells me, “there were nine of us. And now I'm the only one.” It's heartbreaking.

So I feel for Martha and Mary as they bury their brother. He was their protector. He may have been their surrogate father. He grew up under the same roof. He knew them as children. He could tease them about the things they did as kids. He laughed at the same jokes and mourned the same set of parents. Now that he is gone, their world is suddenly smaller.

What adds an extra layer of pain to this funeral is the fact that Jesus did not respond to the pleas of this little family. When he arrives at the funeral, both sisters tell him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“If you had been here.” IF. Tragic deaths are the ones which involve all of the “if's.” If only things had been different. If only the doctors had known. If only he had taken better care. If she had given up smoking. If someone had called 911. If I had known the last time I saw him would really be the last time.

The problem, of course, with all of the “if's” is that they don't accomplish anything for us except to make us feel angry or guilty. So in this story, Jesus changes the conversation.

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

So do you believe? That's really the main point when we contemplate the death of our loved ones or our own demise. What do you believe about the nature of life and death? And where does Jesus fit in?

There are so many wonderful details in this story that I don't have the time to comment on all of them; however, this story contains one of the most powerful details in all of the gospels. When Jesus sees the Lazarus' family weeping, Jesus cries with them (v.35). Jesus enters fully into all the pain of being human so we will know that we are never alone in our grief.

This particular funeral, of course, turns quickly into a party as Jesus miraculously raises the dead Lazarus back to life. We're told that it was necessary for Lazarus to take this brief trip into the darkness in order to create faith and glorify God. And, if that's the case, I guess it was worth it.

I myself have never known anyone who has experienced coming back from the dead. Our popular culture is full of such stories, however. I understand that Todd Burpo's Heaven Is For Real, the story of a four-year-old who claims his soul left his body during emergency surgery, is about to be released as a major motion picture. Some critics denounce this book as pure invention while other readers have found tremendous hope and faith in the story. I don't know. I haven't read it myself. But I'm not surprised by the controversy. Even in the gospel lesson, some are said to have been moved to faith by Lazarus' return from the grave (v.45), while others saw the event as one more reason why Jesus should be killed (vv.46-53).

I guess the important question goes back to: What do YOU believe? For my part, I choose to believe that in the mercy of God my soul will one day know the place where tragedy and "if" will be no more. In the meantime, I am grateful to have Jesus' company.