Take away the stone…let him go

It’s a Saturday morning here in Omaha at West Hills Church. We have welcomed back our dear friend Pam Moore to lead our women’s retreat called “Beautiful Chaos.” It is so good to hear her and see her and be reminded of the gifted speaker and teacher she is. And, oh! How she loves Jesus.

That’s why I am here. To see and hear Pam. My Saturdays are precious to me as the other six days of the week I am here at church. I love to sleep in and be lazy and enjoy my sweet Steve. So I am here under duress, but as usual, God had other things in mind!

And Pam’s teaching this morning was on the gospel of John in chapter 11 about the raising of Lazarus. It’s a story I have heard and read many times. It is so cool! Jesus raises his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead. He was dead. In the tomb for four days. And Jesus tells him to come out. And he does. Isn’t that cool?! He was dead and now he is alive.

In every movie about this, it’s a pretty dramatic presentation. A DEAD MAN WALKS OUT OF HIS TOMB. Where have you ever seen that except for in the movies? I haven’t. I wanted it for my mom when I was seven. I even prayed so hard! “God, if you can bring your own son back after three days, you can bring my mom back, too.” If I had known the story about Lazarus when I was seven, I would have given him one extra day in my prayer. That was my theology at seven.

Today, Pam gave me a completely different perspective on this story and I am so grateful!

First of all there is this, John 11:35, the shortest sentence in the bible: Jesus wept. And the next one explains this very short but beautiful text: “Then the Jews said, ‘See, how he loved him!'”

Jesus loved Lazarus and was grieved at his death. Jesus loved him. Jesus loves us. Jesus loves me. He grieves with Mary and Martha, he grieves with us, he grieves with me. In the bosom of his divine humanity, he grieves at our messes, our losses, our sufferings. He was weeping with snot dripping out of his nose just like me as I prayed that prayer as a seven-year old whose mother was dead.

That is the God who walks with me and walks with you.

But the other thing that Pam gave me today about this passage which I instantly lit up about was this: He asks us to join him in this setting free.

In verse 39 he tells Mary and Martha and the gathered community of mourners, “Take away the stone.” They are to take the covering from the tomb. Jesus is not using his divine power to levitate that heavy plug out of that hole. “Take away the stone.” He wants us in this moment, helping, believing that he can do this.

And they do, and out Lazarus comes in that God-blessed, made-for-the-movie moment of a dead man walking out of his grave. Did I mention he had been then for four days?

And then there is this in the last half of verse 44: “Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

You – community of believers, family of man, church of God – join me in this ministry of healing and freedom and resurrection. Free this man. Come to his side and take away the stinky four-day old graveclothes and help me set him free.

That is the calling of the church. That was explained to me in a very profound way today by a woman who has taught me so much about grieving in public in the loss of her husband and my pastor and mentor, George. And she did it with grace and beauty and humor.

Assis Ramsey from the Presbyterian church in Zahle, Lebanon, ministers to the children in a refugee camp in May, 2013.

Assis Ramsey from the Presbyterian church in Zahle, Lebanon, ministers to the children in a refugee camp in May, 2013.

But then this picture came to my mind: this story is being lived out daily by the church in the Middle East and I have been so privileged to see it from a front row seat.

In Syria and Lebanon and Iraq, the people are grieving. Oh my Lord, can you imagine the losses? Their homes are blown apart by mortars. Their sons are marching off to war and dying by the thousands. Their churches and mosques are targets of people who hate them. Then, if they don’t leave their broken homes or convert to an ideology of evil and death, they are murdered on the spot, with a bullet to the head or a knife that severs their heads from their bodies. I cannot imagine the horror they live with, yet I have seen the result.

Assis Fadi, moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon encourages the children to sing and dance at an even larger refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, in January, 2014.

Assis Fadi, moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon encourages the children to sing and dance at an even larger refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, in January, 2014.

And God is in the midst of their grief and sorrow, weeping with them. How could he not?

And yet. And yet. In this time of grief, he asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?”

Roll the stone away. Take off the graveclothes. Find a purpose in your community with me in your midst.

And they do all of this. The church that I have been privileged to walk with in the last four years is walking in the refugee camps housing thousands of their neighbors, forced from them homes. They are bringing medicine and food and joy and love and healing. They are opening up their homes and their churches to welcome those forced from their own homes. They are using their own scarce resources to share with those who have nothing left. They are bringing beauty from ashes. They are God’s presence in the chaos of war.

And I believe that God can do this. I believe when his community of people come together to move the stones away from the tombs of the oppressed and strip off the graveclothes that bind them to the prisons of refugee camps, showing the love of neighbor to neighbor, that this will bring about a lasting peace, a peace that is not found at the end of a gun or that falls from the sky in the form of laser-guided missiles.

God weeps with us. But that is not the end of the story. The end of the story comes when we believe what he says and join together with him to call forth life from death.

Let us roll the stone away…together.

Amen.

Dancing in Circles

Dancing in circles photoI visited a refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, on a trip I made in May, 2013. It was part of a visit of presence to offer fellowship and encouragement to Christian brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon who were dealing with the refugee crisis from the war in Syria.

Eight months later, in January, 2014, I went back on a similar trip and we visited another camp near Zahle which hadn’t existed eight months before. Instead of visiting a pretty small camp of 45 families, we visited one of two in the area that was now home for thousands of families.

In Lebanon alone, there are approximately 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian war which has raged since March, 2011. It was the onset of that war that had prohibited my wonderful group of faithful women friends from returning to Syria to take part in a women’s conference that would allow more of our Iraqi sisters to join us. So much sorrow and pain is concentrated in this small part of our world. It’s heartbreaking to say it in my most understated words. There is an ever-flowing stream of tears to accompany them.

At that camp last January our group was surrounded by a sight I never expected to see in such a place of sadness. Children singing and dancing came pouring down the dirt road beside the sewage filled canal that drained their camp. Singing. Dancing. Smiling. Laughing. We were swept into their midst and joined in.

From that encounter came this poem:

Down the hill they came running with smiles on their faces
Unusual I thought, in this saddest of places
But they sang and they clapped
Oh my word! How infectious
So we clapped and we smiled in this moment of grace notes.
They grabbed on to our hands and soon came the dance
Round and round we did circle in this desperate land
We kissed and we cooed, just like all children do
Voices raised in sweet choruses of “I love you too!”

It wasn’t ‘til later when I learned that their song
Was a reminder of all in their world had gone wrong
“I used to live in a house” – so it went,
“But now I live here in this land in a tent.
Tomorrow will come and a house there will be
For me and my folks, the whole family.”
It made me so grieved for the horror of loss
I still cannot grasp the heartbreaking cost
Of hatred and war that would drive them away
From the home where they spent every night, every day.

And yet here we were in a circle of glee
And they had this vision, in mind’s eye could see
That where they were now was just temporary
Even though it was alien, maybe even quite scary
It was only a stop on the journey of life
That someday the end would come to this strife
And they would be dancing and singing with glee
Enlarging their circle with people like me
God in heaven above, hear my prayer, let it be.

I came home from that place with an idea I have no clue how to proceed with, but I have. I have a wonderful co-worker, friend and brother in Christ who has taken a version of this poem and put it to music. Mike did it because he could see what I saw with my heart and not with my eyes. I would like to take that song and make a video to share the story of the suffering and the sadness, but also of the hope that exists there, to raise money for the needs of the refugees from this war and the now renewed war in Iraq. I want the video to be able to take on a life of its own – it won’t be mine or Mike’s or whoever can help me make it – but it will be a tool that almighty God can use to bring a small amount of love to a place of overwhelming need.

Please pray with me that God will make a way.

Amen.