“See how he loved him!”

Christians believe that Jesus is completely God and completely human. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes we forget his humanity and can be overly focused on his deity. But in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John, we see that Jesus had a friend named Lazarus.  

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are an adult trio of siblings who live in a village in Palestine called Bethany. And when Lazarus gets sick, the sisters send word to Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” No further specification. No name drop. Jesus knows who they’re talking about. Lazarus is the one whom Jesus loves. Does that mean that Jesus didn’t love everybody? Of course not! But Jesus has a special love for Lazarus because Lazarus is his friend.  

Shockingly, Jesus doesn’t go immediately to heal him, however. He waits two days to leave because he loves Lazarus and his sisters (see v6). Then he tells his disciples that “our friend” Lazarus has fallen asleep (meaning, he is dead). And Jesus and the disciples go back into the territory of Judea, where Bethany is, and the disciples think this is a suicide mission because the religious leaders are looking everywhere for Jesus, to arrest and/or kill him.  

Martha meets Jesus when they enter Bethany and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v21). Rather than correcting this, he starts to talk about the hope of the resurrection. Christianity, like the Jewish soil it grew out of, believes in the resurrection of the dead. The dead will not stay dead. Death does not have the final word. Everything sad will come untrue, as Tolkien has Samwise hope for in The Return of the King. And Jesus says not only is there a final day of the resurrection, but that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that belief in him will produce life, even if death comes (v25-26).  

Then Mary joins them and says the same thing Martha did (which must’ve stung a little bit): “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You could’ve stopped your friend from dying, Jesus. You could’ve spared this family pain! Why didn’t you?  

Jesus is overwhelmed by all the sorrow and grief and v33 says that he was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Jesus, the God-man, 100% divine, is on the verge of breaking down because his friend, whom he loved, is dead. And when he sees the tomb where Lazarus is buried, he loses it. 

Verse 33: “Jesus wept.”  

In just six verses, Jesus will resurrect Lazarus. He will undo death in a preview of his own resurrection and a picture of the hope of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life. So why did Jesus cry for Lazarus? Jesus knew what he was going to do. Jesus knew he was going to have his friend back. He knew he was about to give Mary and Martha their brother back. So why weep over something that is going to be fixed in a few moments? 

He cried because his friend had died. Lazarus was not one of his disciples. Jesus didn’t have any obligation to teach him or care for him as a traveling rabbi with his student. But he had committed himself to Lazarus in love. He had glued his soul to his friend like David and Jonathan, like Ruth and Naomi. And when Lazarus died, a little bit of Christ’s humanity died with him. Emotionally, Jesus was wrecked by this and it’s entirely right that he was. That’s what a loving friendship does.  

Even in sight of the coming hope, Jesus wept. The Resurrection and the Life wept over the death of his friend. Jesus had entrusted his heart to Lazarus. He had made himself vulnerable when he chose to love his friend. And this opened him up to pain. 

C.S. Lewis talks about this sort of process: 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

To love is to be vulnerable. And Christ become more vulnerable than anyone could when he went to the cross for his friends. “Greater love has no one that this- that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s what Jesus says in John 15:13. And that’s what Christ has done for us. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the proverb says, and no other wounds are more sure to be trusted in than those inflicted on Christ for our sake.  

Christ’s wounds displayed his love for us. If he had not died for us, we would’ve come to absolute ruin in hell. But he makes us his friends when we place our faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And we imitate Jesus’ model of friendship by making ourselves vulnerable, even to pain, when we love our friends (even unto death). 

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Stealing Into Another’s Soul

What Do We Do With This?

In the Old Testament, David and Jonathan had a type of relationship that we moderns don’t quite know what to do with. A passionate friendship that surpasses the love of women? Surely there must be some sort of suppressed romance between the lines. But such an interpretation tells us more about ourselves than it does the characters in the narrative. What would it mean for our culture (in which men are so starved for touch and embrace) to come to grips with the possibility of male friendship that was deeply and chastely satisfying?

I’m not sure we would know what to do with it. We certainly don’t know what to do with it when we see it on the page or the screen. It’s exhausting watching Hollywood fumble around with something as deep and necessary as male friendship, dressing it up as eros beyond recognition. Both David and Jonathan married women. They burned for the opposite sex and their love for one another was of a stronger stuff than what they had in bed with their wives. And the amazing thing is that it was completely devoid of romance with one another.

So what are we to make of the Bible’s unblushing appreciation of a man’s love for his friend? It is not the Bible that is backwards and regressive. Rather, it seems that it is we that need to update our view of friendship. Compared to the honest and unflinching approach to human relationships, we have categorized everyone as a potential resource. A male friend is a “bro” or a wingman, a means to an end. When guys can transcend this template of machismo and find a kindred spirit in another mind, that is when the possibility of covenant friendship becomes real.

Men’s Men

It’s refreshing to me that the biblical archtypes of male friendship (David and Jonathan) are also quintessentially men. They are kingly warriors and hunters with the shared heart of a poet. Aristotle famously defined friendship as one soul inhabiting two bodies. Living centuries before the philosopher, we see these two great men embodying that ideal. What does that mean for us today? What, if anything, can we learn from the friendship of this prince and this future king?

Masculinity is compassionate. When Jonathan dies, David laments in 2 Samuel 1 that his love for Jonathan was “extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” That is a depth of feeling to which few males can attest, and yet the Bible includes it at the very beginning of a book. It is held up as exemplary manhood. Perhaps we’ve only recently lost this ease of familiarity, but there’s hope we can find it again.

Masculinity is loyal. Their friendship was a brotherhood. It exceeded the family ties of clan and kin. It was such a powerful bond that Jonathan kept David alive, even in the face of the wrath of his own father, King Saul.

Masculinity is brave. To be loyal in their capacities and in their context, with death as a very real danger, required a steeled resolve to hold onto that friendship regardless of consequences. Friendship in the face of death is friendship with the weight of truth behind it. Fair-weather friends do not usually risk their own blood for one another.

A Monk’s Evaluation

Aelred of Rievaulx was a 12th century English monk who literally wrote the book on spiritual friendship. In the last of Aeldred’s dialogues on friendship, he discusses the outline of its progression. Friendship (like that of Jonathan and David) rests upon the foundation of God’s love. It begins, he says, with “he whom reason urges should be loved because of the excellence of his virtue steals into the soul of another by the mildness of his character and the charm of a praiseworthy life.”

Storing aside the lovely phrase “charm of a praiseworthy life”, let’s move on. Aelred then says that spiritual friendship passes through four stages:

  1. Choice (“electio”)
  2. Testing (“probatio”)
  3. Admission (“admissio”)
  4. The greatest agreement in things divine and human, with a certain love and goodwill.

But, the monk cautions, not all are likely to become “the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing.”

This has to be possible for more than just two Bronze Age warriors and a Celtic monk. Men charmed by the praiseworthy lives of other men, from whom they have nothing to hide or fear? I think it can be recaptured. And perhaps it begins with a bit of courage on our part. The courage to be charmed by a praiseworthy life is a good starting point.

The Beekeeper

I was a beekeeper once. The technical term is apiarist, but we answer to beekeeper as well. I set up my starter hive in the backyard by the creek. It was far enough from the house, but the dog had to learn a few tough lessons. Keep Benadryl on hand.

I landed on Italian honeybees for my first hives. They’re like fuzzy little cows. Very docile and calm. Great producers. A “nuc” colony, I felt, was a good choice to start off. A nucleus colony is four to five frames of brood and bees, plus an actively laying queen. I suggest you buy from a local source. It’s less stressful on the bees with respect to traveling.

Probably the best part about beekeeping was the clothing. You get to dress like a very low-budget astronaut. You always wear the veil. Always. You’re dealing with up to 60,000 of those little girls. You just don’t want to risk it. Gloves and pants that you can tuck in are also essential.

Beekeeping was tough. There’s a lot of hard work before you can see a return that makes it all worth it. And if you’re in the suburbs, there’s only so much expansion you can enjoy before you run into zoning laws and other nonsense.

But all in all, I enjoyed it. Even if it was only in my imagination as I considered it for twenty-four hours. I had a blast conquering my crippling fear of flying insects that sting through the power of fantasy and thought experiment. Nothing’s actually changed, of course. Maybe some day, when I’m old and grey and my nerve endings have numbed, I’ll take it up for real. But for now, I’ll enjoy my honey sans its producers and run like a frightened rabbit if one of them gets too close.

Church as Suicide Prevention

Every suicide is a tragedy. Particularly and uniquely, they are tragic as individual ends to individually beautiful images. Outside the death of an infant or child, I cannot think of a more tangled web of sorrows and regret. But that’s one of the reasons I’m thankful that God gave us the Church. The Church has a tremendous opportunity to function as suicide prevention at a time when “deaths of despair” are reaching epidemic rates in my generation alone. 

The Philippian Jailer in America

In my state, the average suicide rate is one person every eight hours. Three people a day is a horrific prospect. That said, 77% of adults in Missouri profess to be Christians. I’m approaching this as a confessional Protestant. In my state, 77% of the population claims to be Christian and yet three people a day commit suicide. I wonder if one could help the other.

I know that not everyone who says they are a Christian know what Christians believe or attend a church with any regularity. But what if churches could function as suicide prevention? Christians are prone to depression and dark thoughts (myself among them), but what if the communities of faith were vigilant in the detection and the prevention of suicide in their own spheres of influence?

In the book of Acts, chapter 16, the apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in jail in the Roman colony of Philippi because they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around midnight, the other prisoners are listening as Paul and Silas are singing hymns when a massive earthquake hits. But there’s a miraculous element to the quake in that the doors are opened and everyone’s bonds are loosed. The jailer wakes up (because who can sleep through an earthquake?) and sees that the prison doors are open. And what does he do? He prepares to commit suicide. 

Knowing that shame, unemployment, and probably death would be waiting for him with the sunrise, the Philippian jailer draws his sword and is prepared to fall upon it. In a single moment, he is utterly devoid of hope. He has no chances of making it out of this situation on top. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was on his last strike. We’re not told. But his immediate response to a hopeless situation is to end himself. But then what happens?

Acts 16:28- ” But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer is converted and baptized. Now, I know that, in context, “we are all here” referred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. But it strikes me that this is the perfect word for the Church towards those who struggle with the darkness and contemplate snuffing out their own lights. 

What if the Church were to call out, with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we all here”? In my time as a youth pastor, I’ve seen teenagers wrestle with depression. Some have fought daily and triumphed. Some have rolled the stone away, only to be crushed under its weight in a weak moment. Some have cut themselves to feel something, even if it’s pain and shame. Many have starved themselves to feel valuable. I’ve seen death claim the image of God. And who knows how many countless others totter on the edge, doing the dark math of a cold cost-benefit analysis? 

Do not harm yourself, for we all are here. We are all here. The scared and scarred, the addicts and the recovering, the self-righteous and the prodigals. We are all here and we are here for you, to support you and hold you and shield you from the night. So do not harm yourself. If the Church is the Church, you are never alone. Never without hope. The dawn will always break upon you in the arms of Christ.

Do Not Harm Yourself

If you are considering ending your life, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and just start talking.And then find a church. There are multiple ways to find a local church that will love you and take the time to be there with you:

The Church can be priceless shelters of prevention and you need only reach out.

We Are All Here

Reach out. If you feel that someone is fighting against the darkness, reach out. Even if are utterly untrained, just say something. Trained professionals can always (and should) be contacted later. But the first step is to keep your eyes open and be the Church enough to see how someone’s really doing.Depression often wears a smile. Don’t be fooled by the masks. Make sure that your church is a safe place where people can admit that they are not doing well and that they sometimes consider removing themselves from the equation. We are all here- those who cry without knowing why and those with shoulders to cry on. Christ died for all.

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And we are all here for you.

Hobgoblins in Winter

There’s a certain value in tears. Life in the vale is sweet, but so often salty. There are times when the sun is full and the air is warm and even the nights are full of honey and moonlight.

But we cannot always live in those perpetual springtimes. Especially after great tragedies or relentless circumstances, we find ourselves in “the winter of our discontent,” even while our hair is more pepper than salt.

I’ve heard believers in Jesus say that depression is simply an issue or evidence of unrepentant sin in your life. Just read more Psalms and double down in your prayers, and the melancholy will lift. I can’t decide if such an understanding is cruel or only naive.

But going on four years now, I’ve found it’s more like a grey hobgoblin, a mixture of neurochemistry and one sorrow treading upon the heel of the first. Eventually, he slides off your shoulders, but it’s only to slink away to find a cozy shadow. It’s not to beat a panicked retreat to the abyss, never to return again. I have developed multifaceted strategies for prevention, but the best real time treatment, I’ve found, is to not leave the house and just go to bed.

We don’t talk about it in the Church. Evangelicals, in particular, get nervous around it. Depression is one of those sadnesses that Christ will undo someday. But until then, we must learn keep each other warm in the winter.

I Have a Confession.

Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.

But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.

He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.

What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.

Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.

But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?

It can be as genuine as learning to dance.

“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).

Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.

Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.

Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.

But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.

He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.