ace of spades

March 19, 2009

Faith is peeling onions, layers beneath layers, questions beneath questions. 

Faith is a palimpsest where the old words are read with the new.  As soon as I formulate questions, lick the seal, and send them to God for a reply, I find myself in another season of waiting. Patience is also called “long suffering.”  Uncertainty condenses on the surface of my faith. The questions we ask make us who we are.

Why did melanoma kill my grandfather?

I want God to explain why cancer reduced this man’s body to grotesque angles under a white sheet. At the visitation, the line to look into the casket stretched across several rooms. Friends came out in droves to pay their respects.  I have never visited his grave since the burial. Why?

My family continues to make comparisons. They call me “Little Roger.” They point out the shape of my face, my lips and my gregariousness. They say people are drawn to me the way they were drawn to him.  Some shoes to fill.

Why take Roger Church, a man who did the things he said he would do? 

He might have helped me understand myself.  Where is he, Jesus?  Lazarus walked out of the tomb two thousand years ago. What has his blinking in the sun to do with me? Where is Roger Church? Paradise or Abraham’s Side? Purgatory or writhing in Hell?

That side of my family gets together less often now. I wish Jesus Christ would breathe my grandfather’s spirit back into his rotten body. People would scream, seeing an old man claw his way up from six feet under. Maybe he would hitch a ride down Thompson Lane to his house on Belmont Avenue. Would I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, his healings and his miracles, if I got a call on my cell phone from my grandfather?  Would I believe if I touched his hands across the old cribbage board we used?  If he handed me the deck of cards we buried with him? I still have the ace of spade I took out of the deck when no one was paying attention.

People tell me, the have told me my whole life, that I should imitate Jesus. Preachers toss abstract concepts and neat formulas out over the audience.  They travel back to Isaiah to fill in the Gospels’ gaps:

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.¹

I believe Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, but I have questions. 

I need to know what Jesus would whisper in my ear if I were about to attack some pervert who touched my wife or my daughter.

I need to know what Jesus would think of voting, sex, and capitalism. Yes, when Lazarus died, Jesus called him back from death. I believe it. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”²  He made an immediate and physical impact on people’s lives. He gave people their health. He gave purpose to their souls. He returned their dignity. He restored them to their communities.

Can I raise men from the dead?

Lord, help me with my unbelief. I am a product of my environment. Perhaps no one I have ever known believed anyone in this day and age would be raised from the dead without defibulators or a blood transfusion. My younger sister and her boyfriend discovered one of the maintenance personnel, Zacharias Sbathu, dead in his truck. His family depended on him for their well-being. Our prayers did not raise him from the dead. Is it true? Is prayer powerful? Why didn’t it work? Zacharias worked two jobs for seventy or eighty hours a week to build a life for his family. Where was Jesus to raise this man from the dead?

Jesus wept. Jesus prayed: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”³

If I cannot raise people from the dead, what is the faithful response for a man of God when faced with death and violence?


¹ Isaiah 53:2-5 (NASV).


² Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2 (NASV).

³ John 11:41-42 (NASV).

Lazarus: Part III

February 27, 2009


She starts to cry. Inside her the wine is leaking. She tries to look down, but his finger catches her chin. He locks her eyes. She says it: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”  She says “have believed” because her belief is becoming a relic.  They had sent for him, but he had not come.  Jesus lets her go.  She walks back to the house.  She can say nothing else.

Mary goes to meet Jesus at the same place. She repeats what her sister said.  Jesus is deeply moved in spirit and is troubled.  The Spirit grows full within him, and he begins to sweat.  He says, “Where have you laid him?  Some of the Jews who escorted Mary say, “Come and see.” Jesus weeps.  A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.

The Jews, Mary, even Martha, they all seem to stand the same way, skeptical, a little way off, all the weight on one leg, one hip cocked. Their faces pulse heat, and they fight the push of tears. Their eyes burn. They squint and sweat through their mourning clothes.  Jesus is weeping. That is what they all want from him.  They want his humanity to be so close like the road dust in his hair. They want to see the individual hairs in his beard and to inhale his odor. He had not come when they sent for him, and their friendship will never be the same. But, at least, he is here now, and he is crying. He joins the ranks of their tears.

They whisper, “See how He loved him!” “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” Questions and astonishment. Those are always the two currents of reaction that run through the crowds.  And anger.  Jesus says, “Remove the stone.” Martha worries about the smell.  Jesus reassures her.  He raises his arms to heaven.  He feels the ribbons of the Spirit twine his body.  He closes his eyes, tilts his face upwards.

“Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”

He cries out; “Lazarus, come forth.”

Then Holy God Almighty, Lazarus comes forth, bound hand and foot.  His face is wrapped with a cloth. Jesus says to those standing nearby, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Everything has changed.


Verses taken from John 11 (NASV).

Lazarus: Part II

February 26, 2009

Jesus waits two days longer before he divulges his plans to return to Judea. The apostles cannot believe it. During the Feast of the Dedication, some Jews in the temple picked up stones because Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”  They wanted to kill him for blasphemy.  And here the crazy man wants to walk right back into the net of their accusations. First, he sharpens a stick and aggravates the brood of vipers, and now he plans to stick his hand in their nest.

They glance at one another, shrug, and bend to pack up their waterskins. Jesus watches how slowly they move.  “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” he says.  “If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

Thanks, Jesus, they mutter. Thanks for clearing everything up. Our fears are assuaged, and our bones are ready to receive the shock of Mosaic justice.  “The man’s a genius,” Peter thinks, “the Son of God Messiah.  But why does he always talk in code?”

Now here Jesus is saying they are going to awaken Lazarus out of sleep. Why travel all the way to Bethany to interrupt a man’s rest?  Confusion ensues. Jesus tells them to put down their water skins and cloaks, and he says, “Lazarus is dead.” Oh, they say, then why did you say he was asleep?  Jesus’ face spreads into his quiet smile, the one mourning their incomprehension but rejoicing at their simplicity.  He is silent for a moment then says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” He stands up. “Let us go to him.” Enough chitter-chatter. You’ll understand when we get there. You’ll see what I mean when you see what I do.  They follow, kicking rocks.

Thomas lets Jesus get far enough ahead then calls a huddle, as though Jesus were unaware that people always coalesced into groups as soon as he turned his back-not always to plot his destruction but sometimes to feel camaraderie, to agree amongst friends that Jesus’ words are difficult to understand. They want to understand.  Jesus speaks word whose meanings they know, but they seem to be arranged into another language.

Thomas questions the rest. They all shake their heads, No, we have no idea what he is talking about.  Thomas furrows his brow but resolves, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”  We all must die someday, he thinks, and what a way to go. Going down in glory, becoming legend amongst comrades, dying that the Rabbi might be saved. Their eyes share the shrewd squint now of secret purpose. They march after Jesus, nervous but determined. They are men, after all, and willing to die for a worthy cause.

In Bethany, Jesus learns that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Martha comes out to meet Jesus.  Should she walk down the road toward him and hold her tongue?  Should she summon her strength and assume a stoic resolve?  She can see the wrinkles from squinting radiate from the corners of his eyes.  She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” while she thinks, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, it is your fault. Lord, you are directly responsible. My brother, your friend, is rotting in a tomb up there in a cave in the hills, because, for all your metaphysical posturing, the fact is you simply did not come. You did not show up when we needed you most.”

Jesus replies to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha feels her frustration and grief, the fermenting emotions of the past week, about to burst her resolve like new wine in old wineskins.  She chokes out, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus puts a hand on each of her shoulders.  His eyes are wet.  Dust swirls around them. The disciples close around to listen.  She wishes they would leave.  Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Lazarus: Part I

February 25, 2009


Mary and Martha send word to their friend because they know their brother Lazarus will die if he does not come. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”


Mary and Martha love Lazarus.  He delights them, spoils them, and makes them laugh.  He helps them forget that they never married and have no children.  They endure the shame.  Other men treat their women like property.  Women have no voice. Silent as the earth, they are tilled and bear fruit.  They bear sons to till and daughters to be tilled.  Mary and Martha are fallow, the same as worthless. Lazarus protects their dignity.

Fear and helplessness drive out other feelings and gum up the everyday machinery of their lives. With their brother bedridden, they remain paralyzed, unable to find pleasure in the work they enjoyed before.  Mary loved pressing her palms into the bread dough and licking the honey from her fingers.  Martha loved the brief interactions with the day laborers from the community.  She asked after their wives and children and gave them a little more money than they expected.  She took them water and, sometimes, figs. 

Now, they seek distraction. Worry brings cotton-mouth, making food difficult to swallow. Their faces roughen with the salt-grit of tears.  Mary and Martha know Jesus well enough to ask him to come, and they know him well enough to think he would want to come.  If Lazarus’s illness were not threatening to take him, they would not have sent for him.  He would know that.

Jesus is a great rabbi and healer, not the country doctor sort one inconveniences with an ordinary cold or fever.  Lazarus has a killer in his body.  Maybe he got it while giving alms to the beggars on the road, maybe he ate some bad meat, or maybe an orphaned evil spirit found a new home—no way to tell. The two sisters sense death slinking around their house and rolling into their brother’s room like a fog. 

The household is as quiet as after a rain.  Mary does not speak of despair’s pull inside their bones.

They do not want a temporary solution; they want to be done with this.  Life must return to normal.  They send a good man to bring back Jesus. It will be a simple enough matter for him, saying a few words.  He does not even have to come.  He can simply utter the prayer from wherever he is and heal Lazarus.  The sisters believe Jesus is able to do this.  Even if he comes to Bethany, his power requires only a glance or a few simple ingredients for a poultice-saliva and dirt, the faith of a mustard seed. Jesus likes to touch and talk.  Even when a laugh breezes across his face, underneath the surface his spirit is quiet and deep and holy.

Jesus sends back Mary and Martha’s man with an confusing message: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  Martha cannot believe this head-in-the-clouds preacher, who helps and heals so many, will hold out on his friends when they need him the most.  This is not like him.  He must sense what Lazarus means to them.  The men in their synagogue come to seek his counsel.  His sisters depend upon him for their livelihood.  If he dies, how will they manage? How will they survive? Will they diminish to subsistence, gleaning from the stubble on the edges of the fields, broken-backed and gray-haired Ruths without any allure, without a Boaz, and without a dove to sacrifice?  Jesus wouldn’t see their lives reduced to rubble, would he?  Surely, he remembers how Mary saved money, purchased a jar of perfume, and anointed his feet.  Is the man’s spiritual chicanery the thanks she gets?