* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

John 11 How Are We Resurrection and Life?

The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John offers a lot of potential insight. That insight doesn't depend on the story having any historical or factual truth. We could acknowledge that there are a lot of mythological resurrection stories across a wide variety of ancient cultures. And we might suggest that there are plausible scientific explanations for how the event could have actually transpired. We might also recognize that none of the other biblical narratives about Jesus even hint at what would seem to be a very significant and astounding event. None of this actually equips us any better to live our lives, however. Determining that this is a fictional story is only a starting point for deriving value from it.

At the same time, the concept of resurrection is perhaps more significant than any particular story about resurrection. Certainly many of us can point to moments of rebirth or transformation. We might even say that we have had to "die" to some influences in order to be "reborn" into a healthier way of being. Some of us are aware that other people have helped us in the process of transformation, sometimes through their support and encouragement, and sometimes through actually working in our lives to connect us to new people and opportunities that springboard us into a transformative experience. Perhaps we have done that for others in the midst of their rebirth, in the midst of a process of morning some loss and rediscovering oneself. Resurrection as a metaphor is loaded with meaning.

Thus, the story of Lazarus and the people to whom he was connected can have meaning for us if we approach it not as a story about physical death and revivification (which is not something any of us should reasonably anticipate), but rather as a symbolic story with a more universally applicable meaning. The story becomes much richer from this perspective, beginning with the response of the Jesus character to the news of Lazarus' illness.

Of course, the story has been interpreted throughout Christian history as a commentary about the supernatural knowledge and power of Jesus. Jesus seems to know the present and future circumstances of Lazarus, and has confidence in his own power to produce miraculous effects. This is all relatively useless to us. Pretending that this kind of supernatural knowledge or power is available to us or to any other person is frankly delusional. Now, if we want to acknowledge the potential of a medical professional (or a team of medical professionals) to perform "miracles," that's fine; we just need to recognize that we have crossed into the realm of natural human capability rather than supernatural prowess.

The kind of symbolic death and resurrection that we have suggested, however, might also be met with some responses like those of Jesus. When someone has experienced a loss -- or when they are in the process of "dying" to some habit or circumstance -- we might have some clarity that there can be some joy of impending transformation in the midst of mourning. We might resist the temptation to be infected by the anxiety of others and calmly respond with love in our own time. We also might choose to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability for the sake of connection with people we care about. Most of us are not going to be faced with a sect of people looking to stone us, but we still feel a sense of threat or vulnerability from time to time. It can seem safer to stay away from people who are experiencing a significant loss, and yet our own willingness to be vulnerable can contribute to transformation in the lives of others.

I'm not sure that the sequence of events is all that important, but in the gospel narrative, Jesus learns of Lazarus' struggle and the anxiety affecting his closest friends and relatives, and Jesus doesn't take on that anxiety and rush to Lazarus' side. Instead, he takes time to gather himself, to be grounded and centered, and to finish whatever tasks he had prioritized because of his own values and guiding principles. He trusted that Lazarus would emerge from his loss, and he accepted that those close to Lazarus were responsible for managing their own anxiety, whether they actually chose to do so or not. Eventually, though, Jesus' desire to be in meaningful connection with a friend prompted him to place himself in a position of vulnerability in order to care for Lazarus and others.

The followers closest to Jesus chose to follow his lead in allowing themselves to be vulnerable, even though they had to do some work managing their own anxiety. Jesus didn't demand or require his friends to accompany him. He simply told them what he would be doing, and he invited them along. It was up to the disciples to decide for themselves how they would respond to Jesus' decision. Some of them may have accompanied him out of anxiety, and others may have reached a point of calm clarity about the decision. Whatever the case, each individual's choice was his own responsibility.

The same is true in our lives. Our decisions will influence people around us, and we can be clear about what we choose to do and invite others along without being responsible for their decisions. We don't need the approval of others in order to make decisions that align with our deepest values, and we don't have to convince others that what we choose to do has integrity. Other people are responsible for what they do in response (or reaction) to our decisions, even when they seem unwilling or unable to make a responsible decision. Surely, our choices have consequences, and we may not know all of the consequences of our actions ahead of time. We may reconsider the decisions we make when new information becomes clear to us. There is no reason to judge ourselves when this happens. It's simply part of the journey.

Allowing other people to be personally responsible for managing their own anxiety and making their own decisions isn't always easy. If we take the story at face value, Jesus spends more time helping Martha process her anxiety than he does with Mary. Maybe he knew his own emotional limits and was worn down a bit by the first conversation. Maybe he knew the two women well enough that he believed he could expect more personal awareness from one than he could from the other.

The conversation with Martha turns into an assertion of Christian dogma, but that's to be expected from the author(s) of John. One might wonder, though, if there is still value in interpreting the Jesus character as an exemplar of our own best possible versions of ourselves. Could it be true that when we are living with integrity and intentionality by a clear set of guiding principles -- when we are connected with our deepest most noble selves -- we are transformative and life-giving to the people around us?
(If it needs to be restated at this point, our deepest values are not based on fear, but affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Becoming clear about these values is a long-term process of personal work, and we have delved into this in many other posts.)
This is not a question of supernatural power, of course, but a poetic framing of the natural power of intentional people. When we make decisions based on our deepest values, we create an environment in which others can do the same. When we clearly express the principles that guide our lives, we model a way for others to ground their own choices. When we exhibit calm and confident vulnerability, we influence the people around us toward managing their own anxiety a little better. It isn't our responsibility to tell other people what they should do, but it is our responsibility to be clear about why we make the decisions we make. And in sharing that clarity and those values with others, we make it more possible for them to live with greater integrity in their lives.

Moreover, when we trust in our own processes of "resurrection" -- our own journeys through mourning loss and transformation into a clearer reflection of a best possible version of ourselves -- we serve as models of resurrection to the people around us. When we live intentionally, we serve as models of life. When we are at our best, we are resurrection and life. Those who live intentionally by clear, life-affirming guiding principles will know what it means to truly live, even though they will experience loss from time to time. Joan Borysenko has written, "The question is not whether we will die, but how we will live." And it is attributed to Albie Sachs that, "Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives."

Our lives are not lived in isolation. We influence everyone around us. When we give control to our anxiety and fear, we influence people around us toward greater anxiety and fear. When we live intentionally with integrity to our deepest values, we influence people toward greater self-awareness and fulfillment. In any case, other people's responses or reactions are their responsibility, but the sort of influence we offer to others is our responsibility. If we choose to, we can be the resurrection and the life by which other people desperately long to be influenced. And if we are honest, there are time when we will desperately long for such influence in our lives. Best to seek out those people now and bask in their influence so that living in alignment with our principles is well-rehearsed when the time for transformation comes.

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