Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lessons of Lazarus

Another good friend of mine gave an excellent and thought-provoking talk that I've been meaning to write about for weeks. (I know...the people around me are amazing!) She based her words on a BYU devotional, one which I strongly urge you to read in its entirety, by President Eric B. Shumway, president of BYU Hawaii. Please be aware that I can't begin to cover his complex and far-reaching message here; and if you don't go over it thoroughly for yourself, you will miss not only some unusually creative thinking but a transforming opportunity to view a frequently read passage of scripture with completely new eyes. For me, his thoughts have been paradigm-altering.

I'm sure you all know the story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. When Martha sends word that her brother has fallen seriously ill, the Savior delays his departure for Bethany a couple of days and arrives only after Lazarus is dead. He is greeted with tears and a mild rebuke from Martha, who laments, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." She then adds fervently, "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee." This certainly qualifies as a strong testimony of the divinity of Christ, and He answers, "I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (John 11:21, 22, 25)

President Shumway describes the scene as follows: "The setting includes Lazarus, his sisters, the disciples, and other Jews. Some are believing. Some are critical. The intense grieving of the sisters, the wailing of the mourners, Christ's own tears, the anticipation of his death, the disciples' fear of the Jewish leaders, the hostility of certain ones in the crowd, and the melancholy of the gravesite–all of these constitute for us a crescendo of profound human emotion. Jesus commands that the stone covering the tomb's entrance be removed. Martha objects, saying, "Lord, by this time he stinketh; for he has been dead four days." Christ says, "If thou wouldst believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God." (John 11:39-40)

When the stone is removed, the prayer offered by Jesus reveals that He has asked God in advance for permission to perform a miracle that would provide a foreshadowing of his Atonement. "This for the purpose of comforting wounded and grieving hearts, of testifying of his love and power, and of convincing the people present to believe the Father had sent him" (Pres. Shumway).

Of course, the critical point in the scenario is reached with Christ's command, "Lazarus, come forth!" Imagine the feelings of the people surrounding his resting place as they tremble with knowledge that the dead may rise again, simultaneously hoping for and being terrified of such a cataclysmic event. To their wonder and (perhaps) horror, he does obey the order and rises, "bound hand and foot with grave clothes, his face wrapped about with a napkin." The sight and smell of this dead man must be more than some of those in attendance can bear, yet Christ issues a second command, "Loose him, and let him go." (John 11:44)

Shumway comments, "Think of it. Christ [is] commanding the people to free him, remove the grave clothes, and unbind the wrappings from around his eyes, mouth, hands, and feet–the wrappings of the grave. For he lives again. Think of the joy! But also can we imagine the hesitancy of some to reach out and remove the grave clothes? No doubt some shrank away completely. For me, the Lazarus story provides one of the most powerful metaphors of the Atonement of Christ for all humankind. For we are all like Lazarus, beloved of the Lord, but wrapped about in the grave clothes of this world...These two commandments to 'come forth' and 'loose him and let him go' constitute the way and the power of the Atonement."

Shumway continues, but "what if Lazarus, exercising his agency even as a spirit, had decided he did not want to return to a decaying, tortured body (refusing to come forth)?...Or what if those present were squeamishly reluctant to touch the death wrappings of a man who clearly had been dead (unwilling to assist him)? It is not difficult to identify parallels among us today, people who would not be inclined to obey either commandment. Obedience to both commandments is central to the restoration of life."

Okay, here comes the premise of Shumway's treatise on the loosing of grave clothes: "Sometimes the wrappings of death are manifest in the clothes of addiction and behavioral patterns that paralyze righteous thought and action, such as alcoholism, gambling, drug use, pornography, anger and violence. These wrappings are made of coarse cloth and smell of hell and bind people in a tomb of hopeless illusion and despair. But what about the death wrappings of a finer texture, the silken wrappings of pride and self-importance; of obsession with one's appearance, of wealth devoid of any generous impulse? Many of these finer textured addictions are mutations of things that satisfy basic needs. For example, the need we all have for encouragement morphing into a desperate search for praise and flattery. A dependency on praise from above and flattery from below has doomed more than one rising leader in nearly every profession."

Shumway then points out that the privilege and obligation of all true Saints is to use the atonement (repentance) to remove our own "grave clothes" and then assist in removing the "grave clothes" of others. The question he urges us to ask ourselves and the meat of his entire thesis is this: "Am I an unbinder or am I a binder?...Do I help loose or remove the 'grave clothes' of others, or do I wrap their grave clothes more tightly around them?" And what of our own grave clothes? Do we clutch them tightly around us or do we let them go?

Now for the life-sized (eternity-sized) questions we must ask ourselves. I'm sure we are all aware of people who outwardly live the gospel and appear to serve their fellow man, but inwardly say to themselves, "But, Lord, by this time he stinketh." Are not these men and women binders in their hearts, who wrap others more tightly in their grave clothes with prejudices, labels, and stereotypes? And as they do so, are they not also wrapping themselves...ever more tightly? The hardest question of all is this one:  Do we stand among them?

Who are the unbinders in this world? A righteous bishop is an unbinder. A visiting teacher who honors her calling is an unbinder. A neighbor who listens and loves and lightens and lifts is an unbinder. Can we count ourselves among these? And if not, will we use the Atonement to change that?

I'll conclude with the words President Shumway used to close his devotional:  "I pray that the story of Lazarus will take root more deeply in all of us; that the power of the Atonement in Lazarus...and millions of others will give us courage to 'Stand forth' and to allow our grave clothes to be removed; that we might also be both the healers and the healed, the unbinders and the unbound."  

What a powerful message from President Shumway. And you haven't even read enough here to scratch the surface of what he had to say. (Once more: Go read the entire talk!) You'll be glad you did.



Momza said...

Wow. I never thought about Lazarus' choice to "come forth" when called. But he did...he listened and heeded the call from the Master. That is alot to think about.

Natalie said...

A.MAZ.ING! Wow, wow, wow!!

I just got home from running errands and the book has arrived!! YEAH!!! I can not wait to relish every page!

em said...

you are officially my spiritual goddess!!! did i ever give you my address?

Lisa said...

thank you for the words or wisdom, and thought.

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