I know that few if any of you will relate to my early childhood appreciation for this verse. In the church culture of my upbringing, having a verse handy that could be recited by memory on command was important to winning a certain kind of recognition. My Sunday School teachers would regularly hand out prizes of inestimable value (to a 7 year old) for anyone who could recite a Bible verse from memory. John 11:35 was always at the ready. In case there was need for a back up, Genesis 1:1 was the second verse of choice: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
I was well into adulthood before this two worded verse evoked a whole new level of recognition. It names a moment in time when Jesus stood before the grave of his friend, Lazarus, along with grieving family and friends.
Jennifer was working as a plumbing designer in a small engineering firm in Hartford, Connecticut. Peter was her boss. His seven year old daughter, Laura, had stayed home from school with a fever and flu like symptoms. A visit to their physician confirmed the diagnosis of a flu virus and advised accordingly. Days later, Peter held Laura in his arms as she took her last breath. The ambulance they had called when Laura suddenly became unresponsive arrived minutes later. It soon came to light that she had been suffering from spinal meningitis.
We attended the funeral. Her classmates were seated together in the first four pews. The Priest sought to comfort them (and presumably her parents and the rest of the weeping congregation) with these words: “Laura was so good and God loved her so much that he wanted her to be with him sooner versus later.” I remember hearing a marked increase in the volume of weeping from those front pews and thinking, “their tears are now less from grief that their friend is gone and more from fear that one of them could be next.” My grief turned to anger.
I was never more thankful that John 11:35 was so deeply embedded in my memory. I resolved then and there to always recall it whenever I stand with others in mourning…never to forget the image it gives me of how God is related to our grief as human beings in the face of death. I resolved then and there that, as a Pastor, whenever I am called upon to speak of God to those whose grief is beyond words, whatever I say will be an elaboration of John 11:35.
One final note. I have another memory from this time. Jennifer and I attended Laura’s wake. We took our place in the receiving line. When Jennifer greeted Peter, the first time she had seen him since Laura’s death, to her surprise and mine, she threw herself into Peter’s arms and they wept. Standing by, I recalled a simple verse from my childhood.
Prayer: Gracious God, let me never forget where you are when I find myself in tears…when I stand with others in their tears. Amen.