I stood for nearly three hours on a little hill with 6 other women, dressed in white, under a large branch with white tissue flowers tied to it, holding little crystals on fishing line necklaces, and waiting. We stood in the twilight and then the dark, quiet and immobile, and when we received the sign a floodlight shined on us and the tree, angelic music played, and a group of young women moved slowly toward us. We were at the tree of life, and they were finding their way to us, bemused after their dark hike.
It was my last Girl’s Camp as a young women’s leader in my church, an annual week-long campout with age 12-18 girls in which they explore and expand their relationship with God. The night activity was meant to remind them of their current journey back to the garden and its tree and the joy they would feel when they understood that they had arrived. Only, for the girls I brought, the gift and power of the experience was much less than others received, and after hours of standing in place I walked on aching legs back to my cabin and wept.
The girls were divided into 7 groups and sent one group at a time on a winding hike that ended at the tree. They were tempted to get off their little path to join a party or to have cookies and treats, but the person leading them encouraged them to go on and hold their course. They were taught along the way and encouraged that there was reason to forgo the temptations offered, until the leader pointed and they turned to see us and the tree illuminated in glorious splendor and they walked toward the music and the light. An entire group of 250 girls could hardly make this intimate journey together, or even in close proximity to each other, so the groups were spaced and the hikes took considerable time.
Our group was the first. They didn’t have to sit in the little log amphitheater and wait, squirming on uncomfortable seats, singing songs and trying to pass the time patiently. At the conclusion of the previous activity and before night had even fallen, they began their hike and came to the tree. The light on us was really no contrast, and the music system had a hiccup, so they took their journey back to the garden with little risk (they could see the sides of the path quite easily – it was merely a stroll) and with little reward (some of them even saw us standing on the hill and knew how it would all end). They received their crystal necklaces and went back to the cabins, glad they were so lucky to go first and not have to wait their turn like those other poor souls, unaware of the depth the experience would have for “those other poor souls.”
As the night progressed and grew darker, I heard the groups making their way to us, heard the call of the partiers trying to entice them, and as the night grew black, even heard their audible group gasp as they turned and saw the beautiful tree and the angels standing around it on the hill that was like risers, making us even more visible. As the night progressed, more of them were weeping as they made their way to the tree, floating on the music, drawn to the light, clasping the crystals we placed smilingly in their hands, hugging each other with such gratitude for the experience they had waited on hard, log benches to have, faithfully singing, their initial envy of the others who got to go while they were left behind forgotten.
If only they had known during the waiting how perfectly it suited their ending.
This morning I rolled over and sighed at the things that have not worked this past year, the almost constant prayers I have sent heavenward, the frequent answers I’ve acted faithfully upon, and the brick walls I’ve hit at every single turn. These experiences culminated three days ago when my youngest son was pushed into a brick wall while blindfolded, breaking his two front teeth. Tired and worn, helping a procrastinating son with his eagle project days before his 18th birthday, 48 hours from my last sleep, I kept myself together while there and then came home and sobbed, slumped over my steering wheel. Why, I asked the Lord, who watched it all happen, why couldn’t he, wouldn’t he, protect my innocent little boy from a frightening and disfiguring experience that I didn’t have the means to reverse, after such a lengthy and graciously-accepted time of trial on my children’s part? How could he stand so blithely by?
I collected myself quickly because my oldest son was sitting quietly sobbing in the seat beside me and I knew I needed to teach him faith and forgiveness and to model it myself (there’s a lesson in the growth we will have if we are focused on teaching others rather than spending too much time sobbing ourselves, but that’s for another day.) I prayed a lot and I thought a lot and within a day I had my mind and my heart wrapped around it peacefully. Wonderful, but the detritus of the last year still lies around me, however peaceful I may feel about God’s awareness of the whole mess.
This morning I opened my scriptures that I keep in bed with me after my evening reading, and turned, as is my morning habit, to wherever they fell. It was the story in John of Lazarus. I was overcome with emotion as I read the words, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.”
The story is familiar – Jesus waited to go to Bethany, knowing full well that Lazarus was sick and would die, and knowing also that he would use this experience to boost their faith in his ultimate power and destiny. And it did. But it was hard. And he had the presence of soul to weep with them instead of brushing away their sadness and questioning simply because he knew how it all would end.
We can read this without understanding, knowing how it all ended, missing the nuances of the experience that are only available if we walk in darkness with them as it unfolds, weeping with them. Jesus knew that Lazarus was not intended to die yet, that his Father had orchestrated the situation to bless the very people who would suffer with a profound assurance that he had the power to be resurrected. They did not know this; they walked in darkness, just as he noted before he even made the journey.
“If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.” There is no shame in stumbling when one walks in darkness, there is probably no better way to appreciate light, and there is certainly no other way to develop light within. Why would we even know to want that when we can see everything around us with perfect clarity?
Martha and Mary already understood that Jesus had the power to rescue before death. What he came to teach them through that dark night was that he also had the power to rescue after death – Lazarus, each of them, and even himself. As they walked through that dark night and stumbled, he stood in stark contrast on the hill, light. The others who saw Lazarus walk haltingly out of the tomb may have thought it interesting, but not having walked through the night, the experience was likely not particularly profound, and the crystal of the experience likely later discarded.
How much he truly did love Mary and Martha, to make them wait, in the darkness, singing songs and trying to be gracious as others moved forward with their happy hike, stumbling in the deeper darkness, precisely so that when they turned to look, that profound light would enter them and stay.
This morning the light seems a bit brighter than before, the crystal a bit more precious. The waiting was worth it.