I turned out the lights in the final classroom at the end of the hall. It was the room used for the young children, from elementary school down to those just barely older than toddlers. At one time, it had been a storage room, used mostly for storing boxes of things no one had known quite where to put or what to do with. When the church experienced a blessing of youth, it became clear that the room would need to be used otherwise. I remembered looking through some of the boxes when a few of us came in to move it all out. We found old hymnals that the packagers had been afraid to throw away—we moved them to the library for safekeeping—along with an assortment of old devotional books. There were boxes of tiny pew pencils, attendance cards, pens, regular sized pencils, envelopes and various sympathy cards, among other things. Now, the room was decorated with craft supplies and various children’s Bible studies, as well as a few toys that had found their way out of the nursery and into the classroom. There were maps on the walls and an old globe sitting on top of one of the cabinets. It was a good change.
Having served as the official-unofficial custodian of the church building for some twelve years, I had acquired my own share of cleaning habits through the years. One habit that I had stuck to for quite some time was saving the auditorium for last. Ours was hardly an auditorium, yet I always hesitated to call it a sanctuary. There was something primeval about the word sanctuary, something that our present rhythms felt a bit detached from. Some called it a worship room, but that didn’t quite suit me well either. Regardless, it was the main room of the building, the one that held the majority of the church’s activity. The stillness of the room was something I had come to appreciate.
I walked into the room with my eyes barely lifted, and had I not glanced around to take it in, I would not have noticed the preacher, Jed Burns, sitting on the podium. I had a chance to look him over before he raised his eyes to acknowledge me. He was sitting with his Bible in his right hand, though he didn’t appear to be reading it. He was slumped over a bit with one leg out in front of him and the other bent, holding his elbow on top of it.
“Hey there, Verne,” he said in his quiet, raspy voice. He looked up at me from behind his large rimmed glasses.
“Hey,” I said. “Pardon me.” I stood there for a moment. “I can come back after while if I need to.”
“Nah nah,” he said. “Go ahead.” He laughed an aged, breathy laugh. “I’s just doing a little reading. Everything going alright?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Just finishing up. Mind if I sit with you?”
“Come on,” he said, smiling. He clicked a pen closed and put it into his shirt pocket. He was a man who seldom wore anything less than a button down shirt tucked into slacks, at least from what I had seen. The attire of a preacher looked natural on him, unlike the costume that I’d seen others wear. “I was reading up on my friend Lazarus. Making sure he really came back to life.” He winced an eye at me and grinned.
“Well,” I said. “Did he?”
He raised his eyebrows and laughed.
“Seems he did,” he said. “I was just thinking about what it must have been like to see the crowd through his eyes.”
He laughed quietly, and I did as well. We sat in silence for a moment.
“Don’t imagine he knew quite what to think,” he said. “Probably didn’t even know he’d been dead.” He looked at me firm a moment and then laughed again.
I laughed as well and sat for another few moments. He let out a deep sigh. I enjoyed his silence. I’d always known him to be a thoughtful man, but a mild stroke three years prior had slowed him down even more. It was a cumbersome task to be in his presence for very long.
“Martha and Mary,” he said, gathering his thoughts a moment, “they had different reactions I’m sure.” He paused a moment. “I will say they both told Jesus the same thing beforehand, though. ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ ” He laughed and smiled a closed mouth grin. He twitched his head. “Both had faith.”
I thought on his words a moment, trying to catch myself up to the story. It had been a while since I had read the account, much less anything at length. I had always sort of stumbled through my private readings. I enjoyed hearing his take on scripture, even if he generally seemed to assume that his audience already had extensive prior knowledge.
“Even so,” he said, “I don’t ‘spect either one of them knew what he was about to do. Martha sure seemed not to.”
We sat there in silence for another several moments. I watched him for a moment, gauging the thoughts in his mind as he worked through them, unashamed, it seemed to me, to be so silent in my presence. He didn’t seem to pay much mind to his manner. I’d never seen him sitting on the podium before, but it wasn’t a strange thing for me to see him sitting there so comfortably. Truth be told, he rarely even preached from the podium. He had a small, wooden bookstand that was built to fit onto the back of a pew, and he generally preached with that, standing two or three pews in from the front. Over time, a few of the members who sat mostly in the back moved their weekly spot up one pew, perhaps to push him back, but he never seemed to take their meaning.
“Why do you think Jesus wept?” he asked. He was looking in my direction.
I sighed and thought on the question a moment. I knew what he meant, because that was a verse I was familiar with. I remembered memorizing it as a child, because it was the shortest verse in the Bible. A boy in one of my classes told me once that “Pray without ceasing” was shorter in the Greek Bible, but I told him I didn’t speak Greek.
“I’m not sure,” I said, buying myself a few moments, though I knew fairly well what my response would be. “I always assumed he was weeping for Lazarus.”
“Right, right,” he said, trailing off. He went silent again for a few moments.
I sat and listened to the stillness of the room, along with the hum of the air unit. I looked out amongst the empty pews. I had grown accustomed to the way they looked, enough so that their former appearance was now a vague memory. They were upholstered with tan cushions on the seats, but I could remember a time when they had each had a faded, teal cushion on them, sitting loose and unattached so that they slid when you sat and scooted at the same time. I thought also about my younger years, when there had been no cushions at all. I could remember sleeping on those hard, wooden pews beside my grandmother, who never scolded me for sleeping in service, so long as my shirt remained tucked in.
“Scripture says multiple times that he was deeply distressed,” said Jed, bringing me back from my daze. “Indignant. Seems like it had more to do with everyone around him.” He paused a moment. “I don’t know.”
I thought seriously on the topic, for the first time since the conversation had begun. I remembered now the difference in Martha’s attitude and Mary’s, for he had spoken on it before. It was also an analogy my great aunt had used fairly often, though not of herself.
“I always thought he must’ve been thinking ’bout his own grave when he told them to roll away the stone,” he said. “Like it distressed him to know it was coming.”
I stopped thinking and chose to be silent and listen to him. He picked up his Bible and looked at it for a moment, and then he went on.
“Martha told Jesus,” he said, “that she knew her brother would be raised again on the last day, at the resurrection.” He glanced my way. “Course, that’s when he told her that he was the resurrection, and the life.” He paused a moment. “Still, I can’t help but relate to her. Lazarus was being raised from the dead, but since it wasn’t the last day and Jesus hadn’t yet fulfilled his purpose in coming, it seems Lazarus was gonna have to die again sometime.” He laughed to himself. “I imagine that threw the Sadducees for a loop.”
The only difference I could remember between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was that the Pharisees were fair, and the Sadducees were sad, you see.
“Verne,” he said, “sometimes I just can’t seem to find a way to get the truth out.” He looked over at me and smiled.
I returned his smile.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
He took in a deep breath.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. He let his breath out slowly and gathered his thoughts. “I’ve just come to put so much faith in these words. Even so, I…” he trailed off for a moment, “I just get the feeling I lose something in between reading it and saying it.”
We both went silent for a moment. He took a cloth out of his shirt pocket and wiped the lenses of his glasses. His eyes were frail and squinted, but there was a hint of blue-green that still managed to find its way out of them.
“But, then,” he said, putting his glasses back on, “it says that even some of the people who saw Jesus raised from the dead doubted. If they didn’t believe then, I don’t ‘spect anything could’ve changed their minds.”
He laughed to himself, then his demeanor went somber once more. He tilted his head up at me.
“Yet,” he said, “God saw fit to pour out his wrath on his son, for the sake of the few who would believe.” A smile came over half of his face. “I don’t think I coulda done that.” He laughed a quiet laugh, and I did as well. He lowered his eyes and let out a deep sigh.
He picked up his Bible, closed it, and then set it back down beside him on the podium.
At length he said, “I ‘spect that’s why Jesus wept.”