Friday, May 6, 2022

Mother's Day and Raising Lazarus

Parenting is hard

Having some experience being the stay at home parent, one thing I learned about taking care of kids is not only how much suffering is involved in being a caregiver, but how invisible you feel in that suffering. A person doesn't really need someone to tell you how wonderful you are, or how you have some natural ability to do things another person just doesn't want to do—things that feel anything but natural, like cleaning up vomit at 4AM or spreading peanut butter on pickles. Telling a person they are somehow divinely designed for hardship could end up making them feel even more invisible in their suffering than before. 

No one likes a pedestal. Sometimes what a person would really like is to be seen in their suffering and then have some real help.

Sometimes I wonder if on Mother's Day men end up giving talks or sending cards that are more about making ourselves feel more comfortable with the status quo of gender dynamics than they are about validating the real difficulty of motherhood. So what would be helpful? I think Mother's Day is an opportunity for us all, especially men, to behold the suffering associated with motherhood, and then step up to do what we can to help. 

In the Garden of Eden, we might consider God's words to Eve as a kind of prototype Mother's Day talk, a precedent for how to approach the topic of motherhood. It went like this:

"Unto the woman [God] said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." (Genesis 3:16)

No platitudes or candy-coating there. Try slapping that on a Hallmark greeting card and sending it out for Mother's Day. But the point, I think, is that the first thing God did was acknowledge the suffering that comes with being a "mother of all living." While men have a corresponding sorrow mentioned a few verses later, only women's sorrow is multiplied, because Eve's suffering turns into much more than just what a woman experiences in actually bearing children.

As men on Mother's Day, we get to choose whether to minimize the suffering of women and mothers in order to make ourselves more comfortable about it, or to stand as a witness to their suffering, to validate it and acknowledge it the way God did for Eve in the garden. Witnessing their suffering first may help us to know how to be a better support.

I don't think I am being controversial when I say that Mother's Day tends to minimize suffering. Men stand in line at Costco to throw some flowers or a nice meal at their wives' or mothers' suffering and hope for the best. Though motherhood certainly is a glorious part of the plan, a Christ-like act, a selfless endeavor, a tremendous triumph of love and creation, someone has to stand up and say that wiping noses and breaking up fights and staring into the abyss of your own inadequacy as you create and raise up actual people just sucks sometimes. And the suffering doesn't end when children grow up, either.

Perhaps we can acknowledge that suffering is as much a part of delivering us physically, the way our mothers do, as it was for Christ to deliver us spiritually. This parallel suffering and deliverance between birth and rebirth is referenced by Elder Holland in his talk "Behold Thy Mother!" and has me thinking of what it means when we promise to stand as witnesses of Christ. Maybe that can also mean witnessing the suffering of others, the way Christ did. For men on Mother's Day, perhaps that means especially witnessing the suffering of women, and maybe doing a little more trying to alleviate their suffering, and a little less of contributing to it.

I have noticed in myself that there is something uncomfortable about witnessing suffering, and I think this is especially common for men. Too often we want to fix it, explain it, reconcile it, contextualize it, or incorporate it into something more palatable to our own male experience. Perhaps this might even be because we feel some measure of guilt to recognize that we are actually complicit to women's suffering, because we are doing things (or not doing things) that directly contribute to their pain. But other times our discomfort might not be our fault necessarily, but come from simply living in patriarchal systems that tend to hurt women but benefit ourselves.

But most of the time, suffering has no words and no explanations. Some pain has to simply be felt and some wounds have to be witnessed by others before they can be fully healed. For example, there is no easy resolution to the fact that creating a human child hurts a woman a heck of a lot more than it hurts a man. The act of birth can literally tear flesh. There is no theological explanation for that inequality.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, men made themselves scarce during that sacred, painful act of delivery for their children, unable to stomach the anguish of their wife and behold the blood and horror of it all. Birth was something to be witnessed only by women, and men had no part of it. That has changed now. What can a man learn witnessing the suffering of childbirth? Maybe some humility.

For me, I remember how useless and bewildered I felt in that final, excruciating act of creation performed by my wife for each of our five children. Before I watched the birth of my first child, I had conjured up in my mind an idea that creation of human life is some kind of equal partnership between men and women, but it turns out that all I could do in that moment was just stand there like an idiot and witness something that was so one sided that it made my one night's tiny half cell contribution almost laughable.

Importantly, not all of the pain of motherhood is physical pain. As God says, sorrow "multiplies" from conception. I saw this first hand during the pregnancy of our last child, when my wife's emotional and mental pain was so intense she was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward. Just as I felt helpless during the actual labor, I also felt helpless then, visiting her in the hospital with some ridiculous cupcakes, trying to understand an emotional burden that was simply beyond my understanding. But at the very least, I could be with her and witness her pain.

Furthermore, the pain of a woman does not always correspond to being a mother at all. For some women, the pain includes not being a mother or a wife, or simply not fitting the mold of a patriarchal society at all. For some the pain involves an abusive relationship, past trauma, or simply the pain of being overlooked. Whatever the suffering is, as brothers, fathers, husbands, bishops, ministers, we need to wake up and see it, and not minimize it into Mother's Day platitudes for our own convenience.

Waking up Lazarus

In the scriptures, Christ spent much of his time waking up men. In the garden of Eden, the relationship between Adam and Eve began with Adam asleep while Eve waited for him to wake up. This seems to be a trend in many relationships, including mine. In another garden, Gethsemane, Christ's disciples were also found asleep, the way Adam was, when He asked them to witness His suffering as He performed for them the harrowing act of spiritual delivery, the atonement, in much the same way that our mothers delivered us through the suffering of their own bodies.

The atonement of Christ took place in two stages. The first, as I mentioned, was witnessed by men in the Garden of Gethsemane and seemed to be focused on the physical and emotional pains and sorrows of all humankind, which caused Christ to bleed from every pore. It was a bitter cup that even Christ shrunk away from.  He asked his disciples to watch with Him three times, but each time He found them asleep. He said, "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" Apparently they could not. Their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak.

The second act of the atonement, we learn, took place on the cross. This was specifically witnessed by women, including His own mother who watched and waited with the Savior until He announced, "It is finished." These two acts of the atonement included two separate witnesses, male and female. Significantly, there were no women asleep at the cross.  The final act of spiritual delivery was witnessed by a demographic that perhaps knew better than men something about watching and waiting and witnessing the pains of giving birth as they watched Christ spiritually bear us so that we could be "born again."

But what about those sleepy men? And how are we like Christ's disciples in the garden? Men who receive the priesthood take upon themselves a covenant specific to them, inviting them to wake up:

"O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound...Awake! and arise from the dust...Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust." (1 Nephi 1)

So much of priesthood leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an invitation for men to wake up and behold the suffering of others, especially women. Three men are called to sit on the stand each week and supervise the breaking and passing of the emblems of Christ's suffering to His people, the way Peter, James, and John witnessed the body and blood shed for us in the garden of Gethsemane. This is an invitation that perhaps, this time, men will not be found asleep as they consider the ways Christ suffers with His people. I am not convinced we are doing this yet, but I do believe the priesthood has the potential to help men change the world, starting with themselves, and to see firsthand the wounds of patriarchy and then work to heal them, to spur men to get over themselves and move the world toward gender equality and Zion.

The final mortal miracle of Christ according to the gospel of John is also His most impressive: raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is the brother of two of Jesus' closest friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters send for Him to come heal their brother, but instead of coming right away, Jesus purposefully tarries a few days. When He finally gets ready to return to Judea to heal Lazarus, Jesus goes out of His way to explain that Lazarus is not dead, but sleeping:

"Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent that ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him." (John 11)

Upon reaching Mary and Martha, their grief was so great that Jesus "groaned within Himself." Lazarus had been dead and buried four days, and Martha came running to Jesus saying "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." While Martha was comforted by Christ's testimony that He was the Resurrection and the Life, Mary's grief was so great that she could only sit within the house. She was inconsolable.

When Jesus commanded that the stone be moved away, Martha's first concern was for the smell, saying "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days." But in spite of the impossibility of such an act, to bring to life a body so far gone in decomposition, Christ succeeded in raising Lazarus from the dead, to unbind him from the grave clothes and untie the napkin on his face.

Waking up men is something Jesus specializes in. I believe there is much symbolism in this story of Lazarus, a reminder that Christ has the power to wake men out of sleep even if that sleep is so deep they are actually dead and rotting. Lazarus is a metaphor for all men in Israel whose sisters weep outside the tomb, hoping against hope that they can be woken up by Christ's call to "Come forth!" This call, as I mentioned, comes in the form of priesthood service.

In the latter days, I believe Lazarus wakes up by degrees. Jesus taught, "He who is greatest among you, let him be your servant." The burial clothes Lazarus is bound in could remind us of the robes of the priesthood, and that each time men repent and put off the natural man and exercise their priesthood, overcoming the universal tendency for unrighteous dominion (D&C 121) that results from gender hierarchies, and respond to the call to minister to help relieve suffering, we all get a little bit closer to Zion.

In that process of raising Lazarus, many will need to be comforted. Some women might be more like Martha, content with the current explanations about the role of women, with hope that things will be better in eternity the way Martha was comforted by Christ's testimony to her. But some women might be more like Mary, whose pain was so great that she "remained in the house" and wouldn't come out for that Mother's Day sacrament meeting. Sometimes the explanations simply do not help. But whether we are ministering to a Mary or a Martha, our task is the same: we need to wake up.

When Mary and Martha suffered, it says "And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother." This is something we all can do to prepare ourselves for the day that Lazarus will be fully raised from the dead. Christ's Second Coming cannot happen until Lazarus is awake. Though Christ tarries today like He did in coming to Bethany, the sleeping men caught under the spell of patriarchy will eventually wake up, and we will witness with wonder Christ's power to perform His work and succor His people.

"The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt," Van Gogh, 1890