My Name is Lazarus
I’ve spent part of this morning sifting through a week’s worth of difficult conversations. Several dealt with the trials and tribulations of parenting adult children. What do you do when the kids you have poured years of yourself into seem determined to walk down destructive roads, when they have little interest in your values or hopes for them? What do when you see nothing but trouble on the horizon but feel powerless to do anything about it? How do you sustain hope when it feels like you are failing or have failed at one of life’s most important tasks?
Other conversations traversed the murky terrain of marriage—the many ways that we fail one another and fall so far short of what real love (as opposed to the saccharine fantasies served up by popular media) actually requires. We are so desperate for love, intimacy, connection, but often so utterly useless at doing the things required to secure these things for ourselves and to extend them outward. We can know, rationally, what has to happen, the steps that need to be taken for our relationships to improve, but we are wildly irrational creatures. We are driven by emotion and lust and pain and primal fear. We are terrified of being rejected and alone and we thwart ourselves at every turn.
Still others explored whether or not change is even possible for human beings. You get to a certain stage of life and you have a certain body of work to reflect back upon. You start to notice a fairly unimpressive record of meaningful change. Can we actually adjust course and do things differently? Or are we just slaves to biological urges and impulses, stumbling through life trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? Are we forever destined to return to the path of least resistance, no matter how many fitful successes we have along the way?
Each of these conversations felt, well, hard. There are no easy answers, no magic wand to wave struggles away. Life throws difficult stuff our way. We do not easily become the people we want to be, the people that others need us to be. Pastors are supposed to have the right answer, the right bible verse, the penetrating question at just the right moment. But in each of these conversations, I found myself mostly just thinking, “Yeah, this is really hard.” We want so much for ourselves and those we love—more, it seems, than we are capable of attaining.
This morning, I came across a marvelous sermon by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, preached two Sundays ago at Washington’s National Cathedral. The sermon is drawing a lot of attention because of Gerson’s vulnerability in sharing about his very recent depressive episode, and rightly so. But even beyond the courage that it took to share so personally and with such vulnerability, the sermon is a marvelous piece of writing and a powerful exposition of the Christian hope in the face of hard stuff.
The whole sermon is worth reading or watching, but particularly the second half where Gerson pivots from the specifics of his own experience to the human condition more generally. At one point, Gerson quotes G.K. Chesterton’s poem, “The Convert,“—a poem that beautifully holds out the hope that change is possible, that we can become, by the grace of God, what we were created to be, whether in a flash of divine light or in fits and starts along the way:
After one moment when I bowed my headAnd the whole world turned over and came upright,And I came out where the old road shone white.I walked the ways and heard what all men said,Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,Being not unlovable but strange and light;Old riddles and new creeds, not in despiteBut softly, as men smile about the deadThe sages have a hundred maps to giveThat trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,They rattle reason out through many a sieveThat stores the sand and lets the gold go free:And all these things are less than dust to meBecause my name is Lazarus and I live.
Quite a line, that last one.
Evoking Chesterton’s poem, Gerson’s sermon ends, powerfully, thus:
I suspect that there are people here today—and I include myself—who are stalked by sadness, or stalked by cancer, or stalked by anger. We are afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones. We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. And many of us eventually grow weary of ourselves—tired of our own sour company.
At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.
I’d urge anyone with undiagnosed depression to seek out professional help. There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.
There are, however, other forms of comfort. Those who hold to the wild hope of a living God can say certain things:
In our right minds—as our most sane and solid selves—we know that the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie and that the cold void is actually a sheltering sky.
In our right minds, we know that life is not a farce but a pilgrimage—or maybe a farce and a pilgrimage, depending on the day.
In our right minds, we know that hope can grow within us—like a seed, like a child.
In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us—in a blinding light, and a child’s voice, and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart, and a sculpture just down the hill—if we open ourselves to seeing it.
Fate may do what it wants. But this much is settled. In our right minds, we know that love is at the heart of all things.
Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.
So how do we know this? How can anyone be so confident?
Because we are Lazarus, and we live.
The image above is Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” painted between 1630-32.