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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 head
And 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 despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because 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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Oh man! Wow! that closing paragraph is Awesome! Thanks so much for this uplifting message of Hope,Ryan. 🙂

    February 25, 2019
    • It’s a great paragraph, isn’t it?

      February 27, 2019
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I used to think love made you stupid until humility taught me that real love often renders reason unnecessary.

    One thing is for certain, real love, when it is experienced and shared, requires no defense and transcends all analysis.

    In the spirit of what I believe to be true love then, I will contend with the points of view presented here, Ryan, as I understand them.

    I read your first four paragraphs and I am proud to say that you are a, “virtual” friend. In spite of what I believe to be both your prodigious intellect and writing ability, you are a pastor to the bone and the world you encounter is a better place because of that.

    I read the segue, into the Post/Gerson story, this way; The WP is a useless tool to those seeking communion with the Holy Spirit. If you want to know where the devil is at, at any given point in time, on any given issue, it could be something of a road map.

    Knowing something of the enemy and his whereabouts, has a certain utility but it is better still to be in the company of friends and protectors. Only they can deal with an enemy that will surely overwhelm you otherwise.

    Mr. Gerson’s writing is personal testimony that pivots to insufficient sermon. So much so that I believe that Mr. Gerson still requires deeper conversion and ought not to speak as one who has been graced with God’s wisdom. If Mr. Gerson is truly Lazarus ( and I will deal with that issue shortly) then he would have embraced his condition and cherished it as the ways and means by which God brought him to salvation. He does anything but.

    Chesterton is a pride filled fool if he thinks he decides who and what he is. His what God accounts him to be and he is only Lazarus the moment God says it is so. If a man wishes to most accurately project himself into the reality of a biblical character, he must call himself Judas.

    Final thoughts on Love.

    Eros is almost exclusively human. Fillial love, is man’s meagre attempt at replicating divine love. Agape is the full human expression of divine love. We proceed from the first to the last, if there is to be hope for us. If faith is true in us.

    When we stop speaking to our suffering and start showing true sacrifice, for the sake of love and love alone, then we are ready to sermonize… and not a moment before.

    February 27, 2019
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paul.

      February 27, 2019
  3. Paul Johnston #

    It is discouraging, after commenting, when the author makes no effort to engage with your expressed point of view. I cannot know your intentions fully, unless you express them, but without such information it is not unreasonable of me to conclude that you seem to pivot between dismissiveness and being patronizing in your (non) responses to my perspectives.

    March 5, 2019
  4. I’m sorry you feel that I am being dismissive and patronizing, Paul. I can assure you that this was not my intent. I just don’t always know how to respond to what you say here. We seem to circle around the same issue (or cluster of issues) over and over again, and I’m not sure there’s anything that I can say by way of defence that will be compelling to you.

    Nonetheless, if you want a more in depth response, here you go.

    I used to think love made you stupid until humility taught me that real love often renders reason unnecessary.
    One thing is for certain, real love, when it is experienced and shared, requires no defense and transcends all analysis.

    Amen.

    In the spirit of what I believe to be true love then, I will contend with the points of view presented here, Ryan, as I understand them.
    I read your first four paragraphs and I am proud to say that you are a, “virtual” friend. In spite of what I believe to be both your prodigious intellect and writing ability, you are a pastor to the bone and the world you encounter is a better place because of that.

    Thank you. This is very kind.

    I read the segue, into the Post/Gerson story, this way; The WP is a useless tool to those seeking communion with the Holy Spirit. If you want to know where the devil is at, at any given point in time, on any given issue, it could be something of a road map.

    I don’t know what to make of this. The Washington Post is always and without exception a road map to the devil’s whereabouts? It is a tool that is literally without use? What, then, of this article that spoke to me of God’s faithfulness amidst our weakness? Am I misinterpreting it? Am I wrong? Is Mr. Gerson a tool of the devil, no matter what I make of his words? How do you know?

    Mr. Gerson’s writing is personal testimony that pivots to insufficient sermon. So much so that I believe that Mr. Gerson still requires deeper conversion and ought not to speak as one who has been graced with God’s wisdom. If Mr. Gerson is truly Lazarus ( and I will deal with that issue shortly) then he would have embraced his condition and cherished it as the ways and means by which God brought him to salvation. He does anything but.

    I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether or not Mr. Gerson “requires deeper conversion” and you shouldn’t either. I think you are making rather a lot of his metaphorical use of the Lazarus story. He is doing what we all do, as followers of Jesus, which is to interpret our stories in the light of Jesus’ story and the stories of his interactions with people in the gospels. Have you never seen yourself in the prodigal son or the older brother? Mary weeping at Jesus’ feet? Nicodemus puzzling over abstractions? And, as you say, Judas betraying his Lord? I read Mr. Gerson simply as saying that he is among the innumerable saints and sinners who have found themselves summoned from something like death to something like life by Jesus of Nazareth, who alone has the power to do this.

    Chesterton is a pride filled fool if he thinks he decides who and what he is. His what God accounts him to be and he is only Lazarus the moment God says it is so. If a man wishes to most accurately project himself into the reality of a biblical character, he must call himself Judas.

    Again, I simply cannot and will not be as casual and dismissive of people and their experiences as you are.

    Final thoughts on Love.
    Eros is almost exclusively human. Fillial love, is man’s meagre attempt at replicating divine love. Agape is the full human expression of divine love. We proceed from the first to the last, if there is to be hope for us. If faith is true in us.

    Amen. May it be so.

    When we stop speaking to our suffering and start showing true sacrifice, for the sake of love and love alone, then we are ready to sermonize… and not a moment before.

    And yet, Jesus has none but sinners to preach sermons on his behalf this side of eternity.

    March 5, 2019
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, the generosity of this response is affirming to me, thank you. The clarity of your arguments have always been an inspiration to me as to how to, “cut to heart” of a discussion.

    Of all the graces God has bestowed upon me through you, the most important one ( so that God may use me for the further dispensation of His good) has been to learn how to instruct. How to expose a proposition and progressively expand upon it’s premises, support each premise logically and end with conclusions that are almost always devoid of non-sequitur. You are a brilliant deductive reasoner. But like all human efforts to understand truth, our abilities our finite and error filled. With deductive reasoning the problem isn’t so much it’s processes as it is it’s premises. If the premise is faulty or under defined so are it’s conclusions, even when it’s processes are brilliantly adhered to.

    I still have a ways to go in this regard and in some respects it is surely true that I am travelling a road that is with intended destination, but without end…..aren’t we all lol….though I am without doubt pointed in the right direction. Surely it was God’s grace to me, made manifest through you, that was the decisive turning point. I am forever in both your debt’s…..

    So, to your deconstruction of my perspectives, I say this:

    Too your points #1 and 2, I say praise God Almighty!! Clearly an indication of the fraternal love we share together, through what is true to Him, about the beliefs we both espouse and share.

    As for the WP. It is no more or less corrupt then any other man made forum through which we communicate ideas but unless the mission statement of all these periodicals is to defend the truth of Jesus Christ and advance the Gospels, then they are corrupt. Aren’t they? They lead to death. Don’t they?

    The devil isn’t 100% false, for even a fool would see through that disguise. The truth is, he is a brilliant defender of what is 99% true and a grand-master at disguising the 1% that is false.

    And it is the 1% that kills you.

    Think of it in terms of scientific truth. There can be a million reasons to believe a theory to be true but it only takes one verifiable contradiction to render it false. To knowingly advocate a discredited theory that has been demonstrably proven to be false is to lie. To lie is to be in league with the forces of evil.

    To come full circle, if the WP does not declare Christ as Savior and the Gospels true, this is enough to disqualify them. Their faithlessness indicts them. My bewildering hyperbole, made true.

    As for your admonition that you or I should never question the faith expression of ourselves or others is as bewildering to me, as my indictment of both the WP and Mr. Gerson, is to you. Without discernment, all attempts at understanding truth will fail. I do not judge the person of Mr. Gerson, I judge his ideas to ill informed and where they intersect with truth, insufficient.

    The person who speaks of God must understand the when they do, they speak for God. Do we sufficiently consider the gravity of this truth before we speak?. The sheer fucking weight of speaking on behalf of Our Lord and Savior.. If you do not believe that God has spoken to you before you speak of Him and are prepared to reveal that truth when asked, then please, please, please be quiet now! There is no sin in not being called. There is grave sin in speaking when you haven’t been called. Anyone called by God will always speak to God’s triumph over even the most heinous suffering. Suffering redeems. Suffering glorifies. Look at a crucified Christ on His cross for just 5 minutes, in complete silence, tell me what you hear. St. Paul understood this, he was called. A world full of Mr. Gerson’s, do not. They should stop insinuating that they have been.

    I tell you as one who has been called, there will be a time of great suffering for you in this life if you hope in redemption. Redemptive suffering (heaven) depends on your ability to never let go of God (faith) and whatever the outcomes,still praise His Holy Name.

    Pointless suffering (hell) is when we, either through pride or fear, let go of God. Pointless in that the process will have to be repeated until we learn to hang on. Repetition made necessary, not because God is cruel but rather because He persists in loving us and desires with all His being, that we be redeemed….

    I have to stop here. “Wrestling with God”, is truly an apt metaphor and I am tired. 🙂

    Know that I love you brother and that everything I try to say to you is my best effort to understand the will of God, and intended to build up faith. I’m just a man though, I could be honestly mistaken. Please pray and discern. 🙂

    March 5, 2019
    • Thank you for your kind words, Paul. I do appreciate them.

      Re: the WP, I have no particular affection for the publication, but I simply cannot believe that I am always and only to interact with media and perspectives whose expressed mission is “to defend the truth of Jesus Christ and advance the Gospels.” I think this would make me a terrible preacher. It would also rule out about 80% of the content of this blog given that I am often reflecting on cultural themes and how the gospel informs and instructs our response to them.

      Re: Gerson, discernment, etc, I’m not suggesting that we can’t have anything to say about someone’s faith (or lack thereof). There are clearly cases where we must say something. But I fail to see what, specifically, in Gerson’s sermon would lead you to such a harsh indictment of him. His ideas are insufficient, you say? Well, perhaps. But I suspect there are few preachers who would escape that charge. It is a weighty task, to proclaim the gospel. You are right about this. But that does not change the fact that we preachers are all, as I said, sinners.

      March 6, 2019

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