When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Jn. 11:43
I’m sure you can remember the times when God seems to have deserted you. We all have these experiences. We feel alone, lonely, God-forsaken, and often deep despair. Clergy have these experiences as well, perhaps even more.
Despair and depression are serious issues in most lives and certainly so in America. In the recent USA 2010 census, it revealed how depression has grown over the past decade, especially among young citizens. In fact, there has been a noticeable increase of loneliness and depression in preschool children.
Years ago I read a little book titled, “When God Doesn’t Answer”. It was written by a priest describing the experience of praying, wishing for help, and yet nothing happens. Sometimes things even get worse. He was trying to assure pastors and priests that if even God doesn’t always answer prayer immediately, then they cannot always be present either to assure hurting people God is “there on call.”
The story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John is a story which deals with the sense of God’s absence. It is an old story, going all the way back to ancient Egypt some 20,000 years ago. It is a story repeated several times in cultures in that “middle East” part of the world.
In the old story, two sisters, named Meri and Merti were in deep despair. They plead with the God Teacher named Horus, or Isus, to come and call back El, or God, from not being present or responsive to their prayers. El-Asur-Us means “Father God.” Horus delays but finally arrives after the stench has become unbearable. Horus then shouts, calling El-Asur-Us back from the dead, and out he comes, the “Father God.”
In the story from John’s gospel, which most scholars agree is an allegory or myth rather than historical, the themes are nearly identical. Sister Mary and Martha are concerned that their brother Lazarus is sick unto death and sent word to Jesus to come. Jesus delayed, but finally arrived to discover Lazarus is already dead and had been placed in the grave.
Mary and Martha represent us in times of despair and deep loneliness. They called for their spiritual teacher to come say a prayer to bring healing. The teacher, as perhaps the good counselor, realizes that healing can only come from within one’s self. He or she can help with reminders but the choice needs to be the hurting ones with support of friends.
People around the world are hurting today as they have from time immemorial. People in Japan are in deep despair with thousands of families lost and killed in the recent earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese people were in deep anguish after World War II when nearly 60 percent of their population was destroyed with American fire bombing raids and the dropping of two nuclear bombs.
Jewish people were in deep despair in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s when millions were exterminated during Hitler’s led Holocaust. God, their God Father of the ages, seemed to have turned his back on them as over one third of the Jewish people were destroyed from the face of earth.
Native Americans in North and South American fell into decades of deep despair as European “explorers and missionaries” came to take their land and lives, destroying, as some estimate, over 75 percent of their population. Most in our country were destroyed after 1776. The wailing and anguish turned many toward alcohol, introduced to them by their conquerors to help ease the deep pain of loss.
We could continue giving examples of personal lives, cities, countries, and people of all ages. Today many churches in our country and world also feel God has left them. An average of 3500 congregations continue to close each year, churches once vibrant and excited about “God’s blessings.” Some struggle to keep any hope alive, and others will just give up and walk away. Where has God gone?
Then of course, there are thousands of personal lives feeling God’s departure; the sick, the bereaved, those losing jobs and careers, marriages breaking apart, children left alone without guidance, and the poor growing hopeless and cynical. It can be pretty depressing; where IS God in all this? He’s been gone so long the “stench” increases each day for many.
I have been staying with my dying father the last couple of days. It’s easy to feel despair and sadness to see the once strong and vibrant life now reduced to pain, immobility, and total dependency.
The world of form, including our bodies, is a fairly hopeless situation itself. Yet we become stuck in form, our bodies, blaming God for making us this way and of making a very unpredictable and violent world. To me, however, the world is our dream not God’s. God is Spirit, an Existence or Mind in a totally different dimension. God only extends and creates as God’s Self, or Spirit. How could such a God create that which is material, short-lived, and ephemeral? I don’t believe God did. God created us as Spirit but then we seemed to “have returned the favor” by making God in our image, blaming Him for the mess we now find ourselves within.
In the little epistle of 1st John in the Bible, we read, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” (1 John 2:15-17, KJV)
This doesn’t mean we hate the world but we recognize it for what it is, “not of the Father” but part of the dream of being in bodies and temporal forms. We love the world by forgiving ourselves for seeing the world as our final home, as our true identity in matter. We awaken to ourselves as being Spirit, eternal, within bodies yet not of them. The Word, the Essence of God, is eternal and abides forever. We are in that Essence, Spirit. In that sense, God is with us.
In ancient times the Cross was a very important symbol of this “God with and as us.” The horizontal bar represents our bodies in flesh and mortality. The vertical bar symbolizes the memory of God in our minds, the Spirit which comes to remind us of our Home Beyond. We can experience this in silence, in contemplation, in awakening to its realization in our lives. We thus “call it out”.
I once read a story of the great Olympic track star, Florence Griffith Joyner, who some still call “the faster woman runner” on earth, holding two world records for the 100 and 200 meter dashes. She died in the late 90’s of a seizure but was a sensation in the decade before she retired. Flo-Jo had very strict rules about her training; negativity and hopelessness were not allowed! If any came to work outs with an attitude of complaining, griping or negativity, she would ask them to leave. Staying around her training in negativity would spread a stench and aura which would hurt her chances of winning. Smart lady. She called out for positive attitudes with a can-do spirit.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, operated in a similar mind set. Establishing hundreds of Sisters of Charity mission stations around the world to assist poor and dying people, she taught the sisters to pray and stay loving and positive. Once an observer told me a sister came to work among the poor showing signs of anger and hopelessness. Mother Teresa noticed her and said, “Return immediately to your room staying in prayer and meditation until you can return with a smile on your face and love in your heart!”
Yesterday, my father lay in deep weakness and perhaps near the death of his body. My mother and I both felt despair and sorrow. Memories of happier times with dad kept flashing across my mind. I felt sorrow which at times seemed strangely overwhelming. Then the local “Preacher” came and after chatting awhile, he went into dad’s room to pray. We gathered around the circle as the Preacher asked God to remind dad and us all that His arms were around us and was holding us close to Himself. It was such a beautiful, uplifting prayer with the image of being loved and held close to God’s Self in loving arms. I felt moments of deep peace and release. The Preacher had “called back Father God” once again in the moments of despair.
In the today’s story, Jesus calls Lazarus back to the hurting, despairing sisters. Lazarus symbolizes the “dying God.” It’s an allegory of our lives, of our need to “call God back” with times of meditation, prayer, reading, and surrender. To live our short lives with anger, judgment, cynicism and unloving thoughts create huge stenches of negativity and hopelessness among family and friends. Calling God back is recognizing our home, our destiny is not here in this world. We forgive ourselves for thinking so and return to our right minds. We then live life here in a way that can share some of the hope and love with the many lost in hopelessness.
Yes, “Father God,” El-Asur-us, come to us again this day and cleanse our minds of hopelessness and fear, keeping our eyes and our minds fixed on that which is eternal, the Core within, and ever present in the midst of the unspeakable, unending suffering of this world.
I was preparing this reflection for the folks at 1st Presbyterian in West Seneca when I was called down to Sherman at word of my father’s rapidly failing health. My father is in his 92nd year, having lived a long and productive life, leaving us all with many memories. We miss his constant energy and strength, but trust all is well, now and forever more. I am thankful to Rev. Deb Wright who will lead the services for me tomorrow.