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…
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
G.K. Chesterton – The Convert
There are times in all of our lives when our burdens seem too heavy to bear. Common fears and insecurities, though individually small, can become overwhelming when they pile upon our heart. Some, like the death of a loved one, are large on their own and though none of us are spared, we feel individually assaulted. In those dark days when our clouds deny the sun, it’s easy to believe that God is far and inattentive.
We take some comfort to read Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”, but it is His tears at the grave of Lazarus that reach us. Though the Lord knew He was moments away from raising his friend from the dead, His mighty heart was broken by the grief of Martha. Yes, the resurrection is coming and someday all pain will cease. There’s comfort in that knowledge, but beyond a promise of better days, our Savior comes to weep with us.
As Ken Kovacs wrote in his book Out of the Depths:
The point is this: the everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave! Jesus gives life on both sides of the grave! This means that we don’t have to die in order to know something of Christ’s resurrection life. With Jesus, “Life is changed, not taken away.” This also means that until that day—when “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) loved to say—until that day we can be confident that the life of Jesus meets us in our places of pain and torment and suffering, that Jesus’ anger rages against all the things, all the forces of death that cause us to weep; he weeps for us, he weeps with us, and his life-giving presence fills all those places of grief and absence that we know about all too well in our lives. Our tears mixed with his tears. Our tears, when mixed with his tears, flowing together, can actually become the place we encounter the Lord of Life! This means we are people—saints!—that witness God’s new life in the midst of this dying world; God’s resurrection life bring us to life, even in this life marked by tears and pain and sorrow—this is the work of God making all things new!
The poet Emily Dickinson expressed this masterfully:
Savior! I’ve no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?
Nor, for myself, I came so far—
That were the little load—
I brought thee the imperial Heart
I had not strength to hold—
The Heart I carried in my own—
Till mine too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier since it went—
Is it too large for you?
D I G D E E P E R
Julian of Norwich
She was, by her own description, a simple creature. Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.
Emily Dickinson? Yes, but 500 years ahead of her came Julian of Norwich.
Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love. She just called it Showings. The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373 and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years. Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.
So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy? For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language. More significance lies in the power of her words.
In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote
“Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.”
Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot. Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large. In Julian the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love. His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)
32 Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. 34 And He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
37 And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
21 Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/