A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit with a senior priest in the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana. He told me the story of a priest who faced the necessity of closing a Catholic high school in his parish. From the point of view of dollars and cents, the move was long overdue, but for emotional reasons, some of his parishioners were quite upset. Not long after announcing the school closure, several disaffected parishioners launched a revolt that included making bumper stickers with the words, “Go to hell, Fr. Kline!” In short order, the situation in the parish became unworkable and the priest asked the bishop to get him out of an assignment that had become miserable for him. For your information, the priest that followed Fr. Kline closed the middle school. The parish, which at one point always had three or four priests, now shares one priest with another nearby parish and has no resident pastor. The moral of the story is that bumper sticker campaigns are not a good way to get one’s way.
The stories we like to tell about the saints and the history of the Church are usually stories of success. If we talk about periods of decline in the Church, we typically do so in the context of talking about a saint who came and set things right. We do not often face directly the very real experiences that we cannot avoid of failure and contradiction in the Christian life. Today’s Gospel, the Gospel of Lazarus, gives us an opportunity to enter more deeply into our experiences of failure and contradiction, when Jesus seems to be indifferent to our plight.
When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ illness, rather than hastening to see him, our Lord delayed two days before He left. As a consequence, Christ arrived at Lazarus’ tomb four days after his death, which is to say after the body had already begun to corrupt. Had Jesus dropped everything to see Lazarus immediately, it is quite unlikely that it would have been possible for our Lord to arrive before Lazarus died, but even so, we can understand why Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, might have felt very hurt by the fact that Jesus took his time in coming to them.
Is it not the same with us? We call out desperately to God to save us and nothing happens. Maybe we have called out to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, save my marriage’ and despite our fervent prayers, the marriage fell apart. Maybe we have begged and pleaded with God for family members to return to the practice of the faith only to see them harden their hearts toward God even more than before we began to pray for them. What are we to do when death and even corruption comes and our prayers do not seem to be answered?
I had this very conversation with a dear friend of mine who is an Episcopalian priest earlier this week. My friend gave up a very good career in the recording industry and the possibility of a family to pursue ministry as a celibate priest in the Anglican Communion. Not long after he signed up for seminary, his diocese began ordaining women and openly practicing homosexuals, both of which contradict the New Testament. He eventually sought ordination in a small Episcopalian splinter group. His years of ministry have been lived in real poverty. For many years the only thing his parish could afford was room and board. He had no salary and no health insurance. He was too poor to go to the doctor and this eventually meant renal failure in his early 50s. Now, he can read only with great difficulty and struggles to walk because he had to have part of his foot amputated.
Yet, when he speaks of his life, he is quick to go to the positive. “God has blessed me in so many ways,” he tells me. “I have been fortunate. Even in my suffering, God has been working to purify my heart and prepare me to be with Him in heaven.” My friend usually says these things after listening to me whining about the trials of being a pastor in Randolph County, where incomes and population are steadily declining.
What we do with failure in our lives is at least as important as how we deal with success. In fact, it is probably more important. What does the Gospel have to teach us about how to react when it seems like Jesus is indifferent to our needs?
Be honest but never stop having faith. Martha says to Our Lord, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Later on, Mary says something very similar. It is hard to read their words without detecting a tone of indignation. “I needed you, Lord, and you were not there for me!” Honesty is a great place to start in our relationship with God. When we are angry with God, He wants us to tell Him as much. We can say it, “God, I am so angry that you have given me this red-headed priest as my pastor.” Or even, “God, I am so disappointed that you let me be assigned for this long in the poorest town in the diocese with a parish that is so remote from all of my friends and family.” The only person who suffers when we hide our emotions from God is ourselves.
We do not need to be afraid to be honest with God if we do so in the context of belief. We note that Martha quickly followed up on her angry outburst toward Jesus with the qualifier, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Mary also approached Jesus with words of faith.
The next, more difficult step we need to take in the context of what we experience as unanswered prayers is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with God. Anger is usually a mask for sadness. Moving through anger will bring us to a point when we are defenseless before the Lord. We note that Jesus allowed Martha and Mary to get angry with Him but did not engage their anger directly. What moved Jesus to act were Mary’s tears. “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping” He Himself also began to weep, causing those around looking on to comment, “See how much [Jesus] loved [Lazarus].”
When is the last time that we came to God in prayer and let go of our anger long enough to feel grief deep enough to bring us to tears? I am just not talking about a trickle. I am talking about alligator tears accompanied by snot. Maybe it is the grief that comes from the inability to break free from a cycle of self-destructive behavior or the grief that comes from having to face the fact that our lives will never be quite what we hoped they would be. Whatever it is, we can be sure that when we weep in the context of faith, we do not weep alone. Jesus weeps with us.
“Lazarus, come out!” If we cling to Jesus in the midst of affliction, we can hope to hear words of consolation. God answers our prayers in ways that we do not expect and in different ways than we typically hope. Most of the time in this valley of tears, we only see partial answers that hint of a complete answer in the life to come. The road to true Christian maturity always goes through the Cross. We ask for the grace to see in our Crosses blessings and opportunities to love others. That is much easier to say than to do, because our first instinct in the face of the Cross is to run away and get angry with God for “abandoning” us. But, if we allow ourselves to express and then let go of our anger toward God and move towards grief, Jesus will weep with us and bring joy out of our sorrow, even if He does not remove our Cross as we hope that He will.
When we face suffering, it can be a very strong temptation to get angry and stay there. In our own way, we can print bumper stickers that lash out at our priest, or even at God. We can stop coming to Mass and going to confession. We can grow cold toward family members or friends in order to spread our misery. Today’s Gospel invites to move beyond anger and come to Jesus with our tears and let Him embrace us. When we do so, we can be confident that He will not abandon us to our sorrow, but rather will give us new life.