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Saying goodbye to a friend you never met

Columnist Dwight Boyum says Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist, was a friend he never met but feels the loss of.

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When one of my colleagues died, someone paid the best compliment a reader can give to a writer: “I never met him, but I feel like I lost a friend.”

That’s how I feel about the death of  Michael Gerson , the Washington Post columnist who died a week before Thanksgiving. Even when I disagreed with him, Gerson’s writing challenged me to reconsider my opinion.

Gerson chose to engage, not alienate, people who opposed him, often citing Colossians 4:6 as his guidepost: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” In  one of his final columns , he lamented the behavior of Christians whose view of politics “is closer to ‘Game of Thrones’ than to the Beatitudes.”

Unlike many of today’s activists whose politics dictate their religious views, Gerson’s faith came first. That’s probably because he didn’t plan to work in politics. A theology and biblical studies major at Wheaton College, Gerson intended to attend seminary when Watergate figure-turned-evangelist Chuck Colson recruited him to ghostwrite a book. Gerson went on to work for two Republican senators before joining the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush.

As Bush’s primary speech writer, he crafted the president’s messages in the days after 9/11. He also was responsible for Bush’s most memorable turns of phrase, such as “axis of evil” and “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

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Gerson was a key advocate in the Bush administration’s finest humanitarian effort, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which is estimated to have saved 20 million lives and prevented millions of new infections in Africa. “If we can do this, and we don’t,” said Gerson, who believed in a missional role of government, “it will be a source of shame.”

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Gerson, who suffered a heart attack while working in the White House, went through the trials of Job as his health worsened with successive diagnoses of kidney cancer, lung cancer, Parkinson’s disease, adrenal cancer and finally bone cancer.

He also struggled with clinical depression, something he kept private most of his life. Just weeks after being hospitalized, Gerson bravely preached a  sermon at the Washington National Cathedral , where he admitted that “I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression. But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that – when I’m in my right mind – I choose hope.”

In a poignant tribute, New York Times columnist David Brooks said Gerson’s ability to share his faith superseded any political achievements.

“Some of the most powerful moments for him was when somebody would read something he wrote, and decide they were going to give that Jesus guy another chance,” Brooks said.

Gerson’s last public appearance was in September when he was a  guest analyst for “PBS NewsHour.”  As always, his commentary was full of grace and seasoned with salt. What I didn’t realize was that he was saying goodbye to friends whom he had never met.

Dwight Boyum is a member of Salem Road Covenant Church.

"From the Pulpit" features reflections from area religious leaders. To contribute, email us at life@postbulletin.com with "From the Pulpit" in the subject line.

Related Topics: FAITHFROM THE PULPIT
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