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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bad Things | Fifth Sunday in Lent 2020

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 
Martha & Mary in the Gospel of John 11:21 & 32 NRSV

In the Gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday in Lent the Johannine writer presents us with death. In an event foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Jesus, a friend of his named Lazarus dies. The sisters of the dead man, Mary and Martha, reproach Jesus with the same words, calling attention to the fact that he didn't come soon enough to work a wonder and save their brother from dying.

In Pentecostal circles it's quite common for maladies like migraines and depression to be 'healed' in their services, while no visible healing that can be medically documented takes place. I always thought it strange that Oral Roberts wore glasses, though if challenged I suppose he could have said it was a thorn God was leaving in the flesh, alluding to a passage in 2nd Corinthians. On an early trip to Brazil I spent time in the city of Belem, where I heard of a local Pentecostal preacher known for, among other things, lengthening legs. Apparently there were people with one leg shorter than the other, and he evened them up through the power of God.

It's easy to believe in miracles that are unseen. Aside from physical healing, in Christianity there is also spiritual healing, particularly in the 'miracle' of salvation. The believer is promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives along with forgiveness and inward restoration. For most sects of the religion, the big prize associated with the gift of eternal life is going to heaven when they die. While everyone else burns in hell (though a minority thinks that hell will burn up the unbelievers sooner or later), the 'saved' will live on forever in the presene of God. The thing about such a belief is that it can't be proven either way.

Apologists can make the best case possible for the religion, but never definitely prove that these unseen characteristics of the afterlife are real. Nor has the skeptic satisfactorily demonstrated that it's all a complete hoax, however much evidence there may be for that being the truth. At the heart, this is a matter of faith, something that ultimately doesn't require verifiable data. 

In truth, as much as we would like for bad things to be reversible, most of them aren't. When my father died I felt that the world would never be the same without him in it. I was right. And so I think from time to time of those who are dying around the world, and those being left behind. Those closest know most painfully what is being lost, and yet it is a loss for all of us. Even the death of the wretched, people who have willfully abused others, leaves a mark. For some there's relief, while someone also likely grieves. Either way, for all of us the world changes, though we rarely and scarcely notice.

Mary and Martha are depicted as being spared the full force of this heartbreak, as their brother was raised from the dead. Their world had gone from having been violently turned upside down, to all made right again. This, however, is not the universal human experience.

For us it is weeping, and eventually acceptance, though the tears can still return in quiet moments. This is the natural order of things from time immemorial, and so it shall be so long as life endures. The words of Joe Lamb to the alien in the 2011 movie 'Super 8' ring the most true to us. The alien had been detained, tested, and tormented by human scientists. Joe had lost his mother only 4 months before in a work-related accident. His simple words better reflect our experience and our hope than anything in the text today: "I know bad things happen. Bad things happen. But you can still live. You can still live."