Recently our friend Steve Phelps went through a hospitalization for removal of a kidney due to what turned out to be a massive cancerous growth followed by weeks of recovery. During this time, he created a special Facebook page so that he could share his own reflections and others could participate in that process. Of course much of the communication was in the form of prayers, prayer for healing from friends,..
In light of today’s scripture, I wanted to share these words from his last entry, two weeks ago:
Many of you know that I have always taught that it is a dangerously uncompassionate and narrow-minded thing to believe that God rewards good people with good things, and bad with bad. Although millions believe it, much of the Hebrew Bible and all of Jesus’ teaching assemble all their wisdom to try to push this childish belief from our primitive minds. (“When I was a child, I thought like a child . . . but now that I am grown, I put away childish things . . . — I Corinthians 13.)
In my own case, one reason that I do not believe my cancer-free body is a reward, or a divine decision, is that such a belief would also oblige me to suppose that every fatal cancer is, or was, also a divine decision or punishment. I think no God would be better than such a god. I infinitely incline toward the simpler thought, expressed in the Times article below, that “bodies are delicate and prone to error.”
The questions asked by Jesus’ followers continue to be asked even to day. It’s the why do bad things happen to good people question. Like if we could figure that out, we’d be ok.
It’s interesting that Jesus includes both a political event and a natural disaster. We have to deal with both too. We want there to be cause and effect.
I remember visiting one of our longtime members in the hospital. She had suffered through successive amputations. As I held her hand, she said to me I wish I knew what I did to deserve this. I could have said Well smoking contributed, but….
You can’t go there. My grandfather quit at age 77 after over sixty years of smoking. Got a new girlfriend. Lived until 88. All good living does is better the odds.
On the other hand, my fraternity brother who chided us all about the way we lived and counted on a long life died in a car accident that summer.
Back at the first church I worked at, I was responsible for the collegians class..Two of the students had been a car accident. They said to me as the car went into the spin, we prayed and God answered our prayers…but what about those who died that day? Wrong prayers? Not the right words?
Strange, though, that Jesus adds that last part. If you don’t repent…Like what you used to see on billboards when I was a kid. As close as I can come to understanding, the message is if you do repent, no guarantee, but if you don’t the way is clear. The wages of sin is death…
For Gustavo Guttierez the definition of sin is : the breaking of friendship with God or neighbor…if that’s where you stay, you are alone, cut off from others cut off from God…alone…as good as dead…
To repent…is to turn around …from the Latin repoenitēre, Same root as penitentiary .Where people might become penitent. How far we are from that. Our mass incarceration is about revenge and worse, social control.
Metanoia, is an ancient Greek word (μετάνοια) meaning "changing one's mind"…it’s akind of the opposite of paranoia. To see all and to see clearly.
So that is our task in Lent.
Two Sundays ago, there was an Op Ed in the New York Times. Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me by Kate Bowler. A professor at Duke who researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel, she wrestles with how that theology of the righteous being blessed impacts her understanding of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35. She writes:
Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…
Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?
Kate Bowler continues:
CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
Life is hard. But life is beautiful.
I think of Rubem Alves and his critique of North American Christianity. In his view, we look too fast for the happy ending. We miss life, in his words, we miss life in all its perplexity. Paradox. But most of all profound beauty. Yes, it is hard. But beautiful.
Experience it all.
GOSPEL LUKE 13: 1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”