Thursday, January 06, 2005

The greatest miracle of all

While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not be afraid. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

Luke 8: 49-53

This text was the subject of my morning meditation. I'd love to say that I found some kind of deep, meaningful insight into the passage, but to be honest the only part that resonated with me was, "they laughed at him." Interesting to note that this is the only place in the New Testament where anyone ever laughs. And upon reflection, I have to say that this is probably the kindest response one could imagine from a family that has just lost a child, only to be told that she was merely sleeping. It's a wonder they didn't turn on Jesus in a furious rage, venting all of their grief and anger at God against this itinerate preacher who claimed to speak in God's name. As it was, their weeping was turned into laughter for just one moment, but it was harsh and bitter laughter, the kind reserved for fools and madmen.

They laughed at him because they knew. They knew she was dead. And they understood the finality inherent in that word dead. They knew that this is how the world works, that little children who are dead don't get back up again.

For some reason, I got to thinking about Bart as I read this passage. When I first met Bart, he was puffing and wheezing, gasping for breath after just the short walk from the parking lot to the place where we were handing out USDA food commodities. Agent Orange had eaten up one of his lungs and most of the other one after Vietnam. Bart would stop by sometimes after that and we'd have coffee and talk. He told me he'd been a wild kid with a fast car growing up, doing crazy kid stuff, but secretly he'd wanted to be a Baptist preacher when he grew up. Then he got drafted and went to 'Nam and saw things there that nobody should ever have to see, and one day he shot a little kid who was running towards him and his buddies with a live grenade strapped to his crotch.

Bart never became a preacher. He worked as a truck driver when he got back, because all he ever wanted after that was just to be alone and drive and drive, to sit silently behind the wheel and put miles between himself and wherever else he'd been. Bart is someone who can tell you how the world works. He can tell you that little kids who are dead don't get back up again.

Do not be afraid. Only believe.

Some people will tell you that they can't rationally accept the miraculous stories about Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead, but they have the greatest respect for his teachings. My response to that is, frankly, to laugh. Have you ever read the teachings of Jesus? How the rich will one day be brought low and the poor and hungry will be satisfied? How the first shall be last and the last first, the least shall be greatest and the rulers shall serve, how all the power structures of this world will someday be overturned? How people should love their enemies and not respond to violence in kind and give to everyone who asks or is in need? Now that's irrational. To effect such a radical restructuring of societal values would require a greater miracle than raising the dead.

Currently, I am reading Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, which details the unspeakable horrors the Japanese army visited on the people of Nanking in 1937, slaughtering over 300,000 people in the space of just a few weeks, and leaving hundreds of thousands more with physical and emotional scars that never healed. Chang took her own life a few months ago, an action that led many people to speculate that she was a victim of "compassion fatigue" or "secondary trauma," that she entered too deeply into the sufferings of those about whom she wrote, identifying so closely with the victims that in the end she became one herself. And so some will conclude that it is better not to look too closely, better to view such events, if at all, through a soft and unfocused lens, better not to see too clearly. Better not to know too much.

Do not be afraid. Only believe.

The reality is that I am still afraid, and I don't yet believe, at least not in any definitive sense. I don't even have any idea what such faith might look like. Like so many others, I am grappling with the scope of the tsunami in Asia, stretching my mind to fit around the unthinkable human proportions of this catastrophe. And at the same time, I am struggling to avoid the impression that life is just random tragedy after random tragedy, or worse. After all, those who perished in the tsunami were disproportionately the poorest of the poor, living huddled in ramshackle huts along the shoreline trying to eke out a meager living from the sea. And the rape of Nanking wasn't random, nor was Hiroshima, or My Lai, or 9/11, or the bombing of Baghdad. So many, many little children. And I wonder, is it possible to look unflinchingly at the world as it is, and still go on believing?

Jesus said that one day the tears of those who weep will be turned to laughter, not the bitter laughter of those who know too well how the world works, but the gentle and spontaneous laughter that comes from unexpected joy, the laughter that surprises us while tears are still streaming down our faces.

And if that can ever be, it will be the greatest miracle of all.

Jesus in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
"Peace on Earth"
Hear it every Christmas time
But "hope" and "history" won't rhyme
So what's it worth?
This peace on Earth


To donate to help the victims of the tsunami in Asia, please visit the website of
Inter-Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).


Anonymous said...

"And what, I have asked myself, was God's plan at the
moment the tsunami hit?

His plan, I believe, is that each of us become someone fundamentally
different, someone capable of wisdom, insight and compassion and
intelligence beyond what we have displayed before. For there are lovers, and
there are commited lovers. We have loved the world in a non-commited way,
and now we are being challenged to change that. The tsunami is not the only
example of huge amounts of human suffering. Are we commited enough to admit that?

I have wondered what makes humanity so selective in its capacity to discern
catastrophe. Yes indeed last month's tsunami was a catastrophe, and the
world's concerted effort to serve the suffering has been both commendable
and appropriate. Yet such collective and concerted compassion is not just
called in the face of one isolated tragedy. It is the only authentic,
righteous way of life on any given day. The hard and painful truth is this:
for millions of people living on this planet, every day is a catastrophe."

Sent to me in an email made some sense.

I have been pretty involved in investigating this event because a good friend of mine lives in Phuket with his two children. I couldn't reach them at all, & finally was able to put an ad in the local Phuket paper asking for anybody's help in getting information about them. When I talked with my priest about this, one thing that he said was similar to your post...he said I should pray for them as if they were still alive, but that I should also remember that even if they had not survived the wave, they were still alive in God.

Oh ye of little mother always called me that...I'm afraid it's still largely true. I'm reading THE LADDER..."But he who has attachment to anything visible is not yet delivered from grief. For how is it possible not to be sad at the loss of something we love?"

Yesterday a kind person in Thailand sent me an email to let me know that my friend & his children had gone to the US over school holiday & were not in Phuket when the tsunami arrived. But what is it like for this kind person to be there?

My friend happens to be one of those people who has challenged me intensively on a spiritual level ever since we first knew each other. He might even laugh at my concern over this. It is my attachment, because I love with a love that does not yet fully understand the invisible.


Anonymous said...

"And so some will conclude that it is better not to look too closely, better to view such events, if at all, through a soft and unfocused lens, better not to see too clearly. Better not to know too much.

Do not be afraid. Only believe."

Ever seen Lars Von Triers' film BREAKING THE WAVES? Many people I know are pretty much turned off by the external difficulty of this film, & it is a pretty tough one. But it's also extraordinarily beautiful. It's a model for the essence of what is called for in our practise. And it's about the same thing as the above lines from your post. All you have to do is look beyond, beneath, the outer most obvious story to the inner one, just like yr description of Che in DIARIES. But I don't need to tell YOU this. You already know how to do that.

Why is it that so often we are encouraged not to face these kinds of things more deeply? Or to look at them only through the lens of our intellect...not to look for the essential meaning of things, rather than just being satisfied with the safer solutions & definitions, solutions that require less active inner participation from us.

Sampson said...

No, I haven't seen the film, but I will put it on my list of fils to try and remember when I walk into the local rental place and say, "Now, what was that film I said I wanted to see?"

Thanks for your thoughts.


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