(Painting of Jesus raising the son of the Widow of Nain behind the altar of the Franciscan Chapel at Nain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally posted at Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, October 2, 2011)
Readings for Sunday, October 2:
Psalm 118 (morning), Psalm 145 (evening)
2 Kings 20:1-21
"Getting a do-over" seems to be the theme in today's readings. Hezekiah appears to be on the brink of death; instead, he ends up getting fifteen more years and displays his gratitude through his generosity. Peter gets a surprise jailbreak through the intervention of prayer and an angel. The widow of Nain suddenly goes from being a person of "no status" following the death of her only son, to once again being part of a family, thanks to Jesus' healing touch. In all these stories, someone's fate literally "turned on a dime" in a moment of divine mercy.
Each and every one of us has had moments where "the world as we knew it" came to a screeching halt, and we could not even imagine life beyond the tragedy of it. Perhaps it was the death of a loved one, a divorce, being victimized in a violent crime, a natural disaster, addiction, a sudden estrangement following a heated argument, or a sobering medical diagnosis. We have all been somewhere on that spectrum of tragedy, and when it happens, it's as if a lead-laden black cloak fell upon our head and shoulders. We suddenly find ourselves pinned flat, whether it's denial, depression, or despair. We can scarcely breathe, let alone see--and the thought of anything beyond our frozen, inert, oppressive reality just isn't there.
Healing from tragedy is almost never visualized through the "pro-spectoscope;" rather, we tend to discover it through the lens of the "retro-spectoscope." When I look back at the times in my life where I truly did find healing, I recognize three universal truths. The first is that the healing that occurred almost never came in the form in which I initially visualized how it should happen. The second is that it often came in very unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) packages. The final universal truth in this for me is that if I were to graph it, it would not be a 45 degree straight line starting in the lower left hand corner of the graph and smoothly heading to the upper right hand corner. The graph would be full of annoyingly long plateaus punctuated with sharp peaks. As with our healing stories today, yes, things did "turn on a dime."
As much as we'd prefer our growth as Christians to be in an environment of "shiny and happy," the fact is that our tragedies, and our stories that emerge as we knit our lives back together following them, are probably more important in cultivating depth and wisdom in our faith. As Richard Rohr says in the book Falling Upward, in order for us to emerge into a deeper, wiser, and more faithful relationship with God, “a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.”
I am reminded of a joke that was told countless times during the 1993 floods in the Midwest, one of a man of great faith and a staunch churchgoer, stranded on the roof of his house in the floods. In the joke, two boats come by, and as the water rose higher and higher, even a helicopter came. Each time, the man found some fault with them (boats looked creaky, helicopters scare him) and he waved them off, saying not to worry, that God was going to save him. Of course, in the joke, he is eventually swept away and dies. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, he expresses his annoyance to God that his faith was not rewarded and his prayers were not answered. "Well, for crying out loud!" God exclaims. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more do you want?"
Our readings today reveal the many-sided nature of "faith in the middle of tragedy." We are reminded that many times it will feel like we are praying to a blank wall. We are assured that Jesus doesn't even have to touch "us," he has to only touch the place where we lie dead and shrouded, to be raised up. We may well have no sensation that God is with us or near us, shrouded in the dark lead apron of our depression, or numbed by our searing pain. As is illustrated in our story in Acts, however, Peter's escape from prison was not through any of his own desires or wishes--it was the prayers of the community, while Peter was fast asleep, that led to the angel's appearance in his cell. The only things required of Peter were to have the good sense to wake up, and once awake, to obey.
When we are bound and inert within tragedy, faith invites us to the prospect that our healing, too, may come while we are fast asleep to the prospect of our own salvation, through the prayers of the community. We only need good sense enough to wake up, listen, and obey.