A matter of life and death
I made a close friend in 6th grade named Meenal. She was Indian, and Hindu, and she had been born with two chambers in her heart instead of four, and had surgeries as a baby that divided it into three, but as a result she was much smaller than your average sixth grader.
But other than her size, which she dismissed with a flick of her hand and a sentence about her heart, there was nothing to reveal that anything was wrong with her. Meenal was funny, and killer smart. She lived a few blocks from me and I can remember lip syncing to cassette tapes we’d recorded off the radio in her bedroom while her little brother peeked in through the crack in the door in disgust, trying on her sticky dots on my forehead in her bathroom mirror, and eating meals at her family table across from the painting of the god Vishnu on her living room wall.
Meenal and I went to junior high together and our friendship continued. We were always partners for projects and I can still see her pushing her glasses up her nose, flipping her braid over her shoulder and collapsing in hysterical laughter over something.
Towards the end of 7th grade, Meenal got sick. She had to go in to the hospital, and I didn’t know much about what was going on. I got the flu for a few days, and wasn’t able to visit her there. Then I got better, and she was, for some reason, still in the hospital, and I still didn’t go see her for a while.
The day I finally was to visit Meenal, my mom picked me up early at school so that we could go to the hospital from there. I had notes from friends to Meenal to bring with me. The school nurse offered to call ahead and make sure it was a good time to see her, and I pulled on my coat and zipped my backpack shut and plopped down on a chair in the office while my mom signed me out at the front desk. After a minute, the nurse came out of her office and came over to me with a strange expression on her face. She looked at my mom and me and said, “I am so sorry. Meenal died this morning.”
The biggest emotion I had for the next several weeks, besides just disbelief and deep sadness, was guilt. Guilt that I didn’t go see her, what kind of a friend was I? Regret at having missed the chance to say goodbye. But the more insidious and heavier guilt that kept my crying at night was the thought that Meenal had died before I told her about Jesus. That was my responsibility – I had been her friend for two years, and had never told her about Jesus. She knew I was a Christian and had been at our dinner table when we prayed, just as I knew she was Hindu and had shared her table. We had talked a little about our religions, but I had never helped her to know Jesus, and she had died before I had “the talk” with her. Which meant, to my 13 year old broken heart, that Meenal had gone to hell and it was my fault.
Grief and regret tortured me mercilessly day after day. One night lying in bed I cried until I was utterly exhausted, apologizing over and over to God, begging God to hear me, to see her, not to blame her for my downfall, appealing to God’s love to do something to make the situation right. “She’s just a kid!” I pleaded. “I’m so sorry!”
And then, in the darkness I heard, almost audibly, a clear voice completely separate from my desperate pleadings, words that broke through mine, interrupting them and seeming in my minds eye to wrap around Meenal’s tiny body in warmth, the voice said, “I’ve got her. She’s ok. She is mine.”
And I sobbed with relief. I didn’t understand it – it didn’t make sense at all to what I believed – and in fact I could not explain it for years afterward - but it was so utterly real that immediately I was flooded with peace – like water washing through me. “She is mine.”
God doesn’t play by our rules and religion. God doesn’t step in and save those we think should be saved, punish those we know deserve punishment, or honor our clear cut system of choices and consequences, penalties and rewards, earning and losing. God doesn’t keep little girls with half a heart from dying, or send them to hell for what they do or don’t believe.
When the people ask Jesus about those that had died in a terrible tragedy, Jesus tells them as much. It’s not because of anything they did. Bad things happen, death is capricious and merciless. Disasters strike, sickness comes, terrible things happen to people all the time, and they are not fair, not earned, not brought on by people’s thoughts or choices. Sometimes awful things just happen.
And it would be nice if he had stopped there. But he goes on to say, but unless you repent you’ll die like they did.
Thanks, Jesus, you’ve really cleared this up for us.
Then he tells this story about a fig tree that isn’t producing any fruit. It isn’t showing any signs of life. Maybe it should just be cut down.
“Give it another year,” the gardener says. “Let me put manure around it.” The Greek word Jesus puts in the mouth of the gardener, which is so politely translated as “manure” here is actually the vulgar word for excrement, in other words, in Jesus’ story the gardener says, “Let it sit in shit for another year and see if it doesn’t start living.”
If we think the faith we confess can be boiled down to an easy system, with simple answers, a cause and effect type of arrangement with God, then we are off base. And if we think confessing the right kind of belief can guarantee long life, or salvation, or freedom from suffering, we are wrong. We cannot find easy blame for the tragedies that happen in life, no formula for avoiding them or preventing them from happening to us.
Death can happen any moment, Jesus says to his questioners, and unless you repent, you will die like they did. One moment here, the next, gone. So it begs the question, how will you live your life?
Repent. he says.
Repent is not a moral word, like we like to make it. It isn’t about what we do, or being good or bad. It’s not feeling really badly about what we’ve done. Repentance in the biblical sense is a complete reorientation. It is a 180 - turning from death to life. Sometimes it is used as something that happens to you, rather than something you do. One biblical scholar says, “It can be more about being found than about finding oneself.”
I repented that night about Meenal. I was found by God. I was reoriented from death to life. I was deeply conscious of my shame, my weakness and precariousness, I felt the fragility of life and the nearness of death, and above and around these things and right up next to them, I was caught in the overwhelming and astonishing awareness of God’s mercy and love that holds us all. I could now see the whole of our friendship as a gift, and not as a failure; I saw Meenal now laughing and talking a blue streak at God’s own table.
And my own life was redeemed and given back to me, no longer captive to guilt but a gift, every day one more day than she had.
“What about my friend?” I had asked.
“She’s gone and it’s not her fault, and it’s not yours either,” God had answered. “But what about you?” How will you live? Repent. Turn to me and live.”
This business of life and living is not about what you earn or squander, being deserving or unworthy. It is not about right and wrong, or good and bad. It’s more urgent and elemental than that – it’s about life and death. This is the paradigm shift Jesus is trying to impart to his listeners.
Death comes, and tragedy and suffering strike often without warning. But how will you LIVE? Will you live toward life or toward death? What will define you? What will your life confess?
Will you participate in death? Will you let your life be run by fear – seeking to preserve yourself at all cost, even over against others? Even at the expense of your own well-being and wholeness? Will you let the same force that takes lives in senseless violence or horrible disasters be what you live for, whether you serve it or avoid it, always keeping your eyes on it and letting it dictate your actions? Hiding your shame, protecting your pain, living in self-judgment or isolation? Will you live as though your life is of no value, a waste of soil, failed expectation, trapped in regret? Will you live toward death?
Or will you repent and live toward life?
Will you turn away from death to God – whatever suffering and tragedy may befall you, and participate in life, the life that defies death and our structures that serve it? Will you confess the abundance that invites all to come to the table and eat – money or not, the life that doesn’t pay you back by what you earn or deserve, or by what circumstances you’ve landed in, but by the grace and love of God alone, the life that seeks wholeness and connection, fullness and love? The life that hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things? Will you live in the life you were created for?
And if you need help getting there, Jesus adds, why not sit in the shit for a while?
Because if you do, you may find that it awakens repentance. You might notice that it nurtures awareness of your fragility and reality, prompts confessions of honesty about your circumstances, forthrightness about your state. And after a time a shift begins to happen within you from death toward life – you are found, you are reoriented, the warmth of the sun and the cool of the rain penetrates your thick skin and nourishes you deep within. And, you may begin to see brand new life coming from death itself; out of the stagnancy and even the stench is born beauty, strength and fruit.
Life is fragile, and it is short. And there is a lot about it we can’t control. And we do a lot within it that serves death, breaking down instead of building up. We confess that. But by the grace of God, life is also a gift. And we also confess that God brings life –new life, full life, life unexpected and glorious that changes us and makes us live differently, that makes our very living into a confession of enduring hope.
And Christ calls us, again and again, to repent, to be reoriented back to the life for which we are born, and into which we are called. God’s grace invites us all to the banquet table of the life that overcomes death, saying, “2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
May we listen and live.