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Greg Garrett on Cancer & Theology

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Death and Resurrection

“Jesus thrown everything off balance.”

As some of you may recognize, those are the words of the Misfit, perhaps the best-known, and certainly the most murderous creation of the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. At the end of her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a famous story about how (not why) bad things happened to good people, O’Connor has the Misfit explain why he does what he does, and as is often the case in O’Connor’s fiction, it all centers around Christian practice and belief: “If [Jesus] did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.”

In other words, for the Misfit, the central problem of human life centers around death and resurrection — either resurrection is true or it isn’t, and your belief about it will change everything.

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday at my home parish of St. David’s in Austin, Texas, we celebrated the Resurrection with balloons and music. We got dressed in bright-colored spring clothing, we gathered and told the stories, we experienced the liturgy, and then we walked back out into the world. Now, things have calmed down a little. The balloons have burst or floated away. And now, calmly and soberly we can ask:

What do we believe about death and resurrection?

Has Jesus thrown everything off balance for us as well?

Taking Holy Week as a whole teaches us some vital realities. It teaches us that we live in a world where pain and sorrow, suffering and death are normative things. The example of Jesus’ final week is that no human being is exempt from them, that even the best and most worthy of us who ever lived did not escape from the dark forest where cancer looms and accident strikes and the power of misguided men slays.

In the historic creeds, Jesus is consistently presented to us as completely human as well as completely divine, which means the experience of Holy Week is for all of us human experience. This is the truth that runs throughout human history:

People will suffer.
People will die.
People will mourn.

But Easter, the day and the season, remind us of another truth — that pain and sorrow, suffering and death, are not truly in control of our destinies.

And they remind us that resurrection — that miracles — are, in some sense, possible.
The traditional Gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter is that section of the Gospel of John we have come to identify with the character we usually call Doubting Thomas or Thomas the Doubter. We’ve been awfully hard on Thomas over the years, which I think is unfortunate, because it allows us to look down on him, to distance ourselves from his situation, to think of ourselves as somehow different or even better than he is, which we most certainly aren’t.

I think Thomas deserves a second look. The Gospel of John encourages us to see Thomas as a figure in dramatic contrast with the Beloved Disciple and with Peter, who see and believe in the Resurrection on much sparser evidence than Thomas is offered. But it also presents Thomas as the character who makes the climactic confession of faith in the gospel: “My Lord and My God!” — the highest Christological statement in any of the gospels, in fact, and John’s clear bookend to his majestic Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 20:28, John 1:1, NRSV) He’s a complicated character—more complicated than “Doubting Thomas” allows him to be.

There are two traditional Christian ways of looking at Thomas. Matthew Henry’s 18th Century commentary summarizes one: that Thomas’s lack of belief is “not only a sin, but a scandal,” and that Thomas is a fool not to believe in the possibility of resurrection on the testimony of his friends. In opposition to this, we find the Classical interpretation of this episode made by Augustine and Aquinas: that knowing Jesus the man and yet believing him to be very God, as Thomas eventually confesses, is in itself, an act of tremendous faith. As Augustine said of Thomas, “He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched.”

When I personally think about the story, I like to read Thomas as many biblical scholars suggest we should, as a symbolic and altogether typical character, for the truth of the matter is that, like the Misfit, most of us are Thomases. It’s so much easier not to really believe that Jesus is the risen lord, the Son of God. It shakes things up too much.

I like to imagine that there was a part of Thomas that thought, “No, it’s easier if Jesus is dead. It’s sad. But if he’s alive — if he really has come back to life — then that’s going to change my own life — my conception of the world — in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.”

At this season in the Christian liturgical calendar, we too are brought face to face with the Resurrection, as Thomas’s story brings us face to face with the same questions in our own lives: Do we really believe in the risen Christ?

Do we really believe in the possibility that death doesn’t rule the world?

And if we do — or don’t — how does that change us? How does it throw us off balance?

I know a little something about being off-balance. I grew up in a very conservative Evangelical Christian home. In that tradition, God was assumed to be capable of intervening in reality whenever someone with sufficient faith asked Him to; after leaving the Church for decades, I returned to a faith that was more skeptical of supernatural spirituality, one that made it hard for me to believe in Biblical miracles and harder still to get my head around the Resurrection.

This stuck me as being purely realistic. So few of the narratives we live our livs by seem to accept the fact that we are not in control of our lives, that what we do does not ultimately change our faiths in any sort of transactional way.

I was perfectly comfortable with thinking of resurrection as purely symbolic, of not wondering or worrying about whether Jesus truly returned to life and demonstrated that God truly had control over evil, sin, and death. It didn’t alter my faith in the God who had rescued me personally, my faith in my own personal resurrection.
I had been sick unto death, and through the friendship of some good people and the love of a wonderful church in East Austin, I had been nursed back to life.
So I knew death and resurrection to be personally true, whether or not they were biblically true, whether or not they were true for anyone else but me.

Then two summers ago, while I was working as a hospital chaplain at Brackenridge Medical Center, Austin’s regional trauma center, an experience I wrote about in my book Stories from the Edge, I was confronted with an experience I couldn’t ignore that made me consider the larger theological question anew. I saw lots of death and disaster at Brack; most victims of drowning, overdose, car wrecks, and other mishaps are taken to there, and during my summer at the hospital, I walked alongside dozens of patients and their families as they suffered great losses. Hard as that was to do, I felt strangely comfortable at their beds and in the waiting rooms.

I was able to identify with their suffering, for I have known suffering.

I understood their requests for God’s miraculous intervention, because I have made such requests myself, and until the very end, none had been answered in the affirmative.

But I also knew — or thought I knew — that the trend of all matter in this material universe is toward death and destruction, and I hoped to help people accept that death is the inevitable result, the ultimate end of every story.

That is indeed the lesson of the first parts of Holy Week. From the high of a Palm Sunday when we are on top of the world, we are suddenly faced with reversals — cancer, heart attack, accident, heartbreak — that are analogous to Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Many Christians skip over these dark days on their way to Easter — and many of us gloss over their existence in our lives and those around us. It’s essential, as I said, to face up to them honestly, to see that even the example of Jesus tells us that all of us will suffer and die someday.

But the example of Jesus on Easter?

Well, that thows everything off balance.

One day on the critical care ward where I was visiting patients, a completely undignified shout went up from the hallway. I looked in that direction, expecting to see nurses and other hospital workers moving over to shush whoever was making the noise.

Expected to see that, yes. Only it was nurses and hospital workers who were making all the noise. They were crowded around a handsome young man of around twenty, shaking his hand, clinging to his neck, and Jolynne, the charge nurse, must have seen my look of confusion, because she took pity on me: “That’s Perez, the famous Perez. He was in 606, in a coma.” She indicated the intensive care room right across from us. “Thrown riding a bull. He was brain dead. We had a couple of ethics consults — most of us wanted to pull the plug.” She sighed at the memory. “But the family asked us to give it three months.”

“He was brain dead, padre,” she repeated; I’m not a priest, but could not convince her of that. “We thought he’d never come out of it. But,” she blinked, a tiny smile slowing growing all the way across her face, “he did.”

Sandra, another nurse, bounced back from the hall and settled in at the nurses’s station, all aflutter. “Perez is here,” she told Jolynne, who nodded and smiled back. “He’s walking and talking.”

“Wow,” I said. “He really beat the odds.”

Sandra held up her finger to shush me. “There were no odds,” she said, waving that finger at me. “He was brain dead, and nerve tissue don’t grow back.” She looked down the hall, where Perez was walking to the far nurses’ station. “And now, look at him! He’s all walky-talky.”

It’s clear that this story about the Famous Perez is a resurrection story, and although you and I know that this story is notable, that in this world resurrection almost never takes place, nonetheless, there it is. Like Jesus on Easter morning — something happened to him, with him, through him. I can’t explain it, can’t get my head around it, my life is easier if I don’t have to think about it, but in his story, as in the Easter story, God moved in some fashion to make things right, and things were never the same afterward.

Which is where I think we need to land in thinking about death and resurrection, sickness and health, brokenness and wholeness: something happened on Easter that changed everything, including, I hope, us.

Easter should change the way we think about our own suffering. It should change the way we face sickness and even death. It should change the way we live, in whatever time we have on the planet.

Progressive Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan has been speaking in recent years about “operational belief,” the idea that whether you believe the stories in the Bible literally or figuratively, those stories ought to make a living difference in your life. Archbishop Rowan Williams has likewise written about the Resurrection using that kind of reasoning: “What is vital to Christian discourse about the resurrection can be stated exclusively in terms of what happens to the minds and hearts of believers when proclamation is made that the victim of the crucifixion is the one through whom God continues to act and speak.”

The resurrection story, however we understand it, whether or not we can explain it, should make a difference in our minds and hearts. It’s supposed to; that’s what resurrection does. Resurrection stands up against the tide of suffering and death, it proclaims hope over despair, and it tells us that whatever happens to us, thanks be to God, even the end of things is not really the end of things.

And honestly, that should change us.

The Greek word from the Doubting Thomas story in John that we usually translate as “belief” (as in “Doubting Thomas believed”) suggests elements of trust, faith, and reliance, but it also suggests an action: it suggests throwing ourselves into what we have chosen to believe, swimming it, living it.

So whether you are a literal or a liberal reader of scripture, whether your Jesus is all walky-talky like Perez or is a meaningful story that helps explain the way the world has changed over the last 20 centuries, we are called to believe in it.

Really believe in it.

To let it throw us off balance.

To let it change us, as it has always changed people.

Christian tradition — probably apocryphal, but still, too good a story to throw away — tells us that Thomas, who in his initial exchange with the risen Jesus did not want to believe, went at last to India, where he preached Jesus as the Son of God and was ultimately martyred for those beliefs.

What happened to change him?

Easter happened.

And against the direct evidence of pain and sorrow, suffering and death, it has happened again, is happening even now — death and resurrection are contending in Creation.

And miracle of miracles —

Resurrection wins.

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Greg GarrettGreg Garrett is the critically-acclaimed author of over a dozen works of fiction, theology, and memoir, including The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church. He regularly speaks, teaches, and preaches across the United States and overseas, and has discussed his work for many media outlets, including National Public Radio, BBC Radio, Interfaith Voices, and The Bob Edwards Show. Greg lives in Austin with his family.

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  • Margaret Scott

    Thanks for the blog! I work as a chaplain on an inpatient psychiatric unit. It does help to remember that Easter should change the way we think about suffering. This is not the end of the story. Thanks for sharing.