A good man died the other day.
He had a whole lot of friends and I knew most of his groups. Beyond his buddies at work and a closely knit neighborhood, he belonged to the church I went to in Garland. He was also on the staff of the Synod Youth Workshop with me for many years and to add icing to the cake, he was the half-time announcer for the high school band where my granddaughters both play flute. It was easy and always a pleasure to run into Brad often. I knew him well enough that after he retired as half-time announcer I could still get him to give me my own personal rendition of his famous introduction: "The Spine Tingling, Hair Raising' Mighty Eagle Band!” I received more than my fair share of unsolicited bear hugs. I saw his goofy side and knew enough of his scars to know he could switch to his serious and sincere side with kids in an instant. He was the kind of small group leader who cried on a regular basis. Brad was the real deal and kids knew that. He will be sorely missed. The world needs more people like Brad Phillips. This isn't the way it's supposed to work. We're supposed to have more, not less, people like him.
I was pretty angry at God the morning I found out. It was one of those "Let me speak to the manager" mornings. So I went outside on my back porch to give God a chance to explain himself.
And wouldn't you know it but God pulled out that tired old Job passage, the one at the end where God asks Job in chapters 38-41 where was Job when the earth was created, mocking him for his puny humanity, that he wasn't as smart as God and how dare he question God. Put Job right in his place, didn't God? What a bully.
I shuffled back in the house, meek as a lamb.
Then I almost immediately turned around and walked back outside. NO! I'm not going to accept that answer! That was the Old Testament. I want your New Testament answer! I will not be bullied. I want Jesus' answer! We're not finished. I grabbed my coffee cup and my bible and went back out on the porch. “I want a different answer,” I demanded.
We knew all along it was going to take a miracle to save Brad. So that’s what we had prayed for. We prayed for it boldly.
Glioblastoma. That’s what Brad had. It’s one of the worst brain cancers you can get. It’s big and bad and fast. And no matter how much radiation and prayer you throw at it, it’s also pretty much incurable. And Brad fought it with all his strength and optimism all the way. If you could cure cancer with optimism we wouldn’t be having this conversation because he had enough for the whole world and Brad could have beat cancer with optimism alone if that was all that was needed.
But we don’t get it that way. We don’t get to make the rules. We have very little control of what happens most of the time. Shit just happens.
That’s when I realized that’s what I was looking for: I needed a “Shit Happens” scripture. Have you got one of those, God?
I went back looking through the bible and in a few pages I found just what I was looking for. It was one of the old standards that I’ve known since I was a kid; the one we always relied on every Monday morning in elementary school when you had to recite a bible verse to prove you had gone to church over the weekend-- old reliable: the shortest verse in the bible, two words: John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” Shit Happens.
The bible describes the scene when Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died. Shit happened and even Jesus couldn’t prevent it from happening. When God created life there were built-in frailties that came with the package of mortality. And one of them was that we all have an expiration date. Jesus weeps out of love for Lazarus. Then Jesus performs a miracle and brings His friend back to life. Jesus is mightier than death.
Some of us have long lives and some of us don’t. And we rarely have much notice of when our expiration date is due. Even if we did, we would want more time.
My friend Leeann was talking about the Jesus Wept passage a couple of months ago with me and she had a totally different take on the quote than any I’ve ever heard. Her theory was that Jesus wept because Jesus knew what he was taking Lazarus away from when he brought him back to life. As much as Jesus wanted to see his old friend again he knew Lazarus' family wanted to see him even more and they were already accusing Jesus of falling down on the job, "If you had been here you could have saved him." Did Jesus, knowing he had the power to raise him from the dead, weep at Lazarus' death? Or did Jesus weep because he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus back to a life here on earth and away from a heavenly life? Did Jesus, knowing both worlds, wept at the change Lazarus would have to make?
We forget in this story that heaven is a better place than earth. And Jesus was bringing Lazarus out of heaven and back to life on earth.
Let our grief be for Brad’s family and ourselves but not for Brad. Shit happened to us. Brad is in a good place. And Jesus knows all about it.