“Scott, your brother had a heart attack and it’s not looking good.”
Those were the words shared with me early yesterday morning. In those moments the world becomes molasses – thick, cloudy, and slow. You try to catch your breath and your bearing simultaneously, but it always seems slightly out of reach. You repeat the statement back slowly to the person on the other line, but in all honestly you’re just saying it in the hope that somehow the syllables coalesce to make sense in your brain or so you can wake up from the bad dream you have found yourself.
You have to understand my brother to grasp why this caught me off guard. Casey is in his early 40’s, with an amazing wife and three incredible daughters. He’s the kinetic energy in every room with impeccable comedic timing. Also, I would hate to admit this to him in person, but he’s in the best shape of the Frazier brothers even though I’m the youngest and should be! Needless to say, he doesn’t seem like the best candidate for a major heart attack.
Long story short, he was headed out for work when he passed out. His wife Dixie had to perform CPR while on the phone with 911 until the medical team showed up. On the ambulance ride over to the hospital, he was shocked with the defibrillator paddles multiple times as they attempted to save his life.
In between all of this, I’m on the phone with my dad and middle brother. There are no playbooks for these conversations. There are airy questions, terse statements, feeble prayers and long moments of silence as we try to keep the tears at a slow trickle versus the flood that sits behind the dam of our eyes.
The updates never come fast enough as you twiddle your thumbs trying to stay busy. You sit with the maddening knowledge that you are completely helpless. Next, we heard that he was in ICU, but we weren’t “out of the woods” just yet. He was fighting, but there was no promise that he would pull through.
Early afternoon we got the report that he was going to make it. Relief and joy washed over our family as we thanked God for his mercy. When the doctor described the miraculousness nature of his situation, he said this, “If two planes collided midair and only one person lived, your brother would be that one person.” My brother being alive today is truly a miracle and I’m grateful that God spared his life.
For whatever reason, when I got up to the hospital in Dallas to see my brother, a story from the Gospel of Luke filled my mind.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” – Luke 13:1-5
In this passage, Jesus is referring to two incidents. The first were a group of Galileans who where worshipping and Pilate had them killed. The other had to do with eighteen people who had died when the tower in Siloam had fallen on them.
At the heart of the questions from the crowds are questions that have been at the heart of humanity from the beginning of time, “God, where are you when bad things happen?” and “Is our suffering proportionate to our sinfulness?” Both are legitimate questions, but Jesus chooses to only answer one.
There is a time and place to deal with what is called theodicy, or the attempt to reconcile why a good God permits evil to exist. Jesus let’s that question remain in tension amongst the spiritual ether where it usually resides; however, he answers the follow up question.
Is our suffering proportionate to our sinfulness? The short answer Jesus gives us is, “I tell you, no!” The longer answer is that suffering and tragedy are equal opportunity. Sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Simply read the book of Job, the story of the most righteous man in the world, and the immense tragedy that befell his life. His friends were convinced that his suffering was a reflection of some grievous sin, but Job just needed better friends.
Why do bad things happen? Why do heart attacks, sick babies and cancer happen? Is it a reflection of someone’s personal sin compared to someone else’s? No.
Sickness, death, war, destruction and brokenness are a result of sin entering into the world (Gen. 3). This life we live is a tragically beautiful drama that is constantly unfolding on the spectrum of life and death.
The Frailty of Life
Let me be clear, I’m not trying to skirt around the complexity of God’s goodness and the reality of evil. There have been innumerable books written on the topic and I will attempt to tackle it at a different time. Today I’m just examining how Jesus responded to the crowd and he doesn’t answer that underlying question in this interaction specifically. So today, I will let it remain a question to be attempted at a later date.
What does Jesus say to the crowd after answering their initial question? How does he engage this moment reflecting on the frailty of life? He responds, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” This comments seems harsh, but I believe it’s a statement encapsulated in sobering kindness.
Seeing our frailty, that we’re not invincible, has a way of bringing sobriety into our life like nothing else can. Jesus calls the crowd to introspection and not just to general introspection, but spiritual introspection. He calls the crowd to repentance.
In the Greek, the word repentance is metanoia. Metanoia means, “to change one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion”. It basically means, to change one’s mind and go a different direction. I love these definitions because so many people associate repentance with some crazy picketer holding a sign while screaming into a bullhorn. Here, repentance is less about right and wrong, and more about leaving the wide path that leads to destruction and choosing the narrow path that leads to life everlasting.
A friend of mine told me the challenge is most people have never had repentance modeled for them. They just thought it meant no more drinking, sex and rap music. The evangelical version of “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” Repentance is more accurately described by C.S. Lewis this way, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” You are not an imperfect creature who needs to stop drinking, sex and rap music, but you are a rebel who must lay down your arms and surrender to the expansive love of the Father.
We are not bad people who need to be made good. We are dead people who need to be made alive. Or, we are rebels who have already laid down our arms to follow Jesus, but we have forgotten the good news and are running to pick up our weapons again. No matter where we find ourselves, we must remind ourselves the beautiful truth that he who knew no sin became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Maybe it’s cancer, a heart attack, a failed marriage, a car crash or a tower falling that has shown you your frailty. No matter what tragedy, accident or suffering has drawn near, let us lean into God who is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18) and let us repent, or turn away from the life of decay to the life of flourishing found in Jesus.
If you need a place to start in repentance, this is a beautiful prayer to pray:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.
Today, I’m grateful that my brother is alive and I will praise God for sparing him. However, I also know that one day death will come to my front door and knock. It might even be my heart that stops working. As the Psalmist said, “my flesh and my heart may fail”, but I will cry out “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26).
Then, when the perishable has put on the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, I will sing, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” and enter into everlasting life. (1 Cor. 15:55-58).