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death grief jesus religion resurrection

While It Was Dark

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She got up two hours before sunrise. She couldn’t sleep, and lying wide-eyed in the dark was not doing any good. She had to be up and getting ready. She dressed quickly and took up the basket she had prepared the night before. She checked it again to make sure everything was there. She didn’t want to come back for anything.

The outside air was cool after the closeness inside. She pulled her cloak close around her. No one would be abroad at this hour. No one except the other women, who, like her were going to the garden. Her grief, still painful but now kept at bay by the task at hand, went with her like a dead child she had to carry.

As she walked she examined her feelings. She felt bereft, of course, but there was something unexpected, and she realized it was anger, not just anger that he was gone. No, it was the senseless, uselessness of his death. His friends had warned him. They all knew that the authorities were looking for any pretext to get rid of him. But he would not listen. He insisted on going into the city, teaching in the temple, and deliberately antagonizing the religious leaders. She was angry at him.

She couldn’t fathom it. He had been so different. He had done such extraordinary things. She had almost believed that he was the anointed one the Prophets had talked about. Who was she kidding? She did believe it. But now, how could it be true? He was going to restore the kingdom. He was going to rule with his closest followers. She had heard him talk about it in that confident, so-certain voice that made you sure whatever he said was true.

That was enough to make her angry, feeling they had all been duped. The fickle crowds had praised him only a week ago and demanded his execution just two days ago. His death could have been avoided. It was all so pointless, so hopeless. She couldn’t see any way forward for herself.

That was the worst part. He was utterly different from any man she had ever known. With him she felt seen, felt heard, felt respected. She could hardly articulate it to herself. There were men she felt comfortable with. There had been men she had loved. But there was only one man who made her feel so present. She didn’t know how she could go back from that. Part of her grief was for a loss she had no words for, a loss of her very self.

When she got to the garden, she saw that she was the first to arrive. She didn’t have long to wait. The other women, looking as forlorn and empty as she felt, soon approached.

“We’ve been talking,” Joanna said. “The tomb is sealed by a great stone. Who will roll it away for us?”

“Maybe we will find someone to help us,” she replied. “Let’s just go and see what needs to be done.”

When they got to the tomb, they found the stone already rolled away. At first they thought it would make everything easier, but they soon realized why it was moved. His body was gone. Someone had come in the night and taken his body.

“Who would do such a thing?” she cried. But she knew. The religious leaders feared his followers would steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead as he had said he would. To prevent that, they must have moved the body themselves. She thought about Peter and the other men, how devastated they had been. There was no way any of them could have done this.

The other women were conferring together, deciding what to do. They agreed to go tell the men and urged her to join them, but she wanted to be alone. “I’ll just stay here,” she said, and that seemed to satisfy them. She wondered if they could read the anguish in her heart on her face.

After they left, the grief would no longer be held back. She cried. Her whole body shook with sobs, and she made no attempt to conceal them. Her misery and despair seemed as vast as the sea. She did not know how long she cried. A voice behind her startled her.

“Ma’am, why are you crying?”

“Because they have taken away my lord,” she said without turning around, “and I don’t know where they have laid him. Please, sir, if you know where he is, please take me to him.”

“Mary,” said the voice, and that one word sent an impossible thrill through her. It couldn’t be. She turned, hastily wiping tears from her eyes. It was! He was there, looking more alive than ever. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his warm chest. She was sure she would die. Then she thought perhaps she already had, and this was that heaven he had so often talked about. She did not know how long she held him and felt the vitality of his body. She kept looking up into his face, trying to see in it the horror she had seen him undergo. She saw him smile, and she held him even more tightly. Then he gently pried her arms from around his body.

“Don’t hold on to me now,” he said. “I have to present myself to my Father. Go and tell my disciples, especially Peter, that you have seen me.”

She stepped back looked at him, trying to take in every detail. The marks of his torture were still there, but his face! His face! She knew she would never forget his face and never be able to describe it. So great was her joy that her own face mirrored his, though she did not know it. She could barely take in what he said to her. He had given her a task. What was it? Ah, yes. She was to tell the men that she had seen him. She turned and ran toward the city, her basket of embalming spices forgotten on the ground. The sun was up, and the world was filling with light.

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current events death mathematics numbers politics probability science statistics trust

Why Stories Circulate about Covid-19 Deaths

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I’ve seen several posts on Facebook claiming that deaths of relatives or friends have been falsely attributed to covid-19 when in fact they were due to some other cause. These anecdotes represent a misunderstanding of the way statistics work and how data for statistics is collected. Of course, researchers want as accurate a count as possible for the number of deaths caused by Covid-19. But that kind of accuracy is harder than it sounds.

At first researchers were counting only deaths where the person who died had tested positive for Covid-19. They soon realized however, that they were under-counting the number of Covid-19 deaths. How did they realize that? They knew what the death rate in a particular place was prior to the pandemic. For example, if a city typically had 1,000 deaths in 30 days, and suddenly the number jumps to 3,000 but only 1,500 of those were due to patients who tested positive for Covid-19, then that left 500 deaths unaccounted for. So researchers decided to broaden the criteria for recording deaths as attributable to Covid-19. They decided to included deaths where symptoms were similar to those caused by Covid-19. They also included deaths even when the patient tested negative.

Why would someone who tested negative for covid-19 still be listed as a victim of it? Testing is not 100% accurate. Data on accuracy of the most widely used Covid-19 test is not publicly available, but some estimates range as high as 30% for false negatives, meaning that 3 out of 10 people who test negative for the disease actually have it. Even with a test that is 100% accurate under ideal conditions, real-world conditions can skew results. Many conditions can affect the amount of virus in a specimen collected by a swab. The most widely used test has close to a 100% accuracy for positive results, the the accuracy for negative results is uncertain and can vary depending on many factors. This is why some people who have died after testing negative for covid-19 are nevertheless listed as victims of covid-19. As long as they had symptoms consistent with the infection, they might very well have covid-19 listed on their death certificate. Of course, casting a broader net for data also means that there will be instances of people being listed as having died from covid-19 who actually died of other causes. Researchers make every effort to ensure this does not happen, but no procedure is foolproof. However, if the number of deaths identified as having been caused by Covid-19 matches the uptick in deaths overall, then it’s a pretty safe assumption that the data is pretty clean.

Because many people are suspicious of our government or the media or liberal elites—none of which are actually sufficiently monolithic to carry off a genuine conspiracy—and of expert authority in general, these types of stories gain currency on social media. Some may be true, but they usually do not contain sufficient detail to validate them. Even if they are true, they are generally offered by people who are not experts in determining cause of death.

So before you share one of these anecdotes about a suspicious Covid-19 death, consider not just whether it is true, but also whether it undermines the very institutions we have put in place to help us deal with infectious disease epidemics. While there are plenty of politicians ready to make hay out of crisis events, the experts and researchers who do the actual work genuinely care about producing good quality studies that advance our understanding of the virus and how it spreads. They are not out to get you.

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death family fear injustice jesus kindness memory myth sin suffering theology

Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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