What if I had done this, or you had done that?
What if I had made that decision, or you had made a different decision?
As John Greenleaf Whittier put it in his poem “Maud Muller,” “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”
Poignancy runs deep through John’s story relating the sickness and death of Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus. The poignancy of what if. What if Jesus had come to help Lazarus when his sisters first sent word to him that his friend was sick? What if Jesus had not chosen to stay where he was for a while, resulting in his not getting to them until after Lazarus had already been dead for four days?
Mary put it starkly: She knelt at Jesus’ feet and repeated to him what Martha had already said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And later in the story, even the Jews who had come to console the sisters asked the question of what if: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Sigrid Paul and her family certainly knew how deeply the what if question cuts. In Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder tells the experiences of those who suffered under the Stasi or state police in East Germany and of those who worked with that organization. In January, 1961, Frau Paul gave birth to her son Torsten, who as a baby had serious health problems, including spitting up blood. Eventually, she took him to Westend, a hospital in the western section of Berlin. The Berlin Wall didn’t exist yet, but she still needed permission to get from her house in the eastern sector to the area where the hospital was.
After Torsten had surgery, Sigrid was able to take him home but was to return to Westend regularly to get his special formula and medications. The next month, the Berlin Wall rose high and impassable, splitting the couple in their home from the hospital with lifesaving supplies for their baby son. Officials refused to let Frau Paul across the border to get the formula and medications her son needed to sustain life. Frau Paul had to put Torsten on regular formula, and he started spitting up blood again.
Eventually, she took him to another hospital and was told to go home. When she went back to see him, he was gone – the hospital in the eastern part of the city had realized they couldn’t help him and had secreted him across the border to Westend again. So now, the Berlin Wall divided not Torsten from his life sustaining supplies – it separated the baby himself from his mother and father.
Frau Paul and her husband tried to escape from the east and eventually she came to be followed by the authorities, kidnapped and taken to prison. And there the offer came: She could see her son if she would cooperate with the state. They wanted to use her as bait for the man who had tried to help her and her husband escape. In her interview with Funder, Frau Paul exclaimed, “And of course that was an absolute no. I couldn’t … I had to decide against my son, but I couldn’t let myself be used in this way.”And Torsten remained at Westend Hospital.
When Funder got to meet Torsten, he was by then an adult. She describes him as small and hunched, with “deep-set dark eyes and prominent cheekbones.” Anna asks him what he thinks about his mother’s decision not to cooperate with the state, even in exchange for being able to see him. In response, he says, “I have never looked at my parents and thought they made the wrong decision … I admire them for what they did.” Anna tells us that Torsten “has learned not to play the ‘only if’ game: if only there had been no Wall I might not have relapsed; I might have grown up with my parents; they might not have gone to prison; I might have had a healthy body, a job, a partner. “
And back to Martha and Mary. Yes, they both rebuked Jesus for his tardiness in getting to them in time to save Lazarus’ life. And Mary left her rebuke out there – bold and unapologetic. Martha, however, added this statement of belief to her rebuke: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And Martha’s words shine for us as well. We can borrow her assurance that Jesus is stronger than any of our conjured-up what ifs. We witness for ourselves that even through such unimaginable horrors as Frau Paul and her family endured, that Jesus was with them. Finally bringing them together, infusing Torsten with his incredible sense of peace and calm, free of regret and free of being clutched by the plague of what ifs.
And this is how it is for us, too. We see through Torsten’s story and through our own stories that God’s love shines through all of our what ifs and transforms their poignancy into a reality that pulses, that sings, with love and life.