I have a confession to make. I struggle when asked to pray for miraculous cures or quick resolutions. It’s tangling me up inside because my faith has changed over the years, starting back when I left my evangelical roots, but more so now that I’ve lost so many loved ones to cancer.
Here’s a look inside the changing nature of my faith in God.
A few weeks ago, in June 2018, my husband played a show with friends, a married couple, who toured together with their own acts. He was excited for me to meet them because they shared so much about their faith journey. They were excited to tour through the Ville and stay overnight with us. They planned to attend our liturgy on Sunday morning. Of course, they rocked Backstep Brewery that night. Later, we sat on the back deck, drinking tea and snacking on all my usual weird healthy snacks under twinkly lights. Because of my running addiction, I retired early. When I came in from my pre-liturgy run, they were packing up. M looked peaked. During church, he clutched his stomach. He slipped to the bathroom a couple of times. When he returned, he sat through the service. I noticed his wife stroking his back, as if channeling his pain.
Within the week, M was hospitalized. Within two, he’d survived a botched biopsy on his stomach and learned he had stomach cancer. He and his wife are now focusing on M’s healing, miraculous or medical. It will be holistic, at this point, since oncologists say operations are out of the question and chemo is the only answer, though that is changing day to day as the cancer aggressively attacks his liver.
The whole string of events feels surreal and heart-breaking. He’s asked that we focus on hope and God in this. I’ve read enough about positivity and healing to buy into the clinical value of hope. (Or ignoring it, such as Lulu Wang’s family helps Grandma do in this real life account).
Yet I’m struggling with how to pray for M, because my sister’s cancer. Actually the cumulative affect of so many of my loved ones deaths by cancer has altered how I pray, and the nature of what I believe.
After Naomi died on Nov. 4th, just shy of her 33rd birthday, my faith changed. Kathy said Naomi’s death would change me. Explanatory note. Kathy is my dad’s cousin’s widow. Her husband Randy was like second dad to me in high school. He was a Reynolds through and through. He reminded me of my grandfather, my dad’s dad. He never lost his thick full head of hair. Only in the end did his booming voice, his belly laugh, his stocky build fade. I remember him to the end as a man of prayer and church. In my growing up years, he and my grandfather would choke before passing up a chance to joke. Randy died of pancreatic cancer within about nine months of his diagnosis. He died on Nov. 5, two years before Naomi died. When he died, Naomi was just beginning one of her better periods. She rode out to his funeral because she was inclined to do all things family, and a coterie of siblings took the car trip out to Indiana to be there for Kathy and our cousins. We stayed in a janky hotel together outside of Blufton and cried a lot. In the months since, Kathy became my grief doula.
While Randy went through surgery and chemo, I went to visit him and his eldest son, Caleb, a Nazarene minister with whom I bible-quizzed during high school. I sat with Caleb, Randy and Paul (Caleb’s brother-in-law) during what I think was Randy’s first chemo. He described the placement of the tumor and the surgical procedure to treat it. I already knew from Facebook that he’d survived months of mystery symptoms and gallbladder surgery, all of which eerily mirrored my father-in-law Dean’s misdiagnosed gallbladder problems and the pancreatic cancer that killed Dean. As Joel and I visited Kathy and Randy in Indy from time to time, we saw how their faith journey also mirrored my in-laws. I bit my tongue about the speedy decline my father-in-law experienced in spite of all the similar”good news” his physicians gave him.
In 2004, Dean had gallbladder surgery and kept getting sicker. When his doctor finally realized it might be cancer, he referred Dean to an IU specialist promptly. Dean heard his cancer was detected early. Good news! The “whipple surgery” was the most advanced treatment. Good news! Some of the stats thrown around suggested Dean had a fighting chance. After his surgery, he felt pretty good, so the holidays seemed hopeful in spite of the C word.
Dean died within a week of his 70th birthday, hours after Joel and I celebrated our tenth anniversary in August 2005. My father told my husband, “You’ll feel like an orphan. You’ll want to talk to your dad about something but you won’t be able to call him.” Those words, and the words of our priest, “This isn’t how we were created, to see someone we love die,” got my husband through the first weeks.
We went camping on Labor Day weekend to unplug. We sat by the fire and listened to coyotes howl. We stared at the stars. We began the long slough of grappling with the death. It changed my husband. His hands shake now when he is stressed. He wouldn’t talk about death, even as he prepared to bury parishioners or as nearby parishes joined up to create a green burial cemetery. For years, in fact through my MFA thesis on end-of-life issues like grief, death planning and green burial for Orthodox Christians, he shut down any discussion of my research.
“I don’t want to talk about death, hear about death, think about death,” he said.
I think I bear some responsibility in that. While we suffered through near-poverty, health problems and an semi-oppressive atmosphere during his years at divinity school, we’d conjecture about the why suffering of certain types had plagued us since his dad’s death. I proposed that all this suffering would make it so we could identify with, empathize with, and serve all manner of people once he was placed in a parish. I remember sitting on the couch late one night, when he was emotionally shot, and he lashed back at my proposal.
“If one more person says ‘maybe your dad died to help prepare you for the ministry’…”
That became a refrain until years later, when I apologized for ever intimating anything like that.
I learned to think about death as happenstance, impersonal, unavoidable, with chances at 100%. We will die and the longer we live, the more people whom we love will die before us. It’s how we who go on living make use of it afterwards, not because that’s God’s intention, but because we can turn good to bad and bad to good, according to our needs or wants. My husband wanted to do something useful with his spiritual self when he went to seminary. After that, he has had to use his experience with grief to ease others through their grief. He’s good at it, but it’s the one aspect of his ministry that I think he hates most (except financial paperwork and silly theological spats).
I tell you all this because my faith swerved when Naomi got sick. At first, I pleaded with God for healing or an even trade, her life for mine. Then she lost her belief in God, and I realized I’d been praying wrong, at least in part. I hadn’t factored in soul-health. So I started praying for body and soul, which is in our Orthodox prayers. I’d now paid attention to the souls part when I talked to the “Physician of our Souls and Bodies.”
Then, Naomi died. Because Kathy said this would change me, l just tried to sit with void and change. I tried to perceive, not resist, it. I felt, still feel, like a part of me was cut out. I have a missing appendage, the part of her that made me a different and better person. Shortly after Naomi died, another very young woman I knew started losing her life to breast cancer. Then a litany of friends received grave diagnoses. One day, I realized I had stopped praying for miraculous cures. Right now, it feels as if uttering such hopes would steal away my last bit of hope or faith. Is this what losing your soul to a dementor feels like (ref. Harry Potter)?
What is this faith I hold now? Do I believe God no longer does miracles (outside of modern medicine)? It’s possible. It’s possible I’m grief-blind or just confused or jaded. Afterall I grew up in a pentacostally-kind of church where the church would lay hands on you, the minister anointed you with oil, and if that didn’t work, they took you healing services. If those didn’t work, you heard outlandish ‘splain-aways or blame. In the Orthodox Church, people pray Akathists to saints and Jesus for healing of cancer. They speak of oil and myrrh gushing miraculous icons that cure cancer or infertility or other diseases. It’s not that I poo-poo this as snake oil. I just don’t pray hastily for a miracle, or rather blindly. God forgive me for this, if it is doubt. I can’t help that I shy away. Because….
Because all of us are going to die.
Because in some countries, mortality is ordinary. For instance, the children’s mortality rate is obscene. Because in the USA, the infant and mother mortality rate is lower than many other developed nations, particularly among certain minority groups.
Because why does God heal some and not others.
Because I don’t what healing means if one person survives cancer after years of prayers and treatments, then dies of cancer, though having had many happy returns in the midst of the disease.
The thing is, God does miracles. Some are in the heart or head, some in the body. And, sometimes, we don’t recognize them. Maybe some we mislabel, like calling a misdiagnosis a miraculous healing.
I’ve not stopped praying, but my prayers are less for moving mountains and more along the lines of changing the human. I am praying now like it’s what we do with what we are given. Do we turn good to bad? I’m struggling with this. I’ve pretty depressed and negative since Naomi died, more than my usual skeptical, contrarian, glass-half-empty, melancholic levels. I need prayer for spiritual healing. My prayers these days more like the following verses:
“Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90: 14
People frequently allude to Job 14:5 and Psalm 139:16, about how God numbers our days. Okay, But do we as the Psalmist prays for us to do? Do we number our days aright? What do I need to do to conform to God’s long view? Take the long view, Maria, I tell myself.
Or my other prayer:
“Give me beauty for ashes. The oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness that we might be trees of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3
“A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” Prov. 18:14
Here’s the thing. There are loads of verses about God identifying and becoming one with the mourning, the sick, the broken-hearted. There are plenty about miraculous healings too. They call the elders of the Church for the laying on of hands (James 5:14-15 and Hebrews 11:1). They ask the righteous man to pray because his prayers are powerful (James 5:16). They affirm that God heals (Jeremiah 17:14, Psalms 30:2, Mark 16:17-18). There’s also the opaque verses of Phil. 4:19 and 1 John 5: 14-15.
Do you hate me yet for sending references that I’m not quoting? This tends to annoy me. My point are the numbers of verses all over the continuum of healing ideas. My point, if nothing else, is that I don’t know what to pray except from my brokenness. I haven’t lost my faith. I may be doing one of two things: a) losing my grip, as in relinquishing what I cannot control or b) living my way to the answers through the questions, as in getting real with reality without losing mystery. I’ve always identified as a mystic as much as contrarian and melancholic. So here I sit, in the quandary of a self I cannot know. If I can’t know myself fully, how on earth can I purport to have the answers regarding what cannot be seen or quantified?
I’m a crappy person. I’ll pray for you, but I’m not good for the words of miraculous healing. Right now, I’m just stuck in this hope:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Rev. 21: 4