(Or: Why I Didn’t Stand Up at Church Last Sunday)
“Anyone else?” the pastor asked, scanning the sanctuary. “Anyone else need healing?” The lights had been dimmed and there were people on their feet dotted throughout the room. I felt a rustling on my right as the man sitting next to me put his phone on the floor and stood up. A woman two rows in front of me looked around skittishly before rising to her feet as well.
Given my recent diagnosis, the one that everyone seems to know about but skillfully avoids should they find themselves in unexpected conversation with me, I knew what was expected of me. But I stayed in my seat with my hands clasped firmly in my lap, hoping I would appear pious enough for a pass. Probably no one was looking at me or thinking about me at all. People rarely are. But I felt a warmth blossoming across my neck all the same.
I learned last year that I have multiple sclerosis. An illness that is incurable, degenerative and highly unpredictable. But it’s not typically terminal. I may need walking assistance in the not-too-distant future. Or Depends for incontinence. Or any number of assistive devices to help me get out of bed in the morning. For now, while I await this seemingly inevitable decline, my days are often filled with considerable pain and crushing fatigue. And when they aren’t, they’re filled with a near-paralyzing sense that I must breathe-it-all-in-enjoy-every- moment-give-thanks-for-what-I’ve-got because it probably won’t last. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle.
So I really should have been on my feet that day at church. I know that. There’s a creeping numbness already working its way up my left ankle, one side of my face tingles wildly every time I open the oven to check on dinner, and my left hand is heavy even as I type this. My body is in need of some divine intervention, no doubt. But I didn’t stand up. I didn’t even consider standing up.
I knew that it would buoy my family and friends to see me standing. To see me hoping. To see me rise with the rest of our congregation’s weak-bodied cohort, humble before a God we claim holds the ability to either grant or deny us our requests for deliverance. But I didn’t stand up. I didn’t allow the people sitting in my vicinity to surround me and lay their hands on me. I didn’t allow them to pray over me and beseech God for bodily healing on my behalf. I didn’t because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe God is going to heal me.
Even writing those words makes my heart beat a little faster and my hands clam up on my computer keys. How can I say such a thing? Such sacrilege! Oh me of little faith. Oh me who grew up in the Church. Me, who had my head anointed with oil by the elders as a teenager when the first harbingers of my disease made themselves known. Me, who has been prayed over countless times before — for things MS-related and things not. Me, who has begged God again and again and again for healing for other people; friends, family members, even strangers. Oh me who won’t stand up.
When I was nineteen, home from college for the summer, I met a woman at our church picnic. She was seated in the grass near my sister and me and chatted with us while we ate our baked beans and corn. She was in her thirties, sitting cross-legged, and asked what classes my sister and I would be taking in the Fall. She nodded encouragingly while we gabbed about our roommates, intramural sports and the questionable food in the dining commons. I was captivated by her — by her warm smile, her kind eyes that crinkled when she laughed at our stories, and her uncanny presence with us in that moment on the lawn. Afterward my mother told me that her name was Laurie. And that she was dying of cancer.
No, I said, disbelieving. No, you must be thinking of someone else. I resolved that night — prodded, I believed, by God — to pray for Laurie every single day. And I was convinced that if I could get enough people to pray with me, Laurie would be healed. I was certain of it. I bought a stack of index cards and set to work, making hundreds of what I called “prayer reminder cards” with Laurie’s name on them, along with a verse and an admonishment to the holder of the card to “pray for complete healing.” I handed them out to everyone I knew and even people I didn’t. I gave the cards to all my friends, each of my professors, even our school chaplain. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. I prayed every day for months for a woman I hardly knew because she had been kind to me at a church picnic. She died, of course, before the next picnic had even rolled around.
“You’re not gonna… you know,” an acquaintance asks, tilting her head forward and raising her eyebrows.
“You know… like… die. You aren’t, are you?”
“No, no, probably not. People with multiple sclerosis usually die with MS, not of MS,” I reassure her.
“Oh… cool, she nods, relieved. “So you just, like, might need a wheelchair or a walker someday?”
“Well, I guess you’re no different from me, then! I mean, I might need a wheelchair someday, too! When I’m old.”
If I had cancer…?
I might have stood up at church that day if I had cancer. We have all sorts of cultural narratives that we use nowadays when we talk about cancer — more, even, than we had when Laurie was dying. War metaphors, mostly. We like to refer to cancer as a battle. A fight. We call those who are afflicted warriors and we know how to rally the troops (the doctors and nurses and other supporters) so that together they can wage war on the disease and “kick cancer’s ass.” Sometimes the afflicted wins the battle, sometimes they don’t, but at least we understand the story — even if we don’t like the ending.
We understand it because it aligns with our cultural perceptions of suffering and difficulty. If there is suffering on the individual level, we want to root it out at all costs. We work to eradicate it by any and all means necessary and then move on as quickly as possible. Cancer often fits neatly into this mold. This is not to say that I would rather have cancer than multiple sclerosis. I would rather have neither. Mostly I just wonder if I would have stood up if I had a disease that aligned better with the stories we like to tell ourselves. Stories of waging war and gearing up for battle. Because then the prayers and the people who prayed them could just be another bullet in my chamber as I step onto the field for the fight.
In the grand scheme of things, cancer is more of a flash in the pan than a long slow burn. And I’m finding as I begin to navigate what it means to have this disease that the larger culture in the United States — and by extension, the Church in the United States — doesn’t know how to handle the unknown entities of a degenerative-but-not-typically-terminal disease. I’m not sure how to process my new reality because there is no armor to don, battle lines to be drawn, or fights to be won. We lack the stories for it. We lack the narratives for the day-in, day-out, long-suffering involved with an incurable, pain-filled, life-altering illness. We either pretend that it isn’t happening — we pretend, say, that your possible-but-unlikely need for a wheelchair when you’re 80 is the same thing as my potential need for one when I’m 40 — or we pray for the suffering to be put to rout by way of divine healing.
Yet suffering is precisely where the great mysteries of the cross and our lives cohere. Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan author and spiritual teacher, teaches that God is suffering love. If we are the image of God and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. We may not find refuge from our suffering, Rohr says, but we can also not find refuge from God’s love, which permeates our suffering through and through and through and through and through. God is suffering and God is permeating love. At the same time. The cross reveals this ultimate reality. Jesus did not observe human suffering from a distance but was instead, “somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us.”
Missing the Mark
But we don’t seem to know this, even as Christians. It is, at least in part, a problem of paradigm. Our primary paradigm in the US for understanding how the world is ordered is economics. Our central value, as a culture, is the inducement to buy and sell goods. This for that. While other countries might embrace a kinship culture or center around politics, ours is a culture of consumption. So rather than understanding the cross as a space of profound transformation and deep healing, we embrace atonement theology and penal substitution as our animating metaphors for understanding the cross and see it instead as a transaction. A tit for tat. And we pray that way, too. We go to church on Sunday mornings and attempt to exchange our prayers and our piety for bodily health and well-being.
The problem with praying for healing in this way is that it exposes the way the Church is missing the mark. Our prayers for healing play so well into the cultural narratives that exist in our culture around pain and suffering that it obscures the difference between the two and turns God into Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia who dispenses her magical cordial drops to those who are injured or ill but only if the person really, really, really needs it because there’s not enough for everyone. We like to think that we’ve outgrown the notion of God as Grand Puppeteer, or Benevolent Cordial-Dispenser; that we don’t believe in a Super Being up in the clouds pulling the strings and cranking the levers, but our prayers indict us.
How is the healing that the world offers me any different from the healing that the Church is offering me? Since being diagnosed I’ve spent endless hours online scouring the interwebs for information about my disease. And now my news and social media feeds offer me vastly different advertisements than they did one year ago. Instead of hawking the latest trends in middle-age-white-lady fashion, shoes and accessories like they used to, the internet has decided that I’ve moved on to the likes of “The Ultimate MS Travel Checklist” and “Living With MS; One Woman’s Brave Story.” Which, I’ll admit, I have. But I also see ad after ad after ad espousing the next great thing for someone in my condition. Promises of complete cure (total remission!) if I take this supplement, try that cream, change my diet to this, exercise like that. Links to videos that I watch patiently, sometimes more than twenty minutes, waiting to hear the one thing that doctors won’t tell me before I realize they are never going to tell me unless I pay $39.99 for their exclusive video (only available at this price for the next 72 hours!). It’s exhausting.
And then I show up on Sunday morning to find the Church offering the exact same thing. If I pray this prayer, hope like this, beseech like that, stand at the right time, and — here’s the essential part — truly believe, I might be healed. I come to church, in part, to share my pain and suffering and find instead that I’m put through yet more paces. Does the Church have good intentions? I have no doubt of this. But I don’t know if Jesus, healer of the bleeding woman and the blind man at Bethsaida, actually embraced this archetype. Did Jesus say to those who approached him do this and then I’ll do that? Did Jesus promise a cure if they would do all the right things? Or did he simply offer them a gift? A beautiful, generous, breathtaking gift?
Was the bleeding woman physically healed? Was the blind man? They almost certainly were and that alone is worthy of exploration. But it’s actually the least interesting part of those stories. When we look at the bleeding woman we see a woman who was considered unclean and therefore excluded from her community; unable to partake in the religious ceremonies and traditions that marked daily and seasonal life. She was also unmarry-able because of her condition, compounding her social and emotional isolation further still. And she had likely spent countless hours and endless money searching for the next great thing that might cure her so that she could change her life. Healing her was so much more than merely quelling the flow of blood from her body. The miracle wasn’t that she stopped bleeding. The miracle was that she was seen by Jesus. She was seen by Jesus, her story was heard and her dignity affirmed. When Jesus healed her, he spoke to all the areas of woundedness and pain and devastation in her life. He also healed her body.
I wonder what would have happened if our pastor had said, “Stand up if you are exhausted. Stand up if you are all out of options. Stand up if you aren’t sure you can take even one more step and you wonder if this is all a crock of shit. Honestly I think the Church would probably be ok with that. My church would, anyway. But before we can do that we need to acknowledge the idol we’ve made of God. We need to name the idolatry of our belief in a God who conforms to our erroneous notions of how the world works; the idolatry of a God who takes the payment of our prayers and exchanges them for miracles.
Only when we have named and renounced our idolatry can we make room for new metaphors and prayers to take shape. Only then can we ask folks at church to stand up, acknowledging that they likely won’t be healed, but that we would like the opportunity to see them like Jesus saw the blind man and the bleeding woman. Stand up and let us see the pain and the fear and the devastation in your lives because your bodies are hurting. Stand up so we can hear your stories and hold you before a benevolent God who is the ground of our being, whose love will permeate your pain through and through and through and through. Stand up so that we can see your suffering and say with the unknown author of Lamentations, “How great is your pain… it is deep as the ocean.”
Standing up last Sunday would have signalled our collective effort to avoid the transformation that comes with longsuffering and circumvent the virtues that might be cultivated in our lives by enduring such pain and hardship. It would have been to deny the places where God’s profound, abiding love and our deep suffering dance together in mysterious, holy ways. Do I want to be healed? Of course I do. I saw a woman in a yellow dress yesterday outside the window of the cafe where I was writing and I watched as she bounded up a set of stairs. Watching her move with such ease made my chest constrict with longing. I watched her walk all the way down the street and felt inexpressibly sad.
Yes, I’d like to be healed. But I don’t believe in a superhero God who doles out miracles on a whim to the most faithful. My dad has Alzheimer’s disease and I am not praying for him to be healed either. I am praying for him to be seen by the people around him, to be held in the mind of God, and for his suffering and dignity to be affirmed. Because I do believe in a God who swells up from the depths and moves around us in ways both seen and unseen. I believe in a God who sees me and sees my body and all the ways it now impacts and at times impedes my life. I believe in a God who suffers with me and surrounds me with a love so capacious it will one day make all things new.
But I’ll be waiting in my seat.
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