Tag Archives: death

Letter 47: To L- What I Cannot Say Sunday

I am writing you now ahead of our meeting because I doubt I will get a chance to say much to you privately, and much of what I want to say will not fit the sort of things I expect will be said at that time.  You will hear much about faith, and God’s promises, and God’s power, and God’s love, but very little of His mystery.

I have no idea what it’s like to have your disease, nor do I know you well enough to guess what you might be thinking.  I do know suffering, however.  I have battled what I now know to be Depression for much of my life.  It can manifest itself as bouts of fear and anxiety, but mostly it is just a slow dripping faucet of inner gloom.  There have been times when the sense of pain has been overwhelming.  I would like to say that I prayed and it ended, but it didn’t.  This appears to be something I am going to have to live with, and some days I do better with it than others.

I believe God can and does heal, but not always.  Too many people I’ve prayed for have not gotten well for me to say otherwise.

When I was a teenager, a girl in your youth group was diagnosed with cancer.  We prayed, hard.  We prayed in tongues as well as in English.  Within the fashions of the time, we did everything we were supposed to do, and yet she died.  That has stayed with me all these years.  Nothing was said about it afterwards.  The church had put in all this effort and energy, and when it did not yield the desired results, we dropped it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

It doesn’t fit with our message.  We want success, and success is healing.  We are told to pray in faith, to pray in tongues, to pray out loud– as an aside, have you ever noticed that most guides to prayer get down to “How to Get What You Want From God”?  Jesus Himself tells us to pray constantly, to batter Heaven with our request.  Yet He also tells us there is no need for endless repetition, and that faith the size of a mustard seed will prevail.  I’m not sure which one applies.

This is not a new problem, of course.  When you get to your required philosophy course in college, and I hope you take one, you will learn that it goes by the name, “The Problem of Evil.”  “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil occur?”  This is one of the central questions of the Job.  If you re-read it, you’ll notice God never answers Job’s question about why all of this happened to him.  Yet Job ends the book satisfied.  He has seen God, and that was enough.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and confident under such trying circumstances, but I want to assure you that it’s okay if you’re not.  I can even understand if you want to tell off God.  I have, on occasion.  He’s big enough to handle it.  It’s interesting that for all his complaints to God, God does not rebuke Job.  God does, however, rebuke Job’s friends for their efforts to defend God.  Take comfort from this in the trying times.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I will be praying for your healing Sunday, as I have been for some time, but I will also be praying that He will strengthen you, and open you up to His mystery.

From your work in television, you know that the characters on screen are to carry on unaware that there is a soundstage enveloping them.  They are in the moment of their story, and the goings on outside of that are hidden from them.  So it is with us.

God means to build saints, and there is a whole story going on to achieve this that lies just outside our vision.  Much of it will make little sense until we reach our journey’s end.  We have Christ as our Guide and token, He who died to rise again and prepare a place for us where there shall be no more tears and no more night.

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Letter 14: For L, A Lament

I fear I must again interrupt my discussion of worship. My wife’s best friend lost her long battle with cancer just before Thanksgiving. She was 44, and leaves behind a husband and two children.

Since L was first diagnosed five years ago, we have been praying for her, that God would heal her of the cancer, and restore her to health. God answered otherwise. So we are left with questions.

Like you, I am familiar with God’s precious promises of Scripture. How we can boldly approach the throne of God to as what we will, in Jesus’ name, confident that it will be done. We are to continually repeat our prayers until we get what we seek. God intends to bless us, to prosper us. He answers the prayer of faith. Have the elders come and anoint with oil and pray for healing. Ask, and it shall be given.

Or not.

We did all of these things, with persistence and vigor. We were not alone in this, as other Christians, in other churches also prayed for L. My wife was ceaseless in her efforts, confident that God would act to heal her friend. Only he didn’t, and now the questions begin.

Should we have prayed harder?

Did we use the wrong words in making our prayers?

Should we have fasted more, or physically laid hands on her, or used only holy oil from Jerusalem?

What would it have taken for God to answer our prayers as we sought?

I don’t know.

Throughout my walk as a Christian, I have prayed for people to be delivered from the bonds of death, often to no avail. It has mattered not how fervently I have prayed, or how godly or ungodly the person I am praying to be delivered may be. In the main, they have died, despite my prayers.

Can God heal? Yes, absolutely. The question is, will He? In each and every instance, I cannot say that he will. And I don’t know why.

We are told to pray persistently. Yet, Jesus also tells not to repeat ourselves like the pagans when we pray.

We are told not to doubt when we pray. Yet Jesus assures us that even faith the size of a mustard seed will move mountains.

These are old questions. They form a variant of the “Problem of Evil.” They are doubly cruel because God encourages us to pray, to ask anything of him in Jesus’ name. But why do so if He’s not going to answer them?

That is, perhaps, a bit harsh. After all, it is entirely possibly, even likely, that God prolonged L’s life in answer to our prayers. And that’s all we can really ask for, a prolonged life. But we were hoping for a longer delay, and a respite from the pain.

Job asked these questions of God, and more, and he never received an answer. What he did receive was a revelation of God, and a more children and livestock and wealth to replace what had been taken. But people are not a fungible commodity, capable of easy replacement. My wife will develop other friends, but they will not be L. We can only hope that on that great getting up morning, we shall meet again.

In Luke 4:25-27, Jesus offers a slight glimpse into this reality. While offered in the context of His rejection by His own people, Jesus admits to a reality. There were many widows and lepers in need of a miracle in the days of the prophets, yet only the Widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian received them. Surely prayers were offered for the others, too. So why weren’t they helped? Lack of belief in the prophets perhaps, but all of them? Jesus offers no explanation.

Again, in John 5:1-8, Jesus heals the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda, John notes that there were many sick people there, waiting for the angel to stir the waters, yet Jesus heals only this one man. Why? No explanation is given.

We so desperately want an explanation, if only to give us some measure of control in the face of suffering. But the Bible is stubborn in not offering an answer.

It would be easy to resolve the tension by asserting that life has no meaning, and therefore, none of the constituent parts that make up life have any meaning. There are just a series of random events, guided only by probabilities. But that is not ultimately satisfying. While it removes meaning from suffering, it does not remove suffering. It also leaves out human will and intentions. We wander aimless as a cloud, as events “happen,” until the last such occurrence extinguishes our brief candle.

Hardly a life worth living.

Another possibility is that God is, in some way, cruel; that for reasons that please Him, he allows, if not wills, suffering upon some of His creatures. Why? There appears to be no pattern to suffering to guide us in our efforts to live a happy life. Is God Himself subject to some law of randomness? If so, He is rather less than God, and we fall back on the discussion above.

We keep circling back on this issue. We want our lives and our actions to have purpose and meaning. We ascribe similar attributes to God. The Bible certainly supports the idea that God has purpose and intent. Throughout the Old Testament, God reinforces this understanding by framing things in conditional terms. He rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. That makes things easy for us to understand. Life becomes a series of rules grounded in God, His will and His nature. We can learn these rules, master them, and live accordingly.

Only it doesn’t always work that way. The Disciples asked Jesus for the explanation for the “Man Born Blind” in John 9. They knew someone had sinned to bring this about, their only question was who.

Jesus’ answer must have left them flabbergasted. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We are thrust back on God’s will again as the only explanation. “Jacob I have loved. Esau I have hated.” (Mal. 1:2-3) Simple as that.

Perhaps it is time that we rediscover God. We like to pin Him down, like an insect on a card, to explain His every attribute and action. In so doing, we make Him tame, subject, if not to our wills, to certain laws, which have the same effect. God seems to delight in smashing our expectations of Him, thundering from Sinai, falling as fire from heaven, speaking as a still small voice, or coming as a helpless infant of suspect origins. He wants to remind us that He is God, subject only to Himself.

I will admit that this is a dark answer, one that leaves me groping. I wish I had better, but I don’t.

We make much of God’s goodness, often going so far as to present Him as a sort of sugar daddy, ready to meet our needs, as if that is His highest aim. It makes a great selling point for evangelism. It just isn’t true. God aims to make saints, a people for Himself. He chooses the means most likely and most suited to achieve this. He doesn’t rule out suffering, and if we study the life Christ in any measure, God almost guarantees suffering as a part of our path.

Indeed it is to Christ that I am most drawn in this time, more specifically, to Christ on the cross. Here, he cries out to God for mercy, for relief, and finds none. (“Was there ever such grief as mine?” asks the old liturgy for Good Friday) He pours out His all, looking heavenward, and to us. This is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil, that He himself undergoes it, suffers its depredations with us, and is somehow transformed, and transforming. He Himself draws no answers, He only submits in faithful obedience.

So I sit in prayerful waiting, compelled to contemplate God’s mystery, accepting that there is much I do not know and cannot know. I cling to God’s goodness, and trust that He knows what He is doing, and that His plan will reach His appointed end. I try to accept that pain and suffering are among the tools He uses to achieve those ends. But when the questions get too much, I look again to Christ, and there I am satisfied.

There are no prayers

To be offered

Now

Only laments.

Summon the mourners,

Sing the dirge.

One I loved was

And is no more.

Bold did I approach

That eternal throne,

And oft my suit prepared

With loud cries and tears

Did I make my

Wants and wishes known.

There is a silence

In stilled breath

That drowns out

Our prayers.

This, then, is our answer;

A mockery of every promise,

A turning aside from our

Deepest cries.

What sort of God is this?

Cruelly deaf and arm too short.

Who joyfully answers petty requests

While giving over our souls to the grave?

Shall our prayers yield nothing more

Than a bolted door, a face set like flint

And a sky turned to brass.

Why, oh why, has thou forsaken me?

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