The Trouble with Miracles

“[P]roclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (4.2).

Six months after my diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer, my husband and I waited anxiously in a room at the oncology clinic.  My oncologist would join us shortly to give us the report on the Big Tests I’d recently undergone.  Six months into life with stage IV cancer, we wondered silently if we’d be able to weather more bad news.

The oncologist entered and got right down to business.  She reviewed the bone scan and reported on the healing beginning to occur in my two vertebrae fractured by cancer.  Then she said, “The news from the MRI is perhaps the best news of all.  The images of the place where your tumor was no longer show any thing there.  It seems that the treatment has taken care of the tumor.  It’s gone.  She looked up from the report, and concluded, “This is great news.  You’re doing really, really well.” 

The positive test results offered a much-needed hiatus from the trauma of the previous months.  The reprieve gave me and my family time to reflect on how this diagnosis–and now the miracle of healing–had changed our lives, our faith, our perspectives. 

Shortly after we had received the news of the tumor’s disappearance, my pastor father preached a sermon about our family’s journey of dealing with my cancer diagnosis.  The most powerful part of my dad’s sermon for me came in his acknowledgement of how I was carried to the feet of Jesus by my friends and my family.  My dad was doing what the writer of Timothy calls on Christians to do: proclaim the message, in good times and in bad. 

Indeed, in the midst of a stage IV cancer diagnosis with a lousy prognosis, we’ve been trying to proclaim the message.  I’d say that “Miracle” isn’t too strong a word to describe what happened to me over the past two years.  Hundreds and hundreds of people have prayed for healing for me; profound healing has taken place.  A miracle has occurred.  

But shortly after we news of my miraculous healing, I learned that the husband of a friend of mine had died of cancer.  Diagnosed in November, just weeks before my own diagnosis, this fine, fit, fifty-something man was struck down with cancer, and the ferocity with which it hit him didn’t let up.  Now, just months after the diagnosis, he was dead. 

In the midst of my father’s testimony of my disappearing tumor, he acknowledged that for reasons beyond our ability to grasp, many who are sick, many who suffer, do not survive.  Friends and family bring loved ones to the feet of Jesus and they are not physically healed.

Of course I know this to be the case.  As a theologian, I’ve contemplated this reality for a long time. 

But living it is different than thinking about it.  Faced with the news of my friend’s husband’s death, I struggled with how to proclaim the message.  How could I talk about a miracle for me when they seemed no miracle for him?

If anyone tried to proclaim the noxious message that I had more friends and family bringing me to the feet of Jesus, or that I was somehow more deserving of healing than he was, I would say to them, as does the author of 2 Timothy, that they are “wandering away to myths” (4:4).

As the early deaths of gifted, loving people make blisteringly clear, healing in the face of a terminal diagnosis isn’t about just desserts.  It isn’t about God giving us just enough–but not too much–to handle.  There’s no easy way to proclaim the message of a miracle for me in the face of cancer capturing another precious life.

Attempting to proclaim the message in bad times as well as good, my father also wondered whether those who are not healed physically experience spiritual healing.  Perhaps, he wondered, they begin to view death as a victory rather than a defeat. 

I do not pretend to know what my friend’s husband was thinking in the days before he died.  “I can’t live like this,” was what he wrote in one of his last posts on his Caring Bridge site.  Doctors told him he had reached a point where medicine could do little for him.  A few mornings later, he didn’t wake up. 

Could it be that he had decided he’d had enough?  Did he come to view death as a friend–if not a victory–rather than an enemy?  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

I still struggle with how to be persistent and proclaim the message in good times and bad.

In my struggle to move forward, I’m taken back to a professor-friend’s post on my Caring Bridge site just days after my diagnosis.  While it’s easy to talk about what’s good, mediocre, even bad in our lives, this friend wrote, “the horrendous initially strikes us dumb. When we throw words at it, hoping to defend ourselves, the words fall flat.” 

I have yet to find words that don’t fall flat when talking about the early, painful deaths of my friend’s husband and the deaths of so many others each of us can name. 

But for my friend writing the post, flat words don’t have the last word. 

He concludes his message with this:

It is the same at the other end of the spectrum. The sacred ties our tongues. Only true poetry can give voice to the emotions the sacred elicits. But no words, however deeply felt or carefully chosen, can do the topic justice.
This much, however, is clear. The two ends of the spectrum are linked.

My friend’s words help me to be persistent in proclaiming the message–through the best times and the worst–that God is the God in the midst of all of it.