Originally posted in 2006 at RLP
Back in the early 90s, a man named John was a member of our church. He was a professional man, with a wife and two sons. Sam was in high school, and Teddy was in middle school. Both boys played football. His wife Allison was beautiful and very involved with a number of local civic organizations. This was the life they had imagined. Things were working out just as they had planned.
And then a doctor told John that he had a large, inoperable tumor in his abdomen. Chemotherapy and radiation were options, but the doctor was not overly optimistic.
We who were his church were shocked and saddened. We prayed with John and Allison, hoping that the treatments would work and that God would grant them some kind of miracle. But as time went by, it became clear that the treatments were not working. The tumor did not decrease in size.
The people of our church are committed to prayer. Prayer is a sacred part of our spiritual tradition, and it is an important part of our covenant with each other. Even when do not understand what is happening, we give ourselves to the discipline of prayer. We put the best we have into it. We are also aware that most of the time God allows things to take their natural course. When last I checked, the death rate was holding steady at 100%. So no matter how many miracles you name and claim, at some point your prayers for healing will be answered with a no.
John continued his treatments. We prayed and waited with them. At the suggestion of a friend, he and his family visited another church in a nearby city. This church, they were told, believed very strongly in healing. In fact, they believed in healing so much that they would claim their miracles ahead of time. Their idea was that God promises health and healing in the Bible. So if your faith is strong enough, you can claim your miracle before you even receive it. This claiming was thought by the people of that church to be evidence of strong faith. Doubt, on the other hand, was evidence of a lack of faith.
I will admit that there are places in the Bible that say that having faith is an important part of praying. I will also tell you that these few passages ought to be read along with the rest of the Bible’s witness on prayer and not read in isolation and improperly emphasized.
John and Allison were fairly desperate, as you can imagine, so they left our church and joined the church that emphasized claiming miracles and healing. They weren’t angry with us. But this other church was saying things that were giving them hope.
And I’m sure that after all the bad news, any kind of hope felt good to them.
A few weeks after they joined the other church, John announced that a miracle had happened. He had been healed of his cancer. Their church celebrated, and there was even an article about it in the local newspaper. The title of the article was, “I Am Healed!” The only catch was, their doctor was still feeling the tumor when he palpated John’s abdomen. He tried to tell John that the tumor was still there, but John would hear nothing of it. At the encouragement of his church, neither John or Allison would even talk about the tumor. Nor were their boys allowed to speak of it. Even admitting the presence of the tumor might be seen by God as a lack of faith. If they wanted to receive a miracle from God, it was critical that they have no doubts whatsoever.
As far as I know, John boldly claimed that he had been healed right up until the day the tumor killed him.
I attended the funeral, which was held at their new church. Everyone seemed very upbeat. They celebrated John’s life, as of course they should have. Then the pastor rose to speak. He looked down from his pulpit at John’s family, and he had this to say:
“Allison, Sam, and Teddy, don’t cry for John. You have no reason to cry because he’s not dead. I know the doctors say he is dead. I know that everyone thinks he is dead, but he’s not.”
This got everyone’s attention. I know I sat up a little straighter when I heard it. Then the pastor continued:
“John is alive right now in heaven with Jesus. And because he is in heaven, he’s happier now than ever before. You have no reason to cry. Smile and be happy. You’ll see John again one day in heaven.”
Oh, alive in heaven. You could feel the people settling back into their seats. Well, yeah, he’s alive with Jesus, but he’s still dead here on earth. That’s why they put him in that fancy box at the front of the church. Being with Jesus in heaven is also a part of our theology, and it has a proper place in a Christian funeral, certainly. But heaven should never be used to talk people out of their grief.
I thought to myself, “My God, these boys were not allowed to talk about their father’s cancer. They were not allowed even to admit the reality of it. They were allowed no preparation for his death. And now that their father is dead, they aren’t allowed to cry. Even crying is seen as a lack of faith.”
Before the service ended, Allison, Sam, and Teddy rose and walked down the aisle to the back of the church. When Sam went by me, I saw that his teeth were clinched and his face was rigid. His eyes were moist, but his chin was held high, and his face was so hard. You can tell a lot about the state of a person’s soul if you look at the way his jaw is set in his face.
I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but some wisdom is given me. I think I can tell you what happened to Sam in the months and years that followed. Sam swallowed his own grief. He squeezed it down his gullet and into his abdomen, which is the place where men often store their sorrows. He swallowed his pain because men do that and because he was told that denying his grief was a Godly thing to do. And there, in the pit of his stomach, his grief became an emotional bezoar, knotted and tortured and matted with undigested sorrow.
Religion that denies the body becomes sick and cancerous. Sam will have hard grief work to do because his church would not help him with it. Grief will not be denied. Sam’s sorrow will not go away but will remain in his belly, a tumor that no doctor can feel.
And someday he will have to cough that fucker up.