Memories of God #8
Our pastoral care professor in seminary would say that being present as someone dies is one of the few "supernatural" occurrences we modern people may still see---and we're hiding it away more and more. His main point was that our scientific age, for good and ill, has taken away much mystery in our lives. The sound we hear in the dark is easily enough dispelled with the flick of the switch, whereas there was time when one had to light a fire to explain the noise. And lighting a fire wasn't always as easy as striking a match.
I've been present at the deaths of a handful of people, maybe 4 or 5. Most were unknown patients when I was a chaplain in a hospital one summer. One was my mother. We all die and it is a terrible, mysterious event, but it can be full of revelation as well.
A very few years after seminary, I had a friend who was dying. He was coughing to death, having lived into his late 30s with cystic fibrosis. His name was Bill. Simultaneously, a seminary friend had a friend, also named Bill, who was dying from brain cancer. She asked me to pray for a miraculous healing, for her Bill to be fully cleared of cancer. I said I would, of course, and asked her to pray for my Bill. But then I asked a terrible question, one full of theodicy.
Why do we pray for a cancer patient to be fully healed while another has a congenital disease that we simply accept will kill him? We might reasonably expect a cancer patient to be healed---there are treatments and sometimes they work. But there are no treatments for a cystic fibrosis patient, except maybe a lung transplant, and then that's only temporary. Eventually, s/he will cough to death. She saw my point, but promised to pray for my Bill all the same.
Which brings me to this particular experience of God, one that troubles me less than it once did, but may be troubling for others. Praying for my her Bill, I had a very distinct feeling that there was nothing to be done. I felt that the answer to the prayer was, "everyone dies and this is how her Bill dies." That seems like a terribly rotten answer from an all powerful God. But I suspect even God might feel badly about that.
Is God all-powerful? If so he is cruel to let us die in these terrible ways. If God is not all-powerful, what do we make of the power God does have? This is not an answer to be received in a blog post, after libraries of books have been written on these questions.
What I do believe is this: We are mortal. For whatever reason, we're designed with this flaw of fragility. And all the terrible ways we die---disease, violence, disaster, alone---are but opportunities for God to work some sort of redemption out of it. Stated more plainly, while I don't believe that God sends disease, I do believe that God goes about the business of redeeming the event of the disease. More scientific data is gathered to prevent further suffering. A family or separated friends are reunited. Comfort comes from unexpected places and the Reign of God breaks into the horrors of our lives.
My friend's Bill died and so did my Bill. I know less about the aftermath of her Bill's death, and I know only some about the aftermath of my Bill's death. I do know that my Bill's death has found some redemption, from writing he left behind, from achievements his wife has made that would have been impossible while she was caring for him.
I don't know that I'm expressing what's on my mind about this very well, and there's always the question, "but why did they get sick in the first place?" hanging in the air. No one has been able to answer it. I only know that redemption comes for those willing to work with God, watch for God's movement. I trust when my time comes to die, someone's grief will be blessed by God's redemption, too.