giphy“Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or to try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators, and prevents a real community from taking shape. Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden. And so cure can often become offending instead of liberating. ” –Henri J.M. Nouwen

 “A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell a person in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.” –Adam S. McHugh

Author and sociologist Dr. Tony Campolo, tells a story about being in a church in Oregon when he was asked to pray for a man who had cancer. Campolo prayed boldly for the man’s healing. A few weeks later the man’s wife called him.

“You prayed for my husband. He had cancer.”

Campolo was elated. When he heard her use the past tense verb, he thought his cancer had been eradicated! Before he could say anything, she continued. “He died.”

Campolo felt terrible. But she reassured him.

“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “When he came into that church that Sunday he was filled with anger. He knew he was going to be dead in a short period of time, and he hated God. He was 58 years old, and he wanted to see his children and grandchildren grow up. He was angry that this all-powerful God didn’t take away his sickness and heal him.

“He would lie in bed and curse God. The more his anger grew toward God, the more miserable he was to everybody around him. It was an awful thing to be in his presence.”

She paused and then went on.

“After you prayed for him, a peace came over him and a joy came into him. Tony, the last three days have been the best days of our lives! We’ve sung. We’ve laughed. We’ve read scripture. We’ve prayed. Oh, they’ve been wonderful days. And I called to thank you for laying your hands on him and praying for healing.”

And then she said something incredibly profound.

“He wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”

Sometimes we wonder if we are asking, praying, and pleading for the wrong things. Both of us can remember instances in our lives when someone asked us if it would be okay to pray for each of us in our unique situations, hoping to fix the painful and challenging realities we were living with at that time.

Tom

I remember talking with a close friend about my physical condition and its attendant pain. I really opened up to him and he decided to lay his hands on my back and pray intensely for healing from the pain I suffer. For several weeks, every time I was with him, he prayed for God to heal me and perform a miracle. Every week, I would leave the prayer time, searching, wondering, and questioning whether God truly heard his prayers.

The pain never went away.

After several more weeks of the same monotonous routine, I found myself getting frustrated when I was with my friend. I appreciated his initiative. I appreciated his desire to see me free from my chronic suffering. I appreciated his consistency. But nothing ever changed; I started to feel as if he was simply trying to cure my situation. I even shared with him that my doctor said that I’d never be fully cured, that I would always feel pain. But my friend kept praying that I would be completely healed. My frustration grew so much I began to avoid him whenever I could. It was less awkward that way.

The thing is, my situation is incurable.

Doctors have told me the condition is something I was born with, but treatment may provide some relief to ease my burden. The doctors have told me that the condition will likely be with me for the rest of my life. In other words, I would have to learn to live with it.

I used to wish my back pain would simply go away; and there are days I still do. The pain has gotten worse over the years and has required two spinal fusion surgeries, the second far more intensive than the first. In addition, broken bones, surgeries, fibromyalgia, concussions, and depression have caused my overall physical condition to decline also.

It’s been years since my friend‘s weekly prayers for healing. As I look back, it is clear to me that God answered my friend’s prayers – because I have learned to accept and live with the physical challenges I am confronted with every day – even if they were not answered in the way I wanted them to be answered.

Michael

Many years ago, a kind, older woman in the church told me nearly every time I saw her that she prayed every night for Matthew to be healed of his intellectual disabilities and autism. It was a mantra of hers. She meant it.

She really believed that his challenges could be taken away and that he could live life just like his brothers. She was a serious student of the Bible. She never missed a church service, and she was beloved by the congregation, a true saint of the church. She also mailed greeting cards to our home regularly, almost always with money inside, another sign of her care and concern for our family’s well being. She showed us generously and faithfully that she loved us and wanted us to be okay.

We loved her and appreciated her deep compassion and support. When she passed away, I was terribly sad. She was one of my favorite parishioners and I felt privileged to serve her. At her funeral service, I spoke gratefully and lovingly of her cards, her gifts of money, and her fervent prayers.

But I never expected her prayers to work—at least not in the way she meant them. She prayed for Matthew to talk, to not be incontinent, to not have to be in special education, to feed himself, to dress himself, to stop hitting and pulling hair, and to be “normal.”

Kathy and I never thought that any of that would happen. Some of it might get better – and some of it has. There have been less severe moments of hitting and pulling hair, more times of properly using a toilet when placed there at regular intervals, and improved communication by pointing at pictures of things that he wants. But the fact remains, intellectually he is younger than a two-year old, his walking and hand coordination has worsened, he still wets through his pajamas most nights, and he needs constant one-on-one care every minute of the day to protect himself from harm.

None of that will ever change.

As much as we might desire it, we know it won’t. In the natural order of the world God has created, we know that Matthew’s disabilities will always be with him—and us.

We are perfectly fine with that. We love him just the way he is. Our prayer isn’t that his disabilities will go away. But it is that we will have the stamina, the strength, the good humor, the patience, the serenity and the grace to embrace Matthew for who he is— a beloved child of God. We have not prayed for the physical and mental facts of Matthew’s circumstances to change, but for our understandings and attitudes to change. We have prayed to know what can change and what cannot change and for the wisdom to know the difference.

Maybe both Tom and I have been healed, but not in the ways that our friends have prayed we might be. In the decisions we have both made to embrace the pain, the challenges, the discomfort, limitations and the realities of our circumstances, we have been healed of lingering anger, bitterness, and resentment. We both have learned to recognize the differences between what we can and cannot do and have accepted them. We have learned to live with greater gratitude and joy and to allow our challenges to help us have more sensitivity and empathy for others in their struggles too.

We pray that what we have learned enables us to be more compassionate listeners.

Dr. Kenneth Haugk, clinical psychologist, pastor and author, has written about “healing people,” who they are, and how they respond to others’ grief and pain. In an excerpt from his book Finding Hope and Healing, he writes:

The key to walking through your grief is finding people who will let you talk and help you heal. I call these healing people. H-E-A-L stands for Here, Empathetic, Accepting, and Listening. Healing people are:

  • Here for you when you need them. They’re willing to be with you and make time for you. They know that their presence is one of the greatest gifts they can give.
  • Empathetic. No one else can truly understand what you’re feeling. But people with empathy will do their best to understand and to let some of your pain touch them. 
  • Accepting. They don’t judge you, try to change you, or tell you what you should do or how you should think or feel.
  • Listening. They really focus on what you have to say. They let you share your feelings and know how important it is for you to tell your story again and again. 

Some healing people will seek you out, but most of the time you’ll have to look for them. One man told me, “I’d read people’s faces. I’d check their eyes when we made eye contact. I’d look at their body language. I’d listen to how they said, ‘How are you?’ I was often able to tell which people really wanted to know how I was.”

You can sometimes help a friend become a healing person. A woman told me about a friend who wanted to help but kept interrupting her with cheerful clichés. Finally, the woman told her friend,

“Here’s what I need from you. Let me be upset without trying to cheer me up or fix things. Let me talk – while you mostly remain quiet and listen. Let me cry. Give me a hug. You don’t have to say or do a whole lot. Mostly just be there and care.”

Her friend got the point and became a healing person from then on. The grieving woman offered a wonderful gift to her friend – the opportunity to care in a more helpful way, a gift the woman returned many times over.

For more than three years now we’ve had an ongoing conversation with a woman from another state. Sometimes we talk over the phone or through Skype. Mostly, we connect via email. We’ve often written back and forth several times a week. Her story is one of anguish, heartbreak and loss.

Like so many, she and her family struggled, sometimes desperately, with their finances. There was never enough. Not even close. Every week was a master class in juggling payments, bills and overdue notices. She despaired most weeks at how little there was and how much was needed. Something was always sacrificed. The decisions at times were heart wrenching and she cried out – always in frustration, often in anger, sometimes in pain – at how hard it all was to keep going and to keep it together.

Her mother, who lived with them, was in a wheelchair, completely dependent upon her for all of the essentials of daily life. Cutting her food. Feeding it to her. Administering her medications. Bathing her. Caring for her intimate toileting needs. A once active, capable woman now required her daughter‘s total care to help her through each day.

Her husband had cancer. He is weak, tired, worn. Trips to his medical specialists, 70 miles away, were an all-day affair and brutal on his fragile body. Finding reliable transportation and the brutality of the travel made it relentlessly hard to get to the appointments.At times they had to cancel them as a result. He spent nearly all his time closed in, unable to go out, and unable to muster the strength to do much of anything.

Responsible for the well being of both, she can’t work outside the home. Teaching a few students piano lessons gave her a little spending money. But the students were sporadic; she couldn’t depend on them for a steady income. The few dollars they received from the students, the disability payments her husband received, and her mother’s Social Security checks certainly helped. Yet none of it was enough to make ends meet.

Just what does a person do when she is desperate to find an answer?

She shared her frustration many times with us, from her home several hours away. We knew that her situation was overwhelming. We’d ask her about options, answers, and about finding a way through her anxiety. It was hard to know just what to say, short of offering her money we didn’t have, or how there might be a way to help.

She told us that she swallowed her pride one day and made an appointment with the priest from the church she attended on the few Sundays she had a small break in her caregiving and was able to leave the house.

We wrote to ask her how it went. It didn’t take long for her to reply:

To answer your questions … the discussion with Father was a total waste of time. He acted like he didn’t want to know and made it clear that he was rather busy. His attitude was—and he actually said, “He (her husband, who was still a citizen of another country) should go back home where he can get National Health.”

I told my friend who encouraged me to talk to him and she said she’d talk with him. So? I have made a couple other calls and I am going to see a pastor at another church.I used to go there years back. I am thinking THEY might be more willing to help me/us. 🙁

Today I am just exhausted with everything.

After that new appointment with a pastor she wrote again:

Yet ANOTHER frustrating appointment. I saw the pastor of the other church here in town. I talked with him for an hour and a half. At least he listened. But basically he told me there wasn’t any financial help they could give.He told me that God gives you peace and if I am not having that peace then I’ve moved away from him. He said I should be asking God what I should do to please Him blah blah. MY response was, ‘Isn’t taking care of my mom and husband something that would ‘please’ God?’ It certainly isn’t the path I WOULD CHOOSE for myself. Even though he listened … I felt like I was being judged and coming up short.

Honestly, this is one of the things that bugs me about religious people… I don’t believe you have to say ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ every other word for people to get the point. Helping and doing for others and loving others is what Jesus preached as well as loving God. 

Yes, my faith is on shaky ground right now, but look at everything I have been through, A marriage where I tried to do all the right things and it still ended in divorce, having to close down my studio which I loved because it wasn’t economically feasible to keep it, falling in love with the most perfect man I have ever known and then he has cancer, watching my mom deteriorate to the point where I have to cut the food I put on her plate because she can’t anymore, losing a tutoring job that I really liked doing … and financial hardships that you cannot believe. I am tired. Forget having peace, I need an emotional rest. 

It is hard because there is only so much you can do to help…my life still has a lot of anxiety.

How do we respond to messages such as this? There aren’t words to simply make it better or to take the problems away. We continued writing, expressing that we were sorry, and asking if she had any other options to find some financial help. She wrote back:

The last two days have been hell on earth… I am so frustrated I just want to run away. I mean, I feel like I have this friggen curse on me, and everywhere I turn I am being punished. I feel like I am being punished because I divorced my first husband … I mean I hate my life right now and would give anything to just go somewhere else and start all over new.

I have been full of anger today … just really angry the whole day. I have also been crying. I know my husband is sick and I wish he would go to the doctor. I am scared. I keep thinking that the cancer is wearing him down.

The next day she wrote again:

I am having a really bad day today!!!!! I feel like I am just at my wits end … I am just not coping well today.

I went to college so I wouldn’t HAVE to live this way at my age … and somehow I have been very unsuccessful in my life. 🙁

I  feel very down about wishing I could have become something better.Anyway…my life is what it is right now and I don’t see any good changes happening soon. 🙁

Another message followed a day or two later:

I could just cry. Well, I did cry and was very depressed. I woke up with a migraine today. My husband started on his trip to the hospital for his doctor’s appointment and CT scan and had to turn around because the weather got so bad.So everything has been moved back a week. Life is just sucking right now and I wonder when things are going to turn around.

There was not good news in her situation. We didn’t have any good news, or any good words to share. We simply couldn’t fix her problems. We couldn’t take her husband’s cancer away. We couldn’t make her mother walk or care for her most basic needs again. We couldn’t give her the money she needs to pay all her bills. We couldn’t take her frustration, her anger or her pain away.

There were little blessings every day and she acknowledged them, and was grateful. But, the daily slog of worrying how and when and she would meet the week’s bills was relentless. We wish so badly that somehow, in someway, we could change things with one swipe of a magic wand (we do not have) or a shot from a silver bullet (we don’t own) to fix things the way we want them to be fixed. But we can’t. And we need to remind ourselves, daily, that we can’t, but we know and trust in the One who can and does. We plead with God often to give us patience, grace, empathy, compassion, and understanding; we plead with God to keep us from trying to be God so we don’t offend instead of liberating.

Like this woman and her situation, sometimes there isn’t much to say. But we continue to pray. We continued to write her. We continued to let her know that we care. We continued to be H-E-A-L-I-N-G people.

Some problems can’t easily be resolved. They may continue for the rest of someone’s life. Often, there are outcomes that are not in our control. It’s easy to give up on someone when things don’t work the way we hope and want them to. As Adam McHugh states, when a hurting person is in the midst of a storm:

It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.

Maybe our friend’s storm will end. Maybe it won’t. The outcome isn’t ours to control. But at the very least we accompany her through the storm and be open to getting wet – to listen, to be a safe place for her, to remind her that she is cared for and loved. And maybe, as we show her this love, she will come one day to embrace what can be changed, along with what can’t.