God is not a carcinogen. Now what?

A word of warning: this is some intense stuff. 

There are things one is not to discuss in polite company. Tea partiers. Salaries and costs of homes. Personal sexual escapades. And thoughts like, “What the hell is God doing, anyway?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably for about four years, if I’m really honest. I am Catholic, and I have no interest in leaving the Church. I’m not the best Catholic, and I’m not the worst. I don’t endorse some of the things the Church has gotten into, and I’m just absolutely disgusted and infuriated by other things, but my faith is a Catholic faith, and my method of worship is a Catholic method of worship, and so there I stay. But for the last few years, I’ve had what more Godly people would call a crisis of faith. Alright, maybe a mini-crisis.

This will not come as good news to the parents of my godsons, by the way.

It started with my grandmother’s death. No, not her death. Her dying. It was the first time I ever really got angry with God, a concept that I previously could not even fathom. But my grandmother had been sick for 17 years. She had devoted her life to God and serving Him. There was evidence of this throughout the house. Not the clutter of ostentatiously pious bric-a-brac, but some serious signs of ecumenical and sacrificial dedication. All of her children went to Catholic schools. She held some fundraisers and organized others for the parish. She helped put together plans for major Church events. She sang in the church choir. Articles were written. Honors were presented. When I called to tell her, on Easter 2000, that my mother’s mother had passed away, the first words out of her mouth were an awed, “Praise be to God.”

I didn’t blame God for Grandmom’s Parkison’s Disease. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen. I get a little frustrated with people who say someone’s death, particularly an untimely one, was God’s plan, or that God wouldn’t give them anything that they can’t handle. I don’t believe that God plans for a teenager to be shot to death in the middle of a street. I don’t believe that God would “take” a life willfully, would steal a child from his mother and condemn her to a lifetime of unimaginable heartache. I’m not even convinced there is a “plan.” My way of summing this up is to say, “God is not a carcinogen. God gives us life. Life gives us cancer.” I truly do believe that.

But in July of 2007, my grandmother developed pneumonia. I was in France when she was hospitalized, but I had a horrible feeling something was wrong at home, and as I stood in the gift shop at Sacre Coeur, staring at rosaries, a voice in my head kept saying, “Grandmom. Grandmom.” I found out when I got through customs back in the States that she was quite ill, and the family had thought we might lose her while I was away. When I arrived at the hospital, straight from the airport, she seemed relieved to see me. She had thought she might not. And as I kissed her goodbye at the end of the visit, I admonished her not to say such things.

She nodded once and winked at me. “Right,” she whispered, unsmiling.

Of course, we both knew she was dying. Pneumonia is what most often claims the lives of Parkinson’s patients. She went home, but for a month, she slowly deteriorated. Then she took a turn, and I sat by her bedside at home as she slept something like 20 hours one day. Late in the night, just before I went to pick up my father from the airport and bring him to her, she woke up, held my hand, and asked me to sing “Ave Maria” to her, right there and then. She told me not to forget that I was to sing it at the funeral.

The next day, she had more energy, and she was awake most of the time. With my father back from Florida and her family assembled, it seemed all the pieces were in place. “I wonder what we’re waiting for,” she said to me.

I remember praying that God would have mercy and take her peacefully, that He would be mindful of all she had given to Him, of how she had literally and figuratively sung His praises all her life, of how she and my late grandfather had raised their family to be faithful.

But dying, it became increasingly clear, is a thing one does alone.

“Are You even listening?!” I finally screamed at Him in my head. “Are You paying attention?! Do You even care?!”

It was another week before she passed. I had had to go home, and go back to work. My father called at 6:20am from the airport in Florida, where he had been bound back north after he, too, had had to return to work. I never cried for Grandmom. I was only relieved that her suffering was over, and I believed she had been reunited with my grandfather and her parents. I was at peace with her death. I helped plan her funeral Mass, and I sang the “Ave Maria.”

But I was pissed at God. He didn’t help her. He let her suffer. After 17 years of a degenerative, humiliating, painful disease, He let her actual dying take a month. Her body was exhausted and aching, her lungs were damaged, her soul was crying for Him. But He let her die on her own.

And I started to realize the many things for which I had faithfully prayed that were never granted.

There’s a sweet saying about being grateful for unanswered prayers. There’s a parable about footprints in the sand. They are nice thoughts. I suppose they are a comfort for those who find themselves praying all the time for something that never happens. Not material things, not trivial things. Real, important things. It used to comfort me to think of the gifts of an unanswered prayer, until I realized how many of them there have been.

There are tragedies large and small literally all day long. Some of them you know about. Others you don’t. Sometimes the details of someone’s personal pain are so horrid that it’s just not necessary to impart them on the world. And then sometimes, there are catastrophic global events. 9/11. Katrina. Indonesia. Haiti. Japan. There are photos and videos of unrelenting waves marching through and obliterating towns and lives. Of cracks opening up in the earth and swallowing people up. Of buildings crumbled into piles on top of entire families. Of cars swept out to a sea that was once a mile away. Of a man clinging to his rooftop, spotted by helicopter crews, ten miles from a new kind of nowhere, nearly insane with worry about what had happened to his wife.

Eli, Eli, lema sabbachtani?

People say everything happens for a reason. I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore. I can’t see the reason for things like the human nightmare of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Sometimes things just happen and they’re horrible and there’s no reason for it at all. But I believe we can find good, that we can force good to come out of those horrors. And I do think life is sometimes a mercurial thing, with connections we could never fathom. I have said that if 20 pints of blood donated for one sick loved one couldn’t save them, but a single one of those pints went on to save someone else, it was worth the sacrifice. I believe in miracles. I believe that maybe God did send those helicopter crews. That maybe it was a miracle that that man survived. That maybe it is God’s work when a rescue team pulls an old woman out alive from the rubble of a building that fell ten days before. I believe with God, all things are possible. But they don’t feel very likely.

And so, more and more, I wonder. Why do horrific things happen over and over in places where no one has anything to begin with? Why do some families endure innumerable heartaches and struggles? Why do individuals battle for years with everything from loneliness to illness to addiction, begging for help from God all the time, trying to listen, trying to be open to a voice, and never seem to get it? When people pray for help, does God ever answer? Of all the people who send prayers to heaven, to how many does He truly respond?

One person’s miracle is another person’s coincidence, and a third person’s logically explained development. I have always been taught that faith is the key. Keeping faith, even when it wavers, even when one doubts, is the most important thing. And so I continue to believe, however imprecisely. But the way I believe has changed. I no longer pray for myself. It seems that all the prayers I can remember saying in which I asked God for some benefit (and I have never prayed for anything material) went unanswered. Some of my deepest needs haven’t opened any other doors for me. But it also seems that, when I have prayed for others, there have been some responses. So I continue to offer fervent, faithful, hopeful prayers for those who are ill, who are dying, who are struggling, who are seeking. Perhaps selfishness is the problem; asking for something for oneself, however deep and spiritual the need… maybe that’s not the point.

From this, another belief evolves: that we should be the answer to each other’s prayers. Since the days of Job, we have questioned whether God tests us. I think being “tested” with cancer or abuse or depression or job loss is just cruel, and runs counter to the loving and forgiving God who came to us through Jesus Christ. A God who would test His faithful with such pain is not a God I want to worship. And so I do not believe that we are tested by God. But I am beginning to believe that when we see people suffering, the answer to our heartfelt prayers that God help them… is that we help them. Maybe that is what the faiths of the world mean when they teach us to recognize the God in one another, and in ourselves. Maybe prayer is just supposed to be a way to open up our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can be angels for each other.

I do not know how best to help the people of Japan. I do not know how to help the people of Darfur, or North Korea, or Iran. There are so many who need so much. It’s overwhelming. It is easier to help those I can see, those I know, those near whom I live. I do not know how to be an angel for people on the other side of the world. I am powerless to stop their horrors, and it does not seem that God will stop them, either. I can pray for them to find food, shelter, medicine, missing loved ones, peace. And now, the only thing I ask God to give me is grace. To accept, to give, to love, and to try. Sometimes that’s all I ask for because I just don’t think He’ll give me anything else. Sometimes, I’m fairly sure it’s all I need.

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11 thoughts on “God is not a carcinogen. Now what?

  1. Pingback: In Which I Bestow Honors On People | thesinglecell

  2. Brave entry. I was raised Atheist with a scientific explanation for everything. I now find it arrogant to TRY to explain everything in the universe. I’m comfortable with the idea of an Energy or Power that is beyond our comprehension, that shows itself in profound and unexpected ways, but that’s as far as I’m comfortable going. Even so, I take comfort in knowing that there is something out there bigger than Man (even if it’s a faceless, thoughtless energy) driving the interconnectedness of all life. And I respect people who have found their own measure of faith to help make sense of an otherwise chaotic world (assuming they don’t then use that faith to justify divisions of right and wrong and good and evil).

    Whoa. Now who got heavy? You didn’t even ASK for this. But apparently this is where jetlag, a bottle of wine and 22,000 flight miles in 10 days will do to a girl. Namaste. 🙂

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think your perspective is interesting; I had a boyfriend who sort of called himself athiest but felt the same way you do about some kind of higher energy. I figure since none of us know for sure, I can’t tell anybody they’re wrong. Jetlag, wine and lots of miles do not have the same effect on me… so you’re well-off there! (Welcome home)

  3. Oh – and I don’t mean it’s arrogant to have faith or look to a defined religion. I was pointing more to the arrogance of science thinking IT has an explanation for everything.

  4. Well, I’m glad i went back and read this (I know you referred me once to it before but I can be a busy old fart). We agree a great deal but you know that. At my Thursday Men’s Meeting, the topic was the 3rd step: Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to God as we understood Him. Early in the meeting someone shared that every time he asked God for anything, he got it, if he was only patient. I waited a long time to share so it wouldn’t seem like I was contradicting him, though I was. I said that God has been difficult for me all of my life, due to many of the things you cite. I wanted to believe in God, but needed proof and not finding that, I settled for evidence that God didn’t exist. When I started working the steps, the words that saved me were “made a decision.” I decided to believe in God and to work at it. It was work. What I had to give up was “having a God of my understanding.” I have a God NOT of my understanding. I believe because I want to and because life seems better when I do. A little over two years ago, I lost my sister-in-law, Sandy. She was one of my favorite people. She was intelligent, compassionate, interesting and genuinely good. She and her husband, Norm (Muri’s brother) were among our best friends. They found an enormous tumor in her abdomen. To remove it, they had to remove her liver then reimplant it. The surgery went on for almost two weeks. They’d work until she was too weak to go one, pack her up without closing her, then start again in a few days. I prayed and prayed for her recovery. After the surgery, she stayed on the edge of consciousness for months, then passed away the weekend Muri and I were celebrating our 41st anniversary. Although I was incredibly sad, I never found myself angry at God. However it worked, my faith helped me through it and I learned so much about appreciating people from Sandy and her passing. I know less about how things work the older I get, and so far, that’s OK. I pray “only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out (12th step).” Usually, that means do the best I can with what’s in front of me right now. It seems to work.

    Sorry to go on and on, but I think we are on somewhat the same page. It helps me to know that there are other people on my page and maybe it helps you, too.

    • You’re welcome to “go on and on.” We are similar… though i’m not sure I need proof there’s a God. I do believe in God. I think I might have said (either in that post or in a previous comment on yours) that I just don’t know what God does. My faith changed because I have a hard time now believing that God intervenes or even cares what we do or what happens. Maybe God is involved – there have been times when I’ve felt a guidance I can’t otherwise describe, or times when I’ve had a sense in my “gut,” which, as a Catholic, I’ve come to understand (as I understand God) is sometimes the Holy Spirit working in me. My struggle to settle things that are spiritually or personally painful for me has gone on a long time, and I found that my prayer to resolve those things was only making it more painful. Maybe I’m “doing it wrong.” Or maybe letting go of it really IS letting God do it. Maybe it doesn’t matter because there are Athiests who don’t have the struggle I do, so God might not have anything to do with it at all. Guess we’ll find out some day. 🙂

  5. Well, here’s the thing…….. actually, a few.

    1) We’re not supposed to understand. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” Isaiah 55:8

    We do, however, need to accept.

    “Can you worship a God who isn’t obligated to explain His actions to you? Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation?”
    ― Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God”

    Good book, that one. This is a real sticking point for a lot of people. We, being human, seek to have clarity; we seek to have understanding and rationale. Thing is, we’re not entitled to it.

    That’s what faith is- the presence of belief in the absence of proof. (which you already know, of course 🙂 )

    2) God DOES answer; every time. “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5: 6-7)

    His answers are either yes, no, or wait. Just because we didn’t get the answer we wanted doesn’t mean he didn’t answer. Patience is no my strong suit, and I have to remind myself of this (sometimes daily :D) as I try to get the ants out of my pants for moving out of this desert. I’m a Mi girl, transplanted to the NM desert. We were supposed to be here for 2 years; it’s been over 16.

    I am not a fan of the desert. I really would like to have some water, some trees, and seasons besides windy and hot and windy. This is my constant prayer- to move out of the desert. I don’t like it here.

    And yet, here we remain. It easier to blame hunny than it is God, but ultimately, it’s God keeping me here. So my prayer is to be content, and grateful. It’s a work in progress. 😆

    The thing I keep coming back to is our time is not God’s time. A friend once told me that while God is never late, He sure has missed some opportunities to be early. 🙂 And it’s true- God’s timing is perfect, even if I hate it; even if I don’t see it at the time; maybe even if I don’t ever see it. I have been able to look back years later and see the good that came out of a certain situation.

    I keep reminding myself that Sarah was 90 years old when Issac was born. Some say she was 40 when they married. I think 50 years is a really long time to wait for a baby, and it’s no wonder she was considered barren. I figure, too, if the Jews could wander the desert for 40 years, there’s no room for me to complain. 🙂

    3) Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? “24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”

    Well………. I take a look at folks like Paul, who was repeatedly stoned and beaten. Yet his focus was not on the pain of this world, but the glory of the next.

    The bottom line for me here is that this is about relationship- the relationship between the person suffering and God. Have you noticed that often it’s the people on the outside looking in who are the most upset with the whole thing? I know I have.

    My aunt is terminally ill with very rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. When they found it, it was stage 4 and she was loaded with tumors; so many, actually, that they couldn’t get them all out. She has cancer in her liver, kidneys, colon, lungs and spine. She had her entire colon removed, and eventually, the pathway out to her colostomy bag was closed off by tumors.

    Miraculously, her body made new pathways for food waste that have never been documented before.

    She has had every single side effect from all the cancer that a person can have.

    She had abdominal surgery without anesthesia because she was too weak; yet the surgery needed to happen to clean out the abdominal abscess.

    She is still riddled with tumors and is in pain; however, she is not on any narcotics or any other pain pills. She admits to suffering, but it’s not more than she can handle. When they diagnosed her, she knew there was a 0% survival rate at 2 years; most people at this her level only live a few weeks.

    She’s lived for 7 months, and just celebrated her 60th birthday on the 3rd. She believes she will be made whole again, although she may not be alive when that happens. She also believes her situation is happening for a purpose, and while she’s not rejoicing about it, she’s not questioning it, either.

    There are many who believe that suffering brings us closer to Christ, because if you know anything about the physicality of crucifixion, you know it is horribly painful.

    It took me getting sick to finally get a bit of insight……….. we really thought I could die before we found someone who could do *something* to help me. That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever gone through. At the time, our youngest was 2. It sucks to think about your kids growing up without a mother; particularly the girls.

    What I learned? I learned that it’s not about me, it’s about HIM. It’s about my relationship with Him. Once that gets sorted out, nothing else really matters, because I’m not driving the boat; He is. And obviously, it’s not about what happens here and now- life is a vapor, after all. It’s totally about what comes next.

    The focus is not about me; it’s about Him. “From start to finish, this movie is obviously about God. He is the main character. How is is possible that we live as though it is about us?”
    ― Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

    I had to let go of what I wanted out of life and accept that my life was going to play out the way God wanted it to, and that’s just the way it is. Letting go of that control is hard, but it’s also liberating, too.

    And this is not to say there won’t be sadness and upset, especially in the face of tragedy, because of course there is. I have been with a number of (Christian) people when they’ve crossed over, and it was a blessing every time to witness that event. If there had been any lingering doubt as to whether or not Heaven was real, those times quite solidly solved that issue for me.

    Finally, one more quote from Francis Chan (I am not related to or know him in any way; I don’t get money from his books; I don’t idolize him, either- he’s just got some good quotes that have given me pause and challenged me to think) and I’ll stop my theological ramblings for the day 😉 :

    ““It is true that God may have called you to be exactly where you are. But, it is absolutely vital to grasp that he didn’t call you there so you could settle in and live your life in comfort and superficial peace.”
    ― Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit

    Whew! Aren’t you glad I’m finally done?! 😆

    • Thank you for sharing those thoughts. I think it’s clear by the end of my post that I do accept, or that I pray for the grace to accept, whatever happens. But I don’t think God is so simple as to give us only three answers, one word each. He is not simple and He did not create us to be simple, either. I believe He created us to question, to wonder, to implore. I hope you agree that we are not bad for doing those things. Your faith is clearly very strong and I admire that, even if I don’t find the same answers you find to these questions.

      • I think God is too complicated to actually understand, lol, which is why simplifying it makes more sense to me. 😆 And essentially, aren’t all answers either yes, no, or maybe/wait?

        Absolutely, he gave us minds to use. I personally don’t think He is something we can entirely understand, no matter how much try (and that’s why it’s a matter of faith….). I think even if we knock and seek, what we are going to find is that we’re still not driving; it’s still not for us to understand so much as we need to let go and just believe.

        I struggled with these things for a really long time until I got sick. When a person realizes his/her time is actually finite (which, imo, is different from knowing you are going to die eventually), it really does help a person let go of a lot of stuff, which, in my case, helped simplify a lot of this.

        I think the key here, is to not stop working towards the answers. I think if we give up, nothing has been settled, and outcome could be so much better if we got to a place of peace with the answers we’ve learned. I’m not sure a person can get us there, though. 🙂

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