“Brain tumor.” Among the many words you don’t want to hear come out of the mouth of a doctor, these are pretty high up on the list. Even the mitigating words “non-malignant” and “operable” don’t make things a lot better, especially when you hear the news for the first time. We heard those words from my wife’s doctor in the ER less than 2 weeks ago. This morning finds us less than 24 hours on this side of what appears to have been a successful surgery to remove the tumor. In the days, hours, and minutes in between, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want from God in this situation, and what I can expect.
A good friend of mine who is a professional pastoral counselor let me in on the dirty little secret of times like this: “whatever happens, God will be with you” doesn’t cut it. When it’s your loved one being wheeled off to the operating room, that statement strikes you as weak and inadequate. You don’t want assurance or comfort; you want certitude. You want to know that everything is going to be o.k. You want God to say “I’m going to fix this,” meaning make everything the way it was, arrange things the way you would if you were in charge.
Except that doesn’t happen. Now, I’m a theologian, so it’s my job to ask why that’s the case– but I’m not going to do so. Much, much better theologians than me, going all the way back to the author of the book of Job, have tried and failed to answer that question adequately. More importantly, when you’re in the middle of a situation like this, knowing the answer wouldn’t help. For whatever reason, we cannot know without question or doubt that what we want is going to happen. God doesn’t work that way. Ask me why later.
Recognizing that fact, yet still wanting with all my being to know beyond question that God was going to make Joan all better, that nothing would go wrong, has been my struggle. Admitting that struggle has brought me the only modicum of peace I’ve known throughout the last couple of weeks. When I told God, “look, I know you can’t promise what I want, but I’m going to tell you anyway . . . ,” I felt better. Did that feeling last? No. Did I have to repeat that prayer time after time, knowing that God wasn’t the one who had to keep hearing it? Yes. Has God sustained me in ways that I will never understand and can only barely recognize? Unquestionably.
On the morning of the surgery our pastors Carol and Mark were sitting with us as we waited for Joan to go back to the OR. I thought about their care and concern for her, as well as my own and that of all our friends and family. Then I realized that “God is with you, whatever happens” means that God, too, felt all that love, concern, and worry for Joan, and so much more beyond. God is experiencing that same thing every moment for anyone who is going through pain, worry, or grief, all across this sad little globe. From the moment I heard those two ugly words, “brain tumor,” I wanted the anxiety and worry to go away. Yet God willingly accepts that same hurt for each of us all the time. We must be inexpressibly precious to God for God to go to all that trouble and grief for us. I cannot imagine how that can be the case, how God can take on the suffering of the world that way.
But sitting in a quiet room in ICU, with my bandaged and beloved one resting, I’m trying to learn.