How to Pray When You Don’t Believe in Magic

My older sister was recently diagnosed with cancer.

At first all we knew was that there were “masses” in her abdomen.  After a biopsy, we thought that she had a slow-growing form of cancer that might not be so bad.  Once the surgeon got in there, he found that she had stage III ovarian cancer. They removed all the masses and took the uterus and ovaries as well.

From a clinical perspective – she was “optimally debulked.” In lay person’s terms, that means they “got it all.” All that they could see anyway.

She is only 51.

Her first grandchild was born last week.

She has so much to live for. A statement that is true for all those who die before their time. We have the longest average life-span of any period of history and with it comes an expectation that we will live into “old age.”

In the face of her diagnosis, I have had to face the prospect of her mortality, and, ultimately the possibility of my own. This is no easy task.

I am a life-long Christian, an ordained Presbyterian minister, a professional Christian ethicist.

I have a rich spiritual life that includes deep engagement with scripture, theological texts and ideas; justice advocacy that represents my faith commitments; reverence and awe of the natural world and the presence of the sacred in the world and my daily life.

We regularly say grace together as a family before meals. We give thanks for our food and all the people who helped to bring it to our table. We acknowledge our gratefulness for our family who are gathered around the table and we remember those who are not present or live away from us. We lift up our accomplishments and struggles and ask for help and guidance from the Holy One as we seek to live faithfully in our everyday lives.

But cancer is a whole other ballgame. Standing on the precipice of mortality, I find myself teetering between the simplistic faith of my childhood where I desire a God who can heal her and my more mature faith perspective where I recognize the devastating theological implications of believing in a God who could heal her but chose to let her die.

As I have grown older, I have outgrown belief in a magical God. As I child, my prayers were often oriented toward asking God to “do” things for me. Asking God to heal the sick or feed the hungry or to end injustice is to imagine a divine Being who is like a fairy godmother – with the power to grant our various wishes, if only we are humble and deserving enough.

This sort of understanding of God fails on so many levels.

If what I ask God to do doesn’t happen, the implication that is that I am somehow not worthy and God has chosen not to grant my wish.

Or, I am worthy but God is capricious and simply chosen not to grant my wish.

Another possibility is simply that God is too busy to be bothered by my meager life and desires.

Perhaps the most dangerous is the belief that if I get what I want – it is a reflection that I have been blessed by God. The flip-side of this belief is that others who do not have their prayers “answered” are not blessed by God.

One way I have heard this conundrum parsed over the years is to resort to the platitude that “God answers all our prayers, but sometimes the answer is ‘No.’”

In all of these scenarios, the image of God is the image of a divine being that is deeply unsettling. A capricious God, one who plays favorites, or one who can act but chooses not to – all of these are images of the divine that I have found necessary to reject.

And so, I am left standing with my sister on that precipice gazing into the abyss.

Our faith for her healing is in the hands of the doctors and other healers who will care for her over the weeks and months to come.

Our faith in family is that we will be there with and for each other as she faces the enormous uphill battle ahead of her.

Our faith in God is in knowing that we are not alone as we look into the abyss. My experience of the divine is that there is a sacred power in the world that is beyond my comprehension and control. God is not a genie. God is not a fairy-godmother. God is not a benevolent father-sky-lord who takes care of us.

I will go to be with my sister. To hold her hand as she takes her chemo. To tell stories and share memories together. To laugh, to cry, to hold one another in our fragility, brokenness and fear.

And we will not be alone.

My prayer is that God will be with us and give us strength to be a blessing to one another. Courage to conquer our fears together. Grace to be loving and kind and hopeful as she faces the challenge of healing and recovery or not.