I spent the weekend speaking at the Bent Not Broken conference, a gathering of cancer patients and their loved ones that was held at a Franciscan retreat center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As I looked across the audience, I saw bald heads, scarred bodies, sallow shades of skin. I saw lots of smiles, and lots of tears. Throughout the weekend, I saw flashes of hope as well as fleeting glimpses of despair. I heard voices quiver with fear and anger — and others filled with peace and acceptance.
I enjoyed the weekend, because it’s always a gift to be able to use my own cancer experiences to offer hope to patients who are in the midst of their own battles. It was also special because it was the 12 year anniversary of my mastectomy, which is where my personal cancer journey began.
I spoke at the main session on Saturday morning. I told the story of ending up in the ICU after my last chemo treatment, with a massive lung infection that gave me less than a 50/50 chance of walking out of the hospital alive.
For a month I lay in the hospital, flat on my back, counting each drop of IV antibiotics like the beads on a rosary, begging God to save my life.
I also tried to untangle a question that kept my heart and soul and mind in knots. If God loves me, and if God sees me, why doesn’t God come down and fix this?
I couldn’t figure out how a loving, present, knowing God could watch his beloved child dying and not break through heaven and earth to get to her, to heal her, to promise her that everything was going to be okay.
I asked the chaplain that question, and she stammered and stuttered before saying, “I’ll look that up and get back to you.” She left my room and never came back.
I posed that same question to the social worker who came to check on me one afternoon. She told me that humans are like ants, building our ant hills and living our lives. And God’s like a clumsy giant who sometimes accidentally steps on our ant hills and crushes us — but he doesn’t do it on purpose.
At that point, I wanted to say to her, “Lady, send the chaplain back in!” Because I’d rather have someone with no answers than someone with ant-and-giant metaphors that offered no consolation and no reason to trust the Love I’d believed in all my life.
So I kept trying to untangle the knot on my own: how is it possible that a God who loves and sees us doesn’t arrive to fix desperate situations?
When I got to this point in my talk on Saturday, I saw cancer patients unconsciously lean forward, pressing in to hear the answer. I saw eyes begin to light up ever-so-subtly, wanting to hear what I’d learned, but afraid to get their hopes up.
What happened is that months after I was discharged from the hospital, I was still a bald, bruised, scarred, broken mess of a girl, trying to piece her life back together. Still asking the same question, still trying to figure out if God was 1) a vindictive jerk 2) a distant, clumsy deity or 3)….and here was where I got stuck. Because option 3 was that there was something I didn’t understand about God yet.
I spent hours and hours asking God, “What don’t I understand about you? What can you tell me that will reassure me that even though I’ve been to hell and back and you felt so far away the whole time, you’re still good and you still love me and I can still trust you?” I listened to Jars of Clay’s song Silence on repeat.
I want you to hear me, I want you to find me.
I want to believe but all I pray is wrong and all I claim is gone.
Where are you?
When I got to the room, the little girl’s mom was sitting in bed, holding her daughter. I recognized the mom — she was an internal medicine doctor who I’d often seen around the hospital.
The nurses and I led the mom and the girl down the hall to the procedure room, and tied the girl’s arms and legs to the table with velcro straps so we could start the IV and get the blood we needed. The little girl screamed and screamed and screamed. Finally she picked her head up off the table, made eye contact with her mom and shouted, “Mommy! I’m in pain!”
The mom didn’t move. She stood against the wall and let us do our work, while tears streamed down her face.
The mom in her hurt because her daughter was hurting. But the doctor in her knew we needed to inflict this pain to save her daughter’s life.
The second we’d gotten what we needed, the mom undid the straps herself, scooped up her daughter, and carried her away from the pain.
And that, I realized in an instant, was the best picture of God I could ever imagine. God is a Divine Parent whose heart aches when ours does, who witnesses every tear, who is always present. But God is also the Great Physician who allows us to experience suffering that will shape and change and grow and heal us.
But God is not a sadist. The second the pain has accomplished its work in us, God scoops us up, holds us close, and carries us away from the pain.
When I said those words on Saturday, I paused for a moment. So many people burst into tears, we had to pass around a box of Kleenex. The box was soon emptied, and the conference organizer had to go to the supply closet down the hall to get more, as patients released their heartache and questions — and relief.
Where is God when we hurt? we ask again and again. Maybe you’re asking that very question today.
My precious friend, God is right there with you, hearing your cries, feeling your pain, understanding your grief. And you can trust that the Love you can’t see or feel right now will rush in the second the pain has served its purpose, and carry you away from the pain.
Where is God when we hurt? I asked for months and months.
And that day I realized the answer that settled the question for me once and for all. God, the Divine Parent and Great Physician, is right here, and God’s been here all along.