Monday, May 30, 2011

When children suffer

Many of us in the northwest have been praying for 5-year-old Kate and her battle with leukemia. She’s been struggling for much of her short life, and at one point it seemed she was breaking through. But a few months ago, the news that the disease was reasserting itself shocked and saddened us, and so the battle continues.

On Saturday Kate successfully received a bone marrow transplant using cord blood, and now our prayers are for her body to receive the transplant, as we continue to pray for her family and for the light of Christ to fill her and heal her. The road ahead is not clear, but our commitment is.

All of this highlights the ongoing discussion about the mystery of human suffering, and especially the suffering of children. The Psalms of Lament and the book of Job are some of the passages we turn to. Other recent reading has also been helpful. Last week I re-read Stanley Hauerwas’ God, Medicine, and Suffering (1990) in which he specifically addresses the suffering of children. Hauerwas is uneasy (to put it mildly) with theodicy (the discipline that tries to explain evil) as a legitimate theological enterprise and exposes the shallowness of some of the arguments given for why good people suffer: “I believe that the most decisive challenge which the experience of childhood illness presents is our inability to name the silences such illness creates….I cannot promise readers consolation, but only as honest an account as I can give of why we cannot afford to give ourselves explanations for evil when what is required is a community capable of absorbing our grief” (xi). (Hauerwas’ own recent memoir, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir 2010, shows how his own suffering has honed his views).

Another book I read earlier this year, Peter Greig’s God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer (2007), also encourages us to rest in the mystery of God, even as we search for answers. The background of the book and informing all its arguments is a brain tumor that continues to torment the author’s wife. Greig, himself a leader in a national movement for intercession, asks the same hard questions that Hauerwas addresses, and in spite of continuing questions, encourages us to faithfully keep praying.

For me the best resources on the subject, other than the Bible, are Gregory Boyd’s treatments of theodicy and suffering: God at War (1997) and Satan and the Problem of Evil (2001), among others. Boyd’s academic, yet pastoral approach gives depth to the subject. His strong chapter on intercession encourages me to keep praying, in spite of unanswered questions, and to keep affirming my faith in a sovereign, loving God.

But one of the most encouraging things I’ve read recently is a blog posting by a young Quaker whom I’ve known since her birth. Part of the same Quaker meeting that I still call home, Emily was born with all sorts of physical problems and, at the age of two, underwent a risky liver transplant. A recent university graduate, Emily is currently working as an intern at the Friends Twin Rocks camp on the Oregon coast and exploring the possibilities of graduate school.

She writes, “Glory be! To God for His incredible love for us! It’s May 20th again, and again I am humbled and awestruck by the power God displayed, and continues to display, as each year this borrowed liver holds out. Each year I hear another amazing story from one of my parents that I had never heard before, and each story is further evidence that God intervened every step of the way through my illness and the transplant.” Go to her blog, "A Ray of Sunshine," to read the story she refers to here.

Emily concludes by saying, “I am humbled at the heroic and miraculous efforts God made on my behalf. I may sound like a broken record when I say I sincerely hope I can live up to the person God had planned for me to be even back then….Every day really is a gift!”

I remember the way the congregation gathered around Emily and her parents in prayer. I remember occasional feelings of hopelessness. I am glad for the stories of answered prayer; I draw courage from them. And I am learning from the stories of unanswered prayer.

I bring all this to a focal point in my commitment to Kate and her family. I commit myself (again and again):

--to the courage to face hard questions;

--to faith in the goodness, power, and sovereignty of God; to respect before the mystery;

--to the task of prayer;

--to the body of Christ, realizing that my prayers join those of many others, and together we call down God’s mercy and power, the manifestation of God’s kingdom in this child;

--to support for the family in whatever practical ways might be appropriate, including silent accompaniment (realizing that my closest link is to Kate’s grandmother who happens to be my long-time friend).

Lord Jesus, have mercy on us all. Have mercy on your beloved child, Kate. Let your healing love and light surround and penetrate. Thank you for the wonders of medicine; let the transplant “take,” the medications be effective. Strengthen and encourage Kate’s family. Be glorified in all of this. Keep teaching us how to pray so that we might cooperate with you in your purposes. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and insights. Evil must not close our conversations and wrestling and seeking and longing and asking and knocking. Some verses that I ponder: "If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence" Psalm 94:17. Perhaps that's why I am so grateful for Hebrews 5:7-8, "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." And, "The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" Romans 8:26. Some translations say groans instead of sighs.
    When there are no words or screams or assurance that someone is groaning on our behalf, terminating one's life becomes thinkable. That's why we borrow words from the Psalms and that's why we pray for others and ask the Spirit to pray.
    Having said this, I do know that bowing before God rather than seeking to control with words and knowledge and explanations can also express faith and faithfulness.
    Thank you for sharing and teaching through your blog.