Lenten reflection for April 2.
Andy* is an energetic, inquisitive little boy. He would come into my office and play with my stuff while I tried to work on a sermon or prayers. He would sit on my bike and see if he could touch the pedals. His mom works for the church, so the building is like a second home to him. He knew that I wouldn’t be at that church long, but that didn’t stop him from becoming my friend anyway. He has that smile and glow about him that makes you wonder what happened to your own youthful energy.
Andy also has ITP, or Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. ITP is a condition in which the body’s white blood cells become confused and begin attacking the blood’s platelets, killing them off. Platelets are the cells that clot bleeding, so as their number drops, the body is not able to stop bleeding if it occurs. If the number of platelets drops too low, spontaneous bleeding can occur.
Most cases of ITP are either mild enough that only some treatment is required, and in most cases, it fixes itself on its own in a few months. Andy is not one of those cases. Andy’s platelet counts had, at times, dropped to the point where he was at risk for internal bleeding. While he responded to treatment, it did not last, and his count would plummet again. The use of steroids, another form of treatment, made him violently ill. It has been two years since he was diagnosed, and it looks like he may have this condition for the rest of his life.
It is hard to look at Andy and wonder why God doesn’t just heal him. God could. It is certainly not from a lack of faith or prayer—his family and the church pray for him all the time. In our story tonight, Jesus says that faith can heal. So when it doesn’t, what does that mean?
Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, tells this story about a trip she took to Rome and the aftermath:
“The last day in Rome I caught a lulu of a cold. As I lay in bed the Friday after we returned searching the TV for a football game, I came across a televangelist. I was mesmerized. He was preaching to a packed house in a converted NBA coliseum. His text was from Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the disciples’ wonderment at Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ teaching about faith being able to move mountains.
The televangelist’s exegesis (explanation) of the passage led him to conclude that Jesus said we must “speak to the mountain” — prayer was not enough. If we wanted a better job we needed to “speak to that mountain” and all the heavenly forces would be set in motion. Poor health? Fear of foreclosure? Troubled marriage? “Speak to that mountain” and get it fixed.
Wow. When my father was dying why didn’t I speak to that mountain? When Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh be taken away, why didn’t he speak to that mountain? Here it was, the “Name It and Claim It Health and Wealth Gospel.” The people in that arena were cheering.”
I don’t know why God hasn’t answered our prayers and healed Andy. It can’t be because we never “spoke to that mountain”. I know his family has. I know his church has. They’ve put all of their faith into loving and supporting him and his family. Maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe prayer answers don’t I don’t know.
But I do know this: when Andy is in the hospital, it is God holding his hands, whispering, “I’m right here—I’m not leaving your side.” When Andy has to sit out in gym class because any hard hits could cause him to bleed internally, God sits next to him and says, “That’s okay, they never let me play, either.” And no matter what happens to Andy, God will be there with him, walking with him, caring for him, as God does with all of us who love Andy dearly. That is where God is in suffering and pain–right there with it.
*Name changed to respect privacy.