Wednesday, June 27, 2007

June 27, 2007 - A Miracle?

As various people have learned of my experience in the operating room the other day, some have wondered whether it could be a miracle. Based on the very limited facts we have at the moment, it does seem like it could fit the profile of a modern miracle-story. That profile goes something like this:

Patient has cancer. Modern medicine prepares its usual array of therapies to treat the cancer. Friends of the patient pray for healing. Patient goes in to receive medical treatment, but the doctors are baffled: there is no longer any sign of cancer in the patient's body! Patient goes home praising God. Doctors are left scratching their heads in wonderment.

We've all heard such stories before. Even with its impressive arsenal of high-tech tests and scans, medical science is still unable to explain certain things that happen. When doctors make predictions – based on empirical evidence and past experience – about how a particular patient's cancer is likely to progress, they do tend to be right in a large majority of cases. Yet, there is a significant minority in which their predictions are a bit off. Among that small number of cases, there is a tiny – no, minuscule – number in which they're completely wrong: in which the cancer that had been predicted to spread not only goes into remission, but seems to completely disappear.

Is this the hand of God at work? Or, is it just something that simply happens on occasion, within the normally-accepted range of statistical error? A person's faith perspective plays a big role in how he or she answers such questions.

As for me and my faith perspective, I don't spend a lot of time sitting around, waiting for that kind of spectacular intervention to take place. Yes, I do believe in miracles, but I also do believe they're rare as can be. I'm far more likely to spend time thinking about a different sort of miracle, one far more widely-distributed in our world. C.S. Lewis has described it thus: "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

Or, as the Welsh poet Huw Menai put it, in a little poem, "Paradox":

If the good God were suddenly
To make a solitary Blind to see
We would stand wondering all
And call it a miracle;
But that He gives with lavish hand
Sight to a million souls we stand
And say, with little awe,
He but fulfills a natural law!

Yes, we people of faith ought to cultivate an eye for the miraculous. Yet, we do well to look for miracles within the natural order, not outside of it.

I have cancer. Chances are, as a result, my life could end up being shorter than most. Am I happy about that? No. There are times when I'm still filled with anger and disbelief, that such a thing has happened to me. Yet, is it really such a theological scandal that one person among billions – a person who’s going to die eventually, anyway – could end up having a decade or two shaved off his lifespan? Do I consider this to be such a violation of cosmic justice that I look to God to spectacularly intervene, supernaturally removing every mutated lymphocyte from my body, once and for all?

No. I have no reason to expect such divine intervention. Why should I be more deserving of such a blessing than anyone else?

There are a few who seem to think I do deserve such a thing, because I'm a minister (much as, in the old days, the shoemaker's kids weren't expected to go barefoot). When I was talking with Dr. De La Luz on the phone last week, about anesthesia issues related to my sleep apnea, he picked up on my fear, and tried to comfort me. He said, cheerily, "I know the guy upstairs is looking out for YOU" – with a big emphasis on the "you," as though to say, "God's looking out for you, of all people." In the same-day surgery staging area the other day, one of the nurses – upon learning that I'm a minister – said something similar, about God surely being on my side. I always receive such comments graciously, in the spirit of caring and support with which they're meant – but, I don't believe them for a minute. (I've never put a "Clergy" sticker on the rear bumper of my car, either, hoping for preferential treatment from the police.)

Bruce Almighty is a rather silly movie – a Jim Carrey vehicle, so you know it's silly – which yet wrestles with some serious theological issues. The background is that God, played by Morgan Freeman, gets fed up with the laments of Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, about how badly his life is going. God decides to hand the reins of the universe over to Bruce for a little while, so he can glimpse the big picture. In one scene, Bruce gets to sit at a computer that's handling God's daily inbox of prayer requests.

"You've got prayers," says a cheery little message. Bruce decides to see just how many prayers are in the ol' inbox. "You've got 3,152,036 unread prayers," says the computer. Bruce tries to answer one or two, but realizes it's an impossible task. He selects "Answer All," then the word "Yes."

The scene then shifts to someone who had prayed to win a big lottery jackpot, and whose prayer has been answered – but then, so have the prayers of hundreds of thousands of other people. The payout is tiny. All those winners are mightily disappointed.

Bruce then seeks out God – who, in God's idea of a vacation, is taking simple pleasure in a janitor's daily tasks, mopping the floors of a vacant office building. "What happened?" asks Bruce. "I gave everyone what they wanted."

God sets the mop aside. "Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?"

God then proceeds to show Bruce the implications of some of the prayer requests he's just answered in the affirmative. See that kid who's been bullied at school? God asks. You just gave him huge muscles. He'll soon become a bully himself. He would have become one of the world's great poets, giving voice to suffering and vulnerability, but now he's going to become a professional wrestler.

The bottom line is, we just don't know. When we shift our reasoning faculties into high gear and try to puzzle out huge cosmic questions like why one person died in the World Trade Center but why the person at an adjacent desk - who had a dentist’s appointment that morning – lived, we simply can’t account for it. Was one really more divinely favored than the other?

I'm trying to look elsewhere for miracles, these days, than in my own lymphocytes. Like the other day, for instance, when there was a torrential summer rainstorm with the sun still shining, and we all rushed out to the front porch to look for a rainbow, and sure enough, there one was. Or, when I walked out of the church after a meeting last night, and was gifted with the vision of a luminous, nearly full moon, hung in an iridescent purple sky. (I remember thinking that, if it weren't for the cancer, I probably wouldn't have slowed down to give that moon a second thought.) Or, when I marvel that there are people who love me, despite my faults.

Miracles? They're everywhere.


smwilton said...

This is good news!! I'm so glad, whether a miracle -- or a simple infection that disturbed the doctors. I know you feel well and I am thanking you for your news!

Judith said...

I'll echo your Mom, Carl: good, good news!! XX, Judith

Anonymous said...

You have well articulated the "problem of prayer," both answered and unanswered.

As for miracles, I continue to wonder at the ability of a tiny goldfinch to survive with its incredible daily calorie requirement and its significant energy output as it lilts, seemingly effortlessly, from one tree to another.

Then a small butterfly appears, and I wonder that it escaped the wren - and where it might be finding food in what looks pretty flower-less outside my window.

Indeed, miracles are all around us. And some of them utilize our docs as well . . . Today I pulled out my x-rays to show a visiting good friend, and she remarked (which she had kept to herself till now) that she was amazed that I was walking without a cane --- a full 4 1/2 years since Dr. Smires said the head of my femur was "as thin as a communion wafer"! Now instead, it is made of titanium and anchored with 7 nasty-looking screws into a rather unusual titanium socket.

Fifty years ago - impossible.
Fifty years from now - who knows?

Those little lymphocytes better count their days -- our God-given intelligence and intuition in the form of medical research may force them to behave sooner than we can imagine!

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest blessing is to participate in a miracle . . . an unanticipated transforming moment for another human being. In that sense, our mission trip to Mississippi was filled with miracles.