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I don’t pray for healing

November 12, 2014

Last week, I asked my Bible study group for prayer in diagnosing some problems I’ve been having with my neck and shoulder. In the last seven days, I’ve seen two orthopedists on the issues. One ordered an MRI. The other gave me an enormous injection of cortisone. The results of both are still pending.

Today as I was leaving the group, one of the women in my group asked me how I was doing and when I replied, she offered to “pray for healing.” My friend was sincere and I took her remark as the compassionate act of a friend. Perhaps it is my own cynicism that taking such an offer requires effort and grace on my part, but it does. You see, I have had a number of experiences in communities of faith that have been less compassionate, less sincere. And this is one of the reasons why when it comes to my rheumatoid arthritis (while seemingly a no-brainer prayer request) I am reluctant to add it to the conversation. I do pray about my RA quite often. I have come to embrace it as a perpetual prayer that involves me complaining, hoping, expecting, but rarely ever do I ask for healing.

I have prayed many prayers for successful IV sticks, uncomplicated surgical recoveries, for humor and grace, and a little less nausea. But I cannot recall a time when I have asked God to eliminate my RA. When I read stories of healings in Scripture or hear of contemporary disabled people healed through miraculous means, my heart is glad. Yet I’m keenly aware that there were many in Jesus and the apostles’ days and there are many now who are left unhealed. I count myself in their number.

My attitude on this has been taken by some in my faith community to mean I lack the faith to ask God for a miracle. This is entirely possible, but it is not why I refrain from asking. These folks often devote themselves to renewed prayer on my behalf. I welcome all the prayer I can get! Still, I will not join their fervor. It’s not an easy thing to say: I won’t pray to be healed. It feels rude.  I’m used to accommodating the abled. I’ve been giving myself manicures since I was ten to keep people from feeling awkward about staring at my hands.

Stare freely. This was an incredibly difficult photo to take.

Stare freely. This was an incredibly difficult photo to take. My ring splints are cool, though.

If I were to agree with “the faithful” praying for my total healing in those moments, it would feel like a waste of what I know to be true about God and about myself. For me, my illness and struggles are not an affront to my faith. Unlike the strength of my bones, my belief in the kindness and wisdom of God does not wear out easily.

Catholic writer Nancy Mairs once wrote of her own struggles with multiple sclerosis:

…if a cure were found, would I take it? In a minute. I may be a cripple, but I’m only occasionally a loony and never a saint. Anyway, in my brand of theology God doesn’t give out bonus points for a limp. I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one. A friend who also has MS startled me once by asking, ‘Do you ever say to yourself, Why me, Lord?’ ‘No, Michael, I don’t,’ I told him, ‘because whenever I try, the only response I can think of is, ‘Why not?’ If I could make a cosmic deal, who would I put in my place? What in my life would I give up in exchange for sound limbs and a thrilling rush of energy? No one. Nothing. I might as well do the job myself. Now that I am getting used to it.

As a younger person, I had my share of “why me?” moments. Most of them were more “woe is me!” moments, but reasonable bouts of self-pity are a part of grieving the loss of one’s health (even when your health has been compromised your entire life). Like Mairs wrote, this is something I’m constantly learning to live with, and it has shaped who I am in many ways.

Recently, I had a conversation with an atheist friend of my husband who, in an effort to demonstrate the absence of God, began to use disability in children as evidence of the arbitrary cruelty of nature. While I could offer this man few reasons why such suffering would exist, I told him that these pains, like mine, would be a heavy charge to levy against a supposedly-good God, indeed. My faith, however, tells the story of an omnipotent God who subjected His boundless deity to human form in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the image of the God-head bodily. The God-man got hungry, grew tired, lost sleep, felt pain, just as any human would. Not only that, He endured incredible, utterly unjust pain and finally, death on a cross. My God knows what disability is because in His love, He took on limitations and suffering so He might through incarnation, intimately know us and meet us in our bodies.

In her book, Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eisland writes:

The coming of Emmanuel was understood by the early church in terms of death and resurrection. At the resurrection, the disciples understood the person Jesus for who he really was. Only through the lens of resurrection could they understand the meaning and significance of the life of Jesus on earth. In the resurrected Jesus Christ, they saw not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin, but the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and Imago Dei…Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God…The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.

In a culture, even a church, where disability is viewed as a lacking, a deformity, a state of incompleteness to be endured, Eisland’s words are life-giving to me. I think this liberatory theology resonates with me because I do not want to see my body as broken (though the powers of this world do its damnedest to convince me otherwise). I do not want to wait for wholeness. Psalm 139 is about me, too. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. The Imago Dei is all over this.

Just last week, I heard a sermon in which the presenter spoke of his disabled child who would be healed in heaven. I understand his desire to see his child remade in his image. I have long held out the same hopes. In the scarred body of the resurrected Christ, I see no particular promise for my own physical transformation beyond a ‘glorified body’, the likes of which is minimally described in Scripture. But in that image of Jesus, raised from death to life, I see the hope of triumphant embodiment. Eisland pinpoints more imagery that addresses those of us with “invisible” illnesses:

The resurrected Jesus Christ in presenting impaired hands and feet and side to be touched by frightened friends alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability and calls for followers to recognize their connection and equality at the point of Christ’s physical impairment. Christ’s disfigured side bears witness to the existence of ‘hidden’ disabilities, as well. Historically, interpretations of the pierced side of Jesus have emphasized the tragedy of innocent suffering. But understanding the internal damage wrought by hacking swords as part of God’s eternal existence necessitates a deromanticization of of interpretations of Christ’s impaired body and a recognition of the population of people who identify with Christ’s experience of disabilities, hidden and displayed, as part of our hidden history…Hence, disability not only does not contradict the human-divine integrity, it becomes a new model of wholeness and a symbol of solidarity.

Eisland goes on to assert that in the ritual of the Eucharist, the breaking of Christ’s body and the shedding of His blood, we can be reminded of the suffering of Christ, but also His physical embodiment and solidarity with the disabled. She calls for a reexamining of how communion is served and the physical requirements of the practice (“architectural barriers, ritual practices, demeaning body aesthetics, unreflective speech, and bodily reactions), so that disabled people have the freedom to take of the bread and cup without exclusion. I myself have struggled, even in informal churches where plates and cups are passed, to hold onto the heavy plates, or grasp a tiny cup. Churches would do well to consider how the home-bound, those with difficulty kneeling or approaching an altar, and others with disabilities could be better served during the practice.

I struggled to write this at first because I was concerned it would seem too skeptical or jarring. You see, I don’t consider people offering to pray for me oppressive. I truly take that as a kindness. What is oppressive, however, is the constant pressure to recover, to get over it, to be healed. And, honestly, a lot of that burden comes from people who should be well-acquainted with suffering and quick to identify with the oppressed. Instead, the church asserts demands for us to be made completely able (read: less inconvenient, less time-consuming, more independent). The disabled remind me and everyone else I know that community, love, and mutuality is the calling on our lives. Yet everywhere I go, I am inundated with messages that God wants me to get it together. His Word has a magical spell for whatever ails me.

unnamedWhen I tell able-bodied people this, they often struggle to see it. If you find this hard to believe, feel free to hang out with me or any other disabled person for a while. Take a break from staring at us, and sit beside us staring back. Maybe together we will all have our prayers transformed by the disabled God we serve.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2014 10:06 pm

    Oh, friend. I love this so much. May we pray for better prayers. And thanks for the picture of your hands.

    • November 13, 2014 10:48 pm

      Thanks. I’m a little freer about my hands than my feet (easier to hide feet), but it was still hard to just put it up like that. I don’t take kindly to zooing disabled bodies, and I did it knowing that’s possible here. But I wanted to affirm myself through it, so it was a choice.

  2. November 14, 2014 6:15 pm

    This is so very good! The “constant pressure to recover” is such a heavy weight. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. December 2, 2014 12:47 pm

    This is wonderful. I also have an invisible illness (M.E.) and am disabled by it – I wrote recently for She Loves Magazine for their We are the other series. I love the sound of this book you keep quoting from – I’ve actually never heard of disability theology before, and it sounds like something i need to explore further. I can definitely relate to the ‘get over it’ mentality that seeps into churches. thanks for writing this.

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