"Conversion Story" Chapter 4
I started to recognize problems in this church when the two pastors had a falling out and a power struggle ensued. It turned out that one of the pastors was involved in immorality but was using his spirituality as a smokescreen to defend himself. This led to a split in the church and as happens when each party claims the Holy Spirit is telling them they are right but are diametrically opposed to one another. After medical school we moved to a large city and joined another well-known independent charismatic church. Unfortunately, after a few years of close fellowship and innovative teachings, the pastor of this church had a falling out with the elders over a moral issue and a division ensued. We loved the people in the church and sided with the majority and stayed there for a time. There was a true sense of Christian community in this church that was genuine despite many cult-like features regarding membership requirements etc.
At this time my wife of three years was diagnosed with an extremely rare in-operable lung cancer. There were only thirty other recorded cases in the world's medical literature. She was told there was no cure but she may possibly remain without symptoms for an indeterminate amount of time before dying but it was uniformly fatal. We were bolstered by a loving group of folks who shared with us that "God can heal if you only have enough faith." We embraced this theology whole-heartedly and pursued her healing for the next 8 years. We attended healing meetings, exorcisms, fasting and prayer and I began fasting Tuesday evenings to Thursday mornings for several years to obtain her healing from God. We sought out nationally known charismatic preachers with healing ministries and had several exorcisms performed on our house and ourselves. My wife used to collect ceramic frogs and owls and one exorcist said he had cast out "the spirit of the frog" that was residing in our house. (I quietly wondered if he could've helped our little city cockroach problem we were experiencing at the time as well!)
Once on a vacation at the beach we visited a store front church on Sunday. The preacher called my wife up out of the crowded little room and said to her "God will give you that which you have been seeking!" He then asked her what she was seeking and she told him about the cancer. That gave us great hope and encouragement and helped to bolster our faith that Jesus was definitely going to heal her of this cancer.
We were blessed with two boys over the next four years. We coped with life by never talking about the possibility of her dying. We lived as if she would be healed. The problem with this was that it took an enormous amount of energy to muster this "faith talk" all the time and it was taking its toll on our marriage. Rather than confronting problems in our relationship, we would put them aside and continue to press for the healing. Seeking her healing became the focus of our lives and as a result we were in denial about all the other problems that occur in any marriage, cancer notwithstanding. For me, it felt like a constant "sword of Damocles" hanging over my head for 8 of the 11 years we were married, but I could not tell my wife my true feelings. Most of my close friends were believing that her healing was forthcoming and I could not open up to them about how I really felt. Once I tried to tell a close friend how absolutely terrified and sad I was and he kindly said, "Don't worry, she will be healed." I appreciated his vote of confidence but I needed someone to share my pain and fear with. This was one of the most intensely lonely and difficult periods in my life. I took solace in knowing that Christ would never leave me or forsake us despite the fact that we were truly walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I could not share Scriptures with my wife or others about the valley of the shadow of death because it would be "doubting the healing."
I started to secretly take comfort in the Scriptures that said "Not my will but thine" and God gave me His reassurance that He would be with us, whether my wife lived or died. I could not share this with her and instead would read aloud to her the Scriptures that said "By His stripes we are healed." We would both lay awake night after night with her in agony and me holding back tears as I watched her die. I just wanted to hold her and say "I love you and hate to see you go through this but we will be okay because He will carry us through this." I longed to just be able to tell her how I felt about our life together but I couldn't because she would have interpreted that as "losing faith." Instead of having precious end of life discussions about our children, our families, our Lord and His love, we listened to faith preacher tapes over and over again throughout the night. This bad theology we embraced ended up hurting us terribly and denied us the ability to be honest with ourselves, our children and our God.
We were reading books and tracts about healing that was from an off-shoot of the charismatic movement called the Faith and Prosperity Preachers. Centered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, these teachers taught that Jesus heals everyone and if you don't get healed it must be your lack of faith. I realize now this actually was a twisted form of Christian Science and had its roots in one of the heresies dealt with by the early church.(Gnosticism) About 4 months before she died, I had a distinct impression that God was telling me that the time was very short and she would die soon. It may have just been my medical instincts seeing her become more irritable and short of breath. At this time she was taking huge amounts of over the counter ibuprofen to deal with the pain but would not admit that she was in pain. We long ago both agreed to not pursue any further diagnostic tests since they wouldn't "build our faith." The actual words I heard in my mind were "the time is short now." As strange as it sounds, this brought me some comfort since I felt that there was to be a conclusion to this torturous existence of denial we were living. I never shared this experience with her.
About 4 weeks before she died, she was becoming severely ill and short of breath. We heard of a missionary with a healing ministry that was flying in from Africa who had been known to raise people from the dead. Despite the worse ice and snow storm of that horrible winter of 93-94, I drove with her and my pastor and a friend in a van to Richmond Virginia to see if she could be healed through the ministry of this faith healer. The level of compassion that my church showed for us was beyond description and I will never forget the love and that was displayed for my wife and I at this time. The folks risked their lives to drive my wife over 250 miles on the eve of one of the worst storms of the season because they believed God would heal her. They also knew this is what she wanted as well. We saw many tractor trailers jack-knifed and cars that had skidded off the road on the way down. It turned out that the healer couldn't come in due to the weather and we sadly drove all the way back taking almost two days for a six hour trip. At one point we were stuck in traffic for about 10 hours due to the storm. She was in absolute agony in the jostling van as we ran over potholes and ice on the highway. We stopped intermittently so I could give her injections of a powerful narcotic to relief her screams of agony.
Shortly after this trip, my wife did pass away leaving me with a 4 and 7 year old who did not even realize she was sick since we never told them. I was devastated knowing that our faith did not give her the peace that was promised. Not because God didn't make it available, but we chose to mis-interpret the Scriptures. I knew even as she was dying, that this theology was wrong and it denied the ability for us to even have an honest conversation about her dying. If there was ever a reason to not believe in private interpretation of Scripture, this was it. The Word of God wrongly applied and twisted out of context can be a cruel taskmaster.
N.B. I want to make it clear to all the readers at this point, my wife and I willingly embraced and sought out this teaching and our charismatic church encouraged us in it, but we did not feel like this doctrine was forced on us. We chose it!
No one could give me an answer for why she died if she had such faith and many young people from our church were devastated. Two days after my wife died I received a phone call and a familiar voice that I hadn't heard for years was on the line. My Catholic friend from college, now an ordained priest heard that my wife died and tracked me down. I will never forget when I asked him why she had to suffer so much, and he said that "Jesus gives us the privilege of sharing his suffering." Father E. told me that Jesus stretched his arms out on the cross and said, "Lee, you come up with me and share my suffering." He then quoted St. Paul when he talked about completing in his body the suffering of Christ. (Colossians 1:23) I couldn't argue since it was Scripture and it was the only thing that gave me comfort in those difficult months after she died. I had never heard a Protestant talk about that verse and somehow missed it in all my years of intense personal Bible study. My theology didn't allow for suffering but this Scripture given to me by a Catholic priest made more sense than anything I had heard or experienced in the past 12 years. Since Christ our Redeemer had suffered should we too not be willing to take His yoke upon us and experience suffering? The Catholics call this "redemptive suffering' and if you really think about it, it resonates with all of human experience and follows Natural Law. I notice that the faith teachings aren't spreading like wildfire in Haiti where suffering permeates the daily lives of the believers there. There is certainly no lack of faith and I have seen incredibly heroic lives lived for God despite un-imaginable suffering.
If the concept of redemptive suffering is new to you as it was to me, I have enclosed a link to a traditional Catholic webpage that is helpful in providing key Scriptures that the Church used to illustrate this wonderful truth. It was always there in my Bible, I just never saw it. http://www.fisheaters.com/offeringitup.html
More to come.....