December 8, 2013


A voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.  – Matt. 3: 3

   Matthew claims, appropriately I think, that these words of Isaiah describe the person & work of John the Baptist. To me they conjure up an image of someone trying to speak the truth to a world either incapable or not ready to hear such a truth, namely, that there is a messiah & He is already with us. Now, there have been many self-proclaimed messiahs over the centuries, but this one is different: He asks His disciples NOT to tell others who he really is. He knew that they couldn’t handle it.

   Even John seems to have had second thoughts. When he was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I suspect many of us may have had a similar experience when life forced us to cast off our childish faith for one more adequate to the realities of living. One such challenge comes when we try to do all the things our church tells us to do but things still do not turn out right. Were we naïve? Have we been duped?

   Specifically, we’ve all prayed for the healing of someone dear to us, but nothing happens, or so it would seem. One reaction to this scenario is to blame ourselves for not having enough faith. Al Staggs was a Southern Baptist minister with insight into this problem. His wife died after a twelve year battle with cancer. He says,

“A few weeks prior to my wife’s death, a couple with whom we had been friends visited & recounted story after story of “miraculous” answers to their prayers. After hearing a steady diet of incidents in which people were healed of their infirmities or found better paying jobs, my wife looked over at both of them & said simply “It hasn’t worked that way for us.”

   Sometimes I just want to ask these people who become so excited about miraculous healing, “Has your vaunted prayer program yet kept anyone alive forever?” Eventually we all die, including those who were healed of their particular disease. No one has yet managed to avoid the grim reaper. So why save our success stories for just those precious few who have been allowed a few months or years longer than they would otherwise have had?

   There needs to be a major emphasis on God’s grace & sufficiency for every illness & every situation. The Christian community should talk just as loud & long about God’s presence in the most hopeless situations as we do about the “miraculous healings.”

   [Henri] Nouwen had this to say about death: “Death does not have to be our final failure, our final defeat in the struggle of life, our unavoidable fate. If our deepest human desire is indeed to give ourselves to others, then we can make our death into a final gift. It is so wonderful to see how fruitful death is when it is a free gift.” Nouwen’s words & his own approach to his life & to his recent death are a counterbalance to those whose “healing” hit-&-run ministries suggest that death is a defeat & that only a miraculous cure is a victory.

   The miracle of a believer’s faith in the face of terminal illness is just as important as any story of a miraculous cure of an illness. Very few people experience a total reversal of illness. Most people diagnosed with terminal illness struggle through it to the very end. So let us hear the stories of the miraculous presence of God in the lives of these saints who are faithful to the end.

   The key to dealing with our doubts is holding on to the faithful presence of God in our worst moments, clinging to belief in the ultimate victory of God’s love which will make all things new. Yes, pray for the miracle, the sudden cure: it happens. But also pray to discern the divine presence in the rhythmic pain, suffering & death of human existence & offer them as a gift, a gift which will be forever accepted by a love that never falters, in a place where there are no more tears. 

   I knew an elderly American priest in Rome who had polio as a child. He still wore braces & used crutches to get about. He once mentioned that he had been to Lourdes twice & bathed in the waters, but to no effect. I made the mistakes of saying, “Kind of makes you doubt your faith, doesn’t it?” His reply: “Oh no, it tells me I already have enough faith. I don’t need a miracle to boost my faith.” That certainly put things in perspective for me.  AMEN!