Apparently there are now four new seasons in California:
- Hotter Than It Should Be
- Wind, Fire and Smoke
As I am writing this, we are the midst of Wind and Fire season, and for the third year in a row it seems that much of the state is on fire. My power has been out for days; I have friends who have been evacuated; the man in the apartment above me is sheltering a dog and two cats from the evacuation zone.
And much of the rest of my Facebook feed is not any more cheerful. I have a friend who recently posted updates from a family with a terminally ill little girl. Her memorial service was last weekend. I have a friend whose beloved dog had to be put to sleep. I have friends remembering their husband and father who died three months ago.
As James Baldwin says in my favorite short story “Sonny’s Blues”: “It seems that trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped.”
Besides trouble, there is something else these stories all have in common: Those involved prayed and asked others to pray for safety and healing.
My evacuated friend asked us to pray that God would bring a miraculous rain storm to stop the fires.
My friend now mourning the death of his friends’ daughter asked us to pray that she would be miraculously healed of her disease.
My friend who lost her dog asked us to pray that he would recover from his illness.
God did not answer those prayers as intended by those who prayed them.
So what happens to faith?
Those on the Evangelical and charismatic side of the church often link faith to answered prayer. They quote verses like: “My God will heal all your diseases.” “The effective prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.“’ “Have faith like a mustard seed.”
The message they often mean to relay is that if the person or people who pray have enough faith and are righteous enough, God will answer their prayer in the way they want it answered.
The unspoken dark side to this is the assumption that if God doesn’t answer their prayer, they must not have had been righteous enough, or had enough faith.
I can hardly imagine a doctrine more damaging to a human heart.
And yet some version of it is preached, even subtly, in Evangelical churches every Sunday.
The explanations I have heard for unanswered prayers of this sort are not really any more encouraging. “God has a plan. We just don’t see what it is.” Or “God works everything together for good. You’ll see.” This is NOT comfort. In fact, it rubs salt in the wounds of those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, or the loss of everything they own or their livelihood or their family heritage in a fire.
The situation is not that we don’t have enough faith, or that God is somehow doing something really interesting behind our backs. The situation is the human condition—every life ends in death. Every one. Even the life of Jesus. And on top of this, there are consequences for years of human degradation of the climate that means that fires will burn longer, hotter, and more destructively.
What, then, does it mean to have faith in the face of THIS reality?
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the difference between faith and certainty. That is one aspect of this situation. The Evangelical movement seems to conflate “Faith” and certainty, until what they see as a strong faith actually means being certain about things. But as soon as you are certain, you no longer need to have faith. Faith lasts when certainty is gone. Faith is deeply centered in the Great Mystery that is God and God’s interaction with human experience.
In her book Looking for Sunday,Rachel Held Evans wote of the difference between “healing” and “cure.” She says that when we think we are praying for healing, we are often actually praying for cure. Cure is absolute and binary—you are cured of a disease, or you are not. You are safe from a fire, or you are not.
Sometimes God is in the business of curing people.
And sometimes God is not.
Jesus notably cured many individuals during his time on earth. But there are many more people, even in Jesus’s day, that he did NOT cure. Every minute of every day someone around him was sickening, in pain, or suffering loss. Every minute of every day someone around us is sickening, in pain, or suffering loss.
It is very likely that God is not going to cure any of this. God did not bring rain to put out the fires, and according to the weather forecast, isn’t likely to do so for weeks. God did not preserve the life of the terminally ill little girl, or the beloved pet, or my friend. God did not curethese situations.
But is it possible that God ishealingin the midst of tragedies?
Of course my answer is yes. That is what it means to be a person of faith, to believe that in ways I don’t see or can’t understand, God is still working, that there is mystery at the heart of the connection between God and God’s creation.
No amount of faith will save even one of us from death. And while faith might ease us through pain and suffering, no amount of faith will eliminate or prevent all of our troubles.
Faith can and does allow healing.
Those who have died have been healed from their suffering.
Those who have lost loved ones can heal so that their sorrow allows them to love with generosity and abundance.
Those who have lost possessions can heal so that they develop an entirely new relationship with material things.
The earth will never again be what it was before humans interfered, but it will heal in its own way and life will go on, even if that looks very different from what we have come to see as “progress.”
For all of us, it requires faith in something we don’t and can’t see in order to believe. And even then, healing takes a very long time, much longer than “cure” would. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus means that I don’t believe that life ends in death. That faith may never cure anything, but it can heal everything.