Many of you already know that my youngest sister Heidi was diagnosed with MDS, a rare form of blood cancer, right after Christmas, last year. She’s 31 years old, a dancer and certified Pilates instructor, mother of 4 young kiddos, and generally healthy person . . . until the cancer hit. Needless to say this was a huge shock. Looking back over the past years, she was tired and anemic, but always attributed it to being pregnant, or nursing, or the demands of having 4 little kids.
We suspect that, despite the recent diagnosis, she’s had this for close to 5 years, which is about how long you can survive with MDS. She’s nearing that point where her time is up–unless she can get a bone marrow transplant, which is the only known cure for MDS. If you’re interested in following her journey, she’s blogging about it all here.
But today I’m here to tell you a story. It’s a very personal story. And it goes like this: I asked God for a sign that Heidi would be healed, and he gave it to me.
I know, right? You’re suspicious. Um, I’m suspicious too. Which is why I got the sign in January and it’s taken me until April to open up in public about it. You think it’s risky to claim something so drastic. I think it’s risky too. You think if this doesn’t turn out, I could look pretty bad. Not to mention God. Um, yeah. Trust me–I feel the full weight of this.
As I start telling people the story in person, I’m getting looks. You know the look. Where you friend is like, “uh-huh, I’m listening, I totally love and support you, but . . . uh . . .”
I don’t blame them. When someone tells me, “God told me this very specific thing,” I’m also hesitant to accept it as point-blank truth. Which is fine, and wise. Humans are fallible. We’re prone to self-deceit. We should question ourselves. We can easily misinterpret things–including what we think God is saying. I know this! I get the risk. The risk is that I might be a self-deceived fool, and Heidi might die. It’s a real possibility.
Let me just add that now, as I decide to share this sign I got, things for Heidi are (medically) looking worse than ever. To give you a recap, she’s been through multiple rounds of chemo to knock down the blast cells in her marrow (which have to be way down before she can safely receive a transplant … thought what am I saying? Transplants are never safe). However, in addition to knocking down the blast cells, the second round of chemo pretty much destroyed her kidneys, hurt her lungs, and reduced her heart function. She can’t get a transplant unless her organs heal (which they may … or may not). But as she waits to see if her kidneys will wake back up again and she can get off dialysis, the blast cells have a chance of going right back up. I’m not even getting into all the complications she’s experienced along the way (a blind spot in an eye … a blood clot … severe malnutrition … blood pressure drama …). It’s bad. Which makes this sign that much more unbelievable.
When I was young, I imagined signs from God as The Ultimate Solution to uncertainty. Don’t we all have this idea that if God would just give us writing in the sky, a clear sign, well, we could stop wondering and just know. If he could just tell us what to major in, what job to apply to, if we should marry X or not, if he’s going to make us financially stable or not, then we could chill out. All fear, anxiety, it’s gone, adios, because now we know.
Hint: I’m discovering that’s not how signs work.
I’ve asked for a sign twice in my life. The first time was a few years ago, when my son Ben had just been diagnosed with a life-altering and potentially life-threatening neurological disorder called Infantile Spasms.
You can read that full story here, but essentially, as I wept in the hospital, alone with my very sick baby, I said, “God, give me a sign that you’re going to heal Ben.” I opened the Bible randomly (not something I did previously or put much stock in), and there in front of me was Psalm 41, part of which reads, “The Lord protects them and keeps them alive … the Lord sustains them on their sickbed … in their illness you heal all their infirmities.”
Even then, I was hesitant about what this random-Bible-opening might mean. I didn’t tell myself or others, “God’s going to heal Ben–he said so.” I was fully aware that it could be a coincidence. That it might not mean anything. But, like Mary two thousand years ago, I treasured it in my heart. And hoped–that just maybe. Maybe. It was God speaking.
It was. Ben was fully healed.
Fast forward to right after Christmas. We’d just found out about Heidi’s diagnosis and had arrived home from our holiday travels. I was sitting in my usual rocking chair with my coffee and my Bible, weeping. Asking for God to heal Heidi. I was desperate. Crushed. Scared. I said, “God, give me a sign you’re going to heal Heidi. If you’re going to heal her, make me open the Bible right now to Psalm 41, the same Psalm you gave me about Ben’s healing.” I opened the Bible. Right to Psalm 41.
There you have it. It happened to me. There’s no doubt about it. Could it have been coincidence? Sure. But it would have to be a big one. And if it was, isn’t that a bit cruel for God to allow me to experience that level of coincidence at a time when I was bottomed out emotionally and crying out to him?
He is not cruel. He is good. So I’m going to trust that I did hear from him. That he was telling me something specific. That he gave me exactly what I asked for.
And–to state the obvious–this wasn’t a ‘mysterious’ sign. It wasn’t like, “I prayed, and then I saw this bird flying and its wing was kind of aligned with this pine tree, so … maybe the pine tree is Heidi? And the bird is … uh … her kidneys?” No. This sign was clear. Specific. Simple.
I didn’t think, in either of these cases, “I’m going to ask God for a sign.” My requests weren’t premeditated; I just blurted it out. I didn’t think through whether God would like this request or not, whether it meant I was a “bad” Christian or whether I was stepping out in faith. I just did it. I asked. Because I had to. I was in anguish, and that’s what came out from the bottom of my heart in despair. Not everyone reacts to anguish like that. My husband, for example, told me he’s never even thought of asking for a sign. All I can say is, I have no theological thoughts about whether or not it’s “right” to ask for a sign. I’m not recommending everyone go out and do this. I simply did it. And if there’s one thing I know, I’m God’s daughter, and whether or not God was thrilled that I asked for a sign or merely tolerant … doesn’t matter. I did it. And he answered. End of story.
But . . . not end of story. Not really. The prophet Jeremiah was promised early on that God would protect him. Later on, he told God he wished he hadn’t been born. God’s promises and signs to us don’t actually make the path smooth. In fact, this sign has complicated things a bit. I’ll explain.
If Heidi died, that would be the fulfillment of one of my Life Nightmares. Up there with Adam or my kids dying, my sisters dying is The Worst Thing that could happen. They are my soulmates. My top peeps. I would pretty much be in mourning the rest of my life. But would her death be faith-shattering? No. We all die in the end. I don’t like this, but I know it. I’d probably struggle in my faith, but I know God would see me through.
The sign changes everything. Now, if Heidi dies from this cancer, it means that I was self-deceived about a supernatural message that ended up being a horrible coincidence. And if I self-deceived about that, and God let it happen, what does that mean about God? Maybe that he’s not good . . . maybe that he doesn’t care . . . maybe that he’s not there. It will also beg the question–what else about my religion am I self-deceived about?
I’m not saying it will necessarily ruin my faith. But it could. It’s a real risk.
The image in my mind is a chasm. The chasm is dark and deep and terrible. The chasm is my worst nightmare. Death with no life afterwards. Meaningless suffering. A world with no God. A reality where cruelty wins and random chaos sweeps our lives into ruin. Where people die for no reason, hearts are shattered to pieces by loss with no hope of healing, and nothing good comes of pain.
Guys, I’ve been looking into this chasm. Every time we hear about a new setback for Heidi, I break down. I peer over the edge and look into this reality where suffering triumphs and, like Jeremiah said long ago, I wish I hadn’t been born.
In this image, I’m standing on a bridge. The further it goes over the chasm, the more transparent it is. A bridge of glass. It might not span the entire chasm. In fact, it looks like it disappears halfway over. All you can do is take another step. The bridge may hold, or you may plummet.
Does it sound dramatic? Yes. In the daylight, sitting here typing at my computer, it sounds over-the-top. But at night, when we hear more bad news, and it’s coming blow-after-blow so fast you can’t even cope? This is exactly what it feels like.
I’ve told God in those moments, I’m at the end of my faith. This is it. If I’m supposed to keep trusting you, you’ll have to forge the bridge. I can’t. I’m done.
He has held onto me. I trust he will keep holding on, because my grip is slipping.
After months of this emotional torture, early last week, I reached a breaking point. I couldn’t go on living in the dark, sad and despairing and barely able to stop crying. I had to remember the sign God gave me–and the other signs that have echoed mine–signs given to my other sister Erica and Heidi’s close friend Amanda, to name a couple (and there are more). I have to start hoping again. I have to start remembering.
My biggest fear–bigger than Heidi dying–is that God won’t come through on what he’s said. That my faith will prove to be a sham I use to comfort myself. Which is why I haven’t wanted to talk too much about this sign. Why I haven’t wanted to say with certainty “God will heal Heidi.” I don’t want to look like an idiot. I don’t want God to look like a fool–or fake. And I certainly don’t want my faith–the Christian faith I share with so many of you–to look stupid.
But you know what? I have to stop worrying about what will happen if God doesn’t come through. That’s his job. If he seemed to have given me a sign and then Heidi dies, that will be a problem. But it will be his problem.
And . . . if he’s really God, he’s certainly big enough to deal with it. I don’t have to protect his reputation–he can handle his own reputation. God can worry about his own performance. Because I can’t any longer. I have to stop worrying about what it will mean if God fails me, and start believing he will come through. It sounds so basic. I’m pretty sure that’s probably the definition of faith. And hope. And I’m finally getting back to it.
My faith is getting its second wind. And part of it is sharing this crazy story. That makes me perhaps look like a bit of a lunatic.
But here’s the thing. If God did give me the sign that I asked for at the exact moment I asked for it, I need to treat this like a treasure. Not hide it away and pretend it didn’t happen.
More than being safe, more than protecting my reputation or God’s, I want to be:
Someone of simple, child-like faith
Someone who points to God, even when it feels risky
Someone who prizes bold faith over fearful caution
Someone who’s open, and vulnerable, and real–not hiding my spiritual journey–but out there about it even when it might crumble to pieces in front of everyone
Bluntly put, I’d rather be a fool for my faith than someone who’s too smart for it.
The story of Elijah comes to mind. He poured a bunch of water on some altars and then called on God to send down fire. God showed up big time to a whole crowd of witnesses. What I’ve been thinking is, what if Elijah gave into the fear of risk? The story would have been different. I can just imagine his adrenaline. It had to occur to him, maybe God won’t show up, and then I’m going to look like a right idiot. But he risked looking like a fool. And because he was willing to take that risk, God showed up in glory. If Elijah had done all of this privately, poured water on the altars, called down fire, and then called everyone to come see after-the-fact like, “oh by the way guys, I totally poured water on these before, sweartogod, seriously, so isn’t it cool they’re totally blazing now?”, people would have been like, “uh . . . uh-huh . . .” But he brought in the witnesses before the event. Everyone saw the water dripping down the stones. Everyone saw that no human could light that wet wood on fire. Then the fire came. And everyone knew. Bam. It was God. It could have been no other.
That’s what I hope this story will be. Heidi isn’t doing well. The treatment, to put it bluntly, is failing. So come and see God do a miracle when water has been poured all over this altar. Do I feel the fear and the adrenaline? Yes. But finally, after months of despair, I’m also feeling the excitement. I want God to show up, big time. I want him to prove to everyone that he is real. That he cares. That he is a good Father worth following. That the Good News we Christians are always going on about goes so much beyond the traditional line of “Jesus died for our sins,” which is true and marvelous–but not the full picture. The good news is also that I am God’s daughter. That the chaos and darkness isn’t the true reality. That suffering is not wasted. That the bridge of faith is sure. That God speaks to us–in Scripture–but also in our hearts, in personal and specific ways. That he listens. That he can do the impossible. And that he is to be trusted at all times. That he will hold me fast. That I am his, and he is mine, and it is intimate, and scary, and beautiful, and more than I could ever have hoped for. If the chasm terrifies me and drives me to my knees under its crushing fist, the beauty of God’s full Good News brings me to my knees in speechless, soul-shaking joy.
I’m drilling down to the foundation of my faith . . . again. It seems to happen every time I suffer. I have to knock down assumptions and theology and everything I’ve learned–and go down, down, down, past what others have taught me, and people say. All the way to the foundation of the house my life is built on. I need to stomp on that foundation, and test with my pounding feet its soundness and its sureness.
And I know what I’ll find there–a precious cornerstone. A sure foundation. Or rather–I hope. And believe. And we’ll see. And you’ll see. Because like it or not, I’m dragging you along on this journey too.
Thanks for coming.