The Miracle of the Cross

 
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
It started with a text
I picked up my buzzing phone and read the incoming text: 
“I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. I’m praying every day for a miracle.” 
 
Sighing quietly, I set my phone aside. My father had recently been diagnosed with a rare cancer. One we hadn’t seen coming and didn’t want to own. Messages such as this, offering prayers and positive thoughts, were not infrequent. Typically they warmed my heart. The outpouring of love and concern from family and friends had been overwhelming, a quiet reminder that we will find beauty hidden within this unwanted journey if we only stop to look for it. But for reasons I could not yet explain, this specific text left me with a different feeling. 
 
This text irritated me.
 
Being close to cancer is not new for me. For years I’ve been on the other end of this cancer diagnosis.  As a health provider I am blessed each day with the opportunity to connect with my patients in a beautiful and profound way. As patients share the details of their lives, they allow me to enter into their stories and journey alongside them. Most days this fills me with joy, confirming what I know is true: Healthcare is a vocation to which God has called me. But sometimes this blessing is painful. Sometimes it requires that I look someone in the eye and deliver the news I know will devastate them, the very same news from which my family currently wanted to run…
 
During the days and weeks following my dad's initial diagnosis, we learned many details about his rare cancer. We heard statistics, learned how the cancer grows, and slowly realized how its treatment would soon upend our lives. And as our knowledge grew, it somehow seemed the cancer did as well. Each bit of information dwarfed us, as the cancer and its pending treatment grew larger. More overwhelming. More scary. 
 
Silent pleas and desperate cries
Throughout this time my prayer life was filled with silent pleas that God carry us through. That He quell our anxiety and fill us with peace. That He guide our decisions regarding the best team to treat this rare cancer. And that He help us view the unknown road ahead, not through a lens of fear, but rather through the lens of His protection.
 
Not once, however, had I prayed for a miracle.
 
Several days later, while sitting with God in prayer, my phone buzzed again:
“I’m so sorry your family is going through this.  I’m praying for a miracle.” 
 
With an automatic “Thank you,” I replied, but the words were a silent veil, shielding the irritation that resurfaced. 
 
Days passed. Decisions regarding out of town treatment and travel plans were made. The cancer, that at times still felt abstract, became more real. And in turn, part of my heart broke, little by little, each day.  
 
My prayers became more desperate as I cried out to God - begging Him to help me place my hope in Him, and not a specific outcome. Begging Him to help me desire His presence during this storm, even more than I desired His calming of the storm. Begging Him to help me surrender the longings of my heart and to trust that His plan - whatever it looked like - would be better than mine. 
 
But not once did I pray for a miracle.
 
A message on a bracelet
Days passed and the buzz of my phone signaled another incoming text. A friend who had recently prayed for my father at the Blessed Seelos Shrine wanted to bring me something. Father Seelos was a priest during the 1800s who spent the end of his life serving in New Orleans. One healing miracle has been officially attributed to his intercession, and others are under investigation. For years I’ve heard of people visiting his shrine and prayerfully requesting his intercession, but I’ve never been there myself. Opening the bag my friend left on my porch, I discovered a stack of purple and blue rubber bracelets from the Shrine. My world stilled as I read the words printed in white on the bracelets: 
 
Every day holds a possibility of a miracle.  
 
I briefly recalled a conversation with my sister several years ago about how much easier things would be if Jesus would simply text me when He wanted me to do something. Considering the two texts that preceded these bracelets, texts about praying for a miracle, I began to wonder if Jesus had in fact used the fingers of another to do just that. And perhaps, it was only my resistance that led Him to “up His game,” now using the more tangible vehicle of a rubber bracelet to send His message. I slipped one of the bracelets onto my arm and stared down at the words. Reading them again, I felt like an imposter.
 
Wrestling in silence
The mention of miracles irritated me. I had intentionally resisted praying for one. How could I pray the words “thy will be done” … and at the same time beg for a miracle? How could I willingly pick up and carry the cross before me … while simultaneously praying it miraculously disappear? I’ve struggled most of my life with my desire to control everything. For several years it seems the prayer I whisper most frequently is that God helps me lay down this desire, and instead yield to Him and embrace His plans. So despite all of my efforts I simply could not reconcile surrendering my desired outcome with praying for a miracle. And I didn’t understand why it seemed God was asking me to do just that. 
 
For several days I wrestled with these contradictory prayers, begging God each time my gaze fell to my new bracelet, to help me understand. And as I gave Him time, He slowly responded …
 
A song lyric worth noting
I sat in the dark auditorium, watching the young dancers flutter across the stage. I had not expected to hear from God at a dance recital, but given His recent use of text messages and rubber bracelets, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Because there I was, staring at the stage, lost in memories of my own recitals years ago, when the lyrics to an unknown song suddenly captured my attention: 
 
We seldom see the miracles in front of us.  
 
And as this verse played a second time, I reached for my phone to make note of it; I was well aware God was speaking. 
 
For the next week this one line was a broken record, playing constantly in my mind. And as I reflected on it in prayer, I heard His gentle, but challenging whisper:
Jen, can you pray for a miracle … without trying to control the miracle?
 
Praying for a specific miracle, one outlined by me, was not what God wanted from me. This prayer would “box God in,” and He did not want to be limited by my narrow view of the situation. No, it seemed the real problem was not that praying for a specific miracle indicated my lack of surrender. Rather, my all-powerful and all-knowing God knew that by focusing my heart on one specific desire, I would likely miss seeing the miracle(s) He did have in store. God absolutely wants my heart open to a miracle. He even wants me to expect a miracle. He just doesn’t want me to call the miracle.
 
As this realization sunk in, my prayer changed again.  I repeatedly asked God to grant me the faith and trust needed to boldly ask for any miracle He might want to bring forth. To grant me a heart open to receive any miracle He performs. And to grant me the vision to see each miracle He carries out. 
 
And with tentative steps, I began to pray for a miracle. 
 
An audiobook with an answer
I stood at my back door, only half listening to the audiobook playing in my ear as I juggled my armful of groceries. For several days the book When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada had been the backdrop of my life, but at that precise moment I could barely concentrate on the words. My main focus was unlocking the door without dropping everything I held. Well … that, and making it inside in only one trip! But somehow, in this preoccupied state, I heard enough to know God was again using the words of another to speak to me. I finally made it inside, nearly throwing the groceries out of my hands so I could replay the words with undivided attention.
 
In the chapter “Making Sense of Suffering,” Tada states:
    “Pain and death entered the world by the fall of humans; 
    it wasn’t what God cherished for man. 
    But when Adam chose suffering over the joys of union with God, 
    the Lord turned suffering into a way man could know God better.”
 
… a way man could know God better ...
... a way man could know God better ...
 
As this line echoed in my mind I realized this quote is not a flippant attempt to placate those who endure suffering and pain. No, it was written by a woman who, during her teen years, suffered a spinal cord injury from a diving accident and has lived every day since as a quadriplegic. 
By a woman who clearly knows the pain of both broken dreams and a broken body. 
By a woman who admits to praying for years for miraculous physical healing - miraculous healing that never came.
But by a woman who eventually came to see that through this devastating injury, and through not receiving the specific healing miracle for which she prayed, she gained something far better. A miracle in its own right: A relationship with the Lord quite unlike anything she would have otherwise experienced. And one she wouldn’t trade for anything.
 
Her words grabbed me as I realized the only reason I had wrestled with how to pray - do I ask for help surrendering my desires? or do I ask for a miracle? - was because this cross of cancer had been placed on our backs. Was it not for the cross, the struggle of praying for a miracle would not have been mine. Quite simply, it’s only when we’re suffocated by the knowledge of our cross, or crushed by the weight of it, that we need a miracle. Or perhaps, if the miracle is a relationship with the Lord, it’s the only time we’ll easily admit we need one...
 
The road ahead
In a few days my father returns to MD Anderson to begin the second phase of his cancer treatment. Already finished with radiation, he now faces a major surgery, with a goal of removing the cancer to prevent future recurrence. Each time we meet with the surgeon, the surgery grows. It becomes more involved. It becomes more scary. And each time we meet with the surgeon we’re reminded that because of the unique nature of this cancer, removing all of it will be very difficult. That often, it’s not possible. 
 
We are without a doubt standing under this cross of cancer. We are trying to hold it upright, but the weight is heavy, and road ahead seems treacherous. But maybe … maybe it does not matter if the Lord meets us at the cross and lifts it completely out of our hands, or if He meets us at the cross, falling into step beside us as He helps us carry it. Maybe the real miracle, the one He absolutely does not want us to miss, the one for which He will chase me with texts and bracelets and songs and books just to make sure I hear Him, is that He will in fact meet us there. He will meet us at the cross. And regardless of whether the cross is still in our hands or not as we take our next step, He will be there, offering us the most beautiful gift of Himself. The gift of His never ending presence. The gift of an intimate relationship we would otherwise never experience. A relationship we would not trade for anything - even if it means we must endure the cross.  
 
One last text
My phone buzzed, again signaling an incoming text. I glanced at the message quickly … and froze. My eyes filled with tears as warmth spread through my chest. 
“We are thinking about going to the Blessed Seelos Shrine and wanted to see if you were able to join us.”
 

Divine Physician,
You infused Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos 
with the gift of Your healing.
By the help of his prayers, 
sustain in me the grace to know Your will 
and the strength to overcome my afflictions.
For love of You, make me whole.
May I learn from the example of Father Seelos 
and gain comfort from his patient endurance.
Blessed Francis Seelos, pray for us.
Amen.

Humbly requesting that you join me in praying for a miracle as we prepare for my father’s surgery on September 1st.
And as always, I’m praying God breathes life into these words. 
___________________________

(blessed by these words? feel free to share, so you can bless others.)

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