Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Worst Crutch To Lean On

This month has not been a good one for me as far as hero worship is concerned.  First Donald Miller, one of my all time favourite Christian authors, writes this article claiming that the biggest problem with the church is that it's too focused on scholarship and education.  That just rubbed me the wrong way for a lot of reasons but eventually I calmed myself down and decided not to vent about it on my blog (though I may have left a snarky comment or two on his facebook fanpage's link to the story).  There is a chance I'm over-reacting and the article is written in pretty ambiguous/slippery language.  On the one hand, I can agree - if all the church does is argue dogma and split theological hairs and it never helps anyone then what good is it?  On the other hand though it seemed to me to be talking down to academia in general, calling education pointless.  Again, that could just be me.  It did seem to echo the populous notion that education and scholarly pursuits are for out of touch elitists and that real, salt of the earth, common sense folks don't need none of that thar book larnin' to know what is right.  Also, pretty sure that the problem among Christians is not too much education, if anything it's the opposite!  I'll get back to that before the end of this post.

Anyway, so just today The Slacktivist, one of my favourite bloggers in the universe, discussed the very Pat Robertson video I posted in my previous post and he (unlike me) came out in support of Pat.  Actually I've been meaning to do a follow up on what I wrote previously because I did get thinking on the matter.  For one thing, I'll give the Slacktivist that much, the video shows a far softer and less dogmatic Pat Robertson than the one who usually comes on TV to kick suffering people when they are down.  There did actually appear to be a glimmer of empathy in his reply.  I still disagree with his advice though.  The Slacktivist post did make me realise that I should perhaps just clarify a tad and expand on what I said.

First of all, like I took pains to point out, I have nothing but the deepest empathy for people who has a loved one suffering from Alzheimers.  Pat was right, it's a truly hateful disease.  Frankly if I was diagnosed with it, I'd go the same route as Terry Pratchett and choose to die as myself, not an incoherent mess that couldn't even be called a shadow of who I used to be.  But I get that is not what everyone would choose for various reasons and that is why there needs to be some frank discussion and planning for the future when a disease like this is diagnosed.  If the subject of the letter to Pat Robertson and his wife had sat down together and discussed the way forward and she agreed that it would be best that eventually he move her into a facility and move on with his life I would agree with Pat's advice.  BUT - and that's a big but - this was clearly not the case.  This man's wife went into that long night fully confident that her husband was going to take care of her the way he promised in his wedding vows and then he changed his mind.  He started off taking care of her, got frustrated, found someone else and is now going to move on.  That, I can never agree with.  If you said you were going to be there to the end then you better be there to the end.  The commitment you make is the commitment you stick to.  That is why I found Pat's advice so offensive, because it was such an after the fact rationalization made in order to justify and excuse a course of action that has already been taken in bad faith. 

Just a little bit of honest planning would have changed the way I responded to that situation.  Of course planning ahead was never going to happen, much the same way it didn't happen when my grandmother got sick.  The problem is that just like the man with the sick wife, my family are fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christians.  People like us, when faced with dread medical conditions, tend not to plan for the future the way we should because we have a crutch we lean on.  Unfortunately this crutch is weak and brittle and can never give the support it promises.  It doesn't look it though, it looks ancient and noble and trustworthy.  We are all taught early on to trust in it completely.  It's not a cheap crutch either, it asks a lot from us.  It asks that we cheerfully deny reality, that we stay positive and believe and trust and above all never give in to the temptation of accepting the facts.  This crutch is faith that God will heal.  This crutch will make you fall on your face every time.  It may ask for a lot but it will give you nothing but disappointment and bitterness.  It won't even let you have that though, you're not allowed to be disappointed or bitter or voice any doubt in the claim that the crutch is sturdy and true no matter how many times it has demonstrably failed to be that.  So really, it takes everything from you and leaves you with nothing.

I remember a lot of things about my grandmothers disease.  Some of the worst memories however are not the one's where she didn't know who I was.  The darkest memories are of my grandpa furiously praying over her, rebuking the devil and praying the healing power of God over her.  My grandpa leaned on that crutch more and more as my grandma got worse and worse and sure as day, it dropped him on his face every single time.  My grandma never got better, why would she, she had Altzheimers!  It's an incurable, soul crushing disease!  It's not caused by devils and it's not healed by the hand of God.

My dad used the same crutch for over a decade when my mom's kidneys started failing.  There was fasting, and praying - so much praying - she was anointed with oil, demons were bound, healing was claimed and...  well what do you think?  That crutch kept collapsing but we kept believing in it right up to the day she died.  Also, my dad stuck with my mom all through this decade plus long illness which I knew wasn't easy just like my grandpa did.  So again, while I have tons of empathy for someone living with a loved one with an incurable disease I will never have sympathy for you if you decide to call it quits because it's too hard on you.  That choice runs contrary to my very DNA.

I too leaned on that crutch and for most of my life pretended it wasn't as worm eaten and rotten as it demonstrably was.  I trusted in it as a child when my mother and grandmother were ill, just like the rest of my family. I leaned on it while my dad lay dying in the hospital.  I leaned on it desperately when I got cancer - even though I should have known better by then.  I don't like to talk about my own disease, mainly because what I faced wasn't as bad as what my parents and grandparents had to deal with.  I had the weak, sissy kind of cancer that spreads slowly and grows at a snails pace.  The only reason it almost killed me was because I kept going to prayer lines and healing services instead of a hospital.

If you or a loved one is sick, don't pray about it, go see a doctor and get help.  As someone who grew up hearing countless sermons about how we're supposed to put our faith in God and not reality I know that won't be easy to do, so why not start small?  Try this simple test.  Next time you get a headache, pray about it but do nothing else.  Did the headache go away?  How long did it take?  Now, if you get another headache pray again but this time also take some painkillers.  Pretty sure the headache went away pretty quickly this time, right?  OK, now repeat this a third time but this time just take the painkillers, don't pray at all.  Any difference?  It's a simple experiment that anyone can do and it's bound to demonstrate reliably which works best:  prayer or medicine.  Jesus Himself said in Luke 16:10 that: "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dis honest with much."  Doesn't it then follow that if modern medicine is trustworthy to fix headaches you should also trust it if you have cancer?

See, this is why Donald Miller's article got to me.  Me and my family trusted and leaned on a rotten, unreliable crutch not because the church is run by teachers and scholars but rather because the teaching we got from church was no good and definitely not scholarly.  I think if anything that points to a lack of good teaching and scholarship in church, not an abundance!

Now if you are a Christian and you've actually read this far, congratulations.  I really didn't think you would because this post moved into heretical territory real quick!  I appreciate you hearing me out at least, unless you were just skimming this post while planning a rebuke in the comment section.  Anyway, maybe you know exactly what I'm talking about, maybe you've tried this crutch and fallen on your face many times too.  Maybe you know that feeling of having that gnawing feeling that there is no help coming from above, only to have to convince yourself that somehow it will work out because the very idea is blasphemous.  I've been there.  So for you I offer this compromise.  Pray, OK?  Pray all you want.  But please, treat prayer as a complimentary remedy, not an alternative to seeking medical attention (or in the case of incurable disease, realistically planning for the future at least).  I get it, lots of people call that having "weak faith" and will blame you for the inevitable happening.  Forget those guys.  Trust me, when the inevitable happens anyway (as it is wont to do) they won't have anything for you either except platitudes and perhaps more guilt.  I may have only had the sissy cancer but I've met lots of people with the scary real deal when I go in for treatments.  I've seen that for many, trusting God to heal them offers much needed hope and strength when undergoing treatment.  I'm not a complete dick, if you need to hold on to that crutch for comfort I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't.  That is really up to you.  Just don't you ever lean on it exclusively.  If you do that, it's pretty much guaranteed to fail you.  No matter how many amazing testimonies you may have heard about miracles happening, take this from a real person who has lived through some real events that were anything but miraculous.  Prayer alone is no substitute for treatment.  That way lies nothing but bitterness, disappointment and disillusion, not to mention a deep well of anger you're not going to be allowed to acknowledge.

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