Monday, 2 February 2009

The Holy Handkerchief

You will probably have surmised by now that I have a certain degree of cynicism regarding the whole spiritual healing malarkey. (A hint may be me using words like malarkey.) Why, you may be wondering, have I dedicated some 5000 words to the subject?

A few weeks ago I received an email from Barefoot Brian telling of an experience he had had at a meeting in Dudley (in the UK). Brian had been at a meeting led by speaker Marc Dupont, a guy who had been heavily involved with the whole Toronto Blessing phenomena of a few years back. During the course of the meeting Brian felt strongly led to pray for me and get a piece of cloth blessed for me with healing in mind. As it happened Brian had a clean hanky on him and after a bit of 'should he, shouldn't he`, he succeeded in tracking down Marc Dupont and (in Brian's telling) virtually forced the poor, exhausted man to pray over it. He wrote to ask me if I would receive this 'holy hanky` in the spirit it was intended, and asked “Do you want to be healed?”

As you might imagine this left me with something of a dilemma. You now know my history (or some of it) with such things and the idea of a 'prayer handkerchief`, particularly the light of the Duane Falcello monologue, made me smile. However, I like and respect Brian. I'm known him for 30 years, from a time when we both helped run Christian youth camps at Hill House in Somerset. Although on the charismatic/evangelical wing of the church, Brian falls well within the bell-curve of normality for Christians as a whole, and is someone whose judgement I'd trust. So first, let's answer the question he asked: do I want to be healed?

Yes. Not because I don't value who I am, or appreciate how my disability has shaped my personality and what I've done and achieved in my life. I don't wish I'd never been born with Muscular Dystrophy because without it I would never have done the things I've done, met the people I've met, or had the children I've had. Dystrophy has been both a curse and a blessing for me But if someone (God?) could snap their cosmic fingers and relieve me of its burden, restoring the strength to my limbs, I'd forsake the advantages of a Blue Badge in a second. I'm tired of being tired, tired of aching and tired of feeling helpless to stop the further slide in my condition. So yes, I'd like very much to be healed. That said...

Do I believe God can heal me? Short answer: no. Longer answer: may be, it depends what you mean by healed.

Do I believe that an entity capable of creating a universe, establishing the laws of physics so that M=MC2, micro-manages his creation to such an extent that he would physically alter my DNA to bring about a cure for a congenital condition? And that if he did, he would focus his attention on me, rather than the countless other suffering souls in his creation? Would a supreme being, who could with a mere thought banish the spectre of, say, AIDS from the planet by making a minute alteration to a simple virus, rather turn his attention on me, a relatively wealthy (compared to many on this planet) individual. What kind of ego would I need to believe that? But supposing he did. Suppose this omniscient being healed me, would that be a sign of love or a slap in the face for the countless millions of faithful Christians who, through out the ages, prayed for similar blessings and not been heard? Why me and not them? Would God be so arbitrary?

I have a friend, Karen, who I've mentioned in this blog before, and to whom I owe a great debt, for it was she who introduced me to Polly, all those years ago. Karen, and her husband Gareth, have three children, the youngest, Tristan, was born within a couple of weeks of my eldest, Matty. Tristan, for no apparent reason, was born devastatingly handicapped. At nearly 9 years old he can not feed himself, nor sit unsupported. He will never walk and will forever be utterly dependent on those who love him. Fortunately there are many who do. Tristan is a beautiful boy. He has black hair and amazing eyes with lashes to die for. He sits engrossed for hours with something as simple as a tiny red plastic tennis racket. When I last saw him he was entranced with the lights on the controller of my wheelchair, gurgling with happiness when I made them flash. How could I expect God to heal me and not Tristan? And if he does, then what about my brother, or Blake or Dani or many others reading this? Why should God heal one but leave others untouched? Surely if God has the power to heal then no amount of theological sophistry can justify him healing me over Tristan, hankies not withstanding.

So Brian has wasted his time and his neatly folded square of cotton. Or has he? The first consequence of Brian's act of faith has been this series of posts, and the thousands of people who have read them and been inspired to consider their position on the subject. I, myself, have been forced to think about things I'd long ago put aside. What about the testimony of those with tales of divine healing, what am I to make of those? Rock God's mothers prayer for the healing of a blind friend? Tigger35's experience with autism? And many others known to us individually. The problem, as I see it, is that anecdotal evidence is not truly evidence, however sincere the source. Many of us have heard stories of miraculous healing that defy rational explanation often from impeccable sources. Unfortunately none of them are absolutely verifiable. I've looked for a verifiable account of a miracle healing of a genetic condition like Muscular Dystrophy, believe me, I've looked. It has NEVER happened. If you show me one accredited account, I'll show you a thousand doctors and scientists who doubt it.

But who is to say God has to act in a supernatural manner? If not for the 'miracle' of Penicillin and its anti-bacterial descendants I would long ago have died of pneumonia. Even as I write this I am looking at technological solutions to some of the problems I'm having. The probability is that with the right help my life can be greatly enhanced. Brian and his hanky have directly inspired me to talk openly and frankly about spiritual matters both online and in real life. I've had to confront some uncomfortable truths regarding my relationship with a deity who it sometimes seems to have abandoned me. (Or me him. We're still arguing about the details.)

I have just learned that Brian himself has very recently gone through a serious medical emergency requiring your actual brain surgery. He reports that he is well on the mend I'm glad to say. Did God heal Brian? Well he didn't wag his celestial finger and dissolve the subdural haematoma. Rather Brian was able to access the more statistically reliable NHS and have high quality non-supernatural treatment. Does this mean God was nowhere in this situation? Of course not. Brian, I imagine, credits God with putting all the, doctors, nurses, CT scan operators, and so on in place. And I can not dismiss this as a possibility. It truly is a matter of faith.

By now all my Christian friends, of whom I have many, are sadly rubbing my name out of the Book of Life. But wait! Put away your metaphorical erasures and read on.

I can not quite write God out of my life for one reason. I know his people. For 35 years the church has been part of my life. And despite the odd Morris and strange person who insists on accosting me in public and laying hands on me, they are for the greatest part, wonderful people. Many of the best, most exciting things I've done in my life have been done with, or facilitated by, my brothers and sisters in the church. When I have been at my lowest or sickest, alongside my immediate family, it is my Church family that has been with me. At a time when I hovered between life and death I know that thousands of Christians held me in their thoughts and prayers. The church has often employed me, frequently to poke gentle fun at its beliefs and rituals. And even when the logistics have been massively complicated by inviting me a long, Christian organisations have still taken me to every corner of the country, from Shetland to the Channel Islands.

While I make no claim that Christians have a monopoly on caring, it is my experience that those I know are among the kindest and must loving people you could wish to meet. If the church is the body of Christ then it is my opinion that Christ is worth knowing. While I have reservations about some kind divine plan, that one day will be revealed to me, I make no pretence to understand the mind of God. May be there is a plan. It seems unlikely on the evidence I've observed and experienced but if there is it had better be one heck of a good one to justify all that has gone on. But I'll let others worry about that.

So, to Brian and all my Christian friends, thank you. Thank you for praying and for caring. The very fact you do so gives me hope and lightens the load. And for those reading who take no comfort in divine providence, all I can suggest is that you, like me, look to your friends, your neighbours and your families for that divine spark.

In the meantime, the hanky is in my medicine box. Make of that what you will.

That's the end of this series of posts. Thank you for reading. Comments and discussion welcome. Good bye and keep warm.


  1. Stephen,

    Thank you for writing this series: For your honesty, your humor and for making me think.

    The whole series questions which surround a potential cure for a genetic condition is of significant interest to me. I wrote a post awhile ago about this topic, but without the "God" angle. I think this post predates our "knowing" each other; forgive me if you have read it already.

    Keep the hanky near. You never know: One day you might literally be dying for want of one. Stranger things have happened.

  2. I agree with you on the subject of miracles. I don't think they are supernatural events (since NT times). Whenever I pray for people to "get well," I am thinking about the medical care they will receive.

    When my Mom prays for my brother and I, she is praying for researchers to find a cure to SMA (which I hear might be treatable or curable in 5 to 10 years—there's even a bill facing Congress—not that I'm holding out for it).

    I think you have responded to this request fairly, thoughtfully, and gratefully.

  3. I don't know the answers to even half your questions. I know it is not for me to question God's motives or choices to heal some & not others. I also know that He sometimes uses human expertise & other times it is truly inexplicable & miraculous. I shall continue to pray for your healing & watch this space!? Bless you. Carole.

  4. I showed your blogg to a Baptist minister friend of mine and he was extremely positive.

    This was his comment

    "I was surprised to find the piece very moving and thoughtful. I don’t think he is loosing his faith. The piece reads like someone who is actively engaged with the tension between what the evangelical / charismatic church would like him to believe and the reality of his situation. What is amazing is that he is encountering Jesus in the care offered to him by the church and not through its theology. That sounds like reality."

  5. I do wish sometimes to not have FSH. But like you, it's made me the person I am today. I look more closely at life around me and for this I thank God. If there is one thing I do pray for it's that my family finds peace. Sometimes this disease hurts them more than myself.

  6. Hey, Stephen ….. it’s a YELLOW plastic tennis raquet!
    We had some pretty crass things said to us when Tristan was born ……’God had a disabled baby and chose us as parents to give the baby to because he knew that we were special and could give him the love and support that he needed.’ So we were CHOSEN. Gee, thanks a bunch God! I was very upset by this comment for ages. I felt I had been dealt a life sentence and was frightened about how I would cope with three children under three and a half – let alone one who is profoundly disabled. A prayer group was set up and every two weeks a small group of people would come around for an evening and ……pray. I did not have the heart to ask them if maybe instead of praying they could help me clean the house (which sorely needed it) or do a spot of ironing.

    It took me to progress further along my journey of acceptance to realise that the comments that were made and the prayer group that was formed were really all about the need for people to find justification in events, and to feel that they are actively doing something to bring about a change in the situation. I believe surrounding friends and neighbours need to go through a journey of acceptance as much as ‘the afflicted’. It would be a mighty fine warm fuzzy if their prayers for healing were answered though wouldn’t it?

    Well, Tristan is loved by us more than you could possibly imagine. We adore the little fella. He is also loved by most people who meet him. We have fantastic support, emotionally and physically from friends around us. No more precious evenings taken up with prayers – but if I need a child picked up from a club or dropped off at a friend’s house I know that all I need to do is pick up the phone.

    Sorry, I could rattle on for ages now that I have started ….I’m on a roll! Great thoughts Stephen. You definitely have your feet firmly on the ground …… well, your footplates anyway.

  7. I would have sworn it was red. Have a look at the comments on the original post. Very interesting. God didn't choose you to be tested with Tristan, he gave you Gareth for that. Love, Stephen

  8. Hi wonderful words as they come from your heart and circumstances, I enjoyed having fun poked at me as the church don't ever stop doing that! Nice to see Karens comments I remember her with affection from being in the sketches and staying with us once. I have no answers to healing as I have not seen it in my wife but neither of us has lost faith, just realise that maybe one day doctors may have a breakthrough, but we will take suoernatural healing if it comes! and in the meantime she keeps taking the insulin and monitoring as much as possible. Love to you all, GB Rob and Lorraine

  9. I've been trying to come up with something like intelligent to say about this and come up with nothing. You have already written the smarter stuff. Totally agree about most of it.
    Thanks for writing.

    A lot of churches, I think, just don't take "why does bad things happen to good people" questions seriously.

    I need to believe in healing and praying, I do it all the time (the praying:) Sometimes I think it works, sometimes not.


  10. Thanks for tackling this subject Steve. What you said needed to be said.
    love David

  11. You suck, go die, love TARZAN :D

  12. p.s. legalize it


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