We asked. We prayed. We hoped. She died.
Did I pray hard enough? Did I want it bad enough? Did I hope with enough expectation?
My mom should be here. I need her, not just the love she taught me that doesn’t go away or the likeness of her in other wise women. I need her. Only she has the stories I need to hear, the particular wisdom about half my DNA, the face that my eyes saw first, the scent I knew before I had a birthday.
Her life was not finished. There are so many loose ends.
When I worried about something, my mom would say, “look at the birds.” It’s from Matthew 6 in the New Testament where Jesus tells his listeners to consider sparrows and lilies which benefit from God’s provision as a reminder that humanity, much more important than birds and flowers, are under God’s care, too. The gist is don’t worry. God will take care of you. I have heard many sermons preached on it and many preachers quote Jesus here:
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The thing I don’t hear them say often is the truth that God doesn’t always feed and clothe us. God doesn’t always make sure we have everything we need to survive.
One could argue (and I would disagree vehemently) that my mom’s death was purposeful, planned, that she didn’t receive healing because it was not what she needed in some ultimate sense.
But what about the millions and millions of people who are born and die in environments where they are never adequately fed or clothed? Right now a mother is watching her children starve and begging God for food. Right now someone is experiencing trauma and abuse at the hands of her own family and will never find relief despite her desperate hope for deliverance. If one argued that it’s part of God’s Plan for an innocent child to be born to sociopaths who neglect him and abuse him and cause him to die before he’s had a chance to live (an actual thing that happens), I would sincerely suggest one visits a therapist to work through one’s pathology.
If Jesus is actually saying that God will give you food and clothes and the things you need to survive if you ask for them, he’s just wrong.
Even the Bible says he’s wrong. The wisdom in Proverbs is to be an active participant in your life: make good choices, take care of your lot. Much of the letters from Paul are about staying diligent in your pursuit of God’s dream and Paul himself sets an example he wants others to follow of working for his own food. Jesus blesses people who ask boldly for what they want and Paul commands that those unwilling to work not be allowed to eat.
So this passage cannot be saying to sit back and expect that God will feed you and clothe you and make sure your mortgage is paid. If it is, Jesus is disagreeing not only with precedent, but with future apostles.
We all come face-to-face with the reality that our needs are not always met. We encounter lack all the time; big and small. Unexpected bills, impossible relationships, disasters of one kind or another. And even if we never felt a need, never lost a loved one, never had to choose between the electric bill or medicine, we all die. The birds and the flowers die, too. So even if God did make sure everyone was always taken care of, why?
I think the key is what Jesus says just before this:
Surely life is worth more than food, the body more than clothes.
I haven’t heard this part taught, but for most of the world and indeed, even for those of us with the privilege of adequate food and shelter, this is the part we need to hear most. Surely life is worth more.
Surely the worst situations are not it.
Surely there is something else sitting alongside our most desperate needs.
Surely food and clothes are important enough to attend, but not important enough to take all of our attention.
Surely this wreck of a place, this gorgeous wonder, this terrifying, grand, wild existence is worth something that cannot be diminished by our lack.
My mom’s life was not perfect, but it was Good. Her presence here was a gift. She made the world a better place by intention and by simply being. She had good reason to believe that God would heal her cancer and keep her here. Because if God takes care of birds and lilies….
But he didn’t. Maybe he could have – actually, I know an adequate number of weird stories to believe that he absolutely could have – but he didn’t. He let her die in a truly horrible way. He let her down by not fulfilling a promise she held onto: look at the birds God keeps alive and doesn’t God cares more about you?
But the birds die, too. And while my mother hoped to be healed – believed in it, counted on it – she also knew that dying wasn’t an end of life. She celebrated her “going home” even while she grieved the timing and the means. My mom didn’t need a good sermon to realize that life is worth more than health and time.
My mom communed with God throughout her life. She saw God everywhere and she enjoyed God’s love as a child enjoys the affection of a parent. She lived out her talents and mistakes, her good days and bad ones from a place of security in God’s favor and assurance of his devotion to her.
She had peace. She had rest. In the end, she knew that she could express anger and praise to a God who loved her deeply even when he didn’t do what we all wanted so badly done. I don’t know that I can ever be convinced that her miraculous healing wouldn’t have been Real Good for so many. I don’t know that I’ll ever concede that this was the best way forward; that the same beauty and profound lessons that keep coming from it couldn’t have come another way. I don’t know that even as I accept the reality and the hard-won joys, I will ever be able to accept that her dying now and this way was the best we could do.
And I don’t have to. I can hold my grudge against cancer and death and unanswered prayer. Because I can also trust, like my mom did, that even if this plan sort of sucks, it’s still covered in the presence of a Good and Loving God whose eye is on the sparrow and on us.