This article was originally published on Christian Courier, April 7, 2019.
When I first started chemotherapy and radiation for Stage IV colon cancer, I was too ill to complete my normal duties as a college professor. Yet it always felt reassuring to be able to get a few things done from home when the rare “good” day (more like hour) presented itself.
One of those occasions I took a quick trip to the office to grab some files I needed to be able to work from home. While I was there, my office assistant, Linda, handed me a gift bag that I also took with me. When I got home, I used the last of my strength to walk from the driveway into the house. Dropping the files in my first-floor office, I carried the gift bag upstairs. Leaving it beside my nightstand, I fell into bed and was asleep in a matter of moments.
When I awoke two hours later, the girls were still at school and my wife Kelly was at work. As I slowly became alert, I reached down beside the bed and picked up Linda’s gift. Tearing off the paper, I found what looked like a bright, teal-blue blanket.
Odd, since it’s the end of July . . .
Unsure of what I was looking at, I unfolded a note that had fallen out of the package when I removed the paper.
“This is a prayer shawl,” Linda had penned. “When you wear it, it reminds you of the presence of God.”
I knew that Linda was a knitter and felt so touched that she’d lovingly, and prayerfully, knit me this shawl. Since I’d been ill and been so uncomfortable, we’d thrown caution to the wind and were blasting our air conditioner at full throttle. Propping up a few pillows against our headboard, I hauled myself up into a sitting position to pray.
Unfolding the shawl, I draped it over my head, shoulders and back. I’d already resigned myself to being unable to pray long, beautiful or eloquent prayers, so I purposed only to pray one word: mercy. Inviting the Holy Spirit to translate those two simple syllables to God’s ears, the intention of my heart was to ask God for mercy on me, mercy on my children, mercy on my wife. Although I had no idea what form that would take, that was my prayer.
After a few minutes of sitting upright, I felt a shooting pain in my back. Letting gravity have its way, I rolled over to lay back down on the bed in the fetal position. Tugging at the prayer shawl, I used it to cover my body. And when I’d prayed the word “mercy” so many times that it began to lose meaning, I could still feel the slight pressure of the shawl on my skin.
Overwhelmed with physical pain, anxiety and uncertainty, I did not have the kind of emotional experience of God that I’d enjoyed in my youth. And, far too overwhelmed and exhausted to study Scripture, stand in church for more than a few minutes or concentrate in prayer, I struggled to connect to God spiritually. Intellectually, I was having difficulty finishing sentences, let alone entertaining coherent thoughts about God.
And yet, somehow, during the minutes and hours when that prayer shawl was draped over me, I felt like I didn’t have to depend on either my heart’s emotion or my head’s knowledge to encounter God. It was actually one of the few times in my life when those two were joined in what I can only describe as God’s presence. The weight of that prayer shawl, enough to feel but not so heavy that it was uncomfortable, ministered God’s real presence to me. In the moment, I almost felt God’s embrace in that knitted yarn, like a hug. And on most days, when my words failed, the most I could do was simply be still in God’s presence under that shawl.
I’d spent so much of my life either running from or running after God. But the consequence of my illness was that I discovered I only needed to be still before God to experience his presence more deeply. When I had no more strength to run or perform, I was finally still enough to experience God’s nearness with me. On my sickbed, under that prayer shawl, I was able to lean into God. In my darkest days, when I needed God most, God became real in a very tangible way.