by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I recently conducted the funeral for a woman in her nineties who died of stomach cancer. As I visited with her in the last few months of her life, I often found myself sitting in silence with her in her bedroom; I held her hand and prayed silently, occasionally reading to her from the Psalms or from the Devotional Book she kept by her bedside. Her daughter came and went, going about her chores and sometimes we all sat and talked a bit. On more than one of those visits I thought of two people: Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, and Flora Belle Culbertson.
We read about Tabitha, or Dorcas, in our First Lesson. She was, apparently a very good woman, perhaps the leader of a group of women something like a WELCA circle. It says she was “devoted to good works and charity,” and that when Peter showed up the widows were “showing him tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” Good Works, charity, a sewing circle; sounds like WELCA to me.
Flora Belle Culbertson was the first funeral I ever conducted. She was about 70 and had stomach cancer. I was 23 and had very little idea what I was doing. I had met Flora Belle soon after becoming her minister. I was what the Methodist call a “student pastor.” I had finished one year of seminary and had been ordained a “deacon,” and I was assigned to a little church out in the country, about 30 miles from my seminary. I lived in the parsonage and did all the pastoral work while also commuting to school 4 or 5 days a week. I had visited Flora Belle on her dairy farm, had helped her husband around the barn a time or two, having been brought up around cows myself. Then she got sick and was dying in Duke University Hospital. I went there to see her one day. I took my Bible and my Abingdon Minister’s Manual and I sat there in her room and suddenly I was overwhelmed with a sense of complete helplessness. I didn’t know what to do.
I wished fervently for the gift of faith-healing. I wanted nothing more than to be able to lay my hands on her stomach and to shout to the heavens “Come out Demon Cancer,” and for it to work; for Flora Belle to suddenly get up, cured and healthy and well – like Tabitha/Dorcas sat up and then got up. I wanted to call the nurses and the doctors and say, “See, see. She’s not dying, she’s well. God has cured her.” But I knew I had no such power and I also did not know what else to do – and so I left; hurriedly, barely saying goodbye, despondent about her impending death and my own impotence.
I had parked my car in the Divinity School lot and I walked back through the classroom building, passing the open door of one of my professors, Dr. Edwards, who taught Black Church Studies. He saw me walk by and called me into his room. He told me I looked terrible and asked me what was wrong. I told him, pretty much what I just told you. He looked at me and shook his head and said something like this:
“Mr. Chilton, you are white and you are male and you have been raised to think that if you do not have power you do not have anything. This is not true. You need to learn a lesson from women and people of color from all over the world. There are some things you just can’t do anything about. There are things which belong to the realm of the mysteries of God. But, that does not mean that you do nothing.
“That woman over there in that hospital room doesn’t need you to fix her – she needs you to be with her, to hold her hand, to talk to her, to pray with her. The doctor might be able to cure her body but only God can heal her soul and, bless her heart, you are the designated man of God in her life right now; so get up and get back over there and sit with that woman.”
So I did.
So many years later, as I sat with Mrs. Jones, I once again wished I had the power to cure, to raise the dead, to fix things that offend and frighten me. But I don’t. Yet, ever since that day in Herb Edwards office I have remembered the difference between curing and healing and that we in the church are called to be agents of healing. To be cured is to have our physical problem completely and totally remedied – whether it be a cold and cancer. That is a good thing, it is a thing God sometimes mysteriously and somewhat capriciously does. It is a part of what we pray for. But it is not the primary thing we pray for. We pray to be healed more than we pray to be cured. To be healed is to be at peace with one’s illness and with one’s life and with one’s God.
In the thirty-nine years between Flora Belle and Mrs. Jones I have been in the presence of many, many sick people. I have prayed for all of them. Some got better, some didn’t. I take no credit or blame either way. And some who got better physically never got better spiritually – they retained a bitterness about their situation and their life. Others who got no better, or who sickened and died, found a place of peace, of serenity, of a vulnerability that was a part of their humanity and their dependence upon the grace of God. They were healed.
Our calling today is to be agents of healing in a world filled with hurting people. It is unlikely that we will discover that we have the power to raise the dead – but it is not unlikely that we will discover that we have the power to raise the spirts of those who mourn. We like Peter and the other disciples, like Tabitha/Dorcas and the widows in her circle, are called upon to lead lives “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” We not have the power to fix the world, but we do have access to the spirit which can and will heal it.
Amen and amen.