A couple of weeks ago, in the second week of our daughter Hannah’s life, an idea began to emerge for us. I had been trying (as I have since Bethany’s water broke) to pay close attention to the comments and reflections of persons who have joined us in prayer and mindfulness in our crisis. I have catalogued many of those comments along the way for personal reflections later on. But I also have listened intently to what we’ve been hearing because of a deep belief that I carry: discernment of truth is best done in community.
In keeping with that belief that discernment is best done in community, ever since mid-July and the beginning of our lives being thrown violently out of whack (up until Hannah’s birth), we held intentional times of communal prayer twice a week. People gathered in our hospital room, and we would spend about an hour placing Hannah and Bethany before God, spending much of that time listening for God, letting our imaginations roam, responding with requests to God, and debriefing with one another what we saw/impressions that we gathered. So we listened deeply to one another and to God. Along the way, we observed people’s lives being transformed and hearts being softened in the times of prayer, and we also heard some very specific words from people about where God was at work. We sought to imitate Jesus’ mother Mary during a time of crisis and confusion in her life. She committed herself to a deep listening, and in response to good news communicated by shepherds, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Since Hannah’s birth, our practice of twice-weekly communal prayer has cut short out of necessity, with extremely limited visitation and concern for infection in the newborn ICU. But this practice of listening for the voice of God in those with us on the journey needed to continue. So a friend set up a page on Facebook to centralize news and prayer for Hannah, and this became an important forum to call persons to mindful prayer and to listen to what they were sharing.
Early in the week of September 18th-24th our friend Sarah Ross had an impression that arose in her times of prayer that we may need to fast together. In hearing this, the story of Jesus healing the child afflicted by a demon came to mind for me. The disciples were upset that they weren’t able to help the child in Jesus’ absence, asking him “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus responded, “This kind can only come out by fasting and prayer.” Her impression struck me as important, and so we set aside Friday, Sept 23rd as a Day of Fasting and Prayer. Little did we know what Friday would bring, and how timely a day of fasting and prayer would be.
Over the course of the week, Hannah had been very up and down, but in the middle of the week seemed to be making slow, incremental progress in weaning off her oxygen on the machine. We were hoping Friday would be an opportunity to focus our prayer towards that same end. But we entered the ICU Friday morning, and things were not well. Hannah’s oxygen level on the respirator was up about 15% from when we had left (in the mid-60% range), and in the span of the next hour-and-a-half, jumped up to 75%, then 100%. It was like the bottom completely dropped out. We hadn’t seen 100% oxygen on the respirator since Hannah’s first day of life. It was a gigantic punch in the gut, and brought the question, “Why? Why on this day?” Some may suggest the “Why?” question isn’t helpful, that sometimes things happen and life is full of coincidences. I am that person from time to time. But on that day? Something seemed different.
I responded to the horrible turn of events by trying to do my part. I got on the other side of Hannah’s bed, laid my hands on her, and began pleading with all of her might for her. I wept as I prayed and sang songs of hope in desperation, leaving smears of snot and tears on the plastic cover of the bed. For about fifteen minutes, her vitals spiked upwards and held steady during the time of prayer, but as I continued praying and singing to her, everything moved slowly right back down to unsustainable levels. Hannah’s skin began to turn ruddy again; like the first couple days of her life. What could we do?
That question, “What could we do?” is a prominent one that has shown up over and over again in this time. I entered the crisis believing that God made creation to be one where humanity cooperates, co-labors with him for the world to be the world it was intended to be. God never intended the world to only run only His own initiative, but rather that we would obey Him to join His work of healing and joy. I did not believe God has an unchanging will, and I did not believe the solution to the crisis was all on God’s shoulders. And so I proceeded accordingly with times of intentional prayer, we went on a crash course of figuring out what natural supplements would ensure Bethany’s immune system remained strong and would create lots of healthy bacteria in her womb, and Bethany committed to drinking lots and lots of water to stay hydrated. All of this came out of a desire to cooperate with God in giving Hannah the best chance possible. And, as it happens, nothing has happened in this crisis that has challenged that belief. The pinnacle of this came on the fateful day of Hannah’s birth, when all seemed lost at 2 am. Instead of being hands-off and “letting go, letting God,” we bucked the medical staff’s two options, choosing the third option to held Hannah. That night was a beautiful example of the power of human touch and the power of God’s touch uniting to bring about healing. God used us, used our voices, our song, our struggle, our pleading, our smiles, our action in spite of feeling empty and spent, our touch on Hannah’s forehead and hands…all of these things!
What we did mattered, deeply so! What an important lesson, and an important gift! And so on the crushing day of Sept 23rd, that was all I knew to do. “What can I do, Lord?!” my inner being screamed. And as Hannah’s vitals remained low, my spirits sunk further and further down. Bethany came in and with one look, told me, “You need to get out of here. You need to know this doesn’t all depend on you. God made a promise to us, and today we need to trust Him with that promise.” Her words brought a jolt to my reality. I realized that the awareness that God does call us to work with him in relationship is not the only truth. God also has revealed himself to work many times by His own raw, unrivaled power; so that humanity is reminded who is the Creator. Bethany reminded me of this; that when God promises, God can be counted on. I had turned God’s use of us into a rigid law; that because our presence had worked in Hannah’s healing, that we needed to be there all the time to ensure the healing continued.
Bethany and I took a walk across the street to Burnet Woods Park, and sat on a bench. We prayed together, and I repented of twisting God’s invitation and God’s desire to work with us into a fundamental distrust, a disbelief that God would follow through. This also brought tears, and Bethany held my hand through it all. She was a clear voice of truth that day, and set me free from the shackles of desperation and distrust. We returned to the hospital, and though Hannah’s vital signs remained desperately low, the situation felt fundamentally different for me. I continued to pray, but my mantra over and over and over again was the lesson Moses and Joshua had to learn; “Only be still. The Lord your God will fight for you.”
We had set up the day of fasting and prayer to run roughly from dawn to dusk (8 am-10 pm specifically). At 7 pm, a new nurse named Jan relieved the daytime nurse. She was a nice lady, but sensed the tension in the room immediately. When she saw that the machine was turned up to 100% already, she knew much of what nurses can do to bring ease to the baby (bumping up the level of oxygen to give them greater comfort) was out the window. But she told us she practices “Healing Touch,” (an intentionally broad term she uses with the wider public) which as we talked further is for her, as a committed Catholic a form of prayer. It involves a deep discernment of where the pain or discomfort is in the patient’s body (negative energy) and focusing healing in that area (positive energy). I was a little put-off at first, but I said I was ok with it, and sat by the bedside observing her in action. I even put my hand over Hannah’s head between Jan’s hands and was surprised to feel a distinct heat there. I’ve often associated a mysterious heat with the work of God in prayer, and so I quietly sat in prayerful silence. Again, nothing really fundamentally changed. Hannah seemed to like it, but her vitals didn’t tick upwards in any consistent way (this may have been related to the baby crying in the station right next to us).
Little did we know how quickly things were about to turn for the better.
At about 9:30, I turned toward the computer to read email for a little bit, and came upon the following story from a friend, Amanda Wheelock;
“I have been praying today, on & off all day. But this evening Matthew had me go out to get some coffee while he put the little ones to bed.
While I was driving & praying, specifically for Hannah’s lungs to grow, to not stop, and for protection over various parts of her body, I kept seeing an image of her lungs on fire. just flaming. And then, while I was praying, in an instant so quick I had to actually stop the car for a minute, the image changed into bright, blooming lilies (specifically pink ladies, otherwise known as surprise lilies). They are absolutely beautiful & pink, actually. It was so powerful I had to stop & collect myself for a minute, and there was also the words “heaven stands” that came to mind immediately after.”
I just wanted to share this image — it was very powerful & encouraging, and a reminder to me that there is a chance every second, every minute, every hour & every day for change, for growth, for Life! And sometimes it comes when everything looks like it’s dying. My aunt Jan planted these 30 years ago, and these lilies always show up in our garden after everything else has bloomed & is getting brown, and all the foliage is starting to turn.”
And then Amanda showed us a picture of those beautiful flowers in their own garden that I’ve placed below.
What a timely word to receive from Amanda! The sentence, “These lilies always show up in our garden after everything else has bloomed & is getting brown, and all the foliage is starting to turn,” struck me the deepest. I was reminded that the present circumstances and everything seeming to descend further into chaos was not the final word. This was a part of the process, and had not become a definite conclusion. I read the passage out loud to my mother, and Bethany messaged me that she had read it at home.
If the encouragement we received from the note was the only purpose it served, it served a tremendous purpose. But also present in Amanda’s prayer story was the powerful and sudden shift in images that took her breath away, and caused her to pull the car over to try to assimilate what she had just heard. “I kept seeing an image of her lungs on fire. just flaming. And then, while I was praying, in an instant so quick I had to actually stop the car for a minute, the image changed into bright, blooming lilies.”
Was that image just a helpful one to guide Amanda’s prayers for Hannah going forward? Was it coincidental? Did her subconscious knowledge of her lilies and her deep desire for Hannah’s healing create an image out of desperation for her? Or had God given Amanda an image to show what He was going to do? Could the transcendent God of the universe have given an intimate message straight to Amanda?
I read Amanda’s story for the first time shortly after 9:30, and by 9:45 had shared it with my mother and Bethany. I told Jan too what Amanda had seen, and we both found it interesting that Amanda had the image pretty close to the time where Jan had focused her “Healing Touch” as well. I sat back down, wondering if God was going to give a gift to us at the end of this day of fasting and prayer at 10 pm. All day long, Hannah’s oxygen saturation levels were very low, ranging from the 50s to the 70s for the most part, only venturing into the 80s for short periods of time. But as my mother and I sat there, and as Jan watched, Hannah’s oxygen saturation levels steadily marched upwards into the mid 80s, then the upper 80s, then the low 90s, then the mid 90s, and then the upper 90s! And they just sat there at 98 and 99, not budging. Jan waited a bit to see if it was a lasting phenomenon, then turned Hannah’s oxygen down to 98%. She left to go to another baby, and when she came back, Hannah was again “satting” in the high 90s. As I sat there in disbelief, I remembered the moment the night of Hannah’s birth where I looked at Bethany and said, “This could be our miracle!” Jan turned her down to 96% on her oxygen, and she stayed steady with her oxygen saturation in the low 90s. We had agreed to leave at 10 pm, but this was such great news that I stayed a bit longer as mom and day waited out in the waiting room. After whispering a short prayer of thankfulness, I left Hannah’s bedside, met mom and dad, and we headed home.
Early in the morning (about 3:30 am) when Bethany needed to pump breastmilk for Hannah, we called into Jan to check in on Hannah. Jan said, cheerily, “I’ve made an agreement with Hannah that I won’t turn her oxygen down until she’s consistently satting about 96%! I’ve already turned her oxygen level on the ventilator down to 86%, and I’m about to turn it down again.” We were tired and bleary-eyed to be up early, but Bethany and I both had grins on our faces as we got off the phone.
God has a way of bringing hope, of bringing brilliant colors of beauty and goodness, into very dark times. Those times, while we may not choose them ourselves, have a tremendous capacity to bring about personal transformation. We desperately need others around us (whether they share impressions in prayer or strong words to keep us accountable) to be able to discern what is true and good in any given situation.