Healing, over donuts
The beating heart of our spiritual formation
We all live out liturgies, all the time. I was raised hearing about the end times and culture wars around the dinner table. I was also raised on a weekend liturgy of watching TGIF sitcoms on Friday night, roaming the mall on Saturday, and attending church before passing spareribs around a lazy Susan at a Chinese restaurant like the one Dad ate at on Sundays while growing up with his Jewish family. I was raised on a liturgy of six television screens in a seven-room house, plus portable ones for the tub and road trips. I was raised listening to the “Bible Answer Man,” “Focus on the Family,” and John MacArthur’s radio shows.
The word liturgy translates to “the work of the people.” It is the pattern and rhythm by which life is lived and faith is practiced. Liturgy is not just the stuff of smells and bells for high church folks. While I was growing up, my family had our work, and yours did too. Our work was American work. It was Christian work. Our work was to hand out tracts, which we kept in the glove box, when we got the chance.
Our work was to not get “wacky” or “woo-woo” about how God moves in the world. Our work was mostly done alongside people who looked a lot like us. Our work was white and middle-class. Suburban and candy-colored. Our work was done in spandex—’80s leg-warmer Jazzercise work. The calorie counting book was next to the Bible. The Superbowl Shuffle came after the Sunday sermon.
Spiritual formation anchors Christians so that our liturgies can remain rooted in Jesus—not the market, not Republicans, not Democrats, or any other political party. Formative practices can infuse us with wisdom and perspective, so our faith is steadfast and does not become defensive or entwined with false ideologies including nationalism, premillennial dispensationalism, or conspiracy theories.
Our spiritual formation begins in childhood. Whether nurturing or abrasive, factors we could not determine cast a shadow or a glow on our earliest understanding of God. However and whenever our faith journey began—in want or plenty—there is full agency in Christ to pursue formation with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind. Your parents or mentors may have been end-timesy like Dad, or not. Maybe you weren’t raised with parents. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver who was plenty busy working to pay rent, without margin for directly engaging with culture wars. Or you weren’t raised in a home where Christianity was practiced.
Maybe you are a person of color raised in a church community that looked very different from a cookie-cutter white church. Or you had a parent who stayed in bed for days straight like my friend’s mother, held horizontal in a cloud of depression. I’d walk past her room with its door cracked open and quickly look away.
Each of us navigate our own layers of complexity from our families of origin, and Christianity may be a joy or pain point from our childhood. Sometimes our parents change as they age. Other times they die still holding the same view of the world and their place in it. Sometimes their conviction holds firm or stays stuck on a certain teaching or theology. For Dad and me, it always comes back to the end of the world.
Healing, Over Donuts
Dad doesn’t think about death like I do. Instead, Dad thinks about being raptured.
One night after my dad’s treatable but incurable cancer diagnosis at the start of the pandemic, I imagined an exquisite death for myself, but Dad is the one who is dying. I spontaneously combust on a holy mountain. Just bursting into flames but not really dying dying, more like floating up in embers. Kind of like Dad.
I wondered what it would feel like to be Elijah in an angelic chariot of fire, or going from the mountain to being raised into heaven, until I was too sleepy to think anymore.
Dad has told me since childhood that God doesn’t really heal people anymore. That even though it’s OK to pray for healing, the gift probably ended with early Christians who used healing to spread the gospel. Unsurprisingly, I want few things more than to witness someone be healed. And I mean a dramatic healing: to see someone lay hot hands on another person until their gravelly breathing clears, their bones shift under skin, or their tremors still.
One day Dad surprised me and said he was healed while he was in the hospital. He told me what had happened while we were eating donuts one morning in the middle of the pandemic. We’d only spent time together on drives to chemo until then, so that day we went to a bakery by a fancy outdoor mall. “At my lowest point, when I was filled with fifteen pounds of water, and I couldn’t move, I wanted to die,” he told me between bites. “And then at the lowest point in my existence, I just held both hands straight up in the air, and I said ‘God, you said if I ask anything in your name, you will do it. I’m asking you, in your name, to be healed.’”
He said he turned his head toward his window, on the top floor of the hospital, and saw a small cloud all by itself in a clear sky, just sitting there. “Immediately, a ball as bright as can be passed through the cloud. I saw it dissipate. I never watched what happened to the ball afterward, I was so completely freaked out,” Dad said.
“Was the ball the moon?” I asked.
“It was not the moon. It was a bright ball that went right through a small cloud,” he said. “I turned my head praising God and thanking God for the miracle. I still don’t know what happened to that ball.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. Dad was heavily medicated in the hospital, apparently enough to not know the moon. “It was not my imagination. I was not dreaming,” he said, doubling down. “It was an absolute, genuine miracle, and it may be the only one in my only life and the only one I’ll ever have.”
“But why do you call it a miracle if you still have cancer?” I asked him.
“That was God’s decision. The cancer has made me into a different person, given me more confidence in myself, made me trust Jesus more. It’s made a difference in people’s lives.”
I asked him, “So, it was more a spiritual miracle than a physical one?”
“Physically, I’m going to suffer,” he said. “I’d rather not be sick, but I’m OK with it.”
Oh, That Too.
When Dad was talking, I thought back to a Fresh Air interview I heard in 2006 with Reynolds Price. It stayed with me, because it’s uncommon for NPR to air a story of Christian healing. Price, a late writer and professor of English at Duke, talked about his spinal cancer. In the hospital with a grim diagnosis, he had a vision of Jesus, who was standing knee deep in water. Price waded in and stood next to him. Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Price asked Jesus, “What about my cancer?” And Jesus said, “Oh, that too.”
Christian doctrine teaches that the body and spirit are not able to be separated. That God cares for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. But in listening to Price’s account of healing, I realized that Jesus often begins whole-person healing with the heart. In Matthew 9:2, Jesus encountered a paralyzed man lying on a mat and told him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” before telling him to pick up his mat and walk.
Dad said he needed a spiritual healing as much as a physical one. He prayed and saw a glowing moon cloud, something mysterious and strange. God met Dad, and Dad’s eyes changed after. That night, without any particular intention or strategy, Dad experienced God in prayer.
Prayer, the beating heart of formation.
“Billups is a sharp critic of the evangelical church, and readers will be heartened by her thoughtful advice on how to chart a brighter future for the faith.”
My first book Orphaned Believers: How a Generation of Christian Exiles Can Find the Way Home releases in January 2023 from Baker. Pre-order via any bookseller here, and gift to a friend.
Thank you, Sara. This edition of Bitter Scroll cracks open a lot to reflect on from my own life. My dad lived with lymphoma for 13 years before passing in 2002. Some of our friends would pray fervently for physical healing. My dad was at peace with his physical condition. Once, just days before he passed — as my mom related the story — he became very quiet and then tears fell from his eyes. My mom asked if he was in pain, if he needed anything. He whispered, “No. it’s just so beautiful.” Mom believed he had a glimpse of what awaited him beyond this world.
Since my dad’s passing, my family has stayed intimately acquainted with cancer. My sister and mom both passed in recent years.
These are reminders of our ultimate physical end. True healing, I believe, is when the body snd the spirit can find peace within and without (with others). My dad, my sister, my mom, were great examples of this to me.
Thank you again for sharing. And keep your eyes on your dad. He’s living a transformative journey right now.
Love this piece friend.