I was nine months pregnant with our third son when I discovered the lump on Jacob’s sternum. Jacob was 20 months old at the time, and he had held his mama’s heart in his chubby little hands since the moment he arrived.
Our second born, he entered this world all beat up and bruised after what would be my most difficult labor. I struggled and pushed and pleaded, but my body simply could not deliver him. The doctor finally forced him out, tugging his little head with a device that looked better suited for medieval torture than modern labor. As rudimentary as the method was, it did the trick. Out he came, and another perfect baby was placed in my arms. Jacob’s strength gained as mine abated. The loss of blood had been immense. I passed out cold while gazing at my husband holding our newest son. Several hours and one blood transfusion later, I was as good as new, and Jacob and I both survived to face even bigger battles together.
I thought of those very first moments with Jacob often during that two week period in late October of 2011. He and I had stopped off for a quick trip at Target before picking up big brother Cole at pre-school. I hoisted him as high as my short, swollen body would allow and settled him into the shopping cart seat. His shirt pulled up above his belly as I lifted him, and there it was. About the size and shape of an egg right there in the middle of his chest. Inexplicably and suddenly. Just there.
Dr. Pate had been our pediatrician since Cole was born - she had young children of her own. I was hoping she would offer me some simple medical reason behind the fact that my perfectly healthy 20 month old son had suddenly developed a huge knot in the middle of his chest, but she offered me no such consolation. She was measured and cautious as she asked questions and examined Jacob. We were scheduled for x-rays the next day, a Friday. The Monday after that, a sonogram. Dr. Pate called my husband at work before adding me on to the call. I was standing in the kitchen when I answered. My breath drew in taut when I realized she had gotten Chris on the line first. I barely had a beat to brace myself. She believed the lump on Jacob’s chest was a tumor, and was transferring us over to the care of a “pediatric oncologist.” Never in my life had I ever put those two words together.
My husband and I carried our 20 month old son into Texas Children’s Hospital on one of the first few days of November 2011, and the oncologist confirmed Dr. Pate’s suspicions. At first glance, the tumor had certain characteristics that made her “uncomfortable” and prone to believe that it was likely malignant. The force of that word knocked the breath clear out of me. She went on to explain, “There will be an MRI as soon as we can get you in. From there, we’ll schedule a biopsy and removal of the tumor. The results of the biopsy will determine the course of treatment. This will all need to happen fairly quickly. Mr. and Mrs. Lacy, do you have any questions?” Paperwork was completed, appointments were scheduled, protocol was explained. Time accelerated to an unfathomable pace, and yet slowed to a complete crawl at the exact same moment. In the blink of an eye everything about life as we knew it had been jolted, violently rocked, knocked unsteady. I was reeling. I remember actually telling myself, “You have to keep breathing. In and Out. Ok, now one more time.”
We took Jacob home and spent the next several days grappling with some of the most important questions my husband and I would ever encounter. It was during those days, years after we had become Christians, that he and I decided what we truly believed about God. Although neither of us were raised in the church, we had both committed our lives to Christianity before we were married, and it wasn’t a decision either of us entered into lightly. My husband had fought for every inch of belief God had given him. A man deeply committed to intellectual honesty, he had questioned and searched, believed and doubted. Because faith had never come easily to him, it was never something he took for granted. He has always been well aware of exactly how much faith he had and exactly how much faith he lacked. I had battled a barrage of my own demons in the process of coming to Christ. I walked the line between God-dependence and self-sufficiency as if it were a contest to see who could successfully need God the least. Although I couldn't have articulated it this way at the time, I lived under the faulty assumption that those who pleased God the most were the ones who needed Him the least. I suppose a good way to describe our spiritual state at the time is this: we were committed Christians, who still had so very much to learn about Christ.
Yet, no matter where someone exists on the continuum of faith, we all possess beliefs about God. Beliefs regarding who He is and who He isn’t. Beliefs about what He does and doesn't do, about what He can or can't do. By this point in my life, I had firmly made up my mind that God could do anything He wanted to do. It made sense to me that a God with limited power would be no God at all. I wholeheartedly believed that God could create something out of nothingness, that he could raise the dead to life, that he could heal the sick or bind up broken hearts. I had no trouble believing that God could do any of these things. But I was much less certain about whether or not He would do these things. For me.
Late one night after the boys were in bed, Chris and I sat together, feeling more ineffective than we ever had before. There was absolutely nothing we could do to remove this situation, to prevent the physical illness from consuming our boy, or to bypass the emotional turmoil that threatened our family. And there we sat scared to death to ask God if he would just please take it away.
It’s not that we hadn’t been praying. We had quickly and repeatedly prayed since the moment that lump appeared on our son’s sternum. We had prayed for the best doctors, the right treatment, good nurses, quick scheduling, for strength, courage, endurance, wisdom and peace. We had prayed for everything except the one thing we really wanted.
We could not bear to ask God to heal our son.
Not because we didn't believe he could, but because we were so uncertain that he would. My husband and I had not been sheltered from the realities of this fallen world. We had friends undergoing chemotherapy; we knew children with leukemia; we had walked through a clinic in South Sudan and seen the line of desperate people standing outside that meager building. He and I had both come from fractured, broken families, and we had each fallen and failed and floundered on our own. We saw everyday the evidences of this crippled world, even as we worshiped a God who we believed to have the power to fix it. But in confronting face to face the potential for heartache and devastation of such incalculable magnitude, we could not bear to ask God to heal our son. Because what in the world would happen to our faith if he didn’t? What would we think of a God who we believed could if he did not? What if asking God for the thing we wanted the most required that we embrace that which we could bear the least?
But was our faith really faith at all if it was so feeble that it could not ask God to heal our son? Was our trust in the Father so flimsy that it could not stand up under the weight of being told no?
Perhaps that's the balance upon which all faith hinges.
All these thoughts and fears toiled and enlarged and collided violently against the desperation of our situation and we could not ignore the question He was asking, “What do you believe about me? What do you believe about my heart toward you? That it’s fragile and conditional and dependent on your situation? Or that it’s good and true and steadfast no matter what those tests reveal?”
That night Chris took my hands in his as he prayed, and cried, and cried, and prayed. His faith grew strong where mine fell short, and he asked for what I could not bear to request. He prayed for the best doctors, the right treatment, good nurses, quick scheduling, for strength, courage, endurance, wisdom and peace. He said, “God, I’m so sorry it took us this long to ask, but we’re asking now - knowing you can and understanding that even in your love for us you might not, please heal our son.”
Not knowing what the following days would bring, we went to sleep that night understanding somehow that our willingness to ask was tied to our belief in, and what we believed about, God. Not that God would grant such a miracle but believing that God's love for us was greater than any miracle we would ever receive.
Less than 2 weeks after its abrupt appearance, the lump on Jacob’s sternum had disappeared - slowly and gradually receded until it became nothing. There was no need for a biopsy, no need for surgery, nor for chemo or radiation. After the MRI on November 9th, we walked out of Texas Children’s Hospital “all-clear.” On November 10th, I gave birth to our 3rd - another son - Joshua Paul.
I don't know why God answered our prayer in the specific way that He did. It's certainly not because we are more worthy recipients than the many parents I know who have lost their children. So please hear me when I say: this isn't a story about a miraculous healing. Although God can and does at times move through such means, that is not what makes him God. The miracle itself is never the point of the story. This is a story about God growing a frail faith bold. Of a God whose love for us is so consuming that it would dare to enter into our greatest fears and deepest vulnerabilities simply to meet us there.