I will satisfy the weary, and all who are faint I will replenish (Jeremiah 31:25).
I find out my father has cancer on Palm Sunday.
My son and niece, both 2, barrel into the piano room when Dad hands me the phone. It’s my grandmother; she wants to know how I’m doing. The scent of ham and casserole wafts from the kitchen while the cousins plunk keys and Grandma mentions my father’s treatment.
“I’m sorry, what treatment?” I ask. The children’s “music” is loud—surely, I misheard her.
“For his throat cancer,” she says, her voice even.
“Grandma, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The ground starts spinning. This can’t be happening and I can’t stay in this conversation, so I excuse myself and crumple onto the couch. A year prior, around Palm Sunday, my husband was diagnosed with cancer at age 32, beginning his months-long battle to remission. I feel betrayed—not only by my parents (who say they wanted to break Dad’s news over lunch), but also by God. My only prayer for the year was for health and stability. Why would you do this to us again, God? Why is there so much suffering?
Other Christians might have framed my husband’s cancer journey as an expression of God’s faithfulness, but during that difficult year, my trust in God had frayed significantly. I imagine my faith as a loaf of bread, swiftly crumbling. My mother announces, “Lunch is served!” But I’ve lost my appetite for ham and casserole.
The next weekend we’re in Michigan, celebrating Easter with my in-laws. We sit in church together but, when it’s time to proclaim “He is risen!,” I struggle to find my voice. Our son is getting squirmy, so I take him to the nursery. It is a mercy—I’ve lost my appetite for praise.
I wonder, where is God in all of this?
In the weeks that follow, I don’t return to worship. I need answers to the questions that keep me awake at night, but the place where I should find nourishment seems oppressive. I grew up believing in a God who hears our prayers and bears our burdens, but lately I wonder if God is listening. Worse yet, what if God isn’t real? My doubt embarrasses me.
Over the summer my father receives radiation treatment. He can’t eat with his mouth and uses a feeding tube. Sometimes his nutritional shakes make him vomit. Throughout the course of his treatment he loses 50 pounds—I barely recognize him.
Just like that, my breadcrumbs of faith vanish.
Meanwhile, I keep serving at the churchwide office. My duties press on my misgivings and insecurities, but I keep going because I have to work. I wonder, where is God in all of this?
At an event in August, I grab drinks with a former classmate. Leaning over his scotch at the bar, he is both the same carefree guy I knew from college and someone entirely different. Now he’s a pastor. When I confess that I have doubts about my faith, he doesn’t seem fazed. “Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he says, throwing back his scotch.
My mouth drops. “You too?” I say.
“I mean, who hasn’t?” he replies.
What I wanted to hear was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband and my dad got sick. Is it all random? Is there a purpose? I wanted an antidote to doubt.
Instead, he offers: “Me too.”
Summer verdure fades to fall colors, and my father’s treatment has ended. In November I travel alone to Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Range. Awaiting my return will be word of Dad’s recent test results: remission or more radiation.
On my first night at Holden, I sit by myself in worship. It’s All Saints Sunday, and the pastor reads names of deceased saints from a red book. I realize I signed this book on my way in, mistaking it for a visitors’ logbook. I listen with trepidation.
When she reads my name among the deceased saints, instead of dread, I feel laughter rising in my belly. I—a doubting daughter with barely any faith—have been named a saint. I’m so distracted by this I don’t remember taking communion, even though I later write “we broke bread” in my journal.
I also write: “Everyone is so kind here. When we talk, it feels as if they are really listening.”
During my short stay at Holden, I break bread daily with villagers in the dining hall. We feast on squash curry with Thai cabbage salad, black bean and sweet potato tacos with queso, and chili chocolate-chip muesli. I savor slice upon slice of fresh-baked bread with butter or jam and homemade nut butter.
At the table, we are honest about faith, doubt and life’s big questions.
Everyone I meet is searching for something. Some are carrying heartaches far heavier than mine. Others are engaged in vocational discernment. One doctor struggles to see his worth in retirement. A widow bravely embarks on a new chapter of life without her husband. I meet a harpist who recently lost her father, and I hold space for her grief while sharing my fears about my father. That evening her performance of “Ave Maria” makes me weep. She later tells me the harp is “heart music.”
At the table, we are honest about faith, doubt and life’s big questions. In sharing meals with these generous people, I feel my soul has been nourished.
Packing my bags to depart, I believe that I am ready to face whatever results are delivered for my father. I slip a sandwich I made for the long journey home into my backpack and pause, tallying up how much bread I’ve consumed on this short visit. Perhaps with it, I can trust in God’s presence though the path ahead is uncertain.
I open the door, breathe in the fresh alpine air and gaze at the mountain skyline.
I came alone and leave feeling known. And all of it—the meals, the worship, the community—tasted like communion.