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Healed, Not Cured

by Margaret Kim Peterson

Margaret Kim Peterson is theologian in residence at the First Presbyterian Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She teaches theology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. This article is reprinted from her forthcoming book Sing Me to Heaven with the permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Book House Company. This article appeared in The Christian Century, Aug, 23, 2003, pp. 26-30. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

After my husband, Hyung Goo, discovered he had AIDS, the question of healing came up repeatedly especially after we began to tell people about this illness. A lot of his relatives, in particular thought that what you should do about AIDS was pray for healing. Hyung Goo wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. He would have liked nothing more than to be healed, and prayed himself for healing, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to trail around to Korean Pentecostal faith healers, which seemed to be what his family members had in mind.

We broached the subject with the minister who had married us. Had he prayed with people for healing? Had he been invited to do so, or had he volunteered? what had happened as a result? David told us that he had been asked to pray with sick people for healing on various occasions. He had done so, and some had been healed and some hadn’t. As he understood it, the initiative rested with the sick person -- It was up to him or her to ask for such prayer, or not.

Hyung Goo found this enormously freeing. It made him feel that he was in charge of his own response to his illness. Other people could pray privately that he would be healed – that was fine and he welcomed it -- but he could make his own decisions about whether to seek out formal prayer specifically for healing, and not feel that he was being delinquent if he didn’t expend a lot of energy doing so.

By the fall of 1994, Hyung Coo had been seriously ill for a year. He had had pneumonia off and on since the spring, along with chronic anemia, nausea, pain and an eye infection for which he was taking IV medication once or twice a day. In October I received a summons to jury duty in federal court. I wrote a letter requesting to be excused on the ground that there was serious illness in my family. Hyung Goo practically dictated the letter to me, and it came out sounding like he had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. "These people aren’t rocket scientists," he said. "you have to make it very clear that you have to be at home to take care of me."

I found it unsettling to realize that there were, in fact, many days when Hyung Goo would have found it very difficult to take care of himself, even if that were construed to mean nothing more than getting his own meals. It wasn’t that he needed to be waited on hand and foot all the time; it was that he simply didn’t have the energy to do the regular everyday things that most of us spend a lot of time doing, and that I had become accustomed, of necessity to doing for both of us.

In that same autumn, Hyung Goo began to be more joyfully engaged with life than almost ever before. I noticed the change increasingly as Christmas approached. The year before, he had been exhausted and in pain from starting chemotherapy at too high a dose, and miserably depressed from having to leave work. The only reason Christmas happened at all was that I made it happen by sheer force of will. But the next year Hyung Goo was eager to get the tree, to do the shopping, to send the cards. I arrived home one day to find that he had just written the Christmas letter -- something I had had to beg and plead with him to do the previous year. And he started talking about wanting prayer for healing.

I found this very disconcerting. We had spent the previous eight months planning the funeral, meeting with the funeral director and ministers, buying a cemetery plot -- and now we were going to pray for healing, now that we were ready for him to die? And how was it that, as his health continued to deteriorate, he could be so happy, at least at those times when he had enough energy to feel something other than tired? I spelled out my puzzlement to a friend over the telephone. "Well," said Allan, "we’re all going to die. That means that any prayer for healing is essentially a prayer for more time. It makes sense that as Hyung Goo realizes how seriously ill he is, and how short his time may be, he would be specially in love with life, and would want more time."

It did make sense. Hyung Goo spoke with our pastors about his desire for healing prayer. They planned a service for a weekday night in February and invited the elders of the church, the members of our Bible study group, and any others of our friends who wished to come.

The road that Hyung Goo had traversed to that request was long and circuitous. His family had been Christians since soon after the arrival of Western missionaries in Korea. Hyung Goo’s father was a pastor, and both his parents worked hard to instill Christian faith in their children. Hyung Goo went off to college considering himself a Christian, and became involved with the college-age group at Park Street Church in Boston. But as his life fell apart so did his Christian faith. Much of his behavior was all too obviously at odds with his Christian confession. Increasingly it seemed to him that, far from being a source of strength and encouragement for living, God was a convenient scapegoat whom he blamed for the state of his life. Perhaps God’s consistent failure to come through with the blessings he prayed for -- deliverance from sin, spiritual joy to replace his deep unhappiness -- was evidence that God did not exist after all. Perhaps it was time for him to start running his own life, rather than hoping for someone else to give him good things.

"I needed to stop blaming God and others for my own misfortunes," Hyung Coo wrote in his memoir. "I was the only one who had the power to make my life into what I wanted it to be."

Never one to do things halfway, Hyung Goo stood up at a meeting of the college-age fellowship, announced his renunciation of the Christian faith, and walked out. He decided that reality was purely material, the result of countless random events. Since there was no God and no moral authority he could do as he pleased. and bear full responsibility for his own life. For a while, this seemed to work: he re-enrolled in school, he did well in his classes, he terminated his psychotherapy. Then all the wheels fell off again. A failed relationship reactivated all his old insecurities. He found himself unable to do any work and withdrew from school again, very late in the semester. "So much for my self-improvement program," Hyung Coo wrote. "Now my self-image was shattered."

His materialistic worldview was shattering, too. He met several people who claimed to be psychic, including a middle-aged taxi driver named Swifty whose spiritual pilgrimage was being directed, so he said by Carl Jung and the ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep. H~g Coo became persuaded that he was psychic, too, and set about reading all the books related to paranormal phenomena in the Cambridge Public Library He studied with a psychic who encouraged him to develop a supposed gift for telepathic communication. He joined the Society for Human and Spiritual Understanding, a pseudo-church that met on Sunday mornings in a small sanctuary-style room to practice meditation and listen to the pronouncements of a trance medium through whom, it was claimed, spoke the voice of an Egyptian priest who had lived 3,500 years be-fore.

"Through my involvement in the world of psychics," Hyung Goo wrote, "I began to notice a consistent world-view all these people held. It was subjective and egocentric. The world had been created purely out of the imaginations of human beings. Gravity, the mass-energy equilibrium, trees and mountains, as well as pain and suffering, love, joy and hate existed because human beings had individually and collectively decided upon a world in which they were necessary. This being the case, so the reasoning went, humans also had complete power to influence and change both small and large details of their world. We had power over illness, life and death. If we thought correctly we could be immortal, as well as find a better job, greater financial wealth, the ideal life partner, and so on. It was completely up to me.

"The good thing about such a world view," Hyung Goo observed, "is that it gives a certain sense of empowerment to people who feel generally disenfranchised. The power of positive thinking has been amply demonstrated. The more we act on the belief that we can influence the course of our lives, the more likely that things will turn out as we had hoped. Taken to its logical extreme, however, it seeks to make gods of us all; and when it runs up against the objective world outside our imaginations (being hit by a truck, for example) it is proven inaccurate and inadequate."

Now Hyung Goo was in a quandary. His materialistic view of the universe had been superseded by one that had a palpable spiritual dimension, yet the worldview of his fellow psychics appeared increasingly flawed. Then providence intervened. His family received a visit from some relatives who lived in England. Aunt Eun-Ja and Uncle Charles were devoutly charismatic Christians who were horrified to hear of Hyung Goo’s involvement in the world of psychics. Did he not realize, they asked, that this was in fact the realm of the occult? They provided him with several books that Hyung Goo read while his relatives spent two weeks traveling in other parts of the United States. By the time of their return, he had become persuaded of the truth of the gospel and his need of the good news it offered. At Easter of 1982, three years after he had walked out of church, he walked back in.

It was at Park Street Church that I met Hyung Goo. I had been brought up going to church, but had not been taught to believe. Eventually I realized this made no sense, and stopped going. When the college choirs of which I was a member sang for chapel services, I participated in the anthems (because that was performance) but refused to join in the hymns (because that was worship). Toward the end of my college career, however, I became less persuaded of the adequacy of a purely secular view of the world, and more persuaded that perhaps the Christian version of reality was the true one. Around Easter of 1982, I, too, came back to church.

A few years later, I moved to Boston, where I began attending Park Street because it was the only church in Boston I had heard of. I joined the post-college-age young people’s group, and participated in their meetings and retreats. Hyung Goo had by now graduated to this group as well, and at one retreat we were members of the same discussion group. I retain a memory of him from that occasion, an image at once vivid and tiny, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope: Hyung Goo, very slight and sober, talking quietly and deliberately about his father’s absence from the family when he was young. When we moved to Durham, North Carolina, we ended up at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church, a congregation that drew its membership largely from the academic and medical communities associated with Duke University. About the only person in the church who knew how to fix a dishwasher was the pastor, who could often be found at congregants’ homes doing just that. On the other hand, if you needed heart surgery, there were half a dozen surgeons to choose from, and one of them was probably a member of your Bible group.

Our Bible study group included the inevitable doctor -- a medical student, actually -- along with a veterinarian, a house painter, an attorney a secretary or two, a teacher, a dental student, a campus ministry staff person, an employee of the sewer department, and assorted mothers of young children. We had been placed deliberately in this group by one of the pastors of the church. We had explained our situation to him when we joined the church, and he thought of a group that he hoped could rise to the challenge of enfolding a couple like ourselves, who were going to be very needy in the years to come,

There were five or six other couples in the group, and one or two single people. Some of them had children and some of them didn’t. None of them was particularly like us. They certainly weren’t living with terminal illness, and most of them knew no one else who had AIDS. We learned together that you don’t need to share another person’s precise circumstances in order to be supportive. You need only a willingness to share your own life and to share the life of another. You need to want to know what is really going on, even if you have no idea what to do.

Hyung Goo’s illness and decline were not the only things happening in that Bible study group. In the time that we were members of it, there was a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a couple of children and the adoption of another, several hospitalizations and a couple of surgeries, along with all the everyday challenges of home, work and school. We talked and listened and cried and prayed through it all. In that group, Hyung Goo got to care for others, as well as be cared for by them; he got to share their lives, to play with their children, to be part of the family of the church,

As the date of the healing service drew near, both Hyung Coo and I wondered how we should approach It. Hyung Coo found himself caught between faith and doubt He wrote to a friend, "I ask myself" Do I really believe that miraculous healing Is possible? There is a skeptical side of me, and there is also the side that desperately wants to believe and hope." For me, the tension was between faith and anger. If God really desired our good, why hadn’t he kept Hyung Goo well in the first place? And did I really want to ask for healing from a God who had already proved callous enough to let Hyung Goo get as sick as he had already gotten?

And what would it mean to approach prayer for healing with "faith"? What exactly were we hoping for? For reversal of Hyung Goo’s HIV status? For him to feel better? Live longer? Be affected in some more spiritual or personal way? Did we honestly believe that he could or would be healed? What would happen if we prayed for healing and no healing was granted? Would Hyung Goo lose heart and die sooner than he might have otherwise?

How ought one to pray for healing, anyway? Church historian David Steinmetz, lecturing in a class for which I was a teaching assistant, offered a description of the difference between conventional Protestant prayer and the psalmists’ prayers. The Protestant prays, "O Lord, we’re not worth much. We have these people we want you to heal. We don’t think you’ll do it. Thy will be done. Amen." The psalmist prays. "O Lord, remember the deuteronomic law code? It says you will vindicate the righteous. Well, I’m righteous, and I’m a little short in the vindication department. Hello? hello? Is there anybody there?" The psalmist’s prayer certainly seemed the more robustly faithful, but I wasn’t sure I was up for such prayer.

Perhaps, we decided, what we could hope for, in the most basic sense, was good: that whatever happened, God still had good things for us. "After all," I wrote to a friend, "we’ve been married almost four years now, under circumstances that most people would think pretty lousy and we have received wonderful gifts of companionship and love and comfort. So suppose we pray for healing and Hyung Goo’s health continues to deteriorate at its present rate, or faster. Does this mean there can be no good for him or for us, in the midst of this? I don’t think so. But I’d rather he just got well."

The healing service was attended by 30 or 40 people. All the members of our Bible study group were there, along with other friends from church and elsewhere and most of the elders of the church. Everyone prayed for him and for us. It was obvious what Hyung Goo’s role in the event was: he was the reason we were all there. It was less obvious what my role was. Was I there to pray, or to be prayed for? That night I had a dream in which someone had died, and a crowd of people were praying around the casket while I looked on, not sure how much a part of the scene I should be.

That service of prayer for healing bore fruit in a variety of ways. Hyung Goo did not wake up the next morning without AIDS, and he took that as an indication that his time really was short. That realization spurred him into doing some things that were important to him in the time he had left. He wrote down memories of his childhood and youth and adult life. He corresponded with friends. He listened to music. He talked with me about the years we had been married, thinking over the ground we had covered and rejoicing in it.

The service also brought together most of the friends and other church members who were to be important to us in the last months of Hyung Goo’s life. We were used to thinking of our friends as people who lived elsewhere, as indeed all our friends of many years’ standing did. We hardly realized how many friends we had gained during our few years’ residence in Durham until we saw them all together at that healing service. Hyung Goo died about six months later, and that prayer service came to seem like the inaugural event of that final trajectory the point at which all these people came together to see us through to the end.

Most fundamentally, however, those prayers for healing took place in the midst of a work of healing that was already well under way. Bruce Cockburn sings, Two thousand years and half a world away, dying trees still will grow greener when you pray." Even as Hyung Goo died, he quickened. In the weeks and months before the prayer service, I had begun to see it happening, and hardly knew what to think. Hyung Goo seemed to be undergoing the same sort of transformation that happens in sentimental Victorian novels when somebody dies young. It was as if he were glowing. Every time he looked at me, all I could see was how much he loved me, and it made me feel he was not long for this earth.

A friend mentioned in a letter that she had been reading Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: "We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" Oh, I thought, with a start of recognition. Maybe that was what I was seeing when Hyung Goo looked at me and all I could see on his face was love. I was not succumbing to sentimental imagination. I was living with an Icon, with a person whose face had begun to shine like Moses’ did when he came down from the mountain.

The weirdly preternatural glow didn’t last, or else I just got used to it. Either way, it was a relief. Experiencing Hyung Goo as if he had an aura around him had been awfully strange. But the transformation continued. I had always thought him a person of fine character, which seemed remarkable enough, given how screwed up and miserable he had been for much of his life. Increasingly, though, it seemed that Hyung Goo was at peace in a way he hadn’t been when we met or when we first were married. And I could see that peace, and share in it, in part because the depression that had enveloped him to a greater or lesser extent for so much of his life had lifted. I had wondered sometimes if I would ever really know Hyung Goo apart from that depression and the way it muffled his voice and blurred his outline. Now, free from its smothering shroud, he was present and open, able to love and to be loved, even on days when he was exhausted and in pain and grieving over the losses he had suffered thus far and those yet to come.

In a way as undeniable as it was mysterious, Hyung Goo was more whole when he died than he had been at any other time in his life. It was not the sort of healing that we had hoped or asked for. How could we have asked for it, when we couldn’t even imagine it? But It was real, more real than the shabby appearances that are so easy to mistake for reality, as real as new green leaves on a dying tree.

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