It’s a Friday evening.
Spring has sprung. Green shoots are piercing the ground. Parks and gardens are full to bursting with daffodils and tulips. Trees are laden with pink and white blossom. Temperatures are rising. Sunshine and blue skies are returning. Everywhere there are signs of new life.
I should be feeling hopeful.
Instead, I’m battling disappointment.
I’ve got seven friends, old and new, near and far, some close and some more distant, but all in their 30s and 40s and about my age, and all of them battling cancer.
I know that God can heal them – I’ve seen Him do it – but during this particular week, two of them have taken a turn for the worse. They are both in hospices and preparing to die. We are anticipating the worst, while still holding out hope for healing.
“Lord, where are you?” I find myself crying out to Him, “Why are you not bringing healing?”
I toss and turn that night, sleep evading me, but struggling to pray while I’m lying awake.
It’s now Saturday morning. I’m sitting in a swivel chair, facing into a full wall mirror at the hairdressers. A beautiful purple orchid is in full bloom on the counter in front of me. The air is thick with the smell of beauty products. There is a hubbub of female voices all around me.
The salon is familiar. I’ve been coming for several years. And I get chatting, the way I always do, with the woman who’s about to style my hair. Let’s call her Phoebe*.
Phoebe wears a hard-as-nails attitude to life, but that’s mostly because life hasn’t treated her very kindly. She’s no more than 30. Her arms are covered in tattoos. Her hair style and colour are different every time I see her. Today, it’s a peachy shade of blonde and cut in a trendy sharp edged bob.
What’s different this time is that she’s limping and clearly in pain. It’s blindingly obvious, but I ask her how she is.
In pain, she says. It’s her back and sciatic nerve, she explains. Her GP has given her a depressing diagnosis: Because her job requires her to stand – all day, every day – she needs to be careful. The pain is treatable, but there’s a risk that she could do irreparable damage. She’s trying to reduce the number of clients she sees, to have more regular breaks so she’s not standing for hours on end, to take tablets to reduce the pain. But none of it is really working.
I ask what treatment she’s been getting. She tells me she’s doing Pilates, but it’s not making much difference. She’s also thinking about physio.
Even as she’s speaking, I can feel the Holy Spirit nudge me, and a combination of compassion and courage rise up inside. Before I know it, I’ve spun the swivel chair round and I’m looking up into Phoebe’s face, straight into her eyes.
“Has anyone ever prayed with you?” I ask.
I’m never normally that bold.
“Er, no,” she replies, looking bemused.
“I’m a Christian,” I continue, on a roll, feeling fear drop away. “I’ve prayed for people to be healed in the name of Jesus, and I’ve seen God heal some of them.”
I pause, as she takes this in. In all the years I’ve been coming to the salon, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed my faith with her. Not even once.
“Would you like me to pray for you?” I continue.
“Sure,” she says, nonchalantly, shrugging her shoulders, as if to say it’s worth giving anything a go.
I ask her where the pain is and she points to a place mid-way between her waist and her hip on her left hand side. Gently, I explain that I’m going to put my hand on that place and speak out loud, and what I’ll be doing is praying. Is this OK?
I’m aware that I have a captive audience, as the conversations over other swivel chairs around the salon have become subdued. All eyes and ears are on Phoebe and me.
Under my breath, I am sending up arrow prayers … Lord Jesus, help!
As I pray for Phoebe, my right hand stretched out from where I’m sitting on the swivel chair, she is looking down at me, uncertainty and scepticism in her eyes. It’s obvious that she’s never seen or heard a Christian pray out loud before.
My prayer is simple, no more than two or three sentences. All I’m doing is calling on God, in the name of Jesus, to take the pain and inflammation, and to heal her back and sciatic nerve.
“What’s that tingling?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” I respond, “but that could be God at work.”
“Bloody hell,” she replies. “If this works, I’ll owe you one.” She pauses for a moment. “How about a free haircut?” she enquires.
Quick as a flash, I can feel the Holy Spirit nudge me. “You won’t owe me anything,” I say. “If this works, you’ll owe God one, not me.”
As I turn my chair back to face the mirror, I’m aware that conversations are starting up again in the rest of the salon, and my conversation with Phoebe moves on to other things. Family. Work. The weather. Holiday plans. All the usual small talk topics that hairdressers discuss with their clients, day in, day out.
Later, after my hair has been blow dried and finished by one of Phoebe’s colleagues, I’m paying up at the reception desk, and I hear Phoebe calling out down the salon towards me.
“I think it might be working,” she yells, breaking into a broad grin. There’s clear incredulity in her voice, even as she says it.
I do a thumbs up sign and point upwards, a symbolic reminder that any credit is God’s, and I walk out of the salon, my newly styled hair bouncing around my shoulders, the door swinging shut behind me, my heart singing.
God’s timing, as ever, is impeccable. He knows I need a gentle reminder: If he can alleviate back pain, can he not also heal cancer?
All I need is a little boldness and fresh perspective.
I am reminded of this several months later …
It’s now late summer. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. Families are on beach holidays, making sandcastles with buckets and spades. School is still out, but only just. New uniforms in the shops are a reminder that it’s not long now until term starts again. Bushes are burgeoning with the weight of ripening blackberries. The tips of the leaves in the trees are just glinting at hints of orange and red.
My hair needs attention again, so I have an appointment. Walking into the salon, I am greeting by a grinning Phoebe, completely transformed. She looks visibly lighter, as though a load has been lifted from her shoulders.
She is happy and well, she tells me. “I’m also virtually free of back pain“, she adds.
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
I ask her whether she remembers my prayer.
“Sure”, she says, before adding diffidently, “I’m not sure whether I did it right, but I said a little ‘thank you’ to God.”
Even as she tells me this, I feel hope rising.
Praying for Phoebe reminds me that ‘With God, all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26).
As I make my way home, I can feel hope rising and disappointment dissipating – and I find myself thanking God that I still have faith to believe for the impossible. Even the seemingly impossible.
*Name changed to preserve confidentiality.