The question of healing came up repeatedly in our lives, especially after we began to tell people about Hyung Goo's 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 Goo had been seriously ill for a year. He had had pneumonia off and on since the spring, along with chronic anemia, nausea, pain, and the 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.
As the date of the healing service drew near, both Hyung Goo and I wondered how we should approach it. Hyung Goo 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 shown himself callous enough to let Hyung Goo get as sick as he'd 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 thirty or forty 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 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 underway. 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 in 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.
Condensed and excerpted with permission from Sing Me to Heaven by Margaret Kim Peterson. Used by permission of Brazos, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright © 2003. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Sing Me to Heaven and My God and I are this month's selections for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:
Read the extended review by David Neff
Read an interview with Margaret Kim Peterson.
Read an excerpt from Lewis B. Smedes's My God and I.
Buy Sing Me to Heaven and My God and I online.
Peterson earlier wrote about her husband's death in a 2000 Christianity Today article. She also wrote about depictions of witchcraft in popular culture for our sister publication Books & Culture.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- Editor's PickPresbyterian School Mourns 6 Dead in Nashville ShootingVictims include the head of school and the 9-year-old daughter of the church’s lead pastor.español