The Atheist and the Missionary

“The grandfather’s in there,” said the nurse quietly. “He’s a retired missionary.”

“Thanks,” said the pediatric oncologist, but he didn’t hesitate. He stepped into the room.

In the bed he saw the girl, not yet in her teens. She didn’t look all that good. He hadn’t expected her to. She had just been referred to him. Rising from the chair was an elderly man, thin, with graying black hair. He was dressed neatly, but not stylishly, in clothing that looked inexpensive and chosen for practical reasons.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters and anything in real life is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2015
Henry E. Neufeld

“Hello!” he said, addressing the girl, and not quite ignoring the man. His tone was crisp and competent.

“Hello, doctor,” said the girl.

From there it was all symptoms, treatments, results, even expectations. She was a good patient, brave, hopeful, but not unrealistic. Aware of her treatment. Her grandfather hadn’t answered any of the questions. He just stood there. If the doctor glanced his way after a question, he’d give a quick nod of confirmation, but nothing more.

Then he outlined what would come next for both of them, still addressing the girl, but watching the grandfather out of the corner of his eye. He was wondering why it was the grandfather who was here and not the parents, especially considering how little the man was contributing to the conversation. By now most parents would have been grilling him about many things, relevant and irrelevant.

“Is your grandfather the one who usually comes with you to appointments?” he asked. Family dynamics could be as important as medical details in these cases. The course of cancer treatment was so unpredictable. He knew a lot, and was proud of that knowledge, but he also knew the limits.

“Not always,” she said, bestowing a smile on her grandfather. “Just to the really important ones.”

“And why is that? I take it he’s special.” He smiled.

So did she. “Yes, he’s special,” she said, “but he’s also a doctor. He knows what to say and what not to say. Mom and Dad get stressed.”

When he heard the word “doctor,” the oncologist tensed. He wished he had known that. Now he put “missionary” and “doctor” together, and the sum of the two made him stressed. As he used the girl’s word “stressed” on himself, he had to suppress a smile.

“So do you have anything you want to add? Does the plan sound good to you?” he asked, turning to the grandfather.

“You’re the expert. We’re in your hands.”

“Most doctors would have a hard time staying out of it like you are.”

“That’s why I’m here. My son and daughter-in-law think that I give the doctors great ideas when I come with her. I just know how little I’d like to have someone interfere with my work. So, as I said, we’re in your hands.”

“Not in the hands of God?” He hated himself the moment it came out. He never discussed religion with his patients or their parents. Never! But the words couldn’t be called back.

“Yes. God’s hands too.”

“So I take it you’ll be praying.”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“And if your daughter lives, God gets the credit.” This was not going the way he intended. Words were coming out of his mouth that he would never say. It wasn’t professional, and he exemplified the word “professional.”

“God doesn’t really need a lot of credit,” said the missionary. Missionary doctor, thought the oncologist.

“But if the treatment fails, the doctors get the blame.”

There was a moment’s pause. The two men looked at one another. There could have been tension flashing between them, but the missionary was too relaxed for that.

“Yes,” said the grandfather, “all too often a doctor is blamed for something quite outside of her control. I know that very well. But God is there just as much no matter what the outcome.”

“I see. Well, I’m an atheist,” said the oncologist. It was another of those things he never said in a patient’s room. He wondered if he was going to be able to walk this back.

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I’m a grandfather,” said the missionary. “That’s my favorite granddaughter in that bed.”

“Grandpa!” interrupted the girl. “You say that to all of us!”

“Believe me, I know,” the grandfather resumed. “I read every one of your papers, every case study I could find. I know how you work. I made the choice to come here as opposed to more famous facilities because I think you know what we’re fighting. You know this disease. You know the fear. You know how to fight them. I won’t interfere with you, but don’t ever imagine I didn’t use every facility available to me to make sure you were the right person to treat my granddaughter. Your hands, if you’ll pardon the expression, are God’s hands in this case. At least to me.”

“But you know I don’t believe. You know what I’ve said about Christians, especially missionaries.”

“Yes, I do.” The missionary remained calm, unruffled.

The oncologist paused, then chuckled. “You know I’ve gone way past the bounds of propriety in this conversation.”

“I seem to have that effect on people.”

“So that’s it.” Now he allowed himself a genuine smile. “I thought you’d say it was God again.”

“I don’t always know the difference.”

“But how do you relate prayer and medicine? Surely if you’ve read my papers, you know I’m strictly scientific about it all. Wouldn’t you want God to lead you to the right oncologist, I mean, if you do believe God does that sort of thing?”

“I do believe God does that sort of thing. In fact, I believe God did that sort of thing. I asked God for wisdom, and God said, ‘Go find the very best pediatric oncologist you can, not the most famous, but the best.’ I did what God said. I confess I was going to do that anyhow, but it was nice to have God’s word on it as well.”

“And now I’m wondering if, after having this conversation, I’m actually the best. You and I know we shouldn’t be doing this, especially not in front of your granddaughter. I apologize.”

“Don’t apologize,” said the missionary. On the bed, the girl shook her head, negating any apology. “You’re a better man than you think you are. Do you think we could have gone through the sorts of things all three of us know we’re going to without the fact that I’m a Christian missionary doctor coming between us? I’ll refer you to your article in …”

“Yes, I know the one,” the oncologist interrupted.

“You see, we could have spent days and weeks trying to work around this. If you hadn’t brought it up, I would have. I know about the lawsuit. I read the public papers from the court. It’s unfortunate that such a thing happened. Somebody did blame you for the results when they should have been talking to God. We needed to clear the air.”

“So you knew about the lawsuit too,” the oncologist said, turning to the girl.

“Yes. I read the whole thing too. I’m really quite smart.”

Both men laughed.

“So when do you try to convert me?” asked the oncologist, a grin taking the sting out of the comment.

“I’m not going to. Thirty years as a missionary and I never converted anyone that I know of.”

“Really? The folks who sued me invited me to church several times and wanted me to pray with them.”

“You’re always welcome at my church if you want to visit, but I certainly don’t want you to do anything you don’t believe is the right thing. One of the things I like about you is your integrity.”

“Integrity? I believe I have integrity, but I never expected to be told that by a Christian. ‘The fool has said in his heart’ and all that.”

“Well, I’m guessing there are some atheist fools and there are some atheists who aren’t. There are some Christian fools and some Christians who aren’t. If we were practicing medicine together, our only disagreements would be scientific. I know that you’d never do less than your best because some shortcut was easier. That’s all I need to know.”

“So in your Christianity is there room for miracles? You seem to be all about the science.”

“I am all about the science. The science is a miracle. I live in a miracle. Everything is miracle. Everything is natural. I see no point in dividing them up. When I pray, I take not one moment from medical science that I would otherwise spend.”

“You really aren’t doing very well convincing me that there’s a God, you know.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I wasn’t trying to convince you.”

“You’re a very strange missionary.”

“Actually I think I’m rather ordinary. I could say you’re a very strange atheist. But I think instead that there are plenty of atheists who, like you, could be God’s hands. Speaking from my perspective, not yours, of course!” The missionary smiled again.

“That,” said the oncologist, “I can live with!”