Credo VIII

“…He descended into hell.”

A few years ago I took my canoe and my somewhat hesitant son, Adam, on a Suwannee River canoe trip from the Okefenokee Swamp to White Springs, Florida. The water levels were high–we actually launched from the the parking lot because the boat ramp was submerged. The first day we paddled through the lower branches of blooming tupelo trees whose trunks were underwater. Although this would be a beautiful and unique trip, I knew from the beginning that on the third day we would come to that part of the Suwannee known as “Big Shoals,” and I wanted nothing to do with it. We were paddling my beloved cedar-strip hand-built canoe which is the best flat water canoe ever, but it is not built for rapids. And it is breakable.

The morning of the third day, I took care to lash all loose equipment to the gunwales or the scuppers, we both tightened up our PFDs, and paddled slowly looking for the signs that I had been told would warn us when we were near the shoals, and direct me to the portage site. Bluffs on either side of the river got steeper and I figured we must be getting close. I paddled slower and looked carefully on both banks for the portage. Then I heard a low-pitched growl coming from downstream. I stopped paddling and listened. The growl became a roar, and I knew we were about to be drawn into the rapids.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the water levels had gotten so high that the signs and docks and stairs that marked the approaches and the portage were submerged, and the rapids were running as high as they ever could. Maybe the portage itself was submerged; I never got to find out.

I had a moment where I could have turned the canoe and paddled upstream as fast as possible. We might have made it and found safe passage. But the moment was brief and I found myself also thinking things like How big could “Big Shoals” be in a state as flat as Florida? And I’ve run rapids before; how hard could it be?

So instead of turning around I said, To hell with it, and pointed the canoe downstream paddling briskly into the maelstrom.

Big Shoals can be really big. The bow dropped at a 45 degree angle as I steered around a coming boulder. All good, missed the boulder, but the bow (and Adam) went into a deep wave in the trough and never came back up. We were sunk. The canoe, packs, paddles and our hats were driven through the next two levels of rapids as we hung on for dear life. Finally we found ourselves floating in flat water again and I literally put the bowline in my teeth and swam for shore.

We survived along with the canoe and all our equipment. Even the water bottle that had floated off appeared twenty minutes after we got on the river again. Getting soaked was perhaps a pretty good trade-off for a good story.

This is usually what happens when I say To hell with it. I abandon a well-thought out plan for a risky alternative and bad things happen.

At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, in the wilderness, the devil tempted Him. Jesus could use His powers for self-fulfillment, He could use his powers for political success, or He could use His powers for self-preservation and celebrity. Jesus, as we know, turned these options down. He did not say, To hell with it. He followed His Father’s original plan.

But what did the devil do? “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Him until a more opportune time.” When was this more opportune time? I think in Gethsemane just before His arrest, trials and crucifixion. He appealed to the Father in Heaven: “Father,” He said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me…” The human Jesus knew what was coming unless divine intervention found another way. But He continued the prayer: “…yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And in that completion of His prayer, he reversed the decision that Adam and Eve made in the other garden, the Garden of Eden, when they decided to step back from God and eat of the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a decision influenced by the same devil. Adam and Eve decided to follow their own will; Jesus committed to follow the Father’s will, even though it meant torture, humiliation, death. And, yes, hell.

His last words on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then He dies and goes to hell, into chaos and destruction, alienated from His Father in heaven. To hell with it takes on a whole new meaning.

Sometimes I say, “I went through hell for that,” but I don’t really mean hell. I mean it was hard work with mental and physical suffering. The real hell will also include isolation and alienation from all good things, loved ones and the Father in heaven.

Our family still refers to 1991 as The Bad Year–not hell exactly, but close enough. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Before her last chemotherapy appointment, my oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor treated by biopsy, shunt, and radiation, subsequently also suffering with complications from a shunt infection. Then, certainly as life-threatening and terrifying, at a neighborhood mall my other son was robbed by a man wielding a shotgun.

I know some of your stories and I know many of you have gone through things much worse. I expect that most of you know what it is like to lose someone or lose a dream or both, and have experienced the darkness and silence that follows a loss. There are no right answers for how to cope. Everyone follows their own path.

Our family kept going to church, we kept praying, we kept believing. But we all felt forsaken. Like Job, like Jesus. For a long time, I felt nothing but silence from above. I knew He was there listening. But if He was talking, I couldn’t hear Him. A smart family would have gotten counseling, but we just muddled along. Sometimes you are in too deep to see alternatives. Each of us dealt with our own experiences of depression and that emotional realization that the world is not a safe place. The unthinkable not only might happen, it will happen, and the best we can hope for is to enjoy the moment before the recurrence of sickness or death.

Cancer recurrences did not come, however, and Mary and Adam recovered physically and emotionally. The process wasn’t easy and each of them has a story to tell and scars to show. I have no visible scars, but I found myself chronically depressed about the futility of existence and the ultimate death of everything and everyone.

One Good Friday several years after our Bad Year, I sat alone in our backyard, sad, and noting that this was the day even the Christians celebrated death. I mused about what certainties I knew beyond death, and found that they were all infinite: time, space, matter. Then I experienced what I can only describe as a vision of the incredibly complex mind of God, and these great infinities were but thoughts in that mind. Also included in that mind were places for Mary and Adam and all the people I loved. The mind of God encompasses the great and the infinite and the eternal, but it also includes the tiny and the finite and the mortal. It includes me.

It is hard to imagine the experience of Jesus between His death on Friday afternoon and His resurrection on Easter morning. The text tells us that He experienced being “forsaken” by God, helpless and hearing only silence from above. There is something endearing about this, that God takes human form in such depth that He is capable of feeling isolation from all the things that make Him God: love, power, strength–that He knows from first-hand experience what it is like be be in hell.

Easter Sunday morning came thirty-six hours after my Good Friday in the backyard. The long silence from above was over. I pray that each of you who now feels that silence will find your own Easter soon. Jesus feels what you feel. He sees you, He hears you. He will speak to you if you listen.

Credo VII

“…He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”

God is dead. Not only is He dead, but there is a specific historical marker (Pilate) of the event and crucifixion by Mosaic law that puts Jesus under God’s curse. There is no mistake because He is buried.

It was true then, and there are times now, that it seems like He is dead. I don’t see Him, I don’t hear Him, I don’t feel Him. I go on day after day, week after week, month after month, doing the best I can, but the world is a dreary place. One of those times occurred while I was a neurosurgery resident during a particularly difficult season.

I remember being called to the ER at Yale-New Haven Hospital by stat page and finding the trauma room full of nurses, x-ray techs, ER doctors, the general surgery resident, all resuscitating a twenty-something-year-old kid from a motorcycle accident. Details filtered in as his stomach was pumped (remains of a recently consumed Italian dinner and much alcohol), an endotracheal tube placed, x-rays of his chest and skull were taken, and we waited for the CT scanner to be available. He had ridden his motorcycle at full speed down a hill in West Haven, gone through the T-intersection, directly striking the telephone pole on the other side. No helmet, little hope.

All the residents at our hospital did rotations at the West Haven VA. We had all driven that same road dozens of times on our way from here to there; we all knew exactly what hill he had accelerated down, what telephone pole he had hit. We all envisioned it; we all knew it was insane, even beyond the usual testosterone and alcohol-induced risk-taking behavior of young men.

The name was familiar to old hands in the ER and they called for records. Another motorcycle accident had occurred at the same place exactly on the same date two years before, and the victim had the same last name. Again, then the victim had arrived in the ER and died shortly thereafter. That victim was tonight’s victim’s brother. From this I created a narrative in my mind. Maybe we all did, but nobody talked about it. It was too sad.

A troubled young man, depressed over something–a lost girlfriend, a lost job, a failed test–decided to self-medicate with alcohol. Perhaps he had an underlying mental health disorder. He had a mom, maybe a dad, and a younger brother, but it wasn’t enough. The future was too dark. He rode into the night, accelerating his motorcycle to maximum speed on a downhill stretch and ended it all on a telephone pole. Two years later, the little brother faces a loss that seems big and sees his brother’s solution. So he takes his motorcycle on the same path to the same pole. There’s a mom left behind still washing the dishes from the spaghetti dinner. Maybe a dad.

After the resuscitation in the ER we took him to the Neuro ICU on a respirator with an intracranial pressure monitor. When we got him settled there I noticed the tattoo on his left biceps: “Born to Lose.” I few hours later, he was dead.

A couple of weeks later, a sixteen-year-old girl on her way home from school, suddenly cries out in pain, clutches her head and collapses. Rescue brings her to the ER in a coma, a CT scan shows a large hemorrhage in her left hemisphere, the part of the brain that controls speech, language, and movement of the right face, arm and leg. The bleed had been caused by something called an arterio-venous malformation, an AVM for short, something that would have been a formidable challenge for an experienced neurosurgical team with weeks of preparation. But she needed immediate surgery. So she got me, a resident, and a junior staff neurosurgeon named Charlie Duncan.

The operation was long and difficult. Though we knew a lot about AVMs, we both had minimal surgical experience for this condition. The urgently gathered OR staff was also inexperienced. For every clot removed, an artery bled. Whether this artery could be cauterized without permanent loss of speech, coordination, or intellect, we had no way of knowing. If abnormal blood vessels were left un-cauterized, the girl would re-bleed and die. Held breaths alternated with hyperventilation. Hours passed.

Finally, all the clots were out, the AVM resected, and the brain appeared normal. We closed. After surgery, she awoke without speech or comprehension and paralyzed on her right side. A life saved but at the cost of probable severe lifelong disability. We didn’t celebrate. Two weeks later, her condition unchanged, she transferred to a rehabilitation facility to recover with people three and four times her age.

A few weeks later, an eight-year-old boy is playing on the sidewalk waiting for his school bus on the busy Whitney Avenue. He trips and falls into the street in front of a garbage truck. Brakes screech, horns blow, but still there is a sickening thump. Traffic stops. An ambulance arrives and the boy is transported to the ER on a respirator in deep coma from the head injury. He got hit in front of the preschool where my son attended. I called Charlie Duncan and described the case. He asked my assessment, and I told him it looked hopeless. Well, almost hopeless. We gambled with the almost and ignored the hopeless.

I placed an intracranial pressure (ICP) monitor to guide treatment, optimized the respirator rate and administered various medications to control brain swelling. By two PM, these measures had failed. Another CT again showed diffuse brain swelling. At three PM we took him to surgery to remove a large part of his skull so that even as the swelling increased his brain would not be compressed and the damage would be limited. But even as the skin sutures were placed, his brain continued to swell. The ICP went up again to dangerous levels, and then to levels incompatible with life. By six PM, the battle was clearly lost. The child would die.

It felt like God was dead. I had been part of surgeries that had failed, and this was not the first person I had seen die, nor even the first child. But this was hard. Maybe because this time the victim looked too much like one of my own children.

Maybe everyone has times that it feels like God is dead. I imagine how Jesus’ family and disciples felt on the Saturday following Good Friday. It not only seemed like God was dead; He was dead. And buried. The future held nothing except futile struggle and inevitable despair.

That’s how I felt. So I hid behind the paperwork in a corner of the ICU until Duncan came and stood across the desk from me. “There’s someone to see you,” he said.

I shook my head; if I tried to speak I might cry. Besides, no one ever came to see me; I was just the resident. Or worse, maybe Duncan wanted me to talk to the parents. I couldn’t face them. Not yet.

“Come on,” he said.

“No,” I managed to say.

He stared me down, long enough that he knew I was in pain, and I knew he wasn’t going away. “Come on,” he said again.

I got up and followed him. After all, he was my boss.

In the hallway outside the ICU stood a teen-age girl in a cowboy hat. Long, dark hair spilled out from under the right side of the hat, but no hair on the left, and maybe a hint of a scar in front of her left ear.  She smiled a crooked smile and leaned on an aluminum four-poster cane.

Then I recognized her. The teen-ager with the AVM. Not in a coma, not a vegetable. Walking and…could she be talking?

Her words were slow and overly round like her tongue was too big. “Thank you,” she said.

I don’t know what I said, and yeah, I might have shed a few well-disguised tears of joy.

Maybe it was a coincidence that this thoughtful teenager took this particular moment, when Duncan and I were into the depths of futility and despair, to say thank you. But coincidence is just another way of saying miracle. God sent a messenger to remind me He wasn’t dead.

The disciples would have to wait until Easter morning.

Credo VI

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary…”

The two figures in the Bible who are without sin, the innocents, are Jesus and Job. The Book of Job, I am told, is thought to be the most ancient of all our Biblical texts and it deals with the perplexing question of innocent suffering: Why does a good God allow innocent people to suffer?

Job is long and poetic and has a dramatic conclusion–totally worth reading and thinking about–but I don’t think it hits home until you’ve experienced innocent suffering yourself and I don’t think the answer to Job is complete until we understand Jesus as “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.”

I don’t like to think about this part of the Apostle’s Creed. I tend to mumble through it, figuring I’d only have to care if I was Roman Catholic. I don’t understand it. This is technically the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) except it was in vivo and the donor was divine. The divine uniting His DNA with that of a Jewish teenager?

I expressed my skepticism to Dr. Jeff Hoy once while we were on a trip to Israel. He listened and calmly said, “The biggest leap of faith has to be the resurrection. If you can believe that a dead body, days after decomposition, could rise from the grave, then the virgin birth should be a no more difficult belief.”

Touché. Some things are to be taken on faith. But those things taken in faith should be things that are plausible in some way, and important. Two historians of Jesus life, Matthew and Luke, insisted on a birth story that included a virgin birth. They had to believe it was true after speaking with the mother of Jesus and others who were still alive when they were writing. And they had to believe it was important.

It is important. Because the virgin birth cements the reality that Jesus is all-in as a human being. Sure, He healed the sick and raised the dead and walked on water, showing the world that He had divine power. But He limited Himself in critical ways. He could not or would not use his divine power to intervene for Himself. Born as a baby, he wore diapers and pooped in them. He worked, perspired, grew weary and slept. As an adult, he went to parties that served alcohol; he supplied the booze at a wedding. He laughed. He cried. And he did not get out of this life without starvation, loneliness, beatings, whippings, and, ultimately, torture and death.

No doubt the humanity of Jesus is important in some deep theological way, such as to give the proper conditions for His ultimate sacrifice to save mankind from our sins. But I think this humanity is not only to save the sinners but to comfort the innocent. This is where we get back to Job and the problem of innocent suffering.

I am the junior resident in neurosurgery when I get a call to the pediatric emergency room. A four-year-old boy has been brought in by ambulance from home because he is unresponsive. He had been resuscitated and intubated before I walked in the room. The first twenty seconds at the bedside tell me he had been beaten over every square inch of his body. The next two minutes of examination tell he he is already brain dead.

Innocent suffering.

A twenty-two-year-old woman is driving home one Friday night and a drunk young man follows her, tailgating and speeding–his apparent method of flirtation–until he rear-ends her car and she is left paraplegic for life.

Innocent suffering.

An eight-year-old boy balances on a curb waiting for his school bus when he falls into the street in front of a truck. He is severely injured and in deep coma when he arrives in the ER, but not quite brain dead. Our team struggles all day to bring him back, but by evening it was clear that we had lost; the child would die.

Innocent suffering.

The parade of innocent suffering and grief started before Job and it hasn’t ended yet. You all have your own stories. I’ve heard some of them. Despair would not be unreasonable. Job himself cried out in pain and indignation before God answered him out of the whirlwind.

Then along came Jesus.

The Bible tells us “Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering…” (Isaiah 53:4). Since He is eternal, he takes up the pain and suffering of every human being, before and since His lifetime. This means that in some cosmic sense, when that child got hit by a truck, Jesus got hit by a truck. When the child’s parents grieved, Jesus wept. He takes up our pain and bears our suffering. When Job lay diseased on the dung heap longing for his lost children, Jesus lay with him.

This is not a distant spirit in the sky professing sympathy for the human race. This is not a universe creator who set the ball rolling a few billion years ago and let nature take its course. This is not the celestial judge who stands above it all and punishes us for sins real and imagined.

No, this is God who tied Himself to humanity literally by His DNA. He is eternal. Today, God feels what a rape victim feels, what parents feel when their child suffers, what an old man feels when he buries the love of his life. He stands in the concentration camps and sits in the cancer wards. He starves with the hungry and He takes the bullet from the firing squad. Because this is how God answers Job. This is how God loves the world: He becomes Jesus.

So, I don’t know the details about the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and how that works with sperm and ova. The details are neither provable nor understandable. What I  do understand is that God irrevocably bound Himself to the virgin Mary to be born as a helpless infant into a lost world. He is human. He has our DNA. He celebrates with us, He suffers with us, He dies with us. And we can be resurrected with Him. This is how God loves the world.

Credo V

“I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…”

In the beginning, God creates mankind in his own image. Then, with the birth of Jesus, God creates Himself in mankind’s image. This has lovely literary and theological symmetry, but it is so difficult to understand.

Does the mind that conceived gravity, wrote the laws of thermodynamics and motion, structured quantum mechanics and relativity principles, designed the the DNA molecule and the Higgs bosun, now become confined to what a 1400 gram human brain can know? Do the hands that once formed the Milky Way now become limited to the skills of a carpenter? Does the creator of the universe become re-created in the womb of a woman?

It seems unlikely.

But there are reasons to believe this unlikely truth. First, Jesus said so. Therefore, He either had a severe mental illness involving delusions of grandeur, or he was exactly who he said he was: the human incarnation of the eternal and almighty God. Since his other teachings had wisdom rather than insanity, it is hard to believe Him to suffer from a serious mental illness. He doesn’t sound insane; He sounds like the Son of God.

The second reason to accept what Jesus said about Himself, is that three people who knew him well, and one person who talked to many of the people who knew Him well, wrote down what He said and what He did. And while all four of them differed in many details, they all agreed on one thing: Jesus is the Son of God. Since then, millions, possibly billions, of people have had experiences like them and like me. Jesus personally convinces us that He is the Son of God.

I can’t think of another historical figure who claimed to be the Son of God and the people who knew them best also affirmed the claim. Certainly, there have been founders of great world religions, like Buddha and Mohammed, but they never claimed to be God. And certainly men have claimed to be god–various psychotics whom we currently heavily sedate and frequently confine to institutions, and megalomaniacs who happened to rule the Roman Empire or the nineteenth-century Empire of Japan–but the people who know them best didn’t agree. They weren’t gods.

It is easy to believe something similar to “Son of God”: I am a child of God. Fair enough. Does that mean Jesus is just another child of God? A kind of spiritual sibling? Brother Jesus?

I don’t think so. If we recognize that God in the form of Jesus has taken on the limitations of humanity, e.g. become the Son of God, but is still God in some difficult to understand cosmic sense, then He is also Lord. And although that concept is not difficult to accept on paper, it has been a difficult concept for me to live out.

In the middle of my first year in college I had no idea what to major in or what kind of job I would want after I finished college. That may have been due to lack of exposure to the big world, perhaps. My grandfather was the first in our lineage to finish elementary school and learn to read and write. My father was the first to finish high school. My generation would be the first to go to college. But, other than the teachers at school, the preachers at church and the doctor that we saw once a year, I didn’t know any college graduates. Our neighborhood and my family were populated by mailmen and mill workers, cooks and clerks, policemen and firemen, carpenters and bricklayers, farmers and storekeepers. Yet, from my earliest memory I was expected to go to college.

Now, here I was in the middle of a legacy dream with no clear idea on how to proceed. So, one afternoon midway through my second quarter and before trying to register for third quarter classes, I lay down on my bed and asked the Lord to guide me. I figured since He wanted me to know He was real from my experience in the rain when I was fourteen, He might have some direction I should go when I was eighteen. It sure was not obvious to me.

I got no answer. But I mused about who I was and what I was good at and what I liked. I faced the facts that I was pretty good at science but didn’t love it, and I loved literature and the arts but wasn’t particularly good at it. I’d heard that medicine was an art and a science, so on that thin bit of reasoning, I got up and the next day registered for the first of my pre-med classes.

Was that guidance from the Lord or the musings of a dumb eighteen-year-old? I don’t know. At lots of points in my life I prayed for guidance and never got what I thought was a clear answer. I made the best decision I could at the time and moved on. That’s pretty much the pattern of subsequent critical decisions in my life, and I always wondered if I was on the right path. I mean, what good is it to have a “Lord” if He doesn’t tell you what to do?

Sure, there’s following the principles He laid out in the Bible. The Ten Commandments, which, if I’m being totally honest, I treated back then as the Ten Suggestions. There’s the Beatitudes; but being blessed for being poor in spirit didn’t resonate with me and I never quite understood what it was to be blessed. There’s the Shema: Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; but how to do that? And, of course, the golden rule: Love your neighbor as yourself; but I have to say I defined “neighbor” as people I liked (clearly not Jesus’ intention). So I stumbled through life full of hypocrisy, imperfection, and uncertainty.

I may have suspected that the noise of the world was drowning out the voice of the Lord, but I thought I was doing pretty good–not perfect but better than most and asking forgiveness in a general sense at each monthly communion service. By claiming salvation by grace, I guess I fulfilled the minimum entry requirements to heaven. Coupling complacency with grace may still have gotten me into heaven, but it didn’t let me hear the the voice of the Son of God.

Then one afternoon I prayed an honest prayer, one I’m embarrassed to share: “Lord, I know I’ve been really sinful in the past, but I’ve put those things behind me and now I’m doing pretty good. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any serious sins I’m committing. So, Lord, show me my sin.”

Now that’s a prayer that is as arrogant as it is honest, and maybe the only reason I dared pray it was that, based on past experience, I wasn’t expecting an immediate and literal answer.

“You’re greedy,” said The Voice in my head that was not my own.

“How can You say that?” I replied with amazing temerity considering who I must have been talking to. “I give to multiple charities and tithe to my church.”

“You do that because you can afford it.”

Well, granted. By this time my income was such that we lacked for nothing even after what I considered my generosity. But I didn’t want to tell Him that.

The Voice continued. “You were invited to a mission trip and you didn’t go because of greed.”

“That wasn’t the reason,” I said. “I could afford the $2500. I didn’t do it because I couldn’t leave my practice for the sixteen days the trip would take.”

“You don’t want to leave your practice because you are afraid of losing three weeks worth of billing.”

And this was true. It was more than simply giving up my paycheck for three weeks. If I didn’t work for three weeks, I wouldn’t bill for the income that paid for my employees’ salaries, the office rent, insurance in its various forms. It was potentially a lot of money and was truly the reason I never even considered going on this mission trip.

“It’s past the deadline to sign up,” I said, but by now the argument was lost. I was making excuses.

“Make the call,” said The Voice.

So I made the call and went on the mission and became a little more humble and a little more generous. If I became poorer as a result, I haven’t noticed it. What I have noticed is that since then I have had moments, sometimes on mission trips, sometimes in the operating room, sometimes sitting with a friend, or even a stranger, when, despite whatever physical discomforts or dangers or embarrassment I faced, I had the pure knowledge and joy that in those moments I was doing exactly what I was created to do.

And that’s the payback. If I choose to live as a child of God, a being with purpose and destiny, if I allow Him to be my Lord. He is the Son of God, but we can choose to let Him be Lord.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

Credo: Chapter 4

I want to write about how Jesus existed as a historical figure, the historic reliability of the Gospels themselves, the confirmation of His existence in the historical texts of Josephus and Tacitus, and the correlation of traceable astronomical events to events described in the Gospels.

I want to write about the wisdom of His teaching, how the Beatitudes radically oppose the wisdom of worldly success, and how that unlikely teaching is the true hope for justice and peace and joy in the world.

I want to write about how virtually every culture has a myth that follows a pattern called “The Hero’s Journey,” and how that plot is really an outline of Jesus’ story. The difference is that the other myths are fiction and the Jesus story is history, and the only conclusion is that all of mankind has been searching for Jesus for as long as we can remember.

That would be three chapters, maybe three books, or maybe even three long books. But all of the above mentioned lines of reasoning are not why I believe. They are all confirmatory evidence. I believe because He talks to me.

You may want to stop reading here because you believe me to be delusional, and why listen to a crazy person? You may be a non-believer or a person of a faith other than Christianity. Or you may have been a Christ follower your entire life and not had a similar experience, so you want to discount mine. I get it. I suspect that I am being manipulated when I hear someone begin a pitch with, “The Lord told me…”

But I can only tell you what happened to me.  You can decide.

I was about thirty-years-old, a senior resident in neurosurgery, in the fifth of six years of training, at Yale University, married for nine years with two sons, ages three and five. We had no money. I owed $7,000 ($27,000 in 2023 dollars) in student loans for medical school and my $17,000/year salary barely covered living expenses. My long hours made it mandatory that Mary would put in long hours as a stay-at-home, effectively single, mom if our kids would have anything resembling a normal childhood. I worked eighty to a hundred hours per week, spending every second or third night in the hospital.

At the hospital I had a kind of emotional release–I was so busy taking care of sick people I didn’t have time to think about myself or my family or our finances. Work was a totally different reality; I would be one kind of person there and a quite different person back home. This sort of emotional detachment is not all bad. In fact, it is necessary to function in either world. But the trade-off was not equal. I could be a humane neurosurgeon because I had a loving family, but I wouldn’t necessarily be a good husband and father because I was a neurosurgeon. Many nights I got home so exhausted that all I could do would be to eat, sleep, then get up and do it again. Frequently, I would fall asleep reading a bedtime story to my children.

Though I was on the verge of professional success–in another eighteen months or so I would get a real job with a real salary and a real future–I was also on the verge of personal failure. Because of faults that were entirely my own, our marriage had failed. My relative morality was one of convenience–meaning I did the right thing only when it cost nothing, and the wrong thing when it was convenient. I decided. And what happened in one world didn’t have to transfer into another. But separate worlds are an illusion. I had one life, and the clash was inevitable.

For a period of about three months, if either of us would have had the slightest bit of extra time or money, we would have divorced. As it was, we hung on in a state of inertia driven by poverty and exhaustion, mutually uncertain, mutually sad.

The walk home from the hospital took thirty to forty-five minutes, long enough for me to leave the emotional stress of work behind and think about going home, wondering how long I would have that home. I would miss it greatly. I knew my wife to be the wisest and kindest person I had ever met. I loved everything about her, and loved my two sons more than life itself. And yet, I had blown the relationship. In a rare moment of self-awareness I realized that the current crisis was the result of not circumstance but character, and the same character flaws that had gotten me to this point would continue to follow me into whatever relationships I would find in the future. Furthermore–and this was the most damning realization of all–I realized I could not fix it. I could not fix the relationship, I could not fix myself.

So I prayed, possibly the first truly sincere prayer I had prayed in years. I said, “I am so sorry. And I can’t fix it.” That’s all I said and I expected nothing in return.

I was still walking as I said those words silently to myself and the creator of the universe. By that time, I had reached the New Haven Green. I crossed diagonally in front of the three landmark but empty churches in the dark and cold winter silence.

This is when Jesus spoke. He said, “No, you can’t fix it. But I can. Just go home.”

The voice was real enough that I startled and looked around. No other people were visible, of course not. The voice was “in my head” but it wasn’t me talking; I know my own voice. This voice was not particularly warm. The tone was more of disappointment, maybe a bit stern. Resigned, maybe. And that’s all He said. It really could only be Jesus. When you pray and somebody answers, who else could it possibly be?

I went home and told my wife that I would never leave her and never give her any additional reasons to leave me. I couldn’t prevent her from leaving, but I wanted her to know that I did not want her to do that. I didn’t begin with “I had a message from God” because I didn’t think then, and don’t think now, that that is a good approach to a difficult conversation. But maybe I ended with it, because I wanted her to have more reason for hope in the future than I had given her in the past.

And nothing changed. Except that I felt more at peace. Whatever happened, God Himself had assured me He would fix it.

A few days later an issue arose about a time conflict involving getting the children to appointments. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the conversation.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said, even though I had some reason to expect some work-related demand may come into play. I determined that I would find a way to fulfill this one family need.

Mary looked at me in that way that she has when she needs to remind someone that she is no fool. “I don’t think I can trust you,” she said.

Immediately I was angry. I formed the words in my mind: What do you mean, you can’t trust me? You’ve got trust me! If we’re ever going to make this thing work, you’ve got to trust me. But the words that came out of my mouth were: “I know. I haven’t given you reason to trust me. But I plan to be here and do what needs to be done. For as long as it takes for you to trust me again.”

She looked back at me with the the same I’m no fool look, gave it a beat, and said, “We’ll see.”

I don’t know what I looked like to her, but inwardly I was stunned. Those were certainly the right words to say, but not what I had intended when I opened my mouth. This was God “fixing it.” That moment was the first building block of a new relationship. Other blocks followed, and eventually other crises were faced together, other adventures, another child. That was a few decades ago and we’re still having fun.

There is a kind of before and after thing following an experience like this. Before, it was okay to believe that God existed and created the universe and all and we should all try to be nice and good whenever it is convenient, and hope for the best. After, you realize that the God who created a hundred million galaxies or so is not so big that He does not pay attention to every thought, word, and deed that comes out of your puny little life and is standing by waiting for you to ask Him for help.

There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance in the idea of a big God understanding and intervening with a small man. It’s easier to imagine that God talks to me in the form of Jesus Christ, the form of God that took on flesh and bled real blood and walked and talked on the Earth. He did it once in ancient history, and He did it in my life. In my After experiences, I have discovered that I am not the only one. For many of us oh-so-less-than-perfect people, Jesus has intervened and called us in very real ways, including His words.

So, I believe in Jesus Christ, not only based on historical fact and our finest philosophy and the fulfillment of our collective consciousness, but mostly because He talks to me and other sinners when we are still helpless and lost.