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Mountains and Mustard Seeds

Number Thirteen in the Healing Miracle Series

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. (Matt. 17:14-18, NIV)

Jesus had been coy with patients before, taking his time before responding to their requests, calling them out when they touched his robe, forgiving sins instead of commanding healing, casting out demons from the violent men of the Gadarenes without being asked–all unexpected responses to human suffering. But never had he been impatient, even rude, as he was now to a father with an epileptic son.

Or maybe his comments about the “unbelieving and perverse generation” had been directed elsewhere. Maybe to the disciples, because of their failure to cure the child in his absence? But even this seems unfair, and out of character, for the Jesus we have come to know in the previous chapters. Or maybe he’s human–not just human, but still human like you and me.

He had just come down from the mountain. He had been in the presence of Moses and Elijah, the great leaders and prophets, both of whom the world thought to be long dead. And God Himself spoke to them, and Jesus, in the presence of three witnesses: This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! (Matt. 17:5, NIV)

How many of us wouldn’t love to hear those same words from our earthly fathers! Or if we were lucky enough to hear them, don’t we treasure those moments among the best in our lives? Imagine hearing the clear voice of God the Father while communing with the saints of the past. This had to be the pinnacle of his life on earth so far–what he had meant when he talked about “The Kingdom of God,” a place he knew in faith and in hope but had yet to experience in earthly life.

Then he came down from the mountain and found the same kind of problems he had left behind the day before, along with disciples that couldn’t seem make any headway without his presence. No doubt the disciples looked sheepish. After Jesus had his little outburst, he did what Jesus does; he cast out the demon.

“How long shall I stay with you?” he cried out, but maybe he was really questioning his Father whom he had just left: How long until I can come home? How long until every soul has unity with You? How long will our created world be filled with diseases and demons?

The Kingdom to Come

Our internship class inherited a man named Archibald, or “Archie” as everyone quickly came to know him. About a week before our internship started, he had suffered a shotgun wound to the abdomen when a heroin deal went south, and had his first of many operations to save his life. Any abdominal wound can be fatal, but a shotgun is particularly nasty because of the multiple intestinal perforations each of which can be the source of infection–peritonitis–and potentially life-threatening sepsis. Some of the intestine can be sacrificed, but if too much intestine is taken, the body cannot absorb adequate nutrition to survive.

Archie survived his first operation, but had recurring bouts of peritonitis and sepsis. At one point his respirations failed and he needed a ventilator for nearly a month. To “rest” his intestine and minimize further infection he required total parenteral nutrition, TPN, through central intravenous lines. Over the next few months, he underwent several more operations to find and repair damaged intestines or drain abscesses. Every one of our surgical interns rotating through general surgery took care of Archie.

He was a likable guy. We–all eighteen interns–suffered with him, and never lost hope for his eventual healing, even though every week seemed to bring a new complication, and the months dragged on. In all those months, no friends or family members visited. We had the feeling that he had become part of our family at the hospital–the pseudo-family that comes together when dedicated people work together for a common purpose.

Finally, one day in early Spring, word spread throughout the interns scattered through the hospital: after nine months, Archie had made it out of the ICU! Then a few days later–miracle of miracles–he was released from the hospital. The interns and ICU nurses actually had a party for him. With cake!

Three days later, he was back in the ER with a new abdominal problem. This time he had been stabbed.

He actually looked sheepish. He knew how much literal blood, sweat, and tears had poured into his care. Then we did what we do; we took care of him. But we were deeply disappointed.

The care was simpler this time. Knife wounds are ever so much easier than shotgun wounds. A few weeks later, Archie was discharged again and we never saw him again. Maybe he mended his ways. Or maybe he moved, or maybe he died after the next injury. I don’t know.

What I know is the change in us, his caregivers. We lost a certain enthusiasm for our unbridled altruism, recognizing that sometimes we care more and work harder at fixing our patient’s injuries than they work at saving their own lives.

Or that’s the way it seems. Another way of saying this is that we could fix complicated abdominal injuries, but we couldn’t fix addictions and broken neighborhoods and broken relationships, and if those things don’t get fixed, all our other efforts are in vain.

Maybe that’s something like what Jesus felt. Every effort falls short unless “the Kingdom comes.”

A few months ago I went hiking in the Smoky Mountains with my friend Gee. We experienced wilderness solitude and a healing miracle. We tested our physical endurance and renewed our appreciation for simple things like food, water, shelter, and rest, and explored a fast from all the other things we liked but didn’t need: TV, electricity, cars, hot showers, cell phones…No, wait, maybe we did need cell phones.

The fourth and last day should have been the easiest, and it started out that way. We got up, ate breakfast, and walked about five miles on mostly flat trails. The several stream crossings were very doable, and we reached a campsite at the edge of Lake Fontana around 2pm, well ahead of schedule. I had arranged for a motor launch to meet us there at 4pm and bring us to the marina where the truck was parked. If all went according to plan, by 5pm we should be on the road home.

We ate the last of our food, took off our boots, and stretched out–resting, meditating, enjoying the sunshine and blue sky under the shade of a giant sycamore tree at the edge of a calm lake. We prayed thanks for a great trip, and for guidance in our future steps. This seemed like the perfect end to a renewal in the wilderness–a real “mountain top experience.”

Around 4PM, I put on my boots and packed away the sleeping pad that had given me comfort. I started listening for the sound of a boat motor. Around 4:15, I decided I had misunderstood, and the pick up time was really 4:30. Around 4:45, I realized the boat wasn’t coming. In other places, a cell phone call would fix the problem in a minute, but Fontana Lake, we discovered, is a blessed and cursed by cellular silence. We would have to walk out.

The Lakeside trail to the top of the Fontana dam has no net elevation gain or loss, but the five plus miles from Eagle Creek are marked by steep ups and downs. Fast hiking would be impossible for two senior citizens with packs. Sunset would be at 6:45, but here on the east side of the ridge, darkness in the forest would come earlier.

We walked the last thirty minutes in complete darkness, our headlights giving us just enough illumination to stay on the trail. Antique auto body shells, crashed in the woods ninety years ago when the trail was still a road, eerily appeared in the shadows. At last we made it to the parking lot that marks the junction to the Appalachian Trail and the gravel road spur to the Fontana dam. We stashed our packs off the road behind a tree, hiding them from opportunistic thieves, but we needn’t have troubled. The parking lot was deserted, as was the gravel road, the Fontana dam, and the remaining three miles of paved road to the marina parking lot. Not one person, not one moving vehicle. And, except for the streetlights on the dam, the night remained pitch black.

We made it to the truck and returned to retrieved our packs, then started driving toward home. By now we were about three hours overdue check-in with our families. We knew they would worry, and soon the Park Service would be called to report us as missing hikers. But the cell phone black hole continued for nearly an hour after we left Fontana.

Finally, around 10 PM we reported ourselves to be alive and well. Shortly afterward we found a reputable chain hotel with a vacancy, and immediately after that started looking for food.

I’m always hungry after four days of hiking, and especially so after missing dinner and hiking an extra eight miles or so in the dark. The only place open was the local Waffle House.

A Waffle House at a rural crossroads in eastern Carolina around midnight on a Friday can be a scary place, a dive with unhealthy food and dangerous people, and nothing like how the day started–walking along a sunny stream in the Smokies. We found a rusted pick-up truck in the parking lot with a caged and howling hunting dog, an Elvis impersonator at the counter inside, a middle-aged couple dressed like teenagers and carrying motorcycle helmets, and a very short and very round elderly waitress with a short pencil and shorter attention span. Nobody we met lacked visible tattoos.

The mountain top experience was gone. I got the cheeseburger with fries and a malt, and cleaned my plate. Gee got the “Big Breakfast”–eggs, bacon, pancakes, grits–and at least had the good sense to leave some of it uneaten. We could have been mugged in the parking lot, or died of coronaries before we got back to our hotel. But this time, the Waffle House wasn’t scary. It was a place filled with people who, like us, a little dirty, a little desperate, and a little lonely, found food and fellowship and light in the darkness. An outpost for the Kingdom to Come. 

A Little Faith

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:19-20, NIV)

Jesus had previously commissioned the disciples to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matt. 10:5, NIV). When Jesus returned, they couldn’t understand their failure. They had to know.

One of the most common spinal conditions I cared for was a herniated lumbar disc. The results in a typical case were gratifying–90% of patients felt improved and returned to normal activities. But 10% didn’t, descending into a nightmare of chronic pain and disability, and the reasons for failure were often obscure. Sometimes I felt the failures were my own–misdiagnosis, clumsy handling of the delicate nerve, failure to remove enough of the disc, or even removing too much disk or too much bone during the exposure. More often, I could tell no difference between the operation I would do on a successful case from the operation on a failed case. Nevertheless, failure was always personal. I wanted desperately to know why this time I couldn’t drive out the demons of pain and disability.

Jesus gave the disciples a cryptic answer: Because you have such little faith.

Whatever could that mean? They had apparently faced similar problems before quite successfully. They had given up their jobs and homes to follow Jesus. What did more faith look like?

I don’t know. But I think the mountain he was talking about was the mountain he has just come from–the Kingdom of God mountaintop experience of being united with our Father and the saints. If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move this mountain of misery to the mountain of the Kingdom.

One of the most difficult things for a surgeon to do after a failure is to see the next patient. When I walk out of the room of one patient still in pain weeks after what should have been a successful operation and go to the next room of a patient in pain after weeks of non-operative treatment for the same condition, sometimes it’s hard to turn the doorknob. I know what is most likely to give the patient relief and I know it is an operation that I am trained to do–as well as anyone in the world–and I know what the patient wants and what medical science recommends and what I am going to say. But sometimes it’s hard. Because after the doorknob is turned, and I step into the room, everything else will happen, and the results will be on me, and at those moments I have little faith, no bigger than a mustard seed, and I don’t want to do it.

Then I turn the knob, take a step into the room, hold out my hand to theirs, and listen. We do the examination and look at the images, and we work out a plan together. And, most of the time, the mountain of pain and disability moves from here to there. Then, to one more little corner of creation, the Kingdom comes.

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3 thoughts on “Mountains and Mustard Seeds”

  1. Dean, this was relatable in so many ways. My husband was in the hospital six months. A ruptured, 8cm abdominal aortic aneurysm, he survived, but sadly, left him a parapalegic, 13 years ago. We never questioned God, or fell into the “why did You allow this to happen,” mode. As you can imagine, it was touch and go for so long, and I prayed for him to survive, and strength for me to handle whatever God decided. Six months plus, in the hospital, then, due to God’s grace, an amazing vascular surgeon, and a stellar medical staff and hospital, he survived. My husband has been incredible. He never complains, was grateful this happened later in our lives (he was 59) and not while raising our family and building his career. So many incidents occurred during this time, where I felt God spoke to me, intervened. My husband and I cried together just one time, well sobbed, actually, in each other’s arms, the day the doctors and specialists said, walking again, would never happen. That was the last time we were that distraught. My husband said, “This is what I’ve been handed, for whatever reason, and I will be the best I can be for you, despite being broken.” As his sole caregiver, this attitude has made my life easier doing for him what he cannot. God’s always been in my life, since I was a little girl. Throughout, I either pray to God in thanks – for others – or if something bad happens – for strength. Like a parent, who raises a child, to spread their own wings and handle life, I think God wants us to figure things out but to lean on him if needed. Not to expect him to be the blame for bad things, or the person to fix things. He has given us so many tools to do that and be our best at it, if we choose. Life is random, life is messy, and who knows why my husband became so compromised, or why a patient of yours has a positive outcome and another may not. Despite this, to do our level best, with what God has given us, I believe, honors Him.

    1. Wow, what a great inspiration! Thanks so much for sharing this valuable real life lesson. Sometimes when we look back on the most difficult times we find that God found us there and brought us closer to Him.
      Thanks, Linda

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