When God Lays Us Down


When astronauts and cosmonauts return from the space station there is a rush to get them out of the return vehicle. They are then plopped into lawn chairs so their bodies can have some time to adjust to full gravity. It is the first step of restoring their bodies from the atrophy they experience without gravity.

Like space vehicles that carry astronauts through the freezing vacuum of space and the fiery tempest of reentry, God carries us through the hell of cancer and other crises. Then the survivors often go into a deep depression even as their bodies start getting better. During the crisis, patients and their families pour every bit of their physical, spiritual and emotional assets into the eclipsing task of survival. When the question of survival is no longer central, they are in deep emotional and spiritual deficit. That deficit has to be paid back.

It was February of 1992. I was going to live. Eventually, I would grow my hair back. The muscles, though never as toned and defined as they had been when I was a gymnast, would return so that when I jumped my toes might leave the ground.

But my spiritual self was lost and confused. I’d just had a very intense experience with God. I’d felt the Holy Spirit inside of me. It made me hungry for more. I didn’t know anyone who had the same experiences. When God stopped carrying me, I felt like he’d dumped me in a wasteland. In reality he was teaching me to exercise my spiritual muscles. Just as my leg and arm muscles needed to be rebuilt my spiritual muscles needed to be rebuilt.

As a pharisaical Christian I tried the things that I’d tried before: Bible studies, my church’s youth group, service projects, and even making plans to become a minister. Talk about the blind seeking to lead the blind! I was in a desperate search for the love that God showered upon me during my sickness. I felt that I had something special to share because God had saved me during the darkest part of my life. It took me years and years of seeking, searching and stumbling to get connected to mature Christian communities.

After more than twenty years I’m still working on being a good servant. By now I’ve identified some of the reasons why my journey was so long, arduous and frustrating. First of all, I wasn’t ready for a community of mature Christians. I could no more survive in and tolerate such a community than I could wake up one day and run a marathon without any training. I needed a steady diet of prayer and Christian fellowship.

The second biggest hurdle in my Christian journey was that I completely misunderstood the nature of being a servant of God. I thought that I was going to do great things for God, and He was going to reward me with money, power and prestige. It took me years and years and years to understand that what I did was not important. Only what God did was important. The best feeling in the universe is to be a tool in God’s hand when He is working. Too often I’ve been the hammer thinking I had a better idea than hitting the nail. A true servant of God is forged over years and decades to perfectly welcome and facilitate His will. I still have a long way to go.

My most challenging hurdle was that I didn’t start with fellow travelers, guides or mentors to lead me through the process. This was 80 to 90% my fault. I’d always taken myself too seriously. I’d was obsessively independent. That’s how I ended up with such an atrocious plan for salvation. As one of my former professors was fond of saying, “When you get singled out, you get picked off.” The Christian journey is not meant to be walked alone. It is meant to be walked with Christian brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.

If I could go back 25 years to being the skeletal, baldheaded, traumatized boy that I was, these are the things that I very much wish that I’d done sooner:

  1. I would actively solicit a prayer partner, someone that I could meet with weekly. We would talk, share our challenges and pray for each other during the week.
  2. I would seek a mentor, an older, mature Christian who could build between my independent, egotistical self and a more selfless Christian community.
  3. I would find an area of service that would remind me of God’s work, and my humble place in that work.

When God lays us down, and stops carrying us through our crises, He is priming us to actively seek Him and learn to serve Him. It isn’t an easy process. It’s a long journey during which we build our spiritual muscles and become disciplined in our journey toward being at the heart of his will.

Ray of Hope


I drove home from the emergency room at 4AM feeling tired, frustrated, and depressed.  As I angled off Beach Boulevard onto Hogan Road I passed a low, triangular-shaped black building topped with a cross formed by lighted letters.  Horizontal letters read Jesus Saves; Vertical letters proclaimed Jesus Heals.  Nobody believes that, I thought.  Otherwise the ambulance would have come here instead of the ER.  And I wouldn’t have blood on my shoes.

The victim that night was a twenty-one year-old man named Ray.  He had been in a single-car accident after midnight and looked brain dead on arrival.  He had been intubated in the field, was now on a respirator without motor tone or reflexes, and his pupils were fixed and dilated.  But he was drunk and hypothermic, so an official diagnosis of brain death could not be made.  Resuscitation continued.

A CT scan showed a diffusely swollen brain and multiple facial fractures.  He was placed on a respirator, given heating blankets, IV fluids, anticonvulsants, steroids, antibiotics, a room in the ICU, and little hope.  Blood dripped onto my shoes when I drilled a small hole through his skull to place a tube to monitor the pressure inside his head (the ICP).

I left him in the ICU after giving his nurse instruction on his care then looked for family or friends.  No one.

Driving home I felt like I’d performed a great exercise in futility.  Ray’s prognosis was dismal.  If he survived (an unlikely event in my estimation), he would likely be left with severe brain injuries and exist (at best) for a few years institutionalized in a neuro-vegative state.  I wished the ambulance had taken him to the faith healers; the outcome was likely to have been the same.

After a few hours of sleep I returned.  Ray’s temperature had been restored to normal and his alcohol level had fallen below the legally drunk range.  His ICP was controlled with minimal intervention, but his pupils were fixed and he still had no muscle tone or reflexes.

Again, he looked brain dead.  But since he was sedated for the respirator, an official diagnosis could not yet be made.  I felt as if I was not so much treating Ray as I was keeping his organs viable as a possible transplant donor.

This morning Ray’s parents were in the ICU waiting room.  I went to meet them and steeled myself to deliver bad news.

The first thing I noticed was they were surprisingly well dressed–he in a coat and tie, she in stockings and heels.  The second thing I noticed were the little gold crosses–one on his lapel, another on her necklace.

I told them what I must while their eyes searched me, listening carefully for the words I knew they wanted to hear–okay, recovery, rehabilitation–words I did not speak.  I said coma, paralysis, brain damage, blindness and, yes, even death.

Then we faced each other, silent for a moment.  Her face begged for better news; tears welled up and overflowed, creating fall lines in her makeup.  He studied me and asked about chances, searching for the thin comfort of statistics.  “I know you can’t say for certain,” he said.

“Less than fifty-fifty,” I replied.  It was worse than that, but I was unwilling to lie but didn’t want to hurt them more than necessary.  It was the best I could do.

“When will you know?” he asked.

“A day, a week, a month,” I said.  “I don’t know.  Everyday he lives, he’s beaten the odds.”

“There’s hope?”

I pause.  I am careful dispensing hope.  Too much is a lie called false hope.  Too little is another kind of lie.

“His response to the treatments we started last night gives us some hope,” I said cautiously.  Some hope.

His shoulders dropped a fraction, perhaps shrugging off the worst, but his eyes narrowed as he continued to fix his gaze on me.  She breathed now without sobbing.

“If he continues to get better there will be room for more hope,” I say, dispensing the possibility of more hope.  “But if he gets worse…”


“If there is no hope, I will tell you.”  The possibility of no hope.

He nodded.  She sniffed.  “We will pray for him,” she said.

“And for you, too, Doctor,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I wished without much faith that the prayers would help.

I’d like to report that I went back to the ICU and witnessed a miracle healing.  But it was not so simple.  Ray had a rocky course, fighting for his life for the next month.  His ICPs gradually came under control and he was weaned from the respirator and sedative medications.  He woke from his coma and, although his vision was impaired from bruised optic nerves caused by the skull base fractures, he was otherwise neurologically intact.  Then, a few days later, he had an attack of meningitis–a complication from his basilar skull fracture.  After a course of antibiotics, he required an operation to seal the cerebrospinal fluid spaces and prevent another bout of meningitis.

But he exceeded my expectations.  He recovered and was discharged home walking and talking.  Eventually, he made a near complete recovery and has led a normal life, left with only a moderate visual impairment and a well-controlled seizure disorder.

As I look back, this was when I started to wonder if the prayers helped.  At the time, I thought he got better because of good neurosurgical care.  But he looked dead, I thought his care was futile, and, in spite of my expectations, he lived.

Later, when he came in for office appointments, Ray always wore a little gold cross somewhere, usually a pin on the collar of his shirt.  It made me remember the night I had no hope and the lighted cross I saw.  Jesus Saves, Jesus Heals

Could the faith healers at that little black triangular-shaped building have done better?  Almost certainly not.  But I know now that there is room for both kinds of healers.  Some are called to don latex gloves and get blood on their shoes; others are called to fold their hands and fall on their knees.  Ray needed both.

The Best Thing

Being cured and being healed are usually the same thing.  But not always.

A few years ago I was already driving home at the end of a long day when I got a call from the ER.  A thirty-something year-old mother of two had been driving home from work when her car was struck broadside from someone running a red light. She had been briefly unconscious at the scene, but was alert and able to give a coherent history on arrival at the ER. Then she unexpectedly lapsed into a coma, the right pupil dilating.

By the time I arrived, a CT scan had confirmed my suspicions of an intracranial hemorrhage, specifically an acute subdural hematoma.  If the clot could be removed before she suffered permanent damage to the critical life-support and consciousness areas of her brainstem, she could live.  But the window of opportunity was narrow.  She had less than two hours.

An emergency OR team was called and the patient resuscitated with assisted breathing through a mechanical airway and medications to minimize brain swelling.  Blood for transfusion was reserved, labs were processed.  The clock continued to tick.  I shaved her hair in the ER while waiting for the OR to be ready.

Finally, she got to surgery.  I made a big incision and cut a big window in her skull to allow room to evacuate the blood clot and find the source of bleeding.  A large surface vein had been torn due to the accident, but the brain itself looked normal.  Once the clot was out and the bleeding controlled, the tension level in the OR dropped and the surgery finished without any problems.  I bandaged her head in a classic turban dressing.

Her post-op scan showed complete resolution of the intracranial bleed, and she quickly regained consciousness.  Early in the morning of the second post-op day I visited her in her ICU room surrounded by her celebrating family.  She had made a full neurologic recovery and, other than a black eye and a bandage, looked perfectly normal.

I needed to change her bandage.  Although it looked pristine on the outside, undoubtably the inner layers of gauze had blood and serum from the incision, and I wanted it clean there, too.  I cut away the old bandage and reached for the new gauze wraps when she quickly put her hand to her head and grabbed a mirror.

“My hair,” she wailed. “What happened to my hair?”  Tears welled up.

I re-bandaged her head and assured her that her hair would grow back.  Her family comforted her and told her how glad they were to have her alive and how little they cared about her hair.  But she was inconsolable.

I was disappointed.  She had a perfect medical result.  Yet, she would need many months of psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  She had been cured by her surgery, but not healed.

A few months later I received a consult to see a patient that I knew I couldn’t help.  This patient had suffered paralysis due to a gunshot wound to the thoracic spine several weeks before and had been treated at another hospital before transfer to the rehabilitation facility in my neighborhood.  The question on the consult was whether or not she needed to continue to wear a brace (she did not).

All I had to do was talk to the patient, do a brief exam to confirm my findings and write a note explaining what I already knew from looking at her hospital records and x-rays.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I said.

“The best thing in my whole life,” she replied.

I stared at her, a thirty-something year-old woman who looked older than her stated age.  Her hair was prematurely gray, disheveled and greasy from too many weeks in the hospital.  She must have misunderstood me.

“No, no,” I said.  “I meant about the spinal cord injury, the gunshot wound.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

I realized that I was not going to have a normal conversation with this new paraplegic.  “Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “I’ve seen lots of people with spinal cord injuries. Some adjust better than others, some adjust quicker, but I have never heard anybody say it was the best thing that ever happened to them.”

“I was an addict working as a prostitute to support my habit,” she said.  “A family of Christians lived in my neighborhood.  They knew what I was doing.  Every day I would walk by their house, and these little children would say something like, ‘Miss JoAnn, won’t you come in?’ or ‘Miss JoAnn, Jesus loves you.’  The last time it was the little boy. He said, ‘Miss JoAnn, Jesus loves you and we are praying for you.’

“I remember thinking I’d come and visit the next day, after one more high.  But that’s what I told myself every day.  A couple hours later I got shot in a drug deal gone bad.  I woke up three days later in the hospital unable to move my legs.”

She paused, collecting her thoughts and trying to form an explanation.

“But three great things happened to me that day.  The first–I was delivered from 20 years of addiction to crack cocaine. The second–I was delivered from 18 years of prostitution. The third–I found Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I have joy in my heart for the first time since I was a child.  So if never walk again, which is what they are telling me, it’s a pretty good trade.”

I couldn’t offer her a cure.  But then, she didn’t need it.  She had already been healed.

The Hard Place

It was a Sunday of August 1991. I was lying/sitting in the hospital bed. The doctors had come and explained what they were going to do. My parents had gone to the hotel. I was sixteen, looking at the prospect of brain surgery. Earlier that day my mother tearfully told me that she didn’t know if I would live two days, two weeks, two months or twenty years. She did say that God had something for me to do and that he would give me the time to do it. There was a lot riding on the next morning’s procedure. If the biopsy came back badly, I would likely be dead by Christmas. If they didn’t put the shunt in I wouldn’t live long enough to care about the biopsy.

At sixteen I had a plan for salvation. I was going to become more and more holy and eventually become perfect as my father in heaven is perfect.

How could I have come up with such a doomed plan?

Hurt, pride and determination–they were what moved me from being a failing dyslexic in the 4th Grade to a thriving dyslexic at one of the best schools in the state by the10th grade. The lesson I had learned was that any problem could be overcome with hard work and uncompromising determination. Why should salvation be any different?

The problem I had lying in that hospital bed was that I’d run out of time. I could no more become spiritually perfect than I could write a book in a single night. I didn’t know if I would wake up from the surgery with brain damage. I didn’t know if the biopsy would come out malignant. I was in a hard place. I didn’t have any more wiggle room. I was scared and I needed a savior.

Dear Lord, I always planned to become more holy and a better Christian. I’ve run out of time. Could you please just take me as I am?

As far as salvation prayers go it was pretty pathetic. I didn’t even mention Jesus or even ask for my sins to be forgiven, but the Lord reckoned even my pathetic prayer as righteousness and I could feel the warmth of the Holy Spirit flowing into me. It hadn’t taken surgery or brain damage to change me. The Holy Spirit made me a new person. Since that day I’ve worried about many things: pain, incapacitation, isolation, and what would happen to my wife and children if I died. But I’ve never worried about death.

Everyone comes to hard places. Sometimes they are dramatic, like the night before brain surgery. Sometimes they are in the middle of sustained challenges, like depression or addiction. Other times they are awakenings to the fact that our salvation plans, like most human plans, are wholly insufficient. What are the hard places you have experienced in your life? What spiritual fruit has grown out of those experiences?