25 December 2017
Some of you are aware that I am to have open heart surgery tomorrow. This is the first part of the story about how I have come to count this as a Christmas miracle.
But first, in the tradition of biblical lament, can I just say that it sucks to be in the hospital on Christmas Day. It sucks to miss Christmas Eve worship for the first time in forever. It sucks that I am not going to be leading a mission in Cambodia starting tomorrow, on what is now the day of my surgery. It sucks that I had a heart attack at 49, with no history in my family, regular physicals, and a generally really good diet with a healthy amount of exercise. Statistically, I shouldn’t be here.
On Thursday night I wasn’t feeling great, but it was just a general lack of energy. Nothing specific. I woke up at 4 a.m. Friday morning with chest pains. Ok, that’s a clue, but can I just say, I’m not a likely candidate for this, I thought it would go away. It got better. Then it got worse. Then better again. I had to preside at Christmas Eve services in two days. I had to lead a mission team to Cambodia in four days. I had stuff to do.
Not knowing (but somehow suspecting) what was going on, I asked God to show me definitively what I should do. So that afternoon we went to see Star Wars (great movie, by the way), but leaving the theater, I started getting cold sweats in the car and feeling a bit dizzy. We pulled into the parking lot at Olive Garden where we were going to eat, but I just put my head in my hands and asked Elizabeth to take over driving, take the kids home and me to the hospital. The lights on the cars were beginning to blur. God had my attention. Message to all of the men I know: if you have symptoms, don’t wait. Go to the hospital.
I had not told Elizabeth about my symptoms all day. On the way to the hospital, she told me, “I will get you to the hospital where they will help you get better. Then I’m going to kill you.” Message to all the men I know: if you have symptoms and you don’t go, at least tell someone you love so they can help you before it is too late.
I walked into the ER and my EKG was normal. “See,” I said. But my heart rate was 32. And the blood enzyme that indicated a heart attack was significantly high. I was pale and pasty. They took me into CICU and gave me some medications to settle my heart. It worked. The next morning I was swept into a heart cath, where they discovered the culprits: Of the three coronary arteries, two of them were completely blocked, and one was 80% blocked. The doctor looked at me and said, “You are a lucky man. Statistically, you shouldn’t be here.”
On the heart cath, they discovered something remarkable. Despite two of the three arteries being completely shut down, my heart muscle was undamaged. How could that be? Apparently, the artery now working at 20% had reached out to embrace the other side of my heart, filling it with the blood and oxygen it needed to continue pumping. It is a picture of divine love at work, embracing the dying and raising it to life. It is a picture of the Holy Trinity, a community of love that is all about self-giving, constantly seeking the well-being of the other. For me, it was simply grace that kept me alive, and grace that grabbed my attention when all I wanted to do was ignore it so I could pursue my agenda. “No,” God said. “This isn’t about you. It is about my life in you. It is about my life flowing through you.”
Seven weeks ago I was hiking the Grand Canyon with my son and some friends. Our mantra was “We will go down, but we will rise.” How did I survive that trip on an injured heart but by grace? Four days after the heart attack struck, I was scheduled to be on a flight to Cambodia. What if the heart attack struck on the plane? What if it had come while I was serving in a small, rural province in the countryside far from medical help? I had a friend email me the same night of the heart attack telling me that she was prompted by the Spirit to pray fervently for me that day. She even gave me a time stamp. 4 p.m. MST, which in Toledo correlates exactly to the moment I knew I needed to go to the hospital. I am held by grace and pursued by angels. Note to all my friends: if someone suddenly jumps into your mind, stop what you’re doing and pray for them.
It was not my timing to be out for Christmas Eve, but it was God’s perfect timing. I am grateful to be here (existentially), and I am grateful to be here, at Toledo Hospital where they have the best heart team in the area. The doctor called it lucky. I call it grace. It is my Christmas miracle. It is God’s Christmas gift to me. “You can have your life back, but you can’t continue to live it on your terms.”
So tomorrow begins the rest of my life, forever shaped by a wake up call at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning and a prayer at 4 p.m. that same day that somehow pushed me beyond my willful resistance into the arms of grace. I know I have a community of angels praying for me. Some of them have faces I recognize. Some have voices I know. Some have a touch I can feel. Some are unknown and unknowable, and yet have never left my side.
You, my friends, my family, my companions on this journey of life, my health care workers who gave up your Christmas to care for me, you are some of those angels. And I am forever grateful for the way you have reflected God’s holy light into my life. I am forever grateful for the songs of praise you inspire. I am forever grateful for the ways you have touched me and connected me to a world, a universe like the one Jesus called the “Kingdom of the Heavens.” It is not some pie-in-the-sky-in-the-great-by-and-by thing. It is real. It is knowable. It has held me in the arms of grace and given me a chance to live again. We. Will. Rise.