04 June 2019

Remembering-Stones

Six months into my wife's fourth pregnancy, we found out she was missing the right half of her brain.

She'd been feeling occasional numbness in her fingers and toes. We were afraid it might be neurological, but there was no slurring of speech, and her physical coordination seemed fine. "Still," our doctor said, "We could sure do a brain scan, just to be safe."

We scheduled the brain scan. It wasn't a big deal, so I didn't even take the afternoon off of work. And then I got the phone call.

"They say I need to get ready for surgery," my wife's voice said.

"What?"

"Surgery. They think my brain's under a lot of pressure. The scan makes it look like the fluid is crushing half of the brain. The radiologist seemed really concerned; he never saw anything like this before."

"I'm on my way."

I don't remember telling my boss I had to leave. I don't even really remember driving to the hospital, though I do recall that it was hard to see the road through my tears. I also remember being really frustrated that I couldn't find a parking spot.

Then, after all the buildup, we waited at the hospital for a few hours -- and nothing happened. They sent us home. The neurosurgeon's office said he didn't have any immediate openings but made an appointment for two weeks later.

In the meantime, we met with an obstetrician to see what the consequences of neurosurgery might be for our unborn baby. He was comforting but vague. "It really depends on the neurosurgeon," he said.

So we waited to meet with the neurosurgeon. The two weeks were excruciating. I don't remember being so fearful about anything in my life.

When the day finally came, we found that the neurosurgeon wasn't even a little bit concerned. "Well," he said, "You are missing a large portion of brain tissue. But from what I can see, your brain has looked like this since birth."

"You're saying that my brain has been working fine even though half of it's missing?" my wife asked.

"Oh, yes. The brain is very good at adapting to anomalies." The neurosurgeon gestured dismissively toward the radiologist's report. "Your neurological functions are perfectly normal. You say you've gotten a college degree, raised three small boys, and run a non-profit organization. That seems pretty high-functioning to me."

"So... are there any next steps?" I asked.

"You're welcome to get a second opinion, just to be certain. And we can do a followup in six months if you really want to," he said. "But, really, the best thing you could possibly do is to forget that this ever happened."

---

The human mind is miraculous. It can parse complex sentences without a second thought and come up with grammatical responses in a matter of milliseconds. It can create concertos and comic books. It can solve brain-busting equations. It can recognize thousands of unique faces and tell with alarming accuracy whether those faces have anything to hide.

Even more wondrous is our neuroplasticity -- our brain's ability to change over time based on our environments, needs, and choices. And it's not just the functions that change; it's the physical configuration of our brains themselves. They're constantly rewiring themselves to form efficient new pathways and repair old, damaged ones.

My wife's brain is an amazing example of this -- it adapted perfectly to some unknown fetal trauma. If it hadn't been for her occasional numbness, we never would have even known half of it was missing. (We're still not quite sure what caused the numbness, but we think it was a vitamin deficiency.)

For all of its wonders, though, there are some things the human brain does not do well. For example, we aren't good at holding multiple complex or conflicting ideas in our minds at the same time. This is where heresies come from -- we glimpse one facet of God's complex nature, and we immediately lose sight of other truths that exist in tension with the one we see. So when I see God's mercy, I may begin to doubt His justice. When I see the vastness and complexity of the universe He created, I might wonder how He could ever care about me as an individual.

Failure to remember is a constant struggle for us. It is how the children of Israel, after being miraculously fed on divine bread and water gushing forth from a rock, questioned God's provision and demanded meat. (They got their meat in the form of disease-bearing, death-dealing flocks of quail. I suspect that the human taste for irony is one aspect of the imago dei imprinted on us.)

Failure to remember is how I, a resident of the freest nation on earth, with the gifts of eternal salvation, a good-paying job I love, a sweet wife, and a comfortable home full of delightful children, can feel worthless and dissatisfied.

This is why monuments are so useful to us forgetful humans. When God parted the waters of the Jordan so His people might cross over and take possession of their Promised Land, He instructed them to take twelve rocks -- one for each tribe of Israel -- from the riverbed, right near where the priests were standing with the ark of the covenant. This, not incidentally, was the center of the power that had held back the riverwaters. And so they took the twelve stones and formed them into a monument that stood for years where the Israelites camped that night.

Was it possible for the people of Israel to forget how God had made a way for them to cross into the land He would give them? Probably not that day. Maybe not the next day, either. But a year along, when the battle was raging and friends were falling to the swords of the land's inhabitants and they were filled with doubt over whether God was truly with them? You'd better believe it.

But then, they could return to that old campsite. They could consider the river-rocks stacked in an undeniable heap. And they could remember the inexplicable goodness that had led them here. And the truth would come flooding back to them like the waters of the river after the priests carried the ark out of its dry bed.

The river itself, raging along within its banks, stood as a testament to God's faithfulness in delivering His people. He made a way for them to arrive here, and He would continue providing deliverance until the work was done and the land at last was won.

---

So think of this post as a little heap of remembering-stones. Whenever I (or you) look at it, I want it to be a reminder of truth:

  1. My wife -- and you, and me, for that matter -- is made fearfully and wonderfully in the image of almighty God.
  2. My wife is missing half of her brain.
  3. Somehow, she is not only "normal anyway," but one of the sweetest, smartest, funniest people I know.
  4. At the time when the danger of her missing brain tissue was most real -- in utero, and in the few months thereafter -- God preserved her health, even though no one else had any idea that anything was wrong.
  5. God is perennially good, and His goodness does not depend on favorable outcomes. Even if my wife had died of a brain hemorrhage four years ago, and if our Maddie had died with her, God would be no less good, and I would be no less blessed by His hand, than I am today.
  6. Every moment, every scare, every relief, and every true tragedy is a gift from the Giver of all good things, who uses them to draw His own inexorably toward Himself. May we have the eyes to see them as such.

23 May 2019

Note to a pro-choice friend

An old friend recently posted a meme about how Christians need to focus on other social problems rather than abortion. He also said he had theological, biblical, political, and scientific objections to the notion that human life begins at conception. I wrote this response, which I’m posting here so I can come back to it later.

Hey! I was totally going to comment on your abortion post, but it seemed like you had some trolls and I didn’t want to feed them.

So here’s what I was thinking. Feel free to completely ignore it if desired. 🙂

Regarding Barnhart’s whataboutist assertion: I agree that those who follow Jesus ought to care for the poor and the oppressed in every situation. There is no excuse for failure to do this.

Regarding abortion: I can respect theological, political, and biblical arguments that a human life doesn’t begin at conception. I don’t think the science shows this, though.

When a zygote is formed, a new human organism with unique DNA comes into existence.

For nearly the entire pregnancy, this human organism is fully dependent on its mother’s body for sustenance and a hospitable growing environment, but it remains a distinct human organism nonetheless. It’s not a part of its mother’s body (though it cannot survive without her).

I can certainly understand a mother’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. After all, if another human were physically attached to my body and depending on me for sustenance, I wouldn’t like being legally compelled to keep him alive. To say nothing of being responsible for him when he finally does detach!

But I also think it’s important to call things what they are. An abortion is the termination of a living human organism. It is not merely the sterile removal of tissue that could potentially become human. The science is not ambiguous here.

This is why so many people continue to oppose abortion in 2019. It’s not because they are monsters utterly lacking empathy; it’s because they have serious concerns with the morality of terminating human lives.

With all of that said, I think the church has been deplorably negligent in its tunnel-vision focus on abortion to the exclusion of other social issues. This is not how Jesus told us to live. Thanks for calling us to a greater way. ❤️

01 May 2019

My Sweet Sheet Thief

my beloved steals the sheets
because she likes the windows open
on thunderous April nights
when it gets cold enough
to thoroughly chill a master bedroom
no matter how warm two bodies were
only hours earlier
no matter how the sweat began to bead
on their foreheads
no matter how it mingled together
in their embrace
no matter how they lay panting later,
sated with sweet love.
and so I let her steal the sheets.

30 April 2019

The Resurrection and the Life

She prayed for miraculous healing
As her pale, thin, cough-racked body
Slid slowly deathward.
Thank Jesus for restoring my body,
She said, and her pulmonary function 
Slipped a little more, and then
Pneumonia came:
Thick ropes of mucous, 
Unending breath-battles,
More medication, 
The few, futile, final,
Heartbreakingly hopeful breaths.
Pray for my resurrection, 
She told her father before 
Passing beyond the rails
Of her last hospital bed,
Beyond her lifelong breathing treatments,
Beyond years of prayers and pain 
That ended, after all,
As all mortal flesh does.

I miss my friend, of course. 
And yet I believe that she has received 
The outrageous miraculous healing 
Her deathbed faith foresaw.
Tribulation-born hope 
Has not disappointed her; 
She is breathing easy at last
In the arms of her great Lover.
And so I do pray for her resurrection 
As I pray for my own,
And that of the whole world:
May this seed planted in sorrow
Rest in perfect peace 
Until the time comes
To yield its joyful living crop
On the day of glorious harvest.

01 April 2019

My Introduction to Walker Percy

I didn't know much about Walker Percy until I read The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Paul Elie's excellent literary biography of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Percy, and Flannery O'Connor. I picked it up because I've been on an O'Connor kick for the past couple of years and I'd heard good things about Elie's handling of her work.

After reading Elie's book, I find myself eager to see more from Day, Merton, and Percy... but especially Percy. I found a sort of kinship with him, and I suspect that his work will help me understand myself better. For instance, this excerpt from p. 78 of Elie sounds exactly like something I'd do:


So I have Day and Merton on my mental backburner, but Percy has elbowed his way toward the front. I'll start with The Moviegoer (which I fortuitously found at a book sale last week), and then toward The Thanatos Syndrome and perhaps The Second Coming.

It's always fun to discover a kindred spirit, even one who died when I was nine. :-D