The View from the Ash Heap: Reflections from a Hospital Bedside
Dr. Daniel Block
Dr. Block is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. You can read his complete bio here.
Two months ago we were shocked by the diagnosis of our thirteen-year old grandson’s extreme headaches. Yes, we heard the dreaded “C” word; he has brain cancer. Overnight our lives were turned inside out and upside down, and the once-in-a-lifetime Christmas on the island of Maui with our children and grandchildren was out the window. By God’s grace we have enjoyed a relatively tranquil life, at least so far as health issues are concerned. No one warned us of this, and we certainly did not ask for it, but suddenly the theories we had espoused in trying to help others were put to a test at home. In these days we have been encouraged not only by the assurances of the prayers of God’s people—thanks to social media these messages have come from around the world—but also by God’s gracious response. God has been very near to all of us, but especially to Brennig, his siblings and his parents.
A month after Brennig’s initial surgery I flew to Augusta to be with him in the hospital while he endured his third round of chemotherapy. The first day he was fine—good enough to beat me in “Settlers of Catan” and “Farkle.” The second day was different, as the poisons the physicians pumped into his system took their nasty effect. My grandson wanted me to be in the room with him, but he did not want us to make any noise. While at his side, and since I have returned home, I have had a lot of time to reflect on this experience. It has been eye-opening to me, and taught this Old Testament scholar a host of lessons.
First, my eyes have been opened to the providence of pain. Since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we have tended to view pain as a curse. We do all we can to avoid it and in our context to deaden it with pain-killers. This experience has reminded me that we need a whole new theology of pain. Pain is a gracious gift of God to be received with gratitude because it signals to us that something is wrong. Without our grandson’s excruciating head-aches no one would have known that inside his skull a vicious cancer had taken root and grown so large that it cut off the passage of vital fluids to the spinal cord. The pressure inside his head was the voice of God telling him and his parents that something needed attention. At the same time, it was a reminder to us that the entire world suffers the effects of sin. Although we sometimes bring trouble on ourselves with our misbehavior, often innocent victims are casualties of the crossfire.
Second, my eyes have been opened to the wonders of the human body. After contemplating how “fearfully and wonderfully” a fetus develops within a mother’s womb, in Psalm 139:13–18 the psalmist breaks out in a doxology of praise to the Creator. But it is not only the way the body is formed that makes our jaws drop; it is also how it works. How is it that when a person is unable to take food into the body through the stomach, the body can be nourished by means of a pin prick and a tiny tube in the arm? Indeed, as the LORD reminded Israel, “the life of all flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11) While physicians and biologists have come a long way in figuring out how the human body works, as someone outside those fields, I never cease to be amazed. Not only is every cell in the human body specially composed to function, but it must also function in harmony with all the other cells in the body. Behind the form of every human being—actually behind the form of every living and inanimate thing, is an amazing God.
Third, my eyes have been opened to the importance of family and community. We have been blessed by being able to participate in our children’s and grandchildren’s pain. In our age, when we observe so many who lack the support of physical kin and of the broader spiritual household of faith, we may not take this for granted. God has created the family structure not only that we may celebrate together at festive times—like Thanksgiving and Christmas—but also that we might be there to hold others’ hands as they encounter grief, or that they might hold our hands when disaster strikes us. It was a privilege to be a family in the hospital room, to let people see us laugh, sigh, inquire, grieve, and weep together. My heart goes out to those for whom this is not so. But beyond the immediate family, what a joy it was to see friends show up unannounced, just to be there for our kids. True friends may not be able to verbalize the answers for someone else’s problems, but by their presence they are the wings of God to those in need (Ruth 2:12).
Fourth, my eyes have been opened to the common grace of God enabling human beings to function as his image. According to Genesis 1–2, governing the world on God’s behalf is a major part of our mandate. This involves not only exercising godly authority over God’s earth, but also learning how the world works. Again as outsiders to the medical and anatomical field, I am amazed by the skill and wisdom of the medical staff attending to our grandson. How were they able to diagnose his ailment so quickly and so accurately? How did scientists and chemists and physicians figure out the formulas for the drugs (etoposide and carboplatin) that work for this particular malady? We may take none of this for granted. Apart from divine grace our diagnoses would always be wrong, and our solutions would always fail. But the God who has created the world and the principles by which it operates has also opened the eyes of human beings to recognize that order and to harness this knowledge for the advance of medicine.
Finally, my eyes have been opened to the gracious presence of God. Our grandson is not yet through the proverbial woods, but we have watched in awe as our prayers have been answered time and again. We have no guarantees that this story will end according to the script we write, but we have learned that however it ends, God is near, God is gracious, and God is good. We have no more entitlement to a trouble free life than anyone else, and we may never discover the answers to our “Why?” questions. However, we have been drawn closer to the “Who” of divine providence. With David we have learned that “in the valley of deepest darkness” (Psalm 23:4) the LORD is with us. Indeed, we have the assurance that whatever happens the strong arms of God are beneath us, beside us, before us, and above us. Where we go he goes, a glorious fact celebrated by the psalmist alluded to earlier:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
(Psalm 139:7–12, ESV)
Above and beyond our wonder over the physical body, we have been amazed by the emotional and psychological resilience of a thirteen year old. Brennig’s suffering from his therapy has been different but just as intense as the pain of the original malady, and he could be sitting on the ash heap bitterly bemoaning his fate. But we sense no bitterness or anger in him. He has a thousand questions, but they arise from his inquisitive mind, rather than a bitter spirit. He has seized this moment as an opportunity for learning, and has capitalized on an educational experience he could never get in the classroom. Above all he has learned a lesson on life; it is a gift. Filled with gratitude for every breath, Brennig is looking to the LORD to walk with him through this journey and into a future that only God knows.
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