Over the last year, I have been hospitalized with a condition called rhabdomyolysis nine times. Each time, my kidney’s shut down. A few of these times the doctors said I was lucky to make it. I first got it last August and my last episode was last week. In the last four months, however, I have had it five times.
Rhabdomyolysis (“rhabdo” for short)— a name that was completely foreign to me just over a year ago — is classified as a “rare” occurrence. In fact, it is so rare, the auto-spell here did not know what to do with it. It is not a disease or even a “condition.” It is best described as a muscle injury that primarily occurs in athletes who over-work their muscles, car accidents where some portion of the body is crushed, or through drugs or alcohol which causes one to pass out on a hard surface for a long period of time and thus injure their muscles. Cholesterol drugs and a few other medications can directly cause it. Once the muscles “leak” into the blood, as best we know, it clogs the kidneys and causes them to shut down. Once it gets to this point of acute kidney injury/failure, the chances of death become much higher. As of today, I have beaten the odds.
Every time I go back into the hospital (usually preceded by extreme muscle weakness and pain), the doctors can’t believe I have had it so many times. It is just unheard of. It is like coming into the hospital for a broken arm nine times in one year. “What are you doing to keep getting this?” the doctors would say with a very surprised look. However, every time I have left many days later with no answers. After the second time I got it this summer, a doctor told me that he doesn’t know what caused it, but that if I came back in that condition again, I would probably not be leaving. I have studied, researched, been through doctors all over the country, and have continually been disappointed as no one knows why it is happening. The good thing has been that I recover within a few days (another thing that baffles the doctors); the bad thing has been that I still haven’t had any answers. For a while now, I feel as if I have just been waiting to die.
“So God, this is Who You Really Are”
I had a good friend ask me the other day “How has this changed your relationship with God.” He is someone I have been trying to help spiritually so, at first, I tried to appear stronger than I was willing to admit. “It has not changed at all. I still believe in God and love Christ,” I told him. “Really?” he said? “Michael, it’s me . . . tell me the truth.”
C. S. Lewis, in chapter one of his incredible masterpiece (and last book) A Grief Observed, (which he wrote after dealing with the death of his wife of four years, Joy), writes in response to a similar question concerning his faith. Where does it stand now that he lost Joy? He says, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.” (Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed [Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis], 3, HarperCollins). In my most honest moments, this is where I have been for a while.
Let me be really frank with you . . . On my worst days (and their are many of these), I have not had thoughts that I am proud of. I thought I knew God. I thought I knew what God has been doing with me for a while. I have been tired, depressed, doubting, disabled, and even in despair over the last ten years. I have hung on all these crosses for God and I was cool with it. Well, I was cool with it as long as he was going where I thought he was going. Going through Angie’s (my sister) suicide, my mother’s aneurysm, and my father’s death all had a point. Certainly God does not waste suffering. Certainly pain is not gratuitous. He works all things together for good for those who love him. Right? Then why the hell am I waiting to die?
That is what I told my friend. I am confused by this. It was not part of my plan. At 43-years-old, I don’t need to be sitting at death’s door, finally defeated by this foreign ailment that came out of left-field. I am walking around with my head down, hands in my pocket, kicking the dust of self-pity. At least I could die with some more dignity. So God, this is who you really are. So God, this is why I went through hell all these years. So God, there is not much purpose to it all.
(I know this is dark, but just hang with me.)
Why should I have to sit down with my wife and kids and discuss the reality that soon I will go to the hospital and not come home? Why do they need to suffer in such a way? Nothing made it more real than when I had to talk to Kristie about how to find the life-insurance, how much there was, and how to invest it after I was gone. Kristie did not want to talk about it, but I made her. Kristie and the kids were out of town a couple of months ago when I thought had rhabdo. I cried the whole way to the hospital, charging my phone as much as I could so that I would have enough battery to text Kristie and all my kids a goodbye message. Lately, I have even quit going to the hospital so much due to the fact that they can do nothing for me but hydrate me and the reality that the hospital bills are now beyond our ability pay. None of this was on my agenda.
So, has it affected me?
I have other bad days where I am kicking the dust in a different direction. I just give up. I become complacent and spiritually lethargic. I think that my death is a good thing. I am tired, sunburned from all these crosses, and just ready to go. My passing will be just the natural outcome of the dominoes that have been coming my way for a long time. Who cares?
I have not picked up on any easily definable sins. However, these thoughts are present. No one really blames me for being so downcast, so it is easy to let this type of stuff control you.
But God Does Sometimes Kill Us
In Romans 8:36, after the great passage we all know and love in Romans 2:28 (“all things work together for good…”), we are told that God’s children, whom he loves, for his sake, are being slaughtered all day long. We live in a ruff world and more often than not we will not be able to find meaning to our suffering. It can all become so confusing overnight, even with God in the picture. We can map things out and guess the destination based on the trajectory that we see, but God is in no way obligated to blow our sail in that direction.
The other day I was reminded of poor Lazarus. Not the guy who Jesus rose from the dead, but the one who sat at the gate of the rich man begging for food (Luke 16:19-31). But more than this, I was reminded of my own sermon that I have preached about him many times. So many times we see our suffering through the lens of Job and not Lazarus. Job lost everything but eventually got it all back, and more. We think to ourselves that what God has taken he will restore or use it mightily for his kingdom. We have seen it a thousand times. God turns so much water into wine. He takes our lives of anguish and uses it to lift others up (2 Cor. 1:4). I don’t know how many times that I have turned to the suffering of Job to be encouraged. David’s time in the mire of doubt, lifts me out of the mire. John the Baptist asking if Jesus was really the Christ lets me know I am not alone. I have always gravitated toward other Christians who spoke about their dark side with openness. It brings purpose to their pain. That is the Job story. It is very real. God does often bring us through trials so that we can, once restored, display the fortitude and resilience of our faith to others.
However, there is also pitiful Lazarus. He was thrown at the gate of the rich man (probably because his friends did not know what else to do with him), begging for food, and watching as the dogs lick his sores. In the eyes of the Jewish people of the day, he was one who God had abandoned. He was never healed. He was not restored. We find nothing in the story about him using his pain to help others. He wrote no books about how to deal with suffering. He did not blog daily about how he was keeping the faith. He just died. He was waiting to die and then died. Alone, with the dogs licking his sores, he assumed room temperature. And most shocking of all, his name (a rhetorical device in the parable) means “God helps.” The rich man (at who’s gate he was thrown) had everything: money, honor, and respect. And he was even a splendidly happy guy. He was the one everyone thought God was helping, but he remains unnamed (another rhetorical device). “God helps” died at the gate without ever preaching one sermon.
My main point of my sermon on this passage was, ironically, to show how sometimes we do suffer, endure, go through trials and then we simply die. This does not mean our suffering was gratuitous in any way. God holds closely his secret council in which he allows for pain and kills for his sake his children. We don’t have to know the reason why. We just keep the faith.
I was embarrassed as I remembered this the other day. It was a sermon just for me. On some days, I have been able to lift my head up and say “Oh yeah . . . you already told me this is who you really are.”
God Does Not Need Me
There is so much arrogance in my thoughts here, I don’t know where do begin. I am sure you have seen it and I am embarrassed by them. To even assume that God has to take my suffering and make it definable in a way that satisfies me shows my immaturity. To assume that God can’t take me off the earth because my wife and kids need me, while seemingly commendable, is really somewhat telling as to my weakened faith. To think that God needs me to do something bigger and better than what I have already done arrogantly supposes that I hold cards better than I have.
And, again, this is nothing new to me. How many times have I taught on God’s aseity? (a wonderful doctrine that, again, is so foreign, spell-check doesn’t know where to go). In Psalm 50:9-12, God says to arrogant Israel who thought as the other cultures thought that God was somehow in need of them in order to be satisfied or get things done: “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you.” This is God’s a-se. He is “of himself.” He is in need of nothing and is perfectly fulfilled in and of himself. He loves us greatly. He often uses us greatly. But he created us, not to fulfill some lack in himself, but because he is gracious and desires to share of himself. But this does not mean he needs us.
He does not need me in order to have my wife and kids taken care of. He can do it himself. He does not need me to write blogs on Parchment and Pen, to speak at conferences, to write more books, or to dispense my wisdom on Theology Unplugged. And I always need to be reminded of this. God’s aseity is a wonderful doctrine that is a frontal assault on my arrogance.
These are the thoughts, both good and bad, that I share with you as I have sat at the gate of the rich man waiting to die.
A Brighter Future
This blog has been in the works for weeks. I am always changing it as my condition is updated and new thoughts arrive. I almost wish that I had finished and published it last week before I got the news I am about to share. But I was always afraid it would be too dark. And, frankly, I was afraid that so many of the supporters of our ministry may stop due to the reality of my imminent death.
This weekend I was able to see a new kidney doctor who brought a different light to my condition. Without going into much detail, he heard about my condition, listened to my history, went over my list of medications, and said with absolute assurance, “It is the blood pressure medication combined with the diuretic [water pill that depletes your body of excess fluids]. Your body is becoming dehydrated.” From his perspective, my particular physiology along with this medication was exhausting and injuring my muscles. I had never considered this medication as the problem because it is never listed as a possibility. However, thinking outside the box is what we have had to do (and, let’s face it, with rhabdo, there really is not much of a “box” to think inside of!). I started taking this pill just before I had my first episode. I have quit as of this weekend.
I could be wrong, but after researching this for a year, I think it is right. Lord willing, I don’t think I am going to die anytime soon. For the first time in a while, I feel as if I can take my foot of the brakes of my life and give it some gas.
Having said this, I know that there are so many people out there who really are waiting to die. I know what it is like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear a great deal of evil. I understand the disappointment with God, the loneliness, and the sorrow that can grip you. I also understand the complacency that can develop, as you say to yourself, “Who gives a damn if I die?” I know how this can make you question everything and say to God, “Who are you?” I know the guilt that you can feel as other Christians have finished strong and you feel like you are finishing more broken than when you began. I know the judgement you can feel as other’s look down upon you and say as they pass by, “He must have done this to himself.” I know. I don’t have any other comfort for you than that. You are not alone. Some of us don’t do well. That is okay. God’s grace is bigger than how we fare at the gate of the rich man. And the reality of it all is that we are all waiting to die.