Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Heart Attack Six Months Later: The Unexpected Turns Continue

I'm not sure why I am surprised that this post-heart attack road is taking some unexpected turns.

My counselor reminded me that the stages of grief are relevant. I had not thought of it that way, perhaps because this experience feels so different from when my dad died. Several days after talking with my counselor, I was on a panel for a local organization called Michael's Place to discuss finding hope after loss. While going through the things that helped me then, I realized that I was taking the same steps since my heart attack. Hmmm.

One of the key things I did then was to write as a way in which to process everything bouncing around inside; I wrote, then rewrote, searching over and over for a way to say it that was ever more honest. I didn't realize it in the moment, but in hindsight there was something about bringing my grief into the light that robbed it of its power. There's a good process that begins simply by identifying and acknowledging all the things that brew inside. I made my writing public after several years, hoping that a public discussion could build an open community of broken and mending people who could be honest about life.

This post is in that tradition. There are differences, of course, because the situation is different. I'm not looking to rob grief of its power this time. I'm looking for clarity and direction to emerge from the mists of the emotional and mental fog that has lingered. Some of you have already responded to what I've written with stories of your one recovery from heart issues. Perhaps this post can help us to continue to do life together with a little more comfort and hope than before.

* * * * *

I am wrestling with the idea that this heart attack was an answer to prayer. Writing that publicly makes me a little nervous, so please stick with me as I explain. Biblically speaking, there are three possible causes for my heart attack.

First, perhaps it’s just life in a fallen world. Though God created all things good, the world is currently in a broken state, 'groaning' in anticipation of an ultimate redemption (Romans 8:22). That means stuff breaks. Things decay and rust. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is in full force. Sometimes this manifests in the fallout from moral evil in which people bear the consequences of their own sin as well as the sins of others. Sometimes this manifests as natural evil (hurricanes, disease, drought) as a deeply broken world stumbles toward a future in which creation will be returned to its original glory.  It may well be that my heart attack is just a reminder that we live in a world that exists between its good beginning and its glorious remaking. 

Second, perhaps it's a reminder that evil is more than just a theoretical absence of good. In the Christian worldview, there is a supernatural realm in which evil is embodied in beings that desire to further the chaos and brokenness of a fallen world. We live in parallel worlds, one physical and seen and one spiritual and unseen, and they intersect at times and in ways we usually don’t see and rarely comprehend. It could be that the evil that haunts the earth (the Bible gives the primary entity the title of "The Satan") seeks to ravage and devour that which is good - in this case, the goodness of bodily health. The Bible does not require that explanation, but it certainly allows for it. 

Third, the Bible allows the possibility that God actively caused it.  The Bible is clear that God does not tempt us to sin, but he does send us trials and temptations. We are going to get pruned (John 15) not because He dislikes us, but because He loves us (Hebrews 12:6). Think practically: a parent who never disciplines his or her children does not love them. A lack of discipline is an abdication of parental responsibility. I discipline my boys because I want them to grow up to be men. 

The idea that God is behind this for my good has biblical precedent. God desires our holiness above all else, and if we must be stripped of our comfort and happiness to build in us His holiness, that is a far better scenario than gaining the world and losing our soul. The idea that God may be the source of our pain may be a tough concept. I don't mean to make this post cumbersome, but I think I need to note a few passages of Scripture that must be considered as part of this discussion:
  • “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,  so that man can find out nothing that will come after him." Ecclesiastes. 7:14 (NKJV)
  • “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed?" Lamentations 3:38 
  • “Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die.”  Ezekiel 3:20
  • “'Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips."  Job 2:10 
  • “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things."  Isaiah. 45:7 
  • "The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.” Isaiah 19:22
  • "The LORD said to him, 'Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?'" Exodus 4:11
  • “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." Acts 2:22-23 
  • "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your [God’s] power and will had decided beforehand should happen." Acts 4:27-28
  • "Jesus commanded Peter, 'Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” John 18:11
  •  “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, 'My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, 
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.' Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:5-11
So, which one of my three options is the cause of my heart attack? I don’t know. I want to say that clearly. I don’t seek to find a devil or an angel behind everything that happens. With apologies to Calvinists everywhere, I am not ready to say that God's sovereignty means that God actively causes every individual thing that happens.

However, I am in the process of considering that God not only allowed but may well have caused my heart attack. I certainly don’t mean to suggest this is always the case with sickness and pain. Frankly, I don't think it's the case with every situation of pain or suffering in my own life. I am just considering the possibility that in this case, God is involved in ways I must consider.

It would makes sense to me. I’ve been praying for most of my adult life that God would make me a man after His own heart. I’ve been asking him to make me holy, to humble me, to order my loves (as Augustine so famously opined), to cause me to decrease so that He can increase. I’ve been asking for God to step in, knock down my idols, and clean spiritual house.

I have to consider that God is honoring my prayer. Why? Because this heart attack is laying bare some real idols in my life: specifically, my idolization of my health and strength. If that makes me look shallow, so be it. I have to face this. As you read this, brace yourself. I hope this makes you face yours too.

There is a real possibility that I won’t be able to return to my previous level of fitness. That's a big deal to me. For perspective, my forties were the fittest decade of my life. I found Crossfit; I qualified for Regional Games three years ago (45-50 year olds) by making it into the top 200 in the world. Then my shoulder blew out (thanks, basketball) and about two years I had major shoulder surgery. A week before my heart attack, I did the last WOD of the 2016 games with my oldest son, compared my score to the ones posted online, and thought, “My shoulder feels good; most of my strength is back. I could shoot for the Games again.” A week later I was in a hospital bed.

You prayed for this, Anthony. You asked me to knock down your idols.

Is 'idol' too strong? Tim Keller offers a handy list of how to identify idols from his book Counterfeit Gods. Keller prefaces his list this way:  “Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…

  1. I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  2. I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  3. I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  4. I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  5. People are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  6. Someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  7. I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  8. I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  9. I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  10. I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  11. I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  12. This one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  13. I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  14. My race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  15. A particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  16. My children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  17. Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  18. I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  19. My political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  20. I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

I wouldn't say that I think life has meaning only if #3, #4, #9 and  #20 work out well for me, but let's be real: if I thought people looked on my strength or my physical appearance dismissively or with disdain, I would be crushed. I don’t want to be the guy who walks into the gym and people think, ‘I’ll bet he used to be something.” Or even worse, "Good Lord. Put more clothes on." I want to be the guy people notice. I want to lift more than the guy next to me. An awful lot of my identity, confidence and sense of self-worth comes from my strength.

You prayed for this, Anthony. 

I’ve been asking God to create in me a clean heart and give me a renewed spirit. I meant painlessly (note to self: practice praying with more precision). I’m starting to think God’s granting me the dignity of taking my prayer seriously. To use a C.S. Lewis analogy, I thought God was going to simply fix up this shack of my life; it turns out that His plan all along was to make a mansion. That means He’s going to have to do some serious remodeling. Maybe destroy the idols hidden in the closets of my heart. Maybe even blow up the house. 

* * * * *

I've been saying that it was in March that my heart attacked me. I’m starting to think it‘s been attacking me for years, pummeling me with false loves and tainted longings, pumping pride and fear into my spiritual veins when it should have been sending humility and peace. Perhaps it was in March that the Great Physician stepped in with the local ones and began to fix my rogue heart. I would have preferred a less painful and traumatic approach, but I think I've already established that picking up on hints isn't really my strength.

Paul asked three times for his mysterious ‘thorn’ to betaken from him. God refused; how else would Paul realize that God’s grace was sufficient unless he was confronted baldly with his own insufficiency and sinfulness? Is this not one way in which God builds character? Do I think I am on some spiritual plane where God won’t have to deal as bluntly with me as He did with Paul?

“The Lord gives,” said Job, “and takes away. Oh, bless his name.” This is not just about trusting a sovereign God who is too mysterious for us to fully understand; this is about realizing that sometimes it is only in the taking that we understand what God is giving.

* * * * *

Is the idea that God is involved more intimately than I suspected just an attempt to find some grand spiritual meaning in order to find the comfort of an explanation? I suppose I could be. Maybe it is just life on a fallen planet. Maybe God has simply allowed the evil that slouches through the world to have access to my health for reasons I won’t understand in this life. Within the broader scope of possibilities that fit within a biblical framework, I must acknowledge that all three of the reasons I offered can and do occur. No one - certainly not me -  has the wisdom to weigh in with absolute certainty about what is the case in every situation.

Yet, I must consider that God loved me enough to stop my heart for the sake of my soul. Now, I am praying that, no matter the reason, He gives me the wisdom and courage to trust that even this can work for my good.

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