Sunday, February 1, 2009
Oasis in the Valley of Death
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:13-20
There are people who believe they are alone, helpless and hopeless because they don't know they don't have to be. That is where I was in the summer of 1975. My wife and I had been through troubles and hard times in the past, but I always got up and dusted myself off and we climbed another hill. Now I couldn't see any hilltops.
I was like a man who thought the 23rd Psalm said, Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, instead of through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I didn't realize that moments like this were a shadow, often a very dark shadow, cast over one's life and in order to be a shadow there must be a light. The shadow is cast because something is blocking that light. My pride, my lusts and my sins had build steep canyon walls around me and blocked all rays from getting through, except a strange cross that had appeared on a wall a decade earlier that I had forgotten and dismissed.
Every possible child who had died in our life hurt, but the others had been distant in a way. When they were lost it was in a room where my wife was attended by doctors and nurses, except for the first baby, which died at home when she was completely alone and a doctor refused to come. When my wife called him, he told her she was imagining it, she couldn't possibly be going into labor.
The first child, a son, was the only one lost I actually saw and when I saw him, he was a corpse curled up in a basin in the bathroom. When the doctor finally came to our house, after he examined my wife, I asked him what we should do about the baby and he said, "you can throw it in the garbage for all I care," and he left. I was too angry to grieve. I wanted to grab that doctor and beat him.
But this seventh child I felt I knew. I sat near her for a week, not seeing her, but hearing that heartbeat. I was allowed some time off from my job, but would have perhaps been better served by working. My only inclination was to cry, but I couldn't do that because of the state of my wife. As much as I wanted to crawl in a hole, she was already in one. Although my wife had been in depressions before none had reached the depth of this. She wouldn't get out of bed. She talked only of being worthless and dying, of never being able to have a child. She told me she had her tubes tied after Amy died because the doctors insisted her carrying a baby to term was impossible. To get pregnant again was foolish and dangerous. No baby would survive and she could risk her own health. She said she didn't feel she was a woman and she kept apologizing for letting me down. I did not feel she had let me down at all. I had already accepted we wouldn't have children and had tried many times to convince her that was all right.
My wife had physical problems in that area. We didn't know until after we lost the second child, but she had an incompetent cervix and her womb was in the wrong way. Later, when she had her gull bladder removed in her late twenties, the surgeon also removed her appendix and he turned her womb around to the proper position. The large scar which ran down the center of her chest to her lower abdomen was bisected by a horizontal scar forming an inverted cross. We kidded she had had an autopsy.
The correction of the womb orientation did nothing to stem the problem and each subsequent loss only weakened the cervix further. One time they performed a procedure when she became pregnant called cerclage. The doctor described it as placing a drawstring at the cervix and pulling to closed. When the baby reached the point of labor, this drawstring would be loosened and the baby born. He was certain this would prevent any further loss.
He was wrong and in the fifth month we lost Michael. It was then I told her we should give up, adopt if it was so important, but she wanted "our" baby. She said there were only three things she wanted in life. Me to be happy in my job, her own house and our own baby.
Now we came to summer 1975 and I could say I was happy in my job, nothing else. We were living in an apartment, a very nice apartment indeed, but we didn't have any real savings sufficient to buy another house. And it certainly seemed our own baby was out of the picture, especially if she had her tubes tied.
But listening to that heartbeat, I had come to believe in God. I didn't know what to do with that, but it was at least a twig to grasp when you're trying to scale a steep canyon wall.
Down our road and just up the main highway was a new church just build. I passed it everyday going back and forth to work. Maybe if you are trying to climb toward God, a church could provide a good toehold to start. Of course, I knew nothing about the church except it was new and clean-looking and convenient. I suggested to my wife we give it a try.
I can't say she was enthusiastic about the idea. How many times had we failed in the church-going thing? Yet even going to church might be better than slashing your wrists, so on Sunday we went.
People from the door to the pew greeted us with smiles and welcomes. That was a nice change from our past experiences, if not a little unnerving. I was handed a bulletin and when I glanced down the first thing I saw were the words, "Laurel Hill Bible Church: An Independent FUNDAMENTALIST Church". No, "Fundamentalist" wasn't capitalized and emboldened on the bulletin, but that was the way I saw that word.
I'd never been in a fundamentalist church in my life. I'd been taught as a child to stay away from those nuts. I knew what fundamentalists were: Holy-Rolling, Bible-Thumping, Snake-Kissing, Body-Shaking, Faith-Healing, Book-Burning, Intolerant fruitcakes. My desire was to get up and get out, but the service had started and my wife looked a little uplifted by the music and the smiles we had received. I would endure. I didn't want to walk up the aisle with everyone staring at me anyway. But you can make book, we wouldn't be back next week.
When the Pastor came out in an ill-fitting toupee and dark green leisure suit, it didn't raise my comfort any. Then he did his sermon. It was on suffering and his text came from James, the passage at the top of this post. I was suddenly alone in that sanctuary. No one else existed. Every word he said was directed at me. He was preaching my life and preaching my state-of-mind. And when he talked about Elijah being a man just like me I felt like a sword had sliced through me and cut out despair.
At the end of the service, when he asked if anyone wanted prayer, I raised my hand.
On the Tuesday following, I knelt down by my desk and I prayed for forgiveness and I prayed for Jesus as best I could. When I stood up, everything was different.
To be continued: What's in a Name: Service and Miracles.