Now that I'm finally able and ready to talk to you, I can't figure out what to say first
Actually, yes I can – I've started crying just thinking about you all. I miss you. Family, friends, ministry team, prayer warriors, Mason family – I wish I was on every last one of your doorsteps ringing the bell and waiting to give you a hug. I love you all so much – "thank you" just doesn't seem to say it anymore, but it's all we can say. The prayers, love, and encouragement you've given us have saved our hearts. The money you've sent has literally saved my physical life. The cards you've sent are taped up to the walls of our apartment next to the Bible verses we've written out and hung up so we can't forget them. Our thanks run deeper than you can imagine – our lives, ministry, and well-being are yours to have, and you have been gentle and kind beyond anything I could have hoped or asked for.
I feel like I'm gonna burst, there are so many things I want to tell you (this could end up being a very long post – please feel free to read in shifts if I get boring!) There's just so many things that have been running through my mind and heart, and I feel like I need to do a download with you all.
The first thing is that in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul says that he's "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing". I feel like that's an accurate summation of where Lisey and I are at. Our faith has perhaps never been deeper, more clear, or faster growing – but at the same time, being alive often feels like a punishment. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to his circumstances as "a light and momentary affliction"; I say that life does not feel light, it feels very momentary, and it certainly is an affliction.
In the course of trying to comfort us, a few people have hurt us very deeply, exhorting (chastening) us to "stop doubting", reminding us that since God is on the throne, we need to "believe more" and "have deeper faith". While these people love us, they have no idea what they're talking about. Elise and I are more sure of God's sovereignty than we are that the sky is blue – we believe more deeply in the fact that He directs and controls everything than anything else we believe. If I didn't, I promise you I would have killed myself by now. But I want to echo something R.C. Sproul wrote in his monthly publication that Elise pointed out to me:
"I know enough about what the Bible teaches of God's providence and of His sovereignty to know that sometimes God's sovereign providence involves suffering and affliction for His people. That we are in the care of a sovereign God whose providence is benevolent does not exclude the possibility that He may send us into periods of trial and tribulations that can be excruciatingly painful. Though I trust God's Word that in the middle of such experiences He will give me the comfort of His presence and the certainty of my final deliverance into glory, in the meantime I know that the way of affliction and pain may be difficult to bear."
Objectively, empirically, without trying to be dramatic or say something that sounds like it came out of a movie, the simple truth is that my life is either going to be short or miraculous. I do believe that God can and does heal miraculously, and I think it's wise to pray for such things. But I also think that the voice of scripture teaches that God more often has us walk the path that He's laid before us, rather than turning that path 180 degrees on the head of a pin. For that reason, I think it's wise to pray for miraculous healing, but not necessarily to expect it. As Elise would say, "hope for it, but not in it". If we place our hope in anything except the fact that God has a plan and that His plan is best, odds (literally) are that I'll die young, and my wife and many of you will end up bitter. Know that God doesn't promise me health, comfort, or victory in this life – he promises me Himself. And that is enough.
That's a good starting point for beginning to explain mine and Elise's emotional landscape right now. It's been awful – I'm not afraid of being dead, but I am afraid of dying. I'm afraid of pain. In the hospital, for the first two days I watched two chest tubes the size of garden hoses drain my blood and guts out of my abdominal cavity and into a bucket beside my bed. Which was nothing, nothing, compared to the terror of being conscious but still on a respirator – the air tube bypasses your vocal cords, so you can’t scream, you can't ask for help. It's not like having your mouth covered, so that you can grunt but just not form words – the air literally doesn't flow through your throat, it flows through the air tube. So there's nothing to vibrate over your vocal folds. Your mind tells your body to scream, and you lay there silent as new-fallen snow. They restrain you so that you won't rip it out – my wrists were strapped to the bedsides and I couldn't move a muscle - so the only thing I could do was use the last two joints of my left index finger to try to hook people's lab coats as they walked by. It was horrifying.
Someday, the last step before they give me a new heart will be for me to spend up to 6 months on a bi-VAD, a ventricular assistance device. I'll have another open-heart surgery, and they'll put a motor in my belly the size of a softball that will pump my blood instead of my heart. There will be a hose (much like the two chest tubes) and a wire that will come out of a hole in my stomach and be hooked up to a roller-suitcase that I'll have to wheel around. And once the motor goes in, I lose the ability to bend at the waist – so I'll either need to stand or lie at all times, and have people splint me to get in and out of bed. There's a 50/50 chance I don't get to leave the hospital for those 6 months.
One in ten people die in the transplant procedure, and another one and ten die within the first year. The only way to keep a transplanted heart working is immunosuppressant drugs, which will zero my immune system, much like having AIDS would. At 3 years out from surgery, 98% of people are hypertensive, over 50% are diabetic, over 40% have kidney disease, and over 40% have cancer. Living more than 13 years is uncommon, and 20 is regarded as miraculous.
As I'm sure Lise and my mom have been saying, I'm a "2" right now on the transplant list. My transplant coordinator, Carolyn, told me that by the end of two years, "2's" either get better and go off the list, or tank and move through bi-VAD to a new heart. Additionally, something like 95% of people who get heart transplants get one because the left side of their heart died – mine is the right side. Carolyn told me in no uncertain terms that whatever is wrong with my heart, it's something that can't be fixed – I can't come off the list, and I will get a transplant eventually. So if you do the math and play the odds, if I can survive the operation and the first year, I'm dead before I'm 40.
I say this all not because I want to dwell here emotionally, and I don't want you to, either. I'm simply trying to give you the first taste of mine and Elise's emotional starting point for this past month.
Some of the conversations we've had are absolutely surreal – i.e. Elise's practical 3-year plan if I kick the bucket. Most of the conversations have been much too real – we have wept and cried out to God in ways I didn't know I ever would or could. I went into that surgery knowing that I had constrictive pericarditis, that it was going to be a simple smash and grab event, I would heal up, live to a ripe old age, happily ever after, amen. I woke up with this.
Our faith hasn't wavered, but all of a sudden this life seems a very fragile thing. A temporary thing. I've never felt so untethered to this world. If you're a Christian, you might quickly say "Well isn't that a good thing?" – it partly is. It's more weird than good – a mix of joy and detachment, I can't really describe it. If you don't already know what I mean, you will someday.
One of the blessings we've experienced is emotional healing/treatment right along with the physical healing. We're both pursuing counseling, and we're both benefiting greatly from psych meds. We've both been diagnosed with anxiety disorders and clinical post-traumatic depression, and are being medicated for both.
Some people tend to have a bit of a judgmental attitude about psychiatric medications – i.e. "If you're really a Christian, why do you need that stuff? Can’t you find hope and joy in Christ that's sufficient to get you through?"
The truth is that psych meds are a gift from a loving God who provides for us and blesses us with being born in this day and age. Taking Tylenol when I skin my knee doesn't mean that my faith is eroding – it means that I'm taking full advantage of the blessings of the time and civilization God placed me in. At any rate, the medication brings us up out of the abyss so that we can merely be hanging over the cliff's edge while we process, instead of being in free-fall.
One of the hardest things for me to adjust to has been the realization that there are so many things I had nestled in the back of my mind that I was taking for granted – a million unexpressed and unarticulated desires that I assumed were bound up in the package deal of life. Growing old. Having kids. Watching those kids grow up. Moving back closer to home, deepening everyday-type ties to family. Helping my parents through old age and being with them when they pass away (our ministry calls this "going home" – when someone dies, we call it a "homecoming" -isn't that neat?). Anyway, there are just a million things that I thought life would hold, or could hold. And it still might – but the odds are that it won't.
I've just realized how much I've taken for granted, and while it's been one of the bitterest pills to swallow, it's made everything more precious. Being outside and having snow hit my face and breathing sharp night air made me cry. Take the time to look straight into the wind sometime when it's snowing – we're all like those snowflakes, zooming along at a million miles an hour, and life dips and zigs and zags us as we could never predict, and then we're gone. I don't say that in a bitter tone – my life is sweet, and where I'm going is far sweeter. Looking at all those flakes, I think I realized for the first time that there's just so many people in the world. I don't really even know what I'm trying to say, but it's important.
Here's a thought I wanted to share with you: God made us all differently, and I think he did it for a reason. I actually think this about everything on earth – that everything was created differently to show a different facet of His glory. Not just you, and me, and mountains, and sunrises – stuff like grass, and pebbles. And not just grass and pebbles, but each blade of grass, and each pebble. Psalm 8 talks about many of the aspects of creation that show God's glory – I think the voice of scripture teaches that literally all of creation does. Anyways, the reason I bring it up is that when I look at the church, at all of God's sons and daughters, I see that different people reflect different facets of God's glory and personality (it's good to remember that if our personalities are complex and multifaceted, God's must certainly be even more so). So for example, part of God's glory is that He is victorious – He redeems creation, raises men from the dead, conquers the grave – He is always bursting through and over anything and everything in His way to reigning victoriously. And I think that some people reflect that – don't we all seem to know a couple of God's children who everything they touch turns to gold? They're healthy, happy, well provided for, have deep and inspiring faith, are married and faithful, have children who grew up to be Christians, etc. There's not many of them, probably even fewer than we think, but they are there – and when I see them, and watch them live, I am reminded that God is victorious, and in my heart I sing to Him of how great He is.
There are other people who embody God's mercy, those people who simply glow with grace - they're gentle and kind, speak warmly, keep confidences well, dispense forgiveness liberally – I look at them and see that God's mercy trumpets through their lives. Just pick a trait, and I'm sure you can think of at least one person in God's family who seems to shine with it. It's as if God is trying to teach us about Himself through each other.
Now here's why I've been thinking along these lines: It says in Isaiah 53:3 that Jesus is "a man acquainted with sorrow". I've heard a bazillion sermons on this verse, or quoting this verse, and it seems that most of the time it's only placed within the context of the last 24 hours of Jesus' life. As if to say that the sum total of Isaiah 53, the sum total of the sorrow in Christ's life (or at least the only sorrow that mattered), were the events of good Friday.
I don't think that's correct. Or rather, I don't think that's the whole picture. Of course the highlight and vast majority of Christ's ocean of suffering and sorrow had to be his betrayal, torture, death, and abandonment by the Father. But when the Bible says that someone is "acquainted with sorrow", I don't think it's referring to just one day of a 33ish-year life. I think it's much bigger than that.
It says in Hebrews 1:3 that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father's being – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, three-in-one, created this universe and everything in it. And He created it perfectly – without blemish, sickness, death, or tears. But here's the thing: if you really believe that God is sovereign, then you also believe that He created His world to break. To someday be redeemed in full, but in the meantime to be utterly broken – the sky fell in Genesis 3, and it's been crushing us ever since.
The Bible teaches that God created this world to necessitate his Son's being ripped to shreds – that He created, planning for His heart to be broken before final restoration could be complete. If Christ is a man acquainted with sorrow, it means the Father is acquainted with sorrow. Part of God's personality is not just the light that shines unhindered, but the light that breaks through the blackest of clouds. And if the Father is acquainted with sorrow, then the Son is acquainted with sorrow. Which means that for 30-some years, Jesus walked through the world He had created that was now rotting and dying and going to hell. He was surrounded by people who would die in damnation – he traversed a reality where death is so thoroughly ingrained that we call it "a part of life". I think that every dead bumble bee Christ saw along the path broke his heart. I think that every donkey that laid down to die in a field was gut-wrenching. I think that every moaning mother, newborn's cry, and funeral procession was an agony to him. Because this world was never meant to be like this. This corrupted, sick, dying place was originally made flawless, and we carry the promise that someday it will be so again. That someday the dwelling of God will be with men, and he will live with them. "They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21: 3-4)." But for now, as we wait for Jesus to come again, this place is broken – and I'm all but sure that it daily broke His heart.
I say this all to point out that one of the facets of Christ's personality is being acquainted with sorrow, and that some of God's children embody it to teach something of His glories to the rest of His family. And I feel like I'm one of those people. Elise too.
Physically speaking, the past three years have been awful, and I'm terrified of what my future years might hold. Emotionally, I've ended up in a place I didn't know existed.
My worst fear, worse than chest tubes and respirators and cancer and dying in my 30's and never having kids or dying while they're young – all of it – my worst fear is leaving Elise. She is my heart's treasure, and she is more precious to me than there are words to describe. Except for Jesus, I love her more than everything else I love put together, and I would much rather go through anything than leave this place before her, make her live through my parting. See, that's what I'm talking about – this world feels like a "place" – like a room I happened into and will shortly walk through and out of. Untether. But Elise and I have talked about it, and we both prefer that she die first – we regularly ask God if, for the sake of His kindness, He would take her before me, even if that means she would go home young as well. Or, on the other hand, we both might live well into our 80's, shattering the statistics – who's to say. What I do know is that I want to be here longer than her, and once she's gone I don't want to stay anymore. I'll want my homecoming.
So that's my worst fear. I have others. I fear the path God has placed before me like you wouldn't believe. I've descended further into the darkness than I ever thought possible.
I think the really startling thing is that I'm down here… and I find my Father, waiting for me. He still loves me, still moves me to love Him, still wants me to walk alongside Him. It's like being in a basement where there's absolutely no light, and yet I can still feel His arms around me, stronger than ever before, actually. And a calm, clear, compassionate question: "If I am all you have, is it enough?"
I just started crying again – bear with me. The big take-away so far has been 2 Corinthians 4:6-5:11a. God looks on us with compassion and breathes life into our hearts, opening our eyes to Him and calling us to Him. That's the Gospel, and it’s worth living for and dying for. We carry the Gospel around inside us, a radiant treasure of infinite worth, while we are like chipped, sun-dried, fragile, temporal clay pots. We endure the affliction of being alive in a fallen world because it's nothing when compared with the weight of glory that the Gospel contains. And one of the main ways that the Gospel shines through us is in our weakness – we carry the death of Christ around in us, so that the life of Christ shines more brightly. We may long to flee our earthly bodies, to get free of this place and go home – but being persuaded of the surpassing value of the Gospel, and knowing Who exactly it is who has saved us, we seek to spend our lives telling others about the grace we've found.
Absolutely nowhere in the Bible does God promise us a long life or a good life – Hebrews 11 makes that perfectly clear. Some of the greatest saints of all time reflected God in victory – they conquered in battle, stopped the mouths of lions, saw their children raised from the dead. But others reflected God's glory in a life of agony – run through with swords, sawn in two, wandering the caves and deserts of the earth as destitute and hated men. The Bible doesn't teach that becoming a Christian makes life easier or fixes your problems – quite the contrary, it teaches that some of us will glorify God by hurting, and dying. For every Isaiah, there's a Jeremiah. The point is that while life may be neither long nor good, it will be with Him, and that is enough.
And for that reason I say this: Life is a gift. Even in the bleakest and darkest of times, life is a gift, for many reasons. Firstly, I had to be born to be saved – how's that for a seldom-thought-of blessing? Secondly, even if life scalds me to the bones, my weakness provides an opportunity for others to see and value Christ. Thirdly, no matter how short my life will be, God led me to Elise during my time here, and now I will share a special bond with her for all of eternity. Fourthly, I bet I think about heaven more often, and anticipate it more anxiously, and will glory in it more deeply, than a lot of people. I can't tell you how many times I've just sat alone and cried at the words of Revelation 21 that I quoted above – that there will be no more death, or crying, or mourning, or pain. I can't wait for those days. I literally can not wait for those days to come.
Take a second right now – seriously, do this for me - and while you're reading, place your hand to your throat and feel your pulse for 30 seconds. That's probably a good 40 beats for most of you – do you realize that every single one is a gift? That God didn't have to give you that heartbeat, but he did?
Sometimes I'm astounded at the arrogance of people who indict God with the world's troubles – my own current situation included. Where does anyone get off blaming God for what goes wrong? And furthermore, when was the last time we thanked Him for what goes right? Those heartbeats you just felt – He didn't have to give you those, but He did. Do you live in a house? He didn't have to give you that life, but He did. He didn't have to make sunsets and tropical beaches beautiful, but He did. He didn't have to make food tasty, or flowers pretty, or hugs comforting, or music moving – but He did. I died when I was 21 years old – do you remember? My senior year at Penn State – I had a cardiac arrest and died, and laid there dead on the sidewalk for 7 minutes. I didn't have to come back, shouldn't have come back, there's no medical explanation for my coming back – but I did. I was dead, and now I live – in both senses. He didn't have to do that, but He did.
So I want you to know that we're OK. We're not good – in fact, life is awful. But that's OK. Because Jesus loves us. Because we belong to him. Because someday we'll go home, and we'll be with him forever. This world feels like a "place" to me now, but I'm acutely aware of the fact that I do have a home.
If you love us, you could do us no greater honor than honestly considering the gospel – taking the time to think on the fact that God is real, and He is who He says He is and did what He said He did. Elise and I are not your Jesus-freak friends/family members – we're sinners. Awful, terrible people who have wronged you and countless others, who asked God to forgive us and be the treasure of our lives. That's what being a Christian is – giving up the right to being self-determining. Deliberately saying "Jesus, I give up being who I want to be, doing what I want to do, going where I want to go, becoming who I want to become. I'm moving down a rung on the ladder, and I'm letting you be first. I'm letting you determine who and what I am and will become, instead of trying to do that myself." I would do anything to see you explore that truth and, hopefully, believe it. If the cost of you embracing that truth was spending 6 months on a bi-VAD, I'd do it. In fact, that very well might be the plan.
Elise and I love you more than we could ever, ever express. You are precious and special to us, and we love you, and long to be with you and talk with you and visit and tell stories. Unfortunately, another part of being on the heart-transplant list is not leaving a 3-hour radius around the hospital without special need or occasion. So like so much else in life, a visit with you doesn't seem to be in the cards. Instead, I place my joy in the fact that we'll spend forever with you. Billions of years from now, we can all get together for a party and talk about the new and amazing things we saw and learned about God that day. I can hope in that, and find some joy in it, too.
I'm also thankful for this blog - it’s made it possible for me to speak to so many of you so quickly. Truth be told, if it weren't for this medium of communication, it would be months and months before I could talk with even a fraction of you. Whether it's my daily exercise for recovery or the emotional processing I'm trying to work through, I have so little emotional energy by the end of the day that I usually feel like a wrung-out rag. So this blog makes it possible for us to be together at a time when it would be impossible otherwise.
Finally, I want everyone to know that there won't be any posts on the blog in the near future. Elise and my mom have done a beautiful job keeping everyone updated, but we've talked about it and we think that it's best to revert to the original purpose of this blog – for major and important updates. The next time you hear from us through this medium, I'll either be dying, dead, or miraculously healed. If you'd like more frequent updates, we would love to send you our monthly email update/prayer letter. Please just shoot us a quick email to let us know – you can even just make the subject line "send me the monthly update" and leave it blank. Elise will typically use this list to send out our emergency prayer updates as well.
With that I think I'm finally done, at least for now. My life and everything I care about boils down to the simple truth that Jesus Christ is the son of God, who died for the sins of the world, rose again, and reigns over all of creation. I love you so much.
2 Corinthians 4:6, Greg