The kids and I had just burst through the door at around 11:25 on Tuesday April 16, 2013, when the phone rang. It was the principal at the school that my wife, Denise, taught at. Considering who was calling and the trembling in her voice I knew there was only one reason we were talking.
My wife (of almost 15 years) has lived with a heart condition for as long as I’ve known her. She takes her medications religiously and her cardiac specialist has been keeping a watchful eye on her condition, but nobody was under any delusions that “all is well.” We all knew of the very real potential that one day, for no apparent reason, Denise’s heart might just get its “wires crossed” and she would collapse with virtually no warning at all. One day she would come face to face with her own mortality, possibly leaving behind a husband and two young children.
Today was that day.
When I arrived at the emergency room at the hospital I was immediately greeted by a social worker (not a good sign) and asked to wait in the family room instead of seeing Denise (another bad sign). My mother-in-law works at the hospital and she joined me shortly. We eventually did get to see Denise; an image of brokenness that I will not describe and I hope to one day forget. Yet, she was alive in a very broad sense of the word. A cardiac arrest is no small matter and the amount of work they had to put in to her body in order to resuscitate her meant a long and uncertain road to recovery. If she would recover at all. But when the ER was finished with her she had a pulse and was breathing. That was a start.
And so it began. We camped out in the family room of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at the hospital and the longest couch became my bed. The road to recovery was underway but so many questions plagued all of us. Would she recover? To what extent? Because of the lack of oxygen to her brain for some unknown duration of time there was the very real possibility of neurological damage. How bad would it be? Could she recover from the damage. These were the questions few of us dared to ask and the doctors refused to answer.
As the hours and days passed and details of what happened were slowly sorted out we began to get a picture of where we were and what the future might hold. My mother-in-law had a conversation with Denise’s cardiologist after which she told me that the cardiologist was optimistic. Because Denise was probably only unconscious for a few minutes and because she received a very specific kind of treatment (I’ll skip the details; they are technical and not immediately relevant), and given Denise’s age and general health the cardiologist felt optimistic about her recovery,
“Besides,” Denise’ mom told me, “the doctor is just an optimistic kind of person.”
I thought that was an interesting observation and it made me think about the optimism or pessimism I might harbor in my own mind. What kind of response am I experiencing? When I fear, why do I fear? When I feel hopeful, why am I hopeful?
When we first arrived at the hospital I had convinced myself of the very real possibility that we would end up planning a funeral. Why was that a concern for me? What reason did I have to be scared? Whenever we had talked with Denise’s cardiologist she always made it clear that Denise’s condition was not some minor blip on an otherwise spotless record of health. If her heart failed it would be instant, catastrophic and, if not treated almost immediately, fatal. I was very afraid, and not because I’m a scared kind of guy. I had reason to fear. The facts were not in Denise’s favour and my fear was a very rational fear.
As Denise has been recovering I have become hopeful. I see improvements every day and the doctors and nurses continuously marvel at how fast and effective her recovery has been. She is regaining body functions on an almost hourly basis and is not showing any signs of long-term neurological damage. My hope, my optimism, is not due to my being an optimistic kind of guy. I don’t hope just because I think that I ought to, or feel inclined to, or because it makes me feel better; I hope for the future because of what I see in the present and what I remember about the past.
I have nothing against Denise’s cardiologist being an optimistic kind of person, but the only aspect of her optimism that I really care about is the optimism that is results based. If she “feels” optimistic, good for her, but what does that offer, really for Denise? Optimism based on feelings gets me nowhere; optimism based on the reality of the situation means something. Would she feel optimistic if a patient arrived in the emergency room with gun shot wounds to their head and chest, most of the blood drained from their body and they had been without a pulse for the last two hours? Optimism would dry up pretty quick in a situation like that because feelings only get you so far. If the reality of the situation conflicts with somebody’s inherently optimistic nature, guess which one trumps the other?
But my optimism was rooted in more than the fact that Denise was unconscious for less than 10 minutes (we don’t know exactly how long). My optimism was rooted in more than the fact that she received high quality CPR
and was rushed to the hospital. My optimism is rooted in more than the fact that the hospital has a reputation as one of the leading cardiac centers in North America, if not the world. My optimism is rooted in more than the fact that she received precisely the kind of treatment all the cardiologists hoped she would be able to receive; the absolutely best available today.
My optimism is also rooted in Jesus.
The moment news spread about Denise’s situation prayer chains were commenced, people were emailed, facebook got a lot busier and hundreds of people started praying. In fact, we heard stories about people in the oddest circumstances with absolutely no known connection to either Denise or myself who gathered together and prayed for her recovery. Prayer was non-stop at some points because 24 hour prayer vigils were set up.
What do we mean by “prayer?” If by “prayer” you are describing nothing more than the verbalization of your own thoughts and wishes then you need to pick a different word. What prayer really means is the act of taking your thoughts and wishes to somebody else. It is not a monologue but a dialogue. It involves you and somebody else; somebody other than mere mortals. When hundreds of people were praying about Denise they were not merely stating, out loud, that they hope she recovers. I hope so too and I could scream it from the roof of the hospital but if nobody is listening then what’s the point? Frankly our own hopes and dreams for the situation are, on their own, meaningless unless somebody with the ability to make a difference is listening.
But the prayers that many Christians were offering on Denise’s behalf were not generic “prayers.” Many people believe in the power of prayer, I do not. I believe only in the power of the one to whom we pray. If nobody is listening on the other end of the line, or if we “dialed the wrong number” what good is our prayer? Those who prayed were, by and large, devout Christians from many denominational backgrounds. In other words, it was not their prayers that were effective, but the fact that they were praying specifically to Jesus. No busy signal, no wrong number and somebody picked up on the other end.
But why Jesus? Why am I so concerned that our prayers are offered to him and not some other deity? Consider what I was asking for. I (and hundreds around me) wanted physical healing for Denise. Given her situation we knew that a positive outcome was unlikely (even one of the nurses has called her “a miracle”). We were all hoping for specific results at a specific time for a specific person. And those results, if it’s not too much trouble, should be of a physical nature. I’m not asking for Denise to be at peace or have warm feelings; I want her body fixed. Plain and simple. The reason we were praying to Jesus is precisely because he has a record of delivering specific results at a specific time for specific people; results of a physical nature.
Some religions describe God as distant, uninvolved and more abstract than personal. Others describe him as somebody whose nature and decisions are absolutely beyond our comprehension and will seem whimsical and arbitrary to our feeble minds. But that is not how God has made himself known to humanity. When he incarnated among us as the person of Jesus he made it clear that he was personal. He cared about us enough to denigrate himself to our level. He healed those around us and interacted with us in a way that was comprehensible to us. He made it clear that there is broad overlap between his priorities and ours. It is not a total overlap, of course, but his ways are not so foreign to us that we cannot possibly understand them.
Most importantly, though, he demonstrated his ability to get results. Physical results. Results within human history. Results that are often (but not always) consistent with what humans can comprehend and desire. When I pray I am not merely going to verbalize my wishes to nobody in particular. I do not pray to a “god” that exists so far beyond humanity as to be unapproachable. I will not pray to a philosophical concept or a psychological crutch. No, I pray to the God who became human, was executed and buried in a cave and then picked himself up and walked out of that cave. That is the kind of God who has proven that he gets results. Physical results. Personal results. That fact of history – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – is the grounding of my hope.
But the work of God is not limited to medical miracles. One of the staff asked if our family was Christian because we were handling this situation better than many. Although we were stressed and scared we still handled the situation with a greater calm than others do; another God-result. Indeed, studies have shown that folks with a religious frame of reference tend to have generally better psychological and physical health, including longevity, than those without. And those results even take into account factors like alcohol, smoking and so on. Look up the researcher Dr. Harold Koenig for details.
But God is not Santa Clause or a vending machine. He does say no, sometimes, regardless of how fervently we ask. But as the research suggests he prefers to say yes whenever possible and, like us, he wants long life and health for the humanity he created. Of course he wants more than just that, but certainly no less. And when he says “no” then he will walk with us through that valley too, giving us a strength that we would not have on our own. Another example of results that God provides, even if it is not the result we hoped for.
If you want real results then there is no God worth praying to other than the God who has a track record of getting results; the kind of God who willingly let his own creation execute him, and then confidently walked out of his own burial cave unassisted. When hundreds of Christians, specifically Christians, gathered together to pray for Denise I had a results-based hope, not a wishful-thinking kind of hope or an I’m-just-a-hopeful-kind-of-guy sort of hope. God is willing and able to get results and he demonstrated this through Jesus. My hope was firmly grounded.
[PS – Given the fact that my wife’s cardiac arrest was… shall we say… serious, I have a few other reflective pieces bouncing around in my mind.]