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3 Lessons From An Early-Life Stroke

That’s the word the neurologist used as he crouched down beside my hospital bed. “This is craziness.” He was speaking partly to me, but mostly, I think, to the six other people who had filed into my room behind him: interns, residents, and my nurse, Ashlee.
It’s a word one would more readily associate with the absurdities of an internet company’s automated help lines (ahem, Comcast) or the antics of World Cup soccer fans than with one’s own health care, but there it was anyway: Craziness.
          All things considered, I suppose it was better to hear the minor stroke I had just suffered at the ripe old age of 33 characterized as “crazy,” than the alternative. To hear him say, “This is just what we would have expected,” would have been depressing in an entirely different way.
          The doctor, enlarging on his previous theme, continued: “This was just bad luck.” Suppressing the urge to quote Dante to him (“Luck was the first of God’s creatures”—in my experience, practitioners of the hard sciences tend to have little patience with aficionados of the softer ones) I contented myself instead with something like, “I don’t know about luck, but my theory is that I’m here to share the gospel with all of you.” Nurse Ashlee, already a beneficiary of the implementation of this theory, smiled at me warmly. Or was it patronizingly? I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. (Note to self: victims of recent neurological trauma are not always considered to be compelling witnesses to metaphysical truths. Second note to self: victims of recent neurological trauma are always allowed to say whatever they want, regardless of societal norms, so why not go for the gusto?)
          After 36 hours of observation and a slew of tests, the administering of which would have made a torturer of the 15th century Inquisition feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the practitioners of 21st century medicine had arrived at precisely this moment. There was, it seems, no observable reason for my stroke.
           There may well be no observable reason for what happened; there may, for that matter, be no unobservable reason for it, either (remember Dante?). But as I reflect on that temporary weakness that God thrust me into, I think otherwise. Here are three lessons I’ve taken away from my stroke:


My Life Is Remarkably Fragile


Here’s the song that’s been going through my head since all this happened. It’s the third verse of Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise by Walter Chalmers Smith:
            “To all life Thou givest—to both great and small;
            in all life Thou livest: the true Life of all.
            We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
            and whither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.”
In comparison to the one “who alone possesses immortality” (I Timothy 6:16) and who is the very ground of existence itself (Acts 17:28), my life is remarkably transitory. This is why Isaiah is compelled to confess, “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field . . . the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6, 8).
            It is surprisingly easy to forget this reality of life. We tend to think that we will be able to continue life as we know it for the foreseeable future, and really, what future is worth considering that is not foreseeable? But that’s the problem. Our foresight is seriously flawed. The day will come when our health will fail. The day will come when we will die. I will not live forever. My time on this earth is short. I neglect this fact to my peril. So God, in his mercy, has reminded me of it. My life is fragile and entirely in his hands.


My Life Is Entirely Unassailable


The flip-side of this coin is true too. Since my life is entirely in God’s hands, it is not only remarkably fragile, but entirely unassailable. Although statistically, a person who has suffered one stroke is at higher risk for suffering a second one, it would be a mistake for me to think of my life as a ticking time-bomb. There is simply no sense in which my life is more fragile now than it was before.
            In the doctoral seminar I was attending when all this began, one of the topics of discussion had been the reality of spiritual warfare. The enemy hates the advance of the gospel and will use all of the means at his disposal to stop it. Sometimes, these means include physical attacks. I hadn’t thought, at the time, that I was about to become Exhibit A. But here’s the thing: while it is eminently possible that my stroke was an attack from Satan, the bible makes it abundantly clear that Satan is powerless apart from the permission of God. He cannot attack Job without God’s permission (see Job 1–2). He cannot attack Peter without God’s permission (see Luke 22:31). The enemy may snarl and snap and sometimes even bite, but he does so as a mongrel on a chain.
            It may well be that some obdurate valve in my heart will hurl out another blood clot projectile that will travel through my arteries and pierce my brain like a bullet. It could happen. But if it does, it will do so only with the permission of my loving Father, whose plan I trust and whose prerogative I humbly recognize.


My Life Is Not Even a Little Bit My Own


Which brings me to my final observation. My life does not belong to me—not even a little bit. This is another one of those truths that we easily forget, but we must not. Our indignation at the unexpected trials in our lives only proves that we think our lives are just that—ours. But that’s not right, is it? My recent experience has borne this in on me: my life belongs to God. My heart is his. My brain is his.
            On the one hand, this reality leads me to take a careful look at how I’m stewarding these things that God has put into my charge for the time-being. Can I be a better steward of my life and health? Yes. Can I be a better steward of my time? You betcha. But supposing I become the most faithful steward alive, and then I have another stroke? Maybe a fatal one this time? Will I then have a right to be displeased? “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Romans 9:20 KJV). No, my life is not my own. I owe it doubly to God—first by right of creation, second by right of redemption. So that in all things, I must say with Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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