Tears welled up in my eyes. Fear raced across my mind. Anxiety tightened my heart. I never thought it would come to this. Not at thirty-one years of age. Not now… not ever! Never did I dream I’d be pushed along in a wheelchair into the triage unit of a large ER department… in order to evaluate ongoing chest pain that had bothered me for more than four weeks.
The eerie chimes of a dozen heart and respiratory monitors echoed through the hallway as the attendant quickly wheeled me into a room. I could hear Stephanie’s footsteps quietly shuffling along behind me. As they eased me onto a stretcher and began taping me up with wires for the EKG test, I glanced at my wife’s worried countenance. Her lovely eyes were overwhelmed with distress.
My mind was screaming, “Why me? Why now? I need to be the strong, indestructible Michael I’ve always been… my wife and children and church are depending on me! Why is this happening to me now, God?!”
Charging the Mountain
Life has always been my mountain to climb, my hill to charge. My mom still jokes around about how I was ready to take over the world as soon as I grew out of my crib. Apparently you can be a junior Napoléon in diapers, too, because they never seemed to slow me down.
When I was six or seven years old, I built a small wooden, foam-board plane in my parent’s basement (with about 2 boxes of 10-penny nails). I then secretly dragged it up on top of the garage roof and readied it for flight with a neighbor kid. I recall my mom frantically stopping us just before we launched our first “take off.” What a bummer.
However, she didn’t prevent us from crashing my plane to the ground from the utmost heights of our backyard jungle gym. Sheesh… that was sort of hard on my ribcage.
If a tree appeared climbable, it didn’t matter how tall it was – I would race to the highest “safe” branch. And not once but at least three or four times I fell down, limb from limb… without any broken bones.
If I was mountain biking, the most advanced trail was the only viable option for me. If was I running in a race, I wouldn’t be pleased unless I knew I had push past all mental and physical barriers to utilize every ounce of endurance I could muster. When operating my landscape business, maintaining the status quo was also never an option – we had to be the most efficient, professional, and highly skilled company in town.
My inner drive naturally translated over into numerous ministry activities where my mustang approach to projects was happily applauded. Throughout my college and seminary education I always had to strive for an A-grade… in every single class. If I was preaching, witnessing, teaching, or leading music, I was always working toward the never quite attainable goal of perfection and success.
When I met my lovely Stephanie, I wanted our relationship to be done in just the right way, following all the specific rules that had been handed down by a plethora of “this for that” Christian relationship guidebooks.
And, by and large, my life hummed along looking rather extraordinary. My list of achievements continued to grow. Yet, just maybe, my longing for control, which was rooted deep down in my pride, was also beginning to grow. Now, I wasn’t necessarily trying to control other people, I just wanted to know that I was in control of me – my surroundings, circumstances, and success. Oh sure, I would say that my strength was in Christ alone, that He alone saves, and that all I am and ever hope to be is only by His grace.
But we can be so easily fooled by the words that come from our own mouths. We think because we spoke what we know is true to others, that it must also automatically be what we believe and practice as truth. Verbally professing what is true doesn’t always indicate someone is sincerely believing and living in the truth. A pastor can preach true words with passion yet be failing to faithfully live in the truth with conviction.
And for many, it often isn’t a major moral blowout, a crash into financial embezzlement, or a shocking DUI on an expressway. No, it’s the insidious drive toward self-sufficiency and pride that often grows sharp, destructive branches in the hearts of most people – people like me.
But every once in a while, in the mercy and providence of God, He sees fit to gently but firmly hit me over the head with the proverbial 2 X 4. And ironically, I most often have to relearn the lesson I thought I already learned through a previous season of pain or difficulty. I guess it’s my thick, German-Czechoslovakian skull. Ahem.
…When I returned from a five-week mission trip to India (05’-06’) with a semi-paresis of my upper-superior laryngeal nerve [read the whole story here] – God taught me that His strength is made perfect in my weakness. By His undeserved love, my vocal nerves healed after a gut wrenching, tear-jerking ten months of learning to wait, pray, and trust.
…When our son Hudson nearly died from Pertussis (the “Whooping Cough”) at just three weeks old (read the story here) – God taught me the reality of His presence through the Spirit and His people when I doubted whether He really had a good plan or even saw what we were going through. After five “code blue” sessions and eleven days at the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, God brought us home and Hudson has been healthier than a horse ever since.
…When Stephanie suffered not just one or two, but five miscarriages we cried ourselves to sleep and prayed through our tears – God taught us that Jesus the Son weeps with us and that He is the Hope for our tears. And still… we wait.
These are just a few of the valleys we’ve journeyed through over nearly the last ten years, but I’m sure you’ve walked through pain and difficulty, too. Maybe you started reading this story because you were looking for answers or comfort for the anxiety or sorrow that’s ripping through your life right now.
Perhaps you lost your job and the mountain of bills is caving in on you. Maybe a terminal illness is eroding the strength from your body or tearing a loved one away from you. Perhaps the stress of an adult child choosing to run from God and straight toward the seduction of sin is squeezing at your throat. Maybe your spouse slammed the door in your face and shouted the word you never thought you would hear: divorce.
And sometimes all we can do is crawl…and wait…and trust…and hope.
But I want to run. I’ve always wanted to charge ahead and deliver solutions to my problems. I want to take the “bull by the horns” and win. I innately want to meet the expectations I have for myself and all the expectations others may have for me, as well. So my natural response to problems or difficulty is to work more, try harder, and probably sleep less.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I believe God wired me with high-octane energy and an inner drive for a reason. A strong work ethic is God-glorifying (2 Thess. 3:10-13). Laboring to provide for your family is a God-given responsibility (1 Tim. 5:8). However, I so easily resort to my control over a problem or issue that I forget about the complete control of He who first gave me life and breath.
You Can Do Nothing
But what must I do when I am longer the superman I thought I was? What will happen when people start to see the cracks and leaks in my pottery shell? When the “indestructible Michael” is no longer so indestructible? These are the questions that coursed through my mind as a nurse strapped on my medical wristband.
I could have resisted the protocols that required me to immediately sit down in a wheelchair. But instead I quietly agreed. I could do nothing but sit…and wait. I was forced to be completely reliant on the medical personnel as they wheeled me back into the Wege Chest Pain Center, here in Grand Rapids.
As they rolled me along toward my room, my eyes filled with tears. Yet then God reminded me of a verse from the very passage I was planning to preach that coming Sunday:
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)
For at least several months, I had been working more and trying harder to solve problems, resolve challenges, and reconcile issues at home and in ministry. But God in His kindness would not let me just apply the text to others – He wanted me to live His truth right now. Even though I thought I had learned the stupidity and fruitlessness of living out my own self-sufficiency, I realized those sharp, insidious branches were spreading yet again.
I had not been necessarily looking to control others, but I was working like superman to control me – my surroundings, circumstances, and success. Through the noise, I again heard the words, “…apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5b).
Jesus didn’t say, “Apart from me you can do some things or a few things.” He didn’t say, “I’ll take care of some of the big things while you work on all the little stuff.” Nor did He say, “Do you want to abide in Me? Okay, then work more, try harder, and sleep less – because it’s better to burn out than rust out.”
No, Jesus said that a life that glorifies God is only possible through Him. A life aligned with His purposes only comes by depending completely on His life. A fruit-bearing life is only possible through abiding in Jesus Christ. But how does this work? What does it really mean to “abide” in Christ? Jesus explains:
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:9-10)
Through receiving the life of Christ by grace through faith, we have been brought into a love-relationship through which we can rest in the perfect, loyal, covenant-love of the Savior. And as He abides in the Father’s love, so we abide in His love. Nothing will ever change God’s love for us because we are in union with Christ the Son. Yet in the same way the Son has love for the Father, His love toward us also fills us with love for Him. Our abiding, resting, and remaining in Christ, draws us to respond with believing, loving obedience to His commands. And through our loving obedience to Christ, as we abide in His life and love, the Father is “glorified” – made known and revealed through our lives (John 15:7-8). This is the “fruit” of a life abiding in Jesus Christ.
What is the ultimate result of abiding in Christ? True and lasting joy. Jesus promises:
“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15:11)
Back to the Noise
Yet somehow I lost view of Him – His sufficient life and love – in the middle of my problems and challenges. I kept pushing and running and working in order to achieve some fruitfulness in ministry and resolution to my current challenges.
When the nurse asked if I could get myself out of the wheelchair and onto the stretcher, I choked out a feeble, “yes,” not because I couldn’t breathe but because God was getting my attention. Even the step onto the stretcher I could not do without Him and His life. How foolish I was to think I could solve all my husband, daddy, and pastor challenges on my own.
Suddenly there was peace. I knew why God had me on this stretcher – I probably wouldn’t have slowed down and shut-up any other way. All the pressing needs of the day that were worrying me just moments before simply vanished from sight.
Through the incessant noise of heart monitors, Christ gripped my heart again with His sustaining life and love.
I’m learning again…that all fruit-bearing, Christ-exalting ministry comes out of an intimate abiding relationship in Jesus Christ.
I’m listening again… to Christ’s words of love and comfort in the middle of my stress.
I’m resting again… in the fact that He is always working and loving even when I’m sleeping.
I’m joyful again… because Jesus, the risen Savior-Messiah-King, graciously got my attention, reminding me that He is always with me and in me, and always completely trustworthy to take care of my problems and difficulties.
After a couple of hours waiting, the physician told us the EKG, blood tests, and chest x-rays showed no signs of heart trouble – I was all clear to return home. But they did say my chest pain might be caused be stress or anxiety, or some infection in my chest wall area. Interesting. Yet Christ’s rest and peace had already arrived before the test results. Through this incident now eight days ago (3-13-15), He got my attention and I knew He already knew how the tests would turn out… either way He would be with me with His unstoppable love and life.
Many stories don’t end this way in our fallen world. But regardless of how your story is unfolding, Jesus Christ is calling you and me to find His life and love sufficient for your life, so that your joy will be full through the pain, issues, or difficulty your facing.
So I’m praying through His vignette in my life that He is made known in power and grace and truth… to you.
UPDATE 3.26.2015: My follow-up visit with our primary care physician went very well yesterday. He confirmed the hospital’s diagnosis that there is, in fact, no indication of cardiac trouble. In his words, “your heart condition looks perfect.” However, elements of stress and anxiety build-up, coupled with some out-of-place joints in my back and ribcage, likely resulted in the chest pain I experienced. On a personal level, I am much relieved by this diagnosis and, interestingly, have had little to no chest pain since my visit to the ER on 3.13.15. So thankful to the Lord…
In God’s Vineyard,
P.S. Click on the play button below or subscribe to our iTunes podcast channel to hear my full message from John 15:1-27 (“A Life Not Wasted”), delivered on Sunday morning, March, 15, 2015 at North Park Baptist Church of Grand Rapids.