For those of you who received a notification of the posting of “Breathing 2”, a chemo-induced, Faulkner-esque stream-of-consciousness dictation into my cell phone, it has taken me a couple of days to clear my head (somewhat) and return to this. I’m going to post content as closely as I felt it at the time but hopefully in a more coherent fashion.
It was exactly a year ago that I started experiencing symptoms related to the growth of the recurrent tumor above my rectum (no use sugar-coating that). I remember this clearly because we just returned from our yearly Hilton Head vacation, and it was last year’s vacation when I was experiencing extreme bloating and abdominal discomfort. Assuming that it was stress or IBS, my wife read online about how to naturally calm these symptoms, and she read about breathing techniques. You breathe in deeply through your nose, hold your breath for a moment, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Then repeat this process. Slowly the bloating and cramping will dissipate. Along with the help of simethicone.
It’s funny that proper breathing would be therapy for an ailment because as long as I’ve known my wife she’s actually had to encourage me to breathe. For some reason I tend to hold my breath. I can remember when we were still dating, and we would sit together watching a movie and suddenly she would say to me “breathe”. I didn’t know it, but I was holding my breath.
Unfortunately, proper breathing techniques weren’t enough to alleviate the problems I was having last year. As I’ve said before, I eventually wound up in the emergency room in Athens and had a CT scan which revealed that the tumor was nearly blocking my colon. The doctors wanted to do an emergency surgery then, but since I have been under the care of doctors at MD Anderson in Houston, they released me and put me on a liquid diet.
This all happened the week before Kim and I were to travel to Berlin, me for a conference, Kim for some good sightseeing, but instead we ended up in Houston. Again. And the doctors diverted my colon with an ostomy to save my life from the blockage, which then eliminated the bloating and pain.
I bring this story up because it relates to my breathing issues. The first night in the hospital, an alarm kept going off as I tried to sleep that was alerting the nurses that I had stopped breathing. The alarm would wake me, they’d rush in and check on me, and I got pretty annoyed and snippy. It’s difficult to tell a nurse in the middle of the night that it is totally normal for me to pause when I breathe and to leave me alone. Fortunately, they removed the oxygen and the alarm the next day.
So breathing. The simplest of things. Involuntary. But requiring discipline to perform correctly?
Last week at Hilton Head I was craving the presence of God. I just wanted to be near to Him, to feel peace. I realized that I was not going to be having regular morning devotionals and was okay with that. I wanted to focus on just being thankful to be at the beach spending time with family, simply enjoying life. And this is absolutely appropriate. To be thankful and to live for His Glory, even in the simplest of things, is to be near to Him. So as I walked the beach, spent time with my kids and in-laws, played wiffle ball, swam in the ocean, read a book, and, yes, even enjoyed an adult beverage, I sought to do so to God’s glory. Actually praying for God to help me to glorify Him in how I did these things. These actions aren’t evidently worshipful, but doing them in humble thankfulness for the blessing of such simple activities is honoring our Creator.
But the vacation ended and then it was back to the reality of the vinyl recliner in the clinic on Monday to receive intravenous drugs which are meant to kill cancer and prolong my life. These drugs have pretty immediate side effects, and they can make my mind go batty; sometimes with extremely hopeful thoughts but also into dark places.
Jared came to visit Kim and me, and, if I sat quietly, I could listen to them talk about “normal” stuff. But my mind tends towards “ultimate realities”, as pastor Aldin calls them, and to my interjections into their small talk, Jared would just look at me. And look at me. He’d look at me.
“Jared, what are you thinking?”
“Maybe you should just rest.”
They both wanted me to rest.
Sadly, right as we were about to leave, one of the nurses reported to me that a man that I had met in the treatment room but had not seen in a while had passed away. Darkness.
Resting when you’ve been given a cocktail of drugs that includes steroids is easier said than done, so as Kim drove me home, I continued to talk. We passed by a cemetery and I nonchalantly asked Kim what it would be like if they had pre-dug pits for those who are just ready to die. You could fall into one, and the gravediggers would amble out with shovels and cover you with dirt and that would be it.
Then as I thought about the current sufferings of my friends and family, things that I so often pray about, I told Kim that I wanted to see a miracle. To see light break through the darkness. I felt as if God is breaking my heart because He won’t intercede in extraordinary ways to bring happiness and joy and comfort to those that I know are hurting.
I got home and laid down, unable to sleep because the drugs are so potent and my head is swimming. I’m tired but I can’t sleep.
Suddenly, Kim enters the room and tells me that I need to stop thinking about or setting expectations for what God should do to prove himself to me. I need to stop looking for foundation shattering sermons, revelations of truth, I need to look to Jesus. She told me that He lived, he died, and was resurrected and that’s a fact. A statement whose veracity I’ve been wrestling with for the greater part of my life. To Kim this is absolute truth, but the proof of this was 2000 years ago and now we rely on testimony, written in scripture and exhibited in believers.
So there I lay, feeling pretty ill, wishing for a miracle, not necessarily for me but also for my friends and family for whom I pray. But the noise in my brain is deafening and God is nowhere near.
I remember to breathe. In through the nose deeply. Pause. Out through the mouth slowly. Repeat.
I set my thoughts on Jesus and a picture of the cross and I breathe. I imagine my Creator, imagine His presence filling me as I breathe. And then suddenly, a light does break through. A positive thought. I’m alive. I’m fighting. I’m loved. I’m thankful. I can honestly give testimony to a feeling of peace and comfort penetrating me. It’s real. I can’t explain it.
Now I know some of you will respond, “Brent these exercises of breathing and positive thinking are just evidence of mind over matter, just our body’s way of responding physiologically.” That there’s no miracle. To you I repeat the last thing Kim said to me before she left the room: “life itself is a miracle.”
If we consider the beginning of all that exists, the so-called big bang, we know there was some spark which created a universe. And at some later point in time, regardless of how suddenly or slowly, another spark occurred that spawned life itself. Great miracles come from sparks. And as a believer in a God who not only created but sustains this world, I believe that it was our Creator that caused these sparks. And also the very same God that sparked in me the real sense of peace in the midst of some despair. It is the ruach, the breath of life from God.
Breath. Sparks. Simple, simple things.
Why is this helpful? Because I tend to look for the spectacular. A miracle like that which is described in the bible. Seas parted. Water to wine. Rise and walk. A sudden cure for cancer.
I long for a day when all of my friends and family know the Lord. That we would all experience the comfort and purpose of a life united to Christ. That our conversations can move beyond the repeated patterns of brokenness. To enter the verdant pastures of peace (John 10:9).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God cannot or does not act in mighty ways. I will continue to pray that He does. It’s that I’m afraid that I often miss the miraculous while looking for the spectacular. With so much noise and busyness around us, who can blame us for expecting God to shout above the din to be heard and recognized?
But it was a breath that sparked a universe. And my disciplined, prayerful breathing that allowed me to discern a spark of peace. A peace that gave me hope. A hope that roused me from lonely darkness, to get out of bed, persevere by faith. A faith that led me to gather around the people who love me and whom I love. And to know I have been gifted with great capacity to do so. A gift we all have. Our true purpose.
So this summer, we can marvel at the flashes of lightning from distant storms. The spectacular. And in our yards we can lazily watch the intermittent fluorescent glow of fireflies as they float through the thick humid air. A wonder. But inside us, all the time, are the sparks of life. Silent and unseen. But if we breathe with God, we may just sense them. The ruach blowing on them. And embraced, even faith that begins as small as a mustard seed can become as glorious as a spectacular tree. A true miracle.