“But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
Romans 8:37-39 CEB
I was lying there looking at a bank of monitors on the wall. They all had images of my heart on them. No, not the little red hearts like valentines, but my beating heart. It was like an out-of-body experience. The medicine I had been given made me feel like I was in a dream.
“There we are,” I heard the Cardiologist say. “We have one…two… three…oh, four…”
There was a long pause, then he continued: “There are five…hmmm…six blockages, Steve.”
We had been joking earlier, but his tone changed. “Stints won’t work. We are going to have to do open-heart surgery. Whom do we need to call to be here with you?”
“My wife, Cindy. She is at school…” I tried to focus. ”Madison Lower Elementary.”
The next thing I remember is her sitting beside me as they prepared me for surgery. My heart was broken, and they were going to fix it.
Things had changed so fast that day. We were building a house and had moved out of the apartment we had stayed in during construction. I had some trouble breathing as I had carried stuff to the UHaul. You are so out of shape, I told myself, then continued moving things. Later that week, I was teaching a class and couldn’t catch my breath after climbing the stairs. Ironically, it was a class on self-care and leadership.
When I got home, I confessed the incident to my wife, and she immediately told me to schedule an appointment with our family physician. He got me in early the next morning.
You may wonder why my wife was so insistent. Well, it might have had something to do with the fact that I had a family history of heart disease. My grandpa had died of a heart attack in his sleep at 55, and my Mom had her first heart surgery when she was 53. I was 50.
I arrived at the Doctor’s office with a gym bag of clothes for a stress test. He let me in the back door, and we began tests. The final test in his office was an EKG. When he finished, he looked at me and said, “It’s perfect. But I am going to have you go to the hospital and do the stress test anyway.”
By then I was feeling feisty. So I called my son, who was going to meet me there, and told him not to come. Then I pranced into the waiting room and proceeded to pastor all those who were waiting (don’t worry–I am a trained professional).
They finally called me back, where I put on my jogging clothes and, after instructions, mounted the treadmill brimming with confidence. Within seconds of starting the test, the technician asked me if I was feeling okay. I said I was. Then he asked if I had ever taken nitroglycerin, and before I could remember replying, I was on a table with the tablet under my tongue as technicians wheeled me to the cath lab.
When all was said and done, I had quadruple bypass surgery. The doctor later told me they had found 6 blockages but only four bypasses, so I had gotten two “twofers.” All this happened on February 10, 2006. When I woke up, I was terrified. I felt so vulnerable, so sore. The next few days were a blur. I went home on Valentine’s Day (kinda ironic!).
When I was discharged, the doctor told me I couldn’t preach or go to work for three months. I was devastated. He told me I had to go to physical therapy every day for weeks. He challenged my whole lifestyle, from eating to recreation. He told me I was very lucky to be alive, but I didn’t feel that way.
The next few months were hell to me. I went into depression, and if it hadn’t been for my wife’s love and care…well, I don’t want to think about it. The church I served loved on us with food (all heart-healthy) and visits every day. And in the midst of it all, I was wrestling with my faith and God. It wasn’t pretty.
Each day as I went to PT, I got stronger. They tried to teach me how to live with my mended heart. The last day of therapy, the doctor gathered the class and said, “You finish this class today. We have tried to prepare you for the rest of your life, but the truth is that in 10 years only three of you will still be alive.”
We were all stunned. That wasn’t the pep talk we wanted. He continued: “I say that because I know that most of you will not do what we have taught you, and it will kill you.” At that moment, I had an epiphany. Yes, I had a disease, but I had options to stay healthy if I did what I was taught. I set a course to do that.
As I write this, we are entering the season of Lent. It is a season where we give up things to focus on God. It is a season of repentance and forgiveness. It is a time to discover our broken hearts and ask God to heal them and teach us to live with healthier hearts. The funny thing is we journey into Lent every year. Wouldn’t you think it would be enough to learn and heal just once? Nope! Take me, for example. I am still alive after 17 years, but in the meantime I have had stints twice and a blood clot to the heart. I have gained and lost weight over and over, and even as I write I am about to enter Lent with a determination to get healthier. I will need physical therapy for the rest of my life.
We need Lent! We need seasons of confession and repentance because we have a hard time doing what makes us whole. In the midst of all this, I have developed a simple personal life statement: “Live Loved.” What I discovered in my brokenness is that my only hope is to let the Great Physician love me to life, but I have to live in that love. I will need that spiritual therapy forever!
Now let me go eat my Cheerios and take a prayer walk to think about what I need to give up.