It was Dec. 21, 2016, the darkest day of the year.
I was working in my garage, trying to repair something using a hacksaw. It was cold. I was sawing strenuously and at an uncomfortable angle. I was tired, stressed and a little frustrated.
Suddenly I felt a strange and complex pain radiating through my chest, something I had never experienced before. I stopped working and gave the pain my full attention, but it didn’t subside. I went into the house and told my wife, Jean, to stay close by, because “I might be having a heart attack.”
As we talked, she called my son, Joshua, then 25, who happens to be a licensed paramedic. He told her to call 9-1-1 immediately – and that he would arrange to be the responding medic.
When Joshua and his paramedic partner arrived in the ambulance, he walked into the living room – the same room where he had grown up, played games, watched TV and been homeschooled with his sister, Sarah – and asked me, “Dad, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know, Joshua,” I said, trying to describe my symptoms. He sat me down on the couch, connected his portable 12-lead ECG to my chest, turned it on, took one hard look at the results, looked me in the face and said: “Dad, you’re having a heart attack. We’re going to Rogue.”
I laid down on the gurney and they quickly scooted me into the back of the ambulance before heading for Rogue Regional Medical Center, a top-tier cardiac care hospital in Southern Oregon.
While his partner drove at breakneck speed, siren on, seemingly running every traffic light, Joshua tended to me in the back. Although I was in considerable distress, I was acutely aware of what he was doing and how professional, focused and calm he was – putting IVs in both my arms, giving me nitro, aspirin and morphine, doing more scans to further identify what part of the heart was involved, charting my case and talking to me. I knew taking care of his dad had to be hard for him.
About 30 minutes later, when we pulled into the medical center, they rushed me straight into the cardiac cath lab where a team of doctors quickly installed two stents to open up a nearly 100 percent-blocked coronary artery.
I remember joking with one of the attending cardiologists while he was inserting the stents: “Hey, have you ever done this before?”
“Yeah,” he answered good-naturedly, “about seven times today.”
After the stent procedure was over, I was taken to my bed in the cardiac care unit, where Joshua stayed with me for most of the evening. After two nights of being connected to various monitoring devices and watched over by the nursing staff there, I was discharged and able to spend a nice quiet Christmas at home. Thanks to terrific medical care from start to finish and the prayers of many, my recovery was smooth and my prognosis very good.
While the storm was over, my adventure had just begun.
‘Why did this happen?’
Any halfway introspective person who experiences a heart attack or stroke (which occurs in the U.S. every 21 seconds) will tell you it’s a big wake-up call: “Why did this happen?”
And if you’re a spiritually minded soul, the question is even more pointed and urgent: “God, what are You trying to tell me?”
Thinking back to the fateful day, it’s easy to recall that I was wound up and stressed out. I had worked hard in my office all day, then I had exercised fairly strenuously, then chopped firewood, then gone into my shop to take care of the repair job. As usual, I was trying to accomplish everything I thought needed to get done, but with the energy of – how can I say it? – self, my will, ever pushing forward while ignoring the ever-present warning signs of stress and anxiety.
Indeed, I had experienced warning signs well before that day, but like the proverbial driver who ignores the red warning light on his dashboard instead of stopping and figuring out what it means, I was in too big a hurry to get where I wanted to go – and so I “crashed.” In my case, I just about totaled my “vehicle” – except fortunately the medical mechanics were able to repair the wreck that I was.
So, one thing God was telling me was that I could no longer safely continue to operate – especially at my age, in my late 60s – on the energy of stress, ego, ambition, obligation, fear of failure and sheer will power. I needed to live from the alternate fuel of grace – all the time.
Great words, but how do I get there?
Meanwhile, beyond this clear takeaway, even deeper lessons awaited me.
‘Count it all joy’
Truth be told, there have been several times in my life when I just needed to be stopped cold by a loving God. During certain critical periods, most of them too personal to write about, God stopped me by obstructing, disabling or otherwise interfering with what at the time were my immediate or even life goals. Naturally, I considered this nothing short of devastating, only later in life looking back and thanking Him from the depths of my soul for stopping me from going in the wrong direction – indeed, for changing the direction of my life for the better.
Having a heart attack is a pretty obvious “stop sign.” God stopped me. “OK, Lord, you have my full attention. What is it You want me to understand?”
Consider the natural effect of a close brush with death on a person in his 60s. (The cardiologist told me I probably would’ve died had I not gotten to the hospital.) That’s easy to answer: It makes him contemplate deeply, very possibly for the first time, his own inevitable death.
After all, heart attack or not, I’m at the age when most people are going to die, one way or the other, in the next 20 (or at the outside, 30) years. Putting the question as bluntly as possible, as evangelist Billy Graham liked to do at his many crusades: “Are you ready to die? Do you know where you’re going? Are you sure?”
Mind you, I’ve been a Christian for many years, since I was in my early 20s, when I first asked Christ to come into my life, and I’ve lived a clean, moral life ever since. But something important was missing.
I believe God has been intending to fill in that missing something in me. By allowing me to suffer a heart attack, He humbled me, softened my heart, helped me to forgive people who had hurt me, clarified my mind and freed me from many deceptions.
I could almost say He gave me a heart transplant, a heart more capable of embracing the truth capsulized in the Apostle Paul’s remarkable statement in Romans 8: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”
Now here’s the mystery for me: Even though I’ve “known all this stuff” for decades – after all, I’m a Christian author-journalist who has written countless essays and three books, right? – yet it’s only in the last year or so that it has really penetrated into the deepest regions of my heart and soul that I am an adopted and loved child of God and that He will never leave or abandon me – ever.
Since my heart attack two years ago, many Christian writers, pastors and others have been helpful in my walk – especially the remarkably insightful “Freedom in Christ Ministries” of Dr. Neil T. Anderson. But again, the surreal thing is that most of what all these folks are saying I had heard and agreed with – and in some cases written and spoken about! – for decades. Yet somehow, suffering a heart attack mysteriously tilled my inner ground to make it a little more fertile.
Most of all, a new and much deeper sense of appreciation, awe, wonder and thanksgiving toward the Creator for his love and His gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ has become more real and personal to me.
That brings me to my final point, crystalized in one of my very favorite biblical passages, James 1, in which he writes: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” This short passage points to an almost otherworldly magical attitude, which springs from deeply realizing that our true home, even now, is indeed another world. After all, Paul said “we are citizens of Heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
That’s why James’s bold, counterintuitive direction – to “Count it all joy” when bad stuff happens to us – is not simply some pretty Bible truth to affirm like a mantra, or alternatively to appreciate later when the battle is over. But right now, in the moment bad things are occurring, in the very midst of vexing difficulty and conflict and suffering, we are exhorted to reach up “in the spirit” to God and to remember – or more accurately, to realize deeply, even if just for a second or two – that the dazzling Creator of the Universe Who loves us dearly is using these difficult circumstances to bring us closer to Him.
One other Scripture that comes to mind and perhaps rounds out this thought is Philippians 4, which in its own way points to this same extraordinarily blessed attitude expressed by James (to “Count it all joy” when difficult circumstances overtake us). That key, reveals Paul, lies in genuine gratitude to God even when things are tough. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Anyway, that’s the story of my heart attack. In the end, I’d just say that somehow God had compassion on this foolish child and stopped him once again, using his powerful, unsearchable methods to stir up my soul and pull me a little closer to Him. Thank You, God.