I’m pleased to be able to offer here, in full, the first chapter of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
When my doctor told me I was dying, I came alive.
Three days before my fortieth birthday I was admitted to the emergency room. A bacterial infection had destroyed my mitral valve and I was in the early stages of heart failure.
That day and the two years that followed are the setting for this book. They are the setting, but they are not the subject. This is a book about what happens when affliction and faith collide.
I am a husband, father of four, pastor, and author living in the greatest “big small town” in America—Nashville, Tennessee. I lead a simple life. I get up early for work. I am rarely awake past 11:00 p.m. My wife and I go to bed tired. I have never dug a well in Africa or jumped out of an airplane. I am suspicious of people who use the word “epic” to describe their desired life. I am a simple man, and I do not presume that my story of affliction is all that unusual.
But it is not the uncommon parts of our suffering I am drawn to write about. I want to explore the common experiences afflicted people share—the onset of a sense of frailty, the fear, the grief, the humor, the routines, the new ways of relating to people who love us and are afraid for us and for themselves.
I have committed myself to the work of paying as much attention as I can to the medical, spiritual, relational, emotional, pharmaceutical, and physical experiences of this journey my failing heart has set me on. I have asked a lot of questions and taken a lot of notes and used them to write the chapters that make up this book.
Affliction awakens us to things we might not have seen otherwise. When I first learned of the severity of my condition I felt afraid, of course. But the prevailing sensation wasn’t fear. It was wonder—curiosity, even exhilaration. I felt that I was at the beginning of a great adventure—one I instinctively did not want to miss. I have discovered that many in my position have felt the same way.
I want to interrogate my affliction. What happens when a person stands at the edge of their mortality and looks out into the eternal? What happens when a doctor tells a man he is dying? If that person believes in God (which I do), what will become of his faith? Will the spiritual premises he trusted as dependable foundations all those years earlier suddenly fail? Will he require certain personal outcomes in order for his faith to hold? And if so, is that even faith? Or is that nothing more than a house of cards too easily toppled by the winds of suffering?
I do not want simply to endure my affliction. I want to experience it—to receive it as an adventure and follow it to its end. I find the whole business fascinating. Knowing that I come to this season having seen the world only through the eyes of the well, I ask God to help me see whatever this struggle might reveal.
There is nothing automatic about learning to see with new eyes. In the early 1700s, doctors in the West discovered how to remove cataracts from the eyes of blind patients, giving them the ability to see. Annie Dillard, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote about what the experience of seeing for the first time was like for these people, many of whom had been blind since birth. One might presume the sensation would have been like someone turning on a light in a dark room—bringing clarity and information to an otherwise bewildering existence. But for many of these newly sighted people, who had already learned how to navigate the world through their other senses, the sudden ability to see was what confused them.
For the majority of patients, concepts like depth, size, shape, and space were nearly impossible to grasp. Dillard wrote, “For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.”
These patients had no categories for what they were seeing, and this was more than many of them could bear. Many became depressed because when they gained the ability to see, they lost the world as they knew it. Vision became a new form of blindness.
In response to their frustration, some simply refused to use their eyes. One doctor said of his patient, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.”
For those who did not refuse their new sight, they had to learn how to use it. One man “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps toward the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it.”
For those who practiced using their new eyes, the world they learned to see was filled with wonder. One twenty-two-year-old was so overwhelmed by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut tight for two weeks following her surgery. When at last she gathered the courage to open them “she did not recognize any objects, but the more she directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
I want to know those moments when confusion gives way to beauty and wonder. I believe moments like these are bound to come for me in this season of affliction, if I look for them. When one such moment happened for Annie Dillard herself, she said, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
For my whole life I have seen the world through the eyes of the well. This is all I have ever known. But now, I have been lifted and struck, and I want to hear what resounds in me. Though I may stumble for a time like a man reaching for his boot, I want to learn to see the world through the eyes of affliction.
This will be a challenge because I see this world and my place in it through the lens of what I already know. I can’t help it. A dog is a dog and a pear is a pear. I can’t see “Eden before Adam gave names.” But affliction has the power, I believe, to quiet the voices in my head that think they already know everything. Seeing through my suffering won’t show me a new world. Rather, it will show me more of the world I think I already know.
Affliction is bound to find us, and when it does whatever faith we profess, along with all its convictions regarding the meaning of this life and the next, is tested. Some affliction comes suddenly and lasts only a moment. Other affliction comes and takes us out of this world. Often though, affliction grabs us like an unsuspected wave and tosses us around in its currents for a season before washing us back up onto our familiar shores.
What then? Do we thank our lucky stars that we survived and try to return to the life we knew before any of this happened? Is that even an option? And if so, at what cost?
Affliction shapes our lives. It comes for us all—in our own personal distress or in the sufferings of those we love. It has come for me, and I know it will come again. The least I can do is pay attention.
I do not wish to waste my pain.
[Copyright © 2017 by Russ Ramsey. Published by InterVarsity Press. Used with permission.]
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).