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The View from the Ash Heap: Reflections from a Hospital Bedside

God Centered Life is pleased to welcome Dr. Daniel Block as a guest blogger today. Dr. Block is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. You can read his complete bio here

Two months ago we were shocked by the diagnosis of our thirteen-year old grandson’s extreme headaches. Yes, we heard the dreaded “C” word; he has brain cancer. Overnight our lives were turned inside out and upside down, and the once-in-a-lifetime Christmas on the island of Maui with our children and grandchildren was out the window. By God’s grace we have enjoyed a relatively tranquil life, at least so far as health issues are concerned. No one warned us of this, and we certainly did not ask for it, but suddenly the theories we had espoused in trying to help others were put to a test at home. In these days we have been encouraged not only by the assurances of the prayers of God’s people—thanks to social media these messages have come from around the world—but also by God’s gracious response. God has been very near to all of us, but especially to Brennig, his siblings and his parents.

A month after Brennig’s initial surgery I flew to Augusta to be with him in the hospital while he endured his third round of chemotherapy. The first day he was fine—good enough to beat me in “Settlers of Catan” and “Farkle.” The second day was different, as the poisons the physicians pumped into his system took their nasty effect. My grandson wanted me to be in the room with him, but he did not want us to make any noise. While at his side, and since I have returned home, I have had a lot of time to reflect on this experience. It has been eye-opening to me, and taught this Old Testament scholar a host of lessons.

First, my eyes have been opened to the providence of pain. Since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we have tended to view pain as a curse. We do all we can to avoid it and in our context to deaden it with pain-killers. This experience has reminded me that we need a whole new theology of pain. Pain is a gracious gift of God to be received with gratitude because it signals to us that something is wrong. Without our grandson’s excruciating head-aches no one would have known that inside his skull a vicious cancer had taken root and grown so large that it cut off the passage of vital fluids to the spinal cord. The pressure inside his head was the voice of God telling him and his parents that something needed attention. At the same time, it was a reminder to us that the entire world suffers the effects of sin. Although we sometimes bring trouble on ourselves with our misbehavior, often innocent victims are casualties of the crossfire.

Second, my eyes have been opened to the wonders of the human body. After contemplating how “fearfully and wonderfully” a fetus develops within a mother’s womb, in Psalm 139:13–18 the psalmist breaks out in a doxology of praise to the Creator. But it is not only the way the body is formed that makes our jaws drop; it is also how it works. How is it that when a person is unable to take food into the body through the stomach, the body can be nourished by means of a pin prick and a tiny tube in the arm? Indeed, as the LORD reminded Israel, “the life of all flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11) While physicians and biologists have come a long way in figuring out how the human body works, as someone outside those fields, I never cease to be amazed. Not only is every cell in the human body specially composed to function, but it must also function in harmony with all the other cells in the body. Behind the form of every human being—actually behind the form of every living and inanimate thing, is an amazing God.

Third, my eyes have been opened to the importance of family and community. We have been blessed by being able to participate in our children’s and grandchildren’s pain. In our age, when we observe so many who lack the support of physical kin and of the broader spiritual household of faith, we may not take this for granted. God has created the family structure not only that we may celebrate together at festive times—like Thanksgiving and Christmas—but also that we might be there to hold others’ hands as they encounter grief, or that they might hold our hands when disaster strikes us. It was a privilege to be a family in the hospital room, to let people see us laugh, sigh, inquire, grieve, and weep together. My heart goes out to those for whom this is not so. But beyond the immediate family, what a joy it was to see friends show up unannounced, just to be there for our kids. True friends may not be able to verbalize the answers for someone else’s problems, but by their presence they are the wings of God to those in need (Ruth 2:12).

Fourth, my eyes have been opened to the common grace of God enabling human beings to function as his image. According to Genesis 1–2, governing the world on God’s behalf is a major part of our mandate. This involves not only exercising godly authority over God’s earth, but also learning how the world works. Again as outsiders to the medical and anatomical field, I am amazed by the skill and wisdom of the medical staff attending to our grandson. How were they able to diagnose his ailment so quickly and so accurately? How did scientists and chemists and physicians figure out the formulas for the drugs (etoposide and carboplatin) that work for this particular malady? We may take none of this for granted. Apart from divine grace our diagnoses would always be wrong, and our solutions would always fail. But the God who has created the world and the principles by which it operates has also opened the eyes of human beings to recognize that order and to harness this knowledge for the advance of medicine.

Finally, my eyes have been opened to the gracious presence of God. Our grandson is not yet through the proverbial woods, but we have watched in awe as our prayers have been answered time and again. We have no guarantees that this story will end according to the script we write, but we have learned that however it ends, God is near, God is gracious, and God is good. We have no more entitlement to a trouble free life than anyone else, and we may never discover the answers to our “Why?” questions. However, we have been drawn closer to the “Who” of divine providence. With David we have learned that “in the valley of deepest darkness” (Psalm 23:4) the LORD is with us. Indeed, we have the assurance that whatever happens the strong arms of God are beneath us, beside us, before us, and above us. Where we go he goes, a glorious fact celebrated by the psalmist alluded to earlier:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day,

for darkness is as light with you.

(Psalm 139:7–12, ESV)

Above and beyond our wonder over the physical body, we have been amazed by the emotional and psychological resilience of a thirteen year old. Brennig’s suffering from his therapy has been different but just as intense as the pain of the original malady, and he could be sitting on the ash heap bitterly bemoaning his fate. But we sense no bitterness or anger in him. He has a thousand questions, but they arise from his inquisitive mind, rather than a bitter spirit. He has seized this moment as an opportunity for learning, and has capitalized on an educational experience he could never get in the classroom. Above all he has learned a lesson on life; it is a gift. Filled with gratitude for every breath, Brennig is looking to the LORD to walk with him through this journey and into a future that only God knows.

Share your thoughts
  • Connie Wilbur
    January 10, 2015

    Dear Dr. Block: My son Brian Wilbur, who had you for a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary quite a few years ago (he thought very highly of you), posted your blog on his facebook page. (He is planting a church in Glens Falls, NY with his wife Charlotta and they have a one year old and another on the way). I am so thankful that he posted this. And, I am very thankful to you for sharing about this life experience and about the amazing God we have Who is involved in everything and how He opened your eyes to so much. It is more than a blog…this is a sermon that touched my heart and I know and pray will touch many. Those things that God gives us…that He changes…that He takes away…they are hard, but they teach us so much…how precious life is and what a gift each day is…and can bring us into closer communion and fellowship with one another…and most important…with Him! Brennig…I will be praying for this fine young man…thisi precious grandson of yours who is going through so much right now. May our God heal him and wrap His loving arms around all of you at this time. Thank you again for sharing this and for opening our eyes as well to our mighty and awesome God!

    • Maggie
      June 22, 2015

      Cant stop my tears when you shared this morning In the lecture ,thank you for letting me see His work in your downs. We need such messages.
      Maggie

  • Karen Meadows
    January 10, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this story. What a privilege to be among those who know you (Ellen) and hold you up before His Throne of Grace. Because of His five wounds we have hope.

    • "Encouragement," who is encouraged by you.
      January 14, 2015

      “Because of his five wounds we have hope.”
      That is beautiful, like a rallying cry!
      Thank you.

  • pamela nelson
    January 10, 2015

    Thanks Dr. Block your words are a great gift to those experiencing such events in life. We often don’t realize infirmity is more the “norm” than “wellness”. We often don’t realize the infirmities that beset us because the amazing body God has given us compensates in miraculous ways. We will be praying. The support and prayers of family and friends are critical to the power of healing! Love to you all

  • Roy Moody
    January 10, 2015

    Thank you

  • flo boss
    January 10, 2015

    So well said.M

    y husband died of pancreatic cancer when we were both 56 and it was an amazing journey. Sadly in today’s culture so many are led to believe that feeling good and being happy are entitled to us many times preached from a pulpit. Joy is not the absence of sorrow but the presence of God
    In the drought we dig our wells deeper
    Psalm 71:14 was and still is a great comfort and also Romans 15 :13
    Thanks for the words of wisdom and may you be blessed!

  • Deb
    January 10, 2015

    Your words of Wisdom continue to nourish my soul. Thank you. And who knows….you may have a grandson in the medical field someday and he can explain some of the above mysteries to you! Love & Prayers to you and yours.

  • Jeffrey Edward Wencel
    January 12, 2015

    Dear Professor Block,

    Thank you for showing forth the goodness of God during this difficult time for your family. We confess and trust with you—”God is near, God is gracious, and God is good”—and pray for your family, and not least Brennig, to continue to experience the powerful and peaceful presence of our covenant-keeping heavenly Father.

    God’s peace be with you all through Christ Jesus,

    Jeff and Emily Wencel

  • Rhoda
    January 12, 2015

    Moved to tears…….thanks for sharing.

  • Margaret Gibson
    January 13, 2015

    Dr. Block,
    Thank you for your words. I am blessed and I’m sure that sweet grandson of yours is as well.

    God be with you always!

  • Dean Akers
    January 13, 2015

    Dr. Block,
    Thank you so much for writing this. Every time we go and spend time with the Family we come back BLESSED. The Yates are truly an example of CHRIST in our world. Brennin is a special young mania the eyes of our Lord and Savior.

  • Helen Nickel
    January 13, 2015

    Good Morning Dan and Ellen –

    Thank you for reminding me of the greatness of God in all situations. His goodness never changes even when things change here in this imperfect world. We experienced this in the three weeks we sat with my sister Elvera. Tears come quickly, but my tears are tears of gratefulness to God and the Hope that we have in His promises. I am touched deeply with your grandparenting and also with Doug and Jenelle’s spirit of trust. Brennig is an example of endurance, acceptance, trust and pushing on as he awaits better things. Yes, you are right when you say that community and friends are gfits from God in such a time.
    God is all about community and experiencing pain and joy together. God bless you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Hope to see you in June or July, right?

  • Edith Baerg
    January 13, 2015

    Thanks Dan for words of wisdom. We walked through cancer this year too but not as traumatic as what Brennig is going through. Every day we were thankful for each other, and though our friends and family were mostly quite far away we knew they were praying and loving us. We remember you and Ellen a lot and now have quite an ongoing connection with your kids, even if they don’t know it! Thanks again.

  • Iain Foxell
    January 13, 2015

    Thankyou for putting pen to paper.It is good to be reminded of the reality of faith.

  • Jesse Pruett
    January 13, 2015

    Dr. Block,

    Thank you so much for your words. You continue to teach me even as I have left your classroom. May God continue to bless you and your family and use all of y’all to touch the lives of so many. The prayers of my wife and me are with Brennig, you, and all of your family. May the grace of God be ever with you!

    Grace and peace,
    Jesse Pruett

  • "Encouragement" Encouraged
    January 14, 2015

    Thank you, Dr Block!
    Especial thanks for not choosing words that make the effects of the Fall on treatments seem less awful than they are.

    -from one of the young people who come to learn Deuteronomy in the summers

  • Lydia Parks
    January 15, 2015

    Good morning, Dr Block,

    Though I do no know you, you are my brother in Chriat as well in His suffering. Two weeks ago, my precious Philip, 13 years old was rushed into emergency brain surgery. He has since been diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. He is still recovring post-op, but is moving along quickly. I am seeking out follow-up treatment now, which is a prayer request. I will be praying for your dear grandson.
    IIn His arms,
    Lydia

  • Cliff Tatum
    January 15, 2015

    Thank you for sharing. Praying that God will heal your grandson
    Cliff

  • Klyne
    January 16, 2015

    Dan, Honored to call you friend. Thanks for your good reflections. You do have our prayers, and may God’s presence be especially evident to you and your family.

  • Jim and Joan Stough
    January 19, 2015

    Dan and Ellen, please know of our love for you and our frequent prayers for Brennig. Having a granddaughter who is a paraplegic gives us some insight into the suffering of a beloved grandchild. As a family, God has taught us much through this experience. Though we have often asked “Why?” we may not get the answers in this life, still we believe that being able to ask that question of our Heavenly Father is part of the childlike faith we are encouraged to have.

  • Cai Talvio
    January 25, 2015

    Dear sir!

    Thank you for sharing this. I will be also praying for your grandson. I too am suffering from multiple brain tumours. I will have my 11th brain tumour surgery in 12 years. I have undergone mutiple radiation therapies also. But I know were I am going, and so does apparently your grandson also.

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