Published: Fall 2012 in Feature Story

Suffering and Surrender

By Francine Bua Phillips ’73

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16. Just reading the reference brings to mind a chorus of small children memorizing it in a sing-song tone, stumbling over the “whosoever” while the teacher waves her hand like a music conductor and mouths, “That means you!” And the room is getting hot and stuffy, and my Dotted Swiss dress is starting to scratch the back of my knees, and one of the boys is always too loud on the word “begotten,” and what does a 6-year-old know about perishing anyway? Life is already everlasting to a 6-year-old in Sunday school. Especially everlasting in a Dotted Swiss, too-tight dress.

So somehow the impact of this amazing truth gets lost. Somehow we don’t get the picture that God loves the world and if we simply believe we become eternally alive.

Usually the idea is more like, God so loved a few who were holy, like he did in the time of Noah. Or God so loved those who were predestined to be part of the Kingdom of God, a chosen remnant, as he did the nation of Israel. Or God loved the good little boys and girls and gave them toys at Christmas. Or God loved the ones who will sacrifice their lives on some kind of cross the way Jesus did. Or God loved those who were attractive and well dressed, with styled hair. Or God loved those who would speak in tongues and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Or God loved those who acted cool and were able to play rock music for his glory and reject other rock music. Or God loved those who loved him back.

That’s not the message here. God loves THE WORLD, with its brokenness, sin, murder, deceit, foolishness, power plays, gossip, plastic surgery, gang initiations, the war in Vietnam, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Peace Corps, the lawyers, the Wal-Mart employees and the teenage shoplifters.

The love comes first, regardless of our response. God loves you. God loves me.

I was coming up to 40, a single mom for nearly eight years. My marriage to my seminary boyfriend had broken and died mostly because the only thing I had been taught about being a wife came from Proverbs 31. Isn’t the rest of Proverbs about how to become a wise and godly man? How come you never hear sermons on those chapters?

Because God so loved me, Mike sailed into my life. Before I met Mike, my sister once said to me, “You need to marry a man with five children who wants a wife to stay home—or an accountant.”

Well real life isn’t actually that simple. A family with seven kids can’t afford for the wife to stay home, and, besides, I loved my career as a writer. And Mike was no accountant. If Mike and I were going to make a home and family, it was going to have to include buying a new home, moving, juggling two businesses, six kids, a dog, two cats, and, as it turned out, a new baby.

Piece of cake.

When I was growing up, the organization Campus Crusade had this evangelistic mantra: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It was the lead sentence in the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. The implication was that if you repented and invited Jesus into your heart, life would become wonderful. Your life would follow a plan. No confusion, no worries. I had always considered it suspect, considering the starving Christians in Africa and the Christians being imprisoned in Russia. What’s their wonderful plan? But there was still this hidden, magical expectation that following God would somehow be rewarded with everything becoming a little easier. God had our backs.

Turns out I had it right the first time. God isn’t behind us. He’s leading us—we’re the ones who take up the cross and follow. Jesus said that the one who loses his life will find it. Not sure I would describe that as a wonderful plan. But somehow, decade after decade, churches hold out this little carrot. Believe and it will go better for you, not just in the next life, but in this one too. Starting now.

“Well Fran, today I gave my heart to Jesus Christ.” It was Easter Sunday, and I had been praying for Mike to become a Christian for 10 years. This was a day that many, many people in his life had prayed would come. I could almost hear the rejoicing angels, heaven ringing with cheers, and see God smiling, whatever that actually looks like: shimmering light? Intense radiance? Fireworks?

Jesus told a story about a shepherd who loses a sheep. He said that a good shepherd will leave the 99 sheep that are on the hillside and go after the one that is lost. When he finds the lost sheep, he returns rejoicing.

My heart bubbled with joy. All I could manage was one word.

“Really?”

Mike was completely serious, not shy and not hesitant.

“Yep, I asked God to forgive all my years of fighting him off and thinking that I was at the helm and could walk on water. I told him He could have everything. My business, my life—everything. I feel tremendous peace.”

And in that moment I wanted to believe in the magic. I wanted to believe that now our troubles would be made right and that things with Mike would start to get better.

Thanks, Lord. OK, is this where we get blessed?

God so loved me.

I guess none of us really believe in Jesus’ description in the book of Matthew about who are really blessed in this world: the poor in spirit, the mournful, the persecuted. Those poor souls would find their blessing in heaven, I had always been taught. Here they just had to suffer through it.

So in my mind, we were blessed. And now Mike was willing to let God be the leader of our lives. Icing on the cake.

There was a slight problem, however. Almost immediately, Mike showed signs of forgetfulness and mental confusion. That’s not what they say will happen in the altar call.

One night as the family sat at the dinner table, Mike came in from work.

“It’s all there, honey.” I said. “Just fill up your plate and join us.”

Mike looked tired. He took a plate, and I went back to the table, bringing the bread basket with me for the rest of the family. We started up our chatting and continued with stories of the day. Mid-story Mike sat down, and we were all watching Anna when suddenly she gave her dad a strange look, and there was silence. We all turned our heads.

Mike sat down at the table with a flat dinner plate that had a slightly raised edge. The plate was filled with thin sauce, nothing else. Slowly and deliberately, Mike took his spoon and dragged it across the plate, his hands shaking. When he raised it to his lips, he bent his head forward and concentrated on the spoon. Without spilling, he sipped the sauce, then brought his spoon down again for another scoop.

Anna stared. Then all the kids stared with their mouths open. Mike concentrated on his next sip. My heart was gripped with sadness, and tears came to my eyes.

I jumped up from my chair.

“Honey, I think you forgot to get the pasta.”

Whipping the plate off the table, I jumped over to the counter.

“How about some green beans, does that sound good? And I’ll put a little of this eggplant and cabbage on the side? Okay! I had fun cooking all of this, it turned out so good. There’s a little wine in the eggplant. I think you’ll love it.”

I set the plate back down in front of him piled with food. He stared at the plate, then picked up his spoon.

“Try using the fork, I think it might work better.”

The kids looked away with their heads down. One by one, they excused themselves from the table, and I ended up sitting alone with Mike, adjusting his napkin and watching him silently eat his meal bite by bite without looking up.

Lord, what is happening to Mike? He’s your child now. Do something!

Not long afterward, Mike collapsed on Shelter Island Drive, near his yacht business. An ambulance rushed him to the emergency room.

A few minutes later, the doctor entered the cubicle.

Well what are we going to do with this guy?”

I looked at him and wrinkled my forehead, trying to puzzle out his meaning.

What do you mean “we”?

“I don’t see any reason to keep him here.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you can take him home now.”

It took a minute for me to gather my thoughts. Maybe another 30 seconds to decide to confront the doctor.

“He’s tied to the bed and has an IV and a catheter. He can’t talk, can’t eat, can’t walk or sit. I wouldn’t even know how to get him out of the car, let alone up the stairs and into the house. This morning he drove to work, and now he’s incoherent. Are you telling me that you don’t intend to find out what’s wrong with him? Isn’t that your job?”

Just then Mike let out guttural sounds in rhythmic staccato. Suddenly his back arched, and his eyes opened. Then bulged from his eyelids. His body started jerking, legs flopped and head twisted.

“Seizure! Ativan!”

Nurses scurried to the bedside. They released the right restraints and turned him to the left while his body jerked uncontrollably. Mike started to foam at the mouth and it kept foaming and dripping down his chin. They pushed the drug into the IV, and it took about 60 seconds for it to reach the brain. The seizure did not stop completely for about five more minutes, my arms wanting to reach him and hold those shaking shoulders and throw my body on the bed to comfort him. It bothered me that no one wiped his chin.

I did not yet realize—and the realization would come slowly—that I had entered the completely compromised world of healthcare just as Alice in Wonderland had tumbled down a rabbit hole and nothing ever made sense again. In this world I was both critical and irrelevant; necessary and ignored; the decision-maker and expected to blindly go along with the decision of anyone in a white coat. I had no idea that such a world existed before Mike and I fell into it. And it wasn’t Wonderland.

God so loved me.

Back at the hospital, I slipped into the lobby restroom, shut the door and turned on the cold water. Handfuls were splashed over my swollen eyes and wiped with a coarse, dry paper towel. Then I carefully re-applied my make-up over tired skin and put on fresh lipstick. I brushed my hair. It had only taken a few days to learn that I was now part of the world of The Sick.

As The Wife, your role is to be bitter, sad, prayerful. You are not expected to understand the procedures, question anything, violate the corridors and closets on your own to find blankets or water. You are not expected to take the morning food tray off the bed and plop it on the floor outside the door, no matter how many hours it has been sitting there. No one thinks that The Wife will examine The Patient for bedsores, reposition the restraints so that The Patient can lie flat or turn to his side or scratch his nose, brush his teeth. No one expects The Wife to use The Patient-only toilet in the room, learn how the bed works, figure out the lighting in the room and make sure that the call button is within The Patient’s reach—then track down the nurse when no one comes. The Wife is expected to wring her hands, ask to speak with the chaplain and not use the cell phone.

When I looked inside the world of The Sick and saw desperate women in dirty mumus with unwashed hair being pushed aside by hospital personnel, I decided not to be THAT Wife. I read his chart (when they would allow it) and did my homework. I learned the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy. I found out what the medications were called and what they did. When I walked onto the hospital floor, I made a point of introducing myself to the nurse for that day and asking for a status report; finding out if the doctor had come by yet, if there were any procedures scheduled and when they would have results.

Mike got a diagnosis after four months in the hospital, central nervous system vasculitis, with a life expectancy of 60 days.

What was God trying to say to me? Two things, I think. Yes, I would need to be on my “A” game and offer the best of my mind, sensitivity, creativity and skills to Mike, but never forget that the outcome was in God’s hands. As Ed Noble, my pastor, likes to remind us, God says to us, “I’ve got this.”

The second meaning was that when we are completely surrendered, overwhelmed, hopeless and paralyzed with fear, we will find strength in trusting God. When we acknowledge our weakness, God provides strength. I wasn’t that familiar with this meaning. In fact I hated it. I hated feeling weak. God knew that about me and tried to make it as painless as possible while still making sure that I got there. Surrendered, overwhelmed, hopeless and paralyzed with fear.

Mystery is not an unfamiliar word for people who are on a quest to know God. How did God fashion the universe? A mystery. How is God three in one? A mystery. How did a virgin become pregnant, God become Jesus, Jesus die and rise from the dead and how does the Holy Spirit dwell within believers? Mystery. The Kingdom of God? Mystery. If you accept that you are created and there is a creator, you get used to knowing that there are things you will never know. I knew all of that in my head, but not in my heart.

For those who are on a quest to BE God, like the fallen angel Lucifer and his promise to Adam and Eve, knowledge is the golden apple. Mystery is a big, fat reminder that only God is all-knowing. Mystery is unacceptable.

Lord, why is this happening? Why did this happen to Mike? Why Mike? Don’t you love us anymore? Is this punishment? A test? What are you trying to teach us? Do it quickly, Lord, so we can put things back the way they were! Help me understand!

The next step in dealing with Yacht Outfitting was the mountain of debt that we owed. My advisers came up with a suggestion that led to one of the hardest things I have ever done: Call everyone who is owed money and ask for debt forgiveness.

How do you ask for someone to assume your debt?

Slowly I dialed the first number, and for the next five hours, one by one, I explained about Mike’s illness and asked perfect strangers if they would be willing to write off what we owed as bad debt and set Yacht Outfitting free from this enormous burden. There were tears on both sides of the phone line. Some people said yes—more than I expected. Some refused, feeling abused and angry. As I ticked off each call, the forgiveness began to outnumber the refusals. I ended the day with a new perspective on the power of forgiveness and the gift that God so simply offers to everyone who wants to be set free. Offers to me. Offers to you.

I saw Mike’s illness as a call to arms and gathered my warriors, armor and weapons to save Mike. Like Gideon the prophet, God had to whittle away at my battle-readiness. He kept telling me day after day, “My strength is made perfect in your weakness,” but I didn’t want to hear it. What I heard was more like, “My strength will show up when you’ve done everything you can do,” or, “If you do a good job, I’ll come alongside and boost you up.”

I prayed for strength, and God answered that prayer by giving me utter weakness. It turned out that what I thought was my strength was as helpless as Gideon’s army, blowing a pathetic horn and shattering an empty jar.

Mike got better and left the hospital. The 60 days and many more passed. It was July 4. Just as we were getting settled on the porch, our oldest daughter called.

“Can we bring the kids to watch the fireworks from your house? We don’t want them to be scared by the noise.”

“Of course, we’d love it.”

So we got out blankets to set on the grass as the grandkids turned their faces toward the sky. Mike and I watched the kids intently, settled on their parents’ laps with shining bursts of color reflected off their cheeks and mirrored in their widened eyes. We sang softly at the finale and could hear voices from the streets below join the song as bursts of color and the echoes of pounding booms filled our hearts. What could be a more breathtaking sight than fireworks filling the sky and reflecting off the joyful faces of those you love?

After sleepy hugs and tired kisses, they were bundled into the car, and Mike and I went down the staircase—me going first to break any possible fall and Mike grabbing the banister and making it down 13 stairs, one foot at a time. Through the night, an occasional BOOM! broke through our sleep like a wrecking ball, but we just rolled over and slipped back to sleep, never imagining that it was a warning cry.

At first I imagined that the sound I was hearing was the snap of more fireworks. After I was more awake, I noticed that it was a methodic pounding coming from the room just above my head.

What the heck?

I grabbed my robe and started up the stairs. Mike was already up, probably in his special spot for eating at the large kitchen counter. But this sound was coming from the living room: pound, pound, pound.

Halfway up the stairs I hollered.

“Mike, are you all right?”

“No!” came his answer as I got closer. There was a pause, and the pounding stopped.

“I’m not all right. I’m blind.”’

God so loved me.

After a while, our lives entered a semblance of normalcy, as much as a blended family of nine with a blind, ill, dad with no memory and random seizures could get. Everything was hard, but we tried to take everything one day at a time. Too many miracles of receiving help, money, work, healthcare, and other solutions could not be explained away by anything less than a spiritual power that was personal, loving and giving.

One morning I woke to find Mike staring into space, skin tight over his face with yellowed skin. By the time I got to the hospital following behind the ambulance, Mike was in a single room in the ER. A resident came forward and introduced himself.

“We’re not sure exactly what has caused it, but he seems to be in some kind of altered state. Semi-conscious. His brain appears to be shutting down. We can start with an MRI…”

“No,” I answered simply. “No MRI.”

“Maybe a CT Scan can tell us…”

“No. No CT Scan. No more. All he wants is pain relief. Can you please make him comfortable and give him something for pain relief?”

“And do you understand what this means?”

“Yes. Can you make him comfortable?

“Yes,” said the doctor. Then he turned to me again. “I happen to think you are right. You are very brave.”

“He is brave, doctor. He is amazingly brave. This was his choice, not to cling to life but to face what comes next.”

Eight years after his diagnosis, family gathered around, friends came, the people visited and pitched in over the next few days, and Mike was never alone. Most difficult, about every 30 to 40 minutes, he would shoot upright in bed and have a seizure. Unlike any previous seizure, his eyes would bulge and he would point to an unknown place of unrest like he was looking into the bowels of hell. Then after a minute or two he would collapse back to his pillows. There was no tiptoeing into the dark beyond. No floating towards the light. This was death, and it was hard.

When Jesus was crucified by the Romans at the demand of the Jews under their rule, it was a real death: fearful, bloody, sweaty and cruel. Like Mike enacting the DNR order, Jesus allowed it to happen, although he could have stepped down from the cross as others taunted him to do. Jesus surrendered to death, and his father turned his back on him and allowed death to swallow him because he loves you. He loves me. And nothing else—the things we hoard on earth, the success, the status, our health, the secrets we keep and the sum of our anxieties—is more real than that. It’s real. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the community of believers, and evil—it’s real. If you don’t believe it, ask God. He’ll let you know.

But Jesus had a weird twist to his death.

Jesus didn’t stay dead.

He came back to laugh and talk to people, eat, drink, cook and teach. He invited everyone to be humble and be on the receiving end of his love until he left this earth on his own terms. And he is alive today and is waiting for you to start a conversation, go deep, be honest and surrender everything else because it will all—all of it—pass away.

Everyone dies.

You will die. I will die.

But we don’t have to stay dead.

God so loved me.


Copyright 2010. This article was written with excerpts from a memoir, temporarily titled “The Truth Swing” currently being reviewed by agents. Francine Bua Phillips ’73 was the news editor of the Horizon student newspaper for four years and has been a professional journalist and author since graduating from Denver Seminary in 1977. You can provide feedback to Francine Phillips at write.now@cox.net.

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