by Harvey Brown
It’s been quite a little saga for me the last few years. If you were to ask me, “How are you?”, I would have said, “I’m doing great.” Maybe it’s my natural optimism. Or a built in denial mechanism. But most of the time I really do think I’m doing fine.
I was a happy little kid who looked at the glass and saw it at least half full—and always chock-full of possibilities, some of which were, shall we say, creative. That creativity and inventiveness bugged my teachers to no end. From time to time my creativity landed me in the principal’s office. One of those trips almost kept me from graduating high school, even though I was in the top 5% of my class. But that story will have to wait for another time. You’ve already gotten the picture: I am a risk taker, creative thinker, and card carrying extrovert who is, on occasion, impulsive.
Whenever we are together, the family Brown loves to regale ourselves—and anyone else who will listen—with stories of various falls, pratfalls, stumbles (physical and social), and other events which bring laughter to Marilyn, me, and our four adult children. The humor is often at my expense. And the extrovert in me relishes the attention even if there be personal cost involved. It’s just part of our family story and the way our family works.
Having had a career in the military, physical fitness has been a regular part of my lifestyle for nearly forty years. Even during these (g)olden years, I have continued age-appropriate conditioning and exercise. However, I no longer take summer mountain bike rides in the Bavarian Alps, hurling myself down double-black diamond ski slopes from glacier line to valley below.
When I reflect on the last few years, I’ve had some age-appropriate and lifestyle induced physical problems that limited my level of activity and conditioning. But don’t worry. For those of you old enough to remember, I don’t plan to pull an LBJ on you. (If you have no idea about this reference, I am thinking of when President Lyndon B. Johnson showed the press his scar from gall bladder surgery in 1965.)
I’ll spare you my gory details. But when I attempt an unbiased assessment of how it’s been, I must admit I have struggled physically over the last three or four years. Reviewing my DayTimer, most entries begin with “Dr.” None of these were directly related to my Army career, although I did survive a military parachute malfunction. A couple of inches shorter than when commissioned in 1979, I have a lot to be grateful for.
Most of these physical problems could have happened to any other baby boomer named Harvey. I had a knee “blow-up” late one spring. No golf that year. I also became very close to my urologist. I learned things I never wanted to know. For example, you can actually see the inside of your urinary tract. Some surgeons like to insert an entire television studio through a tiny opening so they can see what’s going on in there. And if you can open your wincing eyes long enough, you can see the monitor too.
Once recovered from surgery, the next year I resumed conditioning and strength training to prepare for golf season and my national and international ministry travel. Only that had to stop because of two hernias I developed. Not run-of-the-mill hernias, but the “better-not-bend-over-and-tie-your-shoe” kind of hernias.
Living in the Smoky Mountains, I am close to a well reputed University medical center. So my family practice provider referred me to “the man.” Young, dynamic, state-of-the-art arthroscopic surgeon, my hernia repair was scheduled as outpatient surgery. Twenty-eight days later, a few miracles, multiple units of blood, and several pounds lighter, I was back home. This was one of those “golly, that’s never happened before” moments for the surgical team. And another one of those learning events about things I never wanted to know. When my blood pressure dropped to 60 over 30, I told Marilyn that I loved her and was going to see the Lord. She became upset.
“If you die, I’ll kill you!”
That got me thinking abut how messy this whole thing had become. I really believed I was gone. Things were not working well up to that point. So I was rather looking forward to checking out of the hospital and joining the throng around the Throne. But after Marilyn threatened me I decided to become an ally in the fight to save me. And I discovered Father’s grace in all of this.
Trust me. You do NOT want to be case-of-the-month at a University medical center. But a lot of physicians, interns, residents, and nurses came by my room as a result. So I was able to see lots of folk I would have never met. I told them of a Saviour who had—and was—saving me.
Obviously I lived. About four months later the surgeon cleared me to begin a recovery regimen of strength and conditioning. I envisioned travel back to Africa. Playing golf (not in Africa). And being strong and “normal” again.
So here I am, being a good boy, taking recovery cautiously, and following Mayo Clinic protocols for core strengthening. Then the strangest thing happened. Back pain. Lower back pain. Not run-of-the-mill back pain, but the “better-not-bend-over-and-tie-your-shoe” kind of back pain. A whole year-plus of back pain. The herniated disc in my lumbar spine had colluded with age and weakness to take me out of the game. Discouragement piled on like a bunch of sixth grade boys at recess jumping on whoever was brave enough to pick up the football.
If you had told this frequent flyer that he would not step onto an aircraft for over two years, he would have thought you demented. But the longer I was grounded, the greater my sense of hopelessness grew. I had more to do. A Gospel to proclaim. Poor pastors in west Africa I could train. Grand-kids I wanted to get down and play on the floor with.
Physical therapy didn’t work. Prescriptions couldn’t salve the pain. Skilled and caring physicians tried again and again to bring healing.
Late last fall I began a series of tests that confirmed I was a candidate for a relatively new surgical approach. So I braced myself for a series of procedures, each one month apart.
While I was preparing for this, I decided to wean myself off all prescriptions. I felt like I needed to really know what my pain levels were in order to gauge the effectiveness of what I would go through. Under supervision of my family physician I surprised the specialist when I announced that I was drug free. Most people escalate dosage as the efficacy of the pharmaceuticals wanes. But I was serious about being better. Really better.
The day after the first procedure I was making coffee. We are true coffee snobs. We triple grind our German arabica beans. Sometimes the fine dust from our coffee grinder might cause me to sneeze, which is not a good thing. Since the herniated disc, sneezing caused pain that would literally drop me to my knees (well, at least one of them) six out of ten times.
As I felt the sneeze start to build, I grabbed hold of the counter top with both hands and pulled myself against it. The violent explosion of my coffee sneeze echoed through the house.
But there was no pain. It seemed too good to be true.
The next day was a repeat of the previous, except I did my family-famous double sneeze. Same fear when I felt it coming, same gripping of the counter, same violent explosion x 2. And no pain.
I called to Marilyn, and we stood holding one another in the kitchen as I wept and thanked the Lord Jesus for what had just happened.
Two more procedures and four months of therapy later my doctor released me. I was declared well. Nurses hugged me as I left. Gurney drivers shook my hand.
Back to the golf course, I started easy. A small bucket of balls and my wedge. Sore as all get out the next day, but only from unused muscles. The back was fine. Repeat the next day. Same results. Woo hoo!
Marilyn and our children kept cautioning me not to overdo things. No problem. I’ve waited a long time to be where I am. Let’s start connecting with those declined invitations to minister. I should be strong enough for the west coast in a couple of months, Africa in five.
So after church last Sunday I went into our storage unit to retrieve one of my travel cases that had lain dormant on the top of the stack in the back of the storage. On the very top. In the very back. You need to understand that I am well now. Therapy has made me stronger. I’m not full speed, but I am getting closer.
After unlocking the unit, I raised the rolling door and looked up toward the back-right-top corner of the pile. So what’s going through my head? “Yep. There it is. In its box. Just like it was stored by my son. Hard to get to? Sure. Imposssible? I don’t even know how to spell that word. I’m inventive, courageous, a soldier (once a soldier, always a soldier). I’ll just climb up there in my Sunday clothes and get that sucker.”
Perhaps a little impulsive. Maybe bad judgment. Really bad judgment.
I started climbing until I was standing, balanced on the top of a bed headboard that was leaning against the pile. “Just because I’m sixty-six years old doesn’t mean I have to live in a rocker on the porch. If I just stretch my next step over to the bag of camping equipment….”
As I shifted my weight to take the next step, the headboard on which I was precariously perched gave way. I fell backwards, taking part of the pile with me. I landed against a maple-topped rolling kitchen island that was supporting an old cathode ray TV. My ribs (lower back right) crushed into the edge of the kitchen island as I pin-balled my way through stored items. The pain was excruciating. It felt somewhat like being struck in the back by a crazed construction worker wielding a 2×4, wildly clubbing anything in his path—which at this moment happened to be my back. Gravity again proved to be my master.
From the car Marilyn heard me groaning and calling her name. She ran into the storage unit and eventually moved the stuff that had fallen on me. It took what seemed like an eternity to extricate myself from the wreckage of my personal earthquake. I couldn’t take a regular breath because of the pain. I could hardly crawl into the car. A mirror at home reflected a contusion across the bottom of my rib cage on the back right.
“Can hardly take a breath. Probably broken, but nothing can be done about that,” I thought. “No need to go to the ER this evening. I know what emergency rooms are like on the weekend.” Having been injured before (remember the family stories), I knew to ice, take Tylenol, and call my doctor in the morning. Marilyn and I took communion together and prayed, and we texted a group of friends inviting them to commune with us in the Spirit and pray for me.
My appraisal and self-diagnosis was confirmed by the x-ray. Broken ninth rib, right side, rear. Prescription medicine to help me bear the pain. A strong son who helps lift me from the bed in the morning. The pain is too intense to roll over or to sit myself up. A prognosis of three months of regular pain, six months to heal, and occasional twinges of sharp pain during the last three months of convalescence.
There goes the ministry trip to the Pacific Northwest. There goes Africa. There goes golf again this year. All so unnecessary. All casualties of the dangers of being healthy and drug free.
Right now you may be saying, “Hold on just a minute, Harvey. It was your impulsiveness, your stupid decision that brought this on. It wasn’t being healthy and drug free that caused this catastrophe.”
Alright. I’ll agree with you. But…
There is precedence for people in recovery making ill-timed or unwise decisions—sometimes even catastrophic ones—when they are coming out of a dark or painful place. We all know folk who have been hurt through a difficult relationship jumping into a new, and possibly equally destructive relationship. It’s called “rebound.”
Our local church has a year-long residential addiction recovery outreach modeled (to a great degree) on Teen Challenge. There are both men’s and women’s programs. The two are separate in all they do. “Students” even sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary during worship. But sure as the world, before you can say two Lord’s Prayers or three Hail Marys there will be a wedding of two recent graduates. And I’ve watched a number of these exuberant unions suffer because of impulsive loneliness and a deep longing to be needed and accepted. The couple may be “healthy and drug free,” but the dangers for repeat performances of brokenness and poor coping can be every bit as real as before. Enthusiasm from a sense of wholeness can fog vision in much the same way as impairment did before.
Back to President Johnson (LBJ). Elected Vice-President of the United States in 1960, he was sworn in as President on Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This lanky Texan was a shrewd politician who well understood his role and the significance of the Office of President. Elected in his own right in 1964, he enacted sweeping legislation known as “The Great Society.” But it was during his Presidency that the Vietnam war escalated to the levels of the conflict we all associate with the word “Vietnam.”
In the fall of 1965, President Johnson had surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The famous photo seen in the graphic that accompanies this article had as its original caption: “10/20/1965-Bethesda, MD: President Johnson, in good spirits after a walk around the hospital grounds and buoyed by thought of leaving hospital, pulls up the tails of his sports shirt to show his surgical bandage and to illustrate just where it was that the surgeons ‘messed around’ in his abdomen.”
His exuberance in the moment of renewed health led to a revealing and very unpresidential act. Johnson enjoyed his Texas persona, but editorial cartoonist David Levine “…created a powerful image of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 by alluding to this almost trivial incident: Johnson exposing the scar on his belly from a recent gall bladder operation. But Mr. Levine turned the scar into a defining physical characteristic of the man. He also turned it into his defining political characteristic because the scar was an outline of a map of Vietnam. The caricature was accurate to the point of prophecy: it showed the wound that was to bring down the president.” (Note: This cartoon is in this article’s graphic.)
Another example of the dangers of being healthy and drug free. Exuberance overriding judgment, resulting in a different kind of wound, enthusiastically self-inflicted.
I’m also thinking of a famous biblical character—another leader—who had become healthy and drug free. In his exuberance about recovery, he made decisions which brought catastrophic consequences to his nation and his descendants. His name was Hezekiah. He reigned as King of Judah for twenty-nine years. You can read his story in three places in the Old Testament (2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32; and Isaiah 36–39).
Hezekiah was a good man. He was a God-follower who took seriously his role and responsibilities as King of Judah. These characteristics made him the polar opposite of his father and kingly predecessor, Ahaz.
Among the many notable successes of Hezekiah’s reign were a cleansing and restoration of the Temple, the consecration and reestablishment of the Priesthood and Levitical worship responsibilities, and the destruction of various symbols and remnants of idolatrous pagan practices. He directed one of the most significant engineering projects in ancient Jerusalem, the digging of a six hundred yard underground aqueduct to channel water from the Gihon Spring into the Pool of Siloam in the city, thus making a water supply available for Jerusalem even if it were under siege. He hung out with Isaiah, the man considered by many to be the greatest Old Testament prophet.
But fourteen years into his reign, Hezekiah became sick—not only sick, but deathly ill. Although details of the disease are somewhat obscure, we can gather from the text that he was in really bad shape…so much so that the Lord God instructed Isaiah to go to Hezekiah and tell him to write his obituary and get his house in order because he was about to die. (Okay, I made up the part about the obituary, but I’m a preacher telling this story and I know you didn’t stop to study the details of the Scripture references above.)
Being seriously ill is bad enough. But having God tell you you’re about to die soon really sucks the goody out of your day. Hezekiah rolled over on his side, faced the wall, and began to cry fearful, bitter tears. He also prayed.
There’s nothing quite like a genuine crisis to activate your prayer life. And for Hezekiah, this was a crisis of the highest magnitude. “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.”
Isaiah was reaching for the palace door knob when the Lord spoke again, telling him to turn around and deliver another message to Hezekiah. “This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.”
This was Hezekiah’s last second three-pointer, his bottom-of-the-ninth home run. What looked like ultimate defeat was suddenly in overtime. Fifteen more years. Along with the prognosis of health came a bizarre but effective prescription drug: Fig poultice. Just what the Doctor ordered. The ailing king knew the outcomes would be good.
No Tweets, texts, timeline posts, or Instagram. No MailChimp email blasts. No Apple tablets, just clay. All communication was face time. Yet news spread rapidly of Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery and the amazing movement of the Sun’s shadow. Sympathy cards were tossed in favor of “Congratulations.”
It’s at this point that Hezekiah faced the dangers of being healthy and drug free. Sickness and poultice were gone. So was good judgment, thrown out the window because the presence of the Lord—that wonderful still, small voice which can lead, guide, rebuke, and comfort—was lifted. “But Hezekiah did not respond appropriately to the kindness shown him, and he became proud. When ambassadors arrived from Babylon to ask about the remarkable events that had taken place in the land, God withdrew from Hezekiah in order to test him and to see what was really in his heart.” (2 Chron. 3:25a,32 TNIV)
What was revealed was neither humble, wise, nor godly. The envoys from the King of Babylon were well-wishers bringing personal greetings from His Majesty to His Majesty, along with appropriate kingly gifts. Here things started really getting sticky for Hezekiah.
It was less than two years previous that Hezekiah was stripping all the gold and anything else of value from the Temple and Royal Palace to pay off the King of Assyria. Demanding “tribute” from a King was simply international extortion. If the weaker paid the stronger’s demands, the tribute bought a reprieve from attack as well as relief from possible annihilation. Because of the Assyrian extortion, Judah and Hezekiah were essentially bankrupt.
To make things worse, King Sennacherib and the Assyrians double-crossed Hezekiah and marched against the city. Twice. Jerusalem was under siege, under manned, under armed, and under the bus. It would be only a matter of time until the city fell and Hezekiah probably killed. It was during this time that he struggled with his fatal/not fatal illness.
I have a Pentecostal minister friend who specializes in deliverance ministry. He told me one day, “You know, brother, I’ve learned over the years that you just can’t cast out stupid.” If it were possible, I believe Isaiah would have tried a deliverance session with Hezekiah over this unbelievably stupid decision rooted in pride and insecurity. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 ESV)
One factor in Hezekiah’s failure may have been related to the origin of his treasures. He had already surrendered Judah’s national wealth as tribute money to Sennacherib. The treasure he displayed to the Babylonians was newly acquired plunder remaining after the death angel spent a busy night among the sieging Assyrians. The treasure was abandoned in place after 185,000 had been killed. Sennacherib and the other survivors literally “decamped, departed, returned” (2 Kings 19:36).
Kingly success was gauged by pomp, splendor and wealth. With Babylonian envoys on the scene for a state visit, an exuberant and healthy Hezekiah not only had opportunity, but now the means to impress the Babylonians. Since they were giving him special attention, he would give them something to remember—a guided tour of all the treasures of the nation (which he probably took personal credit for).
Overall, God tolerated this failure of Hezekiah. Scripture testifies of him: “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after his time. He remained faithful to the Lord in everything, and he carefully obeyed all the commands the Lord had given Moses.” (2 Kings18:5-6 NLT)
If nothing else, this whole incident demonstrates that we are dangerous—to ourselves and others—when left to our own devices and the deeds of the flesh. Hezekiah, minus the heart/thought/action temperance of the presence of the Lord through the Holy Spirit, demonstrated the dangers of being healthy and drug free—and self-led. There is no substitute for the leadership and wisely restraining and empowering presence of God the Holy Spirit.
I’m so grateful that God’s mercy and grace are not dispensed only to those who make good decisions. If that were so, I would be lost and without hope. As it is, I am only broken. But I am full of hope. For this same God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead lives in my mortal flesh. His blood covers my sin. His grace redeems me—even from the danger I am to myself when healthy and drug free. And I’m encouraged that his healing, mercy, and grace are extended not only to folk just like me, but all those who call on His name.
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