Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Trish #18

This was quite an eventful day!

Several doctors, social workers and therapists came by Trish's room and administered various kinds of tests. I'll try to recap the results for you.

They determined that Trish can swallow. However, she cannot swallow well enough to drink liquids unless they are thickened with corn starch. The preliminary cognitive test revealed that Trish has made remarkable progress. Though, when looking at a clock, she could not tell the time. (I asked her if not being able to tell the time distressed her. She laughed. "No!, she replied. For an hour she sat up in a chair (a normal one this time, not the therapeutic mechanical chair.) She wrote a few sentences for me on her little white board. From the tests and from observing her progress, the hospital recovery team decided to move her to rehab. So, this evening, Trish moved into the facilities where she will relearn to walk, go to the bathroom, eat normal foods and, in general, live the normal life that we take for granted.

One doctor told me that given her progress so far, it is entirely possible that Trish will return to normal in most ways in a year or less. But this will happen slowly, slowly, slowly and only as a result of much work and persistence.

People have been asking me what I have been reading these past few weeks. Not much of anything! On most days, I can't focus enough to read. I have been slowly reading Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, though. I began reading this book the day that Trish went to the hospital. I have also been reading Peterson's translation (and paraphrase) of the scripture which he calls The Message. Though I usually don't like paraphrases (or very many contemporary translations at all, for that matter,) Peterson 's version of Ecclesiastes and the Proverbs have really blessed me. So, I am making an exception for his paraphrase. I'm sure he'll be delighted!

Peterson begins his book with a quote from Nietzsche, "the truly great men of the world have been those who have maintained a long obedience in the same direction." Peterson's book by that title is worth the reading, to be sure. But even if you just read the quote from Nietzsche and meditate upon it a bit, you'll gain some important information for the journey of life.

Trish can only heal and recover if she undertakes and maintains "a long obedience in the same direction." Her recovery will require an acceptance of boredom, monotony, frustration, practice and failure then practice and failure again, weariness and a quality of character that the King James translators render as "longsuffering." Without longsuffering, Trish will live a very diminished life from this point on. If she just does what feels good, just watches TV and shuffles around from chair to dinner table to bed each day, what she will experience the rest of her earthly existence will be a kind of "sleepwalking through twighlight."

A return to a responsible quality of life will require something else altogether. It is no different for any of us.

In the first part of his book, Peterson says that never in the history of Christianity has it been easier to make converts but more difficult to make disciples. He asserts that our churches and even our pulpits are filled with believers in Christ who have never accepted "the long obedience in the same direction." You can, after all, accept Christ in a moment. You can memorize the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty First Psalm in a few days. If you really get ambitious, you can do a ten week Bible study easily enough. But becoming a disciple requires a commitment to slowly, slowly work the teachings of Jesus into every fiber of your life.

The quality of spiritual life that God offers us requires the "long obedience in the same direction." For spiritual life is never a quick fix. It is never a sprint. It is never accompanied by drum rolls and the sounding of trumpets. Much of the time, the formation of spiritual life within us feels like we are missing out on exciting things. The little decisions we make when no one is watching and the uneventful actions we undertake when we would rather do something else -- simply because we have decided to be a follower of Christ -- are, to tell the truth, often boring and repetitious. Deciding to not pass the juicy gossip on, putting up with that boring old lonely man who wants to talk to us every Sunday after church, stopping to pick up the piece of paper on the church grounds that someone carelessly threw down -- these are the kinds of things that really make a disciple over long periods of time. They are not things that provoke people to write our names in the sky. Over time though, such simple actions push out the selfishness, pride, hunger for power and the like from our souls. Since spiritually toxic attitudes like these destroy our spiritual life, learning how to neutralize them is of major importance. The actions that we slowly adopt in order to move away from these idols of the age, reflect transformations that are taking place at the deepest levels of our being. Usually, we do not even know that these transformations have been happening to us or to our loved ones until some life-altering event comes to reveal them.

That is what has happened in Trish's life.

Today, the lady doing Trish's preliminary cognitive evaluation asked her to write down a phrase of her choice -- any phrase at all -- on a space at the bottom of the paper. I watched as Trish slowly, painfully, scribbled out: "count your blessings; name them one by one." I stared at the paper. Here is a woman who has lost her ability to tell the time. She can't turn over in her bed. She can't even drink water without choking. Where did such a phrase come from? Why did she choose it?

Such a phrase could only come from a beautiful soul who has been steadfastly maintaining "a long obedience in the same direction."

Poor Nietzsche wrote that wonderful phrase. He nonetheless died a raging lunatic. For him, meaning in this world got reduced to a quest for power over others. He deplored the weakness of character and the erosion of willful strength that he believed Christ had introduced into the classical Roman world. I am afraid that most of us in contemporary life have adopted his philosophy. Even many Christian leaders seem to have adopted it. They quote the words of Jesus but live the life of Nietzsche. In the end though, our nervous avoidance of all things tedious, repetitious, boring and obscure -- our cynicism about servanthood and our secret disdain for humility of heart -- leaves us addicted to a need for ever-growing doses of adrenaline and stage presence. It is often not until that dark day when the stage lights go out for us that we realize we never really had an audience; that we have been alone on an empty stage created by our own imagination. Nietzsche's way is death and madness. It can't be the road to a meaningful Life.

Trish, even in her present state of trying to recover from her brain trauma, is at peace. For she is counting her blessings and she is naming them one by one. Her struggle has become an aroma, the incense of a God-centered life rising from a soul whom Satan has attempted to crush but whom God has chosen to honor. It is the life I want too. It is the kind of life that leads us home.

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