Reflections on Surgery and Holy Week

In all of my life I have never had to have an internal surgical procedure. That changed in late February. I guess I was overdue. I discovered that I needed to get a couple of hernias patched. These days this surgery is considered a low risk, outpatient procedure and I had a lot of confidence in the surgeon and the surgical method he would use so I wasn’t terribly worried or scared. Still, finding out for the first time that you are going to be laid out on a table, knocked out for a few hours and… was a little disconcerting. I’ll spare you the medical details. Anyone who has been through this knows them already. Those who haven’t probably don’t care to know them. I’m more interested in looking at the spiritual side of the experience: how to make the best of it. Read on if you’re interested.

It started out with trying to figure out how to manage this “interruption” in my plans. The best time for the surgery was on my school break between quarters but that was Holy Week–a very busy time for my wife, Mary Beth, whose job is to be the office manager for our church. Since this wasn’t emergency surgery, I didn’t want to inconvenience her during this time with my hospital visit and recovery. There were also previously made plans to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Easter weekend and for me to visit my brother in Arizona the following week. Then Mary Beth was going to be out of town the week after that. Scheduling around all these events made April 11th the earliest convenient surgery date. This would interrupt my next seminary course a little, but it seemed like the best alternative so I made plans accordingly. I was a little disappointed in having to wait so long, but there seemed to be no reasonable alternative.

Not wanting this experience to be one that was simply endured, I spent some time praying over it, asking God to fill it with meaning and significance beyond the physical necessity. I had been observing this season of Lent in particular with spiritual disciplines intended to help me better realize the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death for our sake–for my sake and for yours. This core belief of Christianity so easily becomes too familiar and abstract for Christians. It takes special effort to understand its meaning personally. Sadly, there have been few lenten seasons in my life where such efforts have not been either absent or weak and fruitless. I was a little more determined this year than most that this time of Lent would be one of the good ones. So when this need for surgery imposed itself on my experience of Lent this year, I asked God to use even this small amount of suffering to somehow serve as a lesson in the participation in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to which Christians are called.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11 ESV).

The Christian hope is to share in the resurrection of Christ. In anticipation of that hope being ultimately realized, the apostle Paul here speaks about this “walk in newness of life” as a present reality. How does this reality manifest itself in the life of Christians? That is the working out of our salvation and sanctification in the power conveyed to us by Jesus Christ. For those of us who struggle with the realization of this new life in ourselves, is there any assurance that we are not simply trying to rely on our own feeble efforts at self-improvement? I wanted to ask God for some sort of affirmation of his presence at work in my life. I wanted him to meet me somehow in this bit of personal ordeal. Being put under anesthesia is a bit like dying, being put to sleep against my will. I would submit to it in the hope that the pain and suffering to follow would result in a something of a resurrection; a new life where the injury to my body would be repaired and not be a source of pain, worry and danger that it was before. Would anything happen with this surgery that would connect the experience to my hope of what God is doing with my whole life, making it into one that will eventually transcend all suffering and even death? As I prayed about this, I gained some trust that God would be there with me through it all and that he would at least give me some sort of confidence through it that I don’t normally possess.

A week after I scheduled my surgery, I had a very uncomfortable day, physically and spiritually. I had a meeting with my spiritual director that day which seemed flat and much drier that usual. Something was there that wasn’t coming out in the open and I had little idea what it was. The only thought I had that seemed to come from God came during our closing prayer: “Relax.” What did that mean? I went home, cancelled an evening of fasting that I had planned, had dinner instead, and sat down to do some homework for school. All the running around I did that day put me in a lot more physical discomfort due to my condition than usual. I started to worry about walking around this way for another month before surgery. The doctors gave no cause for worry, but the type of hernia I had has a somewhat greater tendency to become “stuck” and thereby requiring emergency surgery. What if that were to happen while I was out of town visiting family members? The uneasiness about waiting so long began to grow and it resisted prayerful attempts to calm it. Finally I became convinced that I had to move the surgery date up. That meant putting it back into the beginning of Holy Week if I still wanted a chance at being recovered enough to make those family visits during the break.

I talked it over with Mary Beth when she got home that evening. If my son, Bryan, could take me to the hospital, she wouldn’t have to do so. He would be on Spring break from school. I called him and asked. Of course he would. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I called the doctor’s office the next day. March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, was open for surgery. Perfect. They moved my preoperative physical exam date up too and I was all set to go. There was a risk that I wouldn’t be recovered enough to travel over break if the surgery was more difficult than expected, but I decided to hope for the best. It just felt right. I was able to relax.

So now my surgery and recovery would be during Holy Week and seemed to belong there. This seemed significant. Was God answering my prayer by bringing my own little “death and resurrection” experience into alignment with our traditional observance of His? I was thankful that things worked out this way if only because my Holy Week reflections on Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection would be a bit more tangible and less abstract for me. I asked him to use this experience to impress upon my life the significance of his work and sacrifice.

The day of the surgery came quickly. St. Patrick’s Day. Could I have added any significance to that? St. Patrick certainly knew about pain and suffering, having been sold into slavery early in life and later putting his life on the line in opposing powerful pagan kings with the challenge presented by the King of kings. I remembered a famous prayer of protection attributed to Patrick, the Lorica, or “breastplate” of St. Patrick, and made it my prayer that morning.

Bryan went with me to the hospital. I think it was an interesting experience for him. I was glad to have him there. We had good, light hearted conversation while all the final preparations were made exchanging my clothes for a hospital gown, signing papers, meeting the doctors and nurses, getting an IV line attached to the back of my left hand. I didn’t feel very nervous, but a nurse said my blood pressure told a different story. I wondered if they see many people who are calm and relaxed while waiting for surgery.

Finally surgery time arrived and I was wheeled away, reclining on the gurney, to the operating room. It seemed surreal, like I was on a cart about to enter one of those haunted house rides at an amusement park. I suppose if there was a time to feel panic that would have been it. None came. I silently asked God to remember my request and be with me now. I was wheeled into the operating room. It was a very impressive looking place, but I didn’t have much time to look around. Some masked members of the surgical team helped be slide sideways off the gurney onto the narrow operating table, lying on my back. They attached a blood pressure cuff to my right arm and stretched it out onto small narrow table next to me. Then they took my left arm with the IV in it and stretched it out onto another table on the other side. Lying there on my back in this cruciform position was the last thing I remember before the anesthesia took effect. I couldn’t help but smile inwardly and feel a sense of peace and assurance as a familiar recognition of what my bodily position resembled dawned upon me. Yes, He was with me and I with Him. I relaxed and fell asleep.

The operation went as well as everyone had hoped. The week off from work gave me plenty of time to rest, recover, pray and ponder many passages of scripture relating to the events of the first Holy Week. I was happy to be able to participate in the Maundy Thursday evening service at Bethel Church in Columbus and to be able to hear a great teaching by Rob Bell at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids on Easter morning. I was recovered enough by Easter weekend to travel to Grand Rapids for a visit with my daughter and her husband. Thanks to Mary Beth and Bryan for doing all the driving. We had a great time.

I’m still a little sore and tired from the surgery but doing better every day. I’m looking forward to visiting my brother in Arizona later this week. Looking back on the past week, I realize that there could have been no better time for me to have this surgery than Holy Week. I thank God for it working out that way. This Holy Week will be remembered as one of the best.

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