Looking Back

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During the summer I turned 10 years old, I was on top of the world.

I played lots of softball.  I was even asked to be the starting pitcher in my league’s All-Star Game.

Our family took a memorable road trip.  It culminated in a visit to Mammoth Cave, which launched my lifelong love of spelunking. 

As a kid who actually enjoyed school, I couldn’t wait to begin fifth grade. 

The final act of summer was the obligatory visit to the family doctor – the one where he would smile, nod, check all the boxes on the school health form, and send me on my way.

But Dr. Glenn C. Lord (the man who had brought me into the world a decade earlier, and for whom my parents had named me) did not smile and nod when he listened to my heart.  His stethoscope seemed to linger over my chest for a very long time.  He asked his nurse to draw some blood – a novel experience for me, and definitely not my favorite new thing.  “Come back in two weeks,” he said to my mother.

Fourteen days later we returned.  Dr. Lord remained silent as he listened to my heart.  “Glenn, why don’t you step into the waiting room for a few minutes,” he said. 

About a half hour later my mom and I were heading home.  “What is it?” I asked.  I remember that she gripped the steering wheel tightly.  She began to cry.  “Do you remember last year, when you had that high fever?”  I had been assailed by a strep infection.  My fever had spiked to 106 degrees.  “Dr. Lord says you contracted rheumatic fever.  It damaged your heart.  Things are going to be different now.”

That was an understatement.

It took me a while to master the specifics of my medical condition.  I informed friends and neighbors that I was suffering from “romantic fever,” which prompted several adults to sigh and say, “I had that once.” 

Rheumatic fever was still a terrifying malady in the early 1960’s.  The prescribed treatment was twofold: a daily dose of oral penicillin and an almost absolute cessation of physical activity. 

My participation in sports of any kind was over.  That’s tough for a 10-year-old boy to hear.  The fifth grade classroom at Indianapolis Public School #66 was on the second floor.  I could walk up the stairs just once each day.  Because the school had no lunch program, kids always walked home at midday.  I brought my lunch and stayed behind, eating in the classroom by myself.  Sometimes I was joined by my teacher, Miss Carnegis. 

My bedroom was on the second floor of our house.  I could walk up the stairs once daily.  After school I would put on my pajamas and get into bed.  That’s where I stayed until morning.  I followed this program of radical withdrawal from “strenuous activities” for almost a year.  Suffice it to say that Mom constantly hovered over me.  “Are you having chest pains?” she would ask. 

Even as Dr. Lord gradually lifted my restrictions, he predicted that I had almost certainly lost my shot at a normal life.  I would never climb a mountain.  I would never play tennis or basketball or any sport that stressed my cardiovascular system.  I would have to refrain from physical exertion.  My place would be on the sidelines.  And I just might die as a young man. 

As it turned out, he was wrong. 

I never did return to gym class (something which probably improved my grade point average).  But by the time I arrived at college, numerous physical exams revealed that the damage to my heart was apparently less serious than first thought.  All restrictions were removed.  I climbed a few mountains.  I resumed playing sports. 

A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.  Once again I felt free. 

All it had cost me was half my childhood. 

But there’s more to this story.  That dire diagnosis and everything that followed turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

As a 10-year-old, I had always loved books.  But as soon as I was sentenced to my classroom and my bedroom, books became my closest companions.  They were my world.  I don’t doubt that God was always going to call me to ministry.  But those years of seclusion, more than anything else, were shaping the kind of ministry I would one day be able to provide. 

I would even dare to say that my rheumatic fever, while genuinely exasperating and hope-crushing all those years, actually accomplished a kind of preparation I would never otherwise have received.

On at least three occasions, the apostle Paul begged God to take away a particular affliction in his life.  He called it his “thorn in the flesh.” In one of the Bible’s most dramatic examples of unanswered prayer, God flatly said No. 

“My grace is sufficient for you,” God assured Paul, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

God, in other words, does not always supernaturally end our suffering.  But he makes supernatural use of our suffering.  And that makes all the difference in the world.

Maybe not to a 10-year-old boy. 

That is, until that boy grows up and looks back and is able to see, at last, the hand of God.