It was a year ago today (Friday). I wrote this letter to a friend who still lives. I think it is worth re-posting.
The following is record of my one-way conversation with a friend who has been unresponsive for eleven years, the victim of brain damage. This dialogue took place in my head. There are no answers here. This is not intended to be a dissertation on medical ethics, constitutional law, or the meaning of life. It is not written with your questions in mind, yet you are invited to eavesdrop. It is merely Christian meditation. Take it, or leave it. It is holy to me. I share it only in the hope that others who yearn for heaven even as I do might rejoice in my discoveries of faith. Perhaps those who have loved ones in conditions like Terri Schiavo’s and Jeremy Janz’s* will be heartened to persevere in the preservation of life. May Christ be magnified.
May I vent? Even though I know that it is going to be a one-way conversation? The big event in Florida has stirred my soul, and I can’t help but think of you.
I’m an emotional guy. Stories like Terri Schiavo’s distress me. Everybody’s talking about it. Everybody has an opinion. As a nation we are emotionally drained. I am no bio-ethicist, cannot speak much concerning constitutional law, have a limited knowledge of our judicial system, and certainly do not know much about the human brain and neurology.
I do know the Lord, though. And I know you, Jeremy. In July 1994, you suffered a violent accident that robbed you of your mental and physical health leaving you in a condition they call PVS (persistent vegetative state). I know that there are some problems with the term PVS, but I use it here because that’s the only way I know how to describe your situation. You are nurtured by a feeding tube, and you are unresponsive to anything–anything but pain. Eleven years later, after the last time we spoke, I find myself writing my thoughts out to you while a woman in Florida who has suffered a similar condition to yours is dying, her feeding tube removed by the choice of her husband and decree of the courts. I feel outrage. It’s murder, I say. Then I look at your picture and feel sympathy. Wouldn’t death be relief? Then conviction: Who am I to question the sovereignty of God? Anger: Why, God? Why do You permit this? Conviction again: Forgive me, O Lord, I know that You are good. Too much of what I feel is earthbound. ‘My soul cleaveth to the dust; quicken Thou me according to Thy word’ (Psalm 119:25).
When I see this kind of thing on the news, I literally feel my stomach knot up and I say with the Psalmist, “Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake Thy law” (119:53). But the more I grow as a Christian, the more I sense the guilt of my nation on my own heart. Daniel, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah all felt convicted as co-conspirators of evil with their nations. When they confessed their sins, they also confessed the sins of their country. Isaiah, upon seeing our Jesus, said, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). He felt the guilt of his own people. That is often my feeling when I watch the news, Jeremy. Guilt. The weight of it is sometimes so great that I have to flee to a closet, kneel before God, and confess the sins of my nation, imploring His forgiveness. For, though I am a Christian, I am also an American. And America is guilty.
I can’t rescue Terri. But I have to do something. True repentance is always followed hard by a clearing of ourselves–a vehement desire, indignation, zeal, and a meticulous carefulness to approve ourselves as clear in this matter (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). But what can I do besides pray for Terri and confess the sins of my nation to my God? Nothing much, true, yet I thought I’d put some of that emotional energy to good use and, in my mind, sit down for a one-way conversation with my old college buddy. One-way because of your persistent vegetative state (PVS). You can’t respond to me. Don’t know me. Couldn’t remember me. Nor would you care if anyone overhears us.
Matter of fact, even if you were healthy, you probably wouldn’t care if anyone overheard us! You were an extrovert in college. I’ll never forget all the laughs we had, the practical jokes, and the happiness of Christian college life we enjoyed together. We became Student Body President and Vice-President, you and I. Scary thought! We won by a landslide in the student elections, so the thought must have had some appeal to others. Remember when the one “candidate” made his speech, sounding so pious, saying that he would not make promises, because he didn’t want to risk breaking any? You got up to introduce me, said something about status quo and Bixby not fitting in the same sentence, then whispered to me as I headed on stage to promise as many things as I could legitimately do! One of the things I promised, as advised by you (my excellent campaign manager), was that no student body chapel would be like any other! I think we kept that promise. I also think that there are rules in the school that came into being because of our ingenuity! You had the bright ideas; I had the audacity. That made for a great team. You definitely were a joy to have around. (I’m chuckling right now just thinking of the one time you scared the living daylights out of me. You belly-laughed for twenty minutes, I think, and all that at my expense. We’ll keep that between us because I do care what some people overhear!)
Remember the “Tunnel of Love?” In a college where physical contact was forbidden we managed to stage a Valentine’s Day chapel service prelude that provided “legitimate kissing.” Several days before, we got about fifteen guys to cram into an echo-chamber and make kissing noises. Our makeshift echo-chamber was the gymnasium shower room. Then we decorated the gymnasium bleachers with hearts and banners about love. When folks arrived for the student body chapel, they had to walk through our “Tunnel of Love” to the amplified sound of kissing. Before they exited the tunnel, their faces were rubber stamped with red lip shapes. Remember the “coliseum” chapel hour? The togas? We were modest, of course. Shirts and shorts underneath. Or, the “Super-Bowl” chapel hour? The Talls against the Shorts. Those were fun times. Certainly not always wise. Definitely not always mature.
You traveled for the college. You were determined to help nervous, self-conscious high schoolers relax enough to hear more about the place we called home, Northland Baptist Bible College. Often, you dressed up in high-water pants and goofy glasses to play the role of a hyper-friendly geek. The friendly part wasn’t an act, though. The super-wide grin was authentic. The warmth we all enjoyed came from inside of you.
But there were serious moments–long and pensive–when we prayed and dreamed about future ministry. You and I just wanted to be useful for the Lord, I think. At the time we could care less about convention, tradition, or the boundaries of people’s comfort zones. We were both sinners, a little too cocky, and still too inexperienced in the things of God. Yet as I look back over the span of nearly fifteen years to when we first met, I really do think that hidden deep in the confusion of our passionate humanity was a pure, God-given, grace-guided thirst for usefulness. Remember the prayer meetings?
I guess you can’t remember. That’s why I’m talking out loud, almost as if no one is hearing me. If you don’t mind, I’ll bring you up to speed. It might give you an idea why I’m here, and why I feel bad that I haven’t visited you. It’s Terri Schaivo. I don’t know her, but I doubt I’ll ever forget her name. I’m actually not sure that I know all the facts about her situation. I wonder if anyone does. But what I do know is that at this very moment our nation is more aware of the acronym “PVS” then we ever have been, and even as I write we are all aware of a lady in Florida who is dying, not because of PVS, but because many people firmly believe that to be in her (your) condition is no life at all. Some people have decided to play God. She’s lived long enough, they say. She must die.
Here’s the amazing thing, Jeremy. Terri’s not even as bad off as you. At least, not from what your family members tell me. Internationally respected doctors have offered credible and hopeful prognoses for Terri, suggesting improvement at the very least as something quite probable. Yet the courts have ruled in favor of her husband, who has said that Terri would have it this way. She would rather die. So, they’ve stopped feeding her.
As you can imagine, the Schiavo case has caused a real stir. Amazing things have happened. President George Bush, Governor Jeb Bush, and Congress have exhausted legal recourses and ventured the unprecedented on Mrs. Schiavo’s behalf, on justice’s behalf. All kinds of issues are being discussed now: religious, political, ethical, and medical. Many citizens are emotionally charged. Still many more are confused. Some don’t know what to think or whom to believe. Jeremy, I thought that if you don’t mind, I’d look into your unresponsive face and–biting my lip–try to tell you what I think.
I tend to be comfortable with the obvious answers. For example, even though I accept the fact that God is omnipotent, I don’t wring my hands over sophistical questions that don’t help support the obvious teaching of Scripture. Call me a simpleton, but some questions are foolish and they deserve a curt, answer-a-fool-according-to-his-folly answer. Some ask, if God can do anything, can He make a boulder so large that He can’t lift it? I roll my eyes. Of course not. That would be stupid. God can’t do stupid things. Next question.
But there are questions that do linger. We can’t shake them. There is no easy answer. And in the dark of the night, these questions come back to us with a relentless persistence, casting an ominous shadow of doubt over our tidy little world of faith. Or should I say, our tidy little world of little faith? Some questions threaten answers that are too hard for us to handle, so we suppress them, tell ourselves that it is unfaithful to entertain them, and try to think “happy thoughts.” That’s probably why, Jeremy–oh, please forgive us–we forget you. You symbolize a question for us. You seem to personify an enigma that looms in front of us–an enigma with a face, memories, and a spirit that we once interacted with so freely. Questions want answers. We’re afraid of the answer, so we repress the question.
Well, the lady down in Florida has brought back to the forefront of my mind the lingering question that you represent. This time, driven by despair for a nation that is pursuing a culture of death, knowing that our God is the Author of Life, and repenting of mine and my nation’s sins, when you, Jeremy, came to my mind, my soul determined to gaze at the enigma of you straight in the face and cry out to God even as the disciples prayed, “Lord, increase my faith.” When I began to see with the eye of faith what I had been blinded to by earthbound thinking, it struck me that you aren’t really the personification of a question. You actually personify an answer!
It’s brutal. But it does no good to suggest answers when we’re unwilling to admit we have questions. I find that I do that all the time. My theology seems so air-tight. As soon as your accident happened, I had the right response–academically. My answer was ready, easily verifiable in the Bible. All things work together for good, and you know the rest. But my theologically correct answers belied my strongly felt questions. Feelings aren’t as objective as facts, but they certainly do serve well as indicators of the true beliefs of the soul. Your wedding was only a month away when you had the accident. I couldn’t imagine what your parents, siblings, and fiancée must’ve been feeling. But my feelings indicated tough questions.
Why would God, who has specifically told us to pray the Lord of the Harvest for more laborers, take you away from active duty in the field? My earthy senses scream out against my faith, and an insidious, devilish question looms to the forefront of my mind, though never escaping the gate of my lips: why did God make him so, well, useless? No sooner has the thought crossed my mind but the indwelling Spirit of God lusts against my flesh, provoking the unique consternation of soul that only God’s children have when they do not the things that they wish (Galatians 5:17). Or, think not the things that they wish. I know that thought is empathetic with the death culture. My spiritual instincts tell me it is wrong. My mind is confused. Suddenly my spirit yearns for faith of Abrahamic mettle that, “contrary to hope, believed in hope” (Romans 4:18). “And so strongly did he believe in hope, that his faith destroyed the hope-destroying power of sense” (Hugh Martin).
In spite of our old aspirations just to be “used of God,” my senses tell me that you are indeed “useless.” My faith, however, cannot accept that verdict. The justified live by faith. It was therefore with very little, but soul-saving, faith that this justified sinner-friend of yours has chosen at last to grapple with his questions. If any lesson is to be learnt from the matchless story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, it is this: that God may clothe all circumstances, and all His dispensation towards us, with appearances of opposition and hostility, in order that we may flee to the anchor of His pure and simple Word, and lean on it without any other help, or rather against all adverse power (Hugh Martin). Is there an identifiable, hope-giving, sense-defying usefulness in your “persistent vegetative state?” There must be. If you don’t mind, I would like to suggest some possibilities. Forgive me if, like Job’s friends, I miss the mark. Like them, I am at least sincere.
Some of the questions that my soul wrestles involve the essence of life, quality of life, and the value of life.
What is life?
Life, in the Scripture, is defined in the most reductionist of terms.
Leviticus 17:14–“The life of all flesh is the blood.” Do you have blood pumping? You have life. I realize that this appears to be a ghastly over-simplification. Yet, any “flesh” that can of its own generate the circulation of its own blood ought to be considered alive. The Holy Spirit knew that sophisticated Americans would be reading His Book in 2005. He was fully aware of the medical advancement that we would enjoy in our day. He knows that we are intensely emotive and cannot think of any life worth living that does not meet our standards of life. Nonetheless, in plain language, He said, “The life of all flesh is the blood.” Then He said, “Do no kill.”
Jesus quoted Old Testament passages while He was being tempted by the Devil. One of these implies significant truths about the nature of man. Matthew 4:4–“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Notice the dichotomy. The physical life of man is summarized by his capacity to be fed. There is nothing here about quality of life, mental health, or feeding technique. If he can be fed, he is alive. The other part of man is dependent on spiritual feeding. Now, I’m not saying that this is the purpose of this text, but it is clear that physical life in this text is defined simply by the capacity to be fed. It is also necessary to a greater appreciation of the intent of the verse to view man as the passive receptor of the bread (physical food) and the word (spiritual food) that comes from God. In other words, it makes no difference whether he can or cannot feed himself. Spiritually, we are sustained by the Bread of Life which is regularly, faithfully, and graciously provided to us in our persistent helpless state. We are alive by grace. Jeremy, you are no different physically than what I am spiritually. You are being sustained by feeding.
Some sincere Christians, however, have confused Terri Schiavo’s tube-feeding with artificial life support. We often pull the plug on life support, they say. What’s the difference here? But life support is artificial and mechanical. It is stalling the inevitable and imminent death. The body is not self-sustaining and will fail within minutes after life support is removed. The blood will not circulate, the body cannot process food. It is dead. A feeding tube, however, is an alternate way of feeding a person that cannot ingest food normally. Even though there may be severe damage, the body is functioning. And there, simple faith must say, “It lives.”
(Let me say parenthetically that I do not think it is too much to hope that people in your condition, Jeremy, have the potential of being sustained spiritually as well. Listening to the Bible read on cassette tape, having a loved one pray with you, or hearing Christian music may all nourish a live and dynamic spirit, one that we will probably never see in all its beauty until we all arrive in Glory.)
What is quality of life?
My faith says, “Jeremy lives.” Notwithstanding, my senses empathize with the culture of our day that so often talks about “quality of life.” Terri must die, they say, because she has not quality of life. Would you want to live in her condition? This is when the conflict between faith and senses begins to rage. I cannot go as far as they would. I must not allow the death culture a single victory. When the media and right-to-die activists make their statements about Terri’s life, they are also speaking, though they don’t know you, about yours. For that matter, they are setting up themselves, or our culture, or a generally accepted human standard, as the arbiter of quality. This is wrong. I know it, have known it, and will speak out against it. Yet for years, there lurked within the darkest corners of my soul a thought that co-conspired with the death-wishers: People in Jeremy’s condition don’t have a reason for living.
Again, my theology provided the default answers. They seemed almost like clichés. They didn’t rejoice my soul. Then one day, an old truth hit me in a new way. Jeremy, if you and I were to live in the conditions wherein we find ourselves for thirty more years and finally die on the same day, the pure and simple Word says that our lives–yours and mine–are nothing but vapor. For what is your life? I suppose that means my life of active service as well as your “useless” existence. It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away (James 4:14). What hit me was actually a question: how can one measure the quality of one vapor against another? It is a ridiculous, stupid, and blasphemously arrogant pretension for a vapor to make as though it can arbitrate on the quality of other vapor. Surely every man is vapor (Psalm 39:11).
Since your accident in 1994, some of us who knew you have entertained lingering doubts about your usefulness. I did. But I don’t anymore. As I grow in the Lord, I have even begun to wonder if we haven’t been short-sighted to think that your usefulness, though not obliterated, was cut short, or hampered. Maybe you are being more useful than the rest of us put together.
A living sacrifice.
I remember as if it were yesterday. We just wanted to be useful to God. Of course, as young men, we had our ideas of what “usefulness” looked like. We had memorized Romans 12:1–I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service(NKJV). But our ideas were too much like the mythological Procrustes who maliciously invited weary travelers to stay in his lodge, telling them that his bed was adjustable to any guest, no matter what his size. What he did not tell them was that he would stretch the short ones, and cut off the limbs of the bigger ones, in order to “fit” them to his bed. His Procrustean Bed was the death of many trusting travelers. In the same way, but without malice, men who are young sometimes warmly welcome God-given desires into their lives, but hack them into unrecognizable distortions to fit their own plans. Then God comes, and, because He loves us, smashes our plans. He gives us the ultimate desire of our hearts, pure and unadulterated by our schemes. He makes us useful. Thus it is that the same young man who wrote “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Psalm 34:19) could also believingly write, “He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
God does not waste. He knows our desires. It is He who works in us both to will and to do (Philippians 2:12). It is faithful to the Word of God to speculate that God looked upon your redeemed soul and said, “Jeremy, I need your body for a special task. You have offered it to Me and I am going to make of it–almost as much as it is literally possible–a living death, a living sacrifice.” Consequently, a living sacrifice to God is made holy in that it is set apart. It is different than the rest. It has been placed on an altar, dedicated for something special. Truly, it is pleasing and acceptable to God. He does not waste.
The suffering to which God has called you is unspeakable. It is horrific. I think I would rather die than to be called upon to bear the burden you presently bear. We do not know what you know or don’t know. The most intelligent of our experts cannot begin to understand what Jeremy Janz is experiencing right now. We cannot comprehend the relationship between the cognitive part of us and the spiritual part of us. Does God who gives His children the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15) and teaches us to communicate to Him in prayer leave the spirits of His brain-damaged children in a wasteland incommunicado? Does God who tells us to be sure to visit the imprisoned (Hebrews 13:3) fail to visit those of His blood-bought children who are imprisoned in unresponsive bodies? I don’t think so. Would even an earthly father behave in this unseemly way?
Once graced with the Heavenly Calling (Hebrews 3:1), we live our earthly pilgrimage as a stream of conscious, sub-conscious (i.e. when we sleep), and even unconscious worship. Only God can parse it. He alone can sort the evil from the good, the self from the Spirit, the ego-centric from the God-centered, the mind from the soul, the mind and soul from the spirit, strange fire from acceptable fire, and the mentally cognitive from the spiritually alive. In short, just because I can’t talk to you, doesn’t mean God can’t. Just because I can’t distinguish the independence and co-dependence of the mental and spiritual, doesn’t mean that God can’t.
Our Omnipotent Father of Love does not waste suffering on people for whom He suffered. He cannot withhold any good from you, Jeremy, because He did not spare His own Son to be delivered up for us all (Romans 8:32). Your life of suffering, as awful as it is, will one day by you be considered “unworthy of the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). That a thirty-two year-old man should have to survive by a feeding tube with no way of responding to the outside world is something that I cannot explain. My senses revolt against my faith. I have to cry out to my own soul what John Bunyan’s Junius said to his friend: O Epenetus, were you but once divested of mortality, you would have other thoughts than what you have. But my ever-strengthening eye of faith is beginning to perceive potential I had never thought about before.
God forbid that I should make light of your suffering, by contrasting it with my failures as a man possessing his faculties. But allow me to make the comparison, because it is teaching me about how God views both of our existences. For all we know, your mental faculties are completely incapacitated. Have been since 1994. When our vapor life is over, I don’t think that you will have regrets concerning the poor stewardship of your faculties since you were rendered immobile by our Lord. Even without them, you are still being used by God.
I, on the other hand, have struggled with blasphemous thoughts, lust, and pride. My usefulness has been as limited by my health as it has been helped. My yearning to be useful to God, by obeying the Divine injunctions to edify the Body (Ephesians 4:16) and do all for His glory have been constantly diminished by my own healthy activity. My active mind has spent hours on trivial pursuits, wasted God-given moments on selfish ambition, and energized much on behalf of well-intended, but misguided, endeavors. Sometimes I despair of ever knowing what has been done for the glory of God or for the glory of me. My progress to glory is painfully slow, yours is painfully long. In the end, we will both arrive at the Heavenly City by grace. In the end, we will have both been used by the Father. I think, Jeremy, that you will be the greater used. So much of what I bring will be wood, hay, and stubble, but the Day will come when “each one’s work will become clear” (1 Corinthians 3:13). Your work which has been and is being brought through the fire of suffering, which has resulted in the conversion of unbelievers, the strengthening of our faith, and the furtherance of the gospel, is a work that will endure. You see, 1 Peter 4:1-2 conveys a fact concerning the suffering of the righteous that we too often forget: He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he should no longer live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. Obviously, we are not speaking of sinless perfection. We are talking about purged usefulness. Your usefulness has been purged by so great a suffering. I am convinced that one day you will tell us about it with unspeakable joy. In other words, your opportunity to serve has not been diminished by your suffering, only your opportunity to sin.
May I testify? A couple years ago I went through emotional, psychological, and spiritual suffering. Church problems. Very little and insignificant compared to what you have endured now for eleven years. But, nonetheless, it was a time of real suffering. One day, nearly two years later, I was in town doing some errands when an attractive lady walked by me. My flesh prompted a second look. Instantly my spirit began to war against my flesh, and I yielded my life and body again to God. But here’s the great part. Suddenly, it dawned upon my soul that for nearly two years I had not even had the faintest hint of a temptation in my thought life, an area where we men are constantly in need of vigilance. I didn’t say, not a hint of lust. I said not a hint of a temptation! Why? During a time of suffering, I had unknowingly enjoyed a freedom unlike I had ever known previously. I didn’t recognize it until life got easier and things got happier from an earthly perspective. The flesh hates suffering. It is all over easy street like a dog on a meat wagon. That little battle with my flesh provoked the first, sustained and exulted moment of praise and gratitude to my Father for what He had designed for me in suffering. You shall do the same, my friend.
Not all of us have the same course (Hebrews 12:1). But we have the same destination. All of God’s children have been saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10). Your good works are not over yet because you are still alive. Nor are mine. You see, I do take heart by the words of Newton that “a minister walking with God in a conscientious improvement of the light received, deeply convinced under the Law, and but imperfectly acquainted with the Gospel, is peculiarly qualified to preach with effect to ignorant and wicked people…. The minister is sufficiently before them to point out the first steps in the way; and as he goes gradually forward, ‘growing in grace, and the knowledge of the Savior,’ they gradually follow him.” I do hope in grace to lead me home and while on the journey to make me a channel of grace to others. But you may not realize this, man; God is using you too! You are being used as a servant of God. I am your unworthy fellow. When we arrive at the Heavenly City, I suspect that you will have more crowns to throw at the feet of our Savior than I.
I have passed through Denver many times in the past decade or so, either by car or in the air. When I do, I don’t think of a church, a ministry, a football team, or a politician. I always think first: this is where Jeremy lives. When I come to Denver again, I’m coming to see you. If I fly over you, I’ll say more than “This is where Jeremy lives.” I’ll say, “This is where Jeremy serves.”
When we were in college, we who had come from large cities used to get a kick out of calling Iron Mountain, Michigan, a “city.” We knew better. We knew what a city really was. You were from Denver. I was from Toulouse, France. Often, many of us would make plans for an excursion to Iron Mountain and, once on our way, we’d say with dripping sarcasm, “See you in the city!”
Well, my friend! I remember you not only as the goofy guy in the skit, the good-natured prankster, and co-conspirer in student activities. I think of you as one who really longed to be useful for God, an evidence of real grace in your life. I think of you as a fellow worker in the Body of Christ. I want to encourage you to endure for the joy that is set before you. And with genuine reverence, I say, “See you in the City!”
* Jeremy Janz is the brother of SharperIron’s blog editor, Jason Janz.
Jeremy is Jason’s senior by 11 months.
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