"Miracles are never wrought without prayer, felt need, and faith...they are the natural result of the Messiah's presence among men."
Bible Dictionary

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Calming the Storms of Life

Early in the first century AD, a small group of men fought for their lives against the unbridled forces of Mother Nature. Although making just a short journey across the Sea of Galilee, they quickly lost control of their small vessel. The unloosed wind and rain and sweeping waves combined to create a tempest that was both singular and deadly. It was, perhaps, a testament to the awesome force on display that the men, many of whom were fishermen by trade, were swiftly reduced to cowering, crying out, "Master! Carest thou not that we perish?"

The Savior had been sleeping, unaffected by the impending doom. He arose, stretched forth his hand, and rebuked the very forces of nature, saying, "Peace, be still." I imagine that he spoke the words quietly, but with an intensity that turned a whisper into a roar. Quietly commanding, and impossible to disobey. And obey the sea did, for the tempest instantly ceased and all was calm.

Crisis averted, Christ turned to his young disciples. "Why", he asked, "is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" For some time, these concluding remarks have troubled me. Did they not call upon the Savior in the midst of their troubles? I imagine they had previously been exerting their considerable skill towards navigating out of the storm. Surely they had done all that they could do, and then supplemented their efforts with an appeal to the divine. Why then were they rebuked?

"Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" - Mark 4:40

The answer of course, is that they were not. Jesus Christ was teaching them the same lesson that he's been teaching me the past five plus years and counting. It's just that sometimes, it can be an awfully hard lesson to learn.

About a year and a half ago, the seas of my life, after so long and unexpectedly being in turmoil, had calmed. Things were going for me, and going well! In doubt for so long, I had identified what I wanted to do with my life, and it looked like I had the means to do it. I had just been accepted not only into a top-notch graduate program, but also for an internship with a high caliber company. And best of all, I was feeling great physically (which is saying something). Clear skies, and calm waters ahead! But that's not life. And the storm hadn't abated - I was just in the eye.

It wasn't that it all went wrong. It went right - in the wrong direction. My internship was a great experience, an intellectually stimulating career builder. But it wasn’t necessarily all that I expected, and I struggled to maintain the excitement I’d found life could offer while living some distance away from friends and family. Nevertheless, I made it through my time there and performed admirably. The sea was still relatively calm, but dark clouds were massing on the horizon. School was starting soon.

School has never been anything new to me; its been a constant my entire life except for the year I took off immediately after my injury. However, since then I had been going primarily part-time to account for my limited physical ability. I knew that wasn't going to be an option in my graduate program, and I knew the course work would be rigorous. So for the first time in a long time, I found myself a full-time student, and for the first time ever I found myself a completely overwhelmed student. The difficulty of the curriculum was compounded by my inability to take notes in class, type more than five or six words per minute, and write with more proficiency than a slow and laborious scrawl.

But I was making it. There were late nights, less than perfect grades (hard for me to accept) and awkward moments. The tempest was rising, but I had trimmed the canvas and stowed extra cargo belowdecks in order to meet the challenge. Until a wave I hadn't seen crashed into me at full force.

I was on my way out of attending a BYU soccer match when I first noticed my right arm wasn't responding the way I was accustomed to. Now, I don't have much strength (understatement) but what I do have is primarily in that arm. Driving my chair, eating, writing, using my computer and phone, everything. But as I attempted to drive my chair out of South Field, I found that I could barely manage. My arm felt sore and weak in unprecedented ways and I was fraught with worry and frustration during the slow, jerky trek back to my van.

Looking back now, I’ve realized that the symptoms had been building for some time, but I’d been stubbornly refusing to admit that anything further detrimental could possibly be happening to me. My muscles had been spasming with more severity for months and my ever-present nerve pain had been getting worse. The diagnosis was the development of a syrinx in my neck, essentially a build-up of spinal cord fluid that was putting pressure on my spinal cord and slowly causing my worsening symptoms. To put this in the stark perspective that only numbers can offer, there are about 282,000 people in the U.S. living with a spinal cord injury. Of those, 13.3% are classified as complete tetraplegia (my condition, which characterizes the high level of paralysis and low chance of improvement), and of those 3-4% develop a symptomatic syrinx. You don't need to be a statistician to work this one out, but I'll tell you that that amounts to me being one of about 1300 people in the U.S. with a similar prognosis. That's about a .0004% chance. It's impossible to say how often a syrinx develops in the middle of masters' coursework, but it's safe to say that in the span of a few months a storm the like of which few others ever see had developed in my life.

Surgery was the only option. And it was surgery of an intensive nature that was not without risk. Worse still, there was a minimum period of two weeks through which I would be incapacitated. So treating my insidious and progressive condition would have to wait at least two months until there was room in my schedule for it to elbow Christmas break aside. The hit on my strength slowed my pace on assignments from turtle to snail pace. I was already barely keeping my head above water at times, but at this point the storm reached its zenith.

I don't think I can adequately explain how difficult things were for me at the end of that semester. I lived a day and an assignment at a time. Nonessential tasks like part-time work and most of my social life were dropped. Were there still good times, miracles, and the invaluable support of friends and family? Yes, yes, and undeniably yes. Did I smile throughout most of it? Probably. But for better or for worse I tend to play most of my issues close to the chest.

Like Christ's disciples, I turned to the other passenger on my boat, the Savior. "Master", I cried, "Carest thou not that I perish?" Unlike the storm on Galilee however, not every tempest in our life is dispelled immediately. Some burn intensely and then are suddenly quenched, while others wax and wane throughout our lives, raging fiercely and then softly retreating. My trials are generally of the latter nature, and knowing this, I asked my Father for the same thing I do every day. Simply, the strength to endure. The response I received was the same that the disciples of old heard. "Why is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" There was no rebuke, or impatience with my weakness. Only love, coupled with a gentle reminder of who I was. I am a child of God. My Father in heaven has blessed me tremendously, despite my many trials which at times can be overwhelming. My journey through life of late hasn't been smooth sailing, but when is it ever? For anyone? It has not included miraculous healing or even substantial improvement, despite my fervent longing for such blessings. But that's okay. Jesus Christ is in the boat with me, sailing through whatever life may bring. As we trust in him, he will not let us fail completely. For has he in the past?

This was the same lesson that Christ was teaching his disciples so many years before. It's a tough lesson to learn and once learned sometimes even harder to maintain, because when the storms of life rage fiercely it can become tempting to think we stand a better chance with one fewer passenger. Fortunately, no matter where we are in life, he will never give up on us. Our Savior wants so desperately to help each of us, individually, that he died for our sakes. Because of this sacrifice, the very creator of heaven and earth can and will guide each of us through the storm, if we just allow him on board.

I know that this is true. But he doesn't lead us around the storms of life, rather, it's a course straight through them. My first semester of graduate school was full of trials that had both everything and nothing to do with actual school work, but it was not impossible. I didn't fail. (Except for one test. Complete disaster.) The surgery went well, I was able to recover some strength, and 2016 started with calm seas. Of course, more trials came up pretty quickly. But that's life right?