Brain surgery with eyes open

My time with the Lord this morning included this prayer: “Comfort me when I need comfort, and afflict me when I need afflicting. I want to be free.” 

Anyone who appreciates the prayers of the saints knows this form of surrender is universal among them. They trust that while the hand and love of God can be a source of affliction, this affliction is the path to freedom.

When facing adversity, I have thought often of Isaiah 30:20-21: 

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”

“The bread of adversity and the water of affliction”: This passage reminds us that the seed must first fall into the ground and die before it bears fruit. 

I would not have asked for Parkinson’s disease at the age of 50. But a decade later I cannot deny that the adversity and affliction of this disease have indeed brought fruit. 

This passage suggests adversity and affliction feed us, nourish us and perhaps even save our lives.

ON FEB. 26, a team of physicians and staff wheeled me into an operating room to insert the wiring for a deep brain stimulation device. I assumed one of two outcomes: Either I would receive a new lease on life, or I would be one of the few for whom the procedure is lethal and would awaken to find myself finally at Home. 

I was at peace either way. Before turning the corner into Room 6, I breathed a prayer of surrender. And I understood again the truth that earlier in my life I found hard to comprehend: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

The procedure required that I be awake during surgery. Like many surgical procedures involving the brain, awakeness ensures that the electrical implants are placed for maximum efficacy and enables the doctors to monitor my safety. Since the brain lacks pain sensors, I was told that I wouldn’t feel a thing. 

I tell my students that if we want to live a wise life, we must keep our eyes open, even when this is painful, uncomfortable and inconvenient. 

Many of us prefer to sleepwalk or to live distracted or addicted lives, keeping the pain at bay as long as possible. 

But, just as brain surgery with our eyes closed is risky, so is life with closed eyes. The pain will reveal itself eventually, and we may be the last ones to recognize how it has wrecked our lives.

As a pastor, I faced resistance from folks to engage in therapy: “It’s for the weak. I can do this on my own. I tried once and had a bad experience. I depend on God and prayer. I don’t have time.” 

All such comments mean the same thing: “I prefer to keep my eyes shut. I am afraid to look at my life. I lack the courage to do the hard work to become a transformed person.” 

The results of such resistance are easier to predict than the weather.

I have prayed, “Lord, do whatever you need to do to make me who you created me to be.” Given the challenges I have experienced, I think God has answered my prayers. But I’m not sure I ever asked God to keep my eyes open while God is doing that work in me. 

I decided to do so. As surgery approached, I prayed, “In surgery and out, now and always, keep my eyes open to your work.”

After sedation to make me comfortable, I was reawakened in the midst of surgery — with pain in my head screaming for attention. I was able to express the source of pain, and my neurologist gently walked me through a variety of movements. 

As electrical impulses to the brain increased, I found myself suddenly still, my body at rest. The tremor ceased. My fingers were able to function on my right hand with the same fluidity as on the left. My wrist on the right side moved with ease. 

I felt peace and freedom. I felt what I had been missing for seven years with a body going haywire.

In the chaos of the operating room, I heard the words of Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  

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