"Meditations on Roses, Dante and Psalm 40"
WRF Member Dr. Mike Milton
Barbara Bush, Pope John Paul II, and Olympiad are bursting forth in magnificent color before my very eyes. I sit on our front porch, seeing my reflection in the iPad screen, squinting to see the words I am writing, because of glare (“We should have upgraded to the anti-glare model,” I think to myself), and feel jealous of the hybrid roses in their first spring bloom. The effects of the winter pruning and the Mill’s Magic rose food are fantastic. I had pruned these hybrids down to their root after allowing the remaining chlorophyll from last year to settle back down into the unseen places where life began. They were cut with severe grace and then given strong food to begin the seasonal passage to where they are this day: alive, strong, colorful, pleasing to the eye, helpful for the rest of the garden as they “do their bit” to tie it all together.
I am jealous of them because I feel anything but alive and strong and colorful. I am surely not pleasing to the eye. I just told my wife, who has now become my nurse, that I look and feel like an old man sitting on the front porch of the Rest Home for Confederate Soldiers. My khakis feel baggy, my eyes appear dark, and countenance seems to be fixed on something, perhaps a foggy battle that happened long ago when I was younger. I am writing out of this condition so guess I am not dead. I just feel like it. I have been diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope. This condition of low heart rate, loss of energy, and propensity to either faint or get close to it, apparently stalked me for years, with panther-like stealth, before suddenly leaping out of nowhere to maul me without mercy. Wounded and seeking recovery, I have read the words of the Psalmist and understood them better than I ever have,
“…may those who love your salvation always say, ‘The LORD be exalted!’ Yet I am poor and needy; may the LORD think of me” (Psalm 40.16,17).
“Yet I am poor and needy…” Me? I, who could preach twelve sermons in a week, work on three books at a time, write an article, and “be there” for my adolescent son, my adoring wife, great adult children scattered around the country, grandchildren where possible, neighbors sometimes, and our students, am now needing a nap of three hours to get through a day? (After reciting that I think I begin to see that the Lord desires to sit me down to teach me a thing or two about margin and life and limits). Oh yes, in it all, “I am poor and needy; may the LORD think of me!” I am jealous of John Paul II and Barbara Bush, who pontificate with fragrant confidence and laugh in the North Carolina breeze with cultured elegance while I shrink from life like I am in a different season. And I am. I have not been this sick in my life. The attempts to regulate the condition have not yet succeeded. I suppose that I am being pruned. But there is no Mills Magic rose food to perk me up, though the physician has tried several cures. But if I am a man of faith then whatever chlorophyll of authentic religion that is remaining will surely return to the root source of my life and strengthen my soul for whatever lies ahead. I don’t want to sound like I am dying. I don’t think I am. I just feel like it. And I must use this time, an out-of-season time, to rediscover the source of my faith in Christ.
One thing is happening to me in this time is that I am humbled by a power that is greater than my will. I was scheduled to be at a gathering with the leaders of our seminary. A significant milestone in the succession plan to become the next chancellor of our seminary was to occur at this meeting. Yet I am grounded by the doctor. No flying. No driving for now. “Could we rewrite the script beginning at the place where I give the speech at the Hilton Hotel” joked President Reagan near death at the ER at George Washington University hospital. And I say, ” Could we rewrite the script beginning just before I got that fever on Christmas Eve?” But no. The gavel of Providence has been pounded and the deed is done. The bullet seems to be lodged and must be removed. I cannot be with my colleagues now. I find it exhausting to imagine that, at this moment, I could even join in by telephone and participate in any kind of truly meaningful conversation. I can take three hours to write these words, with great difficulty, and then I will be ready for bed. “Grounded” I say. So what does one do?
My son, who is discovering himself and his gifts and his freedom to question his old man, at seventeen, and who has been a kind and patient attendant to me as well, spoke to me, “Dad, we can thank God for our sicknesses too. Do you believe that?” He was kindly testing me, reminding me, and really encouraging me from the sermons he had heard from his father’s lips about how “God sanctifies our sorrows.” My son was like Jesus asking Martha about the resurrection at the tomb of Lazarus, “Do you believe this?” Faith had to be affirmed before mystery then and now. I smiled and replied to my son, “I do.” So I have set out, in my syncope-sick mind, to find out the meaning of my affirmation. I gather enough energy to rock in the chair on the front porch (how great are our small successes when we are beset by unyielding weaknesses) and turn again to Psalm 40; but I miss it and end up in Psalm 41 (all for the better):
“The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health” (Psalm 41.3).
The answer is altogether clear and altogether mysterious. The answer is that the processes of life and dormancy and rebirth are outside of my control. It is the Lord who oversees the severe grace of pruning. It is the work of the LORD, that covenant name of God employed by the Psalmist, providing freely what He requires from me, and He is my only hope. I am where I am because of a fallen world inflicting its cruel vengeance upon my sinful flesh, so filled with the nature of Adam. Yet in Christ, who is redeeming all of creation, is also using that which would destroy me to bring about a new leaf; and perhaps even a new bloom. Oh how I long for a new bloom.
I have had time to read in this time. I ordinarily whiz with ease through three or four books a week as well as endless emails and journal articles and newspapers. Now I read three or four lines a day and wonder at the structure of the sentences, as a child’s curious eye might follow a single ant in an ant farm teaming with millions of the little creatures. The blessing in the bane is that I now see nuances I likely missed in healthier days. It was so, just now, when I read Dante’s Paradiso, book one, line a 24-25:
“O holy power, if you but lend me of yourself enough that I may show the merest shadow of the blessed kingdom stamped within my mind, you shall find me at the foot of your beloved tree, crowning myself with the very leaves of which my theme and you make me worthy.”
Oh “blessed kingdom stamped within my mind,” I have missed you before. Oh “beloved tree” how I have longed to return to that cross in the deepest part of my soul!
I thus content myself on our front porch, sickly before the resplendent hybrid roses, that there is a power at work within me so that I shall also bloom. I (and the doctors) expect that this illness slowing me down will be regulated and I will bloom forth again soon with renewed energy. Yet the out-of-season dormancy has led me to see that there shall come a most severe pruning of that which is seen in order to discover that which is unseen. I am saying that this condition is but a taste of a time known only to God when I shall be gone from view in this world yet shine like the sun in another. I write the Wednesday after Easter and so I cannot but thank this covenant God of Psalms 40 and 41 for the Mediator of a better Covenant, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has risen from the grave, blooming out of season and thereby re-ordering the old seasons with new ones that has never been seen before. The “Eighth Day,” is now my hope. So tired am I of this weakness and yet so pleased with its lessons I find myself crying out with my heart, though my preaching voice is muted,
“I desire to do your will, O my God; Your law is within my heart. I do not [want] to conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly” (from Psalm 40.8,9).
Here, then, my jealousy of the strutting roses finds infused contentment: that I shall bloom again according to the same providence that has attended my pruning. John Paul II, Barbara Bush and Olympiad are lovely in their spring debutant ball; but soon I shall join them again as Christ who creates their beauty also sends His redemptive sap through my parts and I rise to proclaim in the assembly, in the seminary, and in my heart,
“You are my help and my deliver” (Psalm 40.17);
Yet I also recite the final line,
“O my God, do not delay.”
Here then is my answer. Here then is my lesson. Here then is my hope, now and forevermore. Soon I will rise, I pray, from this porch, and this affliction, to join brothers in the battle. But for now, I ponder the glory of the resurrection in a body of sickness, before the roses in bloom, in a rocking chair, like some old withering soldier, with a heart rate too low, but with a Christ who is in full control of all of His creation. Amen.