Tougher People


Migrant Mother by Dorothea LangeI don't usually blog about my emotional well-being, but it's been a rough week. Monday I got bad news about a serious dental problem I have that can only be resolved by drastic, painful surgery to the tune of a year's tuition (or more) at Harvard. With both of us deflated by this news, my wife asked me what people with my condition did before this kind of surgery was available. The only answer? They lived with it.

So I've been thinking since then about folks who lived long before any of the amenities we take for granted today. Amy Carmichael, missionary to India, never took a COX-2 inhibitor in her life, bedridden with constant pain for twenty years before she met her Maker. Yet her poetry and wisdom live on long after she succumbed to the affliction of living on this planet. Millions of women somehow got through childbirth without an epidural. And after suffering through the mind-numbing agony of a kidney stone late last year, I don't understand how anyone could have existed without opiates to dull the shrieking nerves.

Dentistry back in the old days consisted of a pair of pliers and a bottle of rotgut. There were no bionic limbs two hundred years ago for the soldier maimed in war; a hook or crutch would have to do. Infection took its toll on many body parts and no plastic surgery plied his trade in making torn bodies whole again. Deformity was life and you went on living it no matter how much you wanted the mirror to lie, if only for a moment.

Couples buried their children by the dozen. Mothers often accompanied their mis-born children to the grave. Life was often brutish, nasty, and short. Ask Hudson Taylor, the great Asian missionary, who returned to England—his own health shattered—after leaving his wife and several children in the cold Chinese soil. Many could tell you that living seemed much more about avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A simple handshake with the wrong person could leave a deposit of microbes for which there was no known cure, diseases like diptheria or pertussis that are rarely spoken of today.

You can't dismiss that people were tougher then. No one thought himself a victim of fate, either. One simply pressed on and that was it. There weren't scores of therapists to hear Abraham Lincoln talk about his sadness over the deaths of his children and the increasing mental instability of his wife at a time when the nation he presided over was torn in two, brother set against brother. More pressing needs begged for his allegiance, so he soldiered on.

I can't see myself crowded around Jesus, trying to clutch at His robe saying, "If only…." Instead, I would be marveling at the truly shattered people who flung themselves at him, people so broken that some of them weren't recognized as human any longer, except by the Lord Himself. I think I would have to give up whatever place I had in line if I'd seen someone like that. Those were hard days and it's a miracle to this child of the 1960s that anyone could live at all.

There aren't too many tough people in the West anymore. Perhaps this is why we are so willing to forget about the Lord; we have other answers for our problems, even the tiniest ones. A balm exists for whatever ails us as long as the price is right. And even when it isn't, the lengths we'll go to in making it right shows how easily we are bought, sold, and traded on the open market.

It's sobering to know I would've been one of those casualties a hundred years ago. I was hospitalized for two weeks at two years of age for pneumonia, a dreaded killer in the time of my great-grandfather, but not for someone born in the Camelot of Kennedy's era. Should my recovery have been only partial (and partial was what many hoped for in the fin de siecle), I would've been known as a "sickly child," a terminology we don't toss around today simply because we don't see it too often.

Jesus wants tough people who rely on Him for everything, particularly when everything is not provided without fail. If that's my prayer for myself right now, then it's my prayer for you, too. We can't live on "what if?" or "if only…." Faith demands more and asks for tougher people. On that Day, the Bride of Christ will be radiant in her beauty, but She will have gotten there bloodied and beaten—yet not defeated.

Be tougher.

{Image: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" (1936)}

12 thoughts on “Tougher People

  1. Jessica

    “Perhaps this is why we are so willing to forget about the Lord; we have other answers for our problems, even the tiniest ones. A balm exists for whatever ails us as long as the price is right.” Right on, our world has been sanitized so thouroughly that people are forgetting how to cry and the seriousness and brevity of life. It is ironic how times have changed.

  2. For many years now I have been pointing out that we actually preach two gospels: one to the Thrid world countries, and the other to the West.
    By this I mean that to a Chrisitan in Africa we say, “Live by faith since you don’t have many doctors, dentists, chiropractors, pyschologists, masseuses, alternative therapists, physcial therapists, phsyical trainers, etc. And you don’t have the money for them anyway.”

    But in the West we say, “God works through the doctor, dentist, chiropractor, etc., etc.” THis basically is often a way of saying, “I don’t ahve enough faith to stand on the Word.”
    However, nowadays, I think God is taking out these “helpers” as more people lose their job and are often without health benefits. And frankly, most doctors won’t take you, no matter how much cash you have, unless you have insurance.
    If you belong to an HMO, and today, and most employers have this as the only option, you often must wait until the “committee” meets to discuss your case. So, while you are waiting for the committee to meet to find out if you can have your cancer operation, the cancer marches on through your body and you die. I have seen this scenario with four people I knew (note the past tense).
    And then there is the Christian psychologist. Frankly, after 40 years, I just am not seeing the results in my friends (almost all of us Chrisitans out here in California have visited the ‘Christian psychologist’ at least once) that the Christian psychological community purports. And sadly, they have followed their secular counterparts and turned into a bio-therapeutic community. Putting that into plain English—they have become no more than pill pushers.
    More and more we are going to have to rely on the healing power of God IMO.

  3. Diane,

    A few comments:

    I know you claim a Charismatic Reformed background, so I was curious as to your reasoning on the “two Gospels” idea. Classic Reformed teaching believes in both common and special grace. Common grace is extending by God to all men, while special grace is given only to those whom He chooses to grant it to. An example of common grace would be God’s sustaining unbelievers with His own life, since no one could live without this.

    As for your example, common grace is the dentist, doctor, and medical center that we claim in the West, and special grace would be the grace of God given to heal those without that access to the common grace of traditional physicians.

    The problem here is that Reformed thinking does not value one type of grace more highly than another. Since I know that you follow Reformed teaching, I’m surprised at your stance.

    As for the issue of insurance, even having it does not make that much of a dent in the little things. The Wall Street Journal today noted that out-of-pocket medical expenses in 2005 for a family of four were $4000 higher than in 2001. And even though my father was in the pharmaceutical biz for all his life, someone needs to tell those companies they are just raking people over the coals now, no matter what they claim their R&D needs are; the costs of some medicines are ludicrous. The nasal steroids I take to control my seasonal allergies cost $55 for a half ounce. Chanel #5 doesn’t cost anywhere near that! And it’s not like it’s a truly complex medicine, either. It’s just a steroid—not that hard to make. Even getting samples from the doctor anymore doesn’t work. My out-of-pocket expense on the trio of antibiotics I was on for this sinus infection were unchanged by the fact that the doc gave me half the pills in samples. That’s ridiculous.

    There is a reason why your friends with cancer died largely due to bureaucracy: Too many people suing doctors and drug companies. That’s the reason for 90% of the problem right there. All the liberal folks out there beef about health care and drug prices, but a good part of that cost is paying trial lawyers, and the trial lawyers are protected from tort reform by the very same liberals who complain about healtcare costs. They’re feeding the very fire that’s burning them in the long run. Makes me sick. (Ha! ha! — if it weren’t so unfunny.)

  4. I appreciate your bringing some much-need perspective to discipleship in our culture. The North American church is full of wussies, no doubt.

    Still, I’m left with this question: Are you going to have the surgery or not?

  5. Dan,

    To answer your question. I am Reformed up to a point; that point being if it bumps into good Pentecostal theology…LOL.
    (I am Reformed Pentecostal; not a Reformed Charismatic).

    I don’t see a special grace for non-Christians in the book of Acts. The apostles healed both Christians and nonbelievers. Therefore, I don’t follow that particular Reformed teaching.

  6. Milton,

    I wrote a long response to your question about having the surgery, but canned it because I did not want to create an online record of specifics that may come back to bite me. People Google my name all the time and I’m probably already mud in the eyes of some people who have looked me up on the Web and not liked what they see in my writings or opinions.

    Considering the costs involved and the tenuous nature of the economy, I don’t see it happening. I talk with my dentist next week about alternatives. The surgery process would have taken over two years to complete and if my experience tells me anything, it’s that anything can happen in two years. I just stareted taking allergy shots again and that’s a two year commitment that I can’t afford to NOT finish.

    The sad part about this was that this surgery probably should have been done when I was a teen. My folks had outstanding medical coverage, but the surgery was even riskier then and I think that spooked them.

    Life is not always fair. When I think of myself, I don’t see a tough person. Others think we have done remarkably well given what has happened to us in the last nine years, and so some people think I’m tough. Yet when I think about folks living out on the prairie in the 1850’s, or the battered survivors of war, I see people who dealt with bad events far better than we do today. Perhaps one of the reasons the Church in America is so soft is because the people in it are as delicate as hoarfrost—a warm breeze and we melt.

    So the thorn will remain.

  7. Broken Messenger


    Thank you for sharing your struggles and thoughts on this issue. It was a much needed blessing to me today.


  8. Dan:
    I appreciated this post. I’ve had similar thoughts. In the “good old days”, if the disease didn’t kill you, the doctor sure could.

    Anyway, your thoughts have encouraged me. Thanks.

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