“These things are extremely rare, but we should get an MRI just to be sure nothing is there.” So spoke my ear, nose, and throat doctor three months ago. I had reported ringing in one of my ears and a series of doctor appointments had led me to his office, and then to the Imaging Department where my body passed through the MRI tube, which was sleek, beautiful in pastel colors, and terrifying. If licked, it might taste like candy. In reality, it knocked, clanked, and banged, looking for a tumor in my head.
Later that day I got the call. They found something: a tumor called Acoustic Neuroma (more precisely Vestibular Schwannoma). The ENT doctor told me that these things are usually benign, that they grow slowly, and that the most likely course of treatment for me would mean surgery. I asked about this surgery and its complications. “Well, you could die,” were the first words out of his mouth (not the best bedside manner I’ve ever experienced).
I ended up in the Clinic of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Iowa Hospital. The details came quickly: they would cut a hole in my skull, move my brain out of the way, and remove the tumor and my balance nerves on which it was growing. My tumor was relatively small. The surgery could cause single-sided deafness, facial paralysis, taste bud problems, or lifelong imbalance, not to mention other worse, but rare, outcomes. My life became a phalanx of percentages.
I had surgery on May 9th, and everything went about as well as could be hoped. The doctor saved my hearing. I did have temporary facial paralysis, but that has corrected and is almost back to normal. I’m working hard to get my balance back; it’s progressing, albeit slowly. The tumor is gone, with very little chance it will come back. We hit a home run—no, a grand slam.
I have referred to this whole experience as “theologian on-the-job training.” But, for what has it trained me? Have I learned anything from it? We had some friends over for dinner recently, one of whom had just had emergency surgery, and the discussion turned to whether or not God has a plan for our lives. If by the idea of plan, one means that bad things will not happen to us, then I don’t believe that for a second. Does God control every little thing that happens to us? I don’t really think so. God does not shield us from the terrible, beautiful world that God created.
In the grand scheme of things, what I’ve been through hardly counts as severe suffering. If you’re going to have a tumor in your head, I had the right one (small and benign). Would I trade places with a refugee fleeing civil war? Or with a family member of an unarmed person who was shot by a police officer? My tumor taught me how lucky I am.
Though I am skeptical that God has a specific plan for each of us, I have a new conviction and insight to how God is with us. This is the heart of the incarnation: that God, who created the universe, decided to become part of it in a fleshy way. God joined a world with hunger, pain, suffering, and yes, rare tumors. In the book of Revelation, the future promise is that God will come down to earth: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them . . . mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev 21:3-4 NRSV). There will be no spatial separation between God and humanity. Our hope is that someday we will experience full consummation of what began in creation and was given unique expression in the incarnation.
In the past few months, I have experienced God being with me in very concrete ways. First, in the love, help, and support of family and friends, who brought us food, mowed our grass, or helped with our kids. These were incarnational acts, God’s presence among us. I also experienced God in the depth of the liturgy and anointing of the sick, ancient words of collected wisdom from across the ages.
Things happen that are beyond our knowing, but this does not mean that God stands watch over my eighth cranial nerve, manipulating every little thing that happens. The incarnation is as much about God’s presence in the community today and across the centuries as it is about pointing to a discrete moment in the past. God has been raining at our fountains so vigorously that we might be shocked at how fast the water rises.
I am a biblical scholar, and although I could turn to the Bible at this point, I choose instead someone almost as old as the Bible: Bob Dylan. In a recent song, he describes the way in which wisdom springs up from pain and how our brains struggle to understand. Life and death are, and always will be, a mystery. In the title of this love song, he insists that he will stay true, “when the deal goes down. “
Dylan is not talking about God, but I don’t care. I can’t think of a better way to sum up my experience of the last few months. God will be with us when the deal goes down.
A version of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.