Death has a way of waking us up. Today we live with a growing ability to put off any conversation or reflection that wanders too close to the subject of our mortality. Like church bells in the distance, we seldom recognize the regularity of the sound. That is, until we personally encounter death, and then the words of Annie Dillard ring true: “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck” (20).
When we, like a bell, are lifted and struck, what resounds? This question lies at the heart of a number of recent books reflecting upon disease, suffering, and death. From J. Todd Billings’s Rejoicing in Lament [read TGC’s review] to Victor Lee Austin’s Losing Susan [read TGC’s review] to Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air [read TGC’s review], encountering death requires faithful reflection—and the fruit of that reflection is powerful.
In Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death, Russ Ramsey—author and pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville—chronicles for us his own encounter with affliction and death in a book that reads much like a personal journal. Three days before his 40th birthday, Ramsey was diagnosed with a blood-borne bacterial infection that attacked his mitral valve, resulting in the early stages of heart failure.
Over the course of two years, Ramsey details in the present tense his journey through the onset of affliction, medical recovery, struggles with depression and addiction, and the challenge to make sense of a broken body and existence. For him, his suffering and affliction became a new way to see the world—an opportunity to learn “what happens when affliction and faith collide” (17).
During the first month of Ramsey’s story, we’re invited into the raw emotions of a family facing immense confusion and uncertainty. Aware they’re in the midst of a life-changing event, Ramsey commits to “paying as much attention as I can to the medical, spiritual, relational, emotional, pharmaceutical, and physical experiences of this journey my failing heart has set me on” (18). By attending to these details, Ramsey recognizes the painful distance illness and affliction can often place between the afflicted and their family and friends (50–55). This separation creates an awkwardness that disturbs the relational order. It has a way of making the afflicted feel they’re “becoming a prayer request” (53).
Could it be our apprehension to more readily discuss illness, disease, and death exacerbates the relational distance we feel during seasons of suffering? Most stories of affliction begin similar to Ramsey’s. The onset of affliction seemingly comes from another world, unfamiliar to ours, forcing us to ask: “What on earth is happening to me?”
Most modern Christians are unprepared for illness and death, which invites the kind of desperation that seeks to quantify and make perfect sense of affliction and suffering—for both the afflicted and those caring for them. In addition, our churches spend little time reflecting on and preparing for illness and death, which dovetails with our culture’s scramble to remove them altogether from our daily lives. The result? When it comes to affliction and death, many Christians live with an uncomfortable confusion.
God at Work
As the bell rings, affliction leads us to bring our physical pain, as well as our muddled and confusing emotions, to God. It forces us to lose control, and to not “underestimate the gift of the wrecked life” (106). For in the wrecked life God gives us “new eyes so that we might see the world in a new light” (106). Here, in the life struck down by affliction, we find God working in and through us according to his purposes.
At the conclusion of a sermon titled “On Preparing to Die,” Martin Luther said:
You can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace.
For these reasons, Ramsey’s Struck is a gift to those of us often unwilling and unprepared to consider such things. In the months following the onset of Ramsey’s heart failure and surgery, we’re reminded that when one is struck by affliction and suffering, recovery demands we do not only the work of physical rehabilitation, but also the painful work of emotional and spiritual rehabilitation. In every way, life is different now. There is no going back to the person you once were.
With Struck written in the present tense, it’s not terribly difficult to see Ramsey’s own thoughts on what has happened to him change. Early on, one wonders if Ramsey too quickly views his affliction as an opportunity for spiritual growth:
I do not want simply to endure my affliction. I want to experience it—to receive it as an adventure and follow it to its end. I find the whole business fascinating. (19)
The recognition that God is present with us in affliction is both comforting and faith-building. He can and often does open our eyes to see the world in new ways through our pain. But later in the story, after a stirring conversation with his friend Barbara—herself lamenting an affliction—Ramsey was sobered, wondering if he “had been making some sort of game out of my own suffering” (116).
When we’re struck with affliction in this life, we’re met with the temptation to either not address its meaning at all or too quickly make sense of the story God is writing in and through us. The Scriptures, particularly the Psalms, invite us to bring our pain and confusion to God himself in lament and praise, and believe, as J. Todd Billings writes, that “the gospel is good news that is big enough to incorporate and envelop our dying and death, even when it seems senseless.”
Struck is a significant testimony to God’s faithfulness, and to the hope of the resurrection, where “all the pain will one day end” (153). It also showcases the wonder that is Christian marriage. The afterword, written by Russ’s wife, Lisa, presents a beautiful addition to the story and meaningful insights into faithful long-term care. Often the loved ones journeying alongside feel the unique brunt of affliction. As Victor Lee Austin writes:
Perhaps through caring for someone you love, you have found that you are able to go a lot further down into the world of sickness and pain than you ever imagined you could. And yet all of us know that we have untested limits.
Indeed, God is also testing the power of his grace in those providing care.
Here we have not only a story about encountering death, but also a story of a husband and wife committed to climbing the mountain together. Perhaps, when we’re lifted and struck, we’re awakened to love. To the love others have for us. And most of all, to God’s relentless love for us.