Down and Out Can be the Way Through

October 15, 2008

It was 3 in the afternoon. I was reclining in a rattan chair about 190 miles from the nearest large city in Mali, West Africa. I remembered every mile from Mopti, for we had bumped and jangled every mile of what passed for roads there. For those who have seen the movie “Sahara” with Matthew McConaghy, I was reclining in the village where they filmed the cave drawings 30 years later. I didn’t feel well.

I didn’t know I had malaria buggies multiplying by the millions, all planning to take over parts of my body in a wonton land grab. I was so tired by 3 that I just lay down on a couch for what I thought would be an hour’s sleep. I woke at midnight in a bed I didn’t recognize, with very concerned people looking down at me. I immediately asked if I could take a shower. My body felt like a cesspool of sweat and smell. No one said anything: They just kept looking with furrowed foreheads at each other. Since they seemed to be ignoring my plea for cleanliness, I tried to get up.

I didn’t get up. I discovered I couldn’t move more than a few inches. Let me correct that: I was able to move a few moments later – to facilitate the rapid movement of bodily fluids out of my mouth. Soon after that, the other end of the body tried to catch up in volume with the mouth. I was going out both ends.

For the next day and a half, I wandered in and out of consciousness, delving into the world of delirium. I don’t remember anything of those hours other than a monotonous repetition of vomiting and diahrrea, interspersed with aching joints and unbearable fever. The estimate is that I lost 25 pounds in those first two days of malaria-induced suffering. I would have appealed to God for help, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to pray, let alone to think about what I would pray to God. After two days, one of the missionary nurses from Mopti, Rusty Eramo, drove up to the village with the old standby for malaria: Quinine.

No one in North America knows if they are allergic to quinine. In 1977, the only use for it was to treat those who contract malaria who seem to be resistant to chloroquin. Now they use it for a number of treatments, including as a muscle relaxant. That day, they gave me a shot of quinine to relieve me of the fever and debilitating digestive problems. Within 30 seconds I went into anaphylactic shock and should have died.

In that Sahara town of Sangha, they had a church of considerable size and faith. Several of the leaders of that church were told that I was on the verge of death. They came over, anointed me with oil and prayed for me. Within five minutes, the fever was gone and my recurring seizures had stopped. In years since, I have had a number of blood tests and there is no sign the malaria was ever there.

Since I had lost all those pounds of electrolytes, I couldn’t stand the light and I couldn’t stand on my feet. I had to cloister in a dark room and spend my days in National Geographic heaven listening to children playing outside the house during the day and lions growling at the base of the cliffs at night. I gave my camera to my other three team members so they could record our time there. I personally saw nothing of Sangha besides the road in and the road out.

It was one of the most significant moments of my life. God sure is a daring risk-taker and he risked it all to capture my heart. Let me explain.

Do you perhaps remember when Tom Sawyer went into the caves to find Becky? Or maybe when Lucy and the other kids went through the wardrobe to the strange world of Narnia? Then there is Alice’s famous fall down into the rabbit’s hole, a consummation that changed all she had imagined or held dear. All of these excursions came at the point of dejection and loss in their lives. They took the risk to go after a new path, resulting in gaining more of their heart’s desire than they could have imagined. In my case, the way down and out was a tunnel, not a pit.

During the days of my convalescence, one of the team members read me the book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader“. In the pages of that Narnia book, we are introduced to Eustace, a boy of sizable unlikeableness. In one way he is a prig; in another, he is a know-it-all idiot. I lay there as Susan read this book to me, page after suffering page. I knew God was showing me the Eustace parts of my psyche. I couldn’t escape this reading for Susan was delighted to serve in this way. God kept driving my memory into the way I was attacking life like I was its master. I was as clueless about how life really worked as Eustace was.

I began to see that life is actually like the ocean. It has a life of its own and it is indescribably dangerous to those who suppose they have it tamed. At those moments of over-confidence, the squalls come and swamp us. Malaria swamped me with its sweat and weakness and it was my greatest moment of victory. During those days, I cried out for God to rescue me from my haughty attitude of superiority. He came and brought realism to my mind. I could not do life by myself and I could not be the “island” I supposed myself to be.

As I ponder the potential for our country to plunge down the rails of recession in months to come, I wonder if we can view this as a tunnel to greatness rather than a hole into destitution? Will there be people who will grab a hold of greed and scuttle it to death? Will others see their casual attitude toward prosperity and determine to be generous even as others pull back into fear and miserly self-absorption?

My first-year physics prof in college did his doctoral work on Black Holes. They were once thought to be singularities of incredible mass and minute size, exhibiting control over all, including light. But he told us of a theory he was working on with others around the world. He believed that Black Holes could be portals to different dimensions and even different parts of the Cartesian space. At the time, this theory was not widely accepted. Now it is the most dominant view of black holes.

Can you accept that this may be what most holes in our life are meant for? Perhaps they are meant to draw us in and strip us of all that is tearing us down in order to project us to a new future and a new hope. I think that the tunnels in front of us hold so much hope. Are you willing to see how far the rabbit hole goes, Neo?


One comment

  1. Yes. Paradox. It is the emptying or dying of ourselves so that only the true self remains and can be filled by connecting with God who created our vessels for good purpose and His glory. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

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