How can our metaphorical feet be unbound so that we can journey toward God on two strong feet? Characters cannot change their own stories. No matter what the movies would have us believe, we are yet slaves to our own desires until God redirects our vision. Until the author rewrites the script, the characters can only wait and hope. We are like a baby still in the womb: unable to deliver ourselves. We want new birth but we can only wait and hope.
I remember the smell of the small missionary hospital in Lugulu more than I remember almost anything else about it: a mixture of body odor, Betadine, and cleaning solvents. It was the smell of disease to my childhood imagination and I learned early on how to breath through my mouth. My familiarity with the hospital was as my familiarity with my own home and with the wide Kenyan countryside that sloped toward Uganda. I played Legos with the children who sat by their parent’s bed and the children who lay so unnaturally still behind a curtain of their own. I captured enormous beetles in the hallways and carried myself with all the swagger of a doctor’s son. Although I was on first name basis with the guards, I had very little idea what went on at the hospital in terms of official business. I did not know, for example, that around 1,200 infants were delivered there each year.
My father was no obstetrician. His entire medical training included only five deliveries and no experience with complications. He studied infectious diseases and the space on his living room bookshelf dedicated to other topics was slim. I’m sure that Dad had a how-to book on baby delivery somewhere on those shelves because I remember it. Seeing the black and white photos in that book made me foreswear an obstetric career, but they weren’t Dad’s only resource. He also had James Herriot’s veterinary stories: All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful.
If only the women knew that he was studying James Herriot as pre-birth preparation. But they didn’t know. Nobody knew and Dad tried to keep it that way. The midwives at the hospital were old pros and only needed my dad when there was a problem. He would have preferred their roles reversed and when he assured them that they knew more about how to handle a baby crisis than he did, they would not believe him. He was, after all, Bwana Mrefu (The Tall One). He was the lone doctor at the 110 bed rural hospital and great authority was granted to his position, whether he felt qualified or not.
With no anesthesia, no anesthesiologist, and a makeshift surgery room with no sterilization, Dad refused to perform c-sections. He was reduced to hand and forceps deliveries and James Herriot’s narrative voice in the back of his head. Breaches, shoulder dystocia, nuchal cord; they all had to be navigated by a man who felt more at home with skin diseases than with babies.
One day, the worst of all possible complications was brought to his attention: a dead fetus and the woman in labor. She had traveled far to reach the hospital, walking the entire way, and the pain of a long journey on foot was compounded by a dead baby. The nurses were grave, the mother distressed, and the entire hospital ward anticipated the birth of death into the world. When my Dad arrived, his heart sat heavy in his chest and he was bewildered as to how he might comfort this mother in her pain, but the situation got suddenly worse. The baby’s presentation was all wrong and would not come out of the mother. He faced the possibility of losing not only the baby, but the mother as well unless he found a way to remove the fetus.
No heartbeat. No life. Bwana Mrefu stooped down and he felt around inside the woman’s uterus between contractions to discover why the baby would not come out. The baby’s chest was pressed down across the birth canal and its body arched in a violent u-shape. Each contraction clamped harder on my dad’s arm, now up past his elbow, as he felt with his finger to find a body part he could grab and move. What effort, both mother’s and doctor’s, for a dead baby. He felt the urge to rip the child from the womb just to save the mother, but something in his mind told him to do it right: be the physician and do things right. Blame his retentive personality.
Blame the Holy Spirit.
Dead baby or no dead baby, he did things right. He stretched his fingers until he found the knobby point above the hip and could reposition the baby into a breached position: butt downward. Do it right. As the baby’s rump came out, he reached in and swept one arm down across the face and chest so that the baby’s arm would not break when squeezed out, then he found the other arm and did the same. Delicately, so delicately. The contractions did their work and gradually pressed the baby out: a baby without breath, silent, still. Dad removed his arm and encouraged the grieving mother to push.
Push for what?
Waiting for death. Slowly, gradually, the baby came into the waiting world and then, with a spill of fluid, the baby slipped into his arms. Butt first, legs first. He was holding it up by its tiny legs and reaching for the head when the lifeless baby, the upside down baby, the baby with no heartbeat, gasped and slammed the world with a scream that will not be soon forgotten.
Why could they not hear the heartbeat? Perhaps the baby’s position restricted their ability? “Surely the child was not brought back to life so miraculously,” one is tempted to think. Whatever the case, the aftershocks of that infant’s cry rippled across the entire ward and Joy, slow in coming, cautious like a doe, broke into exultation and triumph. Joy galloped across the open fields of their imaginations and gamboled like a young deer. Tears and laughter, relief and amazement, all commingled in one beautiful moment. My father will not forget that moment; nor will the mother.
Like that infant, we are cramped, pressed down and a spiritual heartbeat is difficult to detect. Like that infant, we are alive, but barely. We cannot live without being delivered and we are unable to deliver ourselves: what an awful, stranded, and impotent position. We can only wait, like the psalmist: “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope” (Psalm 130:5). Moreover, “it is good for a man to wait in silence, for the salvation of Jehovah” (Lamentations 3:26). And again, “All the days of my struggle, I wait for my change to come” (Job 14:14).
Then he comes like the morning, strong to deliver, brazen and bold. He is the source of our stories and the One who sustains us on our pilgrim path as characters. While we were yet dead in our sin, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Though we live in Christ, our lives hardly qualify as abundant, and if we could not raise ourselves from spiritual death, we certainly cannot manufacture spiritual life out of our own raw materials. But God can. Whatever abundant life we have, whatever transformations we experience, are by his hand. He has done this and not we ourselves. So we sit in the sand of this wasteland and wait on God. Only by his revelation can the imagination see in this wasteland the hidden springs and the shaded oasis.
We ask him to sanctify our imaginations. He is our Hope of Glory and until our imaginative vision is fixed on the Son, we have no hope of seeing the Father. Until our imaginations are sanctified by the author, we have no hope of a successful pilgrimage. “For he [God] performs what is appointed for me” (Job 23:14a). Unless Jehovah save, we wander but aimlessly through the wasteland and hobble on broken feet.