A Piece of the Puzzle?: An Update on the Cause of Cullen’s Stroke

Here is a brief medical update for those who have so faithfully prayed for our family over the last six or seven weeks.

Since March 2nd, the doctors have been hard at work trying to determine the cause of Cullen’s stroke. This means lots of needles, blood, and tests, which is very scary for a kid who just turned four. But Cullen has been exceptionally brave for such a little guy, just like Reepicheep, his favorite character from Narnia.

Yesterday, the nurse at our pediatrician’s office called us with some test results. The main discovery is that Cullen is anemic. I am hopeful that this might be the missing piece of the puzzle for which we have been searching. Last night and early this morning, I read a few medical journals, and there is some evidence in the medical community to suggest a link between iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) and ischemic strokes, the type of stroke Cullen had. A 2007 study, published in Pediatrics, argues, “Children with iron-deficiency anemia accounted for more than half of all stroke cases in children without an underlying medical illness, which suggests that iron-deficiency anemia is a significant risk factor for stroke in otherwise healthy young children.” A 2011 study in Archives of Disease in Childhood further explores the association between IDA and ischemic strokes in children. I plan to discuss all of this with our neurologist ​when we meet with him on May 8th. He will know if the theory holds water.

The potential good news is that, if the neurologist thinks that IDA could have caused Cullen’s stroke, then it might be the case that we can greatly decrease the chance of future strokes simply by keeping Cullen on iron supplements. Here’s hoping (and praying).

C.S. Lewis Speaks to Fifty Shades of Grey

We are just a few weeks away from the DVD release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Much has been written on this subject in recent months. I have tried to join the conversation in a rather innovative and (I hope) instructive way. As I pondered the fact that E.L. James’ erotic trilogy has sold roughly the same number of copies as The Chronicles of Narnia, it got me thinking: What would C.S. Lewis say about Fifty Shades of Grey? Of course, we cannot know how an author of another time and place would respond to James, but we can venture an educated guess based on the writings that author has left us. And Lewis has left us quite a corpus. In the piece I wrote recently for Credo, I consider three of Lewis’ works, The Screwtape Letters (1942), Mere Christianity (1952), and The Four Loves (1960). It is striking how clearly Lewis—writing over fifty years ago!—speaks to the very issues raised by Fifty Shades. You can read the full article here.

Reading a Text That Could Be Otherwise

The May issue of First Things contains some excellent opinion pieces. My favorite is the one written by Marc Barnes, titled “The Screen and the Book.” Here is a key bit of Barnes’ argument:

The screen is the ultimate multipurpose tool. It may be used for reading an essay–but it need not be. I may equally watch some show on Netflix, play a flash game, check my bank account, or perform math equations. Anything I am reading could, in the same mode, and on the same screen, become something else. This is the phenomenology of the screen: It could be otherwise.

Every student understands this, and rather painfully so. This or that essay made manifest on a screen could equally become Facebook, or cat videos. It is a common critique of computers that they distract us from our work. True, but the problem is not limited to the moments in which they distract us. The experience of reading a text that could be otherwise is fundamentally different from reading a text that couldn’t. We may be distracted away from a book, but we are never distracted from the book by the book.

More and more schools are bringing ipads into the classroom. To this type of innovation, Barnes remarks:

If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E.B. White from an e-reader … Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise. If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.

Well said! Again, the entire piece, “The Screen and the Book,” can be found in the latest issue of First Things. Take the time to read it. In the print version of the journal!

Walk with Jesus During Holy Week

Crossway has put together a series of short videos for Holy Week. In the series, well-known New Testament scholars explore the background and significance of the history-shaping events that occurred each day of the final week of Christ’s earthly life. I have included the Tuesday video below. For the complete series, visit the Crossway site.

The Sword That Perpetually Hangs over the Neck and the Father Who Holds All Things in His Power

Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it … Wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden … Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck? … Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion (Calvin, Inst. 1.17.10-11).

Celebrating Our Father’s Loving Care: An Update on Cullen’s Progress

It’s mind-blowing how drastically the human body can change in a matter of days.

On March 1st my youngest son, Cullen, was running around like a wild man. The morning of March 2nd he had a stroke and for two full days couldn’t even stand to his feet. On March 4th he took a few steps while holding two hands for support. The next day he took a few more steps, and did so holding only one hand. By March 6th Cullen was walking across the room and back while holding one hand, and he even took several steps without assistance. On March 7th and 8th he was walking all over the place. Though still a bit shaky, he was getting much faster and never asked for help. March 9th we took Cullen to see the physical therapist at Children’s Hospital here in Birmingham, AL. He ran full speed for the first time since the stroke. He also walked up and down stairs without any help. The physical therapist gave him a great report and didn’t even schedule a follow-up visit.

As far as we can tell, Cullen is back to his boisterous, acrobatic, pre-stroke self, with just one minor exception: he has not yet regained full control of the right side of his face. He’s making progress in this area, but things are moving slowly. We still have no information with respect to the cause of the stroke. We should be receiving test results within the month, and we are scheduled to meet with a neurosurgeon in two weeks. Hopefully he will have some answers for us. Whether or not we discover the cause of the stroke, we are grateful to our sovereign God for his healing touch. We may not ever (at least in this life) find out what exactly happened to Cullen on the morning of March 2nd. Sometimes we aren’t meant to know. And in those mysterious occurrences, those times when we know the least, we lean most on the Lord. The doctors may not be able to take actions to decrease the chances of future strokes. Whatever happens, we take comfort in the fact that Cullen is in the care of our loving Father, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, things high and low, visible and invisible, great and small. This God is not weak; He is almighty. He is not whimsical; He is faithful. He is not reckless; He is wise.

We will provide additional updates if new information comes to light. Literally thousands of people have followed Cullen’s story and prayed fervently for our family over the last week and a half. Again, we would like to express our sincere gratitude.

Grace, mercy, and peace,

Dillon, Jamie, Aidan, and Cullen

Emerging from Our Chasm: An Update on My Son, Cullen

In the early days of this week my family lived deep in a dark chasm of anguish. No one else lives in this chasm. Not even God. Or so we felt at times.

On Monday, March 2nd, my three-year-old son, Cullen, fell and hit his head on the gymnasium floor at his school. My wife, Jamie, teaches at Cullen’s school, and was in the gym when the fall occurred, though she did not see exactly what happened, nor did any of the other adults who were present. Cullen’s mouth was bleeding, and he was crying, but Jamie was able to calm him down, and he sat in her lap for the next hour or so. Things appeared to be getting back to normal–no harm done–when suddenly Cullen started coughing and vomiting. Jamie rushed him to the bathroom where he continued vomiting and then lost his balance and fell over. As Jamie describes it, Cullen did not seem to be unconscious, but it appeared as if he suddenly lost all feeling in the right side of his face, the same side he had fallen on an hour earlier. A wonderful friend of Jamie’s who serves as the co-director of the school rushed her and Cullen to the ER in Tuscaloosa. I met them at the hospital shortly thereafter. Within the next few hours Cullen vomited two more times and appeared very tired. We also noticed that he had a pretty bad fat lip on the right side of his mouth. At this point, Jamie and I both thought he had a concussion. The hospital in Tuscaloosa did a CT scan, and they didn’t find anything disconcerting, but the doctor wanted us to go to Children’s Hospital in downtown Birmingham to have Cullen examined by the specialists there. Just before we left Tuscaloosa, the doctor said, “In the end I think this is just going to be a fall at school combined with a case of the flu. I don’t even think he has a concussion.” And so we headed by ambulance to Children’s, hopes high.

When we arrived at Children’s we met with the general pediatrics team and the neurology team, and they almost immediately expressed their concern for Cullen. By this time, the right side of Cullen’s face appeared swollen, he could not move his eyes to the right, and he could not stand to his feet or walk. He also insisted on laying only on the right side of his face. They did another CT scan, this time taking a close look at the neck as well, but again the scan showed nothing problematic. We stayed in the hospital overnight and were told they would most likely do an MRI the next morning. At this stage, we knew it was more than the flu, and the two teams at Children’s were in agreement that it did not appear to be a standard concussion. So we prayed. And we questioned God, albeit quietly. All night long.

On Tuesday, March 3rd, they did the MRI. Cullen did fine in the “bear cave,” as we called it, and as he rested in the hospital bed I stepped out to get a cup of coffee. I returned to our room to find a neurosurgeon talking to Jamie. She was crying. The MRI revealed that Cullen had suffered a stroke. “Are you sure?” I asked. “He’s three years old! How can he have a stroke?” We met later with the neurology team; they confirmed the news. Indubitably, our little boy had suffered a minor stroke in his pons, the message station of the brain. The pons contains nuclei that deal with equilibrium, eye movement, facial expressions, posture, and so on. This fit with what we had been seeing in Cullen. The general pediatrics team came by later to tell us that we would be staying one more night. They also informed us that they would be starting a series of tests, trying to determine the cause of the stroke. Our tears were our food that night. And with the one who penned Psalm 42, we screamed at God: “Why have you forgotten [us]?!”

Wednesday, March 4th, the neurology team visited us again. In short, they said that Cullen is a medical mystery. For starters, strokes among children are very uncommon. Additionally, the doctors do not currently know what caused Cullen’s stroke. Nor do they know if the stroke and the head trauma are related. Finally, they do not know why the stroke affected the right side of Cullen’s face but not the entire right side of his body. “It’s kids like you,” the chief neurologist said to Cullen, “that keep us doctors humble.” The much more encouraging news was that everyone seemed optimistic about Cullen’s recovery. The portion of his pons that was not getting the blood it required to function properly is no longer operational. There is no “reviving” this section of the brain. But what often occurs in that small number of children who have strokes is that the brain rewires itself, so that other parts pick up the slack caused by the part that is no longer functioning. If this happens with Cullen, the neurology team told us, he will eventually get back to normal.

We’ve been at home for a few days now, and we have good reason to think that Cullen’s brain is rewiring itself. His eye movement has improved greatly, as has his balance. He no longer complains of dizziness or blurred vision. He is getting his appetite back. He seems to be regaining control of the right side of his face. And he is starting to walk again. On Wednesday he took several steps while holding both my hands. Thursday he walked across the room holding only one hand. Today he walked across the room and back without assistance. He is still very shaky as he walks, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.

Many, many friends and family members have been praying for us this week. For this, we are so very grateful. Please continue praying in the weeks and months ahead. Specifically, please pray for six things. 1) Pray for a full recovery for Cullen. 2) Pray for the doctors to learn more about the cause of Cullen’s stroke. If they can determine the cause, hopefully they can prevent this type of thing from happening again. 3) Pray for Cullen to stay flu free. Until the doctors learn more about the cause of the stroke, they have put Cullen on aspirin. If he is exposed to the flu while taking aspirin there is a small chance he will develop Reye’s syndrome, a very serious, potentially fatal condition. 4) Pray for Aidan, Cullen’s five-year-old brother. Obviously, Aidan does not understand everything that has happened, but he knows that something is wrong. Pray that he will not think the increased attention mommy and daddy are giving to “Culley” means a decrease in affection for him. 5) Ask the Lord to supply strength and patience for me and Jamie as we work with Cullen each new day. 6) Pray for our extended family as they cope with all of this.

We are emerging from our chasm, though “emerging” sounds too triumphant. Crawling is more like it. There have been hours where God seemed absent. But we are beginning to understand that He wasn’t absent; we were just unaware of His presence. Like Aslan before Lucy finds the proper spell in the magician’s book, God was invisible to us. We couldn’t see anything properly when our eyes were blurred with tears. But the spell has been found. We have seen the Great Lion. He was with us all the time. And now we know Him more intimately than ever before. For without sickness, you cannot know God as Healer. Without pain, you cannot know Him as Comforter. And without despair, you cannot know Him as Sustainer.

Leaders Equipping; Members Ministering; The Body Building Itself Up

In Eph 4:7-16, Paul tells us that the triumphant Christ supplies spiritual leaders to equip the members of the body for the work of ministry. We should note here that leaders are the property of Christ; they are his to give. If we understand this point, we understand much about pastoral ministry. Belonging to Christ means that clergy are deprived of the right to make their own job descriptions. Moreover, it means that spiritual leaders do not take their cues from the business world. Christ gives to the body, not strategists, but shepherds; not entrepreneurs, but equippers; not idea men, but individuals who persist in the proclamation of the Word. Such leaders enable others to exercise their own respective ministries, so that the body is built to maturity.

Paul goes on to develop this idea of collective maturity. As a boy marks the wall with a pencil to monitor his physical growth, perhaps until he reaches the height of his father, so the body is to aspire to the mark of the full stature of Christ. “No prolonged infancies among us, please,” as Eugene Peterson translates it. The immature in the faith, Paul says, are like tiny, rudderless boats, sea-tossed and carried away by every fresh gale of false doctrine. The mature, on the contrary, “incardiate” the one faith and then speak the truth of Christ from the heart. This, then, is Christ’s design for the one church: leaders equipping members; every member confessing truth and exercising his or her unique ministry; the whole body building itself up in love.

Sixpence and Story Writing: C.S. Lewis on Our Relationship with God

Since I failed to give readers their dose of C.S. Lewis last week, I have provided two passages today. Both come from Mere Christianity. Each one helps us understand something important about God. First, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” Lewis answers:

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction (143).

Second, can God really hear my prayers in the midst of a million others? Lewis explains:

Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty—and every other moment from the beginning of the world—is always the Present for Him … [It’s a bit like this.] Suppose I am writing a novel. I write ‘Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!’ For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary’s maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary’s time (the time in the story) at all. This is not a perfect illustration, of course. But it may give just a glimpse of what I believe to be the truth. God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention to spare for each one of us … You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created (167-168).

Learning the Language of Lament

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. And he has incurable cancer. Billings has just written a piece for Relevant titled, “Are We Missing Something Important About Prayer?” In the article, he talks about learning the language of lament. He writes:

Whether our burden is an illness, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a dream, or fear about the future, laments in Scripture give us a path for bringing our anxiety and confusion before the Almighty.

Over a third of the Psalms are laments. Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning and lamenting, and the Spirit intercedes in “wordless groans.” Jesus laments in protest—turning over the tables at the Temple—and in grief—sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, praying for the cup of the cross to be taken away. Jesus even utters a cry that simultaneously expresses our feelings of abandonment, and heals them, in trust of the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The article is well worth your time.

Also, Billings’ latest book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life with Christ, has just been released. Here is part of the Amazon blurb:

At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises.

I’ve read Billings’ work on union with Christ, as well as his book on theological interpretation of Scripture. Both were tremendously helpful. I plan to work through Rejoicing in Lament very soon. I’m sure it will be a theologically responsible, brutally honest investigation of some really tough questions.

A Parody of Marriage: Evangelicals and Catholics on So-Called Same-Sex Marriage

The March issue of First Things includes a statement by the ecumenical group founded in 1994 by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Some of my favorite theologians, such as Timothy George and Kevin Vanhoozer, are members of the group today. The title of the statement is “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage.” While Evangelicals and Roman Catholics hold somewhat different views on the morality of contraception, the legitimacy of divorce, clerical celibacy, and the status of marriage as a sacrament of the Church, on the fundamental truth that marriage is a union based on the complementarity of male and female, they are fully united. Here is a particularly incisive section of the statement:

The crisis of marriage culture in our times now poses a direct and fundamental challenge to the very nature of marriage. By redefining marriage to allow a union between two persons of the same sex–Spouse 1 and Spouse 2–a kind of alchemy is performed, not merely on the institution, but on human nature itself. In such a world, the distinction between men and women is denied social recognition and marriage is no longer a unique bond uniting male and female. It becomes an instrument created by the state to give official status to the relationship between two generic human beings. In these circumstances, what the state defines as marriage no longer embodies God’s purposes in creation. An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.

If you are interested in engaging this issue intelligently, carefully, biblically, I commend the statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Here is the denouement:

Faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage. It disregards the created order, threatens the common good, and distorts the Gospel.

Spot on.

“Simul justus et peccator. Simul frozen et unfrozen.”

Over at EerdWord, Rachel Bomberger has written a riveting piece on the Lutheran theology of Disney’s Frozen. Really, this is a fascinating read. Here’s an excerpt:

Elsa is Everyman. She’s you. She’s me. (Only blonder and skinnier and with a flawless complexion. Sigh.)

At the beginning of the movie, she is as innocent as Adam and Eve before the fall. She has the capacity to do great evil but is unaware of her vulnerability.

After the fall — I’m not making this up; there actually is a fall — comes knowledge. Elsa becomes aware of the darker side of her agency — her “sinful nature,” if you will — along with its inherent destructive power.

Like Adam and Eve, she hides — not in the garden but in her room. Like Adam and Eve, she covers her nakedness — not with fig leaves but with kid gloves. Like Adam, Eve, and every other member of fallen humanity, she’s both impossibly beautiful and impossibly broken.

If you have a few minutes, check out the full post here.

And yes, I realize that my last two posts have made use of images from animated movies. What can I say? I’m a dad.

If “Being in Love” Doesn’t Last

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, so a few comments on “being in love” are in order. When in Rome.

If I had to chop down a tree every time a magazine interview, TV show, or movie sent us the message that the moment you “fall out of love” with someone is the moment it’s okay to end the relationship, we’d all be living in Thneedville. (That, dear reader, is a reference to The Lorax. Yes, I have children.) And if we all lived in Thneedville, a hollow of artificiality–no real trees, plants, or flowers–love would lie dormant, because romance cannot exist without roses, of course.

Jesting aside, here’s what I want to say. The message our culture bellows is this: Fall in love. Get married. Fall out of love. Get a divorce. Start again.

As I wrote about last Friday, I’ve been spending some quality time with C.S. Lewis this year. In Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis writes of “being in love” and “loving.” His comments are a far cry from what we often hear today.

Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true … But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense—love as distinct from ‘being in love’—is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other … ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it (Mere Christianity, 108-109).


Preaching Professor Visits His Son’s Murderer

On October 30, 2010, Antonio Maurice Smith was murdered. His father, Robert Smith, Jr., Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School, plans to visit the murderer in prison. And here is what he plans to say:

I asked prayer warriors to pray for me as I prepared to write the young man and to pray that he would respond affirmatively and ultimately add my name to the visitors list so that I could come and tell him in person—”Jesus loves and forgives you and so do I.” After nearly two years, in September 2012 I finally mailed that letter.

He added me to his visitors list in 2014. Soon by God’s grace I will see the young man whose face was the last face our son saw before standing in the presence of the Lord. I will offer the young man the forgiveness that Christ offers to me and to all who will believe.

I encourage you to read the full article here. It’s a powerful testimony of God’s forgiveness.

Reconnecting Theological Scholarship and Pastoral Ministry

Preston Sprinkle has put together a nice blurb for the first Center for Pastor Theologian’s conference, which will be held in Chicago this November. Here are the conference details:

The Pastor Theologian: Identities and Possibilities
November 2-4, 2015

Peter Liethart — The Pastor Theologian as Biblical Theologian
James K. A. Smith — The Pastor Theologian as Political Theologian
Kevin Vanhoozer — The Pastor Theologian as Public Theologian
Todd Wilson — The Pastor Theologian as Pastor
Gerald Hiestand — The Pastor Theologian as Ecclesial Theologian

The Center for Pastor Theologian’s annual theology conference exists to reconnect theological scholarship and pastoral ministry. Toward this end, the conference facilitates conversation between pastors, academic theologians, lay leaders, and ecclesial theologians, with a view to constructing theological proposals for the betterment of the church and her theology. Go here to register for the conference.