Shortly after I met Zach, I met a doctor in Colorado. He is a plastic surgeon, but not the kind that helps people with insecurities look younger. He’s the kind that helps kids with birth defects live more normal lives. He has a beautiful home and beautiful wife. As we sat in his living room sipping something warm and eating something delightful, someone simply said, “Talk to me about suffering.” At first glance it seemed silly to hear a story about suffering from someone who seemed so far from it. As he recounted his own personal journey of suffering and the lessons it taught him, it quickly became evident that my initial assumptions were wrong, like usual. I won’t go into the particulars of his story but as he closed it out he said something I will never forget.
According to him, hand surgeries are some of the most difficult to recover from. The reason being, people have a natural tendency to recoil and guard their hand when wounded. Think about the last time you got a paper cut and how you stopped using that hand due to the pain. That’s just a paper cut! Now imagine if your whole hand was filleted open. I suspect we would guard our hands too.
The body’s natural inclination to guard and protect the wound is a good thing. Protect it. Tuck it in. Why cause more damage? It already hurts! However, there comes a point in recovery where you have to start using the hand again and here lies the problem. Your hand is one of the most sensitive parts of the body. When it hurts, it really hurts. My doctor friend explained that in order for the hand to heal, you have to use it in spite of the pain. You have to massage the scar tissue. You have to fight against the tendency to guard it. If you fight through the pain, the surgeries have a much higher success rate. If you don’t, the brain will start to forget the hand even exists. In some instances, you’ll actually lose your fingerprints. Your limb becomes useless. You have to accept the pain and work through it. If you don’t accept the pain as a temporary reality, you risk losing the use of whatever was wounded to begin with.
Wow. I had to let that sink in. What am I guarding in my life because of my fear to hurt again? What, in my life, am I at risk of losing the use of because I’m unwilling to work through the pain? As I sat there pondering the profound imagery of his experience as a surgeon, his wife continued. She was a nurse but she really liked gardening. She explained an epiphany she had one day while tending her plants. Some of the plants weren’t doing so well. She noticed and bought a bag of manure to fertilize the plants in order to get them the nutrients needed to recover. As she sprinkled manure on her dying flowers the Holy Spirit showed her that He was also in the gardening business.
Jesus tells a story of a conversation between a gardener and an owner of an orchard. Upon examining a tree that failed to produce fruit the owner tells the gardener to cut the tree down. The gardener’s reply was a request for one more season with the tree in order to fertilize it with the hopes that fruit will come as a result. The trench is dug around the tree and filled with manure.
God uses the manure of our lives to bring about growth and good fruit. Without the manure, we either wither or stop producing fruit. Suffering can be used to make something beautiful in us. As our host spoke I secretly wished God would use suffering to make something beautiful both in my life and my friend Zach’s life.
I had the honor of walking with Zach through years of suffering well. He’s one to let God use that suffering to produce some really good fruit, especially in lives of those who know him. We laughed together. We cried together. We built Lego’s and played virtual reality video games. We would sit in chemo appointments and plan for adventures. We took a trip to Las Vegas and he raced a Lamborghini. We put $5 in a slot machine and lost it faster than expected. We ate good food. We had hard conversations. We walked through the mess together and he became my brother. As Zach was surrounded by his family he breathed his last breath in this world. He passed shortly after his 33rd birthday. I really miss him.
When Jesus shows up He takes the junk of this life. The hurt, pain, suffering, hatred and makes something beautiful out of it. I am forever grateful for Zach. I’m grateful that God told him he had cancer before he would have ever known otherwise. My family had the honor of watching Zach trust his Heavenly Father in the midst of the storm. My children watched Zach suffer, and suffer well. The seeds that Zach planted in me and my family will bear fruit for generations to come. Jesus takes the junk and makes it into something beautiful.
The best part of God’s story, and Zach’s, is that it doesn’t end in death. Jesus doesn’t stop at turning our hurt into something beautiful. He promises to make all things new again. To restore all things to the way they were meant to be from the beginning. On Friday, July 20th, 2018 Zach got to experience this restoration. He was able to stand face to face with the God he trusted all of his life here on earth. I can only imagine the joy Zach experienced in that moment. The joy of a son coming home to his father after a long trip. The joy of a dad looking at his boy in the eyes and telling him, “Good job buddy!”
Zach’s not here right now. He’s far better off than all of us. His story is complete as he stands in wholeness. Our story is still being told, we’re still in the middle of it. My hope for each and every one of us would be that we would have eyes to see the story that God is trying to tell through our lives. That we would trust in Jesus and what He accomplished through His death and resurrection to bring us into right standing with God. That we would allow this God that loves so deeply to take the brokenness in our lives and make something beautiful out of it. Only He can do it and I promise you He wants to.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, Zach taught me and his friends a lot about what it means to be a medic. He invited us into his battle and we walked together. While the bullets were flying we had each other’s backs. Even when he wasn’t able to fight anymore, he trusted us to be strong for him. We all need people like Zach in our lives who trust and love like that. We all get to be repairers of the breach. We get to step into the gap for those around us. We all need others to step into the gap for us when the road gets hard. We get to be medics for each other.
I deeply appreciate those in my life who walk with me through the mess and show me what it looks like to walk with the other wounded brothers and sisters in my life who need someone. I miss Zach. I know that his suffering was not in vain. I can’t wait to give him a bear hug when I see him again. He wasn’t a big fan of hugs but that didn’t stop me before and it won’t stop me then.