We were hoping this wouldn't happen. Our family Christmas vacation was planned. The host home location, arrival time, meal plans and gift exchange protocol were set. All that remained was celebrating Christmas Eve and Day with Resurrection Church where I pastor. After that, off to the races for our annual family Christmas celebration.
And then it happened. Valor got fussy. He started getting hot, losing his appetite and not wanting to play. It was December 23, so we waited most the day hoping his fever would pass and we could still celebrate with family. By 9 p.m., he was getting worse not better. We took his temperature--101 degrees--enough to trigger an immediate trip to the ER. Brandi grabbed Valor's pre-packed hospital bag, called Duke Hospital and got the all-clear to check straight in to a local pediatric emergency room.
In the car, we comforted ourselves with the thought of Mary and Joseph making a similar emergency trip to Bethlehem for the census while Mary was pregnant. We made contingency plans for missing Christmas or arriving late depending on the length of Valor's stay. At 10:30 p.m. I dropped Brandi and Valor off, thankful my sister could be home with the older four sleeping kids. It would be a different Christmas without Brandi and Valor. But we were used to different by now.
At 1:06 a.m. I received an unusual phone call. Actually 2 phone calls--the first didn't wake me. The local hospital ran tests on Valor. His neutrophils were at 1600. 1500 is normal, but his are usually around zero when he checks in to the ER. His temperature had reduced to 99 degrees and his white blood count was normal. After a precautionary injection of IV antibiotics, he would be ready to go home.
Returning home from the hospital at 3 a.m. Christmas Eve morning, Brandi and I were tired and shocked. In his seven prior extended trips to the hospital, Valor had never been sent home early with good news, much less ABOVE AVERAGE neutrophils of 1600. Christmas was back on!
A couple days after the whirlwind of interstate travel, greeting family and exchanging gifts, Brandi and I snuck away to process our emotions about this strange new turn. We agreed Valor's unexpected homecoming felt like "a Christmas gift" and as if "brokenness was broken." The normal tired routine of sickness, hospital stays, needle pokes, and keeping an eye on 4 healthy kids while working full time was no longer normal. The brokenness of Valor's body had unexpectedly (if temporarily) been broken, and early Christmas Eve morning at that.
Can you relate to the tired routine of brokenness? Another family fight? Another toxic work environment? Another addiction relapse? Another bout of anxiety, depression or both?
Israel at the time of Jesus' birth could certainly relate to the tired routine of brokenness. Their king, Herod the Great, married and divorced ten wives, murdering at least one along with three sons, whom he suspected of conspiracy to overthrow him. Near the time of Jesus' birth, the Roman army crucified 2000 Jews along the streets of Israel as punishment for Judas the Galilean's revolt against Rome. Another day, another divorce, another family member murdered, another Roman crucifixion.
But somehow Jesus was different. Somehow Jesus broke brokenness. He slipped through Herod's murderous fingers. He bucked the downward whirlpool of inward rebellion, guilt and shame. He made family out of people who weren't his family. He even ran the gauntlet of a Roman crucifixion, including death, and rose from the dead three days later. Jesus broke brokenness.
Valor's unexpected recovery and surprise Christmas Eve homecoming remind us life isn't all about brokenness. Sometimes brokenness is broken. Sometimes you get discharged from the hospital unexpectedly. Sometimes, marital problems don't lead to another divorce. Sometimes, our favorite addiction doesn't enslave us again. And with Jesus, that "sometimes" has become a permanent "all the time." This Christmas we are thankful for Valor's small foretaste of what is becoming permanent.
Our marriage counselor once said, "Emotions are leading indicators of what is happening at a deeper level in your life and relationships." During the first week of Advent each year my emotions feel like they get hit by a bus. Advent means "coming" and begins the Christian calendar with a focus on Jesus' first and second coming at Christmas and Final Judgment, respectively.
The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent declares, "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:29-30). In the broader context, Jesus is predicting both the destruction of the temple within a generation and the end of the world at an unknown future time of God's choosing. During this last week of Jesus' life, he is effectively proclaiming, "Your world is going to end. Here's how to prepare." Nothing like the destruction of the world to get you in the mood for a little Christmas shopping.
Reflecting on the last 8 months since Valor's Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome (SDS) diagnosis, I have felt similar emotions to Jesus' disciples hearing his words. Most people get their terminal diagnosis and likely cause of death after a relatively full life. Valor received his likely terminal diagnosis at 6 months of age, not at 70 or 80. And yet he's still alive and growing. "Your world is going to end. Here's how to prepare."
Just as Jesus' disciples sat with his message of destruction and new birth 40 years (in the case of the temple: destroyed in 70 A.D.) and 1990 years and counting (in the case of the end of this world), we also have sat with Valor's diagnosis and new way of life for 8 months now. What could Jesus possibly intend in this delayed destruction and renewal of creation? Perhaps Valor's diagnosis can help us better understand Advent and vice versa. Here's 7 things I've learned after reflecting on the emotional bus of Advent and Valor's diagnosis:
1. Be prepared: We prepare for fires, tornadoes and flooding. We should also prepare for death and final judgment. Pretending death won't happen isn't loving. It's cruel denial. Medical and spiritual preparation has been one of the blessings of Valor's early diagnosis. Thankfully Jesus is the architect of a new ark, forged by his own death and resurrection, that can endure the flood waters of death for all who repent and trust him.
2. We live in God's world. He doesn't live in ours: Before Valor was diagnosed, we tried numerous techniques to help him live in our world--feeding techniques, medicine techniques, sleeping techniques. After Valor was diagnosed, we realized none of our techniques could overcome Valor's malformed genetic structure. He needed his own dietary regimen, hospital regimen and medicinal regimen. Or he will die. Similarly we must adjust to God's world. Or we will die.
3. Time sifts priorities and values: When we got home from the hospital 8 months ago, we planned to keep Valor in a sanitary play pen away from people as much as possible, especially if they were sick. In the 8 months since, nothing cheers Valor up like getting to play with and be hugged by his 4 brothers and sisters, whether in the play pen or on Facetime from his hospital room. Love and affection have proven more valuable than strict sanitation.
4. Life will always be partial and fragile now, but full and indestructible at Jesus' return: It's easy to become resentful or confused why Jesus allows suffering, evil and sin to continue, including Valor's suffering. But this is to be ungrateful for what Jesus has already accomplished and impatient with what he has not yet accomplished. Jesus is still painting. Don't rush the masterpiece.
5. God is growing something: Have you ever eaten fruit before it was ripe? It tastes awful. In a similar way with Valor and the end of the world, Jesus uses the seasonal growing of figs to explain his delay (Matthew 24:32-33). The harvest will come. But first the fruit God desires must grow and ripen.
6. We have a treasure to guard: Jesus describes his return and the completion of his work as "coming like a thief in the night." The presence of a thief presumes we have a treasure to guard from theft or loss. The treasure is variously described in Matthew 25 as a divine marriage feast, eternal heavenly joy and an immortal inheritance. We wouldn't miss sitting down with Valor and Jesus for the heavenly wedding feast. I hope you won't miss either.
7. It is possible to die and grow at the same time. St. Paul did it regularly: When people ask how Valor is doing, I sometimes respond, "Dying and growing. Dying and growing." He's been to the hospital for extended stays 7 times in 14 months. Without modern medicine, he would be dead. And yet he's growing, smiling and laughing.
Meet the Authors: Elijah & Brandi Lovejoy
On March 15, 2019 nine days before his 6 month birthday, our son, Valor Emmanuel Lovejoy, entered Duke Children's Hospital for the second time with a recent fever, low white and red blood cell counts and a below 1% weight chart gain. Doctors suspect Valor has Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome, a disease that effects bone marrow health, pancreatic function and sometimes skeletal structure, among other symptoms. You can learn more about SDS here: www.shwachman-diamond.org. I (Elijah) am a pastor, and I (Brandi) am a volunteer Children's Ministry Director and home school mom to our five children.
These Chronicles are written from a Christian perspective in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." We believe the Lord does his best and deepest work through profound patterns of death and resurrection, particularly as pioneered and embodied in Jesus Christ's own death and resurrection. Through faith and ongoing participation in Jesus' death and resurrection, we offer these Valor Chronicles in hope that others will find comfort, hope, peace and resurrection life with us in Jesus.