by Jane Oppermann
It was just bronchitis. After having been down that road many times, I knew I needed an antibiotic. That was all. Until it wasn’t. Now, 28 years later, I am left with the aftermath of that innocuous cough.
My prescription in hand, I mentioned casually to the doc-tor that I had noticed a slight hearing difference in my left ear as I transcribed notes for an article I was writing. I was 43 years old, healthy, and my only medical concerns in the past had been pimples and pregnancies. I had no idea that a unilateral hearing loss—loss of hearing in just one ear before a certain age—was a sign of something else. Sometimes a tumor.
A series of tests revealed that I had an acoustic neuro-ma, a tumor on the hearing nerve. Most often benign, the surgery can be difficult and may result in facial paralysis on the affected side and, most often, total hearing loss in that ear. You need a really good surgeon for this surgery. I was lucky to find one—a very busy one who scheduled the surgery for nearly two months later.
I was frightened. While I waited for my surgery, I woke up trembling and could literally smell my fear. I am not a brave person. I don’t like roller coasters, horror movies or high bridges. I am, I suppose many would say, a coward.
But not that much of a coward, because I always had a sacred weapon: God. I counted on my Lord to keep me safe. Blessed with a childlike faith (or was it an immature faith?), I knew I could count on God. Until then.
One morning as I listened to birds singing outside my bedroom window, I gradually heard the high notes of those bird songs disappear. “Oh, you are growing, aren’t you,” I said to the insidious tumor. “What else will you take from me?”
It turned out the tumor took away my faith, just as it had taken those glorious bird songs.
As I waited for the surgery, my fear grew, and my faith diminished. Where was God? Why hadn’t the all-powerful God run defense for me, blocking that tumor from entering my body? I smile now at my naïve perspective. But back then, there were no smiles, no positive outcomes to consider, I simply felt betrayed by God.
I tried to rally my rational, logical side—always a challenge—and instead became angry. My 40s had been liberating, allowing me to pursue my interests and especially my love of writing. With three daughters and a work-laden husband, my life was centered around the needs of others. But now, at ages 13 to 19, the girls had become less dependent on me, and I’d begun to write part time for a daily newspaper. I loved it, reveling in every challenge and discovery. I especially enjoyed interviewing people and hearing their stories. I was a very good listener. I considered this time of my life a true gift and thanked God and marveled at the opportunities I was given. Until my diagnosis, God and I would talk frequently and joyously.
Then fear took hold. And anger.
A God that can handle our anger
God and I stopped talking. I felt abandoned and alone. And with that sense of isolation, my fear grew. Do you know what fear smells like? It’s a noxious, sticky, slimy smell. It woke me in the night and in the morning and was accompanied by anger. Now anger doesn’t really have a smell; it just burns hot, scalding everything you hear, touch or smell. And like my fear, anger became embedded in my growing tumor.
I knew I wasn’t alone feeling such anger toward God. While it isn’t often talked about in church, the Bible has plenty to say about anger. Jesus himself shouted out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the poet David was certainly not quiet in his lamentations, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) His frustration can be heard clearly in Psalm 44:23-26, when he cries, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”
But like David, I had forgotten that God does not sleep. Ever. The Lord was right there with me, in my own sleepless-ness, fear and anger. One night I lay in bed, feeling as far from God as I had ever felt. To bridge that great chasm of fear and isolation, ever the extrovert, I began to talk to God. Well, not talk, actually, but yell, scream and shout.
“Where are you, God,” I lamented. “Why have you allowed this to happen to me?”
I knew there were far worse things that could happen, more debilitating diseases or accidents, situations more horrible, frightening and hopeless. But there I was, trapped, anticipating a long surgery and recovery, maybe facial paralysis and certainly total deafness in one ear. And God, the God of my childhood, the God revealing himself slowly as I matured, knew how much I loved to listen…to music, to children’s laughter at play, to people telling me their stories, to birds singing. And that was all to be taken from me.
Like a child, I wailed that I would never thank God for anything again. Because when I did, I reasoned, God took it away from me.
“I will not praise you, thank you or love you,” I shouted to God. Yet even through my rage, I couldn’t help but smile. God knew I wouldn’t do that. We were too closely united in all sorts of trials, triumphs and turmoils. Tears streamed down my face, hot, sticky, fear-filled tears. And with those tears, I began to slowly feel God’s presence.
An ever-present God
“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still,” wrote Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place, an account of her concentration camp imprisonment. Years later Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber would write, “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”
Do you know what it feels like to feel God’s absence? It is palpable. No matter what I tried to fill that void with, whether it was anger, fear or the mundane busyness of life, a dark, empty void persisted, stretching out into a bottomless abyss.
But that night I learned that God was ready and very willing to take that vile package of anger and fear from me. As I ranted and raged to my friend, confidant and comforter, God emerged from the pit that I alone had created.
Jane Oppermann is a freelance writer living in a little house in a big woods in Barrington, Illinois, with her husband, Don. A member of All Saints Lutheran Church in Palatine, Illinois, she is constantly in awe of God’s generosity and grace.