Communal Heart Attacks

I almost had a heart attack on Monday.

Actually, it was two.

Maybe I should explain.

When one of my church members is having a heart attack, it feels like I’m having one too. That’s probably not a good thing. Maybe I need to be more disconnected. Sort of like a doctor who sees patients instead of people in order to keep himself from going crazy by all of the sadness around him. But I just can’t do that.

So on Monday, when I found out that my friend was having heart problems, serious heart problems, I made the drive to see her.

But before I could get to the room where she and her husband were patiently waiting, I had to get through Atlanta traffic and past a toll booth. Patiently wasn’t the best adjective for me.

Where I live, we don’t have toll booths. We have tractors that drive 10 miles per hour on the highway. We have escaped cows. But we do not have toll booths. I wasn’t prepared.

When I pulled up, the toll booth lady looked at me and mumbled something about me owing her 50 cents. She wasn’t happy to be there. She wasn’t smiling. She just wanted the two quarters. Two quarters that I didn’t have. So I handed her my bank card.

She looked at me like I gave her a can of Vienna sausage.

“We don’t take those.”

My heart started to beat faster. I looked in every compartment in my car for change. Nothing. So I did what any self-respecting man in my position would do.

“Ma’am, do you have 50 cents that I can borrow?”

There was no answer. At least not a verbal one. Her non-verbal response was a definitive no.

“Okay, so what can I do? Can I just turn around and go a different way?”

She gave me that Vienna sausage look again.

“Sir, it’s a one-way interstate here. How are you supposed to turn around?”

Point taken.

There was a bar in front of my car. It only took 50 cents to make that bar raise up so that I could pass through. But it might as well have been 50 dollars. It was money that I didn’t have. Behind me, cars were backing up. I’ve never felt more trapped. Or alone.

The toll lady gave me a suggestion.

“You can go ask the guy behind you if he has any money you can borrow.”

Suddenly, I was back in middle school the day when I forgot to bring my lunch money.

I looked behind me. The man did not look happy. Neither did the 78,000 cars behind him. Yes, I counted. The toll lady spoke up again.

“Or you can just drive through and we’ll send you a bill.”

Freedom! Finally. Why didn’t she just say that to begin with?

“Great! So I can just drive through and you’ll send me a bill for 50 cents?”

“No. You can just drive through and we’ll send you a bill for 25 dollars.”

I looked at her like she just handed me a can of Vienna sausage.

And that’s when I almost had my first heart attack that day.

I finally made it to the hospital and somehow managed to find my friend’s room without being charged 25 bucks or mistaken for an escapee from the ER.

She looked normal. Nothing like what I expected. When I asked her what the doctors were saying she told me to find something to hold on to. She knows how much I don’t like hospitals. Or bad news.

“I had a heart attack. They’re going to take me back in a few minutes.”

She said that with a smile. I almost fainted. No amount of medical advancements take away the sting that comes with the words heart attack. And so that’s when I almost had my second heart attack.

It was a quick visit. We laughed. I prayed and read scripture.

Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. Psalm 33:20-22 (ESV)

Our. We. Us.

Shortly after I left, doctors took my friend and began their routine procedure of fixing the blockage in her heart. But there was a complication. It’s kind of hard to fix a blockage that’s not there. Her heart was fine. Instead of staying a night or two to recover she was sent home with a clean bill of health.

When I got the news I felt like I had been healed too.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 (ESV)

This rejoicing and mourning is more than just some well-meaning attempt to relate to our friends and loved ones through their trials and joys. It is the natural response of people who belong to the same body. When the back hurts, the body suffers. When a sister in Christ is sick, the rest of us are too. When she is healed, we rejoice. In Christ, we are one (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Just before I left my friend’s hospital room, a nurse came in to prep her for the heart procedure. There was the usual small talk that eventually led to the nurse finding out that I am a pastor. She took this as an opportunity to comfort my friend.

“Well, I know that you’re so proud of your son for being a pastor.”

A minute later she apologized for assuming that my friend and I were mother and son. But neither one of us corrected her mistake. Because of the unique unity that believers have with each other in Christ, that nurse was more accurate than she thought.

The Church was designed to function as a body. We were designed to need each other. There is no escaping that need.

And there’s nothing like a visit to the hospital to remind you of that need.

Especially if you have to stop at a toll booth along the way.