Prior to this past February, I had never read Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir. I had heard of Mr. Miller, had even read Through Painted Deserts (which I enjoyed), but I wasn’t quite a fan yet. February brought to a head issues that had been fomenting since my son had an emergency appendectomy a little over three years ago. Which was followed shortly thereafter by a visit to the emergency room because his stomach wasn’t emptying its contents into his small bowel. In the intervening time, there were severe (seemingly unrelated) stomachaches, bouts of diarrhea, intense migraines. He—at eleven—was put on low-dose antidepressants for the headaches. This didn’t help, just kind of muted his personality. I have to say my wife was a trooper throughout all of this—pushing the doctors for answers that made sense, for a treatment that would work. Then we got an answer. This is what I wrote this past February:
“There are words that no parent wants to hear. Dreaded words. Words that pierce your soul, and make you want to hurl epithets at the clear azure sky. Among these are: masses, lymph nodes, and referral, Within one day. To a hematologist-oncologist. For your child. Your only son. An eleven year-old boy, who not so long ago was healthy, happy, full of spit, vinegar, attitude. Now he’s not quite himself. And now you know why. You don’t say the word, because if you do that’ll make it real, true. You are angry, scared—life is unfair. All of a sudden you are Abraham, and your son is Isaac. But where is your ram? Yet, you have no place else to go. You are on your Moriah; none other has the words of life. So you wait. Wait and trust. I trust. That is all we—I—have.”
The facts, as presented to us, were these: he had spots in his lymph nodes, a mass in his chest that protruded up into his heck, and striations in both his esophagus and intestines indicative of inflammation.
So we waited, we trusted. It may, or may not, have been cancer, but the thought hung cloud like, looming large over our family. There were conflicting results, referrals to the wrong doctor, scans, colonoscopy, endoscopy. All for a little boy. All the while we wondered “What is God up to?” Why this? Why now? Why our son?
As with many things in this life, there was no “Why”–it just was. The heavens didn’t part, God didn’t clue us in on what He was up to. I suppose if He had, it would’ve been the answer Job got: “Where were you when I made the world, since you are so old.” I don’t know about you, but a darkened sky, whirlwind, and a disembodied voice bigger than the world isn’t my idea of a good time. We felt small and powerless enough already. That was our bad, I suppose. When your child is sick, you don’t want the God Who is to show up, you want what Donald Miller calls the “slot machine god:” put in a prayer and out comes a healing. We wanted him well, yes, but we also wanted our lives to just return to (what we thought was) normal. Of course, God had other plans. This is where Donald Miller, and Blue Like Jazz, come in.
So I wasn’t feeling so jazzed about life–more blue like funk than Blue Like Jazz—when the news of the aforementioned referral came down the wire. My son would be seeing a cancer doc, and I was pissed. Pissed, scared, depressed, and guilty—for being pissed, scared, and depressed. Where was the joy of the Lord I was supposed to feel? Where was that “inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time?” ‘Cause my life with Jesus just wasn’t like that. I figured there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t doing Christianity right. I can’t say that I was ready to chuck it all, but it was a darn near thing. If my soul was a desert, Jesus was a far off oasis, always just out of reach.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d read Through Painted Deserts, and while I had enjoyed it, I didn’t consider myself, you know, a fan. It was good. The author had a way with words, painted memorable scenes. Gave me some laughs. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed. On February 18th, I knew two things: 1) I needed a good laugh; and 2) I needed to check out that Desert fellow’s other book, Blue Like Jazz. I don’t know why. So that night, on the way to my in-law’s, I stopped in the little used book store (I didn’t tell my wife; she wondered why I was running late for dinner) I frequent, and picked it up. It’s not hyperbole to say that my life has never been the same.
Here’s what I learned from Blue Like Jazz: God doesn’t resolve, but that’s ok: He’s God. With wit, charm, humor, and grace Donald Miller handily smashed the little box I tried to put God in. He also gave me permission to question God, showed me—like a psalmist—that God is big, and He can take it. He showed me that it was ok to be human, that I didn’t have to posture, put on a religious face. That life is messy, but that’s ok, too. Beyond this, there were some other similarities in our stories: Don has a small bladder, so do I. He was exposed to porn around the same age as me. His dad left for good when he was in junior high, so did—for all intents and purposes—mine. (I suppose there are many who can identify with these things). Though I don’t know Don—have in fact only met him once—I feel a great affinity for him. His is a story I, and many, many others, can relate to. I suppose the highest compliment I can pay him is that his books are like God’s book in that like God, Don presents himself as he is, and thus presents us (to ourselves) as we are. And isn’t that what makes the Bible God’s Word? That He tells it like it is? I think so. Thank-you, Don! Blue Like Jazz was truly a light in a dark place for me. I wish you continued success and blessings in all of your endeavors. (As token of my appreciation to Don, for all that his work means to me, I made a donation to the Save Blue Like Jazz campaign; won’t you join me?)
(For those that have read this far, I don’t want to leave you hanging with regards to our son. Turns out, he didn’t have cancer. The mass in his chest—the one spreading up towards his neck—was his thymus. It was inflamed because of an allergy—to corn, of all things. While it was quite a journey getting to the place where we knew what was making him sick, it has been quite another trying to get corn, and corn products, out of his diet (it’s virtually impossible to do in this country). If you are the praying kind, please keep the Jones family in your prayers. Thanks for reading, and God bless!)