How to Really Survive a Heart Attack

Mama calls me to tell me that her mama’s had a heart attack.

I hold the receiver close. Lower myself into a chair.

Granny of the tea biscuits and the white light netted up in her white hair —

she’s hardly standing at the side of her bed when her heart gets blocked and bits of her on the inside explode.

On the other end of the line, Mama unwinds the day like a roll of easel paper and it’s all there in full color:

The emergency room and monitors, the labored breathing, the low blood pressure. Granny used to pat the dough before she’d cut out a perfect circle with a cup.

When you’re 91 and an artery clogs, does it feel like shards of the heart are shattering your lung and grace might come full circle?

“Is she alone?” I ask Mama. Granny lives seven hours away in a room with a stack of Reader’s Digests.

No, Mama says, my aunt who lives across town is there — no, she is not alone.

There are a thousand ways to experience a heart attack. In a thousand ways we don’t stand alone.

“You okay, Mama?”

“Oh…” she murmurs. “I’ve been steeping myself all afternoon in Scripture and Truth. Leaning on the sovereignty of God, listening to John Piper sermons, studying Romans.

I have known this.

I don’t stand alone.

John Piper, his books all stand on my shelf. I know and love his pulse, for Jesus and the Cross and the exaltation of the glory of God and joy in His exquisite gospel, and how he knows of the importance of poetry and pain and words. At times he’s quoted a Catholic, though both he and I may not see Scriptural rooting of such distinctives as papal authority, purgatory, or the veneration of Mary.

Does quoting a Catholic mean one agrees with the entirety of Catholicism any more than quoting C.S. Lewis means one agrees with the whole of Anglican/Episcopal theology? I don’t know…  Piper claims a Catholic’s book as one of his favorite books. “I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face,” writes Piper ” — anyone who can help heal me from the disease of “seeing they do not see.'”

There are a thousand ways to have the heart disease of “seeing they do not see.” Oh, help us all, Lord.  

Piper urges the reading of the Catholic Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and specifically writes that this is one of Chesterton’s gems to mine for: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health. When you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”

As Piper agrees with Chesterton — when you drop mystery from Biblical Christianity, you drop these drops of morbidity into the cup of true faith.

I pray health for a pale woman in an ER hospital bed.

I pray health for the Body of Christ.

Piper writes of Joshua “who loved the glory of God! He was a kind of warrior mystic. He loved the mountain and the tent. He loved nature and church. He had a heart for God. Wherever he smelled the aroma of God he lingered.” And Piper asks where are the warrior mystics?  “Where are the Joshuas? The warrior mystics of Bethlehem—the men and women whose hearts are aflame with the conquest and who linger at the tent? Where are the men and women whose knees are as calloused as their hands?

I don’t read “mystics,” I don’t know what the word precisely means, don’t write or speak or own that word, don’t  know of mystics or mysticism—  but only of Christ and His Word and the Cross and real reality — but of Piper’s call to be a warrior mystic? To have a heart for God and have knees as calloused as hands? I pray I know this. Mama and I, we join together and pray for a ninety-one year old woman in a hospital bed. Hearts might be aflame for everything right.

John Calvin himself writes, “Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.” {emphasis mine}

There are gifts and they are all from Christ, and all the giving of thanks is for Him alone. That indwelling of Christ in our heart — what Calvin calls that mystical union — isn’t this what heals all our hearts? Could there be a greater gift?  Could there be anything of higher degree of importance? Without that joining of Head and members, wouldn’t all our hearts explode?

I can hear piano music on Mama’s end. I can hear her humming. “Amazing grace… ”

The wind lifts the green hem of the Manitoba Maple leaves outside our window. A patch of late afternoon light lingers on the floor.

God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything: in the sun, moon, and stars…” that’s what Jonathan Edwards wrote. 

I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”

I know the woman who’s had a heart attack is not alone. And I know I am not alone. 

Piper too walks this way:

“That is, we see the glory of God, not just the glory of the heavens. We don’t just stand outside and analyze the natural world as a beam, but let the beam fall on the eyes of our heart, so that we see the source of the beauty – the original Beauty, God himself.” ~John Piper 

And Piper says of Edwards, “In other words, for all his rationalism, Edwards had a healthy dose of the romantic and mystic in him.” That’s what Piper says of Edwards, the theologian who Piper says “ushered me closer into the presence of God than any other writer has.”

We all stand together, with a whole body of believers and all the Truth that came before, and our hearts, I can hear it, might beat strong and brave and true with His life-giving love. I pray that one worn woman I love might know it right in the center of her — that even now He sings over her and He woos her {Hosea 2:14-20 (ESV)} and our God is Love and He is the Word and He can’t stop writing out His heart.

His relentless love is what heals all our clogged hearts….

The man whose writings profoundly shaped Jonathan Edwards and who was quoted by Edwards more often than anyone else in his “Religious Affections“, the Puritan mentor to Edwards,  Thomas Shephard, he preached in his sermon Love Him Because He first Loved You:

Consider he makes love to thee…

Whatever the secret purpose of Christ is, I regard not. In this evangelical dispensation of grace, he makes love to all.…”

To which Spurgeon agreed, 

The kiss of daily, present communion, is that which we pant after to be repeated day after day…  

O lover of our souls, be not strange to us; let the lips of Thy blessing meet the lips of our asking; let the lips of Thy fulness touch the lips of our need, and straightway the kiss will be effected.” ~Spurgeon

Timothy Keller writes, “Positively, we are called to experience the spousal love of Jesus.”

I once was invited to sit across the table and break bread with Gene Edward Veith, provost of Patrick Henry College and noted author with Crossway, and with Marvin Olasky, editor of WORLD Magazine. When they brought up the subject of the last chapter of One Thousand Gifts, of ” God as Husband in sacred wedlock” my hand trembled so, my fork dropped to the floor. There are things so hallowed and personal and true, it’s hard for the quiet to hear them out loud. The farm girl had fumbled for her fork under the table.

And they waited until my heart stilled, waited until I looked up, waited until my hand stopped its shy, awkward quake. And in a soft and certain voice, Mr. Veith looked me in the eye and assured “It is profoundly biblical.” I nodded, chin trembling, eyes dropping away. And Mr. Olasky encouraged me to change nothing, to stand by Scriptural truth.

Sometimes standing by Scriptural truth can feel a bit like surviving a heart attack.

But what can feel like the exploding of your heart might be the way Truth slams out of your chest like a fireworks of grace. 


“Think Granny’s going to get well and come home, Mama?”

The light is flooding now right across the floor.

And I’m thinking of one of the ten lepers that Christ healed, the one who returned to give thanks, and when he gave thanks, Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”  I wrote of it in One Thousand Gifts — how that word, well, it is sozo in the Greek. Many translations render sozo as made “well” or “whole,” but its literal meaning is—“to save.” Sozo means salvation. It means true wellness, complete wholeness, and it’s only found in Christ.

To live sozo, is to live the wellest, fullest life and Jesus came that we might live well and to the full; He came to give us sozo.

And when did the leper receive sozo—saving to the full, well, whole life? He received sozo from Christ when he returned and gave thanks to Christ. Gratitude isn’t a condition of our salvation — it is our manifest joy in salvation. Because gratitude to Christ — is evidence that we’ve received the gift of faith — as a gift. 

How can anyone accept His free gift of salvation —  if not with thanksgiving? 

 A Christian giving thanks is never about trying to ascend to some ‘higher spiritual plain’ — it’s about giving thanks to Christ who descended to plainly save us.  

In His presence alone is fullness of joy and the way to enter into His courts is through those gates of thanksgiving for Who He is and what He gives and He alone is enough.  

“She may be released from the hospital and … and she may not.” Mama whispers it and I can see how Granny and Mama used to stand by the oven, how their hands would move the  tea biscuits so round. How soon she might even beautifully know it, the one tired right out —- the fading away of everything broken and busted up here and the falling into His forever embrace.

I murmur it into my end of the line, to Mama, and to Him from whom all is perfectly from and to and through, whisper that truth that keeps exploding in me, “All is grace.”

And those words fall like splitting fireworks,

like a healing of the heart,

like bits of blazing embers rupturing all the dark —-  lighting us with a love  that gives us the gift of eyes that see….




Related: What others have really said of One Thousand Gifts
Regarding the last chapter of One Thousand Gifts
Who I am