On Love and Brain Cells

Last week I picked up the wildly popular award winning book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by a Jewish scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Before recounting the short but excitable history of our species, the writer is concerned with a fundamental question: why did the homo sapiens survive to become what we now consider synonymous with human beings?

This equivalence was not a foregone conclusion, for we were not the sole original human family. In fact, there was a point at which the homo sapiens survived alongside the Neanderthal, the homo erectus, and other species of humans who either perished or who we replaced. The surprising component of our rise to prominence seems to run quite counter to determinism, materialism, and evolutionary biology. In short, our brains were bigger than the other humans; too big to be exact. They are incredibly expensive for the body to maintain, even more so for primitive peoples scrapping by, consuming a quarter of our energy while doing nothing more to enable us to hunt or farm than the smaller brains of the other humans. We were given no claws, no saber teeth, no swinging arms, no poison venom, no racing legs. We were given big, gangly, wasteful brains. It is as if we were only marginally constructed to survive, and principally constructed to do things that have nothing to do with survival, like composing poetry and contemplating philosophy. Like falling in love. Annie Dillard writes, “We are one of those animals, the ones whose neocortexes swelled, who just happen to write encyclopedias and fly to the moon.” Then, incredulously, “Can anyone believe this?”

In the biblical tradition, the homo sapiens was special because this creature was given god-like responsibilities over the creation. Specifically, the species was imbued with the image of God, then charged with refracting and reflecting that image to the whole created order. I find it remarkable that with all of the shapes this reflecting of God’s image could (and does) take, the Genesis poem houses the business of image-bearing in a very specific, very familiar institution. In a time when there was a wide range of work to do in order to get the homo sapiens up off the ground, from farming, to hunting, to building a culture, the Creator locates the true manifestation of His image, the seedbed of true and full humanity, in plain old marriage.

“So God created man in his own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” The first poem in Genesis 1 crowns the fireworks of the creation story with the ultimate image of God discovered through man and wife. The second poem in Genesis 2 is so bent on making this point that it interrupts the narrative arch with a public service announcement: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” a verse that, according to the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth was fond of. The idyllic section of the creation poem ends with no reference to volcanoes, great white sharks, the aurora borealis. “If you want to see God’s image,” the poet seems to beckon, “don’t sweat those physical wonders. God’s image is right in front of you every day. It is sleeping right beside you at night.” The crescendo of the poem concludes: “And they were both naked, the man and wife, and felt no shame.”

That is the apex of the Bible’s story of the origins of the homo sapiens. God gave us unnecessary brains, so that we might inefficiently love, even marry.

I am sitting at this moment in stone silence in a living room near Duke University with Nathan Artt, a man who has been a friend to me when I have needed a friend, one of those Doc Holidays that God drops in your lap a few times during your life if you are lucky. In the adjoining room, his young wife Jessica lies in a state that is sort of like sleep. Two days ago, her skull was opened and a large tumor resected.

The surgery was done manually, by a 68-year old leading expert at Duke University. He has performed over 5,000 brain surgeries in the course of his career.. The procedure was infinitely complex, due to the fact that part of the tumor pressed against that segment of the brain that enables speech and fine motor skills. The slightest miscue, a few thousand cells in the wrong direction, and Jessica would be stripped of her adulthood. She would have to learn to speak English again, learn to use her hands and feet. She was awake the entire time, identifying barnyard animal flash cards so that the surgeon would know if he was dangerously touching healthy tissue. With his own hands, like a priest raising up the host, he lifted the entire mass. He navigated inside that big, unruly organ, and healed it.

Now, we watch and wait as the brain slowly regenerates.

We are presently in what I am affectionately calling the “Children of the Corn” phase. Jessica is in a rather catatonic state, able to respond to yes/no questions but unable to phrase her own. She gets up from the bed and walks around without warning, standing erect and staring blankly. We will laugh about this later, but with the right sound track it feels like a horror movie. It is like a zombie wandering about in pajamas.

We are told that this is normal, that Easter will come. We are told that she will steadily emerge over the next week or so. The brain will automatically reconnect itself. Neurons will re-spark. Language will return. The stone will be rolled away, and the brain will resurrect.

And even though this resurrection seems like the work of a God whose majesty dwarfs words to me, that is actually not where the Creator of the brain is best showing off. Just like the creation story, with unspeakable miracles erupting all around, His image is on display in the ordinary. I am watching the Genesis poem unfold again in this rented house. I never dreamed I would say this, but I am watching God’s image flood through Nathan, like a prism.

I was privileged to officiate at the wedding of Nathan and Jessica. I was far less privileged to know Nathan prior to meeting Jessica. Here in the south, we have certain words for the human condition that are particular to our way of life. Nathan, as we say, was once a heathen. Even worse, he was a rancorous, which we shorten to “ranc,” heathen. It was bad. He’s a lot to handle now, for heaven’s sakes, I guess because of the residue from his heathen days.

And then, as we say in our region, Nathan “found Jesus.” Or Jesus found Nathan. Something fired up in the region of his brain that we call the heart, and everything changed. He joined a church, got a steady job, became successful and generous, married Jessica, bought a house, had children. He’s not a heathen anymore; he’s just a boring Christian adult with thinning hair and a mortgage. We are working on toning down the road rage in Atlanta traffic, but it is Atlanta, after all.  Other than that, the lion has been tamed.

While officiating Nathan and Jessica’s wedding, I choked up for a moment. It wasn’t the ceremony that got to me, it was witnessing the image of God in this man, in this couple. “For better or for worse,” they recited. “Until death do us part.” Crazy words. This week he gets to prove the mettle of those words, and it is beautiful.

Nathan must feed his wife. He gives her water to drink. He puts her shoes on for her and walks her around the block a dozen times per day. He does not sleep. He encourages her in the hope that she can process his words. He hangs on every grunt and glance. He asks her if she is comfortable. He asks her if she wants a hug. “Love is patient,” St. Paul wrote, and he wasn’t even referring to a brain surgery patient. “God is love,” St. John wrote, and that is what is going on here.

Yesterday, I craned my neck from the living room to watch Nathan and Jessica in the kitchen. He was feeding her. Then he stopped, grasped her hand, leaned forward in his chair to the point where I thought he was getting down on one knee, and he looked into the eyes of his bride. And his eyes were not filled with regret or pain or even sympathy, but with wonder. I had seen that precise look before, years ago, at the altar where they wed.

And tears sprung in my eyes as I thought to myself, “Oh my God. That’s what this story is about.”

I don’t know why things happen as they do. I don’t believe God causes everything, like some brute force. I do believe He is involved in ways that are often indecipherable to us. Jesus said that God cares for every sparrow and has numbered the hairs on our head. Of course, sparrows still are preyed upon and hair falls out from chemotherapy, but even brain tumors cannot undo the strange plan that God has for us, the plan to reflect the image of his goodness to every dark corner of this world.

“Now these three remain: faith, hope and love,” Paul wrote in words that have echoed over ten thousand weddings, “but the greatest of these is love.” When it is all stripped bare, we are the glorious homo sapiens: big-brained creatures with the capacity, the daily opportunity, to reflect the image of God through the way that we love. I suppose God could have eviscerated Jessica’s brain tumor just as we prayed that he would. But I think that would pale in comparison to the miracle that I am watching unfold now.

Nathan, you are an image-bearer, a good homo sapien.

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2 thoughts on “On Love and Brain Cells

  1. Dude! You’re such a stud. Thank you for doing this tribute to Nate and Jess. Especially for Nate, this was a HUGE boost!

    Also, thanks a TON for going up there. We all would’ve if we could. I’m grateful you were our ambassador! Ash Mangham ► UPSTREET :: Director ► Woodstock City Church ↳ • ash.mangham@woodstockcity.org

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