Downton Abbey. It is the the winner of 7 Primetime Emmy Awards and at least two Golden Globe Awards. 1 It is the most watched show on PBS and ITV. It is watched around the world from Brazil to China. And it has possibly had 120 million viwers thoughout its three seasons. 2 So what makes it so popular? Honestly, I don’t know, although if you have any ideas please feel free to comment. But I do know that my life, in a way stranger than fiction, has similarities to one part of the show…
In the second season of the popular miniseries, Matthew Crawley is injured fighting in the trenches of World War I. As a result, he is transported back to England and wakes up to discover that he is unable to feel his legs or walk. For me, watching that part of the show was like having déjà vu and somewhat uncomfortable. On Halloween of 2011 I had an operation to straighten my spine (a procedure frequently performed on those with dwarfism). My spine had begun to curve too much and it needed to be straightened or it would likely begin to cause me great pain over the coming years.
Although I had been assured that the procedure was one that the doctor had performed many times and that it was unlikely I would be in the hospital more than a week, the unthinkable occurred. I woke up from surgery in the typical post-operative fog that I’ve come to recognize after seven prior surgeries. I recall my parents and nurses asking me to try moving my toes and to let them know if I could feel them touching my legs. Through the haze, I could sense something was wrong. But even after they told me there had been a complication and that the electrical impulses in my nervous system from my brain to my legs had been disrupted for at least five minutes, I was either too drugged to fully realize what was going on or I was simply unable to wrap my mind around the possibility that I had possibly lost the ability to walk again. And while the next few hours began to show my ability to wiggle my toes and move my feet, the doctors still didn’t know to what extent I would recover.
The next two weeks was like a nightmare. During much of the first week I was in a fog due to the pain medicines they had me on. When I did try to sit up, the world felt like it was spinning and waves of exhaustion and nausea followed. In the ward after ICU, I had difficulty sleeping at night, not only because I’m convinced that nurses like to torture patients by waking you up and taking your blood pressure every few hours, but also because there were “booties” on my feet that automatically squeezed every few minutes to keep my blood flowing in my legs and to prevent blood clots. If those booties were not on my feet just right, and I mean just right, they made alarms go off. One night, despite my attempts to hold so very still, the alarms were so frequent that the nurse administering to me eventually left them off so I could get some sleep.
After about a week, I was administered to a rehab ward. My time there was much more enjoyable, not least because I felt that the staff on rehab actually cared for their patients. One thing I wasn’t informed of prior to surgery was the fact that, in many back operations, the functioning of one’s intestines is also shut down. As you can imagine, after a week of being unable to use the restroom, this caused complications of its own, not least of which was throwing up every morning when I began physical therapy.
But while I have since regained full mobility and approximately 95% of feeling in my legs and feet, the most difficult part of the whole experience was the emotional and spiritual tolls. Prior to going into the hospital, I felt such a sense of peace. I expected God and I would bust down the joint, I’d be out of there by week’s end, and the whole experience would be such a wonderful witness to others. And given that I had had the seven operations before that, I really expected this one to be a walk in the park. But God had different plans. I remember, at a point where I had come enough out of my fog to mentally grasp the gravity of the situation but was still so physically tired and emotionally drained, just crying and wondering if I had done something wrong to put me on this path. I speculated that maybe the surgery would have gone well if only I had learned whatever spiritual lesson God was trying to teach me by allowing this to happen. Or, I reasoned, there was spiritual evil involved (which is a possibility) and I hadn’t been spiritually strong enough to keep it at bay (something I now know only Satan wanted me to believe).
Even after I left the hospital and began to adjust to more familiar surroundings at home, I began to feel angry with God. While in the hospital I did pray I still couldn’t sense His comforting presence. But once I was home I found I couldn’t even do that much. At that point I still couldn’t walk well without a walker, and the persistent sense of vulnerability I felt (what if there was an emergency and I couldn’t respond?) made me irritable. Plus, while I had made rapid improvement in the hospital, I felt my home therapy treatment was going much slower than it should. My fear was that I wouldn’t regain the full use of my legs.
But the truth is that I don’t fully know why God allowed it to happen to me, and it is possible I never will this side of heaven. What I do know, and what I knew even while I was in the hospital and after I returned home, despite my temporary protest towards God, was something that Scripture assures us of: “He will not break a bruised reed, and He will not put out a smoldering wick, until He has led justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20). In His commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Michael Card writes, “Matthew 12:19-21 completes the prophetic character sketch of Jesus, the gentle servant. He does not argue or raise his voice. He is manifestly gentle. A fragile reed that has been bent, he cannot bring himself to break. A guttering wick that is about to die, he will not blow out. This is his identity, his personality…Jesus will accomplish justice by the unlikely means of gentleness.”3
So, how can I view God as gentle when, even if He is not the direct cause of the operation-gone-awry, He still allows such a tragedy to occur? Well, right before this promise that Matthew quotes from Isaiah, Jesus had withdrawn by himself, but crowds of people in need of healing had followed him. And the Scripture in Matthew 12:15 points out that He healed them all. Then Jesus commands the people not to tell of what he has done. This might seem like a strange request, but as Michael Card explains,
Matthew lets us know that despite the fact that exercising his power to heal is working against Jesus’ ministry, he still cannot resist the compassionate desire to heal them all…This story provides an intimate look at Jesus’ heart. He is the one who cannot help himself when it comes to the deep needs of the lost sheep around him. As we have come to expect from Matthew, he substantiates even this small character sketch of Jesus from the Old Testament. This time it is Isaiah 42:1-4. The image is of the gentle, young servant…He is deeply loved by the Father (Mt 3:17). And by the power of His Spirit, the gentle servant will accomplish what all the wars in history have not been able to provide: justice. 4
Scripture doesn’t say what physical needs that group of people needed healed. Nor does it specify the reason for their infirmities. Remember the book of Job and how Job never receives a reason for why he was allowed to suffer? So too, perhaps my spiritual angst over “why” is the wrong thing to emphasize. Rather, this passage at least, would seem to suggest that no matter what trials bend our bodies or cause our souls to gutter, we can be assured that Jesus will be gentle with us and give us justice in the end.
Now allow me return to Downton Abbey for a moment. In an earlier scene during the last episode of the first season, Lady Mary Crawley and a cousin of Matthew Crawley, finds out that Matthew Crawley no longer wishes to marry her because of inaction on her part. Her mother had become pregnant again and it was possible that if it turned out to be a boy, she would not need to marry Matthew to inherit her father’s estate which she had been disinherited from since the start of the show (the man she was going to marry died in the sinking of the Titanic and daughters, by themselves, could not inherit at that time). Matthew, being the next closest male heir, would receive the title. By marrying Matthew she would have, in a real sense, regained her father’s estate and her mother’s dowry. But now she feels that her hesitation in accepting his proposal has cost her everything. In one touching and poignant scene at the end of the season, the head butler, who in some respects is more of a father to her than her real father, asks her if she is all right. She responds by saying, “You know me, Carson, I’m never down for long.” 4
As a Christ follower, her response captures well what I felt at that time and still feel about what I experienced. True, I did have a sense of God’s absence (what Christian mystics like John of the Cross term a “Dark Night of the Soul”) and I did become spiritually despondent. But I intrinsically knew it was only temporary. And while God still gives me breath to live, I can trust that He will not break me or blow me out. He will be gentle with me and knows how much I can handle. This is a reason for hope and letting Christ pick us back up. Ultimately, we in this life will suffer setbacks and disappointments, and Christians can expect to have their trust in God shaken at some point. But like Lady Mary, aware of God’s justice and intimately knowing His restraining gentleness, we can point to Christ and proclaim to others, “You know me…I’m never down for long.”
1 “List of award and nominations received by Downton Abbey,” Wikipedia.org, last modified June 11,2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_awards_and_nominations_received_by_Downton_Abbey.
2 Jeremy Egner, “A Bit of Britain Where the Sun Still Never Sets,” The New York Times, accessed June 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/arts/television/downton-abbey-reaches-around-the-world.html?_r=1&.
3 Michael Card, Matthew: The Gospel of Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013), p. 118.
4 Ibid., 117-118.
5 Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey, Box Set, Color, NTSC, directed by Brian Percival (2010; London: PBS, 2011.), DVD