Raising My Ebenezer: Gratitude in Anniversaries

Remembering the sucky parts of life is necessary to fully appreciate the best parts.

January is painful, beautiful.

My favorite part of Facebook is its “On This Day” memory feature, which chronicles the past 11 years of my life. The January 2017 memory posts remind me of both the fear and peace leading up to transplant, the victory and beauty of receiving it, and the torture and panic in the long recovery.

I see pictures of my smiles and videos of my first steps, but then I also remember the “between moments” when I wept and cried out in pain, the moments when I craved fentanyl and contemplated if my life was worth saving.

At times, I’m tempted to delete all those victory memories because reliving those between moments hurts something fierce.

On Jan. 15, 2020 — my third transplant anniversary — I posted messages of victory and achievement across my social media and went out to celebrate with friends. The between moments? I cried and prayed to God that He would help me enjoy the day.

Often, I’ve referred to my life as a medical odyssey. Most people, when hearing the word odyssey, think of Homer and Cyclops and Odysseus. I think of the Israelite’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery … into a 40-year, aimless trek through a desert filled with moronic idol worship, battles, and hunger. Fun. But it’s also filled with stories of God’s promises, provision, and rules that protect the wanderers.

Forget not what your eyes have seen.

Despite all the trials both in Egypt and the desert, Moses is deeply grateful to God in the latter stages of life. In the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks on the importance of remembrance:

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children …”

(Deuteronomy 4:9-10)

In Deuteronomy 8, he recants the tale of how the Lord delivered the Israelites from the slave masters’ claws. Yes, the escape from Egypt was frightening — plagues, lifted seas, a pursuing army — but now they were free. I imagine the dusty Israelites groaned as they heard that and squinted at the surrounding desert.

My deliverance into the desert.

I think of the first 23 years of my life in Egypt — held captive by cystic fibrosis, my anger, my selfishness. In dramatic fashion, God delivered me not by parted seas, but parted ribs. It was painful and scary, but he brought me through. He knit my body together again and off I went into the desert. I wandered in search of purpose, God providing money and smooth health along the way to sustain me. It was a period packed with fun and joy, but post-transplant, I had trouble finding where to go in life.

Carved idols.

Deuteronomy is translated as “the second law.” Moses gave great speeches to pull the Israelites back on track after they’d surrendered to false, gold idols, and ingratitude. Again and again, they’d turned against their Deliverer. Said Moses:

“Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you.” 

(Deuteronomy 4:23)

My “me idols.”

As I wandered through my (fun, awesome) desert, I found my own idols. They weren’t carved. No, I worshipped ambition and “goodness.” I thought these idols served God.

I volunteered for any opportunity presented, I chased career positions that would help me help others, I would only turn down a chance to help others if I’d already committed to helping another person. I rarely bothered to ask God what I should do. I thought he merely wanted me to do good and used my own judgment to interpret “good.” In the process, I neglected my own spirituality. I only prayed and read my Bible with others because I was so busy.

At some point, I transitioned from trying to please God, to trying to please others (and myself as a result).

In time, I began thinking of myself as an objectively swell guy despite my low self-esteem (it’s complicated). I was charged by the compliments of others and by the smiles on others’ faces and by the endorphins I swam in. Pride pumped through my veins and swelled my heart where the Spirit once thrived. I left little room for God. Even when I told the story of my transplant, it became less “Praise God for saving me from impossible odds” and more “Yeah, it was tough, but I’d trained all my life to survive.” Muscle flex emoji.

Photo by Kathleen Sheffer.

I didn’t realize my idolatry until a mentor asked me to share my testimony through the lens of God rather than my own perspective. Notice the Biblical narratives are third-person rather than first? I’d told my story hundreds of times and at that moment I was stumped at the realization that I’d never considered God’s perspective through it all.

You know, I always thought it was stupid that the Israelites made their own idols and then worshipped them. Wouldn’t those idols be so obviously fake?

Yet there I was; making an idol of myself, adultery of myself. I wrestled God for credit and forgot all He’d done for me, neglecting Deuteronomy 4:23.

I chased satisfaction, moving from opportunity to opportunity, friendship to friendship, passion to passion. I ran in short sprints, trying to reclaim the peace I had in the early days post-transplant and not realizing my missing ingredient was/is gratitude for God. If Israelites can forget the parting of the Red Sea … what have I forgotten?

Remembering why I needed victory.

Technically, my transplant anniversary is both the 15th and 16th since I entered eight-hour surgery late at night. On the 16th of this year, I remembered all I had gone through and I prayed, prayed, prayed. Remembrance encapsulated by prayer becomes humility. Humility becomes gratitude.

Since then, I’ve been reclaiming my gratitude and the richness of life it sparks. Slowly, my life is transitioning from black and white to technicolor, like in that underrated film “Pleasantville.”

It ain’t just remembering the pretty things.

I’ve realized that I am not called to remember only the victories but also the losses that led to that victory. God didn’t say, “Remember the manna I gave you, but forget the Egyptian whips and leaving home and the hunger and confusion.”

I remember that I was once unable to walk. I am grateful that I now run. I remember that every day was pierced by panic attacks. I am grateful I have had only one in two years. I remember that I used to suffocate daily. I am grateful my doctor declared my lung CT scan “perfect” yesterday.

When I try to focus only on victory and not why I needed victory, I find myself less grateful.

The edge of peace … sort of.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses handed the reins to Joshua and hiked up Mt. Nebo to die. Joshua and the wanderers stood at the edge of the Promised Land and recalled the words of Moses: Remember God, stay grateful.

What followed? Battles, sacrifice, more ingratitude.

The yet-unwritten chapters of my odyssey.

I stand on the cusp of God’s calling. There’s all kinds of wild stuff going on in my life right now: a call from God to sacrifice much of my comfort, relayed through spooky means (prayers, coincidences, sermons, etc.). Like Joshua, I face sacrifices and battles, but also fulfilled promises and protection.

I pray I don’t dip into ingratitude once again. You know a practice I dropped maybe two years after transplant? Daily praying: “Please, Lord, help me to never grow ungrateful.”

I move forward, rededicating myself to remembrance through sharing my story verbally and through this blog, and by reflective prayer and journaling. At times, I fear I share God’s story for me much too often. I don’t want to annoy people. But as Moses said …

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children …”

(Deuteronomy 4:9-10)

I will continue raising a metaphorical ebenezer — stone memorials like those raised by Samuel to celebrate victories — while also sharing the struggles involved in stacking those stones. It’s going to be a continuation of my odyssey and I don’t want to forget a single bit of it.

(Shoutout to Pawa‘a Pastor Arjay Gruspe, whose sermon inspired this post.)

Author: Brad Dell

I’m Brad Dell, a 26-year-old, deaf, lung-transplanted dude with cystic fibrosis. When not working to amplify rare disease patient voices at BioNews Services, I'm volunteering in church ministry.

3 thoughts on “Raising My Ebenezer: Gratitude in Anniversaries”

  1. Good blog, Brad. Remember you are always on a journey and you’ll never arrive until God takes you to be with him. I love to see you growing in Christ thru the mountain top, and valley, and the in between. Searching for God’s good and perfect will for our life is ongoing. Thanks for your transparency. Love, Aunt Kay

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