By Eleanor Daniel
In January 2013, I departed the United States for India with great expectations of spending two weeks teaching from the book of Job to Indian pastors in Kerala, leading a curriculum workshop at a church in Chennai, and teaching a Christian education class at a college in Chennai. But it didn’t turn out as I had anticipated.
I may never teach from the book of Job again!
Let me explain.
I arrived in India as planned and spent a couple of days in Mumbai before flying south to begin the work set out for me. All went well the first week. Then on Saturday morning I was sick at my stomach, but I thought little about it since I seemed to recover quickly enough, though my appetite wasn’t good. I spoke at worship on Sunday and taught on Monday morning, only to find out after class I could walk only two or three steps without needing to sit.
After lunch and a nap, I felt better. I went to the bathroom on my own and collapsed! And that was the last time I was on my feet for 32 days!
A doctor came to the inn where I was staying and administered some medicine, but I felt no better, and the next day I decided I should go to a hospital. I was taken by ambulance to a small Catholic mission hospital just outside the city of Kumily in Kerala. I was placed in the intensive care unit, and, a couple of days later, was transferred to a teaching hospital in Madurai, about four hours away by ambulance. I remember checking in there, but remember little else from the next few days.
I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia in both lungs, renal failure, and a urinary tract infection. My family in the States was told the next 12 hours were critical for determining whether I would respond to treatment. I did respond, obviously, since I’m writing this now, but I spent 30 days in the hospital in Madurai, 20 of those in ICU. I was poked and pricked and probed until I felt like a human pincushion.
At one point, 26 days into the ordeal, the travel insurance representative gave the OK for me to fly back to the States. A flight nurse came from Thailand. We went to the airport in an ambulance only to discover there were problems. Though the flight nurse had oxygen with her, it couldn’t be used—the airline must provide the oxygen. Furthermore, the airport had no sky bridge to board the plane, so I couldn’t be taken after all. What a bitter day! I never got out of the ambulance; we turned around and returned to the hospital, to the very same room I had left hours earlier.
For the 32 days I was in Kumily and Madurai, I received no therapy, except for lung therapy, to assure that I would be ambulatory. Finally, the first week of March, I was transferred by ambulance to a large teaching hospital in Chennai 300 miles away, thanks to the intervention of a fine Christian Indian doctor friend of mine. There I received four or five days of therapy and was able to move well enough to get on an airplane. I returned to the States the second week of March.
Two nurses accompanied me on the flights from Chennai to London, and London to Chicago, and on the ambulance trip from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I spent four nights in the hospital and was transferred to a rehab center in mid-March.
I spent 51 days in the rehab center learning to walk, get up from a chair, and do the tasks of daily living. Ironically, I was exactly one block from my home—so close, yet so far away!
Living Like Job
That’s the short story. I thought often, especially during the time in India, that I wanted only to talk about Job, not live like him.
It has been a long journey. But what have I learned from all this?
The vastness of the kingdom of God. We all too often judge the power of Christianity on the basis of our congregation or our circle of friends. But I found that the kingdom is far bigger than we can fathom. Literally thousands of people have prayed for me—old high school and college friends, church and college personnel from all over the world, people with whom I have had little contact. I was the subject of prayers and fasting by many churches in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Through all of this, I’ve repeatedly thought, How vast really is the kingdom of God? It’s a whole lot bigger than I usually imagine.
Christians do make a huge impact on others. During the two days in the hospital in Kumily, I had a Christian with me 24/7, and the nuns who ran the hospital prayed for me. When I was in ICU in Madurai, two or three people stayed close to care for my needs the whole time, even though they couldn’t be with me 24/7 until I was released from ICU.
After I was moved to a room on the general floor, one person would go get food (yes, you have to get your own food in many Indian hospitals) and spend the night in my room. What a comfort when they knew some English—and many of the nurses knew almost none (even though we figured out ways to communicate).
In Chennai, I was attended to day and night by a female student from the seminary where I was to teach and ladies from the English-speaking church that many college personnel attend. That was comforting to me—and to my family back home. But it had a broader impact than that.
One of the flight nurses who was to accompany me home arrived in Madurai for that first abortive attempt to return to the States. She was a Buddhist from Bangkok. She told me, “I’ve done flight nursing for several years now, and I’ve never seen a patient who has the support you have. And it isn’t just for you. From the time I arrived, those same people have been as concerned about taking care of my needs as they are of meeting yours. What is happening here?”
I could readily reply, “Mai, you are seeing the kingdom of God at work.”
Hospital personnel in Chennai made similar comments. Many people asked my doctor friend, “Who is this woman? So many people are back and forth caring for her. Why is this?” My Christian friend answered with words similar to the ones I shared with my flight nurse (and the good doctor will be around to follow up on further inquiries).
We may never know the reasons why we suffer. I was going to conclude with that thought about Job if I had led the entire class for the pastors. But the lesson came home vividly to me. I kept asking, as Job did, Why? In my better moments, I would pray and ask the Lord to make clear what I was to learn from the situation. In the end, I had to conclude God often acts in mysterious ways, doesn’t owe me an explanation, and expects my faith in his everlasting power and goodness, regardless of the circumstances.
It’s a tough lesson to learn; the “patience” of Job doesn’t seem very apparent in the book bearing his name. But awe of God and trust in his goodness emerge as the overriding themes. I’m trying to learn that!
The power of God far exceeds the power of the evil one. I had one experience that I can hardly describe, let alone interpret. It occurred a couple of days after I was admitted to the hospital in Madurai.
I had been in a coma for a time. But I remember an awareness of what seemed a cosmic battle over my life. I had the sense God was sustaining me, but that a demon had his arms around me and was pulling for all he was worth to take me into darkness with him.
A Christian Indian friend said he has been told of similar events in that radically Hindu, anti-Christian region of India. Demon or not, I don’t know. But I know I was sustained and surrounded by the power of God. And I know God put a lot of Christians in my path—doctors and nurses in addition to the folks from Christian Evangelical Fellowship—and that they encouraged, comforted, prayed, and sustained me during some very difficult days.
This trip to India, this encounter with Job, these expressions of God’s goodness and mercy have been life-defining moments for me. For the most part, I’m back to “normal” (whatever that is) physically.
But spiritually? I’m still pondering the lessons, wondering at the mysteries of God, deeply grateful for the vast kingdom of God, and overwhelmed with the goodness of God.
Come to think of it, maybe I should teach from Job again!
Eleanor Daniel has taught 43 years in colleges and seminaries, most recently at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. She has now completed her move to a retirement center in Savoy, Illinois.