Hummingbirds and Lightning


Perched on my exercise bike early Sunday morning, I flipped on the TV by remote control. Each channel brought another preacher. One was inspiring. I found myself pedaling faster and faster, breaking into a sweat. The next preacher sounded too theatrical, describing one incredible miracle after another. A touch of the remote brought a third. After a few minutes, I slowed my pace. This is unbelievable, I thought, my face screwed up in doubt. I'm a trained surgeon, a pragmatist, a stick-to-the-facts professional. And those characteristics have shaped my practice of Christianity. The spectacular and implausible are outside my comfort zone. At least they were.

While doing sit-ups the next morning, I grunted to lift my head one last time and suddenly saw something frightening. Several dark globs floated into my vision from the left. I rubbed my eyes, then looked left, right, up, and down. The unwelcome intruders followed my stare, dancing and bouncing as if in some sadistic celebration. The doctor in me took charge. These are just big floaters, I told myself. Lots of people get them. It's no big deal. So, as scheduled, I flew to Houston that afternoon to conduct a hospital quality improvement consultation.

During the flight, I sensed something constantly flying toward me from the left. When I glanced that way, the blobs bounced away, darting and hovering just out of reach, like birds in a 3-D movie. Their fuzzy halos reminded me of the blur of a hummingbird's wings. As we bumped along between the bulging peaks of dark thunderclouds, I noticed lightning. At first I assumed it came from the storm outside. Instinctively, I pulled down the window shade. But the lightning flashes persisted--inside my left eye. When my vision started to blur, I began worrying about the prospect of retinal detachment and vision loss.

The hummingbirds and lightning followed me as I checked into the glitzy hotel and rode the glass elevator to my room. I crawled into bed and closed my eyes to escape. Fitful sleep slowly churned into a bright dawn. When I opened my eyes, both the hummingbirds and lightning had returned.

After 24 hours of symptoms, I knew I needed advice. I phoned a colleague who acknowledged that my anxiety was well founded. The ball of twine that was Robert Brandt began to unravel.

I tried reading my Bible, but I couldn't concentrate on anything except the dark spots darting between the streaks of light. I prayed. I tried telling myself that Christians shouldn't be overly anxious, especially if they were surgeons. Nothing helped.

Knowing I should see an eye specialist, I called my travel agent and made emergency arrangements to fly home right away. Again I tried to read, but the blurring, the hummingbirds, and lightning streaks were simply too much.

Then Philippians 4:6-7 popped into my mind. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." It was exactly what I needed, because I was anxious. I again presented my dilemma to God. And it helped, at least a little.

I decided to go by the hospital and meet the staff because it was on my way to the airport anyway. My watering eyes squinted into the blinding Texas sunrise while I wobbled through the dense traffic, narrowly avoiding a few collisions. I passed a sign and jerked my head for a second look. I couldn't believe my gimpy eyes. It was a large sign with ample space for a clever phrase, but it read simply, "Philippians 4:6-7."

"Thank you, Lord," I said out loud. "That's two this morning. I'm getting the message." I began to feel a little calmer. My eye hadn't changed, but I sensed peace, my heart and mind guarded by Christ. A little farther down the road, I passed a church of my denomination. Just seeing it reminded me of past victories, which calmed and encouraged me.

At the hospital, an ophthalmologist examined me and confirmed the imminent risk of a retinal detachment. My vitreous, the gel-like center of my eye, was shrinking and pulling away from the retina behind it, tugging on sensitive retinal nerve endings, tricking my brain into thinking I was seeing light flashes. The dark spots, my hummingbirds, were clumps of cells and debris that had floated loose during the separation. But so far there was no evidence that my retina was detaching from the eyeball, which could cause partial blindness.

Today when I think of Houston, I no longer picture only a metropolis with massive medical centers, the Astrodome, and oil men wearing cowboy hats and boots. I remember the city's celestial navigation system. During my crisis, all my medical training left me helpless. I could only trust God with all my heart. And as He promised (Prov. 3:5,6), He made my path straight.

The way that sign and that church "just happened" to be along my route fascinates me. I've never seen a sign like that anywhere else. And the church is the only one of my denomination in the Houston area.

I'm now re-evaluating how I should react to such providential interventions, and to other Christians who claim to deal in miracles regularly.

I'm naturally suspicious of dramatic stories from Christians who seem to tiptoe constantly from miracle to miracle. I suspect some stories are exaggerated. But now I have my own story, an experience that for me was just as riveting as Paul's encounter on the road to Damascus. Did God design this experience to remove some spiritual scales from my eyes? Aren't the Scriptures full of dramatic providential interventions and miracles?

God didn't jolt Paul just to be sensational and stunning, but to turn him to Christ and point him to his mission. That mission included fathering Timothy and other spiritual children and grandchildren. Likewise, this experience has jolted me into being more receptive to God's supernatural interventions in my daily, nitty-gritty world.

I know I also have a mission. Since that trip to Houston, I've committed myself more actively to present my faith and disciple each Timothy God sends my way. God used a blinding flash of light to get Paul's attention. For me, He chose hummingbirds and lightning.

Although the lightning is now gone from my eye, the hummingbirds still fly in formation with me as I travel to hospitals around the country. But I no longer consider them as sadistic reminders of my misfortune. Rather, they're dancing in celebration of God's miraculous gift of sight--and reminding me to keep looking for the people whose spiritual sight is blurred.