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How a Calvinist Donates a Kidney

Today I have something a bit different for you. We are laying aside the educational philosophy for the day, and I am going to tell you a story instead. Three weeks ago I donated my right kidney to someone (not sure who). This is that story. 

I am not sure I ever would have considered donating a kidney if I hadn’t known one person in real life who had already done so, and I soaked up those stories I found online of others’ experiences. I have no hard evidence on this but I suspect that many who consider donation are likewise inspired by others’ stories. So while I am not terribly comfortable talking about myself in this public forum, I feel like I need to be part of that process. The ideal outcome for me here is not to have people say “Wow, what a great thing she did” but to say “Wow, this kidney donation thing seems doable.” The more these stories are told, the more we can normalize the process and take it off its pedestal and, hopefully, save more lives. One last note of introduction — I can’t see the world in any way but through my own belief system and for me that means my Christian faith. If you don’t come from the same place, I hope that you can still get something out of this story. 

Step 1: Kidney donation comes on the radar

Time involved: the amount it takes to read a Facebook post

For almost 48 years, donating a kidney was never anything I thought about myself doing. I was aware of course that these things happened and I knew one person (a member of my church family) who had donated a kidney, but I did not think of it in terms of myself at all. In the summer of 2019 when I was 47 and ⅔  a friend posted on facebook about the child of a friend of hers who needed a kidney. This little girl was cute as a button, a homeschooler (as all my kids are), and had blood type O (as I do). This was the first time I ever considered donating a kidney. It wasn’t a good time in my life to start the process as my second child who has a chronic health condition was preparing to start college, and I had some initial resistance to the idea even though I was intrigued so I told myself if that if the girl was still looking for a donor in the fall that I would at least see what I could do. 

Step 2: Google stuff

Time involved: 6+ months.

Well, that little girl thankfully found a donor and has since had a transplant and seems to be doing well (I don’t know these people at all but I have followed the Facebook posts). But that initial thought caused me to do some Google searches on what goes into kidney donation and to think about the fact that there might be other people out there who need a kidney like mine. It turns out that “type O kidney needed” is a very fruitful Google search [1]. There are whole websites dedicated to people looking for donors. Even narrowing the search to type O people near me, I was overwhelmed. There are just so many people and every last one of their stories is heartbreaking. I decided pretty quickly that I could not possibly pick between them.

Fortunately, there are people who can do the choosing for you. The biggest such organization is the National Kidney Registry (NKR). You can start the process pretty simply by filling out an online form. That is the sort of simple I like — no personal contact, no awkward phone calls needed. Just enter your information in a form and the next step is theirs.

Telling the story up to this point has taken me about 10 minutes. In real life, this part of the process took about six months, from summer 2019 to January 2020. In that time, my process was almost entirely online and in my head. I didn’t talk about kidney donation to anyone because I needed to sort through it all and get as many facts and stories as I could. I particularly sought out stories that involved complications and bad outcomes because I wanted to know the worst. As the daughter of a mathematician, I also sought out statistics. I won’t bore you with the numbers; if you are interested, you can find them on your own. Only two things I will say — the immediate risk of a c-section is greater than the immediate risk of a nephrectomy (kidney removal), and in the long term, a kidney donor’s risk of kidney problems does increase but donors are screened very thoroughly so that their overall risk is less than that of the general population. 

The one in-person conversation I had in those months was with my then 17-year-old daughter. She sells tie-dyes and we were at a craft fair when a customer mentioned that she was buying a shirt for her daughter who had just donated a kidney. I asked her a couple of questions about it and when she left my daughter mentioned that she had had a dream that I had donated a kidney which prompted me to say that I was actually considering donation. Now theologically I am a cessationist (mostly). I am not big on God-talks-to-us-through-dreams-and-visions and am certainly not of the I’ve-got-a-prophecy-just-for-you school. So I didn’t and still don’t take this as a prophetic sign. It was a nudge to keep me researching. In the long run the Scriptures tell us that a prophecy is tested by its outcome — if it comes true it was real (Deuteronomy 18:22). So for me, even as I write this, I consider her dream a nudge and not a God-definitely-wants-me-to-do-this. 

There were a number of these nudges in those six months. I would alternate reading everything I could about donation with trying to forget the topic altogether. But every so often a story would come up in the news or a post online about donation that would make me think I needed to keep researching. (Though at the same time I am self-aware enough to realize that these stories probably kept coming up because I was inclined to see them, both because I tended to click on things that might in some way be related to donation and because Facebook and Google are really scary cyber-megalodons [2] who know everything about all of us.)

Excursus: Why donate?

I think there are often a lot of reasons we do things, especially big things. It is not always a simple decision. I find the same thing, for instance, in my decision to homeschool my kids. Why we started is not necessarily why we continued. In the end, it becomes very hard to answer what seems like such a simple question: “Why do you . . .?” The same is true for kidney donation, at least for me. Probably the truest reason is that I kept researching and ultimately filled out a form and started the process and then kept with the process because I knew if I didn’t I would regret it more and would always wonder if I could have donated. That’s not a bad reason. 

Another, slightly crazier, way to say it would be to say that the idea consumed me even at times when I really wanted to forget it and read all the negative stories I could. Reading others’ stories, I think that this is not infrequently the case. One I read (actually I think it was a podcast I listened to) said that some people are willing to give kidneys and some people actively want to give a kidney. For some reason, though I spent decades never giving it a thought, I fell in this latter category. Though at times I could stand outside myself and think that this is utterly crazy and that allowing someone to cut up your healthy body and take out a perfectly good organ is borderline barbaric, still I couldn’t get away from it. 

Of course there are other better reasons to donate a kidney. One for me is that it is such a profoundly pro-life thing to do. I hope that if you are not pro-life in a political sense that you will not abandon me here. I mean this is a very broad sense. In a day and age when slogans like “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” compete with each other and when we have arguments about whether we should wear masks to protect complete strangers in the grocery store, I hope that we can at least agree that life is good and generally worth preserving, though we may disagree about what that means practically speaking. To give a kidney is to act for the life of another. We are all called to do this in various ways and organ donation is one of those ways though it is not for everyone. 

Acting for the good of the life of another always costs us something. This is true of giving birth. The phrase “get my body back” would not exist if there were not a level on which the new mom loses her body (and I hate to tell you but you may never get it back as it was). In many ways kidney donation is easy (she says before having actually done so) because it is purely physical. Other ways we speak into the lives of others cost us in other ways, some less profound and some more so. 

Step 3: Tell a few important people

Time involved: one month, 10 minutes, specifically one month of delaying and 10 minutes of actual talking

My daughter and I had briefly discussed kidney donation in August because it came up organically [3]. The first person I deliberately brought the subject up with was my oldest child. I knew he would be a pretty easy first person because I expected him to be supportive of the idea. We had actually gone to give blood, something he had done many times but I never had. It seemed like a necessary first step. How could I give a kidney if I hadn’t even given blood? In fairness, I had gone to give blood in the past but always tested as too low on iron. I almost did this time as well. I failed on the first test and just passed the threshold on the second. On the way home, I brought up kidney donation. I explained the need and how donation chains work (more on that below) pretty briefly. His response was “I think you should do it.” 

My husband was harder. I didn’t know what to expect from him. He had major abdominal surgery as a teen at a time when laparoscopic was not an option so he isn’t very positive on having one’s gut sliced open. I don’t know what he expected when I finally got up the courage to say I had something serious to talk about. All in all me potentially giving away a body part may not have been as bad as whatever he expected. To my surprise, he was at least mildly on board from that first conversation and has become more so over time. Many months later I was saying “if I have surgery,” he was speaking of it as a sure thing.

Step 4: Fill out a form online

Time involved: 5 minutes

I finally took the definitive first step of filling out an online form around the end of January 2020. As I recall, one form led to another asking for more specific medical information. Everything is via email at this point in the process. I don’t think it is entirely automated but it feels pretty close to it. I’m not a huge fan of talking to people on the phone but at times it felt a little too impersonal for such a big decision. 

Step 5: Keep a giant jug of urine in your fridge for a day

Time involved: 24 hours

Having passed the initial paperwork stage, the next step is to give blood and urine, a fair amount of each. In fact, you have to collect all your urine in a 24 hour period in a jug the NKR mails out to you and take it to a local lab where a nice lady thanks you very politely for this lovely yellow gift and comments on how well you did. She also takes some of your blood. 

Since I was going to be keeping my urine in the fridge for a day, I figured I had to tell my other two kids, ages 14 and 16, at this point. One of them was on-board from the start. The other asked, “Why would you want to do that?” In his defense, he did it in a fairly polite, honestly-wanting-to-know way. Frankly, the vibe I got from all of them, husband and kids, was mostly along the lines of “Uh-oh, what has she got into her head now?”

The initial blood and urine experience wasn’t too bad. It does get a bit tiresome to collect all your pee by the end of the day, but it wasn’t really hard. We homeschool anyway so I picked a day we would be home all day (side note: in normal time homeschoolers are not home all day). Beyond that there wasn’t much inconvenience. 

Step 6: Pick a transplant center

Time involved: about 2 seconds

The results of this initial screen were good so I got to move on. Still everything was automated. The next step was to pick a transplant center to work with. I am in the greater Boston area so there are a number around. I had tried to research them individually but in truth there are at least three good, quality hospitals in the area that do this. I ended up picking Brigham and Women’s in Boston (BWH). I can’t speak to the other local options but to date I have no reason to regret that decision. They have been pretty good to work with and I have since read a book on the history of transplantation [4] in which the Brigham looms large so that is very encouraging. 

Step 7: Have an actual phone call

Time involved: Maybe 15 minutes not including the time to stress about having to talk to a stranger on the phone

And . . . 

Step 8: Give away more of your precious life-blood

Time involved: A few weeks of waiting and about 2 and half hours at the lab

At this point I had my first actual conversation with someone medical, my coordinator at BWH. She asked a lot of medical questions (again) and ordered blood work to be done at the hospital lab (which fortunately could be done at a more local satellite office). There is a lot of waiting and down time in the donor evaluation process. This is even more true if you are female. Sometimes you have to wait for an appropriate time to give urine. Not just any week will do. I ended up having this blood work done right around mid-March, 2020. I remember the time frame, if not the exact date, because things were just starting to change due to COVID. A big bottle of hand sanitizer sat bang-splat in the middle of the lab waiting room. Masks and strict social distancing had not yet made an appearance. I had to fast and do a two-hour glucose tolerance test (among many others) so I got to the lab first thing. I was glad I did because it got crowded soon after. After they drew an initial dozen vials or so, they sent me back to the waiting room to drink my glucose drink. There was an awkward moment there when I ran into someone I know in a professional setting. You know how you don’t recognize people out of context? There was that moment of seeing someone who says hello to me and looks familiar but I can’t place and then an awkward few minutes while we sat side-by-side in the crowded waiting room and I drank my overly sweet, flat orange soda [5]. After that I got to escape to a quiet chair upstairs with my book for a couple of hours till the time of the re-draw. 


Time involved: 2 months

If you have been paying attention, you will realize that we have now reached mid-March 2020. If you are reading this years in the future, I hope that life has so gotten back to normal that you have completely forgotten the significance of that time frame. But I doubt it. Between my coordinator ordering the lab tests and the results coming back, COVID hit. She began working from home and the world basically shut down, hospitals especially (except for the overcrowded ERs and ICUs of course). I once again had to pick up a phone and called in to get my test results which were all good. Unfortunately, future testing was on hold indefinitely. She told me to call back in two weeks which in retrospect was a really overly optimistic time frame. 

Excursus #2: Communicating with your coordinator

Since we have two months to chat, we might as well talk about your relationship with your donation coordinator. These are very nice people who work hard in a very meaningful and necessary field. But they also have certain priorities. One of those is to make sure that you are not a kook. Another is to make sure that you are healthy and are under no pressure to donate. I found in my first conversation that my coordinator was very business-like and a bit discouraging. She focused on the negative in my family medical history. I had read that such was the case and I can understand it — they need to be sure to rule out people who aren’t healthy enough to donate. Their job initially is to screen people out, not to encourage donation. I also found that I did not always get calls when I expected them. More often than not after testing, the next step was for me to wait anxiously for two weeks and then to finally give in and make the call myself. When I did call, I would find my coordinator kind, well-informed, and willing to talk, but the impetus always seemed to be on my side. Again, this may be deliberate. I have heard that they often slow down the process so you have time to think and/or that they want to drive to be coming from the donor’s side. They don’t want to be accused of pushing people into donation. I will say that whenever I did call I was told, “Call any time with any questions.”

Step 9: Learn to use Zoom

Time involved: about a week

Even while the five other people in my home studied and worked from home, I vowed to myself that I would try to get through quarantine without having a Zoom meeting. I failed. I did not call my coordinator two weeks later but when I began to hear that hospitals in other areas were opening up for testing again I did finally check in. I didn’t actually expect much to happen right away but my coordinator suggested I do three Zoom meetings with the social worker, nephrologist, and surgeon. These would usually be done in person along with the all important in-hospital testing, but, well, COVID. They were all set up within the next week. 

Before the first meeting, the office administrator called to walk me through how to use Zoom. This was my first contact with her but perhaps she had been warned about me because she spent a long time saying, “It’s okay. It’s really very easy. Don’t overthink it.” She seemed quite concerned but I assuaged her fears somewhat by assuring her I had a house full of teenagers who would love nothing better than to tell me how I am doing something online wrong, and perhaps even to help me do it the right way. When I told my youngest (then age 14) of the conversation she was very amused and appointed herself my guardian for the occasion of my first Zoom meeting. She found the phrase “Don’t overthink it” particularly appropriate and continues to use it on me regularly. 

That first meeting was with the social worker. She was, as I had been told ahead of time very, very nice and easy to talk to. I think I aced that one.

Sadly, with one meeting under my belt, I got over-confident and told my daughter I didn’t need help with my second meeting, the one with the nephrologist (kidney doctor). It turns out I did. I still don’t know what went wrong but somehow the doctor and I both thought we were in the right Zoom room (say that ten times fast) but neither one could see the other. Long story short, the meeting started twenty minutes late and was much more socially awkward. We both survived it though. 

Step 10: In-hospital testing

Time involved: One day

But wait, you say, what about the third meeting, the one with the surgeon? I can only assume God took pity on me at this point and decided to spare me another ZOOM-sperience. I unexpectedly got a call from my coordinator saying they could now do in-hospital testing and would I like to come in and do a real face-to-face meeting with the surgeon to boot. I said yes.

In the many donation stories I had read, the in-hospital testing is the big, long day. Thankfully, COVID actually made this a lot easier than it might have been. First off, I had already met with two people so there was less to accomplish. Then traffic had not returned to normal so the drive into the big city was pretty quick and relatively unstressful. The hospital was screening everyone who came in which took a little longer but then they provide you with a person to escort you to your first appointment [6]. 

I had three tests that day — a CAT scan, an EKG, and a chest x-ray — plus I got to give more urine and to meet the surgeon. Let’s take them in order:

CAT scan — They put in an IV, have you lie on a table and inject you with dye. Then they watch it go through your insides for a while. Sadly, you, the patient, cannot see this happening. I found the CAT scan oddly soothing though. The machine has pretty rainbow colored lights that flash slowly and I quite enjoyed them. The one thing all donors tell you about the CAT scan is that when they inject the dye you will feel like you peed yourself. There may be other side effects as well like feeling really hot or itchy. I didn’t experience much of the latter. As for the pee-yourself feeling, I will say for the females in the audience (men close your eyes for a second) that it felt more like getting one’s period and wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. 

I had had a specific appointment for the CAT scan. The EKG and chest x-ray were walk-in affairs. I don’t know if it was because of COVID and business being down or if they prioritize people sent to them by the transplant office, but for each of these I was taken in almost immediately and the tests were done quickly. Giving the requisite urine was actually the hardest part because some other patient was in the lab bathroom for a long  time. For all I know she might still be there. I finally went to use the public bathroom in the hall and then had to walk back down the hall with my little specimen cup full.

Last appointment of the day was with the surgeon, a tall, young fellow [7] that I liked immediately. He could already see the preliminary results of my CAT scan and said my kidneys looked good. The only downside — and this is a big one — is that he was the first (and to date only) person to insist on this whole elbow-bump thing that is supposed to replace handshakes. Having now tried it once, I can say with confidence that this is something I can do without. 

One funny — and fun — thing about the donation screening process is that if you are under 50ish they consider you young. I pressed the surgeon on details and he admitted that I am in the middle (read: middle-aged) category. For the most part they seem to prefer older donors. If you are young, you don’t really know yet what your health will be like plus you will have that many more years to develop problems after donation. The one downside to being in the older category is that your recovery may be slower, but if you are 60 and healthy enough to donate you are probably going to be okay. [8]

Step 11: Stressing about results

Time involved: about two weeks

Having online portals for your medical information is very useful in some ways but it also means that one can see things like CAT scan results before talking to any medical professionals. One thing I didn’t know is that that scan looked at pretty much all my internal organs. When I got an email that I had test results, I logged right in to see them and found a long document with lots of big words and numbers about not just my kidney but my appendix, liver, lungs, and gall bladder too. Though the kidney section said very little (which is good), all the other parts had notes of various sorts. If you don’t have a strong constitution and/or a good search engine, I don’t recommend looking at your report by yourself. Even with googling all the various terms, it is very hard to tell what is significant and what isn’t. 

This is one of those times my daughter probably should have said, “Mother, don’t overthink it.” But I did. I did overthink it. Which leads us to . . .

Excursus #3: Life ain’t linear, or You don’t know what God has planned 

I had read far too many accounts of people who started the testing for donation only to find some previously unknown health problem to be casual at this point in time. What if God started me on this process not to have me give a kidney but to uncover some other issue? This is not an uncommon experience. I can’t pretend at any stage of the process that I know what the bigger plan is. Remember that the prophecy isn’t a true prophecy until it comes true. 

And yet, I found it strangely comforting that in the midst of all these other little oddities the CAT scan found that those two kidneys were two (some people have one; some have more), that they had the normal number of arteries (again, some have more which doesn’t rule you out but makes surgery more complicated), and that they had no cysts or stones (also not necessarily a disqualification). At that point, I began to feel that these two kidneys were not my two kidneys but that one at least was placed there for someone else’s benefit more than my own. I began to feel like a caretaker of this little organ more than its owner.

Step 11: Yet more testing

Time interval: three weeks of waiting and one more day at the hospital

Finally I broke down and called my coordinator again. She had my results at the ready and didn’t say anything about all those other organs. The only concern was that one of my kidneys is a little larger than the other.  So I was off to the hospital again for a renal scan with the nuclear medicine department plus a bonus in-person appointment with the nephrologist. The point of the renal scan, as far as I was led to believe, was just to see which kidney is doing more work. They always take your worse kidney and you get to keep the good one.  The appointments were scheduled three weeks out, but finally I got to drive into the big city again.

The renal scan wasn’t as soothing as the CAT scan (no pretty lights).  I got another IV, with something radioactive this time (I assume), and got to watch a very grainy image of my kidneys and bladder for 25 minutes. It was so riveting I almost fell asleep. 

Then I got to go meet my nephrologist in person. Perhaps it was the radioactivity [9] but once again we had technology problems. Her desktop wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it turns out they can look at your medical records on their phones these days (a fact which is a little scary though it proved useful in this case). The appointment was mostly uneventful. She could see preliminary results again and said my left kidney was doing 56% of the work while righty was only pulling 44%. That means they will likely take my right kidney and leave the left. (Usually they take left kidneys, all else being equal. It has to do with arteries and easy access and things like that.) I was also very pleased that my blood pressure was good at this visit. It had been a little high when I met with the surgeon and though no one mentioned it, I was a little concerned that it would disqualify me and/or lead to more testing. This time it was perfect though (the doctor said so twice). [10] 

Step 12: More Waiting and

Step 13: Tell More People

Time involved: About 2 weeks

When I went in for my renal scan one of the things I dreaded most was what I knew would come after — more waiting for results. You may have guessed by now that patience is not my strong suit. As I did wait, even though things were not yet definite, I felt I needed to tell my mom about this whole donation idea. One aspect of doing this all during a pandemic is that every conversation we had been having went along these lines:

“So what have you been doing?

“Me? Nothing, How about you? Have you been anywhere?”

“No, me neither, We haven’t been anywhere.”

Except of course I had been to the hospital a couple of times and had had CAT scans and the like so every conversation felt like a lie. I didn’t want to worry her too early if things didn’t pan out, but I also couldn’t keep going the way I was. 

My mom lives halfway across the country so a phone call was the way to go. I honestly wasn’t sure how she would take this. I was pretty sure that in the long run after it was done and I had recovered she’d be okay with it, but I thought she might not be in the short run. I underestimated her. She immediately said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m not sure I could have done it but good for you.” She didn’t even ask many questions.

About a week after the renal scan I got the automatic notification that my test results were in on the online portal. They were as expected; no surprises this time. At least as far as I could read them, it all looked good, with my right kidney doing a little less work than my left as the nephrologist had indicated. I knew the surgeons had to review this so I resolved to give it another week before making contact,

To my surprise I got an email from my coordinator, on the morning of Saturday, July 4th no less, telling me all looked good and they would be reviewing my case and giving the final go ahead a week later (at the Brigham these things are always done on Fridays apparently). She said she didn’t expect any surprises.

But she also wanted my voucher letter back naming the five people, one of whom could get a kidney credit, so to speak, because of my donation. I knew my one daughter with preexisting conditions would be one of the five but who would the other four be? In my mind my siblings are those I am essentially taking a potential kidney away from. So I began to contact them as well. We are on good terms but we don’t communicate a lot; we all live pretty far apart. Two I emailed, one I called. My sister lives in Europe and also has kids of her own (more potential future donors) so I didn’t expect to put her on the list but I figured I should ask. One brother is all the way across the country and doesn’t see the rest of us much. He appears very healthy, but I couldn’t know for sure. He responded right away to my email which is surprising enough and politely thanked me but declined to be on the voucher. The one brother who lives halfway across the country (near my mom) I called. I didn’t ask him; I told him he was going on the voucher. He assured me his health is fine thus far but thanked me. I was so busy thinking about my own stress in contacting people and telling them this big thing that I have to say I didn’t think at all about how they would take it. In retrospect I think it is a very odd thing to have someone call you out of the blue and say essentially “I would give a kidney to you,” or on your behalf at any rate. I am not sure if there is a better way I could have done things but it is something to think about. 

Step 14: NKR Blood Draw

Time involved: About an hour including travel to the lab and back

Though my approval was not final, I got a box of eight blood draw tubes in the mail from the National Kidney Registry (NKR). It is this blood which they will use to match me with a recipient. I was a little nervous about going in to get this draw done because I didn’t have lab orders and my experience is this tends to confuse people, but the lab at the hospital’s satellite office didn’t seem phased and the phlebotomist inspired a lot of confidence. Those eight tubes got overnighted to California.

Step 15: Approval “Day”

Time involved: 48 hours

Finally Friday came, the day the team meets to discuss patients and, in my case, give the big thumbs up or thumbs down. I was pretty busy this day which is probably good. Honestly wasn’t that stressed about it, even when I didn’t hear back from my coordinator that day or the next. Other people in my life were asking me the results but I remained fairly calm. It helps that my coordinator had told me a couple of times that she didn’t expect any surprises. I finally heard from my coordinator via email Sunday morning with the good news: Approved!

Excursus #4: Choosing a Recipient

I decided early on that I could not possibly choose a recipient. This is no judgment on those who do directed donations. It is often the case that God puts people in our paths for us to minister to. This is the meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) [11]. But God did not put one specific person in my path. When I looked at all those people desperately posting their stories online in the hopes that a stranger would a) step up and b) be a match for them, I knew I could never choose. What makes one worthy of this salvation and not another? It is easier to have sympathy with those who are like us in some way. It is easier to have compassion on those who are young or have kids of their own or are the victims of some rare and tragic genetic illness but does that make them more deserving? I was painfully aware that God saves us not because of the factors we have to recommend us but in spite of all the factors which argue against us. 

Step 16: More waiting, more telling, more blood, more paperwork

Time involved: Another two weeks

With approval officially under my belt, I decided it was time to tell pretty much everyone. I had already covered my biological family but now added my in-laws (which my husband got to do), a few homeschooling friends, and everyone in my church. Thankfully, COVID gives one a good excuse to do these things via email. I continue to be surprised by people’s responses — but only in one direction. I have had absolutely no negative responses and very few people who have even asked me why on earth anyone would do this. 

When I talked to my coordinator about the approval and the next steps I asked her about timing and she said “2 to 3 weeks.” I realized after the fact that I wasn’t sure what was 2-3 weeks. Till surgery? Till I get a match? Till ?? 

Unfortunately, she also said they had none of my paperwork. As you can imagine if you have ever had any medical procedure, there is a lot of consent paperwork here. I had mailed mine in a month before and she had apparently never seen any of it. This seems to be largely COVID related as the staff is not actually in the office often and this allows mail a good long chance to get lost. So they mailed more forms and I did them all again (and scanned them all just in case this time). Plus my voucher people each had to fill out a form. Four of these live in my house so I also orchestrated that. Fortunately, the one at a distance did his promptly and without issue.

After a full two weeks, I contacted the coordinator to see if she had all that paperwork yet (and maybe just to nudge things along a little). The response was a “let me see” on the paperwork which is not encouraging. But she also mentioned that she needed me to go to the lab for “a blood draw.” Silly me I took “a blood draw” to mean “oops, we need just one more tube.” Nope. Five tubes. It turns out phlebotomists are pretty bored at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday so I ended up with a good number of them laughing at me. “One tube? You think you can get away with that? We’re taking five!” This blood is apparently to check for various things I may be carrying from the antibodies to mono to syphilis so they know what my hypothetical recipient might need to be treated for. [12]

Finally after a couple more messages left, I heard back from my coordinator that she had gotten my paperwork and could now tell the NKR to start matching me. Because so much time had passed, she suggested a September surgery (I had originally been hoping for the summer). She also gave a lot of specific information in this conversation about the surgery which made it all seem a bit more real.  One thing I learned is that when a match is made they (the center) get 24 hours to say yes or no to it. Since I am looking to donate to a stranger, there really would be no reason to say no.

Step 17: You’ll never guess — more waiting!!

Time involved: another 4 weeks

So I am back to waiting. This time waiting for the phone call that will say, “We have a match. You will have surgery on . . .” Or at least that was what I thought I was waiting for. In real life it didn’t quite work out that way. 

First of all, let’s discuss a topic I like to call: Timing, or Why You Shouldn’t Spend Too Much Time on the Internet. Online support groups and forums (fora?) are lovely things. They provide you with something your medical professionals usually can’t give — the experiences of real people who have been through whatever you are going through.The problem is that they are random experiences. The stories you hear (or read) there may not be the norm. Reading people’s kidney donation experiences led me to believe that once you get in the system you will have a match in like 3 days. It turns out this is not always the case. There are certainly plenty of other people for whom it takes longer but somehow the quick, exciting stories tend to filter to the top of the pile (can something filter to the top?). My experience was that even with my type O blood, which should be the easiest to match, it was a good 4 weeks till I heard anything. My coordinator, in all fairness to her, told me to expect 2-3 weeks. This was a much better estimate than the random internet stories. But it still took a little time beyond that. In retrospect, I think what happened was that my coordinator told the NKR I was looking to donate in September which, with no additional guidance, they read as “mid-September” and that was still a month away which to them is a long time though to me, the recipient, it sounds close. They would also have other people in their queue whose cases might be more urgent so they didn’t rush into matching me. 

On my end there was dead silence while the weeks ticked away, and though with COVID raging my schedule was nowhere near as full as usual, one does like to be able to plan things. So eventually I went for the old stand-by and emailed my coordinator a random question so as to bring myself back to her consciousness and maybe get some news. This strategy seems to work. I got my question answered plus a “we are still working on it; looks like mid-September.” The next week that got narrowed down to “around the 23rd.” And then maybe 4 days later to: “It looks good for the 22nd. You can plan but I will confirm next week.” And then a few days after that: “The 22nd looks very good.” Note that we went from good to very good. We are talking 6th day of Creation levels of surety here. [13]

Excursus #5: Altruistic vs. Non-Directed Donation

Since we are back to waiting, this seems like a good time for another excursus. Let’s talk terminology. The kind of donation I am doing can be called either non-directed or altruistic donation. You may have noticed I consistently (I hope, with good editing) use the term non-directed. It is called non-directed because one essentially gives to the system without designating to whom the kidney should be given. The powers that be use their little algorithm and decide who is most in need of this particular kidney and how it can best be utilized. 

Altruistic is a much more loaded term, and I don’t like it for two somewhat contradictory reasons. It implies that these donations are somehow more admirable than others. To give to an anonymous stranger is not any more noble than seeing a billboard or bumper sticker and calling the number to donate (this would be a directed donation because the recipient is designated, even if he and the donor have never met). And sometimes giving to one’s family member or friend or friend of a friend is an even bigger decision. There can be a lot of layers in a personal relationship. I can imagine my donor as anything I want him or her to be, and if, God forbid, things go wrong, I may never know. If your Cousin Johnny needs a kidney, you probably know just how annoying he is and you might think his chronic kidney disease is not much of an excuse. You might also know that he has never taken very good care of himself and is not likely to start just because he has your precious organ inside him. Sometimes giving an anonymous stranger is way easier than loving those we know intimately. 

On the flip side, as a good Calvinist, I just don’t believe in altruism. For a deed to be altruistic implies that it is done all for selfless reasons. We humans in this life are simply not capable of putting ourselves aside to that extent. There is always something in us that seeks its own, even if it is only to hear those words: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). 

Kidney donors are not better than other people. You can trust me that — pre- or post-donation — all my old sinful habits are still just as entrenched as they always were (and if you don’t believe me, ask my teenage children). A good deed done for the wrong reasons is not a good deed. Even a good deed done for the right reasons does nothing to balance out our bad deeds (and we all have bad deeds). There will, sad to say, be kidney donors in Hell. Giving part of your body for another does not earn you a place in Heaven. If we do any good, it is because Jesus Christ has given His life for us, as a response to the goodness He has already given us, not as a way to earn His favor.

Step 18: The Vampires are Back

Time involved: A couple of hours x 2

So I never got that big “we have a match for you!” call. What I got was a series of progressively more certain emails. I suppose this is a bit anticlimactic but since I was excited by each one maybe it wasn’t a bad way to go, not one big spike of excitement but a flattened curve, so to speak.  By the time I got my “very good” email, we were about two and half weeks from the donation date. 

Perhaps not too surprisingly, there is a lot more blood to be drawn at this point. At T minus 19 days I went in for the pre-op blood draw. This is a big one. I could see no less than twenty things ordered on my patient portal, but they managed to do them in a mere 11 tubes. At T minus 14 days, I got to go in again, this time with a little box of four NKR tubes that had been mailed to me. These go to the recipient’s center so they can do a last crossmatch to make sure that we are still good to go. 

In looking at the paperwork that came with my tubes, I learned (a) where my kidney was going — the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and (b) the age of my recipient, possibly maybe. You see each person in the system is given a secret alpha-numeric code name. Mine is the first two letters of my name followed by my birth date (two digits each for month, day, and year). The recipient’s secret code name had a different format, four letters and four numbers, but the end of it looked for all the world like a year (19–). If my assumption was correct, this would make the recipient four years younger than me which seems reasonable both for making us a good match and for putting that person at a common age for transplants. In case you are wondering, with its combo of letters and numbers, my secret code name would be nigh unto unpronounceable so I don’t think I am going to adopt it in my upcoming life as a criminal  superhero spy. 

As a side note, I am becoming quite adept at the whole blood draw process. I know to stand on my giant blue dot to get screened and then to check in at the lab and can shake my head sadly at the (mostly older) people who are confused by this new process. I can confidently answer “no” to the “do you have any of these symptoms?” list without even looking at it. I even reassure people in line waiting to check in that, yes, the receptionist does exist and is coming back soon and you’ll still be in the same place in the queue so it really doesn’t matter how fast you get checked in. On my last visit I was talking to a woman about the new plastic dividers between the waiting room seats and I was able to reminisce about the gradual implementation of COVID precautions and how when I came in March there was just that one big bottle of hand sanitizer and how we all sat next to each other with no plastic barriers or masks. It made me quite nostalgic and I think I might actually miss these little outings. I wonder if I could schedule some recreational blood draws after surgery just as a chance to catch up? 

Step 19: My inbox lights up and  . . . Zoom! (aka Pre-op stuff)

Time involved: About an hour, spread out over a week

Remember those 20 blood tests? I think I got an email when every single result came in. You’ve got to love modern technology. I also got emails and texts about my new surgery portal (not to be confused with the regular patient portal). Digital communication-wise things were really hopping at this point. So it seemed like about time for my favorite thing: another Zoom meeting, this time with the surgeon. 

I went into this meeting expecting to be told things about my surgery. It turns out that it was mostly an opportunity for me to ask questions. I managed to come up with a couple, but altogether it was a 15 minute meeting, semi-awkward but with no technical issues. The one big thing I did have to ask was if I could get kidney pics. Thanks to those internet forums, I knew this was a thing and I had made the mistake of mentioning it to my now 15-year-old. She would have loved to have seen the whole surgery if possible. When the surgeon asked what kinds of pictures I would like, I said “as gory as possible.” He made a note in his phone. 

Two days later I had my pre-op phone call. The one where they ask you if you have any problems with anesthesia, if you have any of about two million medical conditions. The one phone call turned into two. I had been told this one would set up COVID testing but that apparently is a separate office. Let me set this up by saying that I was assured ahead of time, multiple times, that they had lots of testing locations they could work with and that there would no doubt be one close to me. Here’s how our conversation went:

Nurse: “Mrs. . . . this is  . . .  from BWH. I am calling to set up your COVID test for your surgery. We have lots of locations: West Roxbury, Newton-Wellesley, Natick, and Timbuktu. Is any of these convenient for you?”

Me: “No.” 

Nurse: “Oh. Where are you coming from?”

Me: “— town”

Nurse:  “I don’t know where that is.”

Me: “It is south of the city.”

Nurse: “Let me put that in my map and see what we have near there. It looks like Natick is the closest to you. Does that work?”

Me: “Yes.”

Nurse: “Great. Let me schedule that for you. Don’t worry it will just be a 15 minute appointment.” 

I like how she pretended to look at a map only to discover that she did indeed only have the 4 locations she first mentioned to me. Did I mention that Natick is a 45 minute drive each way (without traffic)? 

Excursus #6: The impersonalness of being a non-directed donor

Early on in this process I was shocked to find out how few non-directed kidney donors there are — about 250 a year in the US. As I near the actual donation date, I find I am less surprised by this number. I am not sure we should be asking people to do this, at least not in the way we are.

The problem is that the whole process is so vastly impersonal, and that is not natural to human beings nor should it be. It started, no doubt, with HIPAA laws that protect everyone’s privacy.  Throw COVID into the mix and we have a recipe for disconnectedness. HIPAA keeps a non-directed donor from knowing anything about their recipient. COVID keeps us from even knowing our medical providers. Do you know in all this time I have never seen my coordinator? I have met the surgeon and nephrologist, each once via Zoom and once in person. I did have one very good conversation with a social worker (again via Zoom). This whole long story is mostly written with the potential donor in mind, but if there are any medical providers listening, let me say this: your patients need to connect to someone somewhere in the process and that person might be you. I understand that we don’t want people being pressured in any way to donate. And we certainly don’t want them to donate in order to please their coordinator, but in a world of such vast social distancing, these are people who need some connection to some human being. If anything, I would postulate that non-directed donors need more connection than other people do. [14]  But all donors need to feel that they are part of a human process. They shouldn’t be made to feel like cogs in a machine. [15]

Let’s talk about that for a minute, the non-directedness. If you donate to a specific, designated person, even if it’s just someone you saw on a billboard or Facebook post, you have some idea of where your kidney is going. You know some basic demographic data like age and gender and you can at least imagine the person who is getting your organ and what their life must be like. Non-directed donors often get none of this. I was told absolutely nothing about my recipient. The few things I know, or think I know, come from my deductions based on an anonymous form. 

There are lots of good reasons to donate, whether we know the person we are donating to or not, but I don’t believe we are ever called to spend our lives for a cause. Without a person on the other side of this exchange, we are asking people to risk their lives and their future health for an idea. And that is a very dangerous thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that when people are willing to risk their lives for an idea, more often than not it is a bad idea and lots of innocent people die. That is not what God did and it is not what He calls us to. God the Son did not lay down His life for an idea or a principle or even so that He might potentially save some people. He laid it down for real, definite people that He knew. [16] We respect those who are so dedicated to a cause that they will sacrifice for it, even to the point of their lives, but I don’t believe God ever asks us to put our lives on the line for an ideal. Christian martyrs, past and present, don’t die for an ideal; they are willing to die for a Person (for the One, ironically, who died for them). 

Now the actual risks of kidney donation are small — I understand that — but there is still some degree of risk involved and certainly some level of self-sacrifice. If we wonder why there are not more non-directed donors and how we can get those numbers up, my answer is simple: we need to make it personal. We know this in other areas. Why do you think charities ask you to sponsor a particular child in a third-world country? They know that you will give to a little boy whose picture you can see and whose story you can read when you will not give to a cause. Human stories persuade us when statistics don’t. And this is as it should be. We are made for this kind of connection. Most non-directed donors have some personal story that has gotten them started on the process (like the little girl whose Facebook story I followed). If we want more donors — and they are desperately needed — we need to make it about people. How do we do that? We can err too far on the other side. Pleas that are overly sappy and emotional manipulate donors by preying upon their emotions (I suspect you, like I, can again think of some commercials for charities that do just this). That is not what I am advocating.  But stories are powerful things. Words that are true and honest, without being manipulative, have the power to change hearts and minds and to move people to action. [17] 

Step 20: COVID testing

Time involved: 100+ minutes of driving, 5 minutes of testing

Did I mention that the COVID testing site was not near me? Google maps claimed 48 minutes but we are talking Saturday shopping traffic (haven’t these people heard of the pandemic?) so closer to an hour on the way there. If you know the area, let me just add that fire engines, sirens blaring, do not mix with route 9. On the way home I took back roads which was infinitely more pleasant, if not shorter. The actual test in between the drives was the best part of the experience. From walking in to out was maybe five minutes total and the longest part of that was waiting to check in behind an older gentleman who didn’t like that they gave him a mask with some sort of characters on it. He’s apparently a fan of the plain blue clinical ones. The COVID test went just what my very precise clinician said it would: it didn’t hurt, it felt weird and sneezy, and 2 seconds after it was done my right eye started to water. 

Step 21: The last 24 hours, or lots of phone calls

Time involved: 24 hours (that was obvious, right?)

I got my COVID test result late the next day (negative! yay!). The last day before surgery was fairly busy, both with things to fill up my time and get my house in order (literally) and with communications. I vacuumed. I scooped kitty litter. I talked to church people. I talked to my mother. I got texts and messages and emails. Did I mention that in all this I didn’t have one friend, relative, or acquaintance who has reacted negatively to my donating? From the donor forums I am on, I know that is not always the case so I’d just like to point out how wonderful everyone in my life is. 

The question of the day was “how are you feeling?” And really I have been feeling fine. I may not sleep a lot tonight (I have to get up at 4am anyway), but if I am nervous it is an excited kind of nervous, like you get before going on a big trip. And when I think that, I also think, “Boy, am I glad I don’t have to deal with airport security tomorrow.” Cause that seems way more stressful than going to the hospital. And I get to sleep through the hard part. Thinking of airports did make me wonder how my kidney gets from Massachusetts to Minnesota though. I hope he doesn’t travel coach. I can just picture him running down the moving walkways in the Pittsburgh airport trying to get his connection. He’s never been out on his own before, you know. I should probably go to bed.

Step 22: Pre-Op

Time Involved: about two hours

I think I was the second non-staff person at the hospital the morning of my surgery. The COVID-screening check-in wasn’t even open yet so I had to wait a couple of minutes just to get in. Everyone at that hour (5:30 am, for the record) seems to be going to surgical admitting. This process was pretty straightforward and pretty quick. A little bit of stand in this line and then sit here and then stand over there, but it was all pretty well organized and I was also one of the first to be taken back from admitting to the actual pre-op area. 

I should add that I was on my own at this point. I had gotten various different bits of info on whether I would be able to have someone with me for any of this process but the latest and seemingly most accurate was that my “support person” could come with me into admitting but not into pre-op.  This seemed nigh unto useless so I just had my husband drop me off. With visitors limited and an hour or so drive each way to the hospital (depending on traffic) I was on my own the entire time. He dropped me off at the door on a Tuesday and picked me up there again on a Friday. While I would have been fine with seeing my husband, all in all the lack of visitors did not bother me. If people had come I would have felt the need to chat with them and entertain them and I really didn’t feel like doing that for my whole time in the hospital. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Pre-op started out a little dull and I almost fell asleep but then people started coming in. First among them were two hospital chaplains, a tall, thin white woman and a shorter, rounder black man. I think they are probably not told what procedure the patients are in for. They asked me if I was nervous and told me it was normal to be and then asked me how I deal with things when I am nervous. I told them I pray. I think they were surprised. They apparently sized me up at this point and decided a Lord’s Prayer would be acceptable. 

More encouraging than the chaplains was a young anesthesiologist. I think he was the resident from that department. He told me his dad had received a non-directed kidney donation and that he would take good care of me. I believed him.  

From the surgery resident, I learned one very important piece of info — that my kidney would go in a box and fly commercial to its destination but that it would have a human escort. Actually he just said escort and I assumed human. But at this point it is probably better not to ask. 

I met the main surgeon whose name was on all my lab orders and who would be sticking his hand in my abdomen. I also saw the slightly more junior surgeon again and he assured me that he had gotten a “take picture” notification on his phone that morning and wondered what it was and then remembered my surgery. By the way, if you are interested in seeing my kidney, I am happy to share the pics. I may be biased but I think it is a very picturesque little kidney. 

The last thing I remember is that the anesthesiologist said that they were going to give me something in my IV to calm me down (not that I was riled up) and that it would feel like I had just had a couple of margaritas and then  I would be wheeled, awake but calm, into surgery. I don’t normally drink margaritas but they must knock me out because that is all I remember. I do have vague memories of being wheeled into a surgery suite but I think they must have been a dream because it was a lot more like M*A*S*H than like anything in the real world (I hope). 

Step 23: Surgery

Time involved: approximately 3 hours

I can’t tell you anything about this bit. I slept through it. This does seem like a good time to mention an interesting fact I realized shortly before my surgery. In 2020 autumn began at 9:30 am on Tuesday, September 22. This means that when I was put to sleep at approximately 7:30 am it was summer, but when I woke up some three hours later it was fall. Do you remember how I said that I had wanted to donate in summer? Well, I guess I did, just barely. But my recipient didn’t get the kidney till fall. 

Step 24: The hospital stay

Time Involved: 3 days

There is a lot during this period that it is probably better not to relive. Let’s just say the first 5 to 7 days was tough. If you are considering donating a kidney, you can contact me and ask for details. Otherwise, I don’t need to share every personal detail with everyone in my life. 

But let’s start with the good. I have nothing but good things to say about the staff at BWH. I don’t think I had one bad interaction the whole time and the nurses were wonderful. On one of my walks around the hallway loop I saw on a whiteboard that my nurse was only assigned to me and one other patient which even for a homeschooler is a pretty good class size. I am particularly grateful to the night nurse who that first night kind of took charge of me and said things like “people often sleep better with support here and here” and began shoving pillows around me to make a kind of nest. Between that and the meds, I actually did manage to get some sleep.

I know hospital food gets a bad rap but it turns out if you donate an organ you get to order off the double-secret, special menu. I was told that the head of that kitchen actually showed up and yelled at the nurses for not having told me and given me this special menu from the get-go. At that point I had only eaten jello (note: the lime is better than the lemon) so it was a moot point, but I do appreciate the sentiment. The food I had, once I got the menu, was all quite good. I only wish I could go back now that I am feeling better and can eat a little more to really do it justice. I think the only thing I finished in my time there was a strawberry frappe (that’s a fancy grownup word for milkshake; I ordered the chocolate one my last lunch there and I think I did a noble job of sucking half of it down very quickly but then, unfortunately, they discharged me). 

Now for the less fun stuff. My mother who has had at least a couple of abdominal surgeries told me the first two times I got out of bed would be tough and that I just had to get through them. She was correct. The first time I just sat on the edge of the bed (which probably doesn’t really count). The second time I made it a few steps and then the nurse said I had turned white so I didn’t go any further. But eventually things did get a little easier.

There is a lot of discussion on donor forums as to what one should bring to the hospital. I don’t think I went overboard in packing but the only thing I used was my phone with its extra long charging cord. Everything else literally stayed in its bag until the last morning. I wore home the same clothes I had come in (they had only been worn a few hours on the surgery day and hardly smelled at all). Loose fitting soft pants are a must. Not just for that day but for the next few weeks at least. (Since my surgery was near the end of September, my family took to calling the next 5 or 6 weeks of my life “soft pants October” which also somehow morphed into “sleepy pants October.”)

I didn’t really need a lot of entertainment in the hospital. My level of concentration was about enough to watch local news so that is what I did. If I were into other daytime TV, I suppose I could have handled that as well. Interesting COVID note, I found out there was an outbreak in the hospital from the news. I had to look at the white board in my room to see what floor I was on and if it was one of those mentioned. 

The only non-standard (though not unusual) problem I have had thus far was some shoulder pain. I say “some shoulder pain” but this was way worse than my abdominal pain ever was. It started as nerve pain in my right shoulder. I got the same pain, but much worse, in my left shoulder as well once I was home, at about day 4 post-op. By the “same pain” I mean nerve pain in the exact same spot but in my other shoulder. A throbbing, spasming nerve pain. I share this, not to get your pity (but you can pity me if you like) but just in case someone else out there has this particular symptom, because there is an explanation and there are things that helped.  

I got various explanations for my shoulder pain from the medical staff while I was in the hospital. Putting some things together and doing some googling when I was back home, I have decided that the pain was caused by some of the laparoscopic gas they fill you up with during surgery that was trapped under my diaphragm [18]. There is a nerve (the phrenic nerve) that goes right from the diaphragm to the “shoulder tips” which was right where my pain was. Tylenol did nothing for this pain and cold only helped very minimally. Oxycodone — which I decided I hate because it makes me woozyish — helps somewhat but even that doesn’t take it all away. Heat helps considerably. But the biggest and easiest thing that helped was just to be horizontal. There is some logic to this if the gas bubble on my diaphragm theory is correct — when I was vertical, the bubble would shift and/or press up more. It seems silly but it took me a while to discover this. I knew even in the hospital that it hurt more when I got up but since, not having working abdominal muscles I was using my arms to push myself up, I thought it was the pushing with my arms that was triggering the shoulder pain. It wasn’t. It was just the fact of being up.

Step 25: Recover at home

Time involved: 3 weeks and counting

Recovery is an ongoing process. After my shoulder pain disappeared, I was looking at just normal post-surgery stuff. My incisions never bothered me much but there is cutting that goes deeper than that. Most of what I have felt is more discomfort than pain, however, with a fair degree of swelling and stiffness. There is exhaustion as well. Some of course is normal after any surgery. There is also some fatigue that comes specifically from donating a kidney as your body struggles to compensate for what is missing and to make up the lost function. 

This is probably an appropriate time to say that, while I am very bad at getting thank you notes out, I am very grateful for the meals and help we got after surgery. It is pretty amazing that everyone at our church is a good cook but it seems to be true. At the three week post-op mark now, we are nearing the end of the meals that have been provided for us and I can see my teens circling me hungrily. One of them asked me the other day if people can live without gallbladders so I think they might be contemplating harvesting more of my organs for the sake of a free meal. 

A few things that helped at home (besides the meals) — for all of these you should ask your medical provider. After kidney donation, you need to avoid NSAIDs and should ask about any medicine or supplement. Again, this is not medical advice which I am not qualified to give. It is just a list of what helped me.

  • Melatonin — I couldn’t initially get to sleep at home. I would lay down at night and it felt like I had just simply forgotten how to fall asleep. This is an aftereffect of the general anesthesia. A few nights of melatonin solved that problem pretty quickly. Of course, getting comfortable was still an issue, especially when I had the shoulder pain as well. I spent most of my days in a recliner and some of the first nights too. 
  • Probiotics — Another thing they don’t tell you is that you are given antibiotics during surgery. I highly recommend asking about probiotics for when you get home to get your system back to where it should be. 
  • Iron — There is a certain amount of fatigue that comes from the surgery itself but there might also be fatigue you can avoid. I spend my life borderline anemic anyway (I think many females do) so I asked about taking iron after surgery. Though the tubes are small, you will likely have given a fair amount of blood in the weeks before surgery, and the PA I talked to admitted that you lose some blood with the kidney too. Add in that you will probably not be eating a lot right after surgery and there are a lot of good reasons to ask about a supplement.

On the non-medical end, having a selection of pillows, heating pads, and ice packs is a huge help. Since it had become autumn during my surgery, I found that I turned to the heating pad more than the ice, simply because I would have frozen in my own house otherwise. (There is some dispute in our house as to when the right time to turn the heat on is. In my weakened state, this is not a battle I am winning this year.) There is one downside to spending one’s days in a  pile of heating pads, blankets, and pillows– pretty soon you will find yourself in a pile of heating pads, blankets, pillows, and cats. I am pretty sure this will happen even if you don’t own cats. Personally I went into this whole thing reasonably confident that I only owned two cats but every time I look there seem to be cats everywhere. [19]

Wrapping this whole thing up . . .

After 25 steps and about as many pages, you are probably ready for this thing to wind down. (I feel like anyone who has made it this far should get some sort of prize; I’d give you a kidney but I no longer have any to spare.) As I write this I am about three weeks out from surgery so obviously there is still a lot of healing to go. On the other hand, barring unforeseen consequences, the worst is over and certainly the most exciting part is. In closing, I want to remind you of what I said in the beginning which is what the proper response to this mini-book is. It is not: “Oh, wow, she did something so impressive and special.”  It is: “Huh. Maybe this kidney donation thing is doable.” Which is not to say that everyone should donate a kidney. A fair chunk of people will be excluded medically. And even of those who could donate, not everyone will be called to it. God has different things for each of us to do. But if after reading all this, a few more people consider donation, or just tuck it away in the back of their minds for future consideration, then my time here has been well spent. 



[1] Kidneys are particularly needed for those with blood type O because Os can donate to anyone but can only accept kidneys from other Os. The +s and -s don’t matter for kidney donation. 

[2] Since you asked, a megalodon is a giant, prehistoric shark more fierce than a T-Rex. 

[3] I am not really sure if I like this use of the word “organically.” Though my daughter and I are both carbon-based life-forms, I am not sure if there was much else organic about our conversation. In this context, it seems to just mean “naturally, without premeditation on the part of either party.” When you are sitting in the hot sun trying to sell tie-dyes, you feel pretty crunchy though. 

[4] When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD, tells the history of transplant surgeries. It is a fascinating, well-written book but probably not for the faint-of-heart. 

[5] If you have ever been pregnant, you have probably done a glucose tolerance test and gotten to enjoy the world’s worst orange soda. Not all candidates for donation get to enjoy this milestone but I have two relatives with diabetes (one type 1 and one type 2) so I got the pleasure. Oddly, when I called the lab to schedule an appointment, I was told that no appointment was needed for the two-hour glucose test but that if they had ordered the three-hour version I would have needed an appointment. 

[6] For a book about hospitals being mazes of death, I highly recommend Connie Willis’ Passage

[7] I use “fellow” here to mean “guy, dude, person of the male persuasion.” To the best of my knowledge he is a full-fledged doctor, not a medical fellow.  

[8] As with this whole essay, this is not medical advice. I can’t give you medical advice. I am just reporting what I understood from the conversation. 

[9] That’s a joke.

[10] For the record, there is a reason they do all this screening and care about things like your blood pressure so I don’t recommend trying to get around the system but I do have every reason to think my blood pressure is normal most of the time (always is when I test it at home) and that I would have been dehydrated and stressed out that one day. 

[11] The Samaritans were a weird little quasi-Jewish sect that practiced an amalgamation of the Israelite religion and local pagan ones. They arose when strangers were settled in the region that had been the northern kingdom of Israel and wanted to worship the local gods just to be safe. It is perhaps an everlasting testament to the fictional character of the good Samaritan (he only existed in a parable, which is a made-up story used to teach a lesson, that this appellation has come to mean anyone who does a good work. It is also one of my pet peeves. A Samaritan is an adherent of a weird little historical religion from an obscure corner of the Middle East. It is not someone who does a good deed. 

[12] In case you are wondering, I don’t have syphilis. 

[13] I realize that makes no sense but I was struck by the change between “good” and “very good.” If you don’t understand the reference, you really need to go back and read Genesis 1 more closely. 

[14] The evidence is that non-directed donors have a greater capacity for empathizing with others, including people they don’t know. This is largely the point of Abigail Marsh’s book The Fear Factor (Basic Books, 2017) which discusses the range from psychopaths, who cannot connect with others, to non-directed donors. I have a lot of thoughts on this book but this is probably not the time or place for them. 

[15] Sadly, one common complaint online from donors is: “They took my kidney and had no further interest in me or my long-term health.”

[16] The Scriptures tell us that God foreknew His people; even before the world was created they were real to Him and He had decided to die on their behalf. Ephesians 1:4-5 reads: “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . . “ (ESV).

[17] Words in the Bible are very powerful things. It is through words, not images, that God has chosen to reveal Himself to His people. Jesus Christ is called the Word of God. And it is through His written Word, the Scriptures, that God continues to speak to us. God’s Word is transformative (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Human words, of course, will not have the same power, but as a people we are made to respond to words and stories. They have the power to hurt but also the power to transform. 

[18] This pain can happen with any laparoscopic surgery. There seems to be some debate still as to why the pain happens — whether the gas they pump into you forms an acid, whether it is too drying, or some other explanation — but the mechanism isn’t so important when you have it.  There are a number of articles which refer to this kind of pain (which makes one wonder why I didn’t get one simple explanation from the medical staff in the hospital). Here are a couple: “Shoulder Pain after Laparoscopic Surgery” and “Post-Surgical Shoulder Pain.”

[19] I feel like I should add at this point that after any surgery, walking is an important part of the recovery process and I did do my requisite amount of walking. I don’t want you to think I became a complete recliner-bound blob. 

Interpreting the Massachusetts Homeschooling Laws

This is very specific but if you are in Massachusetts, I recently took the time to re-read through the cases that constitute our homeschooling laws. With so many new homeschoolers this year I find there is a lot of information and misinformation circulating. I encourage you to read the cases for yourself. But barring that, you can find my summary here:

Books Read: June 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine continues (to some extent) though I don’t think I’ve been as productive on the reading lately.  Here is what I finished in June:

Books Read June 2020

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper — After having finally finished Middlemarch (see “Books Read May 2020”), I wanted a short audiobook. My daughter recommended this one and it was a pure joy. Set in a future time when humans are colonizing other planets, a new species is discovered (the fuzzies) and problems and debates ensue. There is a lot about what makes a species sentient. If I thought more about it, this is probably a pretty deep book. But it is also fun and charming.  It would be a good read-aloud for kids from maybe mid-elementary level and up. There are sequels as well. 

Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd — A controversial book on gender roles in the church. Byrd has some good points and overall I agree with her position but they get lost in this book. I was particularly disturbed by her use of biblical texts. Read my full review here

Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers — This is an older adventure story. I picked it up at a yard sale and it was a lovely edition and the series title was something like “world’s best mysteries” so I thought, “I should read this.” It wasn’t an awful book but I found the mystery a little flat and there was so much — I mean really so much — that was about sailing and the German coastline. Honestly, if you love boating read this book; if not, skip it. 

How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison — I picked up this book (via Kindle) because someone had mentioned the author and I had never heard of him. Of his various titles this seemed like the most interesting to me. It is a short book for the layperson (though good for clergy too) on, as its title says, how sanctification works. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the theology is relatively solid and there are indications the author is reformed. Powlison has a very balanced view of the things that come into our lives to change us for the better, always placing the work of God at the foundation. Some of his points were well-taken. I think I needed to hear that people don’t all need the same thing and that you can’t overwhelm them with everything at once (I tend to overwhelm people).  I liked as well when he talked about the balance of good theology with reaching out to the emotions (I’m not saying that as well as he did but, hey, you should read the book yourself anyway). In the end, I had some disappointment. I have a few people in my life that really need change and that I feel like I keep saying the same things to and beating my head against  rock with and I guess part of me hoped that there would be more to tell me just what it is that finally makes people change their lives. But that may be unfair as a criticism of Powlison because, sadly, it may just not be that simple.

The Hurried Child by David Elkind — An older book on child development and how we in the modern world are messing our kids up. Though my copy was the third edition (I think) it was still a bit dated. A lot of the points are good though. I was particularly intrigued by Elkind’s theory of how socialization happens. Read my full review here. I have also picked up some of his other books.

What have you been reading?


Books Read: May 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in May:

Books Read May 2020

Main Travelled-Roads by Hamlin Garland — Another of the books I’ve been reading that could be called American provincialism, i.e. they give a picture of life in the US in one particular region and time. This one is a collection of shorter stories, almost all set in Wisconsin and the midwest in pioneer times (one story is clearly Civil War era; the others are more vague on decade). Settlers of Scandinavian descent are frequent characters. I almost dropped the book after the first two, they were so depressing. But others are more cheerful. Overall I would say it was an okay book but as with the others of this genre I have read there is a lot of “American values are to be nice and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and not a lot of real character presented.

Johann Sturm on Education (ed. Spitz and Tinsley) — Part of my continuing series on reformed Christian education. Sturm is an older writer, like contemporary of Luther and Calvin old. His approach to education is classical. In all honesty I did not read the whole book but it is a collection of letters and the like and a few key ones serve to give a pretty good overview of his approach. He was quite influential, on both Portestant and Catholic education, though I found a lot of what he had to say dated. Read my full review here

Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education — I had seen Whitehead quoted by a number of classical educators and decided if he was so influential I needed to read him. His book gave me a lot to ponder but in truth he is not Christian not classical and his philosophy is very modern and a little weird. I am not really sure why he gets quoted so often (it is just one line that they particularly like). Read all my thoughts on Whitehead here. An interesting read but not essential.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” — I heard someone on a podcast say that Christians don’t have horror, that it doesn’t work in a Christian worldview in which God is in charge. I am not sure that is true but it inspired me to read a little more Lovecraft. These are two of his longer (though still fairly short) and more famous stories. There are distinct similarities between them. The worlds and beings Lovecraft created inspired a kind of religion but as I read them (and from what I read about him) Lovecraft himself has being facetious and critical of those who look for deep meaning in old tales and mythical creatures. They are interesting stories though. Maybe not action packed enough for kids but I enjoyed them.  And if you have thoughts on Christian horror I’d love to hear them. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot — I listened to this one as an audio book and it took months. Not a bad story, a little slow at points. It turns out to be quite a bit about marriage which I didn’t get till the end. I am not sure I could have made it through in book form but I make myself a bit of a captive audience with the audio books. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan — True confessions time. I had never read this all the way through. So I force myself too (well, part 1 at least which is about Christian). I had never made it through because I could never quite get into it. And (sit down for this one) I am still not a huge fan. I think it is the allegory that just doesn’t appeal to me. I find something like Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina just has a lot more moral complexity. I find Pilgrim’s Progress a bit like one long sermon example. Sermon examples have their place but they don’t make good books.

What have you been reading?


Books Read: April 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in April:

Books Read April 2020

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth by Frank Gaebelein, edited by D. Bruce Lockerbie — I have appreciated Gaebelien’s thoughts on education and so was eager to read this book on the arts. Again, he has great ideas and while I don’t agree with everything he says, this book is well worth reading. It is a series of essays and the topics are somewhat varied. Beyond the arts, he also discusses education and Christian involvement in social justice issues. See my full review here

The Virginian by Owen Wister — I seem to have gotten into reading books about particular areas of the US recently (last month was Indiana). The Virginian is another regional novel. I believe it was Montana (definitely some then barely settled western state) in the late 1800s. This was an okay book, not great. Parts were exciting, some parts dragged. Characters’ dialogue was written with their accents and I found some of it hard to understand though I didn’t mind that too much. There is definitely a message the author is trying to get across about easter versus western values. I thought it fell a little flat at the end, And the whole thing is fairly anti-religion. One minister’s character is very badly portrayed. Another more minor one is not poorly portrayed but his thoughts are still deemed irrelevant. It is more about man and his ability. Not an awful book but I wasn’t crazy about it.   

The Liturgy of Creation by Michael LeFebvre — This is a book by a man from my denomination who is a biblical scholar. His thesis is that Genesis 1 is written as a calendar narrative and that its time table and other details should not be taken literally or scientifically. It was definitely an interesting read. I did not find it hard but my educational background is in biblical Hebrew. It is meant to be accessible to the lay reader but might be a bit of a tougher read. I am still processing what I think of his arguments and will do a longer post on the book so check back soon.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by Daniel Treier — This book is not meant to be read cover-to-cover but I did so. It is an introductory guide to evangelical theology and as such is very good and useful. I plan to have my high schoolers read selections in homeschool next year. Some subjects or viewpoints are covered fairly briefly but if you are looking to get just a fly-over of the views on a particular topic and the major controversies, this is a good resource.  Treier does often give his own opinions; I did not think the book was without a slant, but it is a resource I am glad to now have at my disposal. 

What have you been reading?


Book Review: The Christian, The Arts and Truth

Dear Reader,

Frank Gaebelein is one of my favorite writers on Christian education (see previous reviews of his work here and here) so I was eager to read this volume on the arts. The Christian, The Arts, and Truth [ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985)] is a collection of essays which fit together fairly well. Gaebelein argues for a Christian understanding of and approach to the arts and the humanities in general.

A common theme of the book is that genius, including artistic genius, is a gift of God, falling under the heading of common grace, and that when we despise the work of non-Christians we reject what God has given (pp. 54, 64, 66, 76, 252). He urges us to judge art based on its quality and the truth it conveys, not based on the character of the artist (p. 67).

Christians should not abandon the field of art to secular society. They must engage in the arts (p. 71) and they must do so with discrimination. Gaebelein is quite critical of Christian art which finds its only justification in being Christian and ignores standards of beauty and taste. “[I]inferior art,” he tells us, “doesn’t become true and good art because it is baptized by religious usage” (p. 65).

What then are the standards by which art –both Christian and non-Christian — should be judged? Gaebelein holds up the Scriptures, themselves a piece of art, as the standard of excellence (p. 70) and looks to them for answers. It is important to note, however, that while truth is always truth, beauty is not inherently true but can be used to communicate lies (p. 47). Those fields which are most subjective, including the arts, are most prone to corruption (pp. 74-5, 127). What Gaebeleien most looks for in art, then, is truth. He goes on to delineate four marks of truth in art: durability (ability to speak to other eras), unity (of form and structure with meaning), integrity, and inevitability (pp. 86-93). Integrity demands that each part of the work contribute to the whole and inevitability is that quality that makes you hear or see a new piece of art and say, “ah, this is how it should be.”

Gaebelein goes on to discuss various specific topics related to his overall theme: education, music (with a chapter in Beethoven particularly), literature (with a chapter on Pilgrim’s Progress), and social justice. I cannot relate all of this (and you should read the book yourself), but here are some of the points which most struck me:

In the context of his discussion of the arts and education, Gaebelein makes a plea for high standards, the highest standards in fact. His call is for excellence, a standard which cannot be measured by human means:

“There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” (p. 143)

Though Gaebelein here does not explicitly argue against classical models of education, he does point us again and again to God and His Word as the proper models of excellence. It is these he identifies with the “vision of greatness” which Alfred North Whitehead called for in his oft-repeated: “‘Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness'” (p. 189).

I have argued for a fairly non-standardized form of education and I was happy to see theological arguments for this. In addition to arguing for high standards by which to measure knowledge, Gaebelien, following Pascal, also argues that we must allow independent, unique thought:

“In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” (p. 152)

In his section on literature, Gaebelein shows how even non-believing authors used to be quite immersed in biblical language which infiltrated their writing, both through direct references and in terms of style. This is actually quite a convicting section. Most of us today, I fear, just don’t have this deep familiarity with the Scriptures.

Of course, Christian writers (hopefully) have something more as well. Gaebelien uses a German word Weltanschauung which roughly translates to “worldview” to describe it.  It is “a God-centered view of life and the world” which “will color all of his work and all of his thinking”  (p. 186). Such a pervasive perspective is not limited to writers but should be held by all Christians no matter their field. This is an idea we have seen in a number of writers (and I have argued for something similar in education). Gaebelein here sums it up well. I have struggled to find just the right word to encapsulate the idea and I like the appeal to a German term as it takes it beyond our usual vocabulary (“worldview” etc.) which has a tendency to get quite trite and overused.

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth has a lot to recommend it. Gaebelein presents a vision that is quite compelling. It is hard not to be inspired and humbled by his devotion to the Word of God. The book itself comes in manageable chunks and is easy to read. Overall, this is a book well worth one’s time.







Worship and Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I am going to do a longer post (or two) on Poetic Knowledge by James S. Taylor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), but I wanted to take a minute to touch on one issue he raises: how our worship reflects our epistemology.

Epistemology is a fancy word for the theory of knowing and asks questions like: What is knowledge? and How do we know? The overall thesis of Taylor’s book is that there is a way of knowing, which he calls poetic knowledge, which we have lost. I will do a longer post to explain it more fully, but, briefly put, poetic knowledge is intuitive knowledge that is obtained through one’s senses and emotions. It is distinct from scientific knowledge, the hallmark of our age, which uses experimentation and tends toward  deconstruction (breaking things down into their parts). Poetic knowledge is neither rational nor intellectual. It is pre-rational (p. 26), sensory-emotional (p. 5), passive (p. 10), and non-analytical (p. 5).  

Keeping this in the back of your mind, consider with me two worship experiences. In the first, you begin by entering a dimly lit sanctuary. The carpet is a deep red, the pews are dark brown. Up front is an altar above which hangs an ever-burning candle encased in gold. The lighting comes almost entirely from candles and the sunlight which filters through stained glass windows, casting weird colored bands on that red rug. The worship service involves all one’s senses. There is incense which both perfumes the air and creates some smoke in the sanctuary, giving it even more of an other-worldly feel. The Lord’s Supper is always celebrated. While the sanctuary is quiet when you first enter, the service itself has lots of sounds — people read or recite in unison; there are different kinds of music, some sung by a choir, some chanting; and there are even parts of the service in another language wich you don’t understand. Throughout the service, you do what those around you do — you recite in unison, you sing together, you stand and sit and kneel. Perhaps you even have some beads on a chain which you manipulate as you go through a series of pre-set prayers. The service takes about an hour and a half of which fifteen minutes are devoted to the sermon.

Now come with me to the second kind of service. This one takes place not in a sanctuary as such but in a hall which also serves other purposes (in fact you were there Wednesday night for a town meeting). There is no carpet here and no stained glass. The seating is not too comforatble — hard but serviceable wooden benches. Nothing is gold, there are no pictures on the walls, almost no decoration of any kind.  The service is in many ways less paticipatory. You sit and stand and sing with the congregation, but you do not kneel or recite. There is no choir and no incense. Everything is done in your native language. There might be some big words used but in theory at least you could understand it all. Here too the service is 1.5 hours but the sermon takes 45 to 60 minutes of that time. Unlike in the other service which began with a procession and has readers in one location and the choir in another, you notice that you don’t turn your head much during this service (except to bow it in prayer). Everything that happens happens up front at or near the pulpit.

These are extreme examples. I can tell you that I grew up in a Roman Catholic Church and now attend a Reformed Presbyterian one and neither exactly fits these descriptions.  Like caricatures I have drawn these pictures to highlight their features. The first service appeals to all one’s senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Even one’s vestibular sense is involved when one sits and stands and kneels. But this experience is not just ssnsory; it is also emotional. The combination of stimuli — the lighting, the smell and smoke of the incense, etc. — give it all an other-worldly aura. You are meant to feel that you have been temporarily transported to another kind of world. Like Isaiah before the throne of God (Isa. 6:1-7), you are meant to have a sense of the divine and holy.

In the second service, one’s senses do not come into play. In fact, it almost seems there is a deliberate effort to minimize sensory stimulation. The exception is hearing. The communication that happens here comes through prayer, singing, and especially the sermon.  Not only is only auditory; it happens through words. There were words in the first service but there were also other sounds as well including music without words, different kinds of singing, and languages you didn’t understand. The appeal in this service is to the intellect, not the emotions. You come out of the service being able to complete the sentence: “Today I learned that . . . ”

I hope you can see that there are different kinds of knowing at work here. The first service gives one a sensory-emotional experience. The second is rational and intellectual. In both there is a kind of knowing that happens. In the second you are able to put what you have learned into words more easily but there is still a kind of knowledge that is conveyed through the first. It aims to give an experience of the divine and you are meant to walk away feeling that you have experienced something beyond this physical world.

If you are like me, there is probably one of these services that appeals to you more than the other. As reformed people, we tend to like to live on the level of the rational. It may be easy for us to criticize the sensory-emotional service as being content-less and even manipulative in how it plays upon one’s emotions. It gives a sense of the divine, but is it a true sense?  We are made to feel something, but have we actually experienced something true? Because what one feels can’t easily be put into words, it is very hard to evaluate for truth-value.

On the other hand, if we prefer the very word-driven appeal to the intellect, we need to be careful that we are not exalting the intellect above the other parts of our nature. We remember that our emotions are fallen and easily manipulated, but do we think that our rational nature is also affected by the Fall? When we walk out of the second service, we have been given something to think about but we may not feel or do anything different. Much error has come into the church through the separating of our physical aspect from our rational or spiritual side. There is a principle behind the sensory-emotional approach which we may have forgotten: that beauty is akin to truth and that beautiful things can teach us (cf. Phil. 4:8). There is no doubt that Old Testament worship was much more like the first service than the second. Today we sing about beauty (Ps. 45) but we do not often incorporate it.

My goal today us not to argue for a particular approach to worship but to show how what we believe about knowledge — how our epistemology — has practical implications for the things we do. When the subject is worship, it is perhaps more natural to say that we need to return to the Scriptures to find principles which will guide what we do. I hope in the coming weeks to make a similar argument with regard to education. Our philosophy of education is also quite dependent on our epistemology so one of the building blocks of such a philosophy is going to be a solid, biblical theory of knowing.

I will leave you with a phrase from Taylor’s book which highlights the balance that is perhaps needed; he speaks of:

“the ability of beautiful things to ‘teach’ the observer religious truths through the sensory powers illuminated by the intellect” (p. 106).



Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

It was pointed out to me that I made a pretty grievous error in the earlier version of this post (got the author’s name wrong — whoops!). Fpr some reason wordpress won’t let me edit that particular post, so here it is revised. The original post is from 2014. 

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.



High School Biology Labs

Dear Reader,

Our modus operandi for high school science is to continue with living books but to add in labs (see my booklist for biology here and all my lists of living books here). With my oldest two, I had use a certain company which did all the labs for biology or chemistry in a two-day “lab intensive.” This company has since gone out of business and though the owner is offering labs again, none are near me (I know some of his teachers, who were wonderful, had gone out on their own as well, but if they are in business today I can’t find information on them). Lacking someone to do the work for me, I got a few local families together and we did labs on our own.

The idea behind these is that the child does not have to have done biology get to do them. My 9th grader did them at the end of his year of biology but my 8th grader will be doing biology next year. The other kids in our group were also in the 13-15 year old range and most have not had biology yet.

There are some notes in the document on what we did and how it worked, including links to supplies and instructions when I got them from other sources. We did one 3 hour session and then one 5 hour session the next week. This was due to particular time constraints and was not ideal. The osmosis and bacteria labs do need to be started the first day so they can react for a few days to a week. The blood sugar lab needs to be done on an empty stomach so is best done first thing in the morning. The fetal pig was a bit of a disaapointment to me. I know my son dissected a cat when he did labs with that company I alluded to. I did not have access to cats (at least not ones intended for dissection), but it might be worth substituting something else if you can find another animal.

Last note: we did these labs for $75 per student with one dissection animal for every 2-3 kids (we had an odd number so one group was of 3).

Here then is the lab packet we used (opens a google doc):

Happy dissecting!


April Reading

Dear Reader,

Here once again are the books I finished last month:

Miss MacKenzie by Anthony Trollope — I liked last month’s Trollope so much I reda another one right away. This one is less humorous but also less predictable so overall I think it is the better book. These would be great for Jane Austen fans.

Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) by Donald Oppewal — This book is a collection of essays by various reformed thinkers on education. I have posted about 99% of it in my current series so I will not recap it all here.

Green Tea by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu — I have actually been reading a lot of short stories this school year becase my dughter is doing them for her literature class. Most I have not bothered to list because they are short. This one approaches book length at about 50 pages. It was an interesting little story and easy to read (unlike another Le Fanu book I started but didn’t get far with). It doesn’t really provide answers but it makes you think about the relationship between physical illness and spiritual oppression.

Clara Hopgood by Mark Rutherford — Rutherford was mentioned favorably by another author I like so I tried both this book of his and his autobiography. It turns out he was basically a godless humanist, having started out studying for the ministry. The best I can say for this book is that it was short and I didn’t see the ending coming. On the other hand, neither was the ending that plausible and it espoused values I don’t agree with. There’s not a lot to redeem this one or make it worthwhile.

Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, edited by Reuben Shapcott — See above; Rutherford’s story is more sad than inspiring and because if the materials available to the author, edns rather abruptly and unsatisfyingly. I cannot say he lost his faith as it seems clear he never had it and only saw glimpses of it in others that he did not truly understand. The saddest part is that the church seems to have failed completely to communicate to him what true faith means.

What are you reading?


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