Stranded on the Islets of Langerhans

islets-of-langerhansNationwide Insurance’s ad slogan is “Life comes at you fast.” In one of their spots, Kevin Federline, the rapping former husband of Britney Spears, is performing in a music video draped in finery and surrounded by beautiful women. In the blink of an eye it all goes away and he’s cooking fries in a fast-food restaurant.

Life comes at you fast.

Two weeks ago my son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He’s an athletic and healthy young man in his mid-twenties, bright, earning a good living as a computer programmer, living well, walking with God, in that time of life when there are limitless possibilities stretched out before you and life seems good.

He suddenly started losing weight, lost his taste for food, began urinating almost constantly and felt exhausted. A trip to the doctor confirmed that his blood sugar had gone through the roof. Diabetes. Now he has a whole new set of routines: insulin injections, glucose testing, adding up carbs and sugars at every meal. People with type 1 diabetes walk a tightrope between hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Frankly, it’s remarkable that our bodies so effortlessly balance those two extremes when it’s so challenging for a diabetic to do so mechanically.

Love your pancreas. That unheralded little organ keeps your blood sugar in the normal range by commanding cells to store sugar when you have plenty and burn it when your muscles and cells need energy. It’s another remarkable example of how wonderfully God has created us.

My wife, my son and I have been reading everything we can on type 1 diabetes. It’s a remarkable illness, really, and has only been well-understood since the 1920’s when it was discovered that diabetics could be treated by injecting insulin. Eli Lilly, a big bad pharmaceutical company, figured out how to purify and and mass produce insulin from cows, saving the lives of millions. In less than 90 years, diabetes changed from untreatable and fatal to manageable.

Type 1 diabetes begins when the body suddenly attacks itself — it’s an auto-immune disorder. The auto-immune response destroys the beta-cells in the pancreas, found in the Islets of Langerhans, named for Paul Langerhans who discovered this specialized tissue in 1869. This is where the body makes insulin. Without insulin, we cannot metabolize sugars and carbohydrates. And sugar is the basic fuel of every cell — you can’t live without it.

A lot is known, but much is still shrouded in mystery. Why does the body turn on itself? Why is the incidence of diabetes highest in Scandinavian countries, but also very high in places like Kuwait, Puerto Rico and Greece, where people have no Nordic/Caucasian genetic background?

Plenty of theories, lots of data, no smoking gun.

It’s been unsettling to watch my son go through this. I have a very strong sense of entitlement about certain things, and my children’s health and good fortune are among them.

I should know better. The Scriptures are perfectly clear that even those whom God loves can expect to experience hardships in life. A week after he was celebrated as a hero, Jesus was bleeding on a Roman cross. Life comes at you fast.

In some parts of the world where I travel, people don’t share my western belief that I am entitled to good health, peace, prosperity and safety. They see the world fatalistically, as a long, unbroken chain of one bad thing after another, and they know — know! — that sooner or later they’ll be hit by a fast-moving bus.

I think my faith in science and technology lures me into a false positivism. My American can-do confidence tempts me to think that if I just take my multi-vitamins, exercise, eat sensibly and send a few bucks to Jerry Lewis every year, nothing bad will ever touch me. Or my children.

But I know darn well that’s just whistling-in-the-dark thinking. Dan Knudsen did a casual back flip one day and now he’s paralyzed from the neck down. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak walked into a Virginia Tech classroom to teach French and was shot to death.

In one of the oldest books of the Bible, Job wrestles with these same dilemmas about the nature of God, bad things happening to good people, and our very human wounded sense of entitlement when life turns sour. Job’s revelation seems to be that God is good, just, and gracious to us, period, no matter what the material circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s within our power to trust in God’s goodness and justice, even when we’re tempted to turn away in anger.

If we place God where he belongs, at the focal-point of our being, and keep our gaze (and heart-faith) steady even while the storm is howling around us, we will know his peace, that same peace which Christ left his disciples:

I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid. — John 14:27, CEV

There is a kind of peace that only Christ can give. It isn’t the peace that comes from knowing that there are very bright people working on new drugs and treatments. It isn’t the peace that comes from diabetes support groups and clinical trials. It isn’t even the peace that comes from this very good news of a successful experiment using adult stem cells.

Christ’s peace is that peace that comes from knowing that God will not take his gaze off of us, even when the waves get awfully high.

My son doesn’t seem to share my sense of outraged entitlement about his health. He shrugs and says it’s just a challenge he will have to meet. I think he’s already experiencing that peace. I hope to learn a thing or two from his example.

Photo credit: David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Chemistry, University of Cincinnati Clermont College

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  1. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital.

    I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process].

    I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.”

    I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities.

    John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You

    Micky

  2. Charlie:

    I think that I would feel like you. But your son’s reaction is remarkable…and faithful. That no doubt reflects a deep faith in Christ, the Savior to Whom he was introduced by his mother and father.

    You all are in my prayers, especially your son.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Mark