Rumination XXXVII – An Eighteen-Year-Old Sermon

While searching for something else, I stumbled upon a sermon I was privileged to share with my church family 18 years ago this month. I share it here because I still believe everything I said back then. God is good! The Rambling Texan

A Perfect Boy
A Sermon Delivered to the Pleasant Valley Church on June 13, 1999

On January 15, 1999, God blessed our family with our 3rd child, a baby boy, Robert Riley McClanahan. He came into this world at 8:02 AM that Friday, weighing 9 pounds. Riley was perfect in every way. He was absolutely beautiful. He wiggled and squirmed and cried like newborn babies are supposed to do.

For the next two weeks, Riley continued in his perfection. He was a settled baby, seldom crying except when he needed something. We set up a nursery and dug out all of the baby toys that we had stashed away in the attic. It had been two years since we had had an infant in the house, but we were getting used to it again.

On January 29th, Michelle and I planned an evening out and left Kylie and Kathleen with a sitter. Riley went with us so that Michelle could feed him when he got hungry. After we finished our meal, we took Riley to the van and as I placed his infant carrier in the vehicle, he began to scream. He screamed so much that I took him out of the carrier and gave him to his Mother. She changed his diaper and got him settled again.

We drove to St. Vincent Doctors Hospital to visit Eddie and Paula Shields who had just had their son Carter. Michelle went up first, while I sat in the van with Riley. While she was gone, Riley threw up and started to choke. I got up from the driver’s seat and took Riley from his carrier. Thinking that he was choking, I turned him on his belly over my knee and patted his back to make sure that anything in his airway would come out. He settled down on my knee and seemed OK.

When Michelle returned to the van, I told her that Riley had really scared me and that I thought he had been choking. She took him off my knee and when she did, he arched as far back as he could and his eyes rolled back in his head. She called out to him, but he was quite unresponsive. Being a nurse and a Mother, she knew something wasn’t right and told me to drive to Children’s Hospital.

The five-minute drive to ACH seemed like an eternity, but Riley settled down again on his Mother’s knee. We got to the emergency room entrance at Children’s and I stopped to let Michelle out with Riley. She took a good long look at him and asked me if we were trying to make a problem out of what had happened. We were unsure so she told me to drive on, park the van and then we would decide what to do.

We parked behind the hospital and got out a flashlight so that Michelle could see him better. After opening his pajamas and seeing his color, she immediately left the van and headed for the ER. I followed her there and while she saw the nurse, I took care of the administrative paperwork. By the time that I got back to the nurse’s cubicle, they had decided that Riley needed to go on into the ER.

In the ER, things were very slow and the doctor was able to see Riley immediately. They began to run through possible causes for Riley’s actions and while they did, a social worker took us back to a family room. Once we sat down, our heads began to spin. What happened? Did we do something to cause this? Should we have noticed the problem sooner?

In what seemed like split second, our lives had been changed. Our perfect baby was in trouble. We made a couple of phone calls – to my sister and to Tamara Bellcock – both of whom came immediately. By the time that we got back to the ER, the doctors had ruled out a number of possibilities, but had found blood in Riley’s spinal fluid. They were making plans for a CT scan to see if something had happened to his brain.

The CT scan showed massive amounts of blood in the ventricles in Riley’s brain. The blood itself and the pressure that it caused within his head were causing him to have seizures. His situation was now extremely serious.

The next thing we knew, we were talking to a neurosurgery resident who told us that Riley would die if they did not perform a procedure to install an extra-ventricular drain or EVD. The purpose of the EVD was to allow the pressure within his head to escape and the blood to drain out. We now had to decide whether or not to allow the surgeon to puncture a hole in the top of Riley’s head and work a tube down into his brain.

In three hours time, we went from having a perfect baby to having one that would die shortly if this procedure were not done. Our quiet evening out had turned into a parent’s worst nightmare. We were beginning to understand that our lives were going to be different forever.

The last time that I saw Riley before the procedure, they were moving him up to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) on a gurney. He looked very disturbed and was bicycling – moving his arms and legs in a circular fashion reminiscent of the movement one makes while bicycling. They moved him into the unit and Michelle and I were escorted to the PICU nurse’s lounge to wait.

We sat down again and the questions came back. Will he live? Will he die? Will he ever be the same again? Why did this happen? Why can’t they just fix it? There were tears and there was nervous laughter. The soul searching had begun.

What we did not know was that God was already prompting His family to action. He had already moved those who knew what was going on to make some phone calls. Those phone calls resulted in other phone calls. Within a very short time, a large part of our church family became aware of the Riley’s situation. Prayers were already being offered on Riley’s behalf.

The procedure to install the EVD was a success, but the neurosurgeon cautioned us that Riley’s condition was still extremely serious and that he might not make it through the night. Through her connections, Tamara Bellcock – soon to become known as Sergeant Bellcock because of her exquisite logistical skills – had arranged for the surgery waiting room to be opened to make room for our family and friends. No sooner had we settled into the waiting room than members of our church family started coming out of the woodwork – literally. Every time that I looked up, someone else was coming to be with us. No one knew what to say, but everyone knew what to do – hug our necks, cry with us, tell jokes to make us laugh and pray with us.

By the time that things settled down, there were 30 or so people who gave up a night’s rest at home with their families to come to the hospital to be with us. These folks came for the sole purpose of sharing our trouble with us and they would have stayed the entire night had we not sent them home. Never in my lifetime had I experienced anything so terrible and so frightening as what was happening to Riley. Yet never in my life had I experienced anything so wonderful as the outpouring of love from God’s family.

By God’s grace, Riley made it through that first night. We woke up the next day hoping against all odds that the entire ordeal had been a dream. But when the mists of sleep had worn off, the facts remained – our son was in PICU at Children’s dealing with the effects of a massive hemorrhage in his brain. We knew little about his current condition and absolutely nothing about what the future would bring.

But an amazing thing had happened. Michelle and I, though stressed out beyond what words can express, had an inexplicable calmness within us. I took us longer than it should have to remember what the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We were experiencing the results of one of God’s promises. It was comforting to know that whatever happened, whether Riley came through this episode with no lasting effects or if God called Riley home to be with Him, everything would be OK.

Yet, one of the questions that kept coming back to our minds was “Why? Why did this have to happen?” I doubt that I will ever know the reason that God allowed this to happen to my son, but God blessed me by allowing me to see a portion of His purpose from the outset. God has used what happened to Riley to bring about revival – revival in my heart, revival in my family and revival in His church.

The most powerful effect of this whole event on me personally came as an answer to a prayer from my own heart. On the Friday that Riley went into the ER at Children’s, I had had lunch with Mike Ireland. During our time together, I told Mike that I was tired of church. Not tired of Christianity or tired of being a disciple of Jesus, but tired of church. I was tired of church politics and all of the silly things that we find to argue about. I was tired of going through the motions. There had to be something more to following Jesus than “church”.

When I saw Mike at the hospital later that night, I realized that God had provided an answer to my prayers and frustrations. He allowed a life-shattering event such as this to take place and used it to show me what His church is all about – showing His love to the world. They say that you should always be careful about what you pray for, because you just might get it. God answered my prayer, but in a way that I could never imagine and would never have chosen. But the blessings began there and continue today.

I could tell story after story, from my own experiences or shared with me by friends and family, about how God has used Riley’s situation to touch people. But time will not permit me to go on. So perhaps I’ll write a book, where I can devote as much time as needed to address them all.

For now, let me leave you with two more lessons that we learned.

In Matthew 6, Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” We quickly discovered that we had absolutely no control over anything that was going on. As a result, we had no choice but to turn everything over to God – He alone was in control. At first that was a scary thought – not being in control. Yet when we fell off the tightrope, we never hit the ground, because God was there to catch us in His hands. And it is there that He has kept us since that day.

Another lesson came from the many prayers that were offered. James 5 says: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Many righteous people offered thousands of prayers on Riley’s behalf and we began immediately to see the effects. Again and again we prayed for Riley and again and again God answered. Some answers came immediately, some took days or weeks and some answers were “Wait a while”. But God answered prayers again and again.

I’ll never forget the indentations that our knees made in the carpet in the chapel at Children’s hospital. It was there that our prayer warriors met time and again to go before the Father. And we felt His presence and His power when we prayed. I pray that none of us will forget those experiences.

In closing, I’m reminded of what John wrote in chapter 13 of his gospel: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I have learned that the Lord has many disciples in this place, because they have show His love to me.

Closing Thoughts

One of the many ways that God has blessed me throughout this situation is with a tangible reminder of His love and power. Every time that I look at Riley, I’m reminded that he is here because of God’s care. This doesn’t make Riley any different from anyone else in this room – we’re all here because of God’s love for us. But Riley has served as a powerful reminder for me that God is alive and He is in control. God has taught me that if I’ll trust Him, he will lead me through anything. I pray that none of us will soon forget the lessons that he has taught us through Riley’s situation.

It’s important to me that everyone know that this evening has not been about Riley. Instead, it’s about what God has done for people in our church family, like Linda Jones, Amanda Wright and others.

I’d also like to say “Thank You” to all of you who have been with us through the past several months. You have lifted us up and taken care of our every need. You have laughed with us, cried with us and prayed with us. You have cleaned our house, brought us meals, watched our children and run our errands. You have prayed for Riley and our family. Your children have stopped me to let me know that they pray for Riley every night. The debt of gratitude that my family owes all of you is more than we could ever repay. And we know that all of you have done these things not for us, but to bring honor and glory to God.

In just a minute, Keck is going to lead us in another song and then John Carroll will offer one last prayer. But before that happens, I’d like to ask all of those who have been through this with us and those who have been touched or moved by what God has done for our church family to join us down front here. I’d like for us to join hands and sing the song that Mike has picked out for us and then go to God in prayer as John leads us.

Robert McClanahan

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