Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church in Lake Forest, IL. He has served in that capacity since 2003. Healthy and fitness focused, Mike had a freak accident which upended the trajectory of his life.
The following interview is conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: Give our readers a sense of what happened that fateful day in the pool during your regular swim.
Woodruff: The winter of 2014 was a nasty one in Chicago. It was too cold for me to run outside so I started swimming to stay in shape. Swimming is supposed to be a great low-impact cardiovascular workout. Unfortunately I am in the .02 percent who are susceptible to fraying a vertebral artery by repetitive head turning (to breathe). On Good Friday I ended up suffering a SCAD – a Spontaneous cerebral arterial dissection. This means the lining of my artery frayed. Blood got into the lining, ballooned it out and that led to a stroke. I wasn’t swimming at the time. I was in my office getting ready for a busy weekend. I stood up and felt a bit dizzy. I didn’t think anything of it. A few hours later it happened again. The third time the room started to spin. I went home early and went to bed, thinking I had the flu. I started to slide pretty fast. Early on Saturday AM my wife called an ambulance. I was quickly diagnosed at the local ER and transported to Northwestern University’s Neuro-ICU unit.
Moore: Didn’t you already plan on doing a series on suffering just prior to your accident?
Woodruff: Yes. Every fall I write a book for part of a fall series. I had started writing a book called Broken, which was based on four ideas: 1) If you live long enough you will suffer; 2) Americans are bad at it; 3) You can prepare; and 4) suffering can be a pathway to growth. It doesn’t have to be, but some can emerge stronger.
Moore: In the first book (we should probably call them booklets) of the five, you mention that you “started out writing a very different book…” What changed the original course you were on?
Woodruff: The book I was writing was a bit more academic. And in it I had noted that I didn’t feel particularly qualified to write about suffering. As soon as I was coherent enough to start reflecting what was going on I started blogging about my situation. The response to my blog led me to think I needed to adopt a very different voice for the book. (And yes, because I was so late in getting to the book, we turned it into five small booklets).
Moore: Mark Noll famously said Abraham Lincoln was the best theologian during the Civil War period because he appreciated the inscrutable nature of God’s providence. Perhaps we could say Mike Tyson is also a pretty good theologian with the memorable quote that leads into our interview.
Woodruff: I love the Tyson quote. It is quite profound.
Moore: I interviewed Tim Keller on his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/02/04/tim-keller-on-suffering/) Both of you describe how common it is to find Christians who are surprised by suffering. How do you pastor folks to be better prepared for difficult and trying times?
Woodruff: I told the congregation that I was going to talk about suffering because I was tired of people being surprised by suffering – and also by death. I said, “I am failing you. I need you to hear that if you live long enough you will suffer. It’s going to happen. Count on it.”
Even having said that some are still surprised.
Moore: You make your living by speaking. It must have been terrifying to feel like your livelihood was in jeopardy.
Woodruff: The doctor in the ER of the local hospital told me that I had had a Cerebellar stroke and would make a full recovery. That was a bit optimistic. Most of the damage I sustained was to the Cerebellar region, but I also suffered Vestibular damage. That is more serious. Few survive Vestibular (brain stem) strokes because that real state is so loaded with important things, like breathing. My balance, sight, touch, swallowing and voice were affected, but not breathing. Anyway, I didn’t understand how serious my situation was. There were some very dark moments, but I thought I would make a 100 percent recovery for the first few months. I only later realized how close to I had come to dying. And how much worse it could be. (For the record, I would say I have made a 90% recovery to date).
Moore: How has your relationship with Christ changed as a result of the stroke?
Woodruff: During the most desperate moments I felt great peace. As I began to heal I prayed that I could hold on to that closeness. I am sorry to say that I have not. I believe some may, but I didn’t. What I can say is, I found great comfort from my savior and my family. I would not want to go through it again, but I got to test my safety net and it was very strong. I am thankful.