A Shelf Full of Friends: Ben Carson, M.D.
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Jane Shelton, CRE
Keeping in the theme of Dr. G.’s “Friends on the Shelf” summer series, I must say that I went into a bit of a panic when she mentioned preaching on one of my favorite authors, as I cannot say I have many of the same authors on my bookshelves. As much as I like to read, I am often drawn in by the titles and even the artwork of the books, and not so much by the authors themselves.
Of course, she did not make this a requirement, and yet I thought it was a fun idea, but who would I choose. The first author that jumped into my mind is C.S. Lewis, and I know you all know that I like C.S. Lewis because he is often quoted in my sermons, and I have my favorite C.S. Lewis NRSV Bible with many of his thought-provoking quotes next to scripture. And while I am always fascinated by Lewis’ life journey, and his incredible insights on scripture, I wanted to speak about someone else today.
With the recent newsworthy topic of racism, I have started reading a selection of African American authors, like Shelby Steele, a former Civil Rights Leader and activist, who has written books like, “White Guilt,” and “The Content of Our Character.”
Another young African American author that I have been reading and following her blog is Candice Owens. She is a little dynamo, full of energy and insight for such a young age, and I enjoy her energy.
Today however, I want to talk to you about my new friend on my bookshelf, Dr. Ben Carson, who has found a warm and encouraging spot in my heart. I came to know Dr. Carson through the news, and he was one of those persons that seemed to draw me in, someone I wanted to know more about. Someone I thought spoke with wisdom.
In his book, written in 1990 and titled “Gifted Hands,” Dr. Carson takes us on his life’s journey from an inner-city kid to a renowned neurosurgeon.
While this is Father’s Day, much of this story will be about Dr. Carson’s mother, who was not only the mother in the household, but the father as well. It is a great story on how sometimes celebrating Father’s Day, is not always about celebrating a biological male figure in your life, but the person in your life that provided you with love, discipline, and encouragement whether male or female.
Dr. Carson’s mother was married at just age 13, admitting she did so probably more to escape a bad family situation than for love. But by the time her second son, Ben Carson, was age 8, she discovered not only was her husband unfaithful, but he was living a second life with a second family.
At his young age, Ben Carson did not understand why his mother was telling him that his father would not be living with them anymore, or the heartbreak he felt losing his father who had always been loving to him and his brother. Always taking time with them and often bringing gifts when he came home from work.
Carson said he looks back, and realizes the incredible sacrifice his mother made hiding her own hurt while staying strong for her boys. He remembers her working three jobs to make ends meet. He retells the story of when he and his brother would ask for toys, his mother would reply, no, we can’t afford it, and that was the end of the story on getting a toy.
As an example of Mrs. Carson’s wisdom and tenacity, in order to help put food on the table, Mrs. Carson would bargain with farmers for her and her boys to pick four bushels of berries so that she could keep one bushel for them. This allowed her to put fresh fruit and vegetables on the table, and put up the rest for them to have through the winter.
She was the one that defended her boys in school, and when she found out that the school was going to place her oldest son on a vocational tract of learning, she marched down to the school, and said, “No, you keep my boy in the regular classes because my boys are going to college. My boys are going to learn reading and math.”
Dr. Carson tells the story of his mother coming home one day from work, and finding him and his brother watching TV. She walked over and turned off the TV in the middle of their program, and said, “from now on, you boys are only allowed to watch TV three times a week, and the rest of the time, you will be studying.”
“Only three times a week!” Ben protested as his mind raced through all the shows he would miss, but his mother held firm, and told him he would have to learn his multiplication tables. Again, he protested, asking her if she knew how many there were to learn, and she simply replied, “I will help you.”
And it didn’t stop there, a couple weeks later, she came home and announced they would start reading two books a week, and when they had finished reading the books they had in their possession, she proceeded to march them down to the public library where they were directed to find more books to read. It was here that Dr. Carson began his journey into books on nature, especially loving the books on animals and science.
He also became aware that as he gained knowledge, he was no longer referred to as the dummy in his classroom by his classmates, and this encouraged him to learn more.
When his mother could no longer afford the house where they lived in a nicer neighborhood in Detroit, she rented it out and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law in Boston. Here, Dr. Carson learned about tenement living, complete with rats, roaches and an occasional snake. He learned about walking through the streets among the broken glass, winos and drunks with sirens blaring in the background.
While it was dark on the outside, his aunt and uncle showered them with light and love on the inside of the home. It was here that he remembers experiencing his best Christmas ever when he received a chemist set. He retells of how he played with this set endlessly finding it fascinating and intriguing as he learned to mix things to create things. With the instructions in hand, he would work one experiment after the other to find he couldn’t wait to see what the next experiment would bring.
His mother eventually got back on her feet, and they moved back to Detroit. As soon as she could, she regained the ability to move them back into their old home, once again placing them in a modest neighborhood, and for the boys, this meant attending a mostly white school again. With his experience and knowledge in science from his nature books and his chemist set, Ben soon excelled in his biology class. His teacher put him in a position to teach other children how to identify bugs and work through their experiments.
Attending a Seventh Day Adventist church as a young boy, Ben listened one Sunday to his pastor tell the story of a mission doctor and his wife, and how God was able to protect them during a time of danger. He liked hearing the adventure, and more importantly, he liked hearing how the doctor was able to help people, and how God had protected them from harm.
On his walk home, he asked his mother if she thought he could be a doctor, and she said, “Bennie, you can be anything you want to be.” He replied, “I want to be a doctor.” And she responded, “Then you will be a doctor, Bennie.”
At age 14, Dr. Carson said, “I fully understood how God can change us” as he overcame his struggle with his temper rooted in bad situations from growing up from losing his Dad at age 8 to being called a dummy in his early school days.
When he would find himself complaining about an unfairness, his mother would quote a poem titled, “Yourself to Blame” by Mayme White Miller or tell him, “You just ask the Lord, and he’ll help you.” She would say, “Bennie, you can do it. Don’t stop believing that for one second.”
Eventually, Ben would see exactly how God would move him through the struggles of becoming a doctor, from realizing his divine gift of hand and eye coordination while playing foosball with a friend, to a dream revealing answers to a test he thought he would surely fail in college chemistry.
After studying in his room all day before the test for which he had not properly prepared, he prayed for God’s help before he went to bed. That night he had a dream, and the next day as he looked at page after page of his chemistry test, the answers came just as he had seen them on the chalkboard in his dream.
He wrote, “After this experience, I had no doubt that I would be a physician. I also had the sense that God not only wanted me to be a physician, but that He had special things for me to do. I’m not sure people always understand when I say that, but I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life – the path God had chosen for me. Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.
Ben was continuously given positions of leadership, not just in his classes, but in college, ROTC, and summer jobs between college classes that he would acquire. His teachers recognized his hunger to learn, and provided him tutoring and extra books to read. He excelled on his SAT, and was provided a 90% scholarship to Yale. Continuing at the medical school at the University of Michigan, in his hometown, he still longed to attend John Hopkins where he would later become a top neurosurgeon sought around the world. Dr. Carson tells of many of his surgeries in his book, and how he learned from these surgeries, ending with his most famous case in separating a German set of Siamese twins connected at the head.
At one point in his journey, he was so sought after that he had a neighboring hospital to John Hopkins vying for his talents at their hospital. The Director said to him, “Here you can help black people,” and being taken aback by this statement, Dr. Carson replied, “But I want to help ALL people.”
While it is easy to see how God moved him through life with the gifts and tools needed to become a neurosurgeon, leading and directing him each step of the way, as he explains in his book, it was also inspiring to see the strength and courage of a mother, that was obviously also gifted with strength, wisdom and love to be able to provide her children with the love and encouragement they needed to not only succeed with both graduating college, but to be able to understand and help people in return.
God never leaves us. The more we lean toward him, the more we seek him out for direction and purpose, the more he continues to provide blessings on our journey in life. This allows us to carry on in faith knowing that God is not only present in our daily lives, but that he cares about us and our outcomes.
Dr. Carson looks for opportunities to speak to young children, and when he does, he emphasizes the point, “There isn’t anybody in the world who isn’t worth something. If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you. The same people you meet on the way up are the same kind of people you meet on the way down. Besides that, every person you meet is one of God’s children.” And he writes, “I truly believe that being a successful neurosurgeon doesn’t mean I’m better than anybody else. It means that I’m fortunate because God gave me the talent to do this job well. I also believe that what talents I have I need to be willing to share with others.
When I finished this book, I immediately started reading it again, because it is so encouraging, inspiring, and heart-warming. As we look around us in a world driven by greed and power, it is an incredible reminder that while we may be caught up in circumstances beyond our control, and we are faced with challenge after challenge, all the while, God is in the midst of the turmoil bringing greatness from the most unexpected places.
God’s grace and gifts are truly a miracle in our lives. It is up to us to have the wisdom and courage to develop those gifts to the glory of God, and if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame.