This morning I have the privilege of leading our study into the life of one of my heroes, Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson Sr. Dr. Carson is the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and is extremely accomplished in his field. He has authored five books which you can see here and more than 100 medical journal articles. These first four books were my sources for preparing this lesson. Gifted Hands is his autobiography, and in these three books Dr. Carson outlines his philosophy on education, success, and what’s really important in life. I have not read his newest book, America the Beautiful, but I am sure it’s as excellent as his others.
The recipient of more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees, Dr. Carson has literally received hundreds of awards and citations, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in our land, which as you can see here, was awarded to him by President George W. Bush in June of 2008. Dr. Carson has dedicated his life to the compassionate and excellent care of his patients and toward helping young people recognize the true power of learning, toward helping them realize their God-given potential. Dr. Carson lives in West Friendship, Maryland, outside of Baltimore, with his wife Candy, three sons Murray, Benjamin, Jr., Rhoeyce, and his mother Sonya, pictured here.
By all measures Dr. Carson’s has lived an enormously and improbably successful life. As we will discuss, based on the circumstances of his childhood, his chances of graduating from high school were slim, let alone becoming an accomplished neurosurgeon.
But what makes his life so remarkable is the story behind his successes. You see, Dr. Carson would be the first to admit, he is no “self-made man.” He is the product of a single mother who asked God for daily wisdom to raise her sons, of church friends and mentors who prayed for him and taught him the scriptures, of teachers who encouraged him, challenged him, of colleagues who respected, defended him. Dr. Carson’s life illustrates the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
This morning as we look closely at the life of Dr. Ben Carson, I invite you to open your hearts to spiritual truth. Listen closely for certain key stages in his life when God intervened in a powerful way, to protect him, to show love to him, to help him overcome adversity and ultimately realize his dreams. Think back to the building blocks of your own personal testimony, to times in your life when God intervened for your good. We will look at several biblical lessons that are illustrated powerfully in Carson’s life. Consider then how we as the people of God can apply these truths in our homes, our church family, and our community. Ok, let’s get started.
Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr. was born September 18th, 1951 in Detroit, Michigan. His story however begins with the story of the most influential person in his life, Sonya Carson, his mother. Sonya Carson’s early life was unfortunately prey to poverty and abuse. One of 24 children in her family, she did not receive much love and attention. She was eventually removed from her home and passed from foster home to foster home, until a preacher named Robert Carson, 15 years her elder, rescued her from this life. At the age of 13 she married Robert Carson, who initially was very attentive to her, lavishing her with expensive clothes and jewelry, calling her “his little china doll.” However once kids came along Robert became more withdrawn and secretive, spending lots of time away from home and in whispered phone conversations.
Eventually Sonya uncovered the very hurtful truth behind her husband’s behavior, that he was a bigamist, married to another woman, and with another family. Their sons, Curtis and Ben were 10 and 8 respectively when Sonya made the very difficult but courageous decision to leave her husband, and move to Boston to live with her sister and her husband, Jean and William Avery.
Suddenly a poor single mother, with a third grade education, and no occupational training, Sonya was faced with the seemingly impossible task of caring for her sons. At this point in her life she had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and her faith in God had been hurt by the hypocritical example of her “preacher” husband. When the fears and hurt became too much to bear Sonya hit rock bottom, and even attempted to end her life by overdosing on prescription sleeping pills…
…But then, God intervened. Sonya’s sister Jean came into her room at that very moment and rushed her to the hospital in time to save her life. While she was in the hospital recovering, God sent His servant, a kind woman named Mary Thomas.
I want to read Sonya’s words as she describes this encounter. “She introduced herself and said ‘God loves you.’ I stared back at the strange woman. She had the brightest smile I’d ever seen. ‘Jesus Christ died for you.’ ‘Don’t tell me about God,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to hear that stuff. God’s just as much a fake as anything else. I don’t need any part of that.’ ‘God does love you,’ she said again quietly. I ignored Mary Thomas, but she did not go away. She stayed right by my bed. In her soft voice, she kept telling me that God had not given up on me and never would. No matter how angry I felt or how rudely I reacted, she never argued with me or allowed me to upset her.
Mary continued to visit me. Slowly it began to sink in that she cared about me.” Mary went on to teach Sonya to read the Bible and gifted her with her own copy. Thanks to the Christ-like compassion, patience and love of Mary Thomas, and the faithfulness of Sonya’s sister Jean to take her to church, Sonya eventually put her faith in Christ.
This leads us to our first lesson from Carson’s life: No situation is hopeless for God. Remember in Psalm 34, it promises “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” When our situations seem most hopeless, that’s when God longs to come to our rescue. King David spent years of his life running, hiding from his enemies. But instead of giving up hope, he placed his security in God. In Psalm 25:3 he writes “No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.” And in Psalm 62:5-8 it says “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
The efforts and prayers of these godly women brought the Giver of hope into Sonya Carson’s life. Let me ask, do you Redlander, have a Sonya Carson in your life? Someone who is at the end of their rope, someone discouraged in their search for a job, someone struggling with depression, or confined to a hospital bed. Consider the example of Mary Thomas. Consider the enormous impact your words, your prayers, simply your presence could have on their life. If God is calling you deliver a message of hope to them, then please, do not delay. In Galatians 6:2 we are instructed to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Sonya’s faith grew steadily as she opened her heart to the Lord, putting her burdens at his feet. One night she prayed in desperation, “Lord if You can take nothing and make a world out of it, You can take my situation and make it work – for the boys’ sake. I don’t care so much about myself, but my boys need help. They deserve a chance.” To keep her family afloat Sonya worked long hours cleaning homes, sometimes two or three different jobs, leaving before her sons woke up, and arriving home just in time to see them to bed.
As the loneliness she was experiencing began to take its toll she again cried out to God saying “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anyone else to turn to. God, You’re going to have to be my friend, my best friend. And you’re going to have to tell me how to do things and give me wisdom, because I don’t know what to do.”
God heard Sonya’s desperate plea and faithfully intervened. Although money was always tight, she was always able to find work, and always had enough to keep her family housed, clothed and well fed. A product of my own mother’s ingenious frugality and wise spending, I personally admire Sonya Carson’s cost savings strategies.
Sonya would shop at Goodwill, buying only the best quality labels and then personally patch, clean and alter her son’s clothes until they were as well dressed as any kids in school. To help feed her family she would take the boys to local farmers and offer to pick corn and other vegetables in exchange for a portion of what they harvested, which she would then can so they could eat nutritiously year round. Carson would later write that he thanked God for the financial hardships he experienced while growing up. He credits his mother’s example with teaching him financial responsibility, delayed gratification and a strong work ethic. By God’s wisdom and faithful provision, the Carson family was always well cared for.
This brings us to our second lesson from Carson’s life: Wisdom is waiting for us. All we have to do is ask for it. James 1:5 says “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” And in Matthew 7:7-8 Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
When both boys began to struggle in school Sonya again turned to the Lord for wisdom. She would tell the boys “You are just not living up to your potential. You have to work harder. You have to use that good brain that God gave you!”
When young Ben brought home a failing report card in the fifth grade, and had begun to hate school, his mother used her God given wisdom to come up with a plan of action. To help her boys become better students, she began to restrict their television watching to two programs per week. They were also required to visit the library each week and pick and complete two books that interested them. At the end of each week she expected a book report on each of the books, even though she was usually unable to read them herself.
Both boys initially were understandably upset about missing their hours of television, but obeyed their mother faithfully. Young Ben relates that the plan very soon began to bear fruit as he began to enjoy reading especially about science. One day in class something completely unprecedented happed. When his teacher asked the class to identify a piece of smooth black rock, Ben knew the answer and raised his hand! “Obsidian!” he answered. “That’s right Ben!” his teacher responded, clearly surprised. Ben then proceeded to astound the class by giving a spontaneous report on Obsidian, its composition, its origins and properties. Ben himself was astounded! His reading was paying off.
The satisfaction of knowing the answer and encouragement he received from his teacher and classmates fueled Ben’s thirst for knowledge. From then on he embraced his mother’s reading challenge and shot from the bottom to the top of his class. His performance in math, his weakest subject also improved.
Unfortunately, not everyone was excited about Ben’s success. His elementary school was predominantly white, and once after Ben received a certificate of achievement for reaching the top of his class, one of the school’s teachers berated the white students for letting a black student get ahead of them. Fortunately, Ben had many more teachers in his corner who were proud of his improvements, encouraged him onward, and the racism he encountered didn’t slow his progress one bit.
Dr. Carson would later relate in his book Think Big that reading is the cornerstone of his philosophy for success, and that he finds that students who excel academically read extensively. “Books are for reading” he says, crucial for developing the God-given creativity we have from birth. “Fifteen years after birth, however, many of those same clever and creative infants, now teenagers, spend much of their time looking at television or videos. They have images and sounds already packaged and ready for them at the flip of a button. This lifestyle requires them to use little imagination. Why should they? Everything is done for them, including telling them how to dress, think and behave. Consequently, they do not get into the habit of thinking for themselves. All they have to do is follow.”
Sonya Carson’s plan to limit television and encourage reading was God inspired and is backed up with lots of scientific research. We know that “screen time,” as we call it in Pediatrics, is bad for the developing brain. Not only should children spend their time on more creative, knowledge building activities, but so many media programs teach our children the wrong thing. It’s hard to find a “prime time,” or “family” program on television that doesn’t stomp on God’s model of biblical marriage, that isn’t saturated with sexual immorality, that doesn’t promote self -idolatry, vanity, or materialism.
Scripture doesn’t mention television or the internet specifically, but the words of the psalmist remind us of the importance of guarding ourselves and our families from the ungodly influences of media. In Psalm 119:36-37 they pray, “Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.”
Over the next few years God used several gifted teachers to bring out the best in Ben, to encourage and nurture his learning. Each saw great potential in him. One special band teacher recognized Ben’s special giftedness in science and had the courage to dissuade him from attending a high performing band camp, instead encouraging him to use the time to pursue his science studies. This made a special mark on Ben.
Sonya Carson knew education was the key to her sons escaping poverty and achieving their dreams. She explained to her son, “I work among rich people, people who are educated. I watch how they act, and I know they can do anything they want to do. And so can you. Bennie, you can do anything they can do – only you can do it better!” She continued to encourage her son, “Bennie, you can be anything you want. Just ask God for help.” Her lifelong motto was, “God will help you if you’ll help yourself by giving your best.”
Lesson #3 from Carson’s life is: God wants our best! He doesn’t what the left overs, what time we can squeeze in after spending ourselves on other interests. He wants the very best! 2 Timothy 2:15 says “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” You may say, “Well this is Paul writing to Timothy, telling him how to be a good preacher, which doesn’t apply to me.” But Colossians 3:23-24 says “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
Despite his new found success in school, Ben Carson still had some vices holding him back. Ben while getting the highest marks, learned that his classmates were not fond of a know-it-all. He found himself slipping into pride and trying to achieve just to beat out those children who had given him the nickname “dummy.” Ben still had a violent temper that got him into trouble. On one occasion he tried to hit his mother with a hammer because she disagreed with his choice of clothes. Another time, he inflicted a major head injury on a classmate in a dispute over a locker. And in one final incident Ben nearly let his anger ruin any chance for a bright future, but this is another key point at which God intervened.
When Ben and a friend were arguing over a choice of radio stations things became heated and Ben took out a pocket knife and stabbed at his friend’s abdomen. The knife blade hit the friend’s belt buckle, snapping it in half, protecting his friend from injury and Ben from becoming a murderer. Ben terrified with what nearly happened immediately ran home and locked himself in the bathroom with a Bible.
Ben turned to the wisdom of the book of Proverbs, reading “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1); or “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins” (29:22), and a final warning, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). Humbled by these words, Carson realized that if left unchecked, his anger would drive him toward destruction. Instead he prayed that God would help him control his temper instead of letting it control him, and God answered his prayer. Ben Carson never again had a violent outburst. He instead chose to live by the words of James 1:19-20 which says “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
This brings up Lesson #4. While doing your best for God, watch out for ANGER and PRIDE.
Think of all the biblical examples we have of uniquely gifted people who stumbled over pride. Men like Moses, Samson, Saul, David, Hezekiah, and Peter, who suffered the consequences of yielding to pride. When we are actively using our giftedness, Satan is always close by, whispering in our ear, “You did this, you don’t need God!” Later in Ben’s life, when he became a successful neurosurgeon, the temptation to be proud increased with each successful surgery as reporters, colleagues, and fans worldwide all praised his accomplishments. We live in world that praises individual achievement, self-sufficiency.
Despite all this, Dr. Carson remains extremely humble. When asked about the source of his successful surgeries Carson writes, “Virtually all my colleagues are superstars in their specialty or they would not remain in their positions. It is a combination of these kinds of often undervalued people who make possible my work at a place like Hopkins.” And later, in praising the hardest working members of our health care system he says, “Sometimes I call the nurses ‘the infantry,’ because without them we could not wage war against disease.” Being a true scientist, Dr. Carson has a formula he uses to combat the temptation of pride. I think it would be helpful for us all to use:
1. God created the universe, including us
2. God shows that he is much more powerful than we are by what He does and has done in our world,
3. God gives each of us abilities that we cannot supply to ourselves or explain our worthiness of. When we remind ourselves of these truths, THEN WE ARE HUMBLED.
So when we are tempted to place ourselves on a pedestal and forget God, we should go outside and gaze upon the beautiful works of our all-powerful Creator, look to our left and right at the other God-gifted individuals working right next to us. We should remember the words Christ gave his disciples in the book of Matthew, “Freely you have received, freely give.”
Ben went on to graduate with honors from Southwestern High School in Detroit, and from there enrolled in Yale University. While there Ben majored in Psychology with a pre-medical emphasis and very quickly ran into some academic trouble. All through high school Ben didn’t have to study much, the material came easy to him. However in his freshman chemistry class he was having a lot of trouble, was close to failing and feared that this would be the end of his dream of becoming a physician. I had a similar experience in my college chemistry course, and thank God for helping me get through those very difficult tests. Ben’s story is much more interesting however.
“I need help,” he prayed. “Being a doctor is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and now it looks like I can’t. And, Lord, I’ve always had the impression You wanted me to be a doctor. I’ve worked hard and focused my life that way, assuming that’s what I was going to do. But if I fail chemistry I’m going to have to find something else to do.”
God didn’t want him to fail. That night, he dreamed that a figure of a man dressed in white robes wrote down the problems and solutions on the blackboard. When he woke up, he quickly wrote down the notes from his dream. The problems that the man had shown him were the very ones on that chemistry test. God answered Ben’s prayer.
Ben expressed his thanks to God. “It’s clear that You want me to be a doctor. I’m going to do everything within my power to be one. I’m going to learn to study.” This is one of the many miracles Ben Carson experienced throughout his life, proof to him that God cared about him and had a plan for his future.
Ben went on to excel at Yale, but his greatest blessing while there was meeting Lacrena “Candy” Rustin, pictured here with Ben and his mother Sonya at his Yale graduation. Candy shared his love of music, of science, and the Lord. They would go on to marry after graduation.
From Yale, Ben attended medical school at the University of Michigan, where he was initially interested in medicine or psychiatry, but quickly became fascinated with neurosurgery. Ben’s understanding of neuroanatomy and his excellent hand-eye coordination and three-dimensional reasoning skills, made Neurosurgery the clear choice for his field of practice, the best environment for him to use his unique God-given skills. From medical school, Ben was chosen from among over 100 applicants to the neurosurgical training program at Johns Hopkins, which was and remains world famous for its excellence in clinical care and cutting edge research. Ben thrived at Hopkins, eventually choosing to focus his practice on the care of children, becoming the hospital’s youngest Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the age of 33.
Dr. Carson became famous worldwide in 1987 for the successful separation of two “craniopagus” twins. Cranio-pagus means “fixed helmet” and as you can see here the 7 month old boys, Patrick and Benjamin Binder, from West Germany, were born fused at the back of their heads. Without an operation to separate them they would be completely bed-ridden, never able to live independent lives.
What to some may seem like a simple fix; the complexity of their brains made the surgery exceptionally difficult. The twins shared a vein that drains blood from the brain to the heart that had to be divided for each twin to survive. Separating it without causing too much bleeding would be like trying to cut a water balloon in half, without having it explode. To accomplish this, Dr. Carson’s team of 70 staff members worked 22 hours and used a novel technique of stopping the infant’s hearts and inducing hypothermia to stop blood flow to their brains. This gave the surgeons 1 hour to separate this “water balloon” in half. Miraculously, after the completion of the separation, the infant’s hearts were restarted, and blood flow returned to the brain. Both Patrick and Benjamin survived the separation with minimal damage.
This very complex surgery had been tried before without success, and remains an extremely dangerous operation. Dr. Carson, despite his large role in the separation, would be quick to give credit to his stellar team of 70 co-workers, and thanks to God for blessing his hands and the outcome. He writes “Look, it’s not me doing these things. God does all these things and can keep on doing them without me. If God is going to work a miracle, He certainly doesn’t need me to do it. When we have done our best, we also have to learn that we still need to rely on God. Our best – no matter how good – is incomplete if we leave God out of the picture.”
The successful separation of the Binder twins was just one of the many miracles Dr. Carson has witnessed in his career. By the power of prayer he has seen modern day Lazarus stories, such as patients waking from prolonged comas, or recovering from what seemed to be devastating and permanent brain injury or cancer. During a similarly long and complex surgery to separate another set of twins from Zambia, Dr. Carson reached a particularly challenging point in the operation that involved separating a tangle of blood vessels. Carson began to feel frustrated and fatigued.
He writes, “I began praying desperately that God would take over and simply use me to accomplish what only he could do.” When he returned to the OR he reports, “Despite the exhaustion that had almost paralyzed me a short time earlier, I now sensed a remarkable steadiness in my hands. I felt a strange calm, an almost detached awareness – as if I were merely watching my hands move and someone else had actually taken over the surgery. I don’t know that I have ever experienced anything quite like what happened in the operating room that day. When I separated the very last vein connecting Joseph and Luka, the stereo system at that very moment began playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. I suspect every single person in that OR felt goosebumps and knew that something remarkable had taken place. And it was not our doing.” (End Quote)
Dr. Carson’s experiences of supernatural intervention and the tangible power of prayer point us to Lesson #5: God is a miracle worker. Scripture is full of thousands of the mighty miraculous acts of our Lord, but even now miracles happen all around us every day. Our very life is a miracle. As a student of medicine, I have a front row seat to the incredibly intricate display of God’s handiwork. Look with me at these scanning electron microscope images that show the hexagonal cells that make up our skin, or these pyramid shaped taste buds on the surface of our tongue, and finally, my favorite, the hair like cilia that form a shag carpet lining our lung passages, protecting us from infection. To me, each of the images, shows the fingerprint of our loving Creator, proof that King David was correct in writing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
But the greatest miracle of all time was that of our Savior Jesus Christ. He died on the cross in our place, for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day. Because of this miracle we can have forgiveness from our sins and hope for the fullest of lives in this world and in the world to come. We can have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. In Dr. Carson’s words, “The privilege of that relationship is always a gift. Actions do not really have anything to do with it. The question is whether or not we accept what God did for us. When we accept him and allow him a place in our hearts, we become a different type of individual. Our whole life is changed – not because of our behavior but by the relationship itself.”
This brings us to Lesson #6 and our decision time: God wants to use your Gifted Hands. After hearing Dr. Carson’s story this morning, you may be thinking to yourself, “I’m no neurosurgeon. I can’t have an impact like him.” But listen as I read one last quote from his book as he describes his definition of success. “Success is reaching beyond ourselves and helping people in specific ways. This can be as simple as being a father who inspires his children to make the best of their lives- being a mother who guides her children toward faith in God and confidence in themselves-or being faithful to whatever enterprise one undertakes and doing it with a determination to be the best at that task.” Our world desperately needs compassionate, loving, hard-working people in every office, school and home; people fueled by their love of Christ, willing use their giftedness to spread the message of hope we have in Christ to all who haven’t heard.
If you are here today and don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then I hope after hearing Ben Carson’s amazing life story that you realize the truth that God loves you. You are here on this earth for a reason, you are uniquely gifted by God to do important things in this life, and he longs to embrace you and deeply desires to know you personally. If you decide today to make him Lord of your life, or want to know how to become a Christian, then come forward as we sing. Our ministers will be here at the front to talk and pray with you.
If you are a Christian, but don’t have a church home, I pray you would consider joining Redland. You are welcome here. We are the body of Christ, made up of different parts, working together for Christ’s kingdom. Come and use your giftedness here to join in His work in our community and around the world.
This morning if you are facing a seemingly hopeless situation, if you are waiting for a miracle and want someone to pray with you, or God has laid on your heart a message to share please come forward as we sing. Let’s go to the throne in prayer.
Lord God, thank you for the life of your servant Ben Carson. Thank you for the godly people you placed in his path to guide him to you. Thank you for his faithfulness in using his gifts to heal the suffering and challenge young people to give their best effort. Help us to follow his example and that of your servants in scripture who trust in you when times get tough, who give their all for your kingdom. Bless our fellowship here at Redland Father, help us to be a body of Christ that reaches out to the lost and hurting in our county and around the world. Thank you for your son Jesus Christ, the hope for the entire world. It’s in His precious Name I pray. Amen.