Chronic Illness: Nothing is Certain, but Everything is Safe

All too often, what seems like a burden or a curse bears a blessing just below its surface.

I’ve discovered this again and again, although I never seem to learn from it because, in the moment, it’s almost impossible to imagine grace can emerge from what feels unbearable. Still, there are some things that are so heartbreaking, so hard, so evil, so awful and the pain leaves wounds so deep and terrible that we pray for a healing that is to come. Perhaps we will never be witnesses to it in our lifetime but we trust that in the cross and resurrection it has already been redeemed, and we, who see as yet through a glass dimly, must wait. (Waiting is a big freaking deal in the Christian faith.)

Last spring I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. In this day and age, the first thing you do after your diagnosis is go online to search the stats about your illness. Many times it’s not so encouraging, and in fact, because all the variables are not included, it can be confusing and misleading. Still. You want to know. What happened to my body? Is there any hope that I can go back to who I was before this?

Then, there are all the little goofy things that you have to tell people. Now, you’re one of those people who can’t eat this or that, or you are scent-sensitive, or your immune system is compromised or you carry around meds on your key chain; you become one of “those people” who has to check the box with “special needs” or “dietary restrictions.” You don’t really want to be one of “those people,” at least if you aren’t a hypochondriac. Also, there are the goofy things people tell you, trying to be helpful. Most recently, I received an e-mail on the curative powers of asparagus.

But, as it turns out, there are a lot of us who are “those people.” One of the many blessings that has come out of my new diagnosis is that I’ve talked to gobs of people just in my congregation who have come forward to tell me about their own chronic illness, everything from depression to asthma to RA to polio to celiac disease to slow-growing cancers. It’s just that in daily conversations you can’t bring it up that easily (aren’t the leaves gorgeous? And oh, by the way, I have lupus) and there are no CaringBridge pages if you’ve been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

Sure, everyone prays for the tragic and acute, but chronic illnesses aren’t sexy, and believe me Crohn’s disease or panic disorders are not all that sexy. In being vulnerable, I found a considerable crowd of vulnerables. Still, so many chronic illnesses are invisible. A person who is diagnosed with diabetes might look and act perfectly healthy but if they don’t manage their insulin levels, they’re toast.

Looking at the stats alone, there are a gazillion people out there in the pews with stints and scars and rescue inhalers, and as our population ages and western medicine is better able to help people manage their illnesses but not cure them, it will continue to be an even bigger deal. There are a lot of walking wounded out there — physically, psychologically, spiritually; people who seem fine, but carry great burdens, and often feel alone. It also so happens that our bible is full of “those people,” and more, Jesus has a tender spot for these folks: the uncontrollable bleeders, the lepers, the demon-possessed. Even Paul has some kind of thorn in his flesh.

So, it becomes a big deal for those of us who preach and those of us who pastor, mostly because the Bible tells us that it is a big deal for God. We cannot preach enough to people that they are loved by Christ not in spite of their weakness, but because of it. We cannot tell them enough that God redeems and embraces us, and makes us whole, even when we are all too aware of our brokenness. We cannot tell enough of this God who gathers in the outsider, the lonely, the limp, and the lame.

We preach this God who heals not as we may like, but provides us with new hearts that see what we did not before, who recognize the invisible through compassion, and find grace in communion with one another. We tell this story of this God whose story becomes ours through Christ. We preach of mercies revealed, of new life, of hope. We tell of the meek inheriting the earth and the grieving comforted. And while we wait, we speak of Christ, who is busy gathering us in, all eternity, all brokenness; all grace.

Although nothing is certain, everything is safe. Because something really did happen in the cross and resurrection.