We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.”
“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things.
Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable.
How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.
Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it.
I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…
I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever.
This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early.
I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed.
I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it.
I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you.
Summertime is finally here, and this one feels different. After a year of uncertainty, I sense a growing light at the end of the tunnel. My hunch is we all have plans we’ve put off, vacations we’ve canceled, and family trips we’ve postponed that we are itching to make up for this summer. That’s great! In the flurry of activity, restauranting, traveling, and hugging that may be headed your way, let’s not forget to keep deepening and growing in our apprenticeship to Jesus. The floodgates may be opening, but our disciple-making mission stays the same. Here are just a few “outside the box” ways I plan to keep growing this summer for you to consider:
- The BibleProject: I have mentioned this in a few places, but the BibleProject is the most innovative Bible study tool I have seen in a long time. Tim Mackie and company have created a host of resources for increasing biblical literacy, including incredible videos on books and themes of the Bible, and a podcast that gets you behind the scenes on their process. I recommend at least subscribing to the podcast and digesting a few during long car trips, flights, or chore time at home.
- The Chosen: If you know me at all, you know I have a strong aversion to cheesy Christian media. Maybe you disagree with me there, but it’s okay; we can still be friends. But even if you are wired like I am, you will still love The Chosen. This streaming series is the first of its kind: an episodic look at the life and ministry of Jesus and those closest to Him. I have yet to start season two, but season one was incredible and did as good a job of capturing the essence of Jesus and His first century context as I have ever seen. What I appreciate most about this show is its ability to remind me how lovely the real Jesus is, the sheer force of His teaching and personality, and why I will never find words of life apart from Him. Check it out!
- The Formed Life: Okay, shameless plug. BUT, I really do believe that this daily devotional deep dive our church has created is one of the best discipleship tools I have ever engaged in. Sign up for daily blogs, videos, and practices designed to help us go deeper into God’s word, to train in the disciplines that shape us, and draw us closer together as a church family. If you have yet to participate, or have fallen behind in your engagement with this resource, this summer is a great time to re-up.
Keep growing, church! And have a great summer.