A Life of Mystery and Faith

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Rev. Andrea Godwin-Stremler is a Reformed Church in America chaplain in Fort Polk, Louisiana. 

Spiritual practice is in the very marrow of my disabled bones. Even in the bone that was grafted into my leg. When I was a small child, people would ask me if my cast was heavy. I had no idea. I couldn’t remember ever being without one. Similarly, I can’t answer the question, where do disability and your devotional life intersect? I’ve never been without either one. Intertwined, they are one in my inmost being. I cannot remember a time in my life before I was aware of God’s glory, Jesus’ love, and prayers of the faithful.

Last year I met a cousin my age for the first time. She said, “I prayed for you with my family every night.” During the first 12 years of my life, the prayers were focused on healing my leg. I was in plaster casts or wore leg braces continually. I used crutches and was in and out of a wheelchair. At age 12, I was finally able to put all of those aside and walk. The church rejoiced and praised God.

But I also became a visible reminder of the mystery of God, the part we don’t like to see. My legs don’t match. I have multiple surgery scars. I walk with a limp and with pain. The underlying disease remains alive and active in my body. It continues to create new physical brokenness, pain, disfigurement, and disability. It is a mystery full of unanswered questions. Failure to heal, even after prayer, is a mystery to God’s people. And usually the faithful would prefer God only to be mysterious, not people or the circumstances around us.

In the quiet and at night, when alone, is when I struggle the most. I say the words of Psalm 139 as a personal confession of faith: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Yet as I live my life in daylight, in church and society, I struggle to celebrate this wonder. Like the psalmist, I cry out for understanding, strength, and relief.

The Bible contains many stories of healing. It is filled with admonition to “ask, and you will receive,” and “approach the throne of grace with confidence, for he who promised is able.” Yet, did Jesus heal everyone he encountered? What did the healing look like?

I had the blessing to minister to the community living on Molokai, Hawaii. The people I ate with, played cribbage with, and then worshiped with were living survivors of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. The bacteria that caused the disease was dead and the people fully cured. Yet the deformities, disabilities, and marks of the disease remained. As for the lepers healed by Jesus in the Bible, were their bodies completely restored to “normal,” or was just the disease removed?

Living with disabilities shapes everything about me—my faith and spirituality, my relationships with others, and my daily living, both mundane and victorious. God’s faithfulness indeed is great, as the hymn proclaims, but so is the mystery of God.

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  Dear Sister in the Lord,  Like you I suffer from a disease for which there is no known cure.  In my case it's schizophrenia, an invisible disorder since it afflicts the brain but that can be detected by the odd behaviour of those who suffer from it.   Some people have prayed for my healing, but if healing there was, it was only emotional and spiritual.  Otherwise, I still have to take medications every day to control the symptoms, and the side effects of those medications include significant weight gain that in turn leads to diabetes Type 2.  

As I said in a meeting of the Advisory Committee to the CRC branch of Disability Concerns, we should distinguish between healing and cure.  People can experience healing without being cured of their illness, and you have, obviously, NOT been cured since you still talk about walking with pain.  As to whether you have experienced healing according to this terminological distinction is for you to determine. Nobody can tell that on your behalf.  

Yours,

Michèle Gyselinck 

Dear Michele,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will definitely be thinking about the concept your put forward, "healing vs. cure."  There are so many, many, layers of healing.  We read in the Gospels of Jesus distinguishing between healing and forgiveness.  Much to think about.  It reminds me of a favorite professor at Seminary, Dr. Fuller. He said, "Lengthening a leg. Easy!  Cure me of covetousness!" 

      When you say, "heal", I think I hear you saying, peace and/or acceptance with Sovereign God.  Is that right? Being able to truly own and celebrate all the words of Psalm 139, "I am beautifully and wonderfully made", disabilities and all.

Thinking,

Andrea

 

 

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 Yes Andrea, it is right.  In the beginning it may be only coping, or coming to terms with the "new normal."  In fact I believe that when we're afflicted with anything that changes the way we have to deal with life, we have to go through the various stages of grief.  And to be sure God WILL bring healing if we ask though not necessarily cure.  And I did find healing and peace with His help over time.  And learned the difference between healing and cure.  In the early stages after the diagnosis I didn't want to be healed because I had so many other problems that to me were unconnected to my illness but were actually related, and those problems made it very hard for me to find paying work.  And I was afraid that if I were cured I'd have to hit the pavement AND look for a job despite those problems.  Then I learned that schizophrenia has NO known cure, and that all those problems were part of the illness.  At 58 I still can't work because I never know from one day to the next at what time I'll wake up because of the sedatives that pharmaceuticals put in antipsychotics, and by now I've pretty much given up on it.  I would have liked a career in Professional Writing in English.  That's what I trained for.  But it's unlikely now.

 I have to tell you that although I had prodromal symptoms all my life that made me behave oddly, the actual symptoms of the illness only started around the age of 28, so in my case that was in the second year of my first B.A., and I was diagnosed with schizophrenia ten years later.  In the meantime I had a primary diagnosis of psychotic depression that didn't fully account for what I was experiencing.  Back then, depression was considered as the common cold of mental illnesses and expected to last about a year.  But I kept getting depressive episodes because of the voices I was hearing in my head that told me mean things. I would also suffer from insomnia, which is why pharmaceuticals put sedatives in psychiatric medications : to allow people to sleep at night.  Otherwise, you can't function the next day.  So I'd get depressed and be treated with antidepressants for about a year; then the treatment would be phased out--because you have to be weaned off those meds, you can't go off all of a sudden because of the withdrawal symptoms, which can be quite nasty.  And some months later I'd start being depressed again, and depending on the doctor I might or might not be put back on antidepressants.  One doctor I saw on campus during my second B.A. would not put me back on the medication despite my insistence that I was depressed because he thought I was just being anxious.  Then again, he was not a real psychiatrist, just a GP with some training in psychiatry.  He had never completed his residency because he would have had to move to another city to do so, and he was too lazy to do that.  I had to go and see the pastor of the church I was attending for help in finding another doctor who would be willing to put me back on the medication that I needed badly. At that time I would start crying for no obvious reason on city buses. It was this same doctor who later diagnosed the schizophrenia six months after I graduated with my second B.A., the one in which I majored in P.W.E.  Have you ever met people with schizophrenia before?  It's referred to as youth's greatest disabler.

Guide

Hi Michele, thanks for sharing about your own journey. Your last comment prompted me to look up the stats. About 1 percent of people in the U.S. and in Canada have Schizophrenia and nearly all are diagnosed in their teens and early 20's. That's over 3.6 million people in our two countries; sadly, youth's greatest disabler indeed. 

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 Hi Mark,

Yes, it's estimated that schizophrenia afflicts about 1% of  the population world wide with about equal distribution between men and women.  In men the average age of onset is between 15 and 25, and in women, it's between 25 and 35, so at 28 I was right in there.

But men with untreated schizophrenia tend to be more violent than women in  the same situation.  I read a very good article in the March 1987 issue of Saturday Night Magazine about the different ways the illness manifested itself depending on gender.  It's title was, "Of Two Minds" I believe.

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