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.