When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
These verses from Isaiah have been a kind of personal mantra for me for decades. I first learned them as a song when I was in college. I’d sing this song to remind myself that God was present no matter what was going on in my life. Sometimes I say the words more as a plea because the waters seem mighty high and fires burn quite hot. In times of stress these have been my go-to verses. Ocassionally, they come to my lips unbidden and that tells me things aren’t quite balanced in my life.
A little over a month ago I was officially diagnosed with POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) and symptomatic bradycardia. What I heard was “heart condition” and, even though I knew the diagnosis was coming, it was still shocking. Who wants to hear that their autonomic nervous system doesn’t function correctly and that their heart rate could drop even more at any moment? I sure didn’t. Yes, it was a relief to have a diagnosis after years of symptoms and struggle. But, no, I wasn’t feeling relieved as the news sunk in. As I sat staring at the message from my doctor that confirmed the diagnosis, the Isaiah 43 song started to play quietly in my brain. The waters were suddenly very high and the fires could consume me at any moment.
Over the next few days I told myself I was fine. I reminded myself that the diagnosis was just a name for the symptoms I’d been experiencing most of my life. My life and my ministry would continue as they always have. Having a name for the disease wasn’t going to change anything. And, yet…
I wouldn’t say I’m exactly angry at God. After all, it isn’t God’s fault that I have faulty genes, is it? This is what I have reminded people over the years when the diagnoses came: illness is not a punishment for sin, yours or anyone else’s. While I was tempted to blame God for not stepping in and making me healthier, I couldn’t. It’s just not what I believe. That being said, I’m not thrilled that I have to accommodate this, too on top of other inconvenient, though not life threatening autoimmune disorders. And I do, occasionally, find myself asking just what it was God was thinking when designing the human body to be the complicated blend of fragility and strength, endurance and finitude, that it clearly is. What exactly does it mean that I, as person and pastor, have a faulty heart? It’s those pesky flood waters rising and threatening to overwhelm me once more. What is holy in the midst of frustrating symptoms and the background hum of anxiety about the nearness of the moment when my heartrate will drop enough to cause a medical crisis?
In trying to accommodate the reality of my somewhat precarious health, I’ve shared the news with friends, parishioners, and readers in the blogosphere. Most people have been compassionate and some have been unknowingly insensitive (“But you don’t look sick…”). One parishioner who focused primarily on the new dietary restrictions of POTS (adding high protein, high sodium, and low carb to a diet that was already dairy and grain free) said, “You must have times when you rail at God.” Without pausing to think, I responded, “No. There are other things to complain to God about.” She laughed and I realized the truth of what I said.
When it comes right down to it, I wish I was perfectly healthy. Who wouldn’t? I wish I had the energy to do all the things I feel called to do on any given day. The upside is that I don’t feel the need to do everything, show up at every meeting, walk in every march or protest. I’ve been forced to choose what is essential for my ministry and let the rest go. I’ve long since given up trying to be the perfect pastor, and I try to be honest (particularly with myself) about my physical limitations. I even manage to take naps without feeling guilty or like I’m wasting time sleeping in the middle of the day.
The other unexpected blessing is that people open up more about their own struggles – physical, emotional, and spiritual. My having a slow heart humanizes me right off the pastoral pedestal. So, no, I don’t blame God for my health problems, though God does hear various expressions of my frustrations. I do, however, give thanks for God’s eternal presence that has prevented me from drowning in the overwhelming waters of fatigue and frustration and being consumed by the fires of anxiety. God may not reach out and cure me of my ills, but the healing powers of the Spirit keep me moving every day. And for that, I’m grateful.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.
This is the first essay in our series on Faith and Illness. Look for the second essay on the first Wednesday in November. If you are a clergywoman with a story to tell about faith and living with illness, email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about writing for the series.
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