“Oh, you’re one of those gluten free people.”

“I’ll have EXTRA gluten on mine.”

“You mean you can’t eat any pie? I only put a little bit of flour in there!”

I cringe every time I hear myself ask if something is gluten free. I never wanted to be one of THOSE people. But in a process that has gone on for years, I’ve realized that I need to be one of those people for my health and preservation.

In 2010, I developed a tumor on my thyroid, usually called a goiter. The doctors kept telling me that it wasn’t not cancer, which is not reassuring, until I had the tumor removed along with half of my thyroid. I did find out that it wasn’t cancer, thankfully, and discovered scarves as a fashion statement so parishioners wouldn’t ask “What happened?”

Along the way, a few doctors recommended that I might want to try a gluten free diet, since wheat can sometimes act as a foreign invader to the thyroid in cases like mine. I tried it, and felt better almost immediately. My chronic migraines all but went away. My strange dizziness and joint pain disappeared. My stomach stopped hurting after each meal.

Last summer after my iron dropped so low that I could not climb stairs without gasping for breath, I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease. I thought of migraines starting in high school, and of family trips where my stomach hurt the whole time. And I was relieved, frankly, to have this diagnosis so that I could more easily explain to my church people why I can’t eat their casserole.

I am a Lutheran parish pastor, and much of church life revolves around food. There’s communion, of course. My church ordered the terribly expensive gluten free wafers. My options were narrowed for potlucks. I had to say no to people who insisted that I should eat their cookies. Going to parishioners’ houses for dinner became complicated and weird.

Here’s what I’ve realized about all of this: I don’t like to be vulnerable about this stuff. I don’t like to make a fuss about what I eat or don’t eat. I was raised by a Southern mother, and that means that you barely talk about your needs at all because it just isn’t polite. And yet, I knew that if I didn’t talk about what I needed I would end up not eating anything or worse, getting sick.

I also realized that when I admit that I have celiac, I’m admitting a weakness. I don’t like to do that, either. I learned as a young woman pastor to be tough, strong, and pretend that I’m just FINE, thank you. This whole process has broken down that wall so that for my own health, I have to admit that I am, in fact, human. Yuck.

In a recent interview process, there were, of course, a series of events that all involved eating. It was difficult, but when the hosts asked if we had any dietary restrictions or anything we should know, I went ahead and told them clearly and plainly that I would need a meal without wheat. And when the rice turned out to have noodles in it and the chicken had a bit of flour “for flavor,” I did not eat it just to be polite, knowing that I would be sick later if I did.

It’s a strange place for me to walk, and even more strange to admit this “weakness,” every day, all the time, in normal interactions.

It’s getting close to Christmas as I write this, and plates of cookies are showing up on my desk. We’re invited to dinners and parties and feasts. My people look at my plate and ask if I’m okay, if I’m eating enough (assuredly, I am!), and I don’t like that reminder of my humanity, my weakness, in my face all the time.

But also at Christmas, if we’re listening to the scripture, we hear of weakness. It’s the story of God’s weakness; God’s humanity; God’s vulnerability in Jesus. I am reminded of the divinity in all of our weaknesses, and that God chose to come to this earth in the most vulnerable state of all: a human baby. It reminds me that my humanity can point me toward divinity, even (and especially) when I’m feeling weakest of all.

Beth Birkholz is a Lutheran pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Livonia, Michigan. She co-pastors with her husband, and they have two children, two cats, and a dog. She’s mastered gluten free buttermilk biscuits lately and enjoys trail running and paddleboard yoga. Check out her podcast: Revs.

This is the third essay in our series on Faith and Illness. Click here to read Passing Through the Waters, by Rachael Keefe, about living with POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) and symptomatic bradycardia; click here to read Sabbath, being still, and chronic illness, by Amy Hanson. Look for the next essay on the first Wednesday in February. If you are a clergywoman with a story to tell about faith and living with illness, email revgalblogpals@gmail.com to inquire about writing for the series.

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11 thoughts on “Faith and Illness: Living with Celiac

  1. Thank you for this. I have a gluten allergy (also related to thyroid issues) and was diagnosed three plus years ago. I have been reluctant to talk about it as well, but have gotten “glutened” too many times. SO – am happy to take gluten free communion and stay away from all the the delicious potluck foods. it is difficult. But it is important to claim our own value, by taking care of our health. Yes, thank you for sharing.


  2. Thanks for this Beth. As a fellow coeliac, I can identify with all of this. Of all the jobs a coeliac can have, being a priest / pastor must be up there with the most affected by this condition – because food and ministry are so hand in hand. The social awkwardness, the constant explaining.. I am also a vegetarian, adding to the difficulties! 😝
    My current church ordered a gluten-free priest’s wafer (discovered by a very kind church warden, I didn’t know they were available.) Now for the first time I can say without pain, “we are one body, because we share in the one bread” as part of the prayers of consecration.
    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Thanks, Beth. I also have Celiac (and cannot tolerate any grains or any dairy) and Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroid). It’s been an interesting journey for sure. I was diagnosed 20 years ago, so I have gotten used to all the questions and exclusions, and bringing my own food to everything. The congregation I now serve started using my allergen free (except eggs) when I candidated and hasn’t looked back. One very generous baker in the congregation bakes it, which means I don’t have to and that is awesome! Maybe we should have a gluten-free RevGals group 🙂 (I’m only sort of kidding)


  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I actually am not Celiac but have a wheat allergy. This has been such a hard issue for me in the church as well, especially this last year when I have been in Search and Call as most of those meetings revolve around sharing in a meal with your potential congregants. My new congregation has been great, gracious and so willing to work with me on this, once I told them which was a hard thing to do for me. They even now are putting notes on the food table to tell everyone what is in all dishes. And because I let them know someone else in the congregation has let them know about their food allergy as well, since they now no longer see it as a weakness since I owned. I think we just need to continue to keep people informed as our people can help be church for us too sometimes it just hard to practice what we preach.


  5. Great post. We in the church need to be far more sensitive to those who have trouble dealing with certain foods. My parish has three members who have gluten related health issues of various degrees. That means that every coffee hour has at least some gluten-free snacks available.


  6. I also join the ranks of Gluten- free pastor. I often feel like Lucy with the football in Charlie Brown when someone attempts to be gf, but ends up not being. I like to bake cookies, so I being a small plate of cookies with me on house visits. Eventually they have adked, and i always suggest fruit. Oranges, apples, and grapes are better for me and for them when I come to visit. This helped with my hospitality driven, German congregation.


  7. First time to comment on RevGal, but I’ve “listened” to the blog conversation for a year. Beth and Friends … I find myself even more “radical” and needy than most with Celiac because I am also allergic to Night Shades, and ALL the gluten-free wafers I have explored contain potato starch/flour 😦 Does anyone else in this Circle have additional food allergies that make parish potlucks and meetings extra challenging? If so, what are your insights?


  8. I can definitely relate! Consistently low iron eventually led to a positive test for celiac disease. It was a hard year for food for me – i went from eating anything, to cutting dairy because of my nursing daughter’s sensitivity, to cutting gluten. I hate asking if something is gluten free. But I am grateful there are increasingly more gluten free alternatives. 🙂


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