Faith and Illness: Living with Celiac

“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 to inquire about writing for the series.

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