3 Myths About Chronic Illness Pastors Should Know

myth, pastor, chronic illness

 

There are unfortunately pastors believe it is not a high priority for them to understand the challenges of an individual with a chronic illness. But the truth is that how well you understand a chronic illness be the difference between isolation and community.

(Note that for this discussion, we will define a chronic illness as a physical, mental, or emotional condition that is recurring or lasts more than six months.)

My daughter Cindy is autistic and epileptic, so she doesn’t fit any mold for children’s ministry. A few years ago, the children’s pastor of our church told us our daughter didn’t fit the profile of a “normal children’s ministry kid”, so we would need to pull her from that classroom. She also didn’t qualify for the special friends program they had for kid with special needs. Therefore, she would not be welcome in the children’s ministry, and we needed to find a place for her on Sundays on our own.

We were devastated. We liked the pastor, and admired the way the church was changing lives in the community. But if there’s no place for our daughter in that church, then there’s no place for us either. We left that church.

Now we’re in a church that is completely different. Not only are the volunteers thrilled to have Cindy join in the junior high ministry, but they notice when she is missing and ask about her. Beyond that, she even has a chance to serve by working with the toddlers in the children’s ministry as an assistant.

Because the pastors at our current church took the time to learn about our family, we are now ALL accepted and loved, instead of being isolated for not being normal. Stories like my daughter’s are far too common, and they are birthed out of three common myths about our chronic illnesses.

 

Myth #1: All illnesses are created equal

Even with the same diagnosis, an illness never affects two people the same way. For example, my daughter and my close friend both have a diagnosis of epilepsy, but their seizures are very different.

My daughter has short absent seizures that look like she is just zoning out. My friend has grand mals that bust lips and break teeth. To say both experience the same thing because the label is epilepsy is almost silly.

It’s not only epilepsy that has a varied pattern of symptoms and impacts to a person, but every illness. As a leader in a church, you have the opportunity to model the truth that the specifics of our condition do matter, and it is worth the effort to learn about what’s really happening in our lives.

 

Myth #2: We are just throwing a pity party to get some sympathy

Sometimes, we are accused of using our illness as a way to draw attention to ourselves. In contrast, we tend to avoid talking about our condition to avoid the awkwardness that often accompanies such conversations.

When we do risk enough to share a piece of our life, it is with some trepidation. We have all lost friendships over this type of honesty, when others decide it is too difficult to maintain a friendship with us.

The best thing a pastor can do when we do start talking about our illness is to lean in, listen without judgment, and ask questions to draw out more of who we are. You will lend us strength and pull us out of the darkness of isolation.

 

Myth #3: We don’t want to serve in the local church

Unfortunately, another myth that has been promulgated about those of us with chronic illnesses is that don’t want to serve in the church. Admittedly serving can be difficult depending on the details of our condition, but many of us are interested in giving back.

For example, I have a seizure disorder that causes 6’7”, 300 pound me to fall to the ground. Putting me in kids’ ministry is not an option (I might kill a kid), but I am doing several behind-the-scenes jobs during the week to support the church.

Taking the time to determine where and how we can serve in the local body will allow us to feel loved, valued, and accepted.

 

You Can Make an Enormous Difference

It can be difficult to lead those with chronic illnesses, because we come with a lot of baggage from poor experiences with others. But let’s be honest for just a moment – everyone has baggage.

The good news is that you can change the narrative of our story. Perhaps more than anyone outside of family, the perspective of a pastor carries a great deal of value for those of us with chronic illnesses.

By taking the time to listen as we describe what life is like for us, you validate our journey.

By understanding the risk we take very time we share a little piece of our life with someone, you strengthen us to risk again.

By applying some creativity and compassion to find a way to let us serve, you give us the chance to give back to our community.

Balance is Hard When You Have More Priorities Than Appendages

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Photo by M. Rehemtulla for QUOI Media Group (Creative Commons)

I remember the days when I only had one project to work on at a time. I zeroed in one thing and stayed focused until it was done. Whether a book draft, an analysis for my job, or a blog post, I could stay in my sweet spot until it was done. I was overreacting to the myth of multitasking (did you know multitasking causes a temporary loss of IQ greater than smoking marijuana?).

Somewhere over the past year though, I lost that ability to have a single-minded pursuit of any one thing.

Boy am I glad.

I recently discovered that this insane focus has actually been rooted in fear. I assumed I would fail, so pursuing one thing at a time limited the breadth of my failures. But in reality I was putting a cap on my possibilities. My presumptive failure was keeping me from tasting both success and the joy of stretching to complete a challenge.

It also lent itself to a completely unbalanced life. When in the midst of a project, I was unwilling and almost physically unable to pull away for anything. I would eat weird meals at strange times. I would do my best to ignore “the outside world”, which I defined as anything but my project and me. I would allow anger to arise in me when my kids had the audacity to want to talk to me.  It was terrible. I was terrible.

Really, it came down to one question: Do I want to be brilliant at one thing, or would I rather live a life where my family and friends find joy in my presence?

I’m not saying it is black-and-white for everyone. Probably most are able to be absolutely amazing at something and still be decent. Not this guy. Too easily, I begin to expect perfection from myself, and this high standard requires my all. Something is triggered in me when the call to brilliance comes to my mind, and I feel like I have to give every waking moment, every spare bit of energy, every-single-thing to it.

I am learning to have a balanced and prioritized life, instead of pursuing brilliance in all things. I definitely don’t consider myself an expert at balance – you might say I am a neophyte at it. But I have figured a few things out.

People first, every time

No project should ever take priority over the people in my life. And let me make one thing absolutely clear. There is a clear distinction between the hypothetical people who might read the words I write and the actual physical people in my daily life.

My first call in life is to be a godly husband to my wife, learning together with her how to honor Christ with our lives. Then I am ordained by God to be a father to my children, to light the path of the righteous life for them, that they might walk it. Then, I am to be a burden-lifter, prayer-giver, laugh-bringer, hope-inspiring friend to those who trust me. Whenever I forget this, I lose my balance in life.

Most things are not emergencies

I do from time to time have urgent work projects, and life does throw curve balls at me that require immediate attention. This is not the nature of most things in my life. Most have moderate deadlines, or no deadlines at all. I am learning to experience my life at less than breakneck speed, and to enjoy the process.

There is no shame is having a lazy afternoon, or even [gasp] a lazy weekend. The truth is, it is often in the unplanned parts of life where we most readily find our comfort and joy. Somewhere in my faith journey, I picked up the idea that even a relaxing moment is somehow wasted in God’s eyes. I am learning the truth that God seeks to bring joy to us, in the busy and the slow seasons.

Too many ideas is proof of a creative mind

I used to feel the pressure of needing to DO SOMETHING with every idea that crossed my mind. This is one of the reasons I focused so intently on one concept at a time, because it prevented me from having any new creative thoughts. I am slow, but I finally get it. Having an idea does not put any responsibility on me to execute it immediately, or at all.

Now, I recognize a new idea exactly for what it is…an idea. Now, I have lots of ideas about how I can parent better, how I might replace the income from my “day job”, what my next book might be. I have no idea which of these will actually work, or even how many of these I will execute. But giving them space in my imagination to ruminate reminds me I am alive, and I am not done growing and changing.

Where Does This Leave Me?

For one thing, it gives me more potential priorities than appendages. I don’t have a chance of implementing even half of the ideas I have now. It also leaves me with a greater capacity for joy and rest in my life. It even increases the chances that I succeed at those things which matter most, regardless of what my net worth or books sold might communicate about me to others. In short, it leaves me healthy.

Broken Hallelujahs

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Photo by Mike Schmid (Creative Commons)

Confession time: I don’t like most Christian music. I find it trite and disconnected from the challenges of daily life, as if we are not allowed to acknowledge struggles in our songs.

I believe it is a symptom of the biggest lie we tell as Christians –we are all okay, all the time (I will be writing about this soon).

UPDATE: I did write about the life of okay right here.

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a song that captures my experiences as a man who loves Jesus deeply, but just feels like life sucks some days. The Afters have crafted just such a song in their “Broken Hallelujah.”

 

This song made me realize a powerful truth:

When the holiness and omnipotence of our God crashes against this malfunctioning world, something has to break…but we get to choose what gets busted up.

There are four elements in this collision:

  1. God
  2. the world
  3. our faith
  4. our praise

God isn’t going to break, because He is steadfast and consistent. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. In other words He is not and never will be broken. It won’t be God who breaks.

How about the world? I think it’s too late for the world to break. Imagine a porcelain dish being dropped on Saltillo tile and shattering into hundred of pieces. Now imagine trying to pick up the porcelain dish and breaking it again. It just can’t happen. This is our world. It’s already broken, and it cannot be broken more.

It comes down to us – will we allow our faith to break, or will we offer broken praises?

Broken Faith

Destroying our faith is a common choice, because it makes the most sense on some level. If we believe God is good and all-powerful, then terrible things shouldn’t happen in this world. When they do occur, we seem to be within our rights to blame God. It feels appropriate to question His character and His strength.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  – Edmund Burke

If Mr. Burke can question the character of good men who stay uninvolved, how much more ought we wonder about the nature of a silent God?

I know many who have made this choice. Too many wounds given by those who claim the name of Jesus. Too many unanswered prayers. Too much pain, and too little involvement from God. Honestly, I understand the choice. Sometimes, this life just sucks, and it’s hard to believe in a good God in a sucky world.

Broken Praise

I come back to John 6:68. After a wild teaching from Jesus caused many to stop following Him, He offered to let His disciples leave as well. Peter’s answer echoes my own, in the face of a life that makes so little sense far too often.

Lord, to whom shall we go?

You have the words of life. – Apostle Peter

I have built my life on a foundation of Jesus as my Savior and Lord. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened the locked door for me to have intimacy with the great good creator God.

If this is wrong, my foundation is shattered utterly and my life is ashambles. I honestly cannot imagine a universe in which there is no God, or this God is not good.

My faith is unshakable. Not only because of my trust in God, but because I cannot imagine a world without Him. So I offer busted praise.

What Do Broken Hallelujahs Look Like?

The Afters sing about raising empty hands to God, but I have a different image for broken hallelujahs. We raise both hands up, but neither is empty.

In one hand, we hold all our thoughts of gratitude and thankfulness to God for His goodness and generosity to us. In the other hand, we hold all our unresolved difficulties – an unloving marriage, unemployment, chronic illness, and death. So we lift both up to God, simultaneously expressing our love and confusion to God, undergirded by a desperate trust that God will come through.

Broken hallelujahs are praise offered in the minor key of pain and sorrow.

For many of us, this is the only way to offer honest worship to God. To forget the things in our lives that do not represent our God’s character as we worship would be dishonest. To dwell solely on this incongruencies would shatter our tenuous faith.

So we worship the goodness of God as we ask Him for understanding. We extoll His greatness while confessing confusion at our circumstances. We recognize Him as Lord of our days even though our days are filled with pain. We bring our broken hallelujahs.