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Jul 25 2013

Dwelling in the Land of Illness: A Common Faith Journey

We all face illness in our lives. No one is exempt. At some point it will be our illness, arriving like an unwelcome visitor. Along the way we share life with family, friends, community members, and other loved ones who are sick.

Rev. Dr. Carl Yusavitz, the Director of Pastoral Services at Penn Foundation, blessed us in June with a three-part series entitled, “Dwelling in the Land of Illness”. In these well-attended sessions, Carl led us through an interactive and reflective exploration of what it means to live with illness, in our own bodies and also among those we share life with. Carl drew strongly on the resources of our faith, among them prayer, scripture, and community. The words of the Psalmist gave precious expression to some of our deepest feelings and petitions. Honest speech, searching questions, and careful deliberation were the substance of our experience together. Repeatedly, people reported that what we were discussing related closely and personally to their own lives.

Illness is about loss, Carl told us. How we tolerate, survive, or work through other losses in life will inform and shape how we tolerate, survive, and work though our illnesses (and vice-versa). There are physical and psychological dimensions to the experience of illness. Illness disorders our lives, interrupts our preferred narratives and plans, and reminds us very powerfully of our mortality.

Engaging biblical narratives and themes of restoration offers us spiritual food, strength, and hope in the midst of crisis. Prayers for restoration, for others and for ourselves, are powerful. Our desire is to be restored to health, to the way we were previously. But this won’t always happen, and many times folks are faced with the reality of a “new normal”.

So an entire session was devoted to Chronic Illness, and its most troubling symptom, chronic pain. In the midst of therapeutic ways to manage chronic pain, we identified the importance of spirituality: helping a person develop a spiritual narrative about their pain, community involvement and support, reading of sacred scripture, and prayer.

Carl reminded us that prayer is always possible, citing Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer”. What we pray for is crucial. We can pray for (a) strength, (b) the courage to make God first in the person’s life, (c) a closer walk with God, (d) greater dependence on God and God’s will in the person’s life, (e) faith, (f) wholeness, (g) the ability to love others more. After all of these, we might pray for relief from pain and suffering and greater restoration of health.

Remember not to make “pain relief” the only answer that God can provide to a person who is suffering, Dr. Yusavitz said. Our faith is located in the promise that God will make a way, even though we might not recognize it at first. And, “We should never assume the lie that God wants people to suffer needless pain or that pain is the only real way told character.”

In our last session, he invited us to pull together some lessons we can learn from illness. Reflecting out of his personal experience with cancer, here was Carl’s list:

  • Healing takes time. I don’t need to “push the river”. It can flow all by itself.
  • It was OK for me to ask for help. After all, dependency is at the very heart of my Christian faith in a providential God that I preach to others.
  • Illness can sometimes come at us fast and feels “unfair”. Don’t try and answer the “Why?” and “Why me?” questions too quickly. They morph into other more helpful questions.
  • I came to realize that I was not all that important — or at least not as important as I thought I was!
  • Someday I will die. Illness can be a very important “wake up call” to this universal reality, which we all tend to deny.

He emphasized that ministry with the sick and grieving is communal ministry. Carl encouraged us to the practice of pastoral care with one another (identifying each of us as “pastors” in this regard). He quoted Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens”, saying that most often pastoral care involves helping another person come to terms with, accept, deal with, work through, cope with experiences of loss. If we take Galatians 6:2 seriously, he said, this is what or ministry to one another will look like:

  • It will be empathic (vs. merely sympathetic).
  • It will be accepting of where the other person is at in their grieving. “We should try and go there and not get the person to come to where we are.”
  • It will involve presence. This means careful listening.
  • It will always be genuine, trustworthy, and concrete.

Sometimes in our anguish and discomfort for the person who has experienced profound loss, we are prone to say ill-advised things: “I understand what you’re going through”, “This happened for the best — God wanted your loved one”, “You can always have another baby”. In these cases, the expression “Don’t just say something — stand there” is another way of understanding care giving.

Where we are inclined to speak, here are some helpful suggestions:

  • If you are at a loss for adequate words, say so.
  • “I’m really sorry” is always appropriate. It is important that the other person feels heard.
  • When we have no idea what the other person is going through, we can acknowledge: “This has to be very tough.”
  • When the person is a close friend or relative, we can promise: “I’m here for you; I want you to know that”, or “We don’t know where this is headed, but I won’t abandon you”.
  • When you’re not sure what the person really needs from you, you can simply ask: “What can I do to help?” Showing up is what is most important!

We were educated, encouraged, and equipped through this series! The members of our St. Andrew’s community have been living with a great deal of illness, chronic pain, and loss. God is with us, and we are gifted with one another and our common call to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Scott's Signature

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