Since 1998 I have struggled with a chronic illness that carries various labels and a wide variety of explanations. The American name is Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS).
Here is a medically acceptable description of this illness:
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and by other names, is a complex and debilitating chronic illness that affects the brain and multiple body systems.
CFS is characterized by incapacitating fatigue (experienced as profound exhaustion and extremely poor stamina) and problems with concentration and short-term memory. It is also accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as pain in the joints and muscles, un-refreshing sleep, tender lymph nodes, sore throat and headache. A distinctive characteristic of the illness is post-exertional malaise, a worsening of symptoms following physical or mental exertion occurring within 12-48 hours of the exertion and requiring an extended recovery period.
When I first received a proper diagnosis of this illness I was devastated. It sounded final and left me with little or no hope. I sought prayer, even special prayer and anointing, tried various forms of medicine (both traditional and non-traditional) and sought to find new ways to cope with my daily routines. Some days I struggled to get up and just live. On other days the suffering lessened, only to return and knock me down all over again only a day or so later. Finally, after a number of promising new therapies, I just gave up. I resolved that I would never feel good again. Late one summer, about six years ago, I felt almost normal for about six months. But then I relapsed again and felt worse than ever.
I began to sense that God wanted me to start listening to my vulnerabilities and numerous (spiritual and emotional) weaknesses. I needed to stop trying to perform and to end seeking to find my identity in what I did/accomplished each day. My only identity was to be found when I was truly lost in God’s love. My striving for recognition finally began to decrease about four to five years ago. I could live without producing major work and I could enjoy what little blessings I might know. Sometimes (literally), this was true from hour-to-hour. The most difficult part of all this was to discover that all my projects could not never be completed. My dreams had to die. Things had to be left undone. Places would not be seen and books would not be written or read. It takes time, and God-given patience, to come to the end, to know that your energy will not sustain what you want to do. I slowly underwent a conversion. Richard Rohr refers to this as “falling upward.” I concur completely.
I have been learning, in recent years, how to be really present, both with myself and others. I do not need to finish a task, just to show up and be counted as really present with whatever strength I have for what ever the moment allows. I am now amazed at how often I see the Lord use little acts to contribute to things far beyond what I could do or imagined could ever happen. If I understand this correctly then listening in the midst of this brokenness has become a strength, not a weakness.
In September of 2012 I heard the Spirit say to me as clearly as I have ever heard him speak to me, “John, you might never get perfectly well but you are not taking care of your body and your body and soul both still belong to me. Take better care of your body because someday you will stand before me to give an account for what you did with what I gave to you.” My wife had been attending Weight Watchers for some months and had urged me (gently) to consider going. I resisted each time she asked but then one day I just knew I had to go. I did join and I have not looked back. I ended up losing 49 pounds and for months now I have been eating good food and (generally) sleeping better. What truly surprises me is that I exercise again. (I never expected this to happen so I cannot tell you how much I enjoy it.) I walk from three to seven miles a day, almost every day. I find these extended walks provide me with times to read (on my Kindle while on a track), to pray and to think and meditate very deeply. Slowly I have a begun to feel much better. I went to the physician in June and my blood work was so good that he said, “John, you have the blood work of a very young man!” I was amazed.
Has my CFS gone away? There are days when I would say, “It seems that is the case.” (This makes me wonder what I had all along but I know I was really and truly not well whatever you call it.) But on other days, especially in these winter months, I am very fatigued and weak. This could be my age (I will be 65 on March 1st) but since my other vital signs are all healthy and normal I think the CFS still lingers (as a virus) within my body. I now see all of this as a divine gift that keeps me from moving too far, too fast, and in the wrong direction. I never feel so good that I do not think about the life to come but I now feel quite well enough to do more than I’ve done since I was 49 years of age! Again, I am amazed and filled with deep gratitude.
For all of these mercies, both the severe mercy of chronic illness, and the new mercy of better health, I give thanks. I also give thanks for the prayers and love of so many of you who read this blog, and have prayed for me these past fourteen years. The Lord is good and he is my strength, in both my weakness and my improving health. As I look ahead to the next few months I want to write a new book. Would you pray that I can focus my mind and soul on the topic of God’s love and our (responsive) love. My working title is: Our Love Is Too Small. If I am disciplined enough, and strong enough, I hope to have this book written by the summer of 2014. I humbly ask for your prayer for me to this end.
The photo above (top right) was one taken of me a few weeks ago while I was preaching at a service in Hyde Park (Chicago) on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day. I felt great! (Note the colorful Crimson Tide tie!) In 2012 I preached only twice on Sundays. This year I have preached many more times and with far more energy and mental clarity. Again, this amazing blessing overflows in my body and soul as 2013 comes to an end.