Six months ago, my brother Gil was big, strong, independent, and capable. He was a custom home builder with an excellent reputation for satisfying demanding homeowners in the beautiful valley west of our city. Today he lies in bed, slowly being wasted by glioblastoma, a fatal brain cancer. Little by little, his once-formidable strength is being robbed by seizures. His speech, and the sense of humor that used to crack me up so often, is nearly gone. His devoted and doting wife and daughter take excellent, loving care of their charge, once provider and protector, on the eve of what will be just his 62nd birthday.
I am not concerned about my brother’s fate for eternity: I am confident that he knows and loves Jesus, so he understands why he’s here and knows where he’s going. I believe that’s what my sister-in-law meant when, after a neurosurgeon gave her my brother’s dire prognosis after his surgery just four months ago, she responded through tears simply by saying, “Doctor, we’re Christians.”
Following a particularly severe seizure, I spent the night in his bedroom, hoping his wife would get an uninterrupted night’s sleep in another room where she wouldn’t be stirred by his every movement and breath. She didn’t sleep much: she wanted to be with her husband, her life for the last 41 years. About 3 am I relinquished my post and went home, yielding the room to my brother’s rightful and most loving caregiver.
Later that morning, Nancy called my attention to a passage from a Puritan pastor that helped put my brother’s travail in perfect, if hard, perspective:
“In affliction, God makes himself known to his people. In the Word we hear of God, but in affliction we see him. Prosperity is the nurse of atheism. When we are prosperous the sense of God is little by little defaced. In affliction the soul is freed from the attractive power of worldly allurements and our thoughts are more serious, clear and capable of divine illumination…. God’s people become aware of his attributes in their sufferings: his holiness, justice, faithfulness, mercy and all-sufficiency. In adversity we are early with God in prayer. In prosperity we pray and hardly take notice of the answers. But in affliction we can press God for the return of our prayers. Affliction is a furnace to try the faith of God’s people and to see God’s faithfulness in his promises.” Thomas Case, Select Works, A Treatise of Afflictions
Providentially, this had been precisely the conclusion we’d reached in a small discussion group of men I’d participated in at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat the week prior. “In the Word we hear of God, but in affliction we see Him.” Surrounded by men whose lives have been profoundly affected by physical and mental disability, we agreed that we’d all learned much from adversity, and little from success.
Dozens of these Joni and Friends Family Retreats are hosted around the USA and the world by the ministry founded by Joni Eareckson Tada. While a teen girl in 1967, Joni dove into shallow water, hurt herself, and became a quadriplegic. Among the many ministries to arise as a result are these Family Retreats. Their purpose is to welcome worn-out families affected by disability and show them a great, fun, relaxing, encouraging week-long family camp experience. Most every member of the family, adult or child, disabled or not, is treated to the undivided attention of a Short-Term Missionary (STM). These STMs are volunteers who give a week of their time and cover their own costs so as to treat these precious families to a week in a special place where they are the “normal” ones, a place where they are not stared at, where their needs are catered to with love by doting STMs, and where they are surrounded by people who relate to their unique challenges, or who are trying to understand.
Count me in that latter group. I was reluctantly dragged to my first Joni and Friends Family Retreat by our 17 year-old daughter, who was just 12 when she started working at these camps with her mother. Our daughter is unfazed by disability, would attend every JAF Family Retreat in the world if she could figure out the finances, and typically bonds with the camper to whom she is assigned in about 11.4 seconds. I thought this was a great mother-daughter thing, but certainly not mine: I’d had a bad experience volunteering with a fellow student with cerebral palsy in high school and now preferred to keep disability at arm’s length. But three years ago my wife’s own battle with chronic pain threatened to keep her at home and prevent our daughter from attending, so I dutifully but reluctantly signed up with Anne just so she wouldn’t miss something she so dearly loved. That week was nerve-wracking, waaaaay out of my comfort zone, and exhausting.
And it changed tons of what I thought about ministry, disability, and the church’s role in it.
So far I’ve served as an STM twice, and each week has been physically and emotionally exhausting, and just a gigantic blessing. The experience is hugely humbling because to spend a week rubbing shoulders with saints who lead such challenging lives immediately sharpens the focus on my own life, one which I am tempted to imagine to be so demanding. Ha!
This last camp, the one from which Nancy, Anne and I have just returned, I was privileged to serve as Camp Pastor. Though I have enjoyed hanging with my campers as an STM, the role of Camp Pastor suited me because instead of focusing on just one camper I was blessed to circulate among the many campers, sitting with them, hearing their stories, praying with them, learning from them. Among them: a man who has lost both his legs and his vision to diabetes and who is quick with an “Ole” joke; a young woman with a bright smile and equally bright spirit whose mother was told to pray for her quick death at her birth since she would be “just a vegetable;” a happy young husband who lost the use of his legs because of a drunk driver; numerous single Moms (marriages often don’t survive – and fathers sometimes struggle with accepting – disability) with children who have Down’s Syndrome or autism or spina bifida or any number of less well-known and difficult to pronounce maladies; and tenacious fathers who have hung in there with their wives and children through heart-breaking and dream-shattering diagnoses, sometimes their own when the disability is Dad’s.
All of this is overseen by a delightful crew of gifted leaders, mostly women who have giant hearts and apparently-boundless energy. They plan and pray for months in advance and it shows, from the well-executed programs to the God-designed pairing of STMs to campers. But when dealing with disability, you have to be ready to flex or improvise quickly and these leaders do, ready to yield their plans to what works best for the campers since their focus is people, not programs. From the assignment of rooms to the often hilarious and frequently very moving Talent Show on the camp’s last night, everyone is very flexible and patient and forbearing, as Christians ought always to be. Camp is a taste of heaven.
So at this camp I was asked to be Camp Pastor and it was a great joy to teach in the adult program. That was scary: what have I to offer these suffering saints? How can I speak to their often-desperate situations? Sure, my sweet wife has struggled for a decade with chronic head, neck and shoulder nerve pain, but that isn’t exactly like the many challenges faced by the crowd at camp. I don’t bear her physical pain personally. With every situation so different, and some particularly vexing, why would a person like myself imagine that I have anything hopeful to share with someone whose life is boiled down to getting through the next day without a life-threatening infection, a violent public outburst, or another notice that some vital service has been cancelled because of shrinking public budgets?
So I simply preached the gospel, the message that is more important than any other, among any crowd. I preached Romans 1, Romans 3, Romans 5 and Romans 8, underscoring the importance for all of life, and especially life’s challenges, of the doctrine of justification. We confronted the question of suffering squarely because God’s word is authoritative and plainly states that suffering, whether the result of direct or indirect sin, is planned by God to build endurance, character and hope (which, you’ll remember, is not – in the Bible – wishful thinking but a real expectation based on truth). Resisting the temptation to resort to maudlin tales from the internet, I begged my audience’s patience as I tried to faithfully render the inerrant word of God.
By the end of the week, I was particularly blessed by the gratitude of one Mom, whose son I had the very high honor of baptizing there at the camp. Wisely, the Joni and Friends organization officially stays away from baptisms and communion services, leaving church functions to the church. However, this precious young man had long wanted to be baptized but his church baptizes in an icy lake so with his special sensory issues this had proven to be a huge obstacle. His parents thought, “What better a place than Joni and Friends for our son to enjoy the public proclamation of what Jesus has done in his heart, surrounded by friends who understand and love him in a special way?” So, on our own, we simply used a corner of the camp’s pool and delighted in a simple service of baptism, where we barely got the camper’s head down to the water’s surface but thankfully the Lord isn’t concerned by the volume of water involved, right? Besides his parents’ faith, what was important is that this camper understood baptism’s significance: “You go down in the water, die, pop up new man.” I found that explanation, along with his testimony that Jesus had made his heart “soft” not only to be adequate but quite elegant. It was a high honor as a minister of the gospel to participate in this baptism, which I will never forget.
Anyway, it was this camper’s Mom who thanked me, as we all said our farewells at the camp’s end, for preaching the gospel squarely, even when it meant addressing the question of sin and suffering without sentimental compromise. Tears running down her eyes, she said through gritted teeth, “We need the truth!” I took that to mean, among other things, that when she and other loving parents or spouses of persons with disabilities quote an oft-mentioned verse like Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” they do so not to salve their hurt when they are merely denied a home loan or when a son or daughter is accepted at State but not at Stanford, but because such verses are the oxygen they breathe in the face of the most dramatic, exhausting, long-term challenges a spouse or parent can possibly face (for example, when I asked her husband about his concern for their son after they grow old and die, he responded, “I’m terrified”).
Later, these parents wrote,
Your teaching was right on target. Thank you for the courage to address suffering as you did. Everyone knows of some form of suffering in their lives and certainly the families at Family Retreat are well acquainted. Tough situations need the reinforcing strength and reliability of God’s word. And sometimes, that can seem a compassion-less message, when it isn’t at all. For some of us, the moment to moment struggle of daily life results in a very "micro" view of life as one tries to get from one effort to the next. However, with your teaching, it reminds us of God’s hand and Spirit at work with and in us, and our view becomes more "macro" as we are reminded we are not alone nor is our life fruitless. As we move from suffering to perseverance to character we gain the hope we so desperately need. Thank you for reminding us of the strength and hope we have in our Lord and His word.
I shared this and a few other encouraging comments and emails with my congregation, with whom I am once again laboring, joyously, through the epistle of Romans. I wanted my dear church family, mostly unaffected by visible disabilities, to see that – for many of those affected by disability- the message of Romans, the gospel, works to help them get through daily life with a promising vision for the life to come. When you rest in the truth of the doctrine of justification – the process by which God, both just and the justifier, declares holy those who are definitely not holy- you have hope in a way afforded by no other therapy or relief.
Whether in the suffering of my own dear brother, or the challenging daily lives of the precious saints by whom I was surrounded at Joni and Friends, the truth of God’s word trumps every doubt, his promises prove sufficient in every trial, and his grace greater than all our challenges. “In the Word we hear of God, but in affliction we see Him.”
Help send a family with a member with disabilities to Joni and Friends Family Retreat. Or, consider serving at a Family Retreat. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from serving at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. It’s a great opportunity to serve for teens, or for seniors, or anybody in between. Retreats are hosted all over the country, they’re affordable (STMs pay for their own room and board), and they’re an ideal parent-teen service opportunity. For much more information visit http://www.joniandfriends.org/family-retreats/ or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you to the right people. Joni and Friends has a bunch of wonderful TV episodes available free online. Some of them describe Family Retreats, such as: http://www.joniandfriends.org/television/when-robin-prays/.