Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

A State Of Unrest: Neither Triumph Nor Tragedy

When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she didn’t look ill. This was 1996, and I had just moved into staff accommodation for the job I had taken in London. I was in the lounge, a day or two after moving in. Bev was coming back from a weekend visiting her parents, and as she made her way to her room, past the lounge, she carried with her a computer. Like I said, this was 1996, so carrying a computer was no mean feat. My memory tells me that a friend was helping her. She may not have looked ill, but she was. At that stage she didn’t know what the problem was; she was increasingly tired, increasingly drained by the shifts she was working, and subject to a variety of tests to discern what the problem was. She moved job, within the same project, to an office-hours role; but the health problems didn’t go away. Some days she wasn’t able to get out of bed; not in the sense of simply feeling tired. In the sense of being unable to move. As a series of diagnoses were ruled out, eventually one was ruled in: M.E. – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or (more cruelly) Yuppie Flu. No one really knew what that meant; allergies were tested for, but none found. Anti-depressants were prescribed for someone who wasn’t depressed. Some people live with M.E. for life; fortunately for Bev, she recovered.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is still, in some places, a controversial disease. The film Unrest (which I watched on Netflix South Africa) is a striking and moving self-produced documentary about one young woman’s experience of the disease and her attempts along with other sufferers to build awareness and get better treatment for it. Along the way there’s much that’s disturbing and light-shedding to learn: 85% of sufferers are female. Many medical ‘experts’ refer to it as caused by childhood trauma (known as conversion disorder – what was in times past called hysteria) despite a dearth of hard medical evidence to support this. In Denmark, a young woman suffering from the disease was forcibly removed from the care of her parents and treated for mental illness against her will for three years; at the time the film was released, she was still ill. We meet one young man who has been so afflicted by the disease that he has been unable to speak for a year. We watch the woman at the centre of the film lie motionless on the floor; we watch her and her husband both laugh and suffer through various attempts to change life-style in order to find a cure. We learn that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – as with many other chronic diseases – there is strong correlation with depression and suicide.

woman with crossed hands

Photo by Nelly Aran on Pexels.com

One moment in particular bought me up short and caused me to recognise myself. After a period of elevated activity and stress, we watch a sufferer ‘crash’ – shake uncontrollably as she lies on her bed; a response that we’re told happens after periods of emotional or physical exertion. This felt familiar; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, a chronic, incurable arthritic disease affecting the spine and many other joints, along with a variety of other symptoms. I have been in various levels of pain every day for around 20 years; I can’t remember what being pain-free, and not taking medication, feels like. That also coincides with the length of my engagement and marriage. Occasionally, in the relatively early days before medication was found to manage my pain, I would shake uncontrollably from the pain as I tried to get in to bed or put on socks. One day I found myself shaking uncontrollably in a more or less empty school chapel, a few minutes after presiding at the funeral of a friend murdered by terrorists, a funeral filmed by television cameras, attended by over 1000 people including Desmond Tutu. It was, by any definition, a period of intense physical and emotional stress. I shook for about 30 minutes, and when I got home afterwards I barely moved for 3 days. The shaking was variously ascribed to needing something to eat, the heat in the chapel and plain old tiredness – all of which probably played a role. But from Unrest I see now it was also the crash of the body responding to the stress of keeping my diseased spine and joints functional under immense pressure. With pressure released, a valve was opened and the stress could be let out.

A.S. is not Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but like many chronic diseases it is misunderstood and under-researched; both are more common than, say, M.S., but much less well-known or understood by medical professionals, let alone the general public. They are both invisible, and that is often the hardest part for the sufferer and the ones supporting them. Time and again I, for instance, will have to say ‘no’ to helping push a car or move a stack of chairs because of invisible pain. No one will give a sign of compliant; but you can’t help thinking … do they believe me? Am I really that sore? People will talk of being able to do … whatever it is … with a sore back, so you should do; doing another thing after a short night’s sleep, so the CFS sufferer should. This rarely happens to me these days; though many years ago, in a job reference, my then employer referred to me as ‘lazy’ for sometimes not helping with physical chores when I was in pain. I didn’t get the job.

As Unrest moves to its conclusion another resonant point is made. The narrator reflects that many diseases (I might name, for example, cancer) end with either ‘triumph or tragedy’. In my example, you become either a cancer survivor, or – like my mother – you die after a ‘brave fight’. We’ve all heard those phrases used. For CFS, AS, and diseases like them, neither happens. You just keep on. Just keep going. Some join you on the road for a while; but you learn to spot the moment when they realise that there will be neither triumph or tragedy, and they stop asking you, stop checking in. And God forbid you, the one suffering, say how hard it is. Struggling, finding it hard to bear the pain and the fatigue and the brain fog and everything else for 20 years past and 20 or more to come; none of that fits the convenient matrix of triumph or tragedy. There’s no prize for just getting out of bed; no awareness month for diseases that just keep on going. Carers lose support and friends; people grow weary of hearing how your finances are affected; how your sex life is affected; why you’re looking sad today; why you’ve put on weight. I’m still here, goes the song at the movie ends, in neither triumph nor tragedy. That’s the goal of the chronic sufferer and supporters – just to keep on keeping on; to many observers it’s an awfully boring goal.

Meanwhile, as Unrest highlights, some researchers do keep working to learn more. As money is raised and spent in its billions on the diseases which end in triumph or tragedy, research on chronic conditions like CFS and AS continues relatively unnoticed and massively underfunded and significantly misunderstood. Films like Unrest will make a difference; as will Becoming Incurable (which will focus on AS amongst other conditions), currently in post-production. For now, people like those in the film, like my wife, like me and many others will keep on, keeping on.

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

pexels-photo-1003685.jpegThere are many losses associated with chronic illnesses. I’ve written about this before, so it’s really nothing new. One of them, for me, has been taking part in sport that I love. First is was football – which at one stage I was playing twice a week. When you have a disease like Ankylosing Spondylitis, a contact sport like football really isn’t a great idea; before I was diagnosed I would end every game with what I thought were excruciating shin-splints. I haven’t played any sort of football since then; even kicking a ball too and fro for 10 minutes with my foster son will now leave me in significant pain later in the day and into the next. Then there’s a running. I was never the sort of runner who would take part in races or even run that far in the scheme of things. But I did do it, and I did enjoy it. However eventually the resultant leg and ankle pain became too much and I had to take a pass. Then there’s the gym; which I also quite enjoyed – but the advent of foster children meant we could no longer afford that.

So what to do about exercise? As it turns out, not much. Apart from walking a bit, nothing really. It turns out (who knew?) that a lack of exercise, especially when combined with combatting depression with food, isn’t great for me. You’d have thought I’d have noticed my ballooning waistline, and I kind of did, but I’d been too preoccupied with becoming a parent, dealing with stress at work and in other places to notice. Now that one or two (but by no means all) of those stresses have lessened, the issue has been forced to my attention by a confluence of factors which I can’t really talk about here. When I asked my therapist why I suddenly found myself dealing with this now when it seems like it’s been an issue for a long while, the response was simple; it’s the next thing on your list, and now you can get to it.

As a result, on Saturday morning I found myself awake much earlier than I would otherwise have chosen to be, on the path around a local park with about 900 people, the self-penned refrain of ‘You’re fat, ugly and disgusting and everyone will be laughing at you’ careering round my head. It was my local Park Run. There are 1000s of these round the world and they are, it seems, undeniably a Good Thing in the democratisation of a sport which can seem reserved for Other People. Park Runs are free, community organised 5km runs for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds; there’s probably one not too far from you. For me it was more a Park Waddle – like many, I walked the whole way. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but neither did I hate it and there was a pleasing variety of dogs along for the ride with their owners.  Sadly, there was none of the post-exercise adrenaline high and mental stimulation that I used to get. What it was, was a welcoming, non-judgemental, relaxed environment – which for at least a morning got the recurring litany in my head to shut up. Maybe that should be enough of a high for now.

I need to go back, to make this regular – and more than once a week. The day I’m writing this is the Wednesday after the Saturday, and I haven’t done much since. I won’t be able to go this Saturday as I have a pre-booked meeting I can’t (and shouldn’t) get out of; but I should be back the week after.

Having lived, and preached, and prayed for many years now I know experientially as well as intellectually that I’m not accepted because of my bank balance or preaching ability or ministry amongst the poor or my health or my looks or my weight or anything else, but simply because of what Jesus has done and says about me. Every time I think I’ve grasped it properly, another layer is peeled off to help me realise I haven’t and I like everyone else am addicted to earning approval and love instead of receiving grace. Here I go again, battling to receive what’s free and desperate to earn what I’ll never properly get.

One of the supposedly little things that makes it harder is that it feels like so many people I know run, and run effortlessly. At least 2 people I know have just completed an Ironman Triathlon. It feels like I can’t move in my social feed without details of someone’s run: a map, distance, time, calories burned etc. You know the drill. If they can, the lie goes, I can. And should.

Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. I want to stick at it; I hope I will. I don’t know if my AS will allow me to run, or if my park run will forever be a park walk. Hopefully it won’t be a waddle for too long. If I lose a little weight, and allow myself to receive grace a little more and strive after acceptance a little less, then it will be worth it.

On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.