It was an average afternoon, but I was about to receive a telephone call that was far from typical. After four weeks of debilitating pain that was quickly spreading throughout my body, I had changed physicians and found one who was willing to run tests to discover what was causing the pain.
“The test came back positive. It’s rheumatoid arthritis,” she told me.
“Okay,” I said, trying to grasp the impact this simple statement would have on my life. “On a scale of one to ten, ten being normal, what’s the best I can ever hope to feel again?” I asked, wanting to know what lay ahead.
“If you’re really lucky,” she said sadly, “maybe a six.”
Life was about to take an unexpected detour, throwing me on a journey I never would have imagined.
At the age of 24, I had a promising future. I was nearly finished with my bachelor’s degree and working for a large non-profit organization, gaining experience that I hoped would help me in my career as a fund-raiser and special events planner. I was dating a man whom I adored and hoped to someday marry.
Most of all, I felt that God had truly led me to the large city I was in, a thousand miles away from my home and family, to serve Him. Although His plans had not yet been revealed, I began to believe it would somehow be in the form of ministry, as I thoroughly enjoyed my part-time work as a youth director for a local church. Terms like chronic illness, auto-immune disease, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories were not a part of my vocabulary.
IT ALL BEGAN ONE MORNING. . .
I awoke to a swollen wrist that was unable to bend without excruciating pain. I assumed that it was a simple sprain and I wrapped it and went on with my day. Although the pain subsided, it returned within a few days and was surprisingly in the other wrist as well. Within days the pain went to my left elbow, then the right elbow, the left shoulder, the right shoulder and then the hips, knees and feet.
My supervisor at work was sympathetic and told me to do as little work as possible for the time being. My physician insisted that it was just tendinitis. Although I didn’t have the symptoms of tendinitis, she refused to run any tests
When I found myself unable to go to work one morning, because I could not rotate my wrist enough to open my bedroom door, I knew that something needed to be done. I called and made an appointment with a doctor of internal medicine. She intently listened to my symptoms, ordered tests and lab work, and called me in a matter of days with the results
I began to read all I could get my hands on about this disabling disease and repeatedly found phrases that described rheumatoid arthritis as “a debilitating illness” and “a crippling disease.” I asked, “Lord, what are you doing here? How am I supposed to do your work and live with this illness? I thought that you had great things in store for me, but instead it looks like you are going to waste the gifts that you have given to me.”
I called my pastor and friend, Harry, who I knew also lived with rheumatoid arthritis. What a joy to have a friend who could say, “God is in control,” but who could also say, “I’ve been there. It’s not much fun, but I’m here if you need me.
I quickly became educated that the numbers of Americans with rheumatoid arthritis is about 2.1 million people. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the lining that surrounds the joints become inflamed as part of the body’s immune system activity fighting against itself. According to the Arthritis Foundation rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most serious and disabling types, affecting mostly women, often between the ages of 20 and 45. When people said, “You are too young to have arthritis!” I knew my facts.
THAT WAS IN 1993. . .
I have found that, of course, God knew what He was doing all along, as His plan has been revealed. Since my diagnosis I have finished my degree, gaining insight into what it’s like to go to college with a disability. I married the man I was dating, and had tears in my eyes as he smiled at me and pledged “in sickness and in health.”
And rather than working for a non-profit organization, I began my own. Despite the medications and physical limitations of having a child we adopted a newborn baby boy in 2003, Joshua Aaron.
Following diagnosis I volunteered for professional health organizations and was surrounded with people who said, “How do you keep such a positive attitude?” “What keeps you going?”
I also witnessed many people who were hurting, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, and I knew that they needed to hear about Christ’s unconditional love.
After searching for a book, an organization, or a support group that addressed chronic illness from a Christian perspective, and finding none, I felt God calling me to His purpose for my life, to begin a ministry for people who live with chronic illness or pain.
I cornered Joni Eareckson Tada at a book signing and said “Is there a ministry like yours but for people with illness, because I need it! But I don’t want to duplicate something that someone else is already doing. She sweetly said, “No one else is doing it.” And in some way told me to “go for it.”
HOW IT ALL STARTED. . .
In 1996, I began writing a newsletter, …And He Will Give You Rest, and people quickly responded. In 1998, Rest Ministries, Inc. became a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization and began to reach out not only to individuals, but churches, providing tools, education and resources, so that they can more effectively meet the needs of the chronically ill in their church and community. (http://www.restministries.org).
In 2004 we began HopeKeepers Magazine and in 2008 Hope Endures Radio Podcast.
Every day is painful. Despite various medications, accompanied by a multitude of side effects, I have never experienced remission or even slight relief. My body seems to have aged 50 years in the last five. Each day is a challenge. Yet, I do not complain of this, for I have found joy beyond anything I could have ever discovered without my illness.
I have learned an appreciation for life, an intensified joy of family and loved ones, a compassion for those who are hurting, and the ability to offer sincere understanding to those who feel devastated.
WHAT KEEPS ME GOING. . .
Each day I am reminded that it is only through God’s strength that I am able to pull myself up out of bed, get to my computer and reach out to others, encouraging them to keep reaching out Jesus Christ. By answering a simple email, sorting a bulk mail, or writing the newsletter, I have found a peace in my pain that passes my understanding. knowing that I am making a difference in someone’s life whom feels alone and isolated in his or her physical pain. Nearly 1 in 2 people in the United States live with a chronic condition, so if it is not you, it’s someone you care about.
And I feel truly blessed to be able to use my love of writing and encouraging others through many ways such as authoring books, tracts, etc. which all allow more people to know about Rest Ministries, and therefore, what God can do with their broken bodies.
This is how God works: through each of us reaching out to others, despite our circumstances.
The doctors say that soon they will begin to remove some of the bones in my feet so that I can continue to walk. Both shoulders and both knees need the joints replaced and my hands continue to function less each day. I had the flesh eating bacteria in an ankle wound in 2008. 2009 brought 4 new silicone joints in my left hand. So far 2010 cataract surgery is scheduled and perhaps a surgery to fix one of my fingers that didn’t heal correctly from my joint replacement surgery.
New medications give some hope, but they also have side effects, sometimes intense enough I have to go off of them. The damage that has been done will never be able to heal. Despite the challenges, I cannot imagine not continuing to give everything I have to this ministry God has given me.
There are too many people hurting who are looking for healing in New Age remedies, such as hypnosis, “psychological cleansings,” and places other than the healing that can be found in Jesus Christ. Healing comes in many forms and whether one is physically healed or not, one can find joy, peace and grace in our Lord and nothing can replace this.
2 Corinthians 1:4 has come alive for me. “He comforts us whenever we suffer. That is why whenever other suffer, we are able to comfort them by using the same comfort that we have received from God.”
Over 300 HopeKeepers groups exist. We are the founders and sponsor of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week, exposing our ministry to hundreds of thousands (over 25,000 from MySpace in just a few month’s time.) It’s with great joy and humbleness we are now an affiliate organization of Joni and Friends, her organization.
I hope that as I continue this journey of living with a chronic illness I will be able to reach out to others and, through Jesus’ love, help them become wounded healers, able to minister within their pain, to others who are hurting and bruised by life’s detours. Each of us has our “thorn,” but it is up to us what we decide to do with it to bring God the glory.
Never believe that I am anyone special. God can use you and your weaknesses in the same way He was used mine. He can also create the perfect plan to give you passion and strength for things that you love in the midst of His plan for your life. I know people come to my web site and think, “Oh, she has it all. She has a husband who loves her, a child, a ministry. She can’t really be in that much pain.” The truth is that yes, I am very blessed, but yes, myself and my family have also been attacked spiritually in many ways and it’s by the grace of God–truly–that this ministry hangs on when I feel so overwhelmed and inadequate at it all.
Be open to what God has planned for your life. It may come in gift wrap that you don’t like! But it will be the perfect gift He has hand-selected just for you!