The person people see on the outside is not always the person you are on the inside. I know this too be so true…
This week I am writing a personal blog. At the age of 28, I began a long battle with ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as it is also known. It began on Saturday 19 July, 1997 – that was my first admittance to hospital. I went from a physically fit man to someone who could hardly climb the stairs. The things that were most disconcerting were the panic attacks and incredible levels of anxiety I experienced as I started the battle – and it was a constant, never ending battle. I also had pain in my chest which actually lasted on and off for about six years, I couldn’t sleep on my left side without pain in my chest for about 10 years.
My energy levels were shot, I was physically impaired getting breathless after only a few moments of exertion. It took me, and sometimes still, takes me about an hour to three hours to properly get over the terrible physical and mental feelings that follow physical or mental exertion on days when I am in a weak state. I would go to bed tired and wake up more tired in the morning – never being refreshed by my sleep. I would make silly mistakes lacking the ability to join up my cognitive ability – I described it as being ‘woolly headed.’ I would also really struggle to stand or walk – needing to sit down a lot.
It was particularly hard on my wife, Joan. She was 28 with a new baby born baby girl – born four days after I took ill, three young children, and now a husband who went from super fit to a physically and mentally broken man. She would tell you that she lost a husband and gained another child needing to be looked after. Joan was also unwell with Thyroid Gland failure, severe Hypothyroidism. They were hard years for both of us.
In the years that followed, I would work hard at getting fitter and more able, and would be making good progress. Then I would notice my ankles and wrist getting numb again, sleep losing its effectiveness, and the level of anxiety and even panic attacks increasing. Sometimes, with care, I could work my way through these; sadly on three occasions I suffered a major relapse: December 1999, November 2003, February 2006. I don’t want to write about my experiences during each of these relapses; enough to say that I wouldn’t wish them on anyone else.
Some of the Strategies that Worked for Me
Embracing my Humanity
It was a real challenge for me to accept that my physical capacity was now limited. I struggled to step beyond my frailty. When people would pray personally with me in ministry, I didn’t get better; but what would happen is that I would stop deteriorating. Prayer ministry put a floor in my life that became the base for everything else. The blessing and impact of this ministry, of putting back a floor in a person’s life should not be overlooked nor the tangible, physical, mental and spiritual benefits it brings.
I started to recognise that all the physical strength, and the capacity that I had taken for granted – even revelled in, was a gift. The strength wasn’t innately mine. I could no longer glory in my physical prowess. Instead, I had to start embracing the reality and limits of my frail humanity. However, I knew that my weakness did not define my standing before God.
In fact, I found incredible amounts of grace and solace in His word, and in His commitment to me in Christ. He spoke clearly, often and wonderfully in so many ways through so many people during those years. He embraced the reality of my humanity and still allowed me to partner with Him in His work.
Be Kind to Myself
I was frustrated with my inabilities. I could not play with our young children – I could not support Joan – at times, I could not even work caring for all that was under my responsibility. I could not plan for anything because I never knew how well I would be. Even after a number of years of the journey with this illness, I could still wake one day and have the strength to work well with the energy to flourish – on plenty of other days – I would wake with no energy and no capacity.
I had to learn to speak well to myself – change the record as it were. I learned that the inner voice is really important and what you say to yourself, in your mind, has a big impact on the rest of your life. I learned to be less hard on myself – to speak better, Scriptural things into my own life; to be gentle with my body looking after it with care and consideration, and treating it as a fragile part of me.
It is a big part of me, but not all of me. I am spirit, soul and body. I had to learn how to truly love myself drawing upon the love God has for me in Christ. All of these lessons, God taught me, and is still teaching me.
Ministry Was All That Was Left
In 1997, after my initial illness led to the debilitating aftermath, a remarkable thing began to happen. I don’t know from where, but people started to ask me to pray for them and minister to them. I was physically broken, yet God saw me as spiritually available. Time and again I would minister and pray with people I never met before, sometimes along with another person and sometimes alone. They would come or I would be invited to go and pray with them. God did some amazing things – He is so wonderful; and yet, I would be praying while completely broken physically myself, but oh so strong spiritually because of His wonderful Spirit.
The December 1999 relapse led me to reorient my life so that I began a part time, two year Church Training programme in early 2000. I can’t describe the brokenness I felt going to Belfast to study one night a week, but also the amazing experience and growth that occurred through it. This was the bridge between my past and my future.
The November 2003 relapse marked the beginning of an incredible step change in my studies at Bible College. I nearly gave up the week after the relapse. I sat in lecture rooms exhausted, sweating and completely physically and mentally beaten; yet, I can’t describe how, but God rooted me in those places. Over the next few months my marks increased by an average of about 20%. I was able to study and continue as a Student Pastor in Telford Elim some 33 miles away going 2 or 3 times a week to Telford. It was definitely the Lord who took me through – enabling me to breakthrough in study and in ministry. I could never have made it without Him.
In February 2006 another major relapse. In reality it took me 9 years, to 2015 to properly get over this relapse. I missed the first Sunday after it in church, but was there every other week. The battles were tough that I went through, so many times, but these didn’t stop me answering His call to continue to minister. A wonderful eldership, a wonderful church, and a wonderful Saviour stood with and enabled me.
The church grew in this time, we built a new building, we became widely involved in the town and county, and we saw God at work in so many wonderful ways. It wasn’t my energy nor my dynamism that made this happen – I had none of those reserves or capacity. If I had been as I was when 25, I would have physically lifted the church and carried it through to a new phase. I could do that before – I haven’t been able to do that since 1997.
My physical limitations have meant that I have had to focus on raising up others to do that which I am unable to do. Anything that has been achieved, has been achieved in spite of my physical inability and lack of energy. God has blessed me with amazing people willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with me in His ministry, and He has equipped me to be rooted into a project as a very junior partner ministering out of weakness and brokenness. His ministry has thrived because Christ’s grace is sufficient for us, even in our great weakness.
Perhaps you have read this and are in a similar place to where I have been. Maybe you are broken in some way; don’t despair! Learn to root yourself into Christ. His wonderful, amazing Spirit supplies the dunamis or power you need to fulfil God’s call on your life. God has given me one talent, brokenness, and His Spirit enables me to be rooted into Christ so I can accrue a further talent for Him.
The talent I want to gain is this: ‘here am I still standing with all those whom You have entrusted to me as their shepherd, teacher and leader.’ I don’t want to connect people to my pain, nor my brokenness – I want to connect them to, and root them into, Christ. When the hard days come in their lives, it is only as they are rooted in Christ will they still be able to stand and thrive spiritually.
I am writing this because I want to use my scars to bring glory to Christ – I will not talk about my open wounds because they are a private work still in progress. I am also not hunting for sympathy, I am sharing a very real, painful, but Christ-glorifying story. Father, cleanse this of anything that smacks of vanity, pride or a self-exaltation. Use it as You will, and bring much glory to the wonderful, amazing, magnificent Lord Jesus Christ. Amen