Why Easter Matters to Me

CW: It’s an Easter post.  It inevitably talks about religion, suffering and death.

I’ve written before about my faith, but today I want to talk about why Easter specifically matters to me so much as a chronically ill person.

(Before I jump into it, a quick note on the cover photo for today, which is a person in a giant rabbit costume staring out over a shadowed landscape under a cloudy sky.  I have absolutely no idea what possessed someone to take this photo.  It is not quite the crosses-on-the-hill image I was looking for, but it is so strange I couldn’t help but use it.  I love it.  I have so many questions.)

To any of my readers who have somehow escaped hearing what Easter is in the Christian calendar, it is the celebration of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later.  In Christian canon, Jesus is the sinless son of God in human form, with all human frailties and weaknesses, who experienced the full range of human emotion and physical pain.  He began his ministry and around 30, and was eventually put on trial and killed after stirring up a whole lot of trouble amongst conservative Jewish elders, mostly by calling them hypocrites who cared more about the appearance of holiness than actual connection with God, and doing forbidden things like hanging out with prostitutes and healing people on the Sabbath.  After being beaten, humiliated, whipped, crucified and stabbed, he died, was buried in a tomb with a big old rock in front of it, went to hell for a few days, then rose again and did some more preaching before ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

Here are some of the things from the Easter story that stick with me more than ever as a permanently sick person:

1) Jesus knows what I am going through

As noted above, the idea that Jesus became fully human means that he experienced hope, despair, exhaustion, frustration and disappointment just as I do.  He also experienced fear, and a desire to not have to go through with more pain and suffering.  In the garden at Gethsemane, when he was praying prior to his arrest, he begged the Lord to “take this cup away from me.”  I know exactly what it is like to ask that question.  I don’t know what is coming in my future as clearly as Jesus did, but I know that there is likely to be more bad stuff.  Jesus has felt that and asked for it to be taken from him.  There’s no shame in me doing it.

He also experienced unimaginable agony.  Endometriosis has sometimes made me feel like there is a monster tearing my uterus apart from the inside, but I’ve never been whipped, starved (except for colonoscopies, but that is different), refused any liquid but vinegar, and hung on a cross for hours, which historians tell us is a truly horrific way to die.  Jesus knew pain.  He knew how it feels like it will never end, like you can’t go on, like there is nothing but that pain.  He understands intimately how I feel when my pain is bad.

2) Jesus didn’t get better either

Ok, I know that sounds weird, but hear me out.  Sure, Jesus may not have had a chronic illness, but from the moment his trial began and the pain started, there was no respite.  He did not get a break from pain and privation.  His pain ended only with his death (and then he went to hell, so he probably got a whole new kind of pain there).

Now, that may sound really bleak, but it is a lot less frustrating and a lot more realistic to me than people saying, “This too will pass.”  The whole point of chronic pain is that it doesn’t pass.  Sometimes, we just endure it until we die. However, when it doesn’t we sometimes feel as if we are doing something wrong, or worse, get treated as if we are.  I’ve written before about how Christians will sometimes treat other Christians as if their ongoing illness is somehow evidence of sin.  But there was no relief for Jesus, the man who never sinned, so I’m not doing something wrong by failing to be healed.

In this lifetime, it didn’t pass for Jesus, and it may not pass for me.  But, that’s ok, because…

3) It does get better after that

This is probably where I’m losing the non-religious folks, because I can understand how anything “after death” can sound a bit wacky to people who believe you die and that’s it.  The big promise of Easter, though, is that we don’t die and that’s it.  We die and are reborn in heaven.  We don’t suffer any more.  We experience such incredible joy that it is as if we have never suffered.  I used this CS Lewis quote in my last article, but I’m going to use it again here because it sums it up so well:

That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. ..And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.

Because of Jesus, my place in heaven is guaranteed and I will one day have healing that will make my pain-free days on earth look like poo.  I will be healthy again.  I will know peace and energy and absolute, perfect love.

4) I’m worthy as I am

Jesus wasn’t crucified alone.  Two actual criminals – thieves – were hung on either side of him.  One of them turned to Jesus and said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Now, I’m no angel, but I don’t steal things.  I’ve never been convicted of a crime.  I’m not an adulterer.  Jesus forgave people who were.  He will and constantly does forgive me.

I’m being a little long-winded about this, but bear with me.  In this world, we have to do a lot of things to be accepted – to be viewed as worthy.  The chronically ill are often told that they aren’t good enough, or aren’t trying hard enough.  Spiritually, though, none of us are – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, after all – but Jesus doesn’t care.  He loves me and thinks I am just as worthy as any more able-bodied person.  His forgiveness grants me a place in heaven regardless of whether I meet society’s standards of what constitutes worthy or not.

 

Do any of my Christian readers have a different take on the Easter story, or get a different kind of comfort from it?  For all my readers – join me in being so damn grateful for a four-day weekend, plus ANZAC Day later this week!  I loved stacked public holidays.

How Christians Can Respond to the Chronically Ill

One of my favourite stories in the Bible, probably for obvious reasons, is when the woman with chronic menstrual issues pushes through a throng of people surrounding Jesus, saying to herself, “if I can just touch the hem of his cloak, I’ll be healed.” She was desperate for healing, which resonates with me deeply. She was also incredibly brave – as she couldn’t stop menstruating, she was ritually unclean and was forbidden from mingling with society, let alone touching a rabbi. So she was also socially isolated and, I suspect, depressed and taking quite the hit to her self-esteem. Uniquely (to my admittedly less-than-professional biblical knowledge), she doesn’t ask Jesus for healing. She touches him, filled with unshakeable faith, and his power flows out of him and heals her. Her courage and faith heal her. It’s a story that thrills and inspires me, because I can so strongly imagine what she felt, and I can aspire to have her conviction.

What I mean to say with my long-winded introduction is that the Bible, and Jesus (who commends the woman) have a place for the chronically ill and the beaten down. Unfortunately, sometimes the church doesn’t. It almost always comes from a place of goodwill, but it still hurts when they get it wrong.  I’ve been mostly lucky in my church – things that have hurt me have been things said by well-meaning people in general conversation, rather than directed to me, but I draw from the experience of many people in writing this, and they have all been wounded by it. That’s why I want to talk about how churches and Christians in general can be more welcoming to the chronically ill.  Below I offer three don’ts and three dos as to how Christians can achieve that goal.

1) Don’t resort to platitudes

This is a good tip for anyone when responding to the chronically ill (or anyone enduring any sort of suffering, from anxiety to grief), but I think Christians are the worst at it because we have an entire book of handy phrases neatly packaged up in the form of the Bible.  Many of those verses are great, but they all have a time and a context, and usually they aren’t appropriate to say to us.  Here’s some examples that I don’t think are helpful:-

  • Verses about God’s ways being higher than our ways so we can’t know the meaning of things;
  • Verses about there being a time and a season;
  • Verses about God’s healing;
  • Verses about how suffering is to teach lessons.

There are probably others, but those are the main culprits.  The reasons that these aren’t helpful is that we know God’s ways are higher than our ways.  Telling us that is not comforting.  I adore the poetry of Ecclesiastes,  but telling us that there is a time and a season is not helpful to the chronically ill because our whole lives are going to be the time and the season.  We know the verses about God’s healing, but the healing itself is not being shared with us right now.  Finally, the idea that we might learn something from our intense pain does nothing to counteract the, you know, intense pain.  It would have to be a truly mind-blowing lesson to be anything close to worth it.

2) Don’t tell us that we are Christianing wrong 

Some Christians take the view that either:-

  • We sick because we sinned; or
  • We aren’t getting better because we aren’t praying hard enough.

Wrong.  Wrong and unbiblical.  Just as we aren’t matyrs who suffer to learn great spiritual truth, we’re also no worse than anyone else.  We all sin.  We don’t all have chronic illnesses.  Job was one of the most righteous men in the bible, and he lost his home, his family, his wealth, his friends, and his health in two devastating attacks.  In John 9, Jesus specifically said that the man born blind was not blind because of any sin he or his family had committed.  Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  We are not cursed or unclean or any more sinful than you.  We’re just sick.

Likewise, God doesn’t necessarily hand out a free healing to those who get enough stamps on their loyalty prayer card.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12 that he begged the Lord to heal “the thorn in his flesh,” and the Lord refused.  Is anyone honestly going to suggest it was because Paul, possibly the most influential Christian in history, lacked faith?  Sometimes – often – God doesn’t heal.  I don’t know why, but I do know that it isn’t the fault of the person begging for healing.

Saying these kind of things isn’t just unhelpful and inaccurate, it’s damaging.  If people believe you when you say this, they are going to feel inadequate, rejected by the church and by God, and you will deal a horrible blow to their faith.  Stop it.

3) Don’t publicly pray for us unless we request it, or force us into group prayer sessions

It is nice to be remembered in people’s prayers, but please don’t pray for us in the congregational prayer without at least checking with us that it’s ok.  Some people aren’t “out” about their chronic illness.  Some people just don’t want to be the centre of attention, or have unnecessary attention drawn to their illness.  It can lead to embarrassing and intrusive questions at the end of the service that we may not want to field.

Likewise, being drawn into a group prayer session, or even a one-on-one prayer for healing can be embarrassing.  It creates this expectation of healing, and if it doesn’t work, you run the risk of people doing something from point 2.  If the sick person is fine with it, go for it, but please make sure that they are actually fine with it and don’t feel pressured into it.  If they say no, or seem uneasy, please drop it and ask if you can just pray for them on your own.

4) Do make church accessible (not just for the chronically ill)

Have an ambulant toilet (near the other toilets, not down a corridor, through an office and behind a locked door that you need an elder to open).  Have spaces for wheelchairs.  Have nice cushy seats for people with pain.  Have braille on the toilet door.  See if a church member speaks Auslan and is willing to interpret, or project the points the pastor is making onto a screen.  Make your church camps, getaways, meetups and breakfasts at times and locations that sick people can attend.

For me, the biggest thing is good seats.  I cannot sit on the usual school chairs and benches most churches provide without a lot of pain after a very short time.  Having some comfier chairs at the back of the church – not out in the foyer so I have to watch through the doors! – can make the difference between me being able to go to church and not.

5) Do offer practical assistance

It’s all well and good to pray for someone.  Indeed, God commands it.  He also praises people engaging in practical acts of service.  Perhaps you could cook them a couple of freezer meals, or ask if they need any help around the house, or check if they need a lift to and from church on Sundays.  Those are all small things that could make a huge difference.  Just don’t make a big deal out of it – treat your sick fellows like everyone else in the church.  We should all be serving each other in whatever way we can.

6) Do represent the sick and disabled

Whether by having sick/disabled people on the ministry team or praising them for their courage and strength in sermons, represent us in the church.  Don’t glorify us or turn us into inspiration porn, but preach on that woman with the menstruation problems.  Preach on the lepers and the blind.  Show that Jesus loved the sick and disabled too, and show that we are people, not just parables.  Keep us human, and keep us involved.

 

That’s my list of quick tips for the inclusive Christian.  Do you agree with these points?  What do you wish your church would do to make it a more inclusive space?  What good things is it already doing?  Do any of my readers from other religions or groups have similar experiences?  Let me know in the comments.