Being Well When We’re Ill


Last week Christianity Today announced its 2009 book awards, which evaluate books published in 2008. For several years now, I’ve served as a judge in the Christian Living category, and been introduced to some wonderful books that I might not have otherwise read. I’ve also trudged my way through a few that, well, I didn’t care for. (What does Rob Bell have against proper paragraph structure anyway?) Sometimes I’ve been in sync with the other judges and sometimes I haven’t. This year, I was. The winner, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing was excellent, as are most InterVarsity Press books that I’ve read. IVP books are consistently well edited: The writing is always tight and readable, the style clean and the content substantive.

My top choice, however, was the Award of Merit winner: Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope in Spite of Infirmity by theologian Marva J. Dawn. I chose this title even though the editing could have been tighter, because content is queen.  Dawn lives with multiple physical infirmities, and still manages to have a full life of writing, teaching and speaking. She writes an honest account of the challenges those ailments pose for both her and her husband. The book is laid out in chapters that work nicely as daily devotions. They begin with a Scripture and end with a prayer. Sandwiched between are Dawn’s theological and personal reflections.

Being Well When We’re Ill isn’t just a book for sufferers, but also for caretakers. It isn’t designed as such, but in my role as spouse and mother to three (now two) chronically infirm family members, I found it exceedingly helpful. For example, chapter nine is titled Loneliness–Community. It begins with a meditation of David from Psalm 31:9-12:

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

Dawn notes that this psalm comes from a time when physical afflictions were often thought to be God’s punishment. David emphasizes his feelings of alienation from friends and neighbors, and his enemies’ delight in his sorrow. Most telling though, are his feelings of abandonment. In an earlier chapter Dawn examined the blame that is frequently assigned to those who suffer.  She revisits the theme here:

Some people espouse the bad idea that we experience chronic illness or handicaps because we have done something wrong. Then such people try to help us fix it, which leads to a different kind of isolation.

The types of isolation she identifies are: physical isolation, intellectual isolation, emotional isolation and envy, social isolation, misunderstanding and spiritual isolation.  In the midst of the discussion, she quotes seminary professor Arthur Paul Boers:

I learned long ago in giving pastoral care that in stressful situations people feel not just severely alone but profoundly misunderstood. The sense that “I’m the only one who knows, understands, or feels this” may be ever more difficult than whatever appears to be giving the pain. … It is important to name and share the details and to have someone else listen to them.

Not only have I been on the receiving end of such misunderstanding regarding my husband’s and sons’ infirmities, I have also been the one to alienate and isolate them because of my own ignorance of their conditions. Dawn’s book helps me to better love my family and stand with them against the misunderstanding of others.

Her advice for strengthening ourselves spiritually is rich:

As emphasized in previous chapters and emphasized through the Scriptures, the Trinity is never apart from us, even when we feel that we are enduring a dark night of the soul. But our various kinds of isolation and the deep loneliness that results make us feel that God is absent too.

That is why it is so important that we establish habits of reading the Scriptures, so that we can trust what we know over what we feel. When we feel most estranged from God, we find great treasure in texts that assure us of the Lord’s presence. …

We cherish the sacrament of the Eucharist, for it gives us bread and wine so that we can know Christ’s presence in a tangible form. In the same way, the sacramental work of the church is to be a physical sign of the Trinity’s presence for the sake of everyone, especially the lonely.

The chapter ends with this prayer:

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Being Well When We’re Ill is a book I would give to others and that I highly recommend. It’s one I would never have been introduced to had it not been for the book awards. Don’t miss this gem!

Another book that my husband and I have been recommending a lot, especially to the young and spiritually alienated, is Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. I saw no mention of it in this year’s awards. I’m sorry about that, as I would have preferred it to a couple other contenders.