Johanna’s illness forced me to learn a whole new game. It dropped me in the middle of an all-encompassing battle which pitted me against disease, mystery, and suffering. In the beginning, I didn’t know the basics of this game, and I struggled to stay upright, often staggering under the heavy burden of our circumstances. While the daily demands of chronic disease were crushing, I learned there was more to this battle than the knowledge, safety, and constant work required to keep Johanna alive. This was a game which pitted me against myself. The relentless realities of Johanna’s illness tested my own fortitude. It’s a wartime-like action and unwanted battle to plod on in the midst of extreme unknowns. Early on, I slid into a routine of attempting to fix things while distracting myself from fear and worry. If I let myself be still, roars of doubts would overwhelm me. Quietness revealed weaknesses which were uncomfortable and hard to admit. I was in need of inner strength training, and the Lord began to compel me towards actions which at first felt extremely unpleasant. He encouraged me to begin new habits which initially felt like heavy inner weights.
Weights are familiar territory. Throughout my high school years, I played a lot of soccer. I never considered myself very good, but I tried hard. One summer, I was interested in building leg strength and bought some wrap-around ankle weights. I started with three pounds on each foot and felt the difference right away. When I dribbled, I moved clumsily, not expecting the extra weight to feel like maneuvering through molasses. When I passed, I motioned awkwardly, like my foot had become a wrecking ball. Eventually, I worked myself up to ten pounds on each foot, adjusting more quickly to the increasing weights. Although hard at first, the weights slowly changed the way I performed the fundamentals of soccer, forcing me to rethink passing and shooting. Their challenge enticed me because I wanted to become a better, stronger player. I wanted to win.
The challenges of chronic illness and caregiving make it feel like there’s no way to win. Unlike my experience in soccer where I had the clear aim of improvement, I’ve often felt clueless as to what my goal is in the midst of caregiving. Is it finding a cure for Johanna’s terrible disease? Is it becoming a better, stronger person? It often feels like I barely have time to stop and catch my breath, but between the repetitive tasks of caregiving, there are small chunks of time to use as I want. In the past, I have often filled these times with using phone apps or reading articles and news. I’d reach for what was directly in front of me, what required little effort. Distracted by the pixels in front of me, I didn’t have to think about my realities. Rather than sit with my own thoughts, I sought release from them. Every painful moment became an opportunity to look forward to the next distraction. As I’ve written elsewhere, these habits of delay tactics erupted, and I was left utterly disoriented as to how to cope with the tyranny of suffering.
There’s wisdom to not focusing on our trials and to purposefully resting, but what I was filling the quiet with wasn’t helping me endure. I felt the emptiness acutely. Nevertheless, the thought of trying to change felt like another heavy burden, adding to the ones I was already struggling to bear. The inclination to replace mindless activities with intentional, focused effort was daunting, and I resisted it for some time. Yet my down time distractions kept leaving me dry. In these moments, God prompted me to go to Him, having His word be what I looked to first. So, over the course of a few weeks, I decided to do a trial run of memorizing Bible verses. I began with low expectations, strapping on this spiritual discipline as an inner ankle weight I didn’t want. It was a small change to my daily routine, but I soon began to see this new weight affecting me.
God slowly used memorizing His word to minister to my spirit, helping me prioritize something which made the rest of my day more meaningful and purposeful. Over the past year, I’ve been working on certain sections of the Gospel of Luke. Pondering Jesus’ teachings has helped clear the fog around my heart, helping me daily see my need for God’s help and grace. Regardless of how mindful I am of it, there’s always something I’m relying on to help me endure and get through to the next day. It’s easy for that thing to become my own ability or the feeble strength of distractions, but God’s Word points me a different way. There’s a part at the beginning of Luke where John the Baptist declares,
“Prepare the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” – Luke 3:4-6
This promise reminds me of the goal I’m aiming and fighting for. It’s not my glory at stake. Meditating on scripture is interacting with Jesus Himself, the Word of God, and Jesus’s words comfort and compel me to remember the promises He gives to His children. Just as the ankle weights in soccer caused me to rethink the fundamentals of playing, so this inner ankle weight has caused me to change what I’m dwelling on. Now, in between the painful realities of caregiving, I carry words spoken by Jesus Himself. I carry the knowledge of His salvation. This discipline exposes my weakness and failure to trust God as my source of all strength. Yet, it also positions my heart to seek God’s help and gives me a strong foundation of truth. It makes me eager to grow in other habits that will help me depend more fully on Christ. This weight has turned out to be a huge grace in my life, and I thank God for disciplines like these. He knows I need them.