Each morning I face a choice. Do I go for a long walk, knowing that it might plunge me into the depths of some unsettling symptoms? A walk reduces my fatigue and brain fog for the rest of the day, but the immediate cost is high. My fingers go numb and lose all precision. Pain ignites in my lower back and spreads throughout my body like wildfire. Dizziness creeps in and makes each step more precarious.
In other words, do I face my brokenness, move deeper into it even, in hope that I will arise more like the person I want to be? Or do I stay in bed?
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in December 2019. Since then I’ve encountered several challenges. Some are easy for others to see and understand, such as pain, numbness and imbalance. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be. I was shocked to find out how much of my ego is wrapped up in my ability to easily (and sometimes artfully) catch a tossed clementine.
Less visible is the most difficult thing I’ve faced: the uncertainty that comes with waking up. Will I be able to feel my feet? My legs? My hands? Will my vision snap into focus after I open my eyes, or will it stay blurry? Will my first step out of bed lead to a second, or were the previous night’s steps from the bathroom to the bed my last? Questions like these are ever present, and that uncertainty is a heavy load to carry.
Will I be able to feel my feet? My legs? My hands? Will my vision snap into focus after I open my eyes, or will it stay blurry?
Most mornings I decide to put on my shoes and walk down my front steps, knowing that I’ll need both handrails to get back up. My lowest points occur during and immediately following exercise. But I like how my body feels later in the day. The pain subsides, my balance improves, and some days I might even catch a darn clementine.
Though I hate the way exercise makes me feel, I trust my lived experience and what the doctors have told me about it. I continue to hope that intentional movement toward my brokenness will lead to renewal and a life more like the one I desire. It’s hard, messy work that requires a head-on acknowledgment of my condition and my reality.
This messy work of moving deeper into my physical brokenness reminds me of a life of faith. Scripture is permeated with the language of dying and rising. God’s work in the world can be seen entirely through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and all of God’s creation is invited to join with Jesus in it. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that to follow him one must lose their life. Paul says: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Even baptism is a death and rebirth.
Lacing up and letting go
For much of my life, I allowed my faith to be informed by a narrow, future-focused interpretation of this radical call and promise. Dying was simply a future, physical inevitability, and God’s radical promise applied only to what came after this life. I needed only to pin my hopes, my faith and my perspective on what I knew to be true, and then I could rest easy, knowing that when my time came, God’s promise of new life would be waiting for me. Like so many Christians who’ve encountered Jesus, I climbed a hill of certainty, pitched a tent and began a life of faith resting comfortably on my initial perspective.
As I’ve grown, matured and lived a life of joy, pain and grief, God has called me away from that narrow interpretation. My faith means that I trust not only in what God will do but also in what God has done and continues to do daily. God is still creating and calling me forward into something new. God has promised me new life daily and lends comfort and support in my daily dying.
Thus, faith isn’t stringent adherence to a single transformation or perspective. Faith is being strong enough to see that I’ve pitched my tent on the wrong hill, no matter how certain I was of its holiness. Faith is trusting in the “slippery slope” down my hill of certainty, because God has promised transformation. Faith is grasping that where the Spirit leads is always closer to God than where I am now.
My faith means that I trust not only in what God will do but also in what God has done and continues to do daily.
In The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: “As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
When Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven here on earth, he often begins with “You have heard it said … but I say ….” Using this structure, he acknowledges existing worldviews, laws and practices but calls his followers forward to something more—a new understanding of God. His descriptions of God’s love and character are beautiful, but so, too, is God’s movement in the cycle of death and rebirth. Faith, then, becomes trust not in what we have heard but in Christ himself.
What if we in the Jesus tradition could be known for lacing up and letting go every day, rather than for a single, stagnant perspective? What if we were known for the journey and the cycle, dying to ourselves and our own certainty and being reborn in the Spirit’s movement, wherever it might lead? Rather than yelling from our holy hills, we could be encouraging one another along the journey of dying and rising.
God isn’t calling me to dig in my heels and defend my hill. Each morning God calls me to lace up my shoes and head out, knowing that when I get back I might need help up the stairs. I might need a plastic, nonslip mat in the shower. I might need a wheelchair. But in our letting go, in the dying, God makes all things new.