"Hon, is this really our story we're telling?" I asked Rick recently, during a string of speaking engagements. It all seems unreal sometimes.
In the summer of 2007 Rick had pastored the same church for 16 years. Responsibilities in community and denomination afforded him few spare hours. Writing, speaking, and tiny grandchildren kept me active.
A mosquito bite changed all that. West Nile neurological disease assaulted Rick so violently, I dubbed it the "attack of the pirates."
Paralyzed in three limbs, struggling cognitively, and in debilitating pain, he spent a month in our local hospital before transferring to a rehab center two hours south. Ignoring the pitying glances of those who considered him a better candidate for a nursing home, I followed. For another five months I lived in a hostel within the center, assisting his recovery.
The current of the Nile, by God's design, swirled us alongside himself, other broken survivors, and each other in unusual, faith-strengthening ways. But often the journey seemed interminable and Rick's pain, intolerable. He recalls that only the sound of my voice reading Scripture, sometimes for hours, helped on those days.
Medication eased the pain and depression. To everyone's amazement, God began restoring Rick's mobility. Six months post-mosquito, we left the center, steering for the dock from which we'd launched. Home. Family. Community. Church. Rick, using a walker, anticipated a gradual return to ministry.
Immediately following our return it became clear: Rick could not resume the taxing work of leading a congregation. I began packing to move from the parsonage in which we'd raised our two children to adulthood to a temporary rented home across town.
The plunder continued. A thousand little losses descended like clouds of gnats:
An arson-set fire in a friend's garage consumed many of the items I'd set aside for a garage sale. My beloved cat couldn't move with us, due to tenant restrictions. Rising housing costs in our city eventually made it necessary to seek permanent housing in a smaller community. Perhaps the greatest loss was the fellowship of the people who had been our spiritual family for nearly two decades.
"One Couple's Triumph Over a Deadly Disease" proclaims the sub-title of our book. "What triumph?" some ask. Rick, no longer pastoring, still walks with a walker and takes regular therapy. He fatigues easily, and his left arm remains half-paralyzed. His encephalitis is improving, but still a hindrance. He is less able to contribute to the responsibilities of managing a home. In almost every physical sense, life is more difficult than it's ever been.
Yet, when asked whether he'd go back and swat that mosquito, Rick always responds the same way. "If God is getting some glory from this experience-even if I never recover completely-I'm happy!"
Popular Christianity has adopted a theology of perfection: with enough faith our sad stories will end well, with a Job-like return of departed health and wealth. We make a mental addendum to the Lord's prayer. "For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for my own 'happily ever after.' Amen."
It puzzles me that Jesus, after His resurrection, still had both scars and wounds. Why? Perhaps to become an example to us that triumph, in reality, may look different than we've imagined.
The rehab center stay gifted us with remarkable insights into the beauty that can emerge from brokenness. Our return acquainted us with another gift: the blessing of letting go. Rick's release from local ministry has enabled us to share our journey widely. Through myriad ways, God has allowed the story of His own special presence during those incredible six months to wing their way around the world.
When Rick couldn't recall his own name, he sang "Jesus Loves Me" from start to finish. Now, echoing multitudes before us who endured far greater trials, we proclaim that we are weak, but God is strong. He did not hand us over to the pirates. He set our feet in a spacious place.
Alongside the disciplines of faith and our recollection of God's faithfulness throughout our lives, what has gotten us through? Our conscious choice to allow God to make a mosaic of our broken pieces. Not struggling to escape. Shunning bitterness. Old hymns. Lifting up other losers. Gratitude. Laughing at ourselves.
Mostly, people. People who walked alongside, refusing trite consolations. Who showed up unannounced to help. Who prayed-and visited. Helped financially. Loved us, walked with us, cried with us, whether or not we were of further use to them.
"I never ask why," Rick said, early on. "That's the wrong question. I ask, 'How?' How will God get glory through this?"
The answer dawns. Rick's disability has allowed entry into the lives of hurting people, many outside the church. "You open the door, God," we've prayed. "We'll open our mouths. Don't let us stick our feet in!" He's done that. Equipped with only our story and God's keys in unexpected doors, we serve in ways we never could have imagined in our pre-pirate days.
Our journey has also provided God's answer to my query, "Is this our story?" People who have heard or read West Nile Diary answer that. They've been encouraged to face their own pirates, they say. To get serious about faith. To return to God. To pray the prayer that hasn't failed us: strength for each day, hope for each tomorrow-and that God's will be done.
No, as Christ-followers, none of our stories are about ourselves. They are mere snippets in a far bigger story that God is writing in others' lives. That He trusts us with them, broken as we are, is priceless treasure. In spite of the pirates.
Kathleen Gibson (www.kathleengibson.ca) is a faith and life columnist and former magazine editor. Since West Nile Diary, One Couple's Triumph Over a Deadly Disease, she has published Practice by Practice, the Art of Everyday Faith. She and Rick speak frequently on faith, West Nile Disease, and overcoming life's pirates. They live in Saskatchewan, Canada, where they claim there are only two seasons-winter and mosquitoes.
Holiness Today, March/April 2010