I am one of 185,000 people in the United States living with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine fails to close during the first month of prenatal life. Spina bifida affects each and every person differently, and can result in full or partial paralysis, excess fluid on the brain, and medical complications. In my lifetime, I’ve had over thirty major surgeries and more medical appointments than I could ever remember. I grew up with a family that brought me to church every week and talked with me about Jesus, but for most of my childhood, I was too angry to make sense of the love of God. Read Jen’s Story
In the fall of my freshman year of high school, I had major spinal surgery, and due to serious complications, I was in the hospital for much longer than expected. I was in severe pain and on flat bed rest for weeks. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, and I just didn’t want to keep going. I wanted it to end. I had never been in a lower, darker place.
My grandmother would often read the Bible to me, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with God. Acknowledging that I had nowhere else to turn in my suffering, however, I did try to pray a few times, but it felt so forced and fake that I could hardly bear to listen to myself. One afternoon, however, Romans 12:2 spoke to me. (Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing, and perfect will.) I’d heard that verse before, but in my desperation, I was hearing it with new ears. That verse spoke to me because it says “don’t be conformed to this world,” my prayers had always been for conformity – I wanted God to remove my physical limitations so I could conform and be like everyone else. I’d based my disbelief on the fact that He had never shown any mercy in removing my burdens, and now hearing that I wasn’t supposed to be conforming after all was a revelation. At the same time, it was scary – I wanted to conform. I wanted the burdens to be gone and to be like everyone else, and I wasn’t sure that I could accept a God who was asking this of me – to carry these burdens and endure this suffering. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to undergo that type of transformation; it was scary, and I wanted something easier and better.
That night, however, I couldn’t sleep and the hours stretched on endlessly as they always do in hospitals. I was thinking about this again, and I had to acknowledge that I was on a path of isolation and depression. Even if God was asking me to still have my burdens, even if he was asking me to change, the alternative of following Him still had to be better. I was terrified that night as I started to pray, but that night, a genuine desire was born in me. Instead of wanting God to rid me of my spina bifida, or make me like everyone else, I decided that I wanted God to strengthen my mind and my spirit – to transform me – so that I would be better able to cope with the burdens and circumstances He had planned for me. As I prayed for the strength to overcome my obstacles – instead of the removal of my obstacles – for the very first time in my life, I felt this sense of support and comfort come rushing through, over, and around me. I felt instantly stronger, as if I could cope with anything. I felt protected and covered by a mighty and powerful force that I didn’t understand yet trusted with everything I had because it gave me so much warmth and protection.
I still had my disability, and I still had pain, but all of a sudden, I just didn’t seem to care, and I just didn’t mind. From that moment on, I knew that I was born with spina bifida for a reason. I trusted in God’s plan for my life, and my feelings of self-pity and anger turned to ones of love towards people in similar circumstances as myself. I found that I could use my experiences and the skills God had given me to help other people with disabilities throughout the country and the world. I was seeing more and more that God had placed me in certain situations in my life so that I could encourage others in the present.
I never would have wanted to be born without spina bifida. Although it doesn’t define me, I would be an entirely different person if I didn’t have spina bifida, and God created me for a specific purpose. Jeremiah 1:5 says “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” and the fact that my spine didn’t close is a significant part of who I am. I know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
During the valleys of my life, I think back to those moments when my faith became real. Although I might not know why I am being called to suffer, and I might think it unfair, I know that there is a purpose for each and every pain I endure. I might not know that reason now, but I can trust in God’s plan, and know that God is, always has been, and always will be on the throne.
A Jewish boy in a Buddhist monastery? Or a church? Sounds crazy, right?
20 years ago I would have agreed. My life was on such a different path. My mother died of brain cancer that year. Her death released a flood of conflicting emotions in me. I had just landed my dream job as a “suit and tie” in the financial securities field in San Francisco. Yet my mother’s death drove me to re-think my approach to life. Read Garrett’s Story
(Garrett is our director of spiritual formation and outreach)
Lois Hynes: The God Who Heals
It was Maundy Thursday. The year was 2002. I remember it as clear as a bell because I was just about to finish up my last patient of the night and I was hoping that I would be able to get over to church in time for the service. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and I was just asking my patient what flavor tooth paste he would like me to use to polish his teeth when the lady from the front desk came back to my operatory and said that my husband’s boss was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. “Really? That can’t be good”, I said to both of them. Read Lois’ Story
My husband Mike is an electrician. He was hired as a “high bucket truck” guy because he has no fear of heights and is willing to do pretty much anything that might come up. One time they needed to change a light on the outside of a bank building, so they were going to throw him over the top of the roof in a bosun chair. They ended up hiring a 100 foot boom to reach it instead. Mike had had a few mishaps in the sixteen years that we had been married but nothing too serious. A bat flew out at him when he was working up at the roofline of a two story house and he jumped back forgetting that he was up on the ladder. He landed on his feet and only broke a small bone in his foot. Another time he was putting long fluorescent tubes back in a box and one broke and cut the tendon in his little finger so he had to have it surgically repaired. Little stuff like that. I am not a worrier by nature. If you are married to someone who has a dangerous job, policeman, fireman, electrician etc. you can worry all the time or say,” it is what he is trained to do and he loves it”. Being a Christian, I always said it was in God’s hands. “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me”.
Back to the phone call. “Hi Charlie, What’s up?” He proceeded to tell me that there had been an accident and he wanted to know if I could meet him at the Beth Israel Hospital. I said that I could but that I would have to see if my dad could stay with the 3 boys (13yrs and twins 11yrs) so it would be a little while before I could get there from Medfield where I was working. He said ok and then asked me something that made my blood run cold. “Lois, the Drs need to know if Mike is allergic to anything or taking any medications.” I said,”no but why can’t Mike tell them that? Are you telling me that Mike can’t tell them that?” He said, “I don’t want to go into detail but the paramedics had to paralyze Mike at the scene and rush him to the trauma center. Drive carefully but get here as soon as you can.”
I told my patient that my husband had been taken to the hospital and that I would have to go. My co-workers said they would finish up for me and to let them know what happened when I got the chance. My dad said he would stay with the boys and just as I was about to leave the phone rang and it was Mike’s sister saying that they knew about the accident and to come to Mike’s parents’ house in Brighton and we could go together. How did they know I wondered? It turned out that the accident happened not far from his parents’ home and someone in the store where it happened recognized him and called the family. When I got to Brighton, the whole family came out of the house, mother, father, 2 brothers and 2 sisters. They were all crying and so upset and I said, “Wait until we find out what happened. We don’t know anything yet.” Little did I know that they had called the hospital and already knew how serious it was. I was the only one who had no idea.
Charlie was waiting for me and whisked me into the hospital to the intensive care trauma unit to meet with the Drs. It was there, sitting down holding my hands, that he told me that Mike had been working on a high voltage fixture on the top of a sixteen foot ladder when he got electrocuted and fell to the floor striking his head on the concrete floor below. He made no attempt to save himself so he was probably unconscious. He was at the front of the grocery store near the registers when it happened. His head struck the floor full force and his legs landed on the conveyer belt that you put your groceries on. The Doctor came in next to tell me that they were trying to assess the extent of all his injuries but that basically he had a bad head injury, broken ribs and a collapsed lung. There could be a spinal injury as well but they were not sure yet. They were having difficulty stabilizing him. He left.
My family in the mean time had alerted the church and the prayer chain was activated (by phone and internet at that time). My mom and sister arrived and shortly after that, with our new pastor, Rob Perkins. The Doctor came back and said Mike was on the ward now and I could go see him. I walked out the door of the waiting room and as I walked toward the ward, the double doors flew open and a bed with Mike on it was being rushed down the hall as the Dr yelled “don’t go anywhere; I need you to sign some papers stat so we can operate!!” All I could think was wow, this is just like you see on TV in all those hospital dramas only this was not TV, it was real! The Dr came rushing back to say that Mike’s intracranial pressure which was supposed to be about 5 had soared up to 20 or so and if they didn’t relieve the pressure right away, he would die. I said, “Where do I sign?”
We were moved to a more private waiting room and Rob asked us if we wanted to pray. Let the praying begin. The Dr said that they had relieved the pressure but did not know how much damage his brain had suffered, which was a moot point because they could not, as of yet, stop the bleeding. Rob said, “let’s pray for the bleeding to stop.” We did, and it did. Thank you Jesus. I sent folks home to their families; I called the boys and said that Dad was hurt pretty badly and that he would want me to stay at the hospital with him but that I would see them in the morning. I learned much later of the outpouring of prayer on Mike’s behalf. Mike’s family are Roman Catholic so all the churches in Brighton and the Boston area had Mass cards bought for Mike and the nuns and priests as well as the parishioners were all praying. All the folks at NPC were praying. All the folks they told, told others and they prayed for Mike. All my patients in Medfield heard the story and they prayed for Mike. All the boys’ teammates that Mike had coached prayed for Mike. All the boys’ teachers, our neighbors in Dedham and Mike’s co-workers, prayed for Mike. People that hardly knew him said they had an overwhelming sense that they HAD to pray for Mike.
The Doctors gave us no hope. By Monday, Mike’s bedside exam had changed for the worst. He was totally unresponsive except for a slight dilation of his pupils. The Doctors called for a family meeting. They said they had done all that they could. They would continue with the same routine but by Friday if there was no change, we would have to make a decision as to what we wanted to do. We needed a miracle. It was at that point that I realized that I might lose my best friend. I also learned that grief, true grief is not emotional, it is physical. I felt like I was run over by a Mack truck and sick to my stomach all at the same time. But even then, I felt God’s love reassuring me that it would be ok. Not that Mike would live, but that His grace was sufficient for my needs.
NPC sent in the heavy hitters as we like to say. Not only was everybody praying around the clock, they sent in teams of folks to lay hands on Mike to pray for healing. I told the nurses, who were restricting visitors to Mike that I wanted them to let in all who wanted to pray for him. They said ok, but I’m not sure they thought it would matter. IT MATTERED!! By Wednesday, Mike started to respond. He could squeeze my hand and blink his eyes in response to command. By Friday when we met with the Drs again they seemed surprised and said, “Well I guess we have a different situation now and we need to talk about where you want Mike to go for rehab when he improves to that point.” Thank you Jesus.
We never know why suffering comes our way; we only know that the Bible says that it will. I often think about the perfect set of circumstances around Mike’s accident. So many times he would be working on parking lot lights by himself, way out in the boonies nowhere near a hospital. His accident happened only minutes from a great trauma hospital and right in his own back yard. God is good! To this day people still tell me how they get goose bumps when they see Mike at church, so well recovered, when they felt the pall of death over him in the hospital. I had a chance to speak about his healing and my faith to my patients who asked for him and who could not understand how I could have handled it so well. God’s grace is the only answer. I would never have spoken to them about such a thing if it hadn’t been for the accident. A dear sister in Christ, who has gone home to the Lord, Hazel Brock, told me while Mike was in the hospital, “Dear, I’ve lived a long life and I’ve seen a lot of things and of this I am sure, when God chooses to do a miracle, He goes all the way!” She was soooo right.
In His Service,
Ruthann Stiles: Answers for the Head and Heart
There is always a second chance. I decided to try to untangle some of my intellectual and emotional knots. Read Ruthann’s Story
When I first came to Newton Presbyterian Church, I sat in the very back row and sulked. How did I get there and why was I so upset?
A serious question drove us through the doors of the church. One day our four year old son, Jesse, burst into tears and wanted to know what happened to his friend David’s grandmother after she died. We told him that there were a lot of different ideas: The American Indians believed a dead person would go to “the happy hunting ground,” Christians believed a good person would go to heaven, Hindus believed the dead were reincarnated and came back in different life forms… “Too many choices,” Jesse interrupted sobbing “ I want to know the answer now!”
Why did we give Jesse so many options? My husband and I had been raised in the Presbyterian Church. My husband became a scientist and believed in the material world. I became confused after taking one too many world religion courses studying belief systems that all claimed to have a corner on the truth. I worked at a university where religion was disparaged and where inclusiveness ruled. We attended a Unitarian Church for a while finding a place to worship God without having to choose a single path to truth.
I turned my back on God after a tragic death . My college roommate, who became a missionary, was paralyzed when a tree branch crushed her back and then died of invasive cancer at the age of 32 leaving behind a husband and a young daughter. How could a “good God” allow such a thing to happen to one of his own workers? I turned away from God confused and angered. The best hope I had for my children was that one day they would figure out the answers on their own.
So how did I end up in the back row of the church? My husband insisted that our sons needed religious training like we had received. Jesse and Dylan deserved structured answers to important questions. We found Newton Presbyterian Church in the phone book, and met Ann MacKay, the skilled and loving nursery school teacher. I knew my sons were in good hands, but I was still unhappy. I felt like a hypocrite as I sat in the pew and came and went quickly with my husband through the back door of the church.
How did I move from the back row to becoming a member? Music. One day someone invited me to join the church choir. I loved to sing so how could I refuse? In the choir I met Christians who lived genuine lives of faith, were honest about their struggles and beliefs, and who welcomed me. I envied how they cared and prayed for each other and served the church in love. They became the face of Christ to me. They turned me back toward God whom I longed to find again.
There is always a second chance. I decided to try to untangle some of my intellectual and emotional knots. God put another special person in my path, the inquirers’ class teacher, Ron Owen. He encouraged my questions, allowed open discussion, and gave me books to help me answer the difficult questions. He listened carefully and patiently understanding my confusion and concerns. One book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell finally gave me the undeniable historical evidence I needed to see the truth of Jesus Christ.
In addition to my head issues, I got help with my heart issues. Where is God When It Hurts by Philip Yancey helped me to understand that God is not responsible for the suffering in the world, but that he weeps over disease and death that are part of the broken world. I realized that, more than anything, I wanted to step back into a life with God and have a personal relationship with Jesus. Sorry, please and thank you. I told God that I was sorry about my sins, doubts, and stubborn rejection of Him. I asked him to forgive me, and I invited him back into my life. I thanked him for the gift of His son, Jesus Christ, and asked him to teach me and show the way to live following Jesus.
As I said ‘yes’ to Jesus, I discovered that even though I had turned my back on him, he had not turned his back on me. I learned that I did not need to live my life alone feeling intimidated by the things I could not change. I did not need to wonder if anyone could make sense of the complicated world I lived in. I understood that what Jesus said was true and knew I could follow him freed from past sin and future fears. I found peace, hope, and strength for my family and myself knowing that I was walking on solid ground protected by a loving God. I thanked God for never giving up on a stubborn creature like me.
I had the sure answer to my son’s question about what happens after you die. God so loved the world, that He gave His son, Jesus Christ, and if you believe in Him you will not die but will live forever. The peace of Christ for sure.
Art Hutchinson: Running in Circles
I was exceedingly fit on the outside, but out of shape where it counted—in my soul
The first few years of my life, my parents, my little brother and I all went to church. Around the time I was eight, we left and never really looked back. Read Art’s Story
In college, I took a few religion courses in addition to my science major. The professors in those courses did nothing to discourage my instinctive, unstudied sense that they must all lead to the same God somehow. A few of them even went out of their way to stoke my atheism. (I’m told it’s much too late to get my tuition back!)
Through early adulthood, I would describe myself as an agnostic or atheist, depending on who I was talking to. My grandparents went to church and I figured that made me a kind of Christian. When I got old like them, I reasoned, I might look into it further so I could go to heaven—but not before then. I had too much I wanted to do with my life. I went to church with my wife and two daughters a couple of times a year, but only reluctantly. I supposed it would be good for them. I still didn’t buy it though, and it irritated me to get dressed up just to sit still on a bright, sunny morning. It never occurred to me that my kids were smart enough to eventually see through all of my hypocrisy.
Then, one year, God kind of grabbed me. I wasn’t planning on it. In fact, it interfered with my plans rather profoundly. I was running hard in the other direction, both literally and figuratively. Marathons and triathlons had become my constant idols and so riding my bike, running, swimming (or napping and eating) took up most of my weekends. I was exceedingly fit on the outside, but out of shape where it counted—in my soul.
I was at the top of my game career-wise also. As a management consultant in my ‘dream’ job, I was traveling constantly, advising big companies around the world on what to do. I was absolutely convinced I was going to retire on dot.com stock options within just a few years, or at least my frequent flyer miles.
Then, in the space of a few months, it all imploded. No job. No stock options.
About the same time, my younger daughter (then about eight) asked me: “Daddy, why don’t you ever come to church with us?” I didn’t have an answer, much less one that wouldn’t have hurt or confused her, and so, for the first time in a long time, I had to actually think about that question: why didn’t I go to church, exactly?
Then 9-11 happened. I don’t know anyone who didn’t ask larger questions for awhile after that. A friend invited me to a Bible study just a block from my house about a month after that. I was unemployed and so figured, ‘why not?’ I thought it would be fun poking holes in the lame arguments of ignorant, superstitious Christians.
Only that’s not how it turned out. I came in with higher academic credentials, physical fitness and monetary net worth than any of them (plus a lot of pride). I came out realizing how little that mattered in the long run and how grossly ignorant I was about the Bible.
Despite my strongest intentions going in, I finally had to confess, a few months later: Jesus is who he says he is. Christianity is demonstrably true and it explains more about my life and the world than any other system of belief I have encountered. (And I have looked into all of the major ones.) I finally had to thank my friend for his persistence in teaching me the Bible and gently answering my many stubborn questions.
Three years later, my brother and only sibling got leukemia out-of-the-blue and died only seven months later. (Several other friends and family members died that year also). Yet in that dark and seemingly unrelenting time of grief and anxiety, my intellectual faith began to blossom into something much richer. I began to see how God was working in my life—holding us up through countless “little” miracles of reassurance. With my science-trained mind, it wasn’t hard to calculate how incredibly far beyond chance each of those little glimpses was—so perfect in their timing, intimacy, content and power that I’d often burst out laughing as I gave thanks to their source.
We bounced around between several churches for a few years, finding bits and pieces of what I could see in the Bible, but not ever really being “fed”. For many months after my brother died, I prayed to be directed to the church where God wanted me and my family to settle. I knew it wasn’t where we were—a church in steep decline whose teaching was hard to differentiate from the surrounding culture.
Then one evening, after a particularly frustrating meeting there, I sat in my car, praying for a sign from God to let me out of there and direct me to where my family and I could be fed and have our thirst for God quenched. I flipped on my car radio. J. Vernon McGee was preaching out of 1st Kings, chapter 17, a book from the Bible I knew very little about. As I turned up the volume, I heard him recount God’s words to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”
At home, I looked at a satellite map on the Internet and found the parking lot where I’d been sitting. There, just east of the church, was a small, dried-up brook. And just east of that—precisely due east within only a yard or two… was the front door of NPC. When I walked into the sanctuary for worship the following Sunday, I had to laugh out loud: they were playing the same song I’d been listening to in my car on the way over.
I’ve been well fed ever since by the warm people, true preaching and the living water Jesus promised, flowing from the many activities at NPC.