I have to confess that when I am resting at home, & especially on days when my illness keeps me from doing more active things, I love to watch movies. Often, if I can find them on TV or have them in my stash of DVDs, they are the old time tried & true movies, but I have a few favorites that I still love to watch from the days when my son was younger & he & I would confine ourselves to my bedroom many evenings while I was being fed by an IV through my chest.
One such movie came up on the AMC channel recently & I just HAD to turn it on. It was Jumanji. This time I was not with my son & I had an opportunity to watch the movie with different eyes than I did in those days when John was about 8 (he’s now 22). In case you’ve never seen the movie, let me give you a brief summary. Two children find a game that has been buried for years. They find it because it gives off a drum beat that is audible to those whose hearing is attuned to it. As the children begin to play, each roll of the dice brings up a rhyme that is followed by arrival of a disaster from a mythical jungle called Jumanji.
Eventually, two others join the game & the disasters compound. Among the arrivals are enormous stinging insects, poisonous dart throwing plants, quick s& that appears below one’s feet without warning, & my personal favorite – a stampede complete with an overweight rhino that always brings up the rear.
As I watched Jumanji this time, the parallels between living in that game & living with chronic illness became striking. Life with chronic illness brings the sting of unexpected pain, debilitating medication side-effects that seem to dart in & out of our lives, days upon days when simple tasks require monumental effort to move through the thickness of symptoms, & often the sense that any hour, any minute the onslaught will come thundering through carrying a last kick that brings up the rear. Yes, life with chronic illness is quite a bit like living in Jumanji.
Where do we find the strength, the perseverance, & the determination to go on when we come face to face with the challenges of chronic illness? Where do care givers, family & friends draw their capacity for compassion, support & continued empathy to walk with us each day?
This evening’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans provides us with some insight, comfort & hope. Our reading comes out of Chapter 5 of this letter. This chapter is a part of Romans called “the grace chapters”. It is a section of Paul’s writing that shows the necessity of reliance on God’s grace through our faith. Let’s focus on two aspects of this reading. First, three words are key to our underst&ing: faith, grace, hope. Second, this reading gives us a clear call to st& strong in grace & hope, & we will consider that call as well.
These five verses from Paul’s letter are an instruction to us about the interconnectedness of faith, grace & hope for us as Christians. Paul tells us that we have been “justified through faith”, & that we have “gained access through faith into grace”. Our faith, our belief in God, is the foundation of our relationship with God. Nothing comes to us except through faith. Our faith makes right, that is, justifies, our relationship with God & opens us up to a relationship that is beyond our imagining. Faith opens the door, giving us access to the amazing gift of God’s grace if we are attuned to accepting this gift. Having access by faith into God’s grace is a free gift, no strings attached. St&ing in God’s grace by faith literally fills us with the presence of God by the action of the Spirit.
Grace is not an easy concept for us to underst&. So often in our lives, gifts are given with strings attached. Gifts freely given are rare in our human experience. Reverend Margaret Gunness says this about grace: . . grace . . implies God’s continual, unfailing faithfulness both to his covenant & his people forever.”
Rev. Gunness continues, ” . . . how do we experience grace today? I often think of it in terms of a statement I once heard: ‘You are accepted.’ You & I are accepted by God, now, always, without condition, without deserving, without question. To be accepted in this way means to be cherished, to be loved, to be [kept safe]. It means that who we are is basically valued, honored & respected. It means that we don’t have to earn or deserve such care; it is simply there for us, ours as a gift outright.”
For us with chronic illness, & for those that care for & love us, grace is God’s living essence within us, freely given, no matter how broken, how imperfect, how humanly limited we are or how much pain we endure.
Paul goes on to say, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; & character, hope.” Some translations replace the word “rejoice” with the word “boast”. In our experiences, I don’t think any of us rejoice or boast about our challenges. However, I do believe that for each challenge, each suffering we endure, we gain something; a gift is given in return & that IS cause for rejoicing. We learn to persevere, we learn to be more patient, more compassionate, more empathetic toward others, &, yes, more joyful in the gift of life given to us & the opportunities we have to share our life with those we love.
The journey with chronic illness requires perseverance & because we persevere our character changes & we grow as people st&ing in God’s grace. Life becomes so much more precious, so that st&ing in God’s grace we do have hope. This hope is HOPE in capitol letters.
It is HOPE beyond the everyday use of that word: I hope you have a great day; I hope to get an “A” on a test; I hope you find your lost keys.
It is the HOPE we have because of God’s love & grace present within us as an affirmation of our covenant with him. It is the HOPE that allows us, even in our illness & pain, to share that love with others & to make meaningful changes in our world & the lives of others by our example & service. Some days, that HOPE is needed just to get out of bed in the morning, or to face another needle stick or to attend one more therapy session.
Other days HOPE is the strength behind doing one more thing before resting, taking a short walk without a cane or with easier breathing.
At times HOPE is the perseverance to keep a promise & to dare to HOPE in our future.
Always HOPE is the knowledge that our God accepts us fully & st&s with us constantly.
Paul also speaks to the church at Rome about where they st& because of their faith, “…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now st&.” By our gift of grace, each of us st&s strong in the love of God. When we face suffering, when we must persevere, when challenges weigh on us & the struggle becomes nearly overbearing, our “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” We are given a great gift & much love & because of this we truly st& strong in grace & hope in the Lord.
In the movie Jumanji, when the game finally ends, everything that came out of the mythical jungle disappears & all returns to normal. However, those that played the game through to the finish are clearly changed people. The stinging insects & the poisonous plants & the quick s& & stampede & even that last rhino leave, but the memories of what the players learned through their trials changes them profoundly.
Life with chronic illness is certainly not a game. Our lives on this earth will never be “normal” as most people think of that term, but our lives will surely be grace-filled & hope-full. Because of our journey, we, too, are profoundly changed. For those that care for us & love us, change takes place as an out flowing of this experience, if we are open to it; if we have faith.
Each day we st& in God’s grace, each day we persevere, each day we grow in character & love & compassion & each day we continue to HOPE in the life & promise of the Lord as evidence of our faith & assurance that st&ing strong in grace & hope we, too, shall one day see the fulfillment of the kingdom when we shall be made whole. AMEN
Rev. Karen Clarke is an Associate Minister at First-Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC in Lincoln, NE. In addition to starting & leading a HopeKeepers group at the church, she leads the church’s animal ministry & consults with the church school program. Karen retired from education after 32 years due to chronic illness & was called to ministry by the deacons of the church in Fall 2009.