When I was forty-eight-years-old, my doctor diagnosed Congestive Heart Failure. Darn. (I want to say something stronger, but I’m a Presbyterian minister and should probably watch my language in my first blog post.) Life crashed to a stop. Then I picked myself up and decided to figure out how to persevere with hope and joy, and bring something good out of what had happened.
“Remove all stress in your life immediately,” said my doctor. Right! I was a full-time co-pastor of a large, active Presbyterian congregation, a wife and parent. “We’ll see in one year how much your heart has recovered, if at all.” A whole year?!?!? I had just turned 48 five days earlier!
Approximately 400,000 people get this disease each year, and I was one of them. For five months I stopped working. Caring for my physical and spiritual health became my top priority. That was hard to do. The people around me helped. My heart recovered enough for me to return full-time to the church. My husband, Mark, and I were co-pastors there, and had worked together longer than any other clergy couple in our denomination. For over 27 years we had served together in churches in Ohio, New York and California.
In order for me to keep working and care for my health, Mark did all the grocery shopping and cooking. I practiced lying on the sofa and watching him do everything without my jumping up to help. Even though he has always been the better cook, I still thought I should help. Learning to stay still and rest while someone else worked was really tough. I told myself to practice being my dad. Dad did not mind sitting in the recliner and reading the paper while Mom cooked dinner. It is a lot easier now!
One super hard part of CHF for me is that once my energy is used up, I really have to stop and rest. I am used to pushing through no matter how tired I am. If you have CHF and try to do that, however, it takes even longer to regain your ability to be up and about. It makes a geometric difference in recovery time. I was hit over the head by this more times than I can count. I had to learn to tune into my body, recognize when I was getting tired, and make myself stop what I was doing.
Pastors often push through exhaustion to deal with emergencies such as hospitalizations and death, which rarely occur at convenient times. But I still had to have enough energy and stamina to push through in pastoral emergencies such at the hospitalization or death of parishioners. To do that, I had to change my whole way of being in the world.
To save energy for pastoral responsibilities, I gave up gardening, concerts, plays, shopping, fix-it projects, dinners with friends and parishioners, and activities in the national church. In other words, the parts of life that feed my soul and nourish my creativity. It had a huge personal cost, but I still feel it was a worthwhile price. I touched people’s lives in important ways and they did the same for me.
Four years after my diagnosis, my cardiologist gave me a choice: “Keep doing what you’re doing and shorten your life, or leave your job and live longer.” I want to live a lot longer, so I resigned. This blog is about my journey into the land of unemployment, disability, compromised health and vocational change. It’s also about faith, persistence, hope and new life.
I had already changed my hard-charging lifestyle, improved my diet, and exercised. I’d read everything I could on how to live with CHF. I was strong enough to work again, even if it meant restrictions in other parts of my life. I hiked in the mountains, visited Mexico and Switzerland. But the doctor was right about the cost to my physical health. The emotional and spiritual cost when I stopped doing that which feeds my soul was also shortening my life. He pointed that out too.
Ever since my CHF diagnosis I’ve held on to Moses’ ancient: “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Each morning I consciously committed myself to “choosing life” by eating right, exercising, taking my meds, and resting when my body needed a break. When my doctor issued his ultimatum: “leave your job or realize that you’re shortening your life,” I knew I had to change direction again to keep “choosing life.”
In August 2009 I resigned from my pastorate. I didn’t know what I’d do with the rest of my life. But I trusted God that this was the right step. I trusted that if I tried to stay attuned to the Holy One and persevered in whatever steps I could take, a way would become clear before me.
I’d been a church pastor since my mid-twenties. As exhausting as a pastor’s life is, it’s also a wonderful calling to be with people at important times in their lives, to bear witness to God’s presence in both the mundane and the crisis. It’s a wonderful, audacious calling to preach and teach God’s Word and Will and connect them to the current day and to people’s lives now. I loved the people of the church I served and I’d miss both them and the special relationships we had.
Who would I be if I were no longer a pastor? I didn’t know. Mark and I had worked together for decades. Amazing, but true. What would it be like for us not to work together? How would it change our relationship and marriage? I didn’t know. I knew my doctor was right, but “choosing life” in this circumstance would once again turn my life upside down, force me to reconsider who I am, what my limitations are, and what I’ll do with the rest of my life.
Quakers speak of discerning God’s will for our lives by attunement to what they call “Way Closing” and “Way Opening” (Let Your Life Speak, Parker J. Palmer). A Way had closed for me. Now I needed to wait, pray, listen, imagine, and work to find Way Opening. I keep a quote taped to my computer screen: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be” (Douglas Adams). This is true for me. I’m not grateful for CHF but I think I’m ending up where I needed to be. Some days I can’t find the strength or courage, or whatever, to go forward at all. I don’t know where I’m going, or how I’m going to get there. I feel as though I’m standing in a fog in which the visibility is no more than an arm’s length in any direction. Somehow, though, I feel that God is standing in the fog with me, keeping me company.
Other days, like today, I have the vision and courage to get up and try again. I will bring good from this. A power greater than myself is in this with me. I am not alone.
When I resigned from my job, I wanted to write. Many people had asked me to write about my journey through illness, and how my faith and persistence had been an inspiration to them. They wanted others to be helped by my ability to bring good from hardship and to persevere in the face of difficulty. They also thought I could help others by telling my personal story from these years of walking into the unknown with faith that I will make it through.
It’s taken one year since my resignation for me to find my voice and feel ready to speak of my journey. New health issues remind me of my mortality and vulnerability. None of us is guaranteed a tomorrow, so if I’m going to share something to help others, I’d better get started. Here I am.
Learning: Choose life every morning. Choose it again over and over during the day.