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Birthday begins year of unexpected gifts"

Rachel Coleman
Second Prize - $5,000

Rachel Coleman lives in Liberal, Kansas, where she and her husband, Autry, homeschool the three youngest of their eight children. She attended Central Christian College in McPherson, KS, and Trinity College in Deerfield, IL. Rachel has written for the Southwest Times newspaper for 17 years. Her blog, "Out of Print" can be found at www.rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. She was an Amy Award winner in 2007.

On my 40th birthday, Sept. 14, 2008, I woke up disabled. I limped to the kitchen, my right foot dragging along the carpet at every step and attempted to eat breakfast with a right arm that couldn't grasp the coffee mug. I spent the morning at the emergency room and went home wondering why the pictures of my brain seemed to make all the medical people look so sad.

Within two days I learned I had multiple sclerosis, a disease that essentially unravels and erodes the insulation on a person's nerves. Messages don't make it from the brain to, say, the arm: "Hey, the mouth would like a sip of hot coffee, and we're waiting for the morning's caffeine delivery up here in Brain Central! Pick up the mug, already!" The signal dies en route. The birthday girl can't walk.

One year later, I can say this disease is one of the best things that has ever happened in my life. It was an unexpected and excellent birthday present from God.

Denial? Delusion? Not at all. Just like all the unexpected life trials people encounter, there's a real down side to having MS — shots, fatigue, discouragement, uncertainty about the future. Limping. But compared to what I received during this wondrous 41st year of life, the difficulties turned out to be light and temporary.

This year was an endless parade of gifts, some spectacularly dramatic, others subtler and initially easy to overlook. The truths I learned as they were revealed are worth noting because God offers all of us the same blessings, whether they come in the form of MS, diabetes, job layoffs or just everyday life. It is a paradox: hardship brings with it glimpses of God's goodness. Gifts presented in a simple package.

The first was peace and quiet. Through no choice of my own, I stayed in bed nearly a month to rest my stressed-out, frail body. The life I was accustomed to — an experiment in frenetic, overscheduled, multi-tasking absurdity — came to an abrupt halt. I had to relearn everything: how to walk, how to take a bath, how to eat without spilling food all over myself, how to type. How to be still.

It was only after a week or so that I identified the main emotion that blanketed me: relief. We never notice what we have failed to notice until we slow down. Life had become noisy and busy and brittle and I was oblivious to the soul poverty that crept in amid the jumble. Now, however, I savored the slow steadiness of morning, noon and night at home: the cheery ticks and chirrups of our family's blue parakeet, the rich stripes of late afternoon sun through the living room windows, the cool dim shadow of the bedrooms, a red rose from my daughter's flower garden. 

"In quietness and confidence is your strength," the poet-prophet Isaiah observes.

"Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist records.

And as the weary prophet Elijah heard, having worn himself to a frazzle proclaiming the reality of God, "after the earthquake … and after the fire, a still, small voice."

That's the voice of God, the maker of heaven and earth, rivers and mountains, rain and stingrays and elephants and silkworms. And people. And me.

This was the second gift: a fresh awareness of my created life. Since childhood, I had been taught that God created people, that we are made in his image, and that he wants to interact with us as individuals. Big truths, easy to ignore. This isn't the sort of thing you ponder as you clamber out of bed in the morning, five minutes late already: yeah, here I am, heading out to do my job, and don't I feel great, being made in the image of God and all!

Yet when something goes really amiss with the body — a bad test result, a failure to function properly — we can't help doing it, poor self-centered humans that we are: we start to think about our lives in terms of origin and eternity. We ask, "What about me?" If I am the result of an accidental set of circumstances some million-odd years ago — and if it is only reasonable that the strongest, most excellent, fittest specimens of any kind are destined to survive — and if I am clearly lacking, a burden on others, a failure of sorts — then, what's the point of struggling with pain and loss?

Besides not making any sense, the notion that we are accidents of evolution and beholden to no Intelligent Designer is a recipe for utter despair. Contrast this with the Christian belief system which maintains that every life has value because it was given by God. A person's worth is not based on looks, talent, productivity, strength or charm, though many of us spend an awful lot of time desperately trying to acquire as much of those qualities as possible. How reassuring to realize that, while my body may fail me, being stranded as it is in this fallen, broken world, "the Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; his love endures forever; he will not abandon the work of his hands." (Psalm 138:8). 

Nor has he. The third surprise present: a bone-deep sense of peace and security that wrapped around me when I was at my weakest and most vulnerable, waiting for help to change my clothes and comb my hair. "I belong to God," I remember thinking. "He made me and he will take care of me." Time has not diluted the strength of that childlike faith. It's sturdy; it defies reason and baffles fretful worries. It was given to me and certainly no accomplishment of mine. In normal circumstances, I'm a managing fool, trying to get control of any little old problem that comes along. 

With stillness and security and faith, this year's journey around the sun offered vibrant, unexpected pleasures, flashes of joy and delight. I became an optimist again; I couldn't help it. The support of neighbors and friends renewed my belief that people are more kind and generous than we realize when life's hassles dull our sense of hope. There's nothing like a home-cooked meal to restore a person's faith in humanity.  

I also became my family's most ardent fan. As I watched my parents, husband and children rally to reinvent the household's daily operations, I was humbled and awed.  It wasn't a smoothly-oiled machine, but it ran with great good humor and shining servanthood. How had I become such a critical curmudgeon? How was it that I had never really seen the everyday nobility of my loved ones? 

People often observe that a near-death experience, whether real or perceived, can change the rest of a person's life. When you think you might lose everything that matters, only to learn you have more time after all, it becomes difficult to live carelessly, thoughtlessly, selfishly.

At my sixth-month checkup, I told the neurologist, "MS has made me a nicer, happier person than I was before. I'm very thankful for that." He looked startled, then pleased. A good attitude is inextricably linked to good health, he remarked.

The months passed, my condition steadily improved, I regained most of the abilities my flare-up had claimed — and, typical of this disease, there was no certain explanation for any of it. Was it the faithful prayers of so many people? Rest, steroids, healthy eating, special, expensive fruit drinks? Prompt and knowledgeable medical care? Perhaps it was all of these things, or none. I have no doubt, though, that the remission was divine providence worked out in the most commonplace thing — a human body.

Nobody would choose a chronic disease as a means to celebrate four decades of life; it's not particularly fun to inject mysterious medicine into your body thrice weekly, aware that even the pharmaceutical company "doesn't know exactly" how the stuff works. Yet this too awakened a sense of wonder in me about how our intricately designed bodies operate. Surely our lives are no accident.

Psalm 139 meditates on the fact that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made," and the Psalmist concludes, "marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well."

After a year filled with birthday presents that arrived in the most unexpected of packages, I've learned to see life that way, too — as a mysterious, wonderful gift only God could give.


Published in the September 13, 2009 issue of The Southwest Times;  Liberal, KS.


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