Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Faith Journey

View Image
A statue on Notre Dame campus
with the inscription, Venite Ad Me Omnes 
("Come to Me All")

My friend, Mary, has asked me to contribute a chapter to her book about people who have emerged through a crisis of faith with a changed and stronger faith, and the following is the first draft. I would welcome any suggestions on how to make it better.

At first I wasn't sure if what I experienced was a true crisis of faith in the way that others have experienced it, because I never felt abandoned by God for very long. When, at my lowest point, the thought, Maybe God does not exist, began to form in my mind, it was countered by the words of Job in Handel’s Messiah through the car stereo: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” God was closer to me than ever—hovering over the chaos.

So in that sense my crisis was very different from those who eventually abandon their faith. But in other ways I suspect that it was similar: My crisis shook the very foundation of my faith, which had to be rebuilt brick by brick into something more solid. I came to a point where platitudes wouldn’t sustain me—I had to know that it was true. My faith could no longer be like a fragile object stored in a glass cabinet. It had to be taken out and tested at the risk of its destruction.

I faced the crossroad that permits no shrinking back into one’s comfort zone, which leads either to a stronger, deeper faith or its abandonment. Mary’s book is from the perspective of those who end up taking the former path, as described by George MacDonald in words that comforted me during that phase of my life:

"A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood . . . Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed."

My Faith Prior to the Crisis

My faith background is fairly eclectic. I was baptized into the Norwegian Lutheran State Church, of which one of my only memories is being stuck in the annual going-to-church-on-Christmas-Eve traffic for about an hour, when the entire community tried to cram into a relatively small traditional church. My other memory was of going to the same church on a school field trip in fourth grade and being shocked when a Pakistani boy in my class announced before the field trip that he didn't believe in our God. That was my first experience of anyone believing anything different from what the state church taught. 

After moving to the U.S. when I was eleven, our family started attending the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Minneapolis, where I went through confirmation. Then I attended St. Olaf College, once again (you guessed it) a Norwegian Lutheran institution. 

Things started to change at the age of nineteen, when I came to Christ in a Charismatic church while visiting my aunt in Florida for spring break (such a rebel, I know). My senior year, I met my husband Rick, who also had a Lutheran background, but to his father's dismay I corrupted Rick into leaving the Lutheran Church, and we attended an evangelical church after we married. Then we enrolled at Notre Dame Law School, a Roman Catholic institution, where we found an evangelical church in South Bend. 

Already at this point, I had experienced the gentle stretching of my faith that I think helped me through my coming crisis. Rick was a more critically-thinking Christian than I was at the time, so he challenged my myopia. And I knew that there were genuine Christians outside of my narrow sphere of modern evangelicalism, like our Contracts Professor Edward Murphy, a deeply spiritual Catholic Christian who authored the book Life to the Full, and who sadly succumbed to cancer a few years after we left Notre Dame.

But I still had that sense that I was the center of all rightness and to the extent people said what was familiar to me, they were also right. And the further they were from that center, the more wrong they were. I never asked myself why I should be so right—I simply equated familiarity with truth. 

The Day that Changed Everything

Ingrid at four months
Our first two children, Chelsea and Ingrid, were born during the three years I was in law school. It may not seem like the brightest idea to have babies in law school, but this was, after all, Notre Dame, where people often had children numbering in the double digits—and when in Rome . . . (Sorry—I didn’t even notice the pun until after I wrote it.) 

But God prepared me for what lay ahead by showing me that I could do all things through Him who strengthens me, including juggling babies and my studies. I had a rough semester that started a month after Chelsea's birth, when I was in a sleep-deprived stupor every day. After that semester, I concluded that the only way I would make it through law school with decent grades was if I started every day with an hour of focused Bible reading and prayer. After that, my grades became better than before I had children, and when May 12, 1993 rolled around, I had just completed my best semester in all my years of schooling and was awaiting graduation.

Ingrid was released from the
hospital, but very sedated, for
my graduation.
(Rick graduated the year before.)
That was the day when Ingrid, at five months old, had her first seizure. I was feeding her at the time, and my first thought was that she was choking on the milk because she stopped breathing and turned blue. But I had seen a seizure before while working with the mentally disabled, and in my haste to call for medical assistance I yanked the phone cord out of the wall and couldn't keep my hands from shaking as I tried to plug it back in. But my fears at the time did not come close to doing justice to the reality we faced. 

Ingrid was in and out of hospitals in Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota over the next three months, while doctors tried in vain to stop the seizures that came every few minutes. At one point, she developed pneumonia because she was so heavily drugged that she could hardly swallow. She stopped crying and smiling, and her right hand became fisted and unusable from the seizures. 

I spent most of those three months just praying—praying while sitting in the hospital, praying at night, reading the Bible and devouring books on prayer. I had experienced God's faithfulness many times before and knew the power of prayer, so I would have faith and I wouldn't stop praying until she was healed—even if it killed me. I would permit no doubt in my mind and no grief in my heart. 

I remember one night toward the end of the three months while Ingrid was at a hospital in St. Paul, the premier hospital for epilepsy care in the Midwest, and we were staying with my parents in Minneapolis. I was up praying in the middle of the night, as usual. Rick found me and said, "Let's say a three-year-old is helping her father do something that only the father can do. It is okay for the three-year-old to take a break and get some sleep. You're the three-year-old in this scenario and God is the father, so why don't you come to bed?"

I thought that was a quaint analogy, but what kind of mother would I be if I let my eight-month-old suffer while I slept? So I stayed awake and continued to pray. I was convinced that by the time we exhausted all natural remedies, God would intervene and heal Ingrid. 

After three weeks at the St. Paul hospital, the doctors had concluded that Ingrid was not a candidate for surgery, and the experimental drugs had not helped her. But she had apparently overstayed her visit, because they told us that she would be discharged, without anywhere else to go. "We think that Ingrid is doing much better, and is ready to go home. She only has about seven seizures per day now."

"But that's because you give her Ativan after three seizures, which knocks her out after about seven seizures for the rest of the day," I said.

"No, we think she is doing better even without the Ativan."

"Let's test that then and wait to give her Ativan," I suggested.  

"Okay, but we still have to get the discharge papers ready. Most epilepsy patients stay for a maximum of two weeks, and Ingrid has been here for three now." So they knew as well as I did that Ingrid had not improved at all on the experimental medicine. But they were not willing to tell us that there was nothing else they could do. 

While we waited for the discharge papers, Ingrid had over twenty seizures, just as I had suspected. Then the Ativan stopped them by once again putting her into a deep sleep. I was exhausted and my conviction that Ingrid would be healed was gone and replaced with overwhelming dread and tension. I had not cried since my graduation week, when Ingrid was first hospitalized. But I cried the whole time we waited for the papers and during the entire drive back to my parents' house. 

Rick recalls holding Ingrid and praying for her later that night. Her tiny body convulsed with one seizure after the other, every minute or two, and he thought to himself, I'm holding my daughter as she dies.

The next day we started driving back to Illinois, where we were living at the time. Darkness hung like heavy curtains around me, and I started experiencing almost unbearable panic attacks. No longer was I only concerned about Ingrid, but I began to fear for myself as well for having driven myself so hard at a time when I needed to grieve and heal. I had made the leap of faith headlong into the abyss, and now I wondered if anyone was there to catch me, or if I had leapt to my doom.  

Then the song came over the car speakers: "I know that my Redeemer liveth. And that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God."

Job's bold pronouncement of faith in God and the resurrection kindled a small spark of faith within me. I didn't have great faith, in spite of my mental gymnastics and my frantic, all-consuming prayers, because when Ingrid wasn't miraculously healed in the way I had hoped, my immediate reaction was, I knew it. 

But I still had a little faith—enough to do the one thing that faith demands of us: come to Christ. "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

So I clung to Him like never before, releasing everything into His hand—Ingrid, my precarious mental state, and my faltering faith. For the first time, I came without asking for anything except His presence. I surrendered everything at His altar. And I decided that instead of trying to control God, I would listen to Him and let Him lead me.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to struggle with panic attacks and waves of depression, and I felt very strongly that God commanded me to cut out all caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugar from my diet (which I later learned can make panic attacks worse). I started jogging, making a practice of thanking God for every blessing, releasing all my anxieties to Him, and resting in His presence moment by moment.

God's light spilled into my life, more powerful than ever, filling me with a joy and peace that I had never before experienced. The darkness fled at His presence, and the panic attacks disappeared and never came back. 

During this two-week period, Ingrid continued to have seizures that we had to stop with Ativan, which would put her into a deep sleep for the rest of the day. But we knew that Ativan was not a permanent solution, because it stops working for seizures after a couple of weeks of daily use. So at the end of the two weeks, her seizures started coming every few minutes even when we gave her Ativan, and we had her admitted to the intensive care unit of the local hospital.

I thought the poor ICU doctor would have nervous breakdown, because he had inherited this problem from the specialists in St. Paul, and there was nothing he could do. He had long phone conversations with them, and finally he told us that the specialists had recommended that we try combining the experimental medicine (Felbatol) with Phenobarbital, rather than Tegretol. I don't think anyone thought this would help, since we had tried just about every combination of every anticonvulsant available. 

But the seizures stopped. For two weeks, Ingrid did not have a single seizure. Then she started having a few, several times a week, but we were out of crisis mode and were able to sign her up for rehabilitative therapy and early intervention programs. 

That was not the solution I had envisioned, and Ingrid's disabilities continued to be challenging, but the pressures I faced made me look to God, who had a lot to teach me. Some say that God's ways are inscrutable, but I say that He's eager to instruct, even though the human mind can only very slowly process the truths that He has revealed. We can't wait for answers to every why before we believe, because only when we live by faith, by looking to Christ, does the puzzle begin to take shape.  

Where I am Today

Back when Ingrid was first admitted to the hospital in St. Paul, we met with a hospital social worker who wanted to see how we were holding up. I made a point of giving all the "right" answers and demonstrating what a great attitude I had. I thought for sure I had succeeded, because she smiled and nodded a lot, so obviously she was quite impressed. 

But in her report, she said that I was in denial and really needed a good support network. I was somewhat offended by this at the time, but she was 100% correct in what she said about me. 

That is one way in which I am different today. In the aftermath of the crisis, I learned how important it is to face all truth—about myself, the world around me, and the Bible. "Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom" (Psalm 51:6). I have come to see that truth is the building block of genuine faith. Only when I resolve to build my foundation of faith with solid materials will it sustain me during a crisis. And this means testing everything to make sure it's true.

I have also become more faithful to the Bible, which some may claim is inconsistent with the desire for truth. But no such inconsistency exists. I have found that the more I seek the truth, the more I see that it lines up perfectly with the teachings of the Bible, and the stronger my faith becomes. In the beginning, it felt threatening to me to seek the truth because I risked finding that what I believed was false. And much of what I believed was false because I had plenty of blind spots. But I have always found the Bible to be true. 

Another question raised by my story is whether I still believe in modern day miracles, and the answer is an emphatic "yes." I believe they happen and that we should pray for them. 

But we don't experience the power of God by trying to twist His arm like I did when I prayed for Ingrid. After Ingrid was discharged from the St. Paul hospital, Rick and Chelsea were looking at cartoon pictures on the computer, and one of them was of a tiny man sitting on a huge hand and breaking into a major sweat trying to move an unyielding thumb. I can't tell you how much that picture spoke to me at the time! That is not what prayer is supposed to be like. 

God wants to give, and when we surrender to Him moment by moment, we receive His power. And it is this power that alone can do great works in this world that glorify God. Only God can glorify God, and "Christ in us" is our "hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). Yes, we are to wrestle in prayer, but we wrestle to stay persistent and focused. As Martin Luther said, "Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness."

Prayer is the simple act of abiding in Christ, like a branch on a vine, but such simplicity is the greatest challenge of the Christian life. And so my journey continues.