While my colleagues are writing about cancer this month, I am opting to share about another physical condition with which I am much more intimate and with which I’ve cultivated many more thoughts: autoimmune disease.
I should be clear: By deviating from the topic from many of this month’s columns, I am not trying to imply a greater severity or importance to my topic rather than cancer. All physical and mental traumas – whatever their source – are terrible in their own ways. I have no desire to get into a victimhood footrace.
I’m inserting autoimmune disease into a series on cancer because I have personal experience with autoimmune disease. In April 2008, my wife, Brianne, was diagnosed with Lupus. We had been married for a mere 10 months. The five-day stay in the hospital, the nearly uncontrolled bleeding that had brought us there and the confusion as to why this was happening clearly ended the “honeymoon” on our marriage.
For years I marveled at both how Brianne fought against Lupus through medicine and lifestyle improvements. (You know all those things doctors tell you are good for you? Like eating well, working out, sleeping enough and so on? Craziest thing… they’re right!) And, I marveled at how damn resilient Lupus was. Get it under control and it could pop up. Have one aspect going well and another fell off the rails. I hated Lupus. It left Brianne out of control of her own body and I watched just how terrible that could be. I still hate Lupus.
The plot thickens. In early December 2012, a colonoscopy revealed that I had Crohn’s Colitis (an inflamed bowel disease that also has the ability to present in the form of really severe rheumatoid arthritis). No sooner had my Crohn’s been discovered than – in some sort of counterinsurgency measure – I found myself near-crippled with swollen joints by Christmas of that year. A sustained period of steroid use brought it under control, but not before I learned more intimately what I had been witnessing in Brianne for years.
Autoimmune diseases are a particularly devastating disease because while you are fighting the disease, you’re keenly aware that you are fighting a part of yourself. Autoimmune diseases happen when – for reasons that are generally unknown – the body’s natural immune system begins to attack otherwise healthy parts of your body. I don’t really have a mind for medicine and biology, but even I remembered my eighth grade lessons on the immune system. (And by that, I mean that I remember the episode of The Magic School Bus when Arnold accidentally swallowed the magic school bus and Ms. Frizzle used it as an opportunity to teach the kids all about the human body.) And what I know about the immune system is that it is the war room of my body. Various glands and my bone marrow serve as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and they assess what DEFCON level is needed. Once this is determined, white blood cells and antibodies are released and whatever invading disease is around gets destroyed.
We all love our immune system. It’s why a head cold or flu doesn’t kill you. It’s why cuts heal and infections die. But not when you have an autoimmune disease. No, when you have this, your immune system looks at your large intestine (for example) and says, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” Then it attacks your colon! Then your colon gets really upset because, like, what was it doing wrong? So then your colon just turns everything it was working on into liquid out of protest. Then you drive 90 mph down your suburban street to make it to the bathroom in time. I hate Crohn’s, too.
In response, the best doctors can generally do is suppress your immune system. Like giving a hyperactive kid a Benadryl just so you can take a nap, doctors prescribe an immunosuppressant and the immune system mostly quits attacking your colon (or whatever it was attacking). Of course, it also quits attacking the flu and head colds and cuts and bruises. So you generally feel pretty beaten up.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking theologically about autoimmune disease. What I discovered is that the subtext – that is, the feelings that exist after you process the feelings of just being sick – is almost worse. You live at war with the very body God gave you when God created you. The body that we all hope will one day be resurrected is currently a body that is at war with itself.
The plot thickens further when you start to think of not just your body, but the Body of Christ. Deep within the daily fight against autoimmune disease is the feeling of living out of harmony and out of communion within your body. It becomes a description of Protestants against Catholics, mainline against evangelical, and so on. I began to understand why it is important that bodies maintain harmony and why the Body must do so as well.
My battle against Crohn’s – and Brianne’s against Lupus – has become for me a reminder of why churches can’t fight against one another and why churches can’t fight within themselves. Every discord I encounter in pastoral ministry has a glimmer of autoimmune disease to it now. I see it as one good part of the Body attacking another good part of the Body. I fight for reconciliation because I know the only alternative is immunosuppression, and that can be terrible.
“Immunosuppression” as a metaphor for the life of the church might be the best explanation for why the church is failing in America right now. Jesus, the Good Physician, saw the autoimmune disease break out in His Body and prescribed immunosuppression therapy, which necessarily suppresses part of His Body. Maybe the PC(USA) and other struggling mainline churches are the immune system. That would explain a lot.
Not to compare apples and oranges, but cancer works much of the same way. Cancer is the result of malignant mutations in otherwise healthy cells. In our theological metaphor, it is like heresy. And like autoimmune disorders, the best medicine has generally come up with is to attack all cells and hope the good ones outlive the bad ones. I suspect those who suffer with a cancer diagnosis suffer in part because they know that their body has rebelled against itself.
I am not sure what the church can do for those with chronic diseases and cancer other than pray, run charity 5Ks, donate to research and sit with those afflicted in their affliction. But I do know that we’d all be a lot healthier as Christians if we sought a communion and harmony within the Body of Christ.
Crohn’s hasn’t made me a better Christian, but it has made me one more awake to the needs of my body and more aware of the needs of the Body of Christ.
Jeff Schooley continues to take Humira, which has brought a much-needed ceasefire to the civil war that was his body. He continues to pray for a Spirit-sent form of Humira in the midst of every church conflict and division. He’s also the pastor at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania, and can be reached at [email protected].