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A Lesson Learned: We Are Never Alone

A man wrestling with a chronic illness is led to the green pastures promised in Psalm 23.

Credit: Dan MacMedan

I was 26 years old when I got sick. It started with a series of high fevers, some as high as 107 degrees. Then came the exhaustion. I experienced dizzy spells and nausea on a daily basis. The symptoms lasted for months, then years.

I was starting a career in the entertainment business, working at Disney, but I grew too sick to work. Friends, not knowing what was wrong with me, dropped away. I moved out of my apartment and back into the bedroom I grew up in at my parents’ house in Los Angeles.

Most days I could barely get out of bed. I saw doctor after doctor. I prayed. No one could figure out what was wrong. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. Slowly but surely I was being cut off from everything I’d built my identity on, everything that meant life to me.

I tried to believe what my mom told me—that despite how things looked, God was at work in my life—but the more my illness isolated me, the harder it was to hold on to.

One February day two years into my ordeal, I had a conversation with God. More of a one-sided confrontation, really.

“You didn’t promise me that bad things wouldn’t happen. You didn’t promise that friends would still be there, or that I would get the answers I was after, but you know what you did promise?” I’d studied the Bible, read Psalm 23 closely. I knew I had a case. “Green pastures. Still waters and green pastures. Where are my green pastures?”

A week later I woke up early one morning and realized I couldn’t stand another day trapped in my bed. Not when everyone else my age was moving on with life. I made an impulsive decision. I always felt best in the morning, so I packed my car and told my mom, “I’m going to drive to Menlo Park today.”

During college I’d spent several months in the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park, near Stanford University, helping my dad set up a branch of the medical company he runs. I’d attended Menlo Park Presbyterian, a big, active church with a thriving youth program. I loved that church and I loved that time in my life.

I could tell Mom was worried. She’d been taking care of me every step of the way, and she knew me better than anyone. “There’s a big storm coming,” she said. “The roads will be a mess. Are you sure you want to go now?”

I nodded. Even though I was in no shape to drive 400 miles north in the rain, I just had to do something.

“Really, Mom, will this storm be any worse than the one we’ve been going through?” I said, cracking a smile. “If I don’t go now, I might never get on with my life.”

Mom looked at me. “I understand why you need to go,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re stuck. We don’t know God’s plan here. He knows your heart and you just have to trust him.”

It poured the whole drive up. And it was still pouring when I arrived in Menlo Park. I made my way to the church. A pastor remembered me and signed me up to work with the youth program, where I could use my entertainment background to write dramas.

Then I ran into an old friend and she told me about a family who put up church volunteers. I could stay with them temporarily.

She gave me directions, and I set out for their house. It was dark and raining harder than ever. Normally I went to bed in the late afternoon. I hadn’t been up and active this long in months. I tried to ignore the exhaustion creeping up on me.

Soon I left the brightly lit streets of Menlo Park and began winding on dark, lonely country roads. The rain blurred my windshield. I turned the wipers on high and peered out. Where was God? Why had I thought he wanted me to do this?

Even if I found the stamina to work with kids at Menlo Park Pres, how would that help my illness? Every doctor I’d seen had agreed on one thing: I needed rest to fight whatever was attacking my body. I’d just driven 400 miles away from my place of rest.

Trees flashed past my window. I glanced at the directions. They didn’t say a thing about the road winding down into some sort of valley. Even with my high beams on, I could hardly see a thing. It felt like my life, descending further into confusion and darkness with each new turn. What was I doing wrong?

The words from Psalm 23 that I’d asked God about a week earlier were so clear about his promise to those who follow him. Yet I was still waiting for those green pastures.

An intersection. I slowed down. Here was the street. I turned and drove along another road. Finally the address in the directions. I parked. I grabbed my bag and made my way through the rain to the front door. I met the family and was shown to my room.

It was simply furnished with a double bed and a desk. The blinds were closed on a large window above the bed. I sank onto the bed. Cliff, what are you doing here? I asked myself. I crawled under the covers.

Rain lashed the windowpane. I was warm and dry, but I had never felt more alone. I prayed one last desperate prayer for peace before I fell asleep.

The next thing I knew light bathed my face. Groggily I opened my eyes. It was morning. The rain had stopped. Rays of sun slanted through the blinds above the bed. I reached for the cord. The blind inched up.

For a moment all I could do was stare out the window. Rolling hills, stretching as far as I could see. Last night I’d thought the road was descending, but it was actually rising. The house wasn’t in a valley. It was perched atop a hill, overlooking a majestic landscape. The grass, still wet with last night’s rain, glimmered, a brilliant vivid green.

Green pastures. Here, in the darkest valley of my life, God was present, as he had been from the moment I’d gotten sick. At every turn he’d met me—with his presence, with my parents’ support, with my mom’s loving care and unwavering faith. Who do you trust? a voice seemed to say. Who is your God?

I knew my answer. You are. You are the One I trust.

As it turned out I had to keep trusting for a long time. I was in Menlo Park only a few months before my illness forced me to return to my doctors in Los Angeles and to my parents’ house. It was another five years before a specialist at a research hospital in Los Angeles finally figured out what was wrong with me.

My system was infected with a rare drug-resistant bacteria. The high fevers and exhaustion were the effects of my body’s attempt to fight off the bacteria. The specialist had me try a 10-day, water-only fast to starve it out of my system. It worked. I regained a measure of health, but it took several more years to regain my strength.

I’m finally healthy now and am enjoying a successful career as an author. Some days I let my mind go back to my long ordeal. I wouldn’t want to go through it all again, but I wouldn’t change the work God has done in me.

I can still see those green pastures stretching to the horizon, pastures so green and beautiful that I could not fail to see the purpose of my being brought there. For seven years I was sick, but not for one moment was I alone.

Three Tips for Dealing with Chronic Illness

1. Pray and praise.

Prayer is the one resource everyone has when everything else seems gone. Pray in whatever way works for you, with words or silently. And praise. It is the quickest way out of the valley.

2. Don’t blame yourself.

People with chronic illness often feel their condition is their fault. It’s not. Focus your energy on healing, not on laying blame.

3. Trust God’s promises.Nowhere in scripture does God promise a life free of suffering. But the Bible is full of God’s promises to love us and be present when we hurt. Some of my favorites are Psalm 23:2, 1 Peter 5:10 and Psalm 91:11. And Psalm 103. I turned to that scripture so often that it’s the only page that has fallen out of my Bible.

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