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The Spirituality of Illness—An Interview with Marva Dawn

August 11, 2008

During a morning workshop hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity at East Belfast Mission, I took the opportunity to spend a little private time with Marva Dawn and to speak to her about frailty and the purposes of God. I was joined in the conversation by Lynda Gould a colleague at EBM.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

You’re very open about your illnesses and your frailties. I wonder, do you feel yourself at odds with the general flow of the Christian community?

I find myself at odds with the general ethos. But I also find that as soon as people find out I have handicaps, and that I’m open about them, that then those who have handicaps come around to talking about it, because they can’t find many people to talk to about them.

There’s a tendency, and this is probably more prominent in the US, to have a gospel that’s health and wealth centred, that if you’re a Christian, things will go well for you and you won’t have many troubles. Whereas I think the opposite, that if you want to follow Jesus that that will get you into trouble. I think that physical ailments can be a part of that in that they form us and they are helpful to us, but they’re not generally understood by people who have never experienced them.

People who have not experienced persecution can’t imagine what that would be like, and how that could coexist with being a Christian. But when you’re in the midst of being persecuted for being a true Christian then you discover that that’s a way to follow Jesus and that there is a new strength in witnessing from that.

Well in the same way with illnesses. In general they don’t seem to match the flow of Christian community, but when you’re open about them you discover that there are many people on the same path. It’s a human tendency to have illness because we live in a broken world.

What resources have you found within the Christian tradition.

One thing for sure is praying the Psalms. In fact my newest book is about this. It’s called ‘Being Well When We’re Ill’, and I found myself constantly referring to the Psalms through that book.

I have been in the habit of praying through the Psalms every seven weeks, according to the Anglican pattern in the BCP. I find that really helpful

That’s why in the books I’ve written about worship, I emphasise using the whole music of the church because more modern songs tend to be more triumphalistic,

But older material seems to have more diversity. Like Martin Luther’s ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord’. Now he’s referring to lamenting over sin, but there’s plenty of Christian hymnody that refers to suffering and affliction and of how God is there in our suffering and affliction.

And that’s why I mention the Psalms, because there are actually more lament Psalms than there are thanksgiving Psalms although all the lament psalms except one turn to thanksgiving and praise by the end.

I’ve been intrigued by the title of your book, and this idea of being well in the midst of illness. What is your understanding of wellness, and how does it contrast with cure and healing?

I think sometimes we can trust God for physical wellness, but more important than physical wellness is emotional, mental, spiritual and intellectual wellness. A wellness that doesn’t depend on my body being in good shape, but I can be at home with God and be in deep prayer with God, in conversation with God, aware of his presence and still not be in perfect shape.

My teaching today is not because I’m in great shape, I’m struggling with certain physical limitations but the wellness is a wellness of mind and spirit where we know we are in God’s hands, and trust that he will bring out of our work whatever he will, and we try not to be in the way.

It is a wellness that trusts God. And sometimes I really lack that wellness. I don’t trust as well as I should. No, I don’t want to make it a ‘should’. I don’t trust as well as I want to.

What role do people who are ill or frail play in the body of the church?

There is a very huge role for the church and that has been taught to us by Jean Vanier and his L’Arche Communities. They always pair a person who is physically, mentally well with someone who is physically not so well or mentally challenged. And usually the person who thought they were well, they discover that they themselves are formed by the handicapped people.

We have a couple of friends who have down’s syndrome. They are the deepest lovers. Even if you have done something wrong they love you to the hilt, and they teach me so much about God things that I couldn’t learn no matter how mentally unchallenged one is. There is something about our friends that appeals to me, a simple hearted reliance on God and a great display of Gods love. So enfolding.

Our churches struggle to accommodate more diverse expressions of wellness, children, visual impaired, hearing, but we don’t adjust the format of worship. Technology is about adaptation but it is not about changing HOW we do things and how we who are physically well are challenged.

I was deeply affected by a sermon that was heard by six people with downs syndrome. This was in a congregation that was very accepting of those who were mentally challenged and allowed them to participate in worship and they all sat in the front. I said something in my sermon and one man said out loud, ‘what did you mean by that?’ And I answered him. And then he asked another question, and then another. I ended up throwing away the rest of the sermon and answered his questions. Afterwards people said, ‘that was a wonderful sermon’, and I said, ‘but he wrote it! He planned it!’ He just led me into some very good questions and the answers were what people needed.

What about the future Marva. What is your eschatological vision of heaven and a renewed world and a renewed body? Is that important for you, sustaining for you?

It’s part of it. The eschatological vision of God restoring the whole earth is much larger than my own personal restoration. It is my most viable source of hope, because I know God will bring creation to completion and I’m sure that at that time all things will be made new and restored. But in the meanwhile that gives me courage for the day-to-day stuff.

I need to rely on daily sustenance. It’s why praying the psalms is important to me. One of the reasons I do that is that the early Christian saints prayed the psalms because they knew they were the prayer book of Jesus and that Jesus drew great sustenance from the psalms.

We know that all the psalms that say ‘for the choir director/leader of worship’ were used in public worship. We also know that he participated in the public worship of his day and made it his Sabbath custom. So we know he heard those psalms again and again when he participated in public worship. This makes the practice very important for me.

The other practice is using my own spiritual gifts. I do much better when I’m out teaching than when I’m at home and start feeling sorry for myself. I do much better when I’m with the community than when I’m by myself.

So you take your frailties with you into the public realm in the exercise of your gift, rather than hide them away.

It’s a funny dialectic. I have to rest much more now than I used to, since my kidney transplant, and that’s been three years. And I often feel guilty when I have to take a nap after breakfast. But Myron keeps assuring me that if that’s what I need, that’s what I need. I must make a better job of listening to my body and giving it the rest that it needs. I can’t do everything I used to. I work slower now.

Is there anything else you want to say in closing Marva?

I want to speak especially to those who know that they won’t ever get better. A lot of times the temptation is to feel that their life is wasted.

I want to assure every person that our lives are part of God’s great meta-narrative and that God is using even our immobility, our not-being-able-to do anything. God is using those times too, to form us and to form other people. I think that too much of the ethos of contemporary christianity is ‘you gotta get well! you gotta get well!’, which causes people who are not made well to think that they are useless. That’s never true for Jesus people, if we love him and desire to follow him, then by the power of the spirit we can still live to the glory of God. I want to stress that.

  1. Caron permalink

    Okay, Just THANK YOU so much….. Excellent article/interview. I am sending this to my friend, Justin Peters who lives with cerebral palsy and trusts in the fact that God’s grace is sufficient.

    In fact, I highly encourage you to go to his site and watch the “demo” of Justin’s overview of his seminar. He did his full length seminar at my church and it was powerful and touched many. – again, be sure to click “demo.”

  2. Mark permalink

    Great dialogue crookedshore.

    Its refreshing to have this perspective on wellness especially when the theology of health and wealth underpins much of todays church thinking.

  3. Thanks Caron and Mark, I’m glad you found this interesting. Marva is an incredible person who has found, I think, a deep joy in the midst of suffering which is remarkable.

    Thanks too Caron, for the link to Justin Peters.

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