In Sickness and in Health

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L_Tanya

At the age of 21, I stood in a ridiculously huge white dress, grinning up at my new husband. We were young—I had graduated from university only a month before—and we were full of life and energy. As we knelt under the grand arch of the nave, we said our wedding vows with a naive confidence.

I promised, “in sickness and in health,” envisaging some mutual handing over of tissues and chicken noodle soup. Maybe a few days’ sickness, here and there, punctuating an otherwise uninterrupted line of health. I took it for granted that we would be healthy, as most people do before they are visited by the shadow of serious illness.

We honeymooned in the South of France: walking hand in hand through the little village roads; listening to a string quartet in an ancient church; toasting our future with Grand Cru Classé wine. We climbed the old stone tower and looked over the vineyards. Jon picked me up and twirled me around. As he carried me in his arms, I threw my head back and laughed, exhilarated.

As we arrived home and I was about to take our suitcases in, Jon stopped me and, before I could protest, he carried me over the threshold of our new home. I had forgotten all about that tradition and I stopped in the moment, looking into his eyes, enjoying the romance.

This was love, but it was a young, green shoot of love—full of meaningful moments and fun and fine talk and promises.

Then, I got sick. I had an autoimmune illness which took some of my energy and concentration and my ability to work full time. Then, after I gave birth to our beautiful baby boy, I got sicker. It took my legs. My mobility was reduced to a few metres and I became a wheelchair-user.

No longer able to climb the stairs, Jon carried me up. Because he loved me, he always carried me up without complaining. Because we are normal people, he always made jokes about how heavy I was as he did so, and I laughed and told him I was as light as a feather and I was helping him get fit.

Fifteen years after we promised “in sickness and in health” in front of our family and friends, we are still learning what that vow means. The green shoot has gone, replaced by a firm trunk and deep, sturdy roots.

Once he carried me over the threshold of our first home; now he carries me up a flight of stairs I can’t manage. There is less romance, but more love.

***

This is the foreground love story, but I want to also talk about a background love story.

In the past five years that I’ve been sick, there has been something else that has loved me as Jon has. In the first, bewildering months of being new parents whilst dealing with a new level of disability, our church, who barely knew us, delivered meals to us, took our ironing, looked after our baby and sent me emails because I was no longer able to go to church.

Most churches manage something like this for a week or so; our church did this for months. They did it even though we were new to the congregation and had no chance to “earn” their love or kindness. Five years on, when we have our own rhythm of coping, a church member still emails me each week to tell me what happened in the service so I feel included in the church family despite being unable to attend.

A group of people faithfully carried us when we could not walk: this is what it means to be church.

***

It is easy to call ourselves church and for it to be merely a consumer experience. Love is the moment where it costs us, when we give sacrificially without a possibility of it being reciprocated.

Don’t give me a romantic church, full of gushing promises and special moments. Give me a church that loves, a church that carries its family through the hard times.

Give me a church that makes jokes as it comes round to deliver meals or do the ironing, carrying families and individuals through dark times they wouldn’t be able to navigate alone. These acts of kindness to those who can no longer attend a church service are inherently unseen, but they have great worth.

We need churches who love in deeds, not just words. That means we need to be those churches. It is a strange and holy thing to consider that when we turn up at our local congregation, we are in some way kneeling under the great archway of the nave, promising to love that stranger in the pew next to us as Christ has loved us and gave Himself up for us.

Give me a church that loves even when the recipient cannot give back, because that is a surest sign that the church is soaked in Jesus.

We don’t just need spouses who love well, though we certainly need those. The world needs churches who love—in sickness and in health.

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Tanya Marlow
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and  get her book for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow