Risk to Live

Reflections on needing a lung transplant
The Rt. Rev. Gretchen Rehberg
IX Bishop Episcopal Diocese of Spokane

“You need a lung transplant; you are very sick,” the pulmonologist said.

“But I don’t feel sick,” I said.

For over twenty years, I have had a lung disease that slowly progressed. I could ignore the slow progression and attribute the symptoms to other things.

I could no longer walk uphill. I justified that by being out of shape. My walks were shorter. I said that was due to time constraints. When people asked if I had been running to the phone because I sounded out of breath, I attributed that to my speaking fast. I did not want to believe that my lung disease was worsening until about ten years ago, when it was unavoidable.

The doctor told me that not only was I worse, my initial diagnosis was wrong, and I had a much more severe lung disease than previously thought.

After much testing, the doctor put me on medication and oxygen. I was to use oxygen at night and “with exertion.” Of course, I promptly justified that normal activities were not exertion. I did not want anyone to see me wear oxygen in public. After all, I was not sick!

Come forward ten years, my disease continued its slow progression, and my need to wear oxygen was even more evident. But I was unprepared to hear it was time to go on the transplant list. Oh sure, I was not who I had been, but I am not that unhealthy, am I?

“You have learned how to cope and are in denial,” the pulmonologist said.

A lung transplant is a frightening thing. It is not for the slightly sick. You must meet the criteria to be sick enough to need it and not be so bad that you are too ill for a transplant. The doctors told me that I fit this criterion well and that it was appropriate for me to go on the list.

As I wrestled and prayed with all this news meant, all that it implied about my self-image of being a person in good health, my ideas about what I want to be doing, and how I wanted to organize my life, it occurred to me that so much about my diagnosis applies to the church today.

While others saw how unhealthy I was, I did not. I had learned to justify, ignore, and cope with a significant illness that, without dramatic intervention, would kill me. How many of our congregations are the same? We want to cast our problems outward – no families with young children? It is Sunday soccer. Shrinking attendance? It must be the music. Without being able to say we are not healthy, we will not take the steps needed to become healthy.

I am one of many to connect the need to admit sickness and the ability to get healthy. People in recovery are well aware of this. We don’t often think about our congregations this way, but it would be helpful if we did. Our personal life can also help us think about our congregation’s movement for health. I have a spiritual director, a coach, and a physician. All these people are focused on me and what I need to do to be healthy. There are many resources for congregations, not only in the church world but the secular world. The key is that we do not need to try to get healthy all by ourselves, and we need to admit we need help!

I am in a transplant support group and have observed many types of responses to this reality, from anger and bitterness to resignation to determination. The same can be true of the church’s challenges and how we respond. What I am clear about in my own life is that I do not think that my illness came from God, and I do not believe it happened for some divine reason. My theology rejects that. Instead, I follow the God who came and suffered and died alongside us, the God who walks with me in my sickness and promises resurrection and healing. I will admit to some anger at the diagnosis and some frustration at what it meant, and I also know that God understands and accepts that anger and frustration, and if I am willing to engage in the process, I can find healing.

“Whether to go on the transplant list or not is up to you,” the team said.

Ultimately, I had to choose the scary and risky unknown to gain new life or slowly die from my illness. I decided to take the risk and live.

I hope our congregations will do the same, and ultimately, the choice is always theirs.

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