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Alison Bailey Castellina MA (Oxon)

30 June 2010

This talk is about ministering to those with chronic illness, to people who have been ill, for months and years. Such long term patients do appear in hospitals, and outside the home, and those I work among need real support, help and ministry. Some of the points I will make have other applications, to short term illness, to theology, modern Church teaching and to life, in general. So I hope you will find some aspects relevant.

I am sure you will know from the rather old fashioned title that this book was not written by me: it has simply been updated into modern English and republished using the skills of my author husband, Revd Paolo Castellina, to help readers unused to the quaint Victorian English which was an obstacle to its enjoyment. We have also embedded hundreds of Scripture texts in full, so you do not have to look them up. I also researched its anonymous author and have added her short biography for the very first time. But before I tell you more about her, I will tell you how I came to be so interested in her.

I considered going forward for ordinationin the Church of England myself, but due to illness I did not take it forward and instead as things worked out, I am now a full time as a policy adviser, currently working, among other things, on opening up thousands of waterways, turbines and weirs to renewed or enhanced wildlife and to the generation of renewable electricity. Although I am chair of the disability network of my department, specialising in hidden disabilities, no one would believe that just over twenty years ago I could hardly walk, talk, think, type or remember and I was refused disability benefits because of the hidden nature of my organic, bodily condition. For years I “bumped along” the bottom of society, in what was a completely helpless state of marginalization and weakness. Like Cinderella, I never went to “The Ball”.

From 1984, while still in my twenties, I was so ill that I often did not have enough energy to wash properly or walk to the corner shop. I could not sit up and pray at the same time or read more than a couple of verses of the Bible - and yet I was forced to work at low level jobs where I only needed to sit down, to survive. At one point quite early on, before I knew what the condition was, I “turned to face the wall” and asked God to let me die or heal me, because I could not carry on feeling about 150, with acute malaise, untreatable pain, internal disconnection, medical disbelief and in the marginalized situation this hidden condition had put me in. I was kept from thoughts of suicide by my belief that taking my own life would be a sin in my case, a complete denial of my faith in a God able to help me. God graciously and gradually healed me over the following decade and, until He did, my very “lifeline” and strength from day to day was the Bible, and one outstanding fellow sufferer, a former Church of England church social worker.

Like many people today, I fell through the so called “safety net” of society, into a state of largely hidden, but real marginalization. In those days we did not have the support of the “internet”. I am one still a few people who recovered from this condition, to regain full time work. I attribute my recovery to God who walks with us more closely through illness and who guides us by the Holy Spirit and intervenes in practical compassion, as well as to the support of a handful of Christians sent as ministers like “angels”, to support and accompany me. I owe my ongoing career to a Baptist colleague, who devoted time and prayer, to fully implementing the Disability Discrimination Act in the workplace.

I have now largely caught up, and who knows, like Aesop's fabled tortoise, I might just make it to the finishing line with a reduced or more expensive but just viable pension. Even more amazingly, I feel I would not have missed this deeply enriching experience of long term suffering. Like Job I can say, “Before I had heard of you, but now I have seen you face to face”. Weirdly, after years of testing it out, I almost play games with God's “eleventh hour” rescues, which like nothing else stretches and extends one's faith, because God has proved so reliable although I have to confess that I too, even now, can slip back into immature, unbelieving ways at times, too. Like sheep, we forget too quickly.

From the start of my illness, all I had to hang onto was my new Christian faith, which, at the start was only two years old and to the promises of Scripture. The Bible became like my only medicine: the sick need it for healing. They want a clear conscience before God to give them strength. Clearly, this kind of situation soon tests whether our faith is “bargaining faith” for social or sentimental reasons, in it for the career, people or the blessings, or authentic faith for the love of God alone. Book of Job. It also tests in very practical terms whether God can intervene.

While I was transcribing the rescue promises from the Bible into my precious commonplace book, I came across a literally dusty copy of a book: “Sickness: Its Trials and Blessings” . From the first few paragraphs, I was riveted by the tone and voice of the author who wrote it from her sick bed, just before 1850. It was as if she spoke directly to me.

(second part)