One of the things on which I have been able to pride myself over the years is my health. While I have sometimes struggled to keep consistent work, put roots down long enough to build relationships and establish a community the one thing I have always been able to say is, “At least I have my health.”
That is, until two weeks ago. I was suddenly awakened at 5:30 a.m. feeling like someone had just pushed the button to start a whirling, spinning carnival ride in my room. The room spun, sweat started oozing out of every pore of my body and a few minutes later I staggered to the bathroom to lose the contents of my evening’s dinner. I expected that to be the end of violent episode imagining that I had a bad case of food poisoning. But it didn’t end. After vomiting (sorry for all the yukky details) the nausea continued and I was too weak to even crawl back to my bed.
I spent the next three hours trading places between the bathroom floor, my head hanging over the toilet bowl and a couple of desperate crawls back into bed. I was supposed to be leading a retreat for participants who had come as far as away as Australia and New York City to New Mexico as I helped them “Explore the Landscape of the Soul.” Instead they found me in a near delirious state in my room–the vomiting and sweating taking me to the next dangerous level of dehydration (which is a serious issue at 6500 feet in the desert).
I will save you all the details, but I spent the day in the Emergency Room an hour away, my two weeks of courses were promptly cancelled in order to get me home to heal. But then I suffered another attack three days later, the night before I was to fly back home. Another night in the ER and then five days of recovery at the home of new and very generous friends before having the strength to fly home again.
I have titled this post “Vertigo: Coincidence or Holy Kick in the Butt.” Both ER doctors diagnosed the same thing–I had an extreme case of vertigo. I used to think that vertigo just meant dizziness, but I have now learned that it is a whole lot more than that. It is a sudden violent attack on your equilibrium that can cause vomiting, sudden falls, and the inability to walk or even crawl. It is completely incapacitating. And the doctors have assured me that it is most likely a random attack.
But I have subtitled this post “Coincidence or Holy Kick in the Butt” because I am not completely convinced that these episodes were completely random as the doctors had indicated. From a physical standpoint there was virtually nothing to point to. I had flown in from nearly sea level to 6500 feet, but just a week before I was in the Mile High City of Denver as well. I was reasonably well-hydrated as I had started drinking extra water even before my arrival. I wasn’t suffering from congestion, a head injury or repetitive motions (all potential causes of vertigo). The doctors said that that is just how vertigo is–often completely random and coincidental.
Yet I wonder.
I wonder because I do believe the body has a way of sending messages when it needs to and “vertigo” would not be a far off description for what I had been feeling. I have written many times over the years of my feeling of “living between two worlds” which was actually the title of my 40-day Lenten devotional blog last year.
The past few weeks packed all those issues into a short time period. I spent May and the first week or so of June making sure the congregation I am serving in Grants Pass, Oregon was well-prepared for a three-week absence on my part. Then I flew off to Colorado for a 3-day job interview where my book Alone and my thoughts on the future of the church dominated much of the conversation. By the following Wednesday I heard that I was not the candidate chosen for the position. Without even a moment to let that loss sink in I then made my final preparations for the two one-week retreats in New Mexico titled, “Exploring the Landscape of the Soul” and “Health, Hope, and Hospice: Redefining Congregational Decline.”
The spiritual and professional vertigo is this and I have been trying to name it and negotiate my way through it for years. Within the space of just a few short weeks I played my role as a pastor of a pretty traditional Presbyterian church. A week later I was interviewing for another traditional position, but because of the public nature of my writing I found myself trying to soothe concerns that emerged in a book that exposed my spiritual wrestling (Some church members don’t like their pastors wrestling too much!). Then I immediately prepared and flew off to lead “spiritual but not religious” people in the language of soul for one week to be followed by a week-long workshop for pastors serving seriously declining churches. Not only was it a crazy schedule, but it had me shifting constantly between worldviews, beliefs, and language.
The spiritual and professional vertigo is this: I am constantly dancing between two different worlds depending on who I am talking to at any particular moment. Many people in the church are wary of the same spiritual wrestling that the “unchurched” find attractive in me. And those who find the sacred outside the walls of the church are often wary of my professional association with the church. In both places I have to overcome suspicions where one group is concerned that I am too religious and another group is concerned I am not religious enough.
It is something that I have wrestled with for more than twenty years, but the last few weeks exaggerated the subtle spiritual schizophrenia as I flew from place to place and state to state shifting my language, my head, my heart and my soul in order to be present to those who find God on Sunday in a sanctuary and to those who experience the sacred in the magical landscape. It is a dizzying enterprise!
The doctors told me that the vertigo was completely random. In fact they wouldn’t be surprised if it never showed up again. But I wonder. I wonder if my body and soul was telling me something. I wonder if my spiritual vertigo exhibited physical symptoms this time. I wonder if there was a message in those episodes, “Brian, despite your best intentions and noble motives, you can’t keep dancing between two different worlds. Eventually it will crack you. Eventually you’ll start to spin out of control.”
Maybe the vertigo was, as the doctors told me, just a one-time random, terrifying and unsettling coincidence.
Or maybe it was a holy kick in the butt with a deeper message.
I don’t know for sure, but I sure as hell better be listening.