Can you imagine Ron Swanson waking up to discover he was suddenly allergic to meat? No steaks, no brats, no bacon, no cheeseburgers. Can you imagine his reaction? It would have made a great episode, but maybe it sounds too far fetched. Believe it or not, a meat allergy is a real thing, and I was as horrified to discover I had it as Ron Swanson would have been.
Two years ago, I developed what I thought was strep throat. I found myself with a cough and having trouble swallowing. Quickly it worsened into headaches and then dizziness and then the hives—hives on my chest, back, arms, and face.
The doctor was confident it was an anaphylactic reaction, but we couldn’t determine to what. I had never been allergic to anything, not even poison ivy. I didn’t even know what hives looked liked until I had them. We tried everything. I changed soap, and laundry detergent, and vitamins, but for three weeks, I continued to deteriorate. Each afternoon I would lay under a fan in my underwear, dizzy, short of breath, and miserable with hives. But things would get much worse.
I finally started to notice that when I ate beef, my reactions were more severe the next day. I searched online, “can you become allergic to meat?” To my dismay, I discovered the recent spread of a tick born illness known as Alpha-Gal, “the Mammalian Meat Allergy.” It didn’t take me long to remember. A few weeks before the symptoms, I had removed two ticks from my legs after shooting handguns in my parent’s woods. The doctor soon confirmed what I feared; I had Alpha-Gal—goodbye, cheeseburgers.
But It Gets Worse
They say the disease can fade after a period of ten to fifteen years. That is a long time without a steak. It’s hard to articulate how massive this dietary change has been for me. I’m a bacon cheeseburger kind of guy. I also love to hunt. Since I was ten, I haven’t missed a deer season. I usually process deer myself. The day a fresh venison backstrap hits the grill is one of the best days of the year. Now, that same piece of meat is likely to send me to the emergency room.
Technically, Alpha-Gal is an autoimmune condition. There is a carbohydrate common to mammals which humans don’t have. The current theory is that a tick’s bite introduces this carbohydrate into your body. Your immune system recognizes it as a threat and creates a plan for elliminating it. The next time you eat meat and digest more Alpha-Gal, your immune system recognizes it again and now attacks your body.
Over the last two years, the disease has laid waste to my immune system and has caused me to develop additional food sensitivities. This past year, I also began to experience more debilitating migraines. These migraines became so severe, I started to develop neurological systems. I had trouble formulating sentences, ordering words, and remembering basic details.
One Sunday, at the close of service, I wanted to read through the Beatitudes. I know the beatitudes are found in Matthew chapter five. Usually, that’s an easy recall, like remembering the Pledge of Allegiance or the last year the Cardinals won the World Series. But this time, I stood flipping through my Bible, completely unable to remember even where to start looking. It’s hard to describe it. I wasn’t sure which book of the Bible to open. Genesis? Habakkuk? Corinthians? It really was that bad.
To my embarrassment, I finally had to ask the congregation, “where are the Beatitudes?” Thankfully, they knew how sick I had been and were incredibly gracious, but something was obviously wrong. After more than three hours in an MRI machine, I was diagnosed with what my neurologist called Complex Migraines. These are migraines which present neurological symptoms similar to a stroke. The doctor wanted to put me on longterm migraine medication, but we were unable to find one which did not contain gelatin, a mammal product.
So, the solution was to become even more aggressive with dietary restrictions. No mammal, no dairy, no sugar, no gluten, and the elimination of a long list of individual foods which, after testing, showed signs of stimulating my immune system.
I have now terrified many men from going into the woods. And to the complete humiliation of my previous self, I eat a lot like a vegan. I haven’t deer hunted in two years.
If you listen to the Pastor Writer podcast, you might have noticed that my battle with Alpha Gal coincides with the launch and growth of the podcast. It was just a few months after I began working on my Samson book when the disease first hit. I can not tell you how discouraging it has been to find myself struggling with words, energy, and migraines during the same season in which I had hoped to spend more time on preaching, writing, and podcasting.
Does God Bless Excellence?
As a pastor, writer, and podcaster, mental clarity is everything. A writing coach once explained that “good writing is good thinking.” It’s also true of good podcast interviews, good sermons, and pastoring a congregation well. I depend on my ability to formulate and articulate coherent thoughts. And as I have often heard pastors say, “God honors excellence.” I want to be excellent. I want to preach excellent sermons and write excellent articles and produce an excellent podcast. So much seems to depend on excellence—success, progress, future opportunities, even blessing? But there were now very few days I managed the excellence I hoped for.
How could God, just when everything seemed to be taking off—the church, my writing, the podcast—allow me to develop a disease which put me at my worst? How do you grow a church when you know you’re nowhere near your best? How do you keep writing when you know it’s not what it could be? Is it even worth continuing?
Maybe the most painful realization has been it’s impact on me as a father and husband. I want to be a great dad—an excellent one—and to my shame, there have been days I’ve been far less. That is a hard thing to reconcile. Harder still to understand by faith. This was not how things were supposed to go, not in my thirties, and not when my vision, productivity, and energy were supposed to be at their best.
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with these questions. For some, it is sickness, for others loss, doubt, conflict, shame, addiction, or depression. The disappointment of our condition can be crushing. We live in the age of obsessive enhancement. Self-care, self-help, self-improvement. We must always be improving. To toss in another pastoral cliche, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” As pastors, we strive to keep improving. As writers, we grow bigger platforms. As a family, we want happiness and perfect family portraits. But what do you do when you aren’t improving, when excellence seems far out of reach? Does God honor barely making it through the day?
The Fruit of Sickness
At some point, I came across these words by the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. “We have been called to be fruitful – not successful, not productive, not accomplished. Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.” Those were kind words considering most of my life felt like a public display of my weakness. My congregants got a fresh showing of it every Sunday morning.
When I think about pastoring and writing, it’s so easy for my mind to fill with expectations for the future: a growing congregation, a book contract, a sense of having finally made it. I want to see the progress, track the results, and feel the energy of it. With such worthy ideals pulling me into each day’s work, a migraine felt like such a setback, three days of migraine felt like I had missed the whole opportunity.
But Nouwen forced me to ask a much different question. What might be the fruit of my sickness, and how might it make me a better pastor, writer, and even father? Honestly, I haven’t been able to answer that question fully, but I have begun to see signs of a new kind of maturity. I understand my congregants’ suffering in ways I didn’t before. I’ve been forced to pursue my writing at a pace God and my physical condition set for me. I pray more. I hope more.
I’m not sure there is always an obvious 1-to-1 correlation between our suffering, and it’s fruit as if I could connect every allergic reaction with some future moment of individual blessing. A migraine doesn’t guarantee the next day’s patience.
Instead, our moments of suffering have more to do with the long trajectory of who we are becoming. This disease has changed me. It’s changed my diet. It’s changed my body. It’s impacted my relationships and my ministry. But maybe the thing that has changed the most is my sensitivity—and no, it’s not because I’m now basically a vegan. That’s not the sensitivity I have in mind. It is a sensitivity to my daily dependence on God. I can’t guarantee a clear mind for tomorrow. I can only be faithful to what is put in front of me for today.
I’m rarely at my best, yet these days, I don’t think about my best nearly as much as I used to. I’ve grown far more interested in faithfulness. I wonder what years of this sickness might produce. It has, in an ironic way, already made me healthier. But I also wonder if it might cultivate a wisdom and a voice which speed and excellence never could. Might I be a better pastor for? Might I write things I otherwise never could have? Might it deepen my relationships with my wife and friends?
In the end, there is a kind of grace in it, hard to see when my eyes are blurry from migraines, but at other times so obvious. God is doing something. His plans and paths are wiser than mine. If he can work a crucifixion for my good how much easier an allergic reaction.
Finding Your Own Fruit
If I could offer any prayer for your suffering, it would rightfully be for God to alleviate it, but I would also add the request, however long it persists, you might discover a deeper contentment and grace through it. I would pray for a kind of depth to develop in your weakness that might open your eyes to a joy discovered by no other means. I would pray for fruit—fruit sweetened by the adversity of your condition; like a wild berry, persistent through frost, protected and guarded by thickets, ripened only by time. There is no other way to produce such fruit, and to the one who manages to find it, there is no better taste.
Might it be that the truest excellence is a grace we discover not one we can pursue?
“The way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped—it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him. After all, we are not just learning how to think right about God. For that we would enroll in a classroom so that we could concentrate, protected form distractions. And we are not just practicing ways to behave right before God. For that we would go to a training camp set up for behavioral modification that would provide the necessary protection from interruptions.
We can not remove ourselves form the way in order to have more favorable conditions for learning the way. We are already “on the way,” acquiring insights and developing habits of obedience, following Jesus in our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces, gradually and incrementally maturing in the way so that who we are and what we do is realized coherently and comprehensively.” — Eugene Peterson