Strength in Weakness

In our younger years we all have a sense of invincibility.  We feel strong and energetic, with our future wide open and our self-confidence bubbling over.  But as the stresses and strains, the pains and the pounds start accumulating, we begin to wonder, “Do I really have it all under control?”

My dream world came crashing down thirty-five years ago.  On July 6, 1981, I noticed a sudden weakness in my arms and legs, and I quickly went to my Cincinnati doctor. His diagnosis was that of a crippling neuromuscular disease, and he admitted me to the hospital within an hour.  I remained there for twenty-five days, wondering if I still had a chance to live a good life and to provide for my wife and daughters.

I’ve never been able to adequately describe the fear and helplessness of those awful hours.  For the first time in my life, although I was at the peak of physical condition, I couldn’t control my own body.  I had to be fed by someone else; I needed assistance whenever I used the restroom. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and I remember calling out, “God, why? Please tell my why?”

And then came some answers, slowly and almost imperceptibly, but enough to send a beacon of hope to my soul.  Under the wise care of Drs. Warren Webster and Jim Anthony, good friends from the church whom I was now trusting with my life (as though I had a choice!), I began to realize my need for something outside myself for my very survival.  This should not have come as a shock to me, since I’d been preaching this message for a decade.  But it was a truth I’d always directed at others, never at “self-reliant, self-sufficient Russ Clark!”

I also came to a much deeper love for my wife and children and other family members who surrounded me with their support, encouragement, and prayers.  The congregation of Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church rallied around us and offered help of every kind.  One member was quite creative in his approach when, as the son of a physician, he borrowed his father’s medical bag and smuggled a six-pack of Budweiser into my room.  Of course I was forbidden to imbibe, but I’ll always remember Larry’s act of kindness.  (I wonder what he would have done if a nurse had intercepted him and said, “Doctor, we need you in this room right now!”)

Another discovery was a passage of scripture I’d referred to many times in helping others understand why life sometimes flattens us.  The ancient sage, in describing his own thorn in the flesh, wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  What on earth did he mean by that, I often questioned.  Then one night, alone in my room, it came to me, “He’s not talking about muscle power at all.  He’s saying that when we come to the end of our rope, when all the props are knocked out from under us, then we can find that the only power that really matters is inside us.”  The conviction and confidence that God is with us, in spite of our frailty.  When our little sand castles crumble, we can turn to a more authentic trust in a Creator who will help us rebuild on solid rock.

That was half my lifetime ago, since I’ll reach age seventy in just a few days.  So I’ve seen that time in Deaconess Hospital as a turning point and a change of course.  Oh, I still continued on the same career path with the same loved ones around me, but I was a different person.  You might say I’d been “born again,” except that those words carry too much baggage these days.  Let’s just call what I’m describing “The Midlife Miracle.”

Or simply “Strength in Weakness.”