Response: May 2014 Issue

Sometimes we just have to deal with it.

Sometimes we just have to deal with it.
Members of the Disability Project perform during Assembly 2010 in St. Louis.

God answered Paul’s prayer about the “thorn” in his flesh—just not the way Paul wanted.

It's the third Saturday morning, and that's the time I get up early, dress in casual attire, grab my Prayer Calendar and head out to church for our United Methodist Women meeting-riding in my electronic wheelchair to a waiting taxicab or "handi ride," the Dallas, Texas, commuter service for persons with disabilities, persons like me. I have difficulty walking without assistance due to a disease called multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis, MS, is believed to be a disease affecting the central nervous system the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. The nerves in the central nervous system are surrounded by a protective fatty material called myelin, which helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses. In multiple sclerosis, it is thought that when the immune system attacks the central nervous system, the myelin is damaged, and dense scar-like tissue called sclerosis form. These scars, also known as lesions, occur in multiple places throughout the central nervous system. The scar tissue affects the way electrical impulses travel along the nerve fiber, distorting and interrupting signals coming to and from the brain and spinal cord. This produces the various symptoms of multiple sclerosis such as difficulty standing, walking and use of the limbs in general. Sometimes multiple sclerosis patients become so physically unstable that they appear to look drunk or mentally ill. Television and movie stars known to have died due to complications from multiple sclerosis include Annette Funicello, Richard Pryor and Tamara Dobson.

I have suffered from multiple sclerosis for the past 20 years. I try not to let it keep me from being an active United Methodist Woman mem-ber or working as a writer, particularly in venues serving people of faith. That's why I identify with the Apostle Paul. While suffering from some infirmity-and imprisonment and other deprivations-Paul wrote much of what is now called the New Testament, documents that continue to encourage the people of God.

Thorns in the flesh

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul talks about "the thorn" in his flesh (12:7b) that greatly bothers him. "A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated," he said. There are many opinions about Paul's "thorn," whether it was something causing physical or mental anguish. Whatever it was, being human, Paul wanted to get rid of it and prayed for God to remove it. He said, "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me" (12:8a). And the Lord responded to Paul, if not in the way he had requested: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (12:8b).

Paul pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it, just as the Lord himself prayed in anguish three times in the garden at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). Yet God knows what is best for us, so God's answer may not be what we wish. Paul learned to pray in times of infirmity-even though the Lord may not remove the infirmity.

In other words, sometimes we just have to deal with it. Paul dealt with it this way: "Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong"(2 Corinthians 12:9).

When I began my initial treatments for multiple sclerosis in the hospital, I prayed to the Lord to "remove my infirmity." I remember going to a worship service after being diagnosed with optic neuritis, a symptom of multiple sclerosis. After taking a round of steroids and receiving bed rest, I regained my vision. Hearing our congregations sing "Amazing Grace" took on a different meaning for me because, I once was blind, literally, but now I see.

I returned to my writing job, never revealing my real illness for fear of not being allowed to travel again. In the church my husband served as pastor, I told very few persons that I had multiple sclerosis. I didn't want people to feel sorry for me or treat me as though I were incapable of doing anything. In fact, I served as United Methodist Women president at nearly every church where my husband was appointed a pastor in Dallas. I also have been an officer several times in the various districts where we've lived and in the North Texas Annual Conference. And I attended the past five United Methodist Women Assemblies. I am a Dallas County deputy voter registrar focusing on high school seniors turning 18 years old. Prior to the last presidential election, I registered 26 students while canvassing in my electronic wheelchair.

More importantly, I was able to raise our daughter Deanna Renee to be "mission minded." Today she is one of the youngest members of the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group.

Living with a disability

Nevertheless, over the past five years, my multiple sclerosis has worsened. When I first acquired the illness, my walking became slower. Then my steps were "few and far between," so I began to use a cane and a walker. Soon I became confined to a wheelchair. However, I still enjoy "getting around" through my writing. I jokingly say, "My fingers do my walking" on the computer. For example, I was a coauthor of the study book Poverty, the text for United Methodist Women's 2012-2013 mission study.

Multiple sclerosis has not kept me from doing some of the things I love to do, but the disease has become a barrier to having a normal life. I cannot stand up to sing hymns or walk to the altar to receive Holy Communion. Sometimes I get depressed because I cannot attend certain church activities. For example, once I was not allowed to attend my regional School of Christian Mission for conference study leaders because coordinators were afraid I might fall in the shower.

Differently-abled

My husband, the Rev. Leonard Charles Stovall, says I, like him, am not disabled, but differently abled. An ordained United Methodist minister, he is no long under pastoral appointment because he is legally blind and undergoes dialysis three times a week. However, his illness doesn't stop him from being a pastor. During one month Pastor Stovall attended three birthday celebrations for United Methodist Women members, a "home-going" service of a 90-year-old Latina lawyer and the visitation of a mother at a funeral home, spent an afternoon in prayer with a United Methodist minister in the hospital with kidney cancer, and preached and administered communion during Sunday worship service.

I'm glad that United Methodist Women will discuss ways churches can be inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities at Mission u. It will be a source of encouragement for people like me-and everyone needs that sometimes.

Mae Alexander, immediate past president of the Dallas Metro District and past vice president of North Texas Conference United Methodist Women, may not have known how much she inspired me to keep on pushing when she said these words:

"Denise Johnson Stovall is a great example of a gift from God in the manner of how she gets around to do the work she does for the Lord. She has always been a hard worker in the church, United Methodist Women and within her community. Now that she is wheelchair bound, this doesn't stop her. She attends local meetings, district and conference events. She has a caring, loving heart for the Lord. "What an inspiration!"


Denise Johnson Stovall is a member of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Women in Dallas, Texas.

Posted or updated: 5/1/2014 11:00:00 PM
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