It's a common devotional practice to read stories like this and imagine yourself as one of the characters. I've always pictured myself as one of the friends, as someone who carries others. For most of my life, I have worked at Salvation Army drop-ins and shelters. I feel called by God to work alongside people who live on or close to the street, and have become well acquainted with the need to carry people. I haven't done everything right, but I hope I have guided people toward Jesus' healing power.
But these days, when I read this story, something is different. I don't picture myself as one of the friends. I'm the one being carried.
Learning to Receive
I've had multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, for 18 years. About 10 years ago, we started going to a camp as a family in the summer. We fell in love with Camp Koinonia, built on a hill overlooking a lake. At first, I could easily navigate the camp, because MS wasn't front and centre for me. But over the past five years, it has become more and more difficult to walk. I depend on a walker or mobility scooter to get around. Spending time at the camp has become my yardstick for how much sicker I've become.
For weeks before our visit last summer, I worried that the hill to the lake, my favourite spot at the camp, would finally be too much for me. As soon as we got there, I tried walking down the stairs to the lake. Halfway down, I realized it was a mistake. I wasn't sure how I'd get the rest of the way down, or back up to my cabin. I was stuck. Thankfully, I was with a good friend. He took me on his back down the hill and to the end of the dock, where I splashed into the water.
I love being in water. Swimming is one of the only forms of cardio remaining to me—I can wiggle my legs, even walk if the water is past my waist. I can float, and, for a short time, forget my physical limitations.
Once in the water, I started wondering how I'd get back up the hill. After an hour of swimming, it was time to figure it out. The young guys who work at the camp came to help, prepared to carry me—but how? Then someone noticed the lifeguard's spinal board. They strapped me on and carried me up the hill.
And that's how I got down to the water and back every day for the rest of the week. At 2:30 p.m., the guys came to our cabin and carried me down to the water. At 4 p.m., they picked me up and carried me back up the hill.
I have to admit, the first time I wondered if I'd be dropped. They were young, and one or two of them were kind of scrawny. I could see fear in one guy's eyes, that he wasn't sure if his strength would hold out all the way up. But it did. We found a rhythm and the rides got less dramatic as the week went on. They never dropped me.
Each time, I thanked them profusely, but they shrugged it off. They carried me gently, with a joyful attitude, never grumbling that this wasn't in their job description. In fact, they seemed to think it was a privilege to be able to do this for me. Their willing spirit and generosity moved me almost to tears.
Although it was humbling to need to be carried, it was also a beautiful gift—to realize that I am like the disabled man, in need of help, in need of grace.
Carrying Each Other
On Wednesdays, the camp staff has a day off. Before they leave, they put out hot dogs and hamburgers for us to cook over the campfire. After dinner, we roast marshmallows and sing campfire songs. It's a lot of fun. But the firepit is down the big hill, and the staff guys weren't around, so I decided to skip the meal.
My friends were having none of that.
For the past few years, we've been part of a church small group that meets for dinner every Wednesday evening in each other's homes. It's our way of trying to live in community. We've shared our joys and pains, our resources and our lives. We are family.
Six couples from our group were at camp with us. I know it grieves them to see me struggle. I know they would do anything they could to help me. They grabbed the spinal board, picked me up and carried me down to the festivities. I felt safe, held by trusted friends who know and love me.
They carried me physically. I have carried them in other ways. That's what friends do. That's how family works.
Jesus Heals a Man
In Mark 2, when the disabled man is lowered through the roof, Jesus forgives and heals him. The man takes up his mat and walks away. How I long for that—to be physically healed. I dream about going for walks with my wife without mobility aids.
I believe with all my heart that God could make me walk again. I also believe that he has healed me in a deeper way through this horrible disease. MS has been a gift. Yes, it's a gift I'd happily give back. Yes, it's humbling, frustrating and painful for me and those around me. Yes, I get depressed, angry and sad.
But it has also forced me to slow down and listen to God in the silence. It has taught me profound lessons about love, patience, grace and forgiveness. It has shown me that I am the man who needs to be carried into the presence of Jesus. And for that, I am thankful.
Dion Oxford is the director of mission integration for Toronto Housing and Homeless Supports.