July 16th, 2015

I want to begin by thanking John and Dodie Truesdale for the privilege of being their pastor. In the short time I have come to know them, I have come to love them. At Corinth each fall we give folks a chance to sign up for a small dinner group that rotates among the homes of that group. By God’s providence, the Truesdales and Thompsons ended up in the same group, and that gave us yet another chance to form a bond in Christ.

It was far from my mind that I would preach their daughter’s memorial service in the summer of 2015. People tend to think that this is one of the most unpleasant tasks for a pastor. To be sure, death and grief are deeply unpleasant, but the opportunity to draw closer to people like John and Dodie and to be entrusted with the opportunity to bring meaning into this moment through a distinctively Christian and biblical lens is a humbling privilege.

And that’s what we’re here to do. Whatever emotions or questions we have, this is a safe place, the right place, to bring them. This physical building is called a “sanctuary,” a sacred place of refuge. Here we seek and find comfort and meaning through the Bible and the message of Jesus Christ.

I do this in different ways with different memorial services. Today I’d like to begin this meditation by telling you Anne’s life story in brief. I think maybe John thought about doing a eulogy himself for his daughter, but he told me those who know him best would probably think, “Oh, no! We’re going to be here until 5:00!” It’s a little unusual to find a man who uses more words in a day than his wife, but John’s one of them.

The story of Anne Truesdale began when an Episcopalian girl from old Charleston was on a date in Columbia, South Carolina bar in the mid 1970s. A Greek Orthodox boy from old Columbia spotted her and, even though she was with someone else that night, he told a friend, “I met the girl I’m going to marry.”

Dodie didn’t think he would ever find her again, but John Truesdale is a man with purpose and determination. He first inquired about a “Dodie Warren,” and couldn’t find a number. Then he figured out that Dodie is short for Theodora, located her, and called her up. She said, “I never date men I meet in bars.” He convinced her to double date and one date led to another until they married in September 1978. They moved to Orlando, Houston, and then Charlotte, where Anne was born in 1982.

You’ve probably heard parents with 2 or 3 children say of their youngest child, “If I’d had that one first, I’d have only had one child.” John and Dodie had that child first, and her name was Anne. It’s not that there were any known disabilities at the beginning. Anne was just all they could handle.

She was born the Friday before Father’s Day, and John was interviewed on TV that night. He says the TV reporter saw it too: his little girl raised her head up in the hospital nursery to look around. Her early nickname was “The Periscope.”

John’s father said of Anne, “That’s a strong-willed child.” He should know. He raised John. Early in their marriage, Dodie’s Dad would ask her, “Are you coming to visit me and get away from that hyper husband of yours?”

Anne was determined as a baby to get around. She would dive out of her crib. She’d belly flop forward along the floor instead of crawling. On her first birthday, she stood up and…you expect me to say “She walked”? No, on her first birthday, having never walked, Anne stood up and ran across the room.

From that point on, Dodie said, “She exhausted me.” John would come home from work and find Anne and her mother out cold in the car in the carport. Riding was the only way Dodie could get Anne to sleep.

Anne had stitches three times before she was two years old. She was fearless from the beginning. As a child she never sat still. She ran barefooted; her feet were like moccasins. She would get bitten by a cocker spaniel, stung by a jellyfish, thrown by a horse, and still have no fear. She fell off the dock and learned to swim. She was swimming competitively at age 5. If something bad happened, it happened to her. John said she “could tear up an anvil.” Her parents knew she must have had a flock of angels around her for her to survive.

As a teenager, Anne didn’t drive fast, but she had a lot of accidents. She wrecked her mother’s Blazer two weeks after getting a driver’s license on her fifteenth birthday. She also had a terrible sense of direction and would get lost anywhere. But she kept up her swimming during the teen years and also played softball, twice earning an MVP award for pitching. For Anne it wasn’t so much about the competition but about the people. She could be a loner, but softball and swimming gave her the chance to be around people without necessarily interacting on a personal level. She did have two close friends, Autumn and Eleanor. Autumn even moved in with the Truesdales for a while and was like a second daughter. People thought they were twins.

The family moved around a good bit during Anne’s childhood and adolescence – Greenville, Walterboro, Charleston, Greenville again, and then Raleigh, where Anne graduated from high school. Anne had always been intelligent, but, in her own words, the next few years were ones of “lack of maturity and personal responsibility.” Back in Greenville, she chose the wrong friends and the wrong behaviors.

But she also began to exhibit some behaviors that were more than just poor choices. First diagnosed with ADHD, then bipolar disorder, and finally schizophrenia, the last 15 years of her life were, for the most part, a downward spiral. Her parents grieve her loss today, but in many ways they lost her sometime around 2003 or 2004. The date is hard to pinpoint. A severe mental disorder is like having your brain hijacked. To change the metaphor, it’s like having a tornado swirl inside your brain – day after day, year after year. Normal functioning is somewhere between severely challenging and impossible.

It’s rather remarkable that Anne was able to complete a Bachelor of Science at the University of South Carolina Upstate in May 2007. During her time there her GPA was 3.7. This is what she herself wrote about that journey: “Being told that I may have a cognitive impairment ironically triggered my intrinsic need for academic excellence. The classroom became my battlefield where I thrived competing against my classmates. Being called upon during class to explain concepts fueled my desire to learn. Acquiring knowledge became my passion.”

With her success in the undergraduate program, Anne applied to and was accepted into the Mississippi College School of Law. It was the happiest time of her life. But it didn’t last long. Her psychiatrist in Mississippi took her off all her psychiatric medicines, and she quickly went downhill. She finally withdrew for medical reasons before final exams. Her parents moved her back to Greenville, where she felt most at home – first in an apartment and then in a house.

John and Dodie did all they could for their daughter in the years since. When they ran out of ideas they very wisely sought perspective and coping skills for themselves in a Family-to-Family group sponsored by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). When IFH moved John to Hickory in 2012, they found this church and before long the Truesdales had helped to establish a Bipolar Support Group for this area. They know how helpful it is for people with these sorts of disabilities, and their families, to walk what otherwise can be a very lonely road hand-in-hand.

John and Dodie knew their only child would likely not live a normal life span. In addition to her mental disabilities, she’s been battling heart and lung disease for several years. Still, they were completely caught off guard last Sunday when Anne’s good friend “Lucky” called them to say she was gone. The coroner confirmed that her death was due to “natural causes.”

But she did have some good days even recently. Dodie was at a women’s Bible conference in Greenville just last Friday and Saturday. When the conference ended, Dodie and her friend Joan Huffman from our dinner group spent some really great time with Anne – less than 24 hours before she passed away. Only a month earlier, John had spent a full day with Anne taking care of her cell phone, getting prescriptions, eating lunch, going to Costco – several different errands which in the past had always been possible only one per day. They had a near-normal “father-daughter” day on June 9, a memory John will always treasure. He said all through these hard years he would call Anne 2-3 times every day. This will be one of his hardest adjustments going forward.

For John and Dodie, this has been a week of both relief for the mercy that Anne no longer suffers and no longer struggles, and a deep sense of grief that the fears which began to grow more than a decade ago have now been realized. There is a finality about death, but in another sense there is never a finality about losing your child. This is the third time in a year I’ve preached a funeral sermon standing in front of two parents who had to bury their child – one 17 years old, one 5, and now one 33. Regardless of the age, losing your child in death is every parent’s greatest dread. John and Dodie, we have gathered from near and far because even though we can’t fully understand or enter into your grief, we care and we love you.

Now I would like to turn to the Scriptures for some perspective and hope.

Our first Scripture reading today was Psalm 23. This morning I had what could only be described as a providential moment in connection with this psalm. By “providential moment” I mean those events that you recognize as God’s presence and activity when you need him the most. Sometimes we can only acknowledge them in retrospect, such as when you, Dodie, spent Saturday with Anne and you, John, looked back on June 9. Those are memories across which you can write, “God is here” as you look back.

One of the several daily devotional e-mails that filled my Inbox today was titled “Not Just for Funerals,” a meditation on Psalm 23. Naturally I took time to read it. Emily Heath, a pastor in New Hampshire, noted that Psalm 23 is one of the more commonly requested Scriptures for a funeral or memorial service. And for good reason. But she also said that’s a tragedy, because Psalm 23 “isn’t about death; it’s about living fearlessly and in abundance.” That sounds like Anne Truesdale!

There’s that phrase imbedded in the Psalm about God walking with us “through the valley of the shadow of death,” but the fact that we live this mortal life with the constant awareness that it’s short should not immobilize us. This psalm is not about shutting down; it’s about moving ahead. Pastor Heath wrote, “Don’t live in fear; live in faith.”

How appropriate as a reflection on the meaning of Anne’s life, based on Psalm 23. I think about those early years, starting with Day 1, that Anne lived all out – and even of the years when she pursued that bachelor’s degree. It’s almost as if Anne knew from the start that she had to pack a lot of living into a short amount of time. God certainly knew. She ran and risked and suffered enough for a whole lifetime in her 33 years.

Through it all a Good Shepherd never left her side. Whether it was a “flock of angels” or some other way of expressing God’s intimate concern and care, Anne was never alone through these years. In green pastures, beside still waters, in deep valleys, “thou art with me,” David writes, and “thy rod and staff they comfort me.” God provided for her through a loving mother and father who never gave up being Mom and Dad, while still allowing her as much independence as possible. And we can claim his promise for Anne, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” She is at rest in his presence.

I wrestled a little about which text from the New Testament to select, since John and Dodie left that choice to me. I finally settled on 2 Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul vulnerably shares his frustrating struggle and journey toward peace about what he calls his “thorn in the flesh.” Nobody knows for sure what the specific “thorn” was, and several different theories have been proposed. What is relevant to us is that the “thorn” was an abnormality with a physiological cause, and that Paul, considered by many the greatest Apostle of the Christian faith, personally pleaded with God three times to remove it, and was denied.

Anne had a thorn in the flesh – mental illness, or should I say mental illnesses. We know much more about these than Paul or other human physician or theologian in the first century knew. To be sure, we still don’t know the cause, and rather suspect that we should speak of “causes.” ADHD is the one Anne most readily owned, because it’s the one with the least stigma. Bipolar disorder, according to a NAMI brochure, affects about 6 million adults in the US and “is characterized by extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning” – swinging from one “pole” to the other in a period of days, weeks, or even months. Schizophrenia is less common, affecting about 2 million Americans. It is not, as is often thought, a split personality even though the word “schizophrenia” is based on two Greek words that mean “split mind.” The split is between reality and delusion, with hallucinations – voices, smells, objects seeming very real even though they are not.[1]

We all need to understand that about 26% of Americans live with some kind of mental disorder. Even if we take the most serious cases like bipolar or schizophrenia, it’s not just the individuals who have to deal with it; it’s their families. So we could conservatively say that a third of Americans find this reality to be part of their daily lives.

What’s important is that we recognize mental illness as a “thorn in the flesh.” Precisely because mental illnesses such as these affect a minority of the population, it’s easy for the rest of us to react with blame or shame. We blame individuals, we blame parents, we shame and shun those whose dis-ease happens to be different than our own. Most of us can reason ourselves out of unreality or mood swings, but those who have mental illness can no more do so than I can reason myself out of failing eyesight or the flu or arthritic knees. I can manage some symptoms with healthy choices and medications, but there’s so much on the list of what I must accept because I cannot fundamentally change it.

I would suspect that John and Dodie’s first instinct as parents was the same instinct most of us would have had if we had never encountered mental illness until it showed up in our child. We try various forms of behavior modification, because a normal brain should be able to recondition itself to healthier ways of thinking and acting. Eventually the Truesdales moved to a different place, one of empathy. That different place is not about absolving their daughter of all personal responsibility or dignity, but it is about recognizing that her range of what she can control is different than yours or mine. When John and Dodie came to our first Bipolar Support Group, they brought with them a laminated NAMI reminder card, about the size of a credit card, with suggestions for “Communicating with Someone Who Has a Psychiatric Illness.” The card suggests responses like “be calm,” “assess the situation for safety,” and “respond to feelings” accompanying the hallucinations. It’s all part of recognizing that mental illness is a “thorn in the flesh” that rarely goes away through human effort or even prayer – just like Paul’s thorn.

So then why God does God allow this kind of suffering in the world? With this question I’ll close the meditation, even though I know there’s much more that could be said. I don’t want you leaving here thinking, “He should have let John talk; we’d be finished earlier.”

My best and most honest answer to the “why” question is, “I don’t know.” That’s especially true when I think of a particular person’s story. I do not plan to say anything that will make you say, “I know why God allowed Anne Truesdale to suffer with mental illness.”

So let me just offer some brief thoughts on the role of suffering in general. There are three options for how God could have created this world. One possibility is a world with absolutely no possibility of evil and suffering – no natural disasters, no sin, no physical or mental illness, no violence. But that would take away the possibility of freely chosen love and faith, and God did not go there.

The second option is the one where our wishful thinking tends to go. God could have created a world where he would allow evil and suffering but step in and stop the most egregious examples. And he would explain to us why he allows whatever suffering he allows. But if God chose this option we would all think we are God’s equals and that he owes us a good life or explanations. Come to think of it, this is how humans often do think of God. We demand he either fix or explain our pain. I would suggest that precisely because God is wise and loving and just, he knows it’s best for us simply to trust his integrity and his heart even when we don’t understand life. Otherwise we don’t worship a God above all who is worthy of our worship. We simply bow to an idol we can manage and manipulate.

So the way I understand the world, the way I think the Bible explains this world, is that God has created an existence for us where suffering of various kinds happens, and where he rarely chooses to intervene and stop it. The Apostle Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12 gives us hints why this is. First, Paul says, suffering humbles us. Paul himself had received great and glorious revelations from God, and his thorn in the flesh kept him from becoming proud.

Suffering takes us to a place of need, of dependence, of releasing control. Let’s be honest, we’re all better people when we stop trying to manipulate God and others around us. In other words, without understanding the why of any particular act or type of suffering, we see God working in the middle of it – working in us and through us. Suffering truly is redemptive, and there is no greater model of this than the suffering of Jesus himself for us. Of all people, he could have chosen for himself as the Son of God a life of no suffering. But in Christ God suffered with us and for us, to save us from sin, yes, but to leave behind an unforgettable example that suffering itself has meaning.

Then there’s that final word on suffering Paul gives us when he says the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” In suffering we actually experience more of God’s presence, his comfort, his care, his strength, his hope, than we can ever experience without that suffering. John and Dodie, you too have modeled this for me. You have turned the suffering of your daughter – and your suffering as her parents – into a reason and a way to identify with others who suffer. Your determination to offer support and encouragement and hope to people in this community dealing with mental illness has demonstrated for me what it means to turn suffering into ministry, pain into compassion.

Our friend Bob Mills in Winston-Salem, who helped us start our Bipolar Support Group, told me about an emerging field of psychology, “posttraumatic growth.” Behavioral science is catching up to what the Bible has said all along: that suffering is not the end of a story; it’s a process that can be a springboard for a better future. As believers in Jesus, we trust that even when this life comes to an end, as Anne’s did, the suffering we have experienced is not the end of our story. God is preparing us for a future by his grace that is far better than anything we have seen or could imagine. Amen.

[1]The Christian Approach to Schizophrenia,” a 1976 article available from the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, is a helpful resource, as is “The Shadow of Schizophrenia,” published in Christianity Today in 2013.

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