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In the Life of Michelle Van Parys

"We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame." Romans 5:3-5

If you ask Michelle Van Parys how she’s doing today, she might say, “I’m BSB. Brave, strong, blessed.”

Of course, Michelle didn’t always feel very brave, strong, or blessed. There was a time when she felt afraid, unable to face the future, and angry with God.

It all began on April 5, 2015. Michelle returned home from a wonderful Easter Sunday celebration—along with her husband, Chris, and their two children—anticipating a peaceful night of rest. That night of rest never came. It would be quite a while before Michelle rested peacefully again.

Her son, who was ten years old at the time, suddenly didn’t feel well. He told Michelle he felt nauseous and had a headache. Then, his symptoms progressed. There was a ringing in his ears, he said, and the room was going dark. He became very confused and disoriented.

Terrified, Michelle and Chris rushed their son to the local emergency room. They lived in the D.C. area at the time. He was admitted to the hospital, where doctors were puzzled by his condition. He was transported to Georgetown and then to Johns Hopkins.

As doctors struggled to find answers, Michelle felt helpless watching her son’s health continue to decline. He even lost the ability to walk.

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Romans 5:3-5

Michelle had put her faith in Jesus early on in her married life. She was baptized in Hawaii in 2003. Now, her faith faltered. She once looked forward to an incredibly bright future for her son, who became a member of Mensa International at the age of four and was full of boundless energy. Now, she feared for his life. Michelle admits she became angry with God during this time.

“I was confused,” she says. “If God was for me, then why were these bad things happening?”

Eventually, Michelle’s son was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. It occurs when part of the skull is abnormally small or misshapen, pressing on the brain and pushing it downward. In the case of Michelle’s son, the Chiari led to a build-up of spinal fluid, known as a syrinx, which covered most of his spine. As the syrinx widened, it compressed and injured nerve fibers carrying information from his brain to his extremities.

Doctors caught the condition just in time. If left undiagnosed much longer, the condition would have resulted in paralysis.

While relieved to have a diagnosis, Michelle knew the road ahead would be unimaginably difficult. Her son’s first brain surgery was on May 6, 2015, and it was not deemed successful. He had a second surgery on August 31, 2015. This time, the surgery was a success.

During all the difficulty and uncertainty, Michelle was amazed, but not surprised, to see her son remain strong and hopeful. “He’s had Jesus in his heart from the get-go,” she says. “He’s always been a kid of faith.”

Meanwhile, Michelle was barely hanging on, going through the motions of faith but growing more and more distant from God. On the outside, she was holding it all together. On the inside, she became increasingly angry and confused.

Michelle remained strong and steadfast during her son’s hospitalization and recovery, but in the aftermath she faced debilitating depression and anxiety. After her son received a good report at his follow-up appointment in December of 2015, Michelle finally let herself fall apart. The ordeal had taken a toll on her physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Michelle sought and received professional help. While she did find some relief, nothing seemed to fully resolve the burning questions in her soul. She remained angry with God, and she didn’t know how to give a voice to her crisis of faith.

Then, things changed for the Van Parys family. Through his job in the military, Chris—an accomplished Air Force mechanic who worked on Air Force One for many years—was relocated to South Jersey. In August of 2017, the family attended Fellowship Alliance Chapel for the first time. Being new to the area, Michelle and Chris were looking for a place to get connected in a small group setting. They made the decision to participate in Alpha. It was a decision that would change Michelle’s life.

Michelle credits Alpha with turning her toward Jesus in the midst of her pain and questioning. “Being able to question without judgment was very freeing to me,” she says. “It was a safe place to announce that God had made me mad. It was also a safe place to make peace with God.”

“Even though I was so angry with God, I still fell on my knees and prayed when they took my son back for surgery,” Michelle remembers. “I used to demand answers from God. I wanted to know why this happened to our family. I’m not looking for a reason anymore. I do know that being at Alpha and being honest about my struggle turned my life around completely. I don’t think I’d be this close to Jesus without having that experience. That’s enough for me. Jesus is enough for me.”

Michelle’s son showed a tremendous amount of resilience throughout his recovery. Today—while he continues to suffer from dizziness, blackouts, and headaches—he doesn’t let the struggles of his new normal define him or defeat him. Instead, he chooses to place his hope in the Lord. Despite having endured multiple brain surgeries, he has not lost an ounce of his brainpower or his ultimate trust in the goodness of God.

As a result of her son’s diagnosis, Michelle knows what it’s like to suffer from severe anxiety, and yet she also knows what it looks like to be brave. The courage she witnessed in her son, coupled with her renewed zeal for serving the Lord, have inspired Michelle to go to Southern Africa on an upcoming short-term missions trip with FASA. She leaves on June 21.

“I always wanted to go on a missions trip, but I was never brave enough,” she says. “My son’s bravery inspired me to do this.”

Michelle finds great comfort in Romans 5:3-5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” †