No Greater Love

By Hannah Nielsen '99 and photos by Tracie Faust '07
Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Learning to Live with Mutiple Sclerosis

“We snuggle and we kiss, we hold hands when we pray, and we’re not going to stop doing those things just because people are watching,” said former JBU professor Jim Walters, speaking about his relationship with his wife, Lynda. 

He sits on the couch in his Siloam Springs living room, and Lynda reclines in the wheelchair, pulled up next to the couch. Natural light from an overhead skylight more than augments the room’s table lamps. Lynda is buckled into the chair, and as Jim talks, he continually involves her in the conversation, turning to get her assent to a statement or reaching over to touch her arm. She’s quiet, but still part of the conversation.

“There’s a tendency to play to the audience once you realize people are watching, which is terrible. It’s such a danger knowing because it changes motivation. You want to please people instead of pleasing God,” he said. “I do this because I love.”

Jim taught in the Biblical Studies department a JBU for 35 years before “retiring” in August 2003. (He still teaches two or three classes each year in the master’s degree program in leadership and ethics. And he is continually invited to speak to classes and groups.) For much of that time—and still today—the Walters family has struggled with an increasingly crippling problem: Lynda has multiple sclerosis (MS).

Throughout a timeline that includes her retirement from diving the transition to the use of a catheter, and upgrading to a handicap-accessible van, Jim and Lynda have continued to love God and each other, living each day in the present. Their life together has influence generations of students. Still, Jim insists that their marriage isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—atypical.

“We’re just doing what normal people do if they love each other,” he said. “Complimenting, respecting, communicating, being honest, being sensitive to each other’s feeling: 1 Corinthians 13. Somewhere along the line I realized Jesus said, ‘If you lose your life you’ll gain it.’”

In his explanation, Walters practically quotes Watchman Nee from his book The Normal Christian Life, which reads: “what is the normal Christian life?...Something very different from the life of the average Christian.” Nee write that, actually, Jesus is the only human to have ever lived a “normal Christian life by biblical standards.”

Even as he refers to Nee, in the next breath, Walters acknowledges that the life he and his wife lead is far from today’s societal norm, and even far from the norm in the church today.

“Everything centers around and understanding of what love is,” he said, further describing that the church and society have wrongly nurtured the idea of self-centeredness instead. “Love creates no debts because it keeps no record of what it does. [Lynda and I] don’t keep records of lists. It's something we learned way back.”

Jim and Lynda met in Dallas, while Jim was attending Dallas Theological Seminary, working towards his master’s degree in theology. He says he still remembers what she looked like when he first saw her. Lynda was a 1962 graduate of JBU, a homecoming queen, a 4.0 student, a pianist and organist, and she worked as a legal secretary. She was quiet and more reserved than Jim. (Lynda refers to him as the “speaker of the house.”) They were married on May 30, 1964 at First United Methodist Church in Siloam Springs.

“We never had any premarital counseling. I was not spiritual, had never thought about [those lines in wedding vows—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health’]. And I’m not sure a person should, because we’re not supposed to live in the past or the future,” he said.

Until and soon after the birth of their first son, the Walterses were in what Jim now calls “phase one” of their marriage: All clear ahead! After completing his doctorate at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, Jim came to JBU in 1968. He took a job in the admissions department, but he didn’t stay in admissions long. He soon joined the Biblical Studies department.

Even before being diagnosed, Lynda experienced symptoms of MS. She had problems with her feet and double vision. Double vision was “one of the big things,” Jim said. She was diagnosed with MS in January 1977.

Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. In MS, the fatty tissue (called the myelin sheath) that protects the nerve fibers is lost, leaving scare tissue called sclerosis. Sometimes the nerve fiber itself is damaged or broken. When this fatty tissue or the nerve fiber is destroyed or damaged, the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted, resulting in the various symptoms of MS.

Symptoms can include changes in cognitive function, dizziness, depression, fatigue, difficulty walking, numbness, pain, spasticity, and vision problems. Symptoms vary from person to person and vary over time within a single individual.

Approximately 400,000 Americans acknowledge having MS, and every week about 200 people are diagnosed, according to the Nation Multiple Sclerosis Society. Worldwide, MS may affect as many as 2.5 million individuals. The form of MS Lynda has is chronic and progresses more slowly than other, more acute forms.

In a way, the Walterses had a head start in coping well with MS because of the kind of marriage relationship they had.

“When this came into our home, we were not all caught up with a selfish lifestyle,” Jim said. “Some of the battles some people have were not as great for us. Not because we’re super-spiritual, but because we were normal, healthy.”

The adjustments from the emerging effects of MS were somewhat gradual. But in June 1993 a much more abrupt transition took place when Lynda needed a catheter. Jim recalled their thoughts at the time: “It’s not a gradual adjustment anymore…We have a choice to make. Are we going to keep on or not? And there is no option to quit.”

Quit they didn’t. The Walterses continued to be active and involved in the community, even as they had to make more and more adjustments for Lynda’s loss of movement in her legs, arms and hands. Even today, Jim and Lynda can be seen at restaurants, at JBU events, and at other activities.

“Lynda and I are happy and joyful, and we have a great life,” Jim said. “We do more than lots of our friends. We were at the opera two weeks ago, we go to Walton [Arts Center in Fayetteville] two times a year…we enjoy each other, we laugh, we make each other laugh. We’re as affectionate now as when we got married,” he said.

Jim’s love and admiration for Lynda is apparent as he cares for her and talks about her.

“Lynda’s the hero, because obviously she has more limited functions. She has to be totally dependent,” he said, adding that her dependence has shown him what his relationship with God should be like.

The couple readily admits that MS was not their choice for life: “We surely wouldn’t have chosen this path,” Jim said.

“But it’s here,” Lynda added, demonstrating that she was alert and attentive. Between her challenged speech and her characteristic deference to her outgoing husband, Lynda doesn’t say too much, but she is no less engaged in the conversation.

“We don’t praise God for MS,” Jim said. “Never thank God for the effects of sin—not our personal sin, but our dying bodies. We are thankful for what we have learned.”

One of the lessons Jim has learned is to see interruptions as opportunities for serve rather than nuisances. He doesn’t like being late, for example, but he’s learned to reorient himself in relationship to time, he said.

“There are certainly times when you get angry at the stubbornness of the body. You’re ready to leave and something happens,” he said. “When MS is in charge, bodily functions interrupt at the most inopportune times, adding hours to daily tasks. And it was not just the balking body which destroyed my time schedule but also the ‘supports’ part of our life. Things like a leaking catheter bag requiring a change of clothes; a break in the wheelchair frame; an unlocked wheelchair scooting away as I was putting Lynda in it, resulting in Lynda slipping onto the floor; a ramp in the van which refuses to open; clothing which rips as I try to dress her too quickly; stepping on the catheter and pulling it out—ouch—while moving Lynda, and the list goes on!” he said.

One time they were headed to a restaurant in Fayetteville. They had nearly completed the 40-minute drive when they realized something was wrong and had to turn around. They went home, fixed the problem, and headed back to the restaurant. They finally made it to the restaurant two-and-a-half hours later than they had intended.

Jim says that when he looks back at the times he has been angry or frustrated, he sees that it was because he was selfish. Our response is the most accurate reflection or our character, he describes.

“A lot of responses are inside of me. Character flaws or weaknesses in me, that I had to deal with,” he suggests.

Another lesson the Walterses learned through life with MS is how to receive help. It didn’t come easily, especially since Jim is a self-proclaimed “independent Yankee.”

“It’s more difficult to receive than it is to give many times, because when you receive you admit you have a need,” he said. “Life changes drastically when you’re dependent on someone else.”

Jim describes their need of a $45,000 retrofitted minivan in 1997 as the clearest illustration of their own inability. The cost was nearly the amount of Jim’s annual salary. One friend called him three times, starting in 1996, saying he’d found a used van for them to purchase. Over time, the phone calls helped the Walterses realize they really did need a van. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Jim to help Lynda in and out of the car, but Jim was reluctant to buy a van that would require Lynda to sit in the back, which was the case in most wheelchair-accessible vans.

Just as the Walterses were considering their transportation need, JBU professor Delia Haak ’88 was spearheading an effort to raise the money to purchase a van as a gift for the Walterses.

“I was pretty much speechless, because there was no way we could afford it,” Jim said of the moment he learned about the fundraising effort. In the end, the couple paid only $2,500 for insurance, an extended warranty, and tax on the van.

“Some things you cannot do yourself. Some people so resist [getting help] that they insult people [who want to help],” he said.

In the midst of their situation, Jim and Lynda believe that their lives are not merely full of challenges to be endured, but full of opportunities to grow and reflect Christ.

“Opportunities is a word of potentialities,” Jim said. “There is the potential of doing that which can only be done at this moment. There is the potential of showing loving-kindness in a tangible way. There is the potential of showing Lynda that she is more important than anyone or anything which might to intrude on this holy moment. There is the potential to die to self. There is the potential of reflecting Christ, who came, ‘not to be served, but to serve and give His life.’ There is the potential of realizing that ‘we have come to the kingdom for such a time—opportunity—as this.” A failure to change would not only cause personal frustration and possible resentment by me, but would put an undeserved weight of guilt and a feeling of responsibility for all I could not do on Lynda.

“Sure, we cry on occasion,” Jim said, adding that the few times Lynda has cried have been for the difficulty he faces rather than for herself.

“Loving Lynda is not that difficult. When I do something, she’ll say, ‘Thank you.’ But you don’t do it for the gratitude,” he said. “It takes more enabling grace to be Lynda than to be Jim.”