This has been my summer for reunions. My 43rd high school was in June (we had all turned 60) and it was the first reunion that I had intended since I graduated in 1967. It was great to renew acquaintances and revive some long ago memories. This last weekend Renee and I visited Minnesota where students from Moorhead State University gathered together to also renew acquaintances from the 1970’s. We were in campus ministry there and these students were involved in our work.
The time in Minnesota was in short wonderful. What struck me about the two reunions was that the one involving ministry was more meaningful to me and I was again reminded of one of the lasting qualities of spiritual relationships: connectedness. The memories of these two disparate groups were poignant and fun, but there was a certain weightiness to the time with the students (now very much adults) to whom we ministered. I am reminded as I write this of the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “For there is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all in all.”
These words become more and more significant to me as I grow older. Relationships make up the most important part of our lives. And the fact remains that our faith in God connects in a way that goes beyond what mere humans are capable of. Below is an excerpt from one of our students, Mark Warren, who has had an interesting journey to say the least. Please take time to read this… your heart will be warmed.
“After earning my B.S. in Biology in 1976, I went to New Staff Training out at Arrowhead Springs with the goal of reaching students with the life-transforming message of Jesus’ grace and love. After four years at Indiana State in Terre Haute, I was assigned to Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, where I met and fell in love with Susie, whom I married in June of 1983. Shortly after our first anniversary I was preparing for a career change into X-Ray Technology, and during the physical exam that was part of the admission process into the X-Ray program, I asked the doctor about some strange twitching I had started noticing in both biceps about six months earlier – which led to an appointment with a neurologist, which led to the 1984 diagnosis of ALS. So at the age of 31, while embarking on an exciting, hopeful, optimistic new journey of life with my beautiful new wife, our lives came to a screeching halt with the news that I had 3 to 5 years to live.
‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.’ Matthew 11:28-30
In the middle of June in 1984, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. It was just a few days before I learned I officially had ALS, and I was contemplating the validity of those words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel, because after years of long-distance running and weightlifting, I couldn’t run anymore, I was having trouble speaking, my bicep and thigh muscles were twitching strangely, I felt out of balance, weak, and my soul was not at rest. All that I had believed about God for a quarter century was hanging on what I made of this situation, so I poured my heart out to God, asking for the faith and strength and all I would need to throw my trust on Him completely. I didn’t realize until after much reflection, but that was the beginning of a life-altering journey – a new vision, a new calling, a new adventure of faith, a new opportunity to be a voice attesting to God’s never-ending faithfulness, all-sufficient grace, and undying love in the life of an ordinary man facing an extraordina ry health challenge. The uncertainty was still there about the details of my medical diagnosis, but I sensed a new certainty that having put my trust in the validity of Jesus’ words, He would lighten my burden and enlighten my path. And after asking for faith and strength, I received newfound strength to live out my faith – strength that has upheld me throughout the 26 years I have lived with ALS (21 of those years on a ventilator).
My life with ALS is an adventure of faith that in many ways has made me love our Lord Jesus all the more. I still miss being able to run, to breathe in fresh air, to sing, turn pages in a book, look through my binoculars at the Andromeda Galaxy, take a vinyl record out of its album cover and put it on the turntable, drive down the Interstate with the windows open and radio blasting, have a prime rib dinner, eat popcorn at a movie…and every single day I want to tell Susie with my own voice that I love her, hold her tight, and take her lovely face in my hands and kiss it. But through ALS I have learned to focus more on what I have than on what I’ve lost, and believe me – what I HAVE is infinitely more valuable, infinitely more precious. I have the love of my beautiful wife, a selfless love sweetened and deepened by the trial we share; I have the love and support of two dedicated families; I have incredible friends with whom I’m able to communicate regularly via email; I have skilled, ventilator-trained, compassionate nurses who care for me and allow Susie to work full-time as a Special Education teacher; I have a personal relationship with the living Jesus, who tells me, ‘In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.’ And I still have the goal of reaching people with the life-transforming message of Jesus’ grace and love.
ALS has brought new significance to my life by intensifying and refocussing my dependence on Christ. As you all well know, having faith in Jesus doesn’t mean the removal of troubles – His peaceful presence within a believer provides a solid assurance that they won’t face those troubles alone. Being a Christian doesn’t insulate me from life, and sometimes life is tough: sometimes my trach needs constant suctioning – pneumonia lurks in my lungs and is a constant threat – the tube feedings that keep me alive produce nausea. But Jesus promises to be with me as I face the challenges of life with that merciless taskmaster and relentless tutor known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. And in Romans 5 I read that the tough times I endure as a part of living with ALS can actually build perseverance and character into my life because they draw me toward the eternal hope I have in Christ.
‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’ Jim Elliot
As I’m sure you all know, Jim Elliot was a missionary who was murdered by some of the people with whom he was endeavoring to share Jesus’ message of grace and love. Later, the very people that speared him to death came to know and love Jesus. Jim Elliot was no fool. His life was cut short but his influence for good will last for eternity. I adopted his quote as my life motto about the time I came on staff, and now that my life has been stripped of just about everything conventional wisdom would value highly, Elliot’s words stand stronger and taller and wiser. Even if ALS takes my earthly life, it can never touch the eternal reward I have gained by receiving God’s amazing, all-sufficient grace, and then investing this fleeting life in the eternal cause of Christ.”