Monday, December 13, 2004

A Truly Good Man, a Truly Good Life

pain (p n)n.

An unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease, or emotional disorder.

Suffering or distress

There are times when the definition of a word doesn’t do justice to the true sense of what the word is attempting to describe. Pain is one of those words. An unpleasant sensation? Varying degrees of severity? There’s more to it than that, isn’t there. How can a single word even capture what one feels when pain sets in? We’ve all felt it. It jolts our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits. We can be on the highest of mountaintops when it attacks and it will, in a moment, plunge us into the deepest of valleys, struggling to escape it, praying for the pain to end and for an escape from the valley.

Why, at this time of the year, is pain on my mind. After all, isn’t it Christmas, the season of joy?
It is! And yet, even in the account of the birth of the Prince of Peace there are hints and foreshadowing of pain. There are the words of Simeon, the prophet who had sought the Messiah for his entire life. Once he saw Him he declared that he had seen God’s glory in the flesh and could now depart from his mortal coil. It was joy tinged with sadness, sadness that the One he had waited so long to see would have would one day have to endure the deepest of pain and descend in the deepest of pits. In that moment of great joy he spoke these words to His earthly parents:

“33And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him.
34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be”

Jesus’ birth, which should have been welcomed by all, was seen by some of those in power as a threat. The voices of angels proclaiming His birth were to be followed by the sound of “Rachel weeping for her children because they were no more.” The world’s Savior had to flee evil men, living his early years in Egypt beyond their grasp.

Pain…..Pain…..Pain…..It seems that even at the highest of our highs in life it is always near. In an otherwise forgettable film, Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone, got the issue of pain right. Rocky is about to face a rival who is remorseless, cruel, vicious. As they meet in the center of the ring prior to the fight Rocky looks quizzically at his adversary, Clubber Lang. “What’s this all about?” he asks. Clubber grits his teeth and snarls…..”PAIN!” The words come out slowly, purposefully…..”PAIN!”

It’s one of the major components of our lives. We try to avoid it. We take medications to make it go away. The drug companies tell us that we just to take a pill or two because “We don’t have time for the pain.” Some even deny that it exists at all as if it were nothing but a figment of our imaginations. There are even preachers who say that we can confess it away. We do all this and more and yet it persists.

I think back now to a time in my life when I’d passed though a very painful time and hope was alive. Nancy and I were getting married. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. We were meeting with a counselor one a week as part of our preparation. The sessions had gone quite well. I learned that Nancy loved me, loved God, and also loved her independence. And I also learned something I would have to work through if Nancy and I were to ever be successful. In a session about a month before we got married the counselor, a wonderful man named Phil Klever, started asking me questions. “So, Phil, you’ve served in Vietnam. Tell us something about it.” The question seemed out of place to me. I responded curtly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why not?”
“I just don’t.”
“Was it a painful experience?”
“How many times do I have to say I don’t want to talk about it?”
“Okay Phil. Now you’ve been divorced. Let’s talk about that.”
I felt two sensations well up within me – anger and fear. “I don’t want to talk about that either.”
“Why not?”
I felt my hands gripping the chair tightly, looking for something tangible upon which to secure my whole being. “Damn you. Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about this. Why don’t you understand? I just want to talk about getting married.”
Nancy, who was sitting across from me, broke in. “Phil, you’ve got to know that I love you, but you’ve also got to know there are going to be times when I’m going to need you to fight through pain for me. Do you understand that? You’re going to need to fight for me. I need that in you. You can’t avoid it. If you avoid it now you’ll avoid it sometime when I need you most.”
I broke. “I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore….And I don’t want to be hurt. It all just hurts too much…..I just want it to go away.”

That, for me, was the crux of the issue. I had to come to an understanding that, even in the best of times, I couldn’t avoid dealing with pain. Nancy and I worked through those sessions and, by God’s grace, we’ve learned from our own experiences, and the experience of others, that pain, while it is inevitable, can be a very powerful redemptive force in our lives.

But, again, why, during this season, is it so close to my mind?

This past Sunday, our pastor emeritus, Jim Kegin, and his wife Judy, made a joint announcement to the church. Jim has just been diagnosed with Pick’s disease. It’s an especially cruel affliction. While it’s like Alzheimer’s, there are some elements of the disease that are distinctive:

“These basic differences between Alzheimer's disease and Pick's disease mean that the two tend to produce somewhat different symptoms. In contrast to Alzheimer's disease, in which early memory loss predominates, the first symptoms of Pick's disease are often personality change, and a decline in function at work and home. Personality change may take the form of apathy and indifference toward customary interests, or of disregard for social decorum and for the feelings of others. Poor social judgment, inappropriate sexual advances, or a coarse and jocular demeanor may be seen. Function declines because the patient simply does very little, or displays confusion and poor judgment. Patients may not be highly forgetful. Often times the patient performs well when directed to do something, but cannot undertake the very same thing independently. What is lost is the ability to initiate, organize, and follow through on even very simple plans and familiar activities.

As the illness advances, difficulties with language become common. Patients become unusually quiet, and when they do speak it may be slowly, in brief sentences. They may labor to make the sounds of words and their speech may sound distorted. Some become extremely apathetic -- they may sit for hours doing nothing at all unless prompted to do so by another, while others become extraordinarily restless, and may pace unceasingly. Some patients are hypersexual, and some, like a small child, may place anything they pick up in their mouths. Gluttonous eating occurs in some cases. Attention span is poor; patients seem to be distracted instantly by anything that they hear or see. Later in the disease, patients usually become mute. Restlessness gives way to profound apathy and the patient may not respond at all to the surrounding world. Eventually, they enter a terminal vegetative state.”

PAIN…..PAIN…..PAIN! As I listened it all seemed so cruel to me. Jim, who is one of the kindest men I have ever met, is now in a battle not only for his life, but for those things in life that he has so valued. “Why?” I sit here and wonder through tears asking as Nancy sits downstairs playing, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I think of the Prince of Peace and good will toward men, I can almost hear the angels singing. I see and hear all the wonder of this marvelous season and yet cannot help but wonder…..”Why? Why the pain? Why such pain to such a good man and woman?”

I think back to Jim’s words yesterday. He spoke so eloquently to and through the pain. He spoke of his mentors – Polycarp, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, some of the men who have graced Christian history. He spoke about his conversations with them through what’s they’ve passed down through the ages. He spoke of his love of reading. He spoke of his love for his family. He spoke of his love for the Church. And he spoke of his love for Jesus. And, as it is just a part of his nature, he did it will great dignity. As he did a clasped Nancy’s hand and thought of my mentors. I too love the Church fathers and all they have passed on to us. I love Nancy and I love my family. I love the Church and I too love Jesus. I listened, wondering and hoping that when the time comes for me to face such pain in my life that I’ll handle it with the same type of grace Jim modeled.

He also spoke of the fight ahead. His words were soft, but powerful. He wasn’t going to just give up. He was going to proceed on all possible fronts. He and Judy (and all of us) will pray for complete restoration and healing. But if the miracle doesn’t come in one form, they are believing it will come in another. Judy also shared about the “God of the Valley.” She said that all of life’s experience to this point has led her to see that the “window of heaven has gotten bigger and brighter” as time has passed. That is, they are now closer to what they’ve have both lived for. It’s closer now than they thought, but even in this pain it is brighter, more easily seen.

And so the fight begins. Jim will be spending a good deal of time writing down his life’s experience. While they pray that healing will come, they will labor to ensure that all that has been so important to Jim in life will not be lost. He and Judy are also going to be working with the medical teams to further research into this disease. They will fight the good fight of faith. They will not give in!

It all seems so unfathomable to me. I wonder why it had to be Jim and Judy. Why not one of those cruel preachers who delights in dangling parishioners over the fires of hell for their own amusement? You’ve been around them, haven’t you? They swing their fists wildly and declare that “God loves you.” Their words are true, but their body language says that He is angry with you. They love to talk about judgment, but you’ll never hear them talk about mercy. “Why not one of them?” I ask. “It seems to me that it would be a just reward for their cutting words.”

But that’s not the reality. Jim Kegin, a kind, decent, Godly man has been stricken. I pray for a miracle, but the reality stares sullenly at me. He’s stricken. Judy, who shares her husband’s kindness, is now walking through the depths of this valley with him.

I think, arrogantly, that if I had my way this pain for them would all go away. I would, if I could, do it by the power of my confession. My faith would make it better. How much, I realize, I sound like one of those peddlers of positive confession. I wonder how I would have responded at the foot of the cross that Simeon saw even at the birth of Jesus. Would I, like they, be railing, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” Think of it. The One whose death was to bring life to those who would embrace Him at this point in his life was mocked by those inflicting the mortal wounds. I wonder where I would have been in His hour of need. Would I have embraced Him or would I have cursed Him?

So, it seems to me, that it’s all come full circle, a redemptive life, filled with mountains and valleys, and a redemptive death. This was they way of the cross for Jesus. And so it is now for Jim and Judy Kegin.

I spoke with Judy this morning, asking permission to share my thoughts about what has transpired in their lives. She was, as she always is, very gracious. In the course of our conversation she spoke about Jim’s desire to know that he had been a “good man,” that he had lived a good and honorable life. Of that I am confident. Jim is, in the truest sense of the words, a “good man.” And I think that will be one of the miracles that will come to him and to Judy in the days ahead. The words he loves to hear will be very near to them. “You’re a good man.”

Pain…..I sit here now wondering about its mystery. It’s the very thing we want least and yet it is the very thing that so often brings redemption in one form or another to us. It is something that is part of the human experience. And yet, as Judy so wonderfully said yesterday, as we pass through those times, the window of heaven gets bigger and brighter. There is a day coming, a day when God:

Revelation 21:4 (King James Version)

“Shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

That’s the hope that lies ahead.


Feeble Knees said...

Wow, Phil, I am so deeply saddened to read this. My prayers are with your pastor and his wife, for strength, grace, dignity, preservation and love from God; also for you and your congregation, that God might help you all be a source of great comfort and help in their great time of need.


Pastor Mike said...

You have once again managed to pen what so many try to sort out of abstruse entangled emotions. Your ministry brings clarity which is one of the characteristics of Jesus Christ (For God is not the author of confusion... 1 Corinthians 14:33 NKJV). Pain is a very real part of life that only the grace and power of God can enable us to triumph over. I believe we are about to witness Pastor Jim's finest hour; in Jesus, the best is yet to come.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, some of the most effective pastors I know (the ones who do reflect God's love and kindness) have some of the worst family tragedies to deal with.

I'm not a pastor, but I have a neurological disease myself. It is an infection that reached my brain, and I have had to learn to write twice, to talk three times, I have endured times of drooling idiocy, paranoia, hallucinations, obsessive/compulsive disorder- the list goes on and on.

Please let your pastor know that as my mind broke down the light of God arrived, and that I am absolutely certain that God exists and is personally available to us because, not in spite of, my experiences. My disease is also a painful one, and when the pain hits I pray; the light comes, and although I can feel the physical pain if I think about it, I feel no suffering at all. It is amazing to me how often I will be going(sometimes slowly and awkwardly) about my life during one of these times, and someone I do not know will just come up and start talking to me about some tragedy in their life, or some awful decision they must make. I listen, and I answer, but it's not I who answer.

Tell him not to be afraid. Tell him that if his own loss of control scares him (as mine does), and if he prays, he will have a companion to guide him through the confusion. When the vessel is cracked, whatever's within pours out, and that light you have seen him carry will shine more brightly to others.

For no particular reason, I appear to be healing from my disease, and I wonder if it's to now speak about my experiences and what I have learned from them. Over half my life I have spent in this state of confusion, and it has probably been the better part of my life. Tell your pastor and his wife to pray, and not to be afraid. I will be praying for them with knowledge of what they are going through.

Please also tell your pastor that even though I have suffered such severe mental and physical disability my spouse is deeply greatful for me, and that God worked it out so that I was the partner my spouse needed. Tell him not to fear anything at all, but pray and know that he will get the help he needs to do what God needs him to do for himself and others. He will not cease to be a blessing to his wife.

We were put here not to be what we want to be, but to be what God wants us to be. When we do that, miracles happen.

Tom Reindl said...

I am saddened by this news. But I also wonder, how are YOU doing with this? How is your heart today, Phil?

Jimmy K said...

Thank you very much. That was very thoughtful and taken to heart by a family member.