Ministry Today magazine cover

When Tragedy Comes to Church





It was ministry as usual until the day I was stricken with a bizarre illness that suddenly changed my life. But through it all God has shown me how we can overcome in times of testing.
God did not warn me in advance. No prophetic utterance came to announce that I, a pastor for more than 15 years, would soon be born again. Not born again as in salvation. Born again as in learning to start life all over.

During my teens, I mowed lawns for a hospital in north Georgia. My father worked as the administrator, so I often sneaked in to talk with nurses, doctors or patients. Part of me wondered if my interest would one day lead toward a medical profession. Later, when I entered ministry, I assumed God had used that lure as a learning experience, preparing me to care for people in need.

But, as I was soon to find out, it also prepared me to receive the care of people in my time of need.

This healthy, stubborn, athletic helper-of-others regularly prayed for God to give him a softer heart as a pastor. For God to motivate him to depend on the Spirit and not his own strength. And for God to show him how our weaknesses allow His strength to be made perfect.

What did I have in mind with such prayers? A touch of the Spirit--not a rush to the emergency room. A season of fasting, prayer and study--not days in the intensive care unit. A new phase of success in reaching lost people and encouraging the hurting--not giving doctors, nurses and therapists an opportunity to see how God wrestles with a man at midnight.

I had always wanted God to bring a fresh closeness in our congregation; but I never thought that would happen by way of a united call to prayer because their pastor could not remember their names. I always wanted my life to demonstrate true commitment and fewer faults. I had no idea I would soon have to have stubbornness just to stay alive, and I would end up having a brain that was too damaged to work normally.

Growing up, I didn't get sick. I didn't miss days of school. I played sports. When my sickness surprised me, I didn't even have a doctor.

After playing basketball on a Monday night, I awakened the next morning feeling fine. I drove to my office, made calls, read, wrote and studied. My week was set. Plans and appointments waited.

But Tuesday I felt bad. Wednesday morning I was no better. And things quickly became worse. Something was wrong, but I had no idea what.

My sons wondered why I thought their pet rabbits had left the yard and entered the house. Our family owned no rabbits. My call to the church office confused our business administrator, as I discussed with him our church steeple. Our building had no steeple. My words continued making no sense.

At one point I lost consciousness and fell to the floor. I was voicing statements listeners could not understand. Finally, this stubborn man of faith applied enough common sense to let my wife take me to the hospital. My assumption? All was fine. I would be back home soon.

We quickly found out I was incorrect and very sick. The diagnosis: viral encephalitis that had affected the left temporal lobe of my brain, causing deterioration of nerves within the brain. My abilities related to language, learning and memory would be permanently damaged.

I had to make a choice. Would I be stubborn? Or would I release myself into the care of those who knew what to do? How would this change affect my relationship with God? And how would it affect my ability to pastor?

SHOCKING SETBACKS

Encephalitis. Aphasia. Words I had never heard of before. Meaning? Inflammation of the brain. Loss or impairment of the power to use or comprehend words resulting from brain damage. Scary words for a man who made his living preaching the Word.

It was recommended that I receive speech and language therapy once or twice a week. And though I was told that I "function at a very high level," such diagnosis was not comforting. A lady, almost my age, had encephalitis like mine. She kept getting worse and now lives in a coma. A 34-year-old man suffered from encephalitis. He died very quickly.

Why did they die? Why didn't I die? I asked a lot of questions. But through it all, the Lord taught me a lot about overcoming adversity (see checklist on this page).

I have three sons. I recognized their faces, voices and personalities. But names? Their father, a 35-year-old spiritual leader, had to resort to calling each one "Son." I worked hard to find a solution. Finally I came up with a game, a trick to spark my memory: the acronym "TAG." Initials in order of birth: "T" for Taylor, "A" for Aaron, "G" for Graham.

The church staff watched me cry, listened to me ramble, helped me spell, and reminded me of names, words and plans. Secretaries didn't just type and call and copy. They tried to discern how to help.

A business administrator, a youth pastor, board members, parishioners and prayer warriors all pulled together to help my survival. The goals I had set for my life never included the dream of congregational cooperation the way in which it arrived. The bride of Christ cared and carried me through.

Would I remember what to order when the waitress called my name? How many more times would I walk around a baseball stadium, searching for a van I could not find? During my sermons would I honestly admit to my congregation that I can't remember what to say next, or would I pretend the Sprit inspired me to stall?

I limited myself to a few restaurants. The servers knew my preferences. My friends knew how to help.

Our church is technologically progressive. But the Palm Pilot memos and PowerPoint presentations we use do not flow from my desire for modern technology. They remind me, again and again, of dates, times, names and numbers.

Though I once enjoyed preaching with no notes, flowing with the freedom of simple memorization of each word and tone and text, the words do not appear on a large screen to maintain today's trends of seeker-friendly practicality. I need them as reminders. On stage, microphone running, I often ask our members to assist me in my attempt to recall a name, a verse or a particular term.

Bible college classes never taught me how to deal with tears that come from emotional instability. I do not cry on cue, for a forced point or a pleaded pledge of money. Tears sneak out without my permission.

I felt my spiritual gift portfolio included enough weaknesses--not much strength in administration, futuristic calculation or discernment. I had high scores in communicating, caring and praying.

But why add to the low scores? Why did God allow strengths to turn into areas where therapy, hard work and constant assistance would be needed?

WHY, GOD?

Maybe you feel too convicted to ask God why. Not David. Not me, either. I sense God would prefer honest cries from me, not performances masked by false faith. I contend my Listener gladly hears my pleas for help, not preferring a quick-fix confession that avoids reality.

Paul did not deny his prison cells. He sang there. Jesus did not ignore His hurting heart as He looked over Jerusalem. He wept there. John the Baptist, in the wilderness, did not offer hugs and kisses and visitor packets to every seeker in sight. He shouted there.

Paul knew all things work together for good (see Rom. 8:28). He said it. I read it. I'm glad he felt convinced because that makes one of us!

I know the verse, the context and Paul's purpose in announcing it. Preaching it accurately and teaching it motivationally felt fine to me through the years. But applying it when forgetting where I parked or if I took my medications or what I spoke about three days ago? Not so easy.

Situations tempt us to doubt. God wanted me to trust His words supplied by the persecuted, sick, misunderstood prisoner named Paul: All things work together for good. For us.

I have learned the truth of these words. I have learned to do more than just cope with a setback.

As one of my doctors, Steven Attermann, told me: "Your stubbornness and desire to succeed have helped your recovery. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, placing blame or living in denial, you have found ways to impact others."

Maybe I can learn from David. He faced a giant, silent nights and a king in attack-mode, yet still journaled poetic songs of celebration, confession and belief. Those ancient prayer closets of caves and a king's court changed as David released his worry to his Watcher.

Maybe I can learn from Paul, who rejoiced while being chased by foes, jailed by religious opponents and sinking in the sea.

His choice to rejoice during, instead of after, his turmoil teaches much to a spoiled, modern, cultural Christian like me.

Maybe I can learn from Jacob, who refused to let his midnight wrestling match conclude until he was blessed (see Gen. 32:22-32).

Even if the results guarantee a lifetime limp, isn't a true touch from God worth that?

Maybe I can learn from John, when age and exhaustion merged in his final days. What he had seen and what he saw echoed the Rescuer of his soul.

If I ever need a laugh, my family, my church and my hospital buddies find ways to soak me with humor. The shirt my sister gave me--the words "Insufficient Memory At This Time" scrolled across the front--still fits and so do the truths I memorized.

Now, even if I word them better while typing instead of talking, I am not forsaken. Though shaken, I am safe. Though limping, I am blessed.

I guess Eugene H. Peterson in his book Leap Over a Wall was correct when he wrote, "Suffering can, if we let it, make us better instead of worse." As I leap and learn and live, I pray I shall let it make me better.

No, God did not warn me in advance, but in my every effort to remember, God warms me with His hands.

May I always remember that.

Handling Adversity

Ten things to do­and not to do­when you as a pastor face trying circumstances

DO:

1. Face reality and know your weaknesses.
2. Allow God's strength to shower peace and hope in that reality.
3. Receive help, encouragement, accountability and prayer support from others.
4. Blend those blessings from others with an inner willingness to apply God's strength.
5. View your "limp" as a blessing, not a curse. It doesn't hurt to laugh, either. Like the Word says, laughter does good like a medicine.
6. Release your feelings and fears in prayer and counseling. Therapy can bring healing to more areas of your life than the noticeable disability.
7. Reach out to others who need help. As you give, God gives much in return. Your testimony, song or smile might be all that person needs.
8. Walk in the fullness of God's Spirit and remember that He is your true source of help.
9. Keep a journal.
10. Obey the rules--a good diet, exercise, proper rest, appropriate medicine and regular tests, if needed.

DON'T:

1. Live in denial. Faith does not equal ignorance, denial or stubbornness.
2. Live in doubt. Facing the facts does not provide a reason for deleting faith. 3. Live by trying to do everything for yourself. God's agenda offers others an opportunity for ministry into your life. Rejecting their gifts insults God.
4. Live so codependently on others that you refuse to take safe risks.
5. Live in condemnation, blaming yourself, others or God for the disaster. Condemnation clouds us from the beauty of joy.
6. Be afraid to talk with God and counselors honestly. Confessing to God what He already knows does not offend Him. That will also keep you from becoming obsessed, always speaking only about what you "can no longer do."
7. Live in isolation. Finding a way to help a hurting friend or stranger brings inner healing.
8. Live with self-strength as the only source of help. God's Spirit is available for a reason.
9. Be afraid to write down your anger, fear and questions.
10. Live as a rule-breaker of those guidelines that help your health.


Chris Maxwell is the senior pastor of Evangel Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida. In addition to pastoring, he writes for various publications, including our sister publication, Charisma magazine. Chris also speaks at conferences and hospitals. He and his wife, Debbie, have three sons. For more information on his testimony or church, e-mail him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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