Hope in the Stroke - Romans 8:28

Bullet Points:

  1. Stroke – Jan 8, 2008

  2. Scripture – Romans 8:28

Romans 8:28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

28 We know that all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

  3.  Point of Faith – I had to Surrender because of the circumstance, but surrender – once it is done – has brought me peace and tranquility in the roughest time of my life.

  4.  Story – I hit me ought of the blue one evening as I was driving home.  I was on top of the world, and then out.  When I came to, it was a different world and one that I couldn’t understand, nor how I was going to function in it.  I had to surrender because there was literally nothing I could do when I came out of the coma.  All the people around me were affected in some way, especially my wife and kids.  My wife, especially, because she was 7.5 months pregnant when I went down.  Miracles, though, starting the night my stroke happened, have been there and reminded me that God is in charge.

Sermon:

Prayer:  Father God, you give us hope for tomorrow and for eternity.  Make us believe that You are near; save us from our doubt.  Make it apparent when chaos rules down here that You are up there, still in charge.  And makes us witnesses down here, in our imperfect sinful form, so that Jesus can be glorified, in His perfect sinless being.  Take my voice away, and let your Holy Spirit come forth.  We ask it all in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Intro:  When I came back from Iraq with four arms and four legs, I thought – at least for the moment – that part of me was safe.  I prayed before I went, if God wanted to take me, would He please take all of me; not send me back to the States with 1 arm or 1 leg.  Vets with physical challenges, my hat is off to you... But given the state of our forces, I knew that likely I was going to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan, but that could wait for another day, another conversation, another time.  I never thought, in a million years, that I could have something happen back in the States, but maybe God has a sense of humor, because...

The Preview to the Stroke:

                I was traveling home from work on a Tuesday night.  I had drill the next weekend, and had just gotten back from a weekend a Laity Lodge, which is down near Kerrville, Texas, on the H.E. Butt Ranch.  I have felt a little strange that morning as I took Sam and Ashley to school – kind of like my peripheral vision wasn’t working right, but – after staying home for about an hour, I went to work and finished the day.  I was a medical malpractice defense lawyer, so I had my nurse paralegal – Muffet Mills – take a look at me.  When she gave me the proverbial thumbs up, I thought nothing of the vision thing, went about a normal day (as normal as an attorney gets), and headed home. 

                It was a lazy drive home to Dripping Springs from Austin.  About 40 minutes with little traffic because it was after 6 (boy have times changed!), and I was singing Christian music at the top of my lungs!  I stopped at Fusion Dance Center to pick up my daughter, Ashley, and headed off down Hwy 290 to home.  As I talked to my wife, Amy, about dinner plans, something – I didn’t know what – started happening to my body.  I was going 65 M.P.H., and the whole right side of my body wouldn’t respond.  I dropped the phone, and I tried to stay on the road as I tried to figure out what was wrong with me.  After about 30 seconds, as the world seemed to get smaller and smaller around me, I blacked out.  Before I did, however, I prayed to God to save my daughter Ashley, who was riding in the back seat of the truck. 

                What happened, to me, my family, my extended family, the church, and the community had made its mark on the people involved, but before I get into the story, let’s look to the Bible and draw wisdom from it...

Scripture:

                I am looking in Romans, which is Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, before Paul would get there.  It is, of Paul’s letters, the most theologically based letter, or the letter in which he talks about God and His relationship with us, and I am in Chapter 8, verse 28.

Romans 8:28

Romans 8:28 New International Version (NIV)

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose.

Footnotes:

Romans 8:28 Or that all things work together for good to those who love God, who; or that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who

Exegesis:

In this section of Romans, Paul is talking about the inheritance guaranteed.  It is part of Paul’s celebratory description of walking a Christian life.  It is rooted in God’s past action in Jesus Christ, assured of God’s future action for those who believe in Christ and for the whole world, sustained in the present by the Spirit.  It is Paul’s proclamation of hope!  In the midst, toward the end of the argument that those whom God justified He glorified, we come to verse 28.

 

Thus 8:12-30 offers a celebratory description of present Christian existence, rooted in God’s past action in Jesus Christ, assured of God’s future action for Christ’s people and for the whole world, and sustained in the present by the Spirit. It is the conclusion of the argument for Christian assurance, for the belief that those whom God justified God also glorified (8:30).

Romans 8:28 – So what do we make of this verse?  Notice that this is intertwined with the previous and following verses – it is no standalone theological statement.  Yet it is pointing towards love of God for His children, and a mystery that only comes forth with the people of God loving Him and doing acts for Him, to glorify Him.  In doing so, we can be sure that – though it may not look like we want it to, God’s purposes are above us, yet we Know – we truly know – that He is about it with good for us, His children.  Maybe we should say, in human terms, in time.

 

That we, as Christians, can believe that God is working all things for good for those of us who love Him and are about the things that He decrees - love, justice, peace, and hope - is assurance.  It is a foundation in this world to look above it, to see beyond the present, and to trust that God is good, all the time!

Illustration:  Louis Zamperini, Unbroken

                At times, Romans 8:28 is more of a promise than a reality.  In other words, it is something that we hold onto in times of trials or tribulations, but we never get to see it played out from beginning to the end.   Maybe the Bible reads like that, if you have read all the way through it.  Maybe you have, in your life or someone else’s life close to you, seen its fruition and rejoice in it. 

                I have read and seen Unbroken.  It is the story of Louis Zamperini, and Italian American who was a gifted athlete and serviceman during World War II.  The book, from my standpoint, is better than the movie, but they are both enjoyable and you learn something from viewing Louis Zamperini’s story.  I have to say that the book delves deeper into Mr. Zamperini’s Christianity than the movie.  And that is where I’d like to focus my comments today.

                You see, Louis Zamperini was a delinquent as a kid, an Olympic athlete as a youth, running the mile near the four-minute mark, and an airman in the Army Air Corps (before we had the Air Force) during World War II.  His plane was shot down in the Pacific, and from months on a tiny raft, to years as a Prisoner of War, to his life afterwards we see God’s hand searching, holding, and eventually triumphing Louis Zamperini’s life and soul.

                In 1954, Mr. Zamperini founded and opened Victory Boys Camp.  He founded it with nothing, and spent two years transforming the terrain in California’s San Gabriel Mountains into the Boys Camp, where boys with nothing – “Lost boys” (like Louis had lived as a kid) – could come, spend time in the wilderness, and hear stories from Louis about the road that had led him to peace.  It was an act of love that was Christ-based. 

                Mr. Zamperini did may other things, but the most poignant thing I can say about him is he would go in excess of forty years without an angry thought in his head.  This from a person who, because he was an Olympian, suffered in the Japanese camp, mostly at the hand of a corporal turned sergeant that they called the Bird.  His name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe.[1]  He is introduced in the book in a chapter entitled “Monster,” and he was called by a prisoner in WWII “a psychopath.”[2]  I feel there were a lot more words that could have described him, some of which I cannot say.  If you saw the movie or read the book, you have some of the depth of man’s corruption.

 

                In her chapter entitled Epilogue, author Laura Hillenbrand wrote:  “His conviction that everything happened for a reason, and would come to good, gave him a laughing equanimity even in hard times.”[3]   You see, even in the depth of man’s evil – that must come from the devil – is a God who makes it good.  Someone said, God takes lemons and makes them lemonade.  He took a man who has seen the depths of depravity and turned him into someone that blessed other people.  Can I hear an Amen?

A New World

                The next thing I knew, I was brought out of the coma, four days later, in the Coronary Care Unit (CCU) at South Austin Hospital.  I couldn’t activate my right side, I had trouble getting words to form in my mouth, and I was in a fog – mentally – that ended up lasting for fifteen months.  In short, I was broken physically and mentally.  I did not know what had happened, although I found out that my daughter Ashley was safe, and I had a stroke.  A stroke?  40, in shape, a Marine, and nothing wrong with me physically or mentally (well, now, mentally anybody that knows me has questions about that!) – how does that equate to stroke? 

                Apparently, my left carotid artery (which is right here in my neck) dissected, and when blood and plasma came to fix it, the swelling blocked blood that was traveling in the artery from going up to my brain and giving it oxygen.  As a result, I had an ischemic stroke, which wasn’t discovered until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  There were a lot of questions – obviously – and my family and the medical staff tried to figure it out as they began to work on me, but I was out for four days, I guess blissfully unaware of the chaos.  However, I was in for my own journey that still continues to this day.

Surrender

                As I sat there, in the hospital bad, I had time to think and pray (or pray and think, which is more like it was at that time!).  I trusted God, but I had some big questions for God, and I hoped He would have some answers.  The first and biggest question was:  why did God leave me down here on the earth?  I was so close to dying that He could have taken me, saving my family and me from the struggle that was to ensue!  He had a reason, but what could it be, and what could I do?

                Meanwhile, everything had to be done for me!  I couldn’t get out of bed (couldn’t move my right side at all), I couldn’t speak coherently (a speech therapist show me a duck and, after some difficulty getting the word, I said it was a dog), and I couldn’t make decisions for about fifteen months!  I couldn’t go to the bathroom (oh, yeah, and the catheter that was depositing my urine was sure fun to get out!), had difficulty eating, and couldn’t shave (which is a big deal for a Marine Officer, especially as the days went on and the beard started darkening).  There was nothing I could do...and that is where to start...

                You see, I had what very few people in this world have – no options but to surrender!  Surrender my body (to the nurses, doctors, PTs, OTs, STs, anyone who could help me!), surrender decisions (about where I was going next, what would happen to us financially, even surrender the insurance (which was changing over from Blue Cross to Tricare right when I went down (a big thanks to Missy Atwood and my family for fighting that fight when I couldn’t).  That is just some of the obstacles I and my family were up against, but the point was made to me:  I had to give that all up – surrender it – ultimately to God. 

                When I was a physically whole person, I had abilities – like some of you.  I was a Marine, and if God didn’t answer me, then I would do it myself.  We even – in the United States – have sayings that goes something like “you pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “God helps those who help themselves.”  I like to call it a partnership with God, more than obedience – do some of you have that?  Well, it looks like I needed some grandiose therapy to cure it – and I got it.  I’m hoping you can get it with a little less strenuous therapy than I received!

                So surrender I did, and it opened up a whole new world for me.  It builds relationships that I was too proud, too stubborn, or too distant to touch or reach out before.  It made me relational.  But it was a process, and I will admit that I fell a few times (and still have a few more in me) in becoming relational!

Amy’s Side

                Though I had my hands full, God’s preparation for Amy was crucial.  The ten months that I was gone, especially my combat duty, where she had to wonder if I was coming home, made it easier for her.  Not that it was any walk in the park!  She had some big questions to answer, and no training to answer them:  like – were they going to remove part of my skull, to help with the cerebral swelling or not?  Would they wake me up out of my anesthetized coma, and if so when?  What would she do if I didn’t wake up?  What would she do if I did and I was damaged (which I was)?  What would she do about Sam, Ashley, and Sarah?  What would she tell them?  How were they going to react?  And finally, what would she do about herself, 7.5 months pregnant?  Would she lose the baby given the stressors she was under?  What about the birth if I was still in the hospital?  And on and on and on....

                To be honest, I’m not sure how she got through the initial time, or the time thereafter.  Being a Marine, I know what it is when all you have is today to worry about – but it subsides at some point (as I found out anew when I came back to the states after combat duty.  It was like a weight was taken off my shoulders!).  But this stroke went on and still goes on today.  I call it the journey, but for a person who doesn’t like conflict, it is somewhat a nightmare!

                Still, she gets up, goes about her business, tries to keep everyone happy, and does it – day after day!  She is a proverbial saint, even if there is no halo over her! 

The Church and Community – The Birth of Jacob

                The most amazing thing about the four days I was in the anesthesia-induced coma was the support my family received from the community, especially my church, Sunset Canyon Baptist Church.  The church, especially, and my extended family were there as Amy had to go through it without me (for obvious reasons), and from support, to family arrangements, to medical decisions, to dealing with insurance carriers, to a thousand other things, Amy and my kids were walked with during this second trial.

                The church was giving in so many ways, but the piece that I’ll share with you is our son Jacob’s birth.  You see, I was still in the hospital at St. David’s Main, which is in downtown Austin.  I wasn’t there for a month and a half of Amy’s pregnancy, though she was there for my time at St. David’s South (the hospital actually gave her a room so she stayed with me or around me for two weeks!), she actually came to see me at St. David’s Main, where I was getting rehabilitation therapy for six weeks, just about every day.  But that’s her seeing me, not me being with her and walking with her during the latter stages of her pregnancy!

                The extended family and church were there, but Deanne Poe was the catalyst, especially on the day Amy started to get actual labor pains.  I say that because Deanne took my place, and I’m grateful.  The members of our family, especially Amy’s mom, provided care, especially after the birth (because Amy’s Mom, Nancy Parmeter, stayed at our house for six weeks until I came home (and Jacob’s birth was during that time)), but it was Deanne that stepped up when I was in rehab and took charge that day.

                It was 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, February 17, 2008.  Amy is a night person, and has 1 day a week that she “sleeps in,” which is Sunday morning before church.  Not this morning.  She had something happen internally (labor pains), and woke up with a start at 5:00 a.m.  She immediately started packing a bag for the hospital (the chaos was such that it had slipped her mind before that day), and then took herself and the children to church.  She stepped out of the car and felt another labor pain, and knew she had to at least see a doctor.  She motioned for Deanne to come outside, and then told her of the happenings that morning. 

                As Amy called the doctor, Deanne did what a caring, loving Christian would do – she was selfless and tried to make Amy’s road as gentle as she could (she is, after all, the senior pastor’s wife, the Children’s Minister, and had issues to deal with that Sunday morning, as she always does).  But it didn’t matter, because there was Amy in need.  When Amy got word from the doctor’s office that she need to come in to the hospital, Deanne drove her there immediately.  She waited, as Amy starting checking in...then, when Amy’s water broke during the checking in process, Deanne was there – instead of me – walking with her, guiding her, and comforting her in the most beautiful – and painful process, I think - in the world!  She was even in the room when I got there, as my step-mom Kim had come to my hospital and told me that Amy was giving birth!

                Oh, I did get there (in my wheelchair), and was there for a couple of hours before the birth, got to see Jacob for the first time, got to see my beautiful wife go through the birth process (which is awe-inspiring!) and be there to hold Jacob in my arms.  But the amazing thing about Deanne is she was there, at times, in the background – because she was helping, not the center stage.  When I went back to the hospital, she remained.  She stayed that night with Amy, the next night with Amy, and drove Amy home!

                She did what the church is supposed to do; the body of Christ that helps people, cares for people, and gives them love!  There was lots more love that my family received, which I will talk about tomorrow, but the extended family, the church, and the community provided for Amy and the children when I couldn’t.  And I am forever grateful!

                By the way, Jake is loved by everyone!  I am biased again, but from the church, the school, the baseball team (or whatever team he’s on), the community, he is loved and gives love.  It is a perfect example of the body of Christ being one and being in relationship:  love! 

The Journey

                My journey has been one that I couldn’t have imagined – either before the stroke, or for different reasons, after it.  But it has been full of miracles, from the night it happened, to pieces of me physically and mentally coming back, that I am in awe!  But a funny things has happened and is happening:  I am better relationally than I have ever been; I have empathy now (or at least more of it); and I’m selfless (or at least I am not proud).  But most of all, I have hope.  Hope that someday I will be out of this body.  Hope that – a day at a time – I will be more like Jesus (and less like me).  Hope that I have a purpose down here, in this frame.  Hope that – as the Paul said - when I am weak, then I am strong (through God – 2 Cor 12:9-11).

                I’m not perfect, in fact I am far from it (a fact that I am reminded of daily), but I know that God is perfecting me to look more like Christ in the end.  I’ll tell one story that had me in it, but I’m not the focus.  It was one and a half years after my stroke, and Bobby Little was living with us in the summer of 2009.  Sam was 12 years old, and they didn’t have an All-Star coach for the 12 year-old baseball team.  Bobby got the idea that he and I should coach.  I coached before my stroke, and Bob was a player at the University of Texas back in the 1983 and 1984.  I was having a problem with anger, something that I had a minor problem with before, but had fixed in my later teen years.

                You see, one thing a stroke will do, depending on where it hits your brain and whether there is death in that part of the brain, is your inhibitions go away.  Anger was one of the inhibitors that I wished had stayed.  I had two episodes with players where my anger got the best of me, and they paid for it – in spades.  One of the players was the son of a fellow Marine, James Wellborn.  He is a good friend, and was an assistant coach on the 12 year-old All Star Team.  Toward the end of our season, his oldest son, Jacob (who is a mammoth of a person now, and plays football at the Air Force Academy) did something that I thought was wrong.  When he didn’t respond to my correction, a second time, I blew up at him in front of the players and coaches. 

                It was one of my smallest moments as a man, and about as un-Christian as it gets.  Jacob’s Dad came over to me, and said (how he didn’t knock me silly is a wonder) that is not how an officer should handle himself – which cut me to the bone!  But here’s the thing I want you to hear:  after the game, I had the team go out into the outfield.  I then apologized to Jacob, in front of the players and coaches, and told him that what I did was wrong and asked him to forgive me.  It was the most humiliating thing I could do, but it was right.  It gave Jacob hope and told him he had a purpose in this life.  It didn’t take away from what I had done, but it gave the players a chance to see what Christians do (and for that matter, anyone) when they screw up.  You own it, and ask forgiveness.  It was God using the situation for good in the midst of a fallen world.

                By the way, I have never coached a team again (other than help).  By the way, I fixed my anger problem by asking the Lord to take it away when anger came upon me.  Funny thing, ask and ye shall receive.  I think that’s in the Bible, somewhere (Matthew 7:7-8)...

Bring it to the Congregation –

                You are probably sitting there thinking about Romans 8:28 and seeing if it fits in your life.  As far out as it sounds, if you are a Christian and in the Way of Jesus, then it applies whether you want to admit it or not.  Don’t take my word for it:  take Louis Zamperini’s word and story to heart.  God has got you, whether you want Him to or not, and can use you in this world.  He has got good for you, even in the darkest hours, even when you can’t see it, and all looks bleak. 

                You say, “Well, that’s your story, mine doesn’t look like that.”  And I say, not yet.  But do right by people, worship God, and praise Him every day.  Good will come in time.  And you can walk alongside of others, like Deanne Poe did with Amy, and be part of Christ down here on the earth.  You say:  “But my boss is out to get me”...let your actions give God glory in the midst of it.  “But you don’t understand my plight”...and maybe you’re right, though I will try to – but the story isn’t about me, it’s about God.  And God understands your situation (probably better than you do), and the Bible speaks truth through the Holy Spirit. 

                We talked about trusting God last time.  This sermon is about hope.  If you get nothing from this talk, get that God provides hope in the darkest hour.  Though the world may turn against you, God never will.  You can see that in His love, maybe which is poured out in His Church (like Deanne Poe).  Understand that whenever you are weak, that is when God can do amazing things through you.  If you surrender, and give your life and all you have to God, that is when you will have freedom.  And lastly, God watches over you, and would not let anything prevent you from becoming more like Jesus.  Let us pray.

Prayer:

                Father God, we are your children.  You have the task of making us more like Jesus, and using this sinful world as part of your toolkit.  Make us see beyond the world, even when it looks bleak, and rise up and praise your name.  It probably won’t look like we think it will, but You will be praised non-the-less.  Let us have hope, then, that you love us, care for us, and will be with us through the ages to eternity.  It’s in Jesus’ name I pray this, Amen.

 

[1] Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York:  Random House, 2010), 231.

 

[2] Ibid., 232.

 

[3] Ibid., 384.

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