Friday, June 2, 2006

MY FRIEND

I suppose that every person I have met has had some influence on me. Some very little, some very much; especially parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, older siblings, and other authority figures.

I’d like to tell a story about one such person, who had a great impact on my life, although he was none of the above.

I was pastoring a small church in Georgetown, a small city in central Texas, where I also served as a volunteer chaplain in the city hospital. The hospital was not large enough to require a full-time chaplain, so a number of us – usually six to eight – served on one-week shifts. The group was made up of various ministers, a counselor, and a Catholic deacon. Usually I made my daily rounds of all the rooms in less than two hours’ time, which included stopping at the nurses’ station to discuss where my services were most needed.

One day near the close of my rounds, I came across a room with the door shut. The door was covered with biohazard stickers and a large warning sign, instructing any visitor to carefully wash before entering. I went to the nurses’ station and inquired.

“There’s a young man in there with AIDS,” they told me. “He came in yesterday.” They told me that he was hospitalized because of a gastro-intestinal obstruction and that he would probably be going home soon.

The year was 1989 and most of us were extremely ignorant about the disease. At the time most of those in America who were afflicted were homosexual men, so it carried a double stigma. Most of us had a fear of the disease because we suspected it was extremely contagious. We also knew that most of those who had the disease would die rather soon.

As I walked away from the nurses’ station, the question came to my mind, “What would Jesus do?” The answer was simple: He would touch the unclean, the leper. He would bring healing. I knew that although I could not bring physical healing, God could use me to bring emotional and spiritual healing. So I washed my hands and knocked on the door. I was told I could enter and went in, not knowing exactly what I would encounter. There were two people in the room; a calm, lovely lady probably in her mid-50s sitting quietly in a chair by the single bed, and a young man lying in the bed. He was rail-thin and his eyes were glazed over. He was nearly blind, apparently a common affliction of AIDS’ sufferers. My mind went back to pictures I had seen of the liberation of Auschwitz, of human skeletons, too weak to stand on their own.

I gave my standard greeting, “Hello, my name is Bill Ball. I’m the hospital chaplain. Is there anything I can do for you?” I extended my hand and grasped his weak, nearly limp, hand.

“My name is Lina,” said the lady, “and this is Keith.”

Keith’s first remark was jolting and seemed a bit hostile. “What do you want on your tombstone?”

I replied rather apologetically that I really hadn’t given it much consideration.

He told me that on his tombstone, he wanted lines from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson:
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

“But,” he confessed, “I don’t know what it’s from or where to find it.”

Lina explained to me that her son had had AIDS for some time and had been in and out of Scott and White Hospital, a large hospital in Temple about 25 to 30 miles up the highway. They had come to the Georgetown hospital because it was closer to their home and Keith’s crisis was urgent. She also told me that Keith, 32 years old, was the second of three brothers, that she and their father were divorced, that she had remarried and that Keith had a teenage half-sister. The boys’ father was an abusive alcoholic and had physically and verbally abused his sons. But even worse, Keith was the only surviving one of the three. His older brother had been killed in an accident in the Navy and his younger brother had committed suicide.

“If Keith goes, all of my former life is gone.” And she meant not only the bad, but the good.

The three of us talked for nearly an hour, I prayed with them and left. I went immediately to the public library, did a little research, and found and photocopied Stevenson’s poem, REQUIEM:
“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
An the hunter home from the hill.”

The next day, I brought my copy with me to the hospital. When I read it aloud to Keith, it seemed to break down some barriers. When I told him and his mother of the church I pastored, Keith asked, “What would happen if I visited your church?” I said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you visit and we’ll find out.” I did explain that our present meeting place was not too wheelchair friendly, but if he’d wait two weeks we’d be in our new building.

As I left, Lina explained her amazement to me. “Keith has been hostile against church and preachers for years.”

After Keith was released from the hospital, I began visiting him in his home. I met his step-father and half-sister, as well as his aunt, his mother’s sister named Babe. Our friendship grew. Babe expressed to me that she was especially concerned about Keith’s spiritual condition, and felt that our friendship could be an answer to prayer.

I told my church people about Keith, his condition and his family. I recall two very different reactions. The first was a “What can we do?” reaction. Some precious women in the church organized to help Lina and to begin praying for them. The second reaction was, “Is he gay?” (It seems that there are many who believe as Job’s friends did, that some suffering is due to sin, and what’s more, we’re really not obligated to help people like that.) My reply was simply, “He’s not a practicing homosexual; -- he’s not able to practice anything in his condition.”

Keith and Lina did come to church. Some men were there each week to help him into his wheelchair and wheel him in (reluctantly at first, though more willingly later). They’d come late, just in time for the preaching, and leave immediately after, as Keith couldn’t sit up very long.

They collected all the old sermon tapes that were at the church, and Keith would lie in his bed at home and listen to them over and over. Aunt Babe also bought him the whole New Testament on tape, which he would listen to over and over as well. Whenever I’d visit, Keith would have a slew of questions.

I began to recognize Keith as a person of real depth and over the next few weeks we became close friends. I found that although he had harbored a hatred against God, the Holy Spirit was breaking that down.

Keith was in and out of the hospital. AIDS is an immune disorder. AIDS’ victims suffer from many illnesses. Each crisis seemed as though it would be his last. The family and their church friends held together.

Then Aunt Babe died -- of a heart condition, I believe. One more crisis for the family.

One day when Keith was in Scott & White Hospital, I went to visit. It was a real crisis. He seemed to have tubes and wires attached to every area of his frail body.

Keith was quite abrupt, as he often was, and the first thing he said to me was, “What do I have to do to become a Christian?”

Though I was a bit startled, as no one had ever put the question to me in that manner, I began to explain the gospel to him. Actually he already knew it. I explained to him that he needed to recognize that he was a sinner, that Christ had died for his sins and rose again, that all he needed to do was believe – to trust Christ to save him.

“How do I do that?” he asked.

“All you need to do is trust Him,” I explained. “Perhaps it would help if you told God of your faith.”

“You mean pray?” he said. “Could you pray for me?”

“Keith, I and a lot of other people have been praying for you, but this time it’s just between you and God.”

Keith burst into prayer, “God I know I’m a sinner and that my sin has got me into the situation I am in. I know Christ died for me and I’m trusting Him as my Savior!’

Over the next few weeks, Keith’s faith blossomed. He even had me inquire about correspondence courses on tape and planned to take a course from Moody Bible Institute.

But over time things got worse. His pain became unbearable. He was kept in a hospital bed at home on morphine, fed and hydrated through tubes. He began to “hallucinate,” or was it visions of heaven? “I saw Aunt Babe,” he reported in one of his more lucid moments. Another time he said, “There are friends over there, but I can’t get to them – I’m in the slammer.”

Then one day Lina called me at my office. “Keith doesn’t have long. Could you get over here please, to be with him before he goes?” I cleared up some business, drove out to the house. We sat and talked with Keith. We told him he could go whenever he was ready. Then he breathed his last and went to be with his Savior. I had known him about three months.

Later, Lina talked about the funeral. She confessed she didn’t know what to do. She showed me Keith’s journals that he had been keeping, especially what he had written after he discovered he had AIDS, but before he became too weak to write, as he was when I met him. “I don’t want a ______ funeral at a ______ church. I don’t want a ______ preacher mouthing ______ when I die. Just cremate me and sprinkle my ashes over the great Pyramids.”

“I want to keep Keith’s wishes,” Lina said, “but I don’t think this is what he would have wanted. He loved the church. He loved you. I think he would want to have a funeral service at the church.”

“That was the old Keith who wrote that,” I said. “I think you know what the new Keith would want.”

Keith’s was the first funeral in our new church building. It was a beautiful, but bittersweet service. It only took two men to carry his coffin. The funeral director said he weighed 68 pounds.
He was buried in a little cemetery along Highway 29, east of Georgetown. His tombstone wasn’t ready in time for the funeral, but it’s there now, with the two lines Keith requested engraved on it.

As we met at the home after the service, I was approached by a women who told me that she was an aunt of Keith’s and that she had been praying for him all his life, that he would find God. She told me that I was an answer to prayer.

I said earlier that Keith influenced my life. How?
-- He reiterated what I already knew but didn’t always practice – that I should always seek to do what Jesus would.
-- He showed me that beautiful people often come in unattractive packages.
-- He showed me that God is sovereign in our lives. I only went to the hospital during my weeks as chaplain and Keith only spent a few days in the Georgetown hospital. We could easily have missed each other.
-- He showed me that no one is hopeless. It’s never too late. I now believe very strongly in death-bed conversions.

Bill Ball
6/1/2006

5 comments:

Emily said...

what an amazing story, Opa. Thank you for sharing that.

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

This is the first one you worte that made me cry. Even though I've heard the story before, the power of God's love still amazes me.

We don't spend enough time worrying about unbelievers cuz we're spending too much time worrying about their sin (when they're incapable of being holy since they don't have the Holy Spirit). God moves in powerful ways when we show His love to the lost.

As you know, I've always had a hard time with suffering and Hell - one of the ways I've dealt with it is believing God gives a last chance for grace - a few months before death as He did with Keith and moments before death as He did with Grandma.

I love you Dad. Your blog is great. But you're so prolific (looks like I inherited that by the length of this comment) that I have to catch up again.

Steve Spinella said...

Hi, Bill,

I saw your blog on Uni's note and came read your story. While i've heard you refer to this before, it was great reading the story first hand. yours, Steve

Judy said...

Dear Bill,

Quick follow-up. Judy just read "My Friend" and pointed out to me that the two lines on Keith's tombstone were "Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”

Sorry for the oversight. Judy is much more perceptive than I am.

Best to Uni,
Bob and Judy

Sandy Cruz said...

Just read this for the first time after I followed the link from your most recent FB post. Incredibly moving and inspirational. Thank you for sharing this.