Friday, December 28, 2012

A Wheelchair, a Cross, and the Glory of God

Richard Story grew up in Southern Alabama. His parents divorced when he was eight years old. Until he was 15 he was raised by his mother and grandmother. His grandmother was the greatest influence in his early years. She was a very godly woman who read her Bible daily. She would give Richard his first Bible, which he has to this day.

During his latter teen years, as so many young men do, Richard was captivated by the world. All the while he held on to the false perception that he was a good person. He went to church, but not to worship. He treated church as if it were a night club -- a place to pick up girls. It was during this time in his life that he prayed a prayer and walked down the aisle of the church. He thought this made him a Christian, but there was no appreciable change in his life. Frustrated, over the next several years he would "pray the prayer" several more times, hoping each time it would stick.

Richard graduated with honors from a small, rural high school. His chosen career path kept him in the Southeast, but he moved frequently. He worked in the energy management industry, which encompassed a number of different fields. He even spent some time in Antarctica.

Richard lacked contentment. The job was never good enough. The pay was never high enough. He always wanted more. He wanted to be the best at whatever he did and to earn more money than anyone else doing it. To him, contentment was a sign of weakness. God would soon strip him of his spiritual facade and his self-reliance.

A Life-Altering Drive

One day in 2006, Richard, who was working away from home, was driving his pickup truck, which was pulling a trailer. Suddenly, one of the tires had a blowout. As Richard slowly tried to maneuver the truck and trailer to the side of the road, another vehicle collided with the trailer. The vehicle that struck Richard's trailer was traveling at an estimated 70 miles per hour.

The force of the collision was so great the solid steel nose of the trailer ended up in the back of the truck, after bending the 3" solid steel trailer hitch 90 degrees. The only thing that kept the trailer from crashing into the cab of the truck and crushing Richard were the safety chains he remembered to attach to the trailer.

The impact drove Richard's left leg into the floorboard. Although he was wearing his seat belt, the belt did not keep Richard's body from reacting like a rubber band inside the cab of the truck. So violent was the impact that Richard's body was thrust upward in a twisting motion, which resulted in the top of his head crashing into the steering wheel.

Richard's injuries were not immediately apparent after the crash.

Whom God would use greatly,
He will hurt deeply.
A.W. Tozer

Not long after the accident Richard began experiencing headaches. Although he saw a doctor in the area, he decided to make the two-hour drive home so he could follow-up with his personal physician. The drive became one of the longest of Richard's life. The pain became so intense, Richard had to stop frequently along the side of the road. What should have been a two-hour drive took four hours to complete.

By Monday, just a few days after the accident, Richard could barely walk. Further medical tests revealed Richard had sustained several herniated disks in both his neck and lower back, as well as damage to nerves leading to his legs. The severe trauma to his body also resulted in bone fragments floating dangerously close to his spinal cord.

Over time, in spite of countless medical tests, physical and medicinal treatments, Richard's condition worsened. His physical state deteriorated from walking with difficulty, to walking with a cane, to almost complete confinement to a wheelchair.

Adding to Richard's physical pain and anguish was the battle between and with insurance companies, as one entity wrestled with another to determine who would cover his growing medical expenses. This battle continues to this day.

Richard, a man who lacked contentment, was about to be broken by the God he did not yet know.

Richard could no longer work to support his family. He could no longer hunt, fish, lift weights, and engage in the many physical activities that brought him enjoyment. He could no longer serve as his kids' sports coach. He could no longer sleep comfortably next to his wife, Suzanne. When he could sleep, which wasn't often, he had to sleep in a recliner. He could not sit or lay in one position for any length of time without needing his neck to be supported by a brace. His wife had to escort him to and from the bathroom because his wheelchair could not fit through their standard-size bathroom door.

The Slough of Despond

In 2010, after four grueling years of pain, sorrow, discontentment, dependence on others, being treated like a human pin cushion and guinea pig -- a lab rat as doctors began to shrug their shoulders, at a loss for words and wisdom to help him -- as private and government entries left him feeling like little more than a case number, Richard hit rock bottom. What to this point had been primarily a physical struggle was now beginning to take its toll on his heart and his mind.
Now I saw in my dream that, just as they had ended this talk, they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was "Despond." Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and CHRISTIAN, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.

Pliable. Then said PLIABLE, "Ah! neighbour CHRISTIAN, where are you now?"

Christian. "Truly," said CHRISTIAN, "I do not know."

Pliable. At that PLIABLE began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, "Is this the happiness you have told me of all this while? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect 'twixt this and our journey's end? If I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone." And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house: so away he went, and CHRISTIAN saw him no more.

Wherefore CHRISTIAN was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone; but still he endeavoured to struggle to that side of the slough that was farthest from his own house, and next to the wicket gate: which he did, but could not get out, because of the burden that was upon his back....
Fear, depression, and anxiety began to overtake Richard; and he knew no way out of the despondency he felt washing over him like a wave of darkness. He developed severe cases of agoraphobia (the fear being in open spaces) and anthropophobia (the fear of being around people). The anxiety and fear became so intense and debilitating he would break into a cold sweat if he had to so much as talk to someone on the phone, or come out of his bedroom if someone other than his immediate family was inside his house.

Out of the Miry Clay
But I beheld, in my dream, that a man came to him whose name was HELP, and asked him what he did there?

Christian. "Sir," said CHRISTIAN, "I was bidden to go this way by a man called EVANGELIST, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape the wrath to come; and as I was going thither, I fell in here."

Help. But why did you not look for the steps?

Christian. Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way and fell in.

Help. Then said he, "Give me thy hand." So he gave him his hand, and he drew him out; and set him upon some ground, and bade him go on his way.

"He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings." Psalm 40:2

Then I stepped to him that plucked him out, and said, "Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the city of Destruction to yonder gate, is it that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security?" And he said unto me, "This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended: it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run; and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond. For still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arises in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.
Seeing nowhere else to turn, Richard turned to the wisdom of his grandmother. He reopened his Bible. Slowly, subtly, Richard notices small changes in his thinking.

One night while channel surfing, Richard came across his local Christian network. There he saw mention of Kirk Cameron. Richard remembered Cameron from his show Growing Pains. He also remembered Cameron professed to be a Christian. The show was The Way of the Master.

Richard looks to that evening in the quiet of his home, as he watched a television show, when God convicted him of his sin and extended to him the gifts of true repentance and true faith in Jesus Christ alone for his salvation. The Lord stripped Richard of everything, reduced him to nothing, in order to give him everything -- salvation by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. No longer was he under the condemnation of the law of God. For law of the Spirit alive in Christ Jesus had set him free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2).

But sanctification is a process. While the changing of Richard's heart was instantaneous, the changing of his mind would take time.

Richard dived into his new-found faith with the same zeal he once applied to work, sports, and the great outdoors. He worked his way through the online School of Biblical Evangelism. He took Living Waters' Beginning and Intermediate training courses. And he started listening daily to Living Waters' On the Box with Ray Comfort.

Richard, only a few months as a born-again follower of Christ, became a staple in the On the Box chat room. Richard quickly became a beloved member of our small, online community; we became friends.

The phobias that plagued Richard before he came to faith in Christ have somewhat loosened their grip, but they are not completely gone. Richard has been sharing his faith in online chat rooms for a couple of years, but taking the gospel outside the four walls of his home has not been as easy. Again, sanctification is a process.

One day Richard was talking to a friend about his desire to go outside and share the gospel. He expressed his concern about the limitations his wheelchair brought to his life and his evangelism. Unbeknownst to his friend, Richard's phobias were also keeping him from venturing outside to share the gospel. Richard's friend simply encouraged him with these words: "Learn to use your wheelchair to share the gospel."

And that's what Richard did. He learned to use his wheelchair to share the gospel. His first gospel venture outside his home was a trip to the mall. Richard learned from that simple act of obedience and faith that he could overcome his fears. And he has learned that so long as he leaves his home with a gospel mission on his mind, his fears of being outside and around people continue to dissipate.

Don't Waste Your Suffering

Not long ago, Richard was introduced to a man who has now become one of his dearest friends and brothers -- Michael Coughlin. Together, Michael and Richard have built and maintain a Sermon Audio page called Pulpit and Streets for me and Michael's pastor, Eric Cuenin. Through working on the Sermon Audio page, Richard became familiar with Pastor Cuenin's teaching.

Richard found and listened to a sermon series by Pastor Cuenin titled: Don't Waste Your Suffering. Richard listened to the series more than once.Through these messages, the Lord brought him to the realization that even though he was now a Christian, he had spent the last two years wasting his suffering. Richard began to learn how to use his pain to forget about his irrational fears. He started to focus on eternal things and the plight of the unsaved. He realized there was so much more he could do to serve Christ and further His gospel. Richard prayed, asking the Lord to use him and to allow him to help others.

Richard spent the last six years of his life looking out his window at the highway, watching all the cars go by. Since receiving Christ, he wondered how many of the drivers he sees are saved and how many are lost. One night after seeing a post on Facebook by a Crosswalker, it hit him.

"I have that corner (Madison Street and Hwy 82, Mathiston, MS). Certainly I can carry a cross on that corner. It is only about 200 yards from my house."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Richard sat with the curtain pulled back. He stared out the window. He was waiting for someone, something. Richard had ordered a custom-made ARE YOU READY cross from Vernon Costolo. It was supposed to arrive today.

Richard spent the day making preparations to go out of the house. There are no spur of the moment, "drop everything and go" trips out of the house for Richard. He has to plan well in advance anytime he leaves his home. This kind of planning is intricate: medications, meals (before and after the outing), what and when to drink. There are times certain things do not set well with his stomach. And then there are the side effects from some of his medications, which must be considered.

Richard's medical condition requires him to wear a TENS unit. This device numbs the nerve endings and allows some relief from his constant pain. He also has to wear a neck brace; and, due to some of his medications, he also has to be careful about over-exposure to the sun and heat. The sun and heat wouldn't be a problem today. The weather in Mathiston, MS, is a mere 38 degrees, with a windchill that made a cold 38 feel like an even colder 25.

A smile grew on Richard's face as he saw the UPS truck come down his street and then heard the knock on his door. The cross had arrived.

Richard had to wait for Suzanne, his wife of 17 years, to get home before he could go to the corner. She has to position the ramp for him to get in and out of the house.

Suzanne is protective, as any loving wife would be considering the circumstances, when Richard leaves the house. She is his helpmate in every sense of the word. She takes care of him. Suzanne is not only Richard's wife. She is his caregiver and his best friend.

Suzanne did not hesitate to lend her support to Richard when he told her about his desire to carry a cross in their community. With a folding picnic chair in hand, she walked her husband the 200 yards to the corner of Madison Street and Highway 82. Richard, in his motorized wheelchair, with his cross atop the armrests and with his wife by his side, was about to take a step of faith that was more than 40 years in the making.

When they arrived at the corner, Suzanne helped Richard stand his cross on his lap. She read scripture as Richard prayed aloud.

This is Mathiston, MS -- Small Town, USA -- population: 699. There are no eight-lane freeways, no rush hour traffic through town of the volume you would expect in Los Angeles or other large cities, no intersections where hundreds of people wait to cross the street. But this is Richard and Suzanne's community; and these are the people they want to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gone was the anxiety. Richard was thrilled to be out of the house, on that corner, carrying his cross. The cold weather helped him forget he was supposed to be nervous. But the real help came from the Father who adopted him, the Son who Saved him, the Spirit who empowered him, and the wife who loved him.

As Richard sat with his cross, his thoughts turned to the people in the vehicles driving by. Many people looked at the cross as they zipped down Highway 82. Richard wondered if they understood why he was there. He wondered how many were saved and how many were lost.

"I wonder if someone in one of these cars would die before tomorrow?" Richard asked Suzanne. "I pray they see this cross and it leads them to search out Christ and they hear the true Gospel."

Richard hoped someone would stop and talk to him. One truck stopped at the stop sign on Madison, at the intersection with Highway 82. The driver looked disgustingly at Richard and shook his head, as if to say, "I can't believe what I am seeing. What an idiot! What is he doing there?"

No one stopped. No one walked by to take a gospel tract. Some (believers and unbelievers) will likely see Richard's first hour out with his cross as a failed effort. They would be wrong -- so very, very wrong.

A Wheelchair, a Cross, and the Glory of God

The only time a Christian fails in evangelism is when he fails to evangelize, when he fails to try to share the gospel with lost people. Richard did not fail. In fact, what Richard and Suzanne did for an hour one late, winter afternoon brought God much glory.

The key to evangelism is not a slick philosophy of ministry. The key most certainly is not determining what lost people want to see and hear, and then catering to their sinful desires. And the key is not coming up with some new methodology -- a new event, a new program, a new gospel tract, or even a brand new wooden cross. The keys to evangelism are obedience and love.

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.
Jim Elliot

Richard obeyed God. When God saved him, Richard knew the Great Commission was a directive God had given to him, as He has given it to every Christian. Richard knew his infirmities, his wheelchair, and his fears would not suffice as excuses for disobedience to the command of God.

Richard loved God and loved people enough to set aside his fears and pains. He allowed his love for God and people to subordinate his love for himself. He knew he would look foolish to some, and he didn't care. He was more concerned with where people would spend eternity than what people thought of him.

In the world's eyes, Richard lost everything: his health, his prosperity, his independence, the use of his legs. Sadly the same sentiment is held by false teachers, charlatans, and snake oil salesmen (and saleswomen) who have infected the church.

Yes, Richard physically suffers every day of his life. Yes, he is in a wheelchair. Yes, he battles fear. Only God knows when or if Richard will be relieved of these trials and tribulations this side of Heaven.

And Richard is blessed. He is blessed to know God and to be known by God. He is blessed with newness of life -- a life saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

Richard is blessed more than most Christians because he gets it. He understands that the most most loving thing he could ever do for other people is to speak the truth in love to them -- to share the law of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ with them.

Yes, God was glorified on the corner of Madison Street and Highway 82, on Thursday, December 27, 2012. God was glorified because a man in a wheelchair with a cross loved Him and others more than he loved himself.

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