October 22, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: March 15, 2015

baylor+heart+transplant

Note from CM: We are only about a month away from the fifth anniversary of Michael Spencer’s death. Each Sunday this year we are re-posting some of his encouraging, challenging words. Today we present a longer piece that was first published in March 2006, called “Dying We Live: Pat’s Story.”

• • •

I never knew Pat when he was healthy. I first heard his name in the aftermath of a massive heart attack that visited him one night and left him a weakened and depleted man compared to what he had been before.

Over the years, I caught a glimpse of the old Pat. He was a man’s man. Loud and opinionated, he didn’t mind dominating a conversation. He could be a bit arrogant and argumentative, but he also had a tender side that laughed, teared up and loved to hug. Pat had not always been a Christian. He’d been a drinker in his past life, but he became a converted man who loved to talk about how Jesus had taken away his addiction to alcohol.

Pat’s brother was one of my deacons, and they had both been hunters long before they were business partners. They’d made, and lost and made money, and it didn’t seem to mean all that much to them. They loved to travel to the best hunting places, but they also loved their families (both divorced and remarried) and children (almost grown.) They also loved the church, their pastor and Jesus. Their love for God was positive and contagious.

The heart attack had cut Pat down and brought him to the door of death, but he didn’t go through. I lost count of how many times Pat told me about a vision of the cross that came to him in the hospital as he was on his way to the grave. He had a supernatural vision of Jesus that never left him. Whatever faith had been there before his heart attack was watered by the heart attack and became a beautiful, strong, living testimony.

As Pat recovered from the heart attack, he was told that his heart was not going to survive, and that he would die in a short time without a heart transplant.

I had heard about heart transplants for years, but I had never heard of one happening remotely close to the my circle of influence. Now Pat was put on the waiting list.

Pat was ambiguous about the transplant. He wanted to live. His girls and wife wanted him to live. But Pat did not want someone else to die. We never talked without Pat agonizing over the fact that God was going to take someone’s life in order for him to live. He never failed to relate this awful reality to the cross, and to the strange, undeserved grace of God for sinners like himself.

He was at peace throughout the wait, and when the day came, he went to the hospital ready to pass on, or to come back. Whatever God had for him was alright with Pat.

I’ll always recall visiting the hospital through that transplant procedure. It is an emotional roller coaster with crisis after crisis. After the surgery itself, there were many possible complications, with the most serious being rejection.

Pat’s heart took, and he began the long road back to a life with someone else’s heart.

Pat came home, and the recovery was slow. On one of his first Sunday’s back at church, he blacked out and passed out in the foyer. His head hit the floor so hard I thought someone dropped a bowling ball. He went back to the hospital, and it started to become clear that Pat’s heart was not doing well.

After coming through the transplant, it was discouraging to everyone to know that the heart was not working as it should. Once again, Pat was on the road to death. Pat, however, was never depressed. He was thankful, joyful and worshipful. His “Pentecostal” side wasn’t praying for a healing, but praying instead that he would have the opportunity to tell others about Jesus.

No one would have believed that Pat would become a candidate for a second heart transplant, but that is exactly what happened. The wait began again….and once again Pat was put through the process of contemplating the meaning of life purchased by death. He considered the meaning of life given freely by Christ to a dying man, and waited.

Health-US-heart-273801The second heart transplant arrived, and the whole experience was replayed. This time, however, Pat received a strong and healthy heart that his body “adopted” without complication. Pat was given not months, but years of life to serve Jesus.

Pat made himself busy serving in the church. He encouraged me. He oversaw our ministry to alcoholics. He was a missionary to the community. I loved him as a true friend. He was a man alive with God.

In fact, Pat’s new life made him quite a character, and he could be a bit much. His experience made him different from everyone. His conversion, his vision, his two hearts, and the sense of God’s presence around him all made Pat a person who was inseparable from Jesus.

The secret was not the church or his pastor- though Pat loved the Word and loved his church. The secret was not some book or ministry or method. No…the secret was that Pat was living with death counting down in his chest. His heart- his second borrowed heart- made him a man who lived every day with the Kingdom of God foremost in his mind as life in this world ticked away like unknown grains of sand.

Pat lost his need to succeed. He was without ambition except the ambition to be useful to Jesus and to people. He knew that at any moment, his heart could stop, and he would die. When he said good-bye to his family each day, he was literally saying good-bye forever. When he worshipped or prayed, he knew he might be in heaven in a few moments.

Pat may have been afraid of death at times, but I never sensed it. He was at peace with Jesus and happy in the life God had given him. He rested in the sovereign hand of God for every heartbeat. His life was no further than he could see, and the horizon that he faced every day was the borderline between heaven and earth.

When I left that church, Pat was still going strong. He died several years later, but I know of no one who lived a fuller life. He had received a new heart for the way home, and that heart and the life it gave him were gifts for the day, and for eternity beyond.

I think a lot about Pat as I enter the second half of life. I spent all day yesterday in the largest cancer facility in our state, surrounded by those who are in various stages of cancer treatment. Looking around, I could not read the faces, but I knew that many of the stories would have been simple to outline. A peaceful, tranquil, trouble free life invaded by a disease that turns the body against itself. Tests, and waiting, and tests and more waiting. Surgery, and waiting, and waiting and waiting. The known and the unknown, taking over and remaking life into something entirely new.

Yet all that is added in places like the cancer clinic is information. There are no truly shocking announcements that we and those we know are going to pass on. We simply learn more of the specifics in such places, and are forced to consider what we have usually avoided thinking about and denied with our addiction to normality.

I believe our minds are wired at the most basic, primal level to resist the idea of death. It is a survival instinct to refuse to consider our own non-existence. To lose this basic desire to exist is to be sick at a deep level.

At the same time, the knowledge of the universality of death is just as common, and just as basic. We are contradictory beings, with the denial of our own death and the presumption of the normality of death for others both woven into our being.

The Gospel tells us to embrace death. To embrace our own death IN the death of Jesus. To die in and with Jesus is to resurrected and alive with Jesus. The Christian adopts a living death, and a living resurrection.

John 11:23-27 23 — Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

2 Corinthians 4:10-14 — always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.

1 Corinthians 15:20-26 — But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Pat’s two hearts gave him exactly this kind of faith. He carried about in his body the deaths of two persons whose names he did not know. He carried about in his body a gift of life from strangers. He became a man on a mission, not to live out the hedonism of the flesh, but to enjoy the joys of the Kingdom of heaven in the present.

Pat’s acceptance of his own certain demise was a gift because death came for him, but instead, life was handed to him with undeserved grace. He took the gift, and lived in a way that honored the gift and the giver. He saw- quite literally- the cross beyond the heart transplants, and he heard Jesus more than those borrowed heartbeats. He lived for Jesus as the ultimate giver of life to the dying.

We are dying. All of us. When you walk out of the hospital, cured and healed, you are terminal. Lazurus died again, and so will you and I. In Christ, however, we can accept death because death is defeated, and life is transplanted- eternally- into our dying bodies.

In the second half of life, I want to remember Pat, and live like Pat lived. I have the same heart transplant that made the great difference in Pat’s life. I pray it does the same good work.

Pat is alive. He is done with death. I am dying, and waiting on the life that I already have. Pat’s joy is full. Mine is here to be enjoyed as God pours it out to overflowing.

Psalm 23:4-6 — Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Comments

  1. Wow, what a wonderful piece!

  2. I can relate to that feeling that every day is a gift of grace. This summer will be the 10th anniversary of my death. In 2005 I went to the hospital with an intestinal blockage. They did a CAT scan and saw a blockage, but didn’t do anything further. In 3 days I felt better and the blockage was gone, so they released me. That whole next year I was tired all the time and never felt real good. Next summer I experience the blockage again and went back to the hospital. The surgeon did a CAT scan again and said he didn’t see a blockage, but my appendix looked “funny” (his exact word) and he wanted to remove it. After 4 hours of surgery, I came to, and he told me that my appendix had burst— last year. I don’t know how I walked around a year with a burst appendix, but as I reflected back on that year I realized that every day truly was a gift of grace. Every jail sermon I gave was meant to be given, every cup of water, every kindness, every grace I extended was meant to be. Conversely, every sin I committed was graciously forgiven by that atonement of the cross, He didn’t have to put up with it for one minute, but He did. So I’m 10 years past dead, and I’m so thankful and grateful and ready to extend that love of Jesus knowing each day of grace is meant to be.

  3. Great law/gospel piece.

    (yes…death is the ultimate expression of the law…)

  4. Wonderful and profound. My prayers are for faith like Pat’s.

  5. Pat had not always been a Christian. He’d been a drinker in his past life, but he became a converted man who loved to talk about how Jesus had taken away his addiction to alcohol.

    I don’t want to go down a rabbit trail here, but just wanted to say I’m thankful for this part. Pat found a Savior, who changed his life, which then led to him changing others lives. A Savior uniquely suited to him, personal, that was exactly what he needed.

    Beautiful.

    • At the risk of taking a few further steps down that trail… it is awesome how simple it can be sometimes.

      We don’t necessarily have to be fighting about all kind of minutia of doctrine (though I admit to enjoying it), but we have someone who has chosen to take it upon himself to save us… and change our lives.

      How awesome is that.

      In light of death, it is a lot less difficult to see the awesome.

  6. Our four-yr-old daughter was an organ donor. May will be eleven years. We are active in the transplant community, specifically in the Transplant Games of America organization. (Shameless plug: click on the link for more info). Pat’s story is a beautiful one, and we’ve seen similar. Over and over, we see recipients who are now energized by the realization that they are free to live. Spencer’s comment that life is a terminal condition, and that we all whistle past that particular graveyard is true. Many of the recipients we see are now on a mission, some spiritual, some physical. Even those who are still so physically debilitated, you wouldn’t expect it. There is a vibrancy to their lives that is inspiring. Thanks, Chap Mike, for re-running this today. I don’t recall reading it before.