Saturday, April 24, 2010

Run to Honor and Remember

Dear Family and Friends,

Today I’ll tell a story that for those that no me well may seem rather redundant. I have a genetic struggle in which discs in my spine on occasion rupture. I run to overcome and cope. On occasion, I run a race. However, there’s a bigger story to tell. God has been very kind to me in recovery, and in running I attempt to give him glory. Also, I’ve on occasion understated or even hidden a few matters.

This coming Sunday, April 25 I intend to run a Half Marathon at the Oklahoma City Marathon. It seems an appropriate race for a missionary to Rwanda to run to celebrate God’s healing. Allow me today to tell the story of these God marks in my life.

A few weeks ago, I wrote my memories of 1993 and 1994. In closing those memories ended with my family in the US on July 4, 1994 as an accuser had for a season succeeded in creating confusion, we lost our financial support, and we began a season of rebuilding.

It was one of the more difficult seasons of my life. The season of support discovery lasted almost a year. During that season a familiar pain entered into my life. I began having pain that began in my back, intensified in my left hip, and shot down my left leg. I had seen my dad, Lloyd Jenkins struggle with a similar pain that went down his right leg. I did something I never should have done. I went into denial for 2 years. I took lots of ibuprofen and Tylenol. I continued to believe that my dad’s struggle would not be my struggle. I vacillated between exercise, rest, doctors, and denial for two years. I suspected that since my support was tenuous if I disclosed my struggle; my support would collapse. I propped up an illusion to myself and to others.
Discerning God’s will in the midst of pain and struggle is always a challenge. I had several moments that still leave me pondering.

We returned to Uganda in 1995. At one point in Uganda in 1996 I thought we had found an answer. Mulago Hospital had a respected American orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Rodney Belcher with them. I went to see Dr. Belcher and was thrilled with his initial prognosis. He concluded I was “fit,” and the pain must just be a pulled muscle. Fifteen years later, assessments that build my ego and offer an easy solution still are appealing. I started physical therapy and hoped for the best. I even pondered if it was “God’s will” for me not to have my dad’s struggle or to be healed by doctor in Uganda. Again, my “spiritual” assessment was largely just looking for the easiest route.

A few weeks after I began therapy tragedy struck. Dr. Belcher was shot and killed in senseless violence. He was well respected and Uganda mourned, but my memory does not include an explanation for why his life was lost in what appeared to be a carjacking gone astray. From that point on I was on a downhill slope.

We launched our Kampala church plant in January, 1996; and had a great first 6 months, but I was in continual pain. By July, I was at 29 years of age walking with a cane. Denial and false hope had failed me.

My son, Ethan was born on August 12, 1996. I stayed in the same hospital room with Jana and Ethan. On August 14, 1996 I hobbled onto a plane and went to the US alone to seek healing.
I arrived to be met in the Minneapolis / St. Paul Airport by my parents, Lloyd and Lois Jenkins. I remember hobbling with a brace and cane to hug my mom, and her weeping. I guess my pain was too familiar.

I followed my old habit that has always been good for me. In a jam – find a friend and go back to what works. I had no clue if I could find a doctor who would understand my life or desire to return to Uganda. I prayed and hoped. In 1987 I had broken my left hand in a construction accident. I returned to the orthopedic office that had put my hand back together. They referred me to their spine specialist, Dr. Richard Hadley. As I hobbled into the examining room he offered assuring words that I likely had a herniated disc that could be repaired with surgery. I explained a bit about my life in Uganda. He began asking very detailed questions about Kampala. It included people and neighborhoods. I thought perhaps he had been in Uganda before. He disclosed that in 1971, in the early years of Idi Amin’s regime when Mulago was still Africa’s premier hospital, he had done his residency at Mulago. What were the odds that I would find a doctor with such experience? God had gone far ahead of me. Dr. Hadley was supportive and skilled. God gently spoke to me to be at peace.

I rested at my parent’s home. I read history and watched the history channel. Dr. Jim Conner, the pastor at my parent’s church (Valley Christian) came and prayed for me. Jim had gone through the same surgery as my dad. Though in pain, I was finding hope again.

A few weeks later I had surgery. I remember coming out of surgery and lifting my leg. The pain was gone. For the first time in 2 years there was no pain going down my leg. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and not recognizing what I had become. My youthful pride in my strength was gone. I looked the way I anticipated I would look in my 70’s or 80’s. Limping and lying in bed had taken a terrible toll. I made a decision that I’ve kept to this day. When in pain seek help. Denial is worthless.

In the third week of September, a few days after surgery; Jana, our children at the time – Sophia, Caleb, and Ethan; and Jana’s parent’s, Gaston and Jan Tarbet arrived at the Minneapolis / St. Paul airport. Jana’s parents had cared for her and the kids in Uganda while I sought healing in the US. Now that Jana was recovered from child birth they joined me in Minnesota. Jana did not expect me to be strong enough to make it to the airport, but with God’s help I was on the path to recovery. Jana remarked that when she saw me it was the first time she had seen me without pain in my eyes for 2 years. We had both grown too accustomed to the pain. I realized in hindsight how much the pain had colored my perception and memory. Jana helped restore my sanity of mind as the Lord restored the strength of my body.

I made some changes. I exercised in a gym, swam, and walked. I decided never to deny physical pain again. If this story was written by me instead of God writing with marks upon my body the story of this journey would now conclude. It did not.

A disc herniated in my neck in 1998. I had pain going down my left arm. I accidently cut my fingers and watched them bleed while I could not feel the pain. However, again with God’s help I had surgery and recovered.

I thought I was out of the woods, but in 2001 as Jana was recovering from surgery I felt the old familiar pain, and again had surgery on my lower back.

By January 2001 I had 3 marks of God upon my life that were the physical scars from spine surgery.

Besides learning that God was bigger than my struggle and with exercise I could deal with the small amount of residual pain I noticed another phenomena. I had a genetic disposition to spine problems. There were some things I could manage and some that were beyond my management abilities. The herniated discs usually came at a time in which my stress levels were high. With too much stress my body would break at its weak link which was my spine.

In 2002 curiosity got the best of me. For 6 years I had started my day with a walk. On this day, I decided to try running. I had not run since 1994, but something inside me wanted to try again. I tried and rediscovered what Eric Liddell called “the pleasure of God.” It was inescapable. Running became my place of quiet solitude to wrestle with God in prayer and as He defeated me to discover daily grace. I told no one. It was my secret for months. I ran in the early morning hours in Kampala when my family and friends slept just a little bit longer.

Jana and I made a trip to Nairobi and while running at Rosslyn Academy I shared the track with my friend, Ian Shelburne. I realized my secret could become public. I came back to our room and confessed one of my secrets to the bride of my youth. (In hindsight, waking your wife with a guilty conscience is probably not the best for marital relations.) Jana was shaken by my words, “I’ve been doing something for months that I’ve kept hidden,” but almost relieved when I confessed that after an 8 year absence I was again running.

Now that the secret was out I began running in races and found that wonderful spiritual blessing of both solitude and community. I’ve never looked back with regret.

For 8 years Jana and I were remarkably healthy. However, there have been some moments in which our stress level has been high.

The academic year of 2004-2005 found us at Oklahoma Christian University as we wrestled with our Uganda departure and God’s call to Rwanda. In many ways it was a season of high stress, but we found a faith community at both Quail Springs Church of Christ and Oklahoma Christian University that nurtured our transition. Also, Oklahoma City provided an opportunity to do something that I had always been curious about – run a marathon. Oklahoma City’s Memorial Marathon which remembers the loss of 168 lives on April 19, 1995 seemed especially appropriate for someone like me who had ministered in a recovering Uganda and would minister in recovering Rwanda. I ran it and contemplated its implications.

We entered Rwanda in 2005 and had 2 personally delightful years. We experienced a season of discovery, new friends, dreaming for the future, and our support was solid.

On March 4, 2007 CCR was launched. We’ve been amazed at the growth. However, it has been several years that have taken a great personal cost. It took me 16 years to start blogging about my accusers in 1993 and 1994 so I’ll wait a few more years before I am explicitly candid. The part I will disclose is that we had 2 ½ years in which it seemed we relived the Apostle Paul’s struggle with Jewish rule keepers in his Galatian church plants. Another historical similarity may be Barton W. Stone’s struggle with his denominational hierarchy during the years following the Cane Ridge Revival. Though I tried to pastorally love and preach all that I perceived God wanted to say there was persistent opposition. I spent many sleepless nights. In the back of my mind I wondered how long we could last without eventually our health failing.

Jana began experiencing pain in her lower abdomen in January 2009. She went back to the US in June 2009. I stayed with the kids. When it was discovered that she had a tumor it was decided that our son, Timothy and I would return to the US to be with her.

On July 19, 2009 I felt a familiar pain. Something was knotting up in my left shoulder. I hoped it was just a pulled muscle and spent a little over a week before I told anyone. Then I let Jana know in a phone call. A few weeks later, after swimming and taking ibuprofen with no relief I clued in a few other trusted confidants. This didn’t seem to be going away, and pain was starting to radiate down my arm and I was losing feeling on my thumb and fingers.

Jana had surgery on July 30. The tumor was benign. I saw a doctor and tried to persuade him to just give me some muscle relaxers, but as he had me turn my neck it was obvious that I could “dial in the pain.” This pain was originating in my neck. I needed to see an orthopedic surgeon.
The familiarity brought both calm and concern. We had been through this before. God had been faithful. These seasons would try our faith and character. Upon their completion we would see God in a new way. Also, He would use this season to shape and mold. Something different and new was coming. However, it is a step into the unknown. Our plans would be flawed. We could count on debt, misunderstanding, and turmoil for months to a year.

We started as we usually did – looking for help among friends and places of past success. We were clueless so we called our insurance to find orthopedic surgeons. The mentioned several in north Oklahoma City, and then we heard a familiar name, Dr. James Odor. We asked a friend and found that Dr. Odor was the brother of one of our Quail Springs Church of Christ elders, David Odor. We made a phone call and found there were no openings until October. We called David Odor who called his brother and thing sped along.

As I went into the doctor’s office my biggest fear was that we would not diagnose the source. Some were praying that I could avoid surgery. I was praying for a clear diagnosis and path forward. We hopped through a few insurance hoops, but I was actually very relieved when Dr. Odor called me as Jana and I were trying to discern the future with the news that I had 2 herniated discs. We hopped through a couple more hoops and then surgery was scheduled for September 29.

Though for me this felt like a familiar path that I knew upon completion would be one of blessing for others it was one of turmoil. It seemed that our 2 ½ years of Galatian turmoil was near the end as we left Rwanda in the summer of 2009. KICS after a season of internal conflict over creating a sustainable Christian ethos had reached closure. CCR was on the verge of a boom. Our children had all found Kigali to be their home. We had new colleagues planning to join us. However, our expectations were not to be realized during the fall of 2009. God had something different in mind and would use our health as His means of direction.

We would need to at least spend the fall in Oklahoma City seeking healing. The three children that remained in Rwanda – Caleb, Ethan, and Ruth traveled with Duane Jenks back to the US late in August. Tom and Sue Gooch traveled to Rwanda to cover for us and help the Hixsons while we stayed in their home. We enrolled all the kids in school in the US and hoped for the best in a year of transition.

My pain level was increasing. I knew that to recover well I needed to stay as physically strong as possible, but almost everything I did hurt. My arm at times felt like an exposed nerve on a tooth.

The coming surgery sounded scary. Dr. Odor would come in from the front of my neck and move my trachea. He would go to the spine and remove 2 herniated discs, put a plate onto 3 vertebrae, and then fuse them together. A few suggested that maybe this was “too risky” and I should “live with the pain.” I share my struggle not only with my dad, but with my two brothers, an aunt and an uncle. My brother Tim’s counsel to those who out of fear suggest the choice to live with pain resonates, “But I must live.”

Life for me included not only a call to Rwanda, but a call to play with my kids, laugh, celebrate, dance, and run as I wrestled with God. I would not trade my journey of struggle and celebration away out of fear. If I did not face surgery I would choose a life in which the parts of life in which I find the most pleasure would be gone. It was God’s choice to remove these treasures in my life. I had surrendered my treasures before to Him. However, I believed my treasures were His gifts. I would fight for them until it was obvious that God had told me to surrender.

On the morning of September 29 we went to the hospital. My pastor, Dr. Mark Henderson came and prayed with me. Jana and he were with me as the anesthesiologist gave me the injections that made me giggle and sleep. A few hours later I awoke to see Jana with me as she had been for 2 of my previous 3 surgeries. I was incredibly hungry, but vomited each time I tried to eat. I had a brace on my neck that prevented me from moving to see if I could dial in the pain. However, I could lift my body from the bed by doing a modified dip. The pain on my arm was gone. Recovery was possible.

I needed to walk so the following morning before check out I went to see my friends, Mat and Nathalie Tremblay and their new son, Axel who were a few floors above me. It was a unique season at Mercy Hospital. Axel was born on the day my neck was restored.

The next couple weeks were quiet ones. I walked and prayed. In my prayer time I found mercy for those in Rwanda and in the US who had acted out our Galatian like conflict. I had the good fortune to stand in solidarity with the Apostle Paul. I knew history well enough to know that in the future history would be kind to me. I doubted it would be so kind to my opponents. I prayed for their hearts to change so they could be restored to community.

I greatly missed Africa. I knew if I was sick in Kigali my home would be filled with visitors. In Kigali, I would rest at home, but many would come to visit, encourage, and pray. I only remember my friend, John Osborne visiting me during the first weeks of recovery. I don’t know why others did not come. Maybe, it was busyness? Maybe, they thought I wanted solitude without community? However, I did miss people.

As soon as possible I went back to my office at the Quail Springs Church of Christ and tried to teach. Some call me Mwalimu (teacher) and I needed to be at my vocation in order to discover what God had next. I could not heal in isolation so I sought community even when the community did not come to me.

I kept a quiet pace until early November and then Dr. Odor told me what I had wanted to hear for months. I could run again. I started swimming, exercising, and running. I only had about 1/3 of my strength, but I was back in the game.

I ran a few 5km races and found I was slow, but improving. I noticed that it took me until early January to be back at a pace where I could work 8 hour days 5 days per week, but slowly by slowly the Lord was restoring my strength.

Now, my curiosity began to get the best of me. Would it be possible to try the Oklahoma City Marathon again? The race and distance fascinated me. Resilience from tragedy seemed to be a mark of the communities God had given me. I wanted to be part of this run.

As my physical strength was returning and we planned to return to Rwanda in March we discovered our funding was lacking, and we delayed our return to Rwanda. Maybe, God desired for me to run the OKC Marathon again?

I began the long runs. I was quickly up to 10 mile runs. However, my editorial committee kept a persistent theme – You are trying too much too soon. Just do the Half Marathon.

On Sunday March 28, my editorial committee spoke clearly through a car accident. We were rear ended. I was in pain for a couple weeks. Everything slowed down including my running. I decided that on April 25, 2010 I would attempt to run the OKC Half Marathon.

Tomorrow is the day. I believe by God’s grace I’ll finish. I’m eager. I still have some unfinished tasks in the US. In running may God be glorified. He has taken me through surgery and struggle. With His healing we have hope. The story is not finished, but we are in the race.

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