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Memories and dreams.

Readers of the Record will have heard from Chris Vais twice since January 1998. The first article described how Knox Church in Waterdown, Ontario, had ministered to him after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in January 1997. A few months later, he wrote a meditation based on a pulmonary examination. Chris's physical health has continued to weaken, forcing him to resign as minister of Knox Church. On March 7, 1999, the congregation held a service of celebration for Chris's ministry. The following message from Chris was read to the congregation by his close friend Andrew Fullerton.

On November 1, 1987, 10 days after my 25th birthday, I became minister of Knox Church, Waterdown. I was a real greenhorn, but eager to learn. Whatever I have learned about ministry has been tested and refined in the context of my pastoral relationship with this congregation over the past 11 years. We have laughed and cried together. We have shared the joys and challenges of worship and work in the name of Jesus Christ. I have never felt like a lone ranger. Ours was always a shared ministry. We believed the purpose of the laity is not to help the minister run the church but to be the church. The minister exists to help in the process.

I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a session thoroughly committed to both leadership and pastoral care. I marvelled at their discipleship and learned from their maturity in Christ. We didn't always agree on things. Over the years, we've had some pretty good fights; but we always seemed to rise above that in seeking unity in Jesus Christ.

The board of managers modelled what it means to be faithful stewards of God's resources. The members acted responsibly and creatively in managing the financial resources of the congregation; yet, they were not afraid to take risks in following the leading of God's Holy Spirit. The first concern was never how much something was going to cost but how it would further the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in this place.

I remember when we terminated the contract we had with a commercial group renting our hall each week. It provided much-needed income but, at that time, the church hall was the only available space we had other than the sanctuary. We came to this decision to make room for Logos, a weekly youth program on which we placed a higher priority.

I remember when the session agreed to add to our number of worship services and to increase the frequency of our celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. A Christmas Eve service in 1988 grew to three services by 1997. We added a Maundy Thursday Lord's Supper. A quarterly Communion service at 9 o'clock on Sunday morning evolved into the current weekly second service. Wednesday evening worship was added during the season of Lent, and a pre-dawn pilgrimage to Crieff Hills for the annual Easter sunrise service. Finally, we held three memorable services of "hope and healing," not only by Knox people but also by folks from the wider community as well.

I have fond memories of "Knox Goes North," our annual congregational retreat at Camp Oak-a-lea in the woods of Muskoka. I recall one weekend, in particular, when a few of our group became lost in the bush. When it looked as if it would be a long time before they would be found, one of the strays examined the other hikers and wondered, "Hmmm ... who are we going to eat first?"

A little over a year ago, I travelled to India and Bangladesh with Sleeping Children Around the World, an organization Knox has supported as part of its outreach for the past seven years. The cost of my trip was covered by the service clubs in this town -- Rotary, Lions, Optimist, Kinsmen and the Legion, along with some funds from other friends. No one from Knox ever asked the question my sister Michelle asked whenever I went on a trip: "So, is this a holiday? Or is it study leave?" The congregation saw the journey as an extension of their mission and gave me their blessing as they eagerly awaited my return to hear about the experience.

Being part of a vibrant, dynamic congregation over the past 11 years has been immensely invigorating. There has been tremendous growth, not only in numerical growth (membership has doubled, attendance at worship tripled, and the budget increased more than three times) but, of far more significance, growth in relationships and within individuals. I include myself among them.

This type of spiritual growth cannot be measured in numbers or dollars. Spiritual growth is measured in lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This growth became more intense and accelerated since January of 1997 when I was diagnosed with ALS. Over the past two years, we have witnessed many signs and wonders that are evidences of God's compassion and grace. And the healing presence of Jesus Christ was made known as never before. I am grateful for the precious memories God has given me in being part of the transformation of people's lives in and through Knox Church.

Whatever we do in the church should be driven by our mission. The vision given to us by God, of who we are and of who we are called to be, fuels our enthusiasm and energy. We are all part of a great, holy dream that comes from God alone. Speaking personally, while this particular stage of my journey is coming to an end, and I am no longer officially the minister at Knox Church in Waterdown, none the less, I will never cease to be a minister. My ministry in the future will be different than it was in the past; yet, I will always remain closely connected to Knox Church. You will forever be part of who I am.

Many ask how I am doing. As you may know, ALS is a progressive and fatal disease that relentlessly attacks the motor neurons. Despite this hard truth, in the face of which I harbour few illusions, it is purely by the grace of God and the gifts of faith and hope that God has placed within me that I can dare to dream.

Yes, I am growing weaker overall; but, thankfully, for me, this is happening less rapidly than average. My hands and arms continue to weaken, and I am a little shakier on my feet than I was six months ago. After consulting with the occupational and physiotherapists, we have devised ways of making daily life less difficult. A couple of grab bars in the bathroom, a raised toilet seat and the walker you see me using today are a few of the tools we have implemented as I adapt to the changes in my ability. If you look closely enough, you'll also notice there's a key-ring attached to the zipper on my pants. My brother-in law, Kevin, wondered if he were to tug on the ring, would a parachute open! My cousin, Jonathan, asked if pulling on the ring would release my airbag!

When you hear me talk, you will notice my voice is weakening. The slurring is due largely to weakness in my tongue, while the slowing down of the soft palette in my mouth gives my voice a nasal quality. When I asked the speech pathologist whether it would help to eat an ice cream cone every day, she smiled insincerely and said, "Ha - ha - ha." These days, I am most easily understood in a quiet room with a few people.

I am also told I need to breathe more frequently as I speak, about every three or four words or thereabouts (unlike my sister Nancy who, when she's on a roll, can probably spit out a couple of hundred words before inhaling). And I'm supposed to e-nun-ci-ate more clearly. For instance, instead of saying "Shaddapp!", I should say, "Would - you - please - shut - your - mouth!" The good news is that I have no trouble swallowing, and my breathing is stronger than average. This, of course, is encouraging. So far, there is no sign of deterioration in the muscles that allow me to breathe. This will come as no surprise to those who believe that preachers are, by nature, full of hot air. I have attended enough presbytery meetings to attest to some truth behind that stereotype. Today, however, I, for one, count myself happily among the long-winded.

Susan and I have been living in Vankoughnet up in Muskoka since last fall. This has been a wilderness experience for us both literally and figuratively -- biblically and theologically. I have found this time valuable in making the transition into a new way of living and working. The wilderness is where we learn how to pray, where we learn how to trust more fully and more completely in the care of God. The wilderness is the place where our mission and purpose are given shape. It is where the angels of God wait on us. This has been my experience over the past few months. Apparently, the wilderness is also where one can learn how to grow a beard! And many of you will have heard by now that Susan and I are expecting a baby in May. Of course, we are thrilled with this prospect, something we look forward to with great joy.

Because of the disease, my body is growing weaker all the time, but my spirit is strong and is, in fact, growing stronger every day. As the Apostle Paul said, "Although our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." I am experiencing a renewed sense of calling to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Where this calling will lead, I am not sure. But that's no different from how it has been in the past. I continue to put my trust in the power of God's Holy Spirit to bring healing in the name of Christ. I am thrilled to be part of God's dream here on earth. I look forward to sharing with all of you how this ministry will take shape in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

I express my gratitude to my family and friends who share my burdens and are committed to companionship along this path we walk. And for my beloved Susan who endures my frustrations and makes my joy complete. I thank God for the people of Knox who have demonstrated a desire to remain with me through prayer, through words of encouragement and through ongoing financial support. Your generosity is remarkable.

It brings to mind a story of something that happened a few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics. Nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all took off--not exactly in a dash but with the strong desire to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and paused. Then, one by one, they turned around and went back. One girl with Down's syndrome bent down, kissed the boy and said, "This will make it better." Then, all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered for 10 minutes.

Today, I thank you all for turning around and coming back.

And, now, as it says in the letter to the Hebrews: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith ..."

Chris Vais is currently living with his wife, Susan, in Vankoughnet, Ontario, awaiting the birth of their first child and dreaming about future ministries.
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Author:Vais, Chris
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:2025
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