“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” Philippians 3:10
We met the first week of sixth grade. I was the new kid in the class and as it turned out we lived two streets apart. In one of those oddities of life a group of six of us in the neighborhood became friends and all of us had a first name that began with the letter D. So very quickly we all became known by our last name with a D in front. I became D’Lacich and he became D’Johnson. His real name is Dwight and he is my longest lasting friend and as such a most treasured friend.
When we were growing up it was all about sports and girls. I wont say anything about the girl part of things but sports is another matter. We spent lots of time together on the baseball field, the basketball court, golf course, and the football field. In every instance except football, Dwight far surpassed me in ability. The sheer brute force aspect of football served me better than the precision of the other sports. I never could beat him on the golf course for instance. But I noticed that my game always got better when I played with him. In fact the best round of golf I ever played was the day before Dwight and Debbie were married. I played out of my mind that day, and still he led the way with a better score.
Many memorable events in our lives were shared events. We woke up in my parent’s living room one New Years day to the news that our hero, Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission to Puerto Rico. Dwight was in the room along with two other friends, the night I gave my life to Christ. We were in each other’s weddings. Like the deepest of friendships, no matter how long the time is between phone calls or dinners, the bond of friendship is still unbreakable.
A year ago I received the proverbial punch in the gut when I learned that Dwight had just been diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure for ALS. The best they can do is manage the pain and the deterioration of the body. The first sign for Dwight that something was wrong was the difficulty he had holding a golf club. In just a year he has gone from that, to being in a wheel chair most of the time and needing a neck brace to hold his head up when he works on his computer.
Six months after the diagnoses we were together at a charity golf tournament for him and his family. The goal was to raise money for the remodeling of their house to accommodate the inevitable wheel chair. Just a few days ago we got together again, this time at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. For two die-hard Steelers fans it was a dream come true, especially since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. For me, getting a picture with Dwight at that game was more precious than I can describe. The Steelers winning was an ecstatic experience. Being with Dwight was deeper, more important by far, and will remain etched in my mind like few other events. It is another of those highly valued, shared events.
Whenever someone close to you has a tragedy strike, it must be a nearly universal response to at some point wonder how you would handle that in your own life. The way Dwight and Debbie have handled the illness that, barring a miracle, will end his life, has forced me to ask that question over and over again. You see, my friend Dwight loves Jesus with all his heart. It was out of love for Jesus that he and Debbie adopted two little boys with special needs, adding them to their very healthy biological daughter and son. It is out of love for Jesus that he has served in his local church. It is out of love for Jesus that he is approaching his suffering thinking only about others. I am forced to ask how I would handle such suffering because I see Dwight doing so with dignity and grace and for the glory of God.
Often times in the face of suffering we play the victim. “Why me?” we ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” We argue with the fairness of it all. In other cases we lapse into depression and give up. Dwight has been all about Jesus getting the glory. His attitude has been that of the Apostle Paul, whether I live or die let God be glorified. Also like Paul I think Dwight has an even deeper connection to Jesus because of the fellowship shared by those who suffer. Dwight wants Jesus to use his personal experience of suffering to point others to Jesus. I think his love for Jesus is actually growing as a result of that shared fellowship. Dwight understands that God never promised us a life free of suffering, at least not this side of eternity. What He did promise us was that He would be with us always, no matter what. We would be in fellowship with Him.
There is a sense in which suffering is the calling of the Christian. The health and wealth Gospel crowd that tries to show that God only wants you to be free of suffering and blessed by a huge bank account are totally out of touch with the true heart of God and the example of great saints from the past. The Apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus. In that suffering there was a renewed sense of being united with Him and of pointing people towards Him. Dwight Johnson is doing that every day. The more his body deteriorates the more glory he brings to Jesus by living a life that loves Jesus above all else.
The more I think about Dwight the more I am forced to smile. He was better than me at Baseball, Basketball, and Golf. Now it appears he is better than me at being a Christian as well. He is bringing glory to God in a situation that I don’t know how I would handle. However, I do know this, when the time comes when I must face that kind of suffering, I know that my game will be better because of Dwight. Some things never change.
UPDATE: Tuesday February 1st 2011. I visited Dwight for the last time today, in this life anyway. The breathing apparatus that he has been using is no longer helping. The next option is a tracheotomy to put him on a ventilator. Dwight and Deb decided long ago that when it reached this point, they would not take that option. There is no point. Dwight is ready to go. So on Thursday morning they will transition Dwight off the breathing mask, give him some medication to keep him comfortable, and wait until the CO2 levels rise to the point that he sleeps and slips away into the arms of Jesus. Dwight is ready to go. In fact he is so ready he decided to not wait to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I told him I understand, for all the glory that is the Steelers and Super Bowls, the glory of Heaven outshines that in ways indescribable. I have to admit that my emotions bounce from moment to moment between joy at the picture of Dwight with Jesus, emptiness at the sense of a page turning in my own life and the resulting void, to wanting to break something, and back to joy. But this is not about me. It is about Dwight and Deb and the incredible way in which they have dealt with this. As Deb said today, she knows that God is real if only because of the otherwise unexplainable peace that washes over her when she pictures Dwight with Jesus. Enough said.