I do not know Matthew Bassford. As you read this, he is preaching his final sermon for the Jackson Heights church in Columbia. It will almost certainly be the final sermon of his life.
I do not know why Matthew and I are friends on Facebook. One of us made the poor decision to accept the other’s digital accord! Either way, I am grateful to read the Facebook posts of a man marching steadily toward what he knows will be his last preaching appointment. Few men are conscious of their final game, play, or sunrise.
Athletes are notorious for over-estimating their ability to perform late in their careers. It is a rare occasion for a great player to know they are putting on a uniform for the final time. How many of the greats had to be dragged from the arena in humiliating defeat? Their last contest is here and gone before they can admit their jab doesn’t have the snap it once had. Ali, Favre, Abdul-Jabbar, Earnhardt, Ruth; all succumbed to a defeat they could not imagine and a retirement they did not foresee. In that way, Bassford has the upper hand. He will wake up knowing when the horn will sound. Cold comfort? I am sure. An insurmountable emotional task? It will be difficult to land that plane.
I do know why Matthew’s journey strikes a chord with me. We both have degenerative neurological disease. His diagnosis (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS), I would not trade for mine (Parkinson’s). But neither one has a cure and both get progressively worse over time. Parkinson’s rarely proves to be fatal, while ALS almost always does. Here is how Matthew described his diagnosis a few months ago1, “Two years ago, I was fit and healthy and in good shape. Now I walk with a cane. I can’t raise my arms over my head anymore. At some point, in the near future, I will be a quadriplegic. And some time after that the disease will attack and kill my diaphragm and I will die.” That was in May. It is nearly September.
At this point you see how trite and almost disrespectful the conceit of this article truly is. Matthew Bassford isn’t conducting a farewell tour or going out on top after a Super Bowl win. Adam’s trespass, which brought death to all men, is bearing down and stripping him of the ability to stand and deliver. He is preaching his final sermon because ALS is killing him one muscle at a time. Walking, sitting, swallowing, and breathing will become difficult, then impossible. I am screaming inside.
It has been my honor to watch a few faithful Christians face death with faith and the perfect love that drives out fear: Corinne, Donna, Dorothy, Edgar, Elbert, Jane to name a few. Pieces of their faith live inside all who saw their lights shine.
Now, my internet companion of light acquaintance, you will put on the gloves and duck under the top rope for a final time. Theodore Roosevelt’s poem The Man in the Arena is often applied to athletes. My sense is it describes preachers just the same. Please allow a clumsy joining of Teddy and Paul. Preach the word. Dare greatly. Spend yourself in worthy cause, be it in season or out. Keep stumbling toward the crown of life. The thorn in your flesh may make you too weak to hold its precious jewels, but the Lord is able to make you stand.
Take a load off Matthew. May God grant you grace, peace, and the right to the tree of life.