Pastor's suffering strengthens church
MARTIN, Tenn. (BP)--This was not the method of church growth Dwayne Maxey had in mind when he was called as pastor of tiny Eastside Baptist Church in 2000.
The congregation consisted of some 10 weekly attendees a decade ago, but recently attendance has increased five-fold to nearly 50 and Maxey has seen several converted and has baptized nine this year.
God has sent revival to Eastside not through a series of evangelistic meetings but through Maxey's suffering.
Eastside's renewal began in 2008 when Maxey, now 44, was working toward a doctorate degree at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale during the week and returning each weekend to Eastside, located in Martin, Tenn. Maxey began to have severe shortness of breath, and upon examination, doctors noted irregular heartbeats. Maxey suspected asthma.
"I had been fine, but I reached a point where I couldn't go up a flight of stairs without getting completely out of breath and tired," he recounted. "Something wasn't right and I knew it."
Doctors hospitalized Maxey for further tests and the diagnosis was deeply troubling: pulmonary arterial hypertension, a fatal lung disease that has no cure. Untreated, the disease causes enlargement of the heart and kills its victims in two to three years. With treatment, life expectancy is about 10 years.
The diagnosis changed Maxey's daily life instantly and profoundly.
"Time was a major factor and they had to begin treatment immediately," he said. "But nothing seemed to work. The oral medicine didn't work. Other treatments didn't work.
"In February of 2009, they hooked me up to an intravenous drip which I had 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That still didn't help. The clock was ticking and the doctors were scratching their heads."
One option remained, but it was extreme: a double lung transplant. Both lungs would be removed and replaced by the healthy lungs of a donor. But this procedure brought with it dire risks, not least among them being the possibility that Maxey's body would reject the new organs.
But it was his last and only hope.
At the outset of 2010, doctors put Maxey on oxygen 24/7. Depleted of his energy, Maxey put school on hold and waited for a lung donor. Still, he continued to care for the flock at Eastside and, equipped with an oxygen tank, Maxey preached each Lord's Day.
God began to work. As word spread through the community that Maxey was preaching in the face of a terminal illness, attendance began to increase. Several were converted and joined the church, and interest in God's Word deepened as parishioners witnessed in Maxey a living illustration of the sustaining power of the Gospel.
"Christians who had been out of church began to return too," he said. "God was using my illness to keep hope and faith alive in my own heart and in the lives of others. People were telling me that this was inspiring them to get through their own lives and was deepening their faith in God.
"In my sermons, I told them that I am just a child of God as they are and that God will take care of them as well. People began to hear that and believe it. Sometimes our faith needs a little concreteness to it and God gave this congregation that through my illness. The worse I got, the more people came to Christ. It seemed like the worse I got, the stronger their faith grew."
On July 6, Maxey underwent a tedious double-lung transplant at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, receiving healthy lungs from a 31-year-old man. At the outset, there were complications and Maxey was placed on a machine that breathed for him and pumped his heart. He was in a drug-induced coma for 20 days.
"I went to sleep clean-shaven and woke up with a beard," he said. "I lost all the muscles in my legs and I had to have a tracheotomy tube to breathe. I couldn't move my arms and hands well."
But he was alive, and his congregation, his wife Allison, their three children and extended family were deeply thankful.
Two months later, Maxey is out of the hospital but remains in Nashville undergoing intensive rehabilitation, which will last for one more month. The pastor has regained much of his vitality and the lungs are doing well so far.
Though they are still cautious, Maxey said doctors are calling his strong recovery a miracle. Maxey agrees that God has been incredibly gracious to both pastor and his flock. Life expectancy for double-lung transplant patients is five years, but it increases incrementally the younger the patient is. One woman in Vanderbilt lived 20 years after the transplant, Maxey said.
His 12-year-old-daughter, Bailey Jo, is praying for her father to be in the audience when she graduates from high school, and Maxey trusts that God is at work whether he lives many years or relatively few.
"Through my illness God has built and strengthened His church," Maxey said. "My prayer through all this and my desire is like that of the Apostle Paul; I want God to be glorified through these circumstances whether in life or in death."
Another challenge that remains is financial; Maxey's insurance has paid for only a portion of the expensive procedure which cost approximately $650,000. Members of his family and church are raising $150,000 to pay remaining hospital bills. Maxey's father-in-law, Robert Bates, is spearheading the effort. Bates said his son-in-law's abiding faith in a sovereign God has not wavered throughout the difficult ordeal.
"This has been just like what Paul told the Corinthians when he said that his weakness was made perfect because of God's strength," Bates said. "A lot of people in the pews have grown stronger as a result of Dwayne's weakness."
Jeff Robinson is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky. Dwayne Maxey's website through the National Foundation for Transplants is www.transplants.org/donate/dwaynemaxey