We Always Have A Choice, Part II
Last week, I shared with you an excerpt that talked about choices—choices learned from conversations with my grandfather at our “special place” overlooking a golf course. One of those conversations set in motion how I assimilated some of the most difficult news of my life and how I committed myself to living everyday to make a difference for Christ.
This week’s excerpt picks up where last week’s left off, except this time some twenty-give years later overlooking a different setting, but, also, with long term consequences for my life. This setting was Saddleback Community Church when I, at the invitation of Rick and Kay Warren, shared my story about those early choices.
Excerpt from “A Positive Life” by Shane Stanford. Prologue, Section: “A Different Stage”
Nearly twenty years after that moment with my grandfather, I shared my story at the Saddleback Global AIDS Summit, founded by Kay and Rick Warren. My grandfather had been right. The story itself made a difference for people, even when it was not particularly welcome and when people did not know what to do with it.
I was scheduled to speak in the first session in between remarks by Rick and Kay. I shared how HIV/AIDS had dominated my life, shaped my worldview, informed my faith, and redesigned my view of others. My story taught me valuable lessons for life. My illness is not a part of me, but rather it is me in so many positive ways—my marriage, my family, my vocation, my faith—and has taught me simple things about living, about how to love more and better, and about how to serve beyond my own interests. It has carved away my prejudices and fears and shaped my view of God and God’s people—the latter, unfortunately, often in a negative light. HIV/AIDS is my common story and my moral voice—the deepest place where God works his presence in me.
From the doctor’s room where, as a sixteen-year-old kid, I learned my HIV status, to the conference room of the church that would not accept me as their pastor; and from the grieving rooms where I said goodbye to friends, to the hospital rooms where my wife buried her head in my chest and cried, HIV/AIDS has been my means of grace as much as my wound of sorrow.
I feel more familiar with the disease now than angry. As much as the disease has pushed and torn at me, I know myself, the world, and God’s heart better because of it. Sure, I would prefer to be healthy and disease free, but I have become content with the struggle—maybe even, at times, not wishing to trade it away. Illness has refined my soul, and life, people, and goals mean different things because of its presence.
As Rick finished his opening remarks, I remember my heart was about to pound out of my chest. He concluded his remarks by saying, “And, now I would like to introduce you to a pastor who gets… please welcome Shane Stanford.” I walked to the podium. Rick hugged me and said, “Thanks for being here. You are a blessing.” But the real blessing was being anywhere, anytime at all. I couldn’t help but thinking that my grandfather would like this moment. Of course, I couldn’t help but remember those who along the way had meant so much and, for one reason or another, could not be there. This had not just been my fight or my battle. I looked to my right and saw Pokey sitting in the audience. She smiled such a huge smile and I could see her wink at me. And looking forward, I saw the media, cameras and over two thousand Summit participants who had their own stories and war wounds.
Standing at that podium in front of the world, I realized that, like so many others in that room, I had met the enemy over many years, and I had been fortunate enough to prosper. Yes, the disease attacked my body, but because of the disease, I attacked life with an understanding of the brokenness through which we, like Paul, can declare God’s grace to be sufficient. No, it wasn’t easy. There are still times I want to take off running or lay down and give up. Did all go as planned? I am afraid not. But the story showed that we had at least made the choice for something better and had, to our best, lived it faithfully, even when we would get it horribly wrong. Regardless, the story was real, and it was mine. With that, I began to speak and shared my story. The following is what I said…
Speech, Global AIDS Summit, 2006
As a person living with HIV and AIDS, my entire life has been a race. A race against illness and disease, against fear and uncertainty, against discrimination and prejudice. A race against time.
Sure, the race has been difficult with many twists and turns—from growing up a Hemophiliac to discovering my HIV status at sixteen to watching how the secrecy of my HIV status affected the emotional life of our family and relationships.
It is a journey with spiritual struggles and tension—from watching my denomination’s struggle over whether to ordain me to being rejected by the first church to which I was appointed as pastor.
And certainly, it is a race with great loss and disillusionment—from the loss of dear friends to the disease to the loss of others for the fear surrounding it.
No, it has not been easy, pushing me to trust beyond what I can see and understand even, at times, pressing the limits of my faith, not necessarily as much for God as for God’s people.
Certainly, this is not a path that I would have chosen. But oddly enough, so many miles into it now, I would also not trade it with anyone.
You see, HIV has also afforded me an incredible glimpse into the best of what God offers in this world and the best for what God’s people can become. This journey informs me in God’s call for each of us to respond faithfully as God’s children and teaches all of us who call ourselves “Christian” important lessons that, potentially, can change our world.
Lessons about time: Because of my illness I am reminded each day that time is a privilege given to us by God, a luxury afforded to us with the possibility that each of us can make a difference in this world.
Lessons about relationships: I am blessed with a beautiful wife, three wonderful daughters and countless family and friends who remind me that the most important things we do in this world are not done alone.
Lessons about simplicity: More, bigger, nicer, pale in comparison to simple things like sunsets with those you love and the laughter of children at play.
And most importantly, lessons about real faith: Personally, HIV reminds me every day that, with God’s grace, what I need I have, and what I have is sufficient. Sufficient to confront the struggles of my health and the uncertainties of tomorrow. Sufficient to meet the needs of others if we, the Body of Christ, might agree to meet them together. For still, more than anything I have ever known, the Body of Christ (when we truly live like it) with all of its imperfections, holds as the hope of the world, bearing witness to this amazing Gospel that says God passionately loves the unlovable, the marginalized and the forgotten.
No, HIV is not easy for any of us. But it is a journey with real lessons for real life, and if we listen carefully it can teach us much about loving God and each other.
Friends, we have a race to run. This world cannot afford to run it alone.
As the speech finished I made my way back to my seat and took a deep breath. I was glad it was over. But, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. It was a long way from our golf hillside to the hills of Orange County, California and the world’s most prominent church stage. But, the journey seemed almost expected, prophesied in part by a very proud, but worried grandfather whose belief in his God (though not by much he would later admit) was still enough to outpace his fear of the world.
Somewhere, I knew my grandfather was smiling at that moment, whispering between his lips, “Good choice, Sport… Good choice, indeed.”
Be Salt and Light… You Matter…