Paul Sweeney, West Chester PA

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Paul Sweeney, West Chester PA

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We can do anything to keep him comfortable, but nothing to keep him alive.” That was the prescription of mercy by the first, and overwhelmed, doctors who examined me upon my birth. So numerous were my problems that they had no other answer. Thankfully, my parents rejected that advice and I was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to the care of their Chief Surgeon, Dr. C. Everett Koop. He offered a different outlook, telling my parents that my problems were correctable over time. After 20 years and nearly 60 operations, Dr. Koop was proved right.

That I survived all those operations is nothing but the mercy of God. That I actually thrived during that time is nothing but the grace of God. Though I was born with severely twisted intestines, a cleft lip and pallet, and some facial deformity, among other things, my activities mirrored those of my peers, except for those summers when I faced another operation and a time of recuperation. When I enjoyed a reprieve from those challenges, I played sports, sang in choirs, participated in student government and thoroughly enjoyed life with my family and friends. Of course, I was forced on occasion to answer uncomfortable questions about how I had gotten all the scars I bore, but I never really minded them because I was proud of al I had overcome. There were also occasions of unkind remarks, but I learned to brush those off as coming from those who knew no better.

By the time my last operation was completed I was finishing college. After which, I went on to work in research in the pharmaceutical industry. By my mid-thirties I had earned a master’s degree from a prominent seminary. A fellow seminary student often referred to me as a trophy of God’s grace. I liked that and believed it to be true. God’s hand was so clearly on my life from the very start.

I wish my story ended there, as one who overcame insurmountable odds and put together a record of achievement, all by the gracious hand of God. But to stop there would leave my story incomplete. I came into this world with another problem, though not one unique to me. It is a problem that is destructive, and if left unaddressed, is deadly. It is the problem of sin, or the rebellion against God and the rejection of his grace. Looking back, I cannot fathom that I ever arrived at a place where I failed to trust God, and abused his grace to me. But that is the nature of sin. It tempts. It lies and it destroys. I am not in the habit of displaying my sins publically, yet there is one area of my life that evidences how far I departed from grace and how far God, in his love, pursued me to deliver me. It is in the area of alcohol. Before college I had a limited experience with alcohol. But once I tried it, I enjoyed it. It seemed to take away social anxieties, and like the medicines I had taken all of my life, it seemed to numb all kinds of pain, including; physical, emotional, and for a time, spiritual. For too long, I refused to stop drinking even after it was apparent to me, and those around me, that I should just not drink. Despite periods of abstinence, my drinking progressed until I drank nearly every day. Two years ago, I was going through a difficult time following a series of professional and personal loses, including the death of my father. Rather than trust God through these difficulties, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. It is no wonder that God seemed distant to me at that time. Despite knowing that I was clearly wrong, I was angry at God for what was happening to me. After alienating myself from God, I hit a desperate bottom.

At 45, and after one DUI too many and no legal means to escape the consequences, I landed in jail. I was frightened, angry, and felt hopeless. I felt the weight of my sin and feared I was beyond God’s forgiveness. While incarcerated, I read my Bible and prayed for the assurance of God’s forgiveness. It seemed impossible to me while sitting in a jail cell knowing I had knowingly and willfully trampled upon God’s grace to me.

In my Bible reading I came to Isaiah 53:5 where the prophet Isaiah looking forward to what Jesus Christ would accomplish for us on the cross, says “by his wounds we are healed”. I read that verse as if for the first time and thanked God that not only had Jesus died for my sins and bore the wounds and death that should be mine, but I was forgiven, or as Isaiah put it, healed. For the first time in my life I knew exactly how glorious is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the words of an old hymn I could say “my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee..” I was a free man though incarcerated. On Thanksgiving morning 2010, while alone in my cell, I thanked God for the assurance of his love and forgiveness, and for all he was doing in my life. My life has not been the same since that morning. Today my faith is squarely on Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. Today, I trust him without wavering because I know the love of Christ not only brought me healing but restored my hope in my salvation.

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