Moved by the diagnosis of a severe illness and the prospect of death, Mr. Stith, a retired minister in the Church of Christ, preached his last sermon, “First Things First,” Sunday, even as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has begun to affect his ability to speak.
Stepping into the pulpit of Garden Park Church of Christ in Sylvania, Mr. Stith, 67, spoke from the privileged perspective of one who has been forced to look past life and toward death.
“I'm hoping this simply leads people to think about the important things of life because everything we have, everything we do, these things are perishing in time,” he said in an interview this week. “I've had a lot of people say, `But you're dying.' And I've said, `Yes, I am, but so are you.' We're all dying. It's just a little difference in scheduling.”
When Mr. Stith was diagnosed with ALS last year, he said he was stunned, though not completely surprised. His wife, Ruth, a retired nurse, had suspected that his symptoms of a nagging cough and difficulty clearing his throat might be the beginnings of ALS, but their family doctor didn't think so.
Nonetheless, when the diagnosis was confirmed, Mr. Stith said, his initial thought was “Wow, why me?”
“But almost immediately,” he said, “the thought held, `Why not me?' It's going to happen to a certain number of people.”
ALS affects one in 30,000 people, although Mr. Stith has a more rare form of the disease known as Bulbar ALS, which mainly affects speaking, swallowing, and eventually, breathing.
Mr. Stith sees his present condition as an opportunity to tell other people what life is really about and especially to share his religion's message of salvation. “It seems to me that there are so many people who are spinning their wheels and not accomplishing a great deal so far as preparing for eternity.”
On Sunday, he used as part of his text, Psalm 51, in which King David repents after his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and prays to God, “I will teach transgressors the way to you.”
Mr. Stith said he has been inspired by another retired minister in Missouri who was diagnosed with ALS nearly 10 years ago and was given 10 months to live. “He has difficulty getting around, but because of his use of a computer, his congregation covers 48 countries and 27 states. He said he is trying to encourage other people of faith not to give up and to try to influence people the same way I am. He has more than 500 people he's in regular contact with.”
Mr. Stith has been told he could live between two and five years, but he remains upbeat. “I have good days and better days. I haven't, thank God, had <$eb>what I would call really, really bad days. I'm very optimistic about this because when I get up in the morning, I think, `Gee, you're lucky because of all the things that have not happened to you. You could be in Bosnia, in Africa with the AIDS epidemic, in China.”
His message to others, even those not facing imminent death, is also based on another Bible passage from the gospel of Matthew that he used in his sermon on Sunday: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. ... Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Mr. Stith's daughter, Kendra Mizer, who sang the song, “I've Always Seen the Father in You” for her father after his sermon, said her father's faith-based optimism is authentic and already has touched others. “He's not despondent over the diagnosis. He doesn't wallow in the badness of it. He's just very positive and his spirits are high.”
“The summation of the whole thing is I look at this as a win-win situation,” Mr. Stith said. “If they find a cure, that's great. If they don't, I find something greater than the cure, which is eternal life.”