When I first met Chris and Eunice Atkins, to do a new pastor story for the newspaper in August 2006, I ended up spending a lot more time with them than I typically do when covering a story. It helped that the center of the focus that day was my favorite subject, Jesus -- what he has done and is doing in people's lives throughout time and yet today.
It also didn't hurt that they were gracious, open and kind with every word. Their youngest daughter, Bethany, then 8, was also a delight. She joined them for the photo that accompanied the story, happy to jump into dad's arms.
I availed myself of Chris' vast knowledge more than once as time went by, whether doing research for a news story or for my column. His knowledge of Scripture was surpassed only by his enthusiasm to share that knowledge with others.
When news came in November 2008, that he had a stage 4 brain tumor requiring immediate and extensive surgery, my heart fell. Sometimes our lives, even as we follow the Savior, take a hard, uphill turn and it looked like the Atkins family had just made such a turn.
More than once the news from Dallas, where Chris had gone for treatment, was, at best, disheartening. After coming through the initial surgery with flying colors, reciting Psalm 1 in Hebrew, then providing Eunice with the English translation -- proving his mind remained sharp -- Chris began to fail and within three days, the situation was critical.
On his blog at http://loveunchangeinggraceunending.blog... Chris wrote on Jan. 13, 2009, that he was finally out of the ICU and in a private room. His recovery had been plagued with pneumonia, blood clots, swelling in his brain and nearly every other imaginable complication.
I met with Chris and Eunice in March of that year after they returned to McCook. Even though Chris was still suffering from serious side-effects of the treatments he had received, he was back at work, albeit a little green (or was it yellow?) around the gills.
We got together to talk about his journey through the "valley of the shadow" and also about an upcoming fund raiser where world-renowned Christian singer-songwriter Fernando Ortega had agreed to perform. Ortega's music had provided a distinct peace during Chris' lengthy stay in the chaos that defines the ICU, granting him precious moments of recuperative sleep.
This time, I tried not to stay overlong, lest Chris tire, but we still spent a considerable amount of time together. I was amazed at their journey and how easily Chris and Eunice could track God's hand each day.
Over the next several months, Chris continued to regain his strength and the periodic tests gave him the all-clear, a cause for thanksgiving each time. He returned to his day-to-day duties as the Pastor of Adult Ministries at McCook Evangelical Free Church, along with providing Minister Speaks articles for the newspaper's church pages and coordinating the National Day of Prayer observances in May.
I don't know precisely when things turned, sometime late last fall, I think. The beast was back. Doctors weren't surprised by its reappearance. That's what these tumors do. Although Chris and Eunice had lived with the tension of this possibility for a long time, the path that had at least become more familiar with time, changed dramatically once again.
Through the course of our infrequent visits, Chris had mentioned his desire to "write it all down" in book form. Actually, ever the over-achiever, he mentioned three books he eventually wanted to write. He wasn't so much interested in telling his story as he was in telling the stories of Jesus' unfailing love and unfailing grace.
He got a pretty good start on the second subject. We sat down together in February to review what he had written. He had done exhaustive research, reading several books on the subject, fully aware that the subject "has received considerable attention." However, even as he researched it, he discovered that it never diminishes in its impact. He was having a good day that day, and his heart was full of the message he wanted everyone to know and understand -- just as he had come to know it and understand it.
"It" is grace. And according to Chris, "it" is and has always been, "undeserved; un-earnable; immeasurable; and unsurpassable."
Knowing that no one is exempt from trials, affliction and suffering, and knowing -- on a deeper level than they may have believed possible before November of 2008 -- that only Jesus' grace 'is sufficient' knowing that his strength is made perfect in weakness,' as Jesus told Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, both Eunice and Chris wondered, "How do they do it without the Father? How can they live without faith?"
This was Chris' heart's desire, and now becomes his legacy -- to tell the world that no one need miss this undeserved, un-earnable, immeasurable and unsurpassable grace. As Chris said during the March 2009 interview "I want only to be a vessel for God's use."
Grace is the strength Chris and Eunice drew on that first fateful day in November 2008 when Chris took ill and then each day throughout their ordeal. Chris found permanent healing Sunday evening, surrounded by his loving family and friends. Eunice will continue to draw on that immeasurable and thankfully inexhaustible source of grace as her life path opens, as it does for each of us, day-by-day.
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." Hebrews 12:15 (NIV)
Chris Alan Atkins
Sept. 19, 1954-April 10, 2011
"Well done, thou good and faithful servant." Matthew 25:21 (KJV)