Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, May 29, 2020

Lessons from a Blind Man, Part 3

Have you ever noticed that telephone keypads have a raised dot on the number five? Gene McKenzie had never noticed either, until he learned it’s there to help the visually impaired dial a number accurately.

Gene has had to learn many things since losing his sight to Macular Degeneration. His wife Alice told me about a helpful CNIB club that used to operate in Portage. “They’d talk about how they managed in their kitchen, for example. About ten of us got together for friendship and encouragement, but the club has dissolved. We wish someone younger than us would pick up the leadership and get that going again.”

Experiencing life through someone else’s eyes, as Gene sometimes does through Alice’s, gives one new perspective. “We tend to only notice the things we naturally notice,” Gene says. “But get ten different people to study the same picture and they’ll describe it ten different ways.”

Three of Gene’s six siblings in the U.S. also have Macular Degeneration, and the McKenzies feel grateful for our medical system and for the CNIB, which is supported by the United Way.

“Our kids have been tremendously supportive as well,” Alice says.

Gene & Alice with granddaughter Heidi
I can vouch for this. Their granddaughter Heidi happily sent me more photos than I could use for this series. In a message I received from their daughter Val, she said, “Dad has risen to the challenge and faced it with grace, courage and humor.”

With a chuckle, Gene tells me why he has stopped going shopping with Alice. “It’s too easy to lose her at the end of an aisle if I don’t know which way she turned!”

When asked whether he ever feels unsafe, Alice tells me a story about when they needed to take a cab to a different gate at the Vancouver airport. With no time to explain, Alice left Gene’s side to run and catch a cab. When she looked back, she saw terror on Gene’s face.

Gene feels encouraged when friends call to invite him for lunch or coffee. When they offer a ride to an event without his having to ask, he loves it. “It’s hard to ask,” he says. “One of the great lessons of this has been that in time of need, don’t push your friends away. Draw them to you. Often when a person goes through a hard time, they draw away from friends. That would be the wrong thing to do.”

So, what did I learn from my conversation with the McKenzies? The biggest is that attitude is everything. Gene may not realize it, but one of the reasons his friends stick around is because he remains his cheerful self and continues to take interest in their lives. While he’s happy to talk about his situation when asked, he doesn’t dwell on his loss or seek pity. He keeps learning and growing rather than allowing his world to close in and insisting others live there with him.

We can all learn much from Gene. Losses in this life are inevitable and usually unavoidable. Self-pity is always optional. Faith is optional, too, but Gene’s remains intact. He is fully confident that when his days on this earth are completed, his sight and so much more will be restored.

I asked him what he most looks forward to seeing when that day comes. Without hesitation, his heartfelt answer was exactly what I expected: “I want to gaze into the face of Jesus.”

I’m pretty sure Jesus will be happy to see your face too, Gene.

In the words of John Eldredge, “The beauty of the lives of God’s true friends is the sweetest and most winsome argument for Jesus there could ever be.”

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Lessons from a Blind Man, Part 2

Eric Davidson was a toddler, standing at the window playing with a toy on the windowsill during the 1917 Halifax explosion. The glass exploded, blinding Eric. Shattered glass and flying debris stole sight from more than 1,000 residents that day. The mass blinding helped birth the CNIB. A memorial park in Halifax is named for this amazing man who worked as a sightless mechanic for decades. His daughter, Marilyn Davidson Elliott, wrote the book The Blind Mechanic about her father and it’s become a favorite of my blind friend, Gene McKenzie.

Lots of other great books about the blind and their accomplishments have inspired Gene, like Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust by Michael Hingson. The author and his guide dog, Roselle, became famous after they escaped the seventy-eighth floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hingson refers to sighted people as “light dependent” and says, “Blindness doesn’t mean the end of the world. With technology and education, blindness can be reduced from an all-consuming disability to just another human limitation, of which there are many. There is more to life than eye function.”

I asked Gene if he’d considered learning Braille, but he said not at his age. With technology making it easier for the blind to listen to books and to have internet content read aloud by your computer, we discussed whether Braille might go the way of Morse code. A Braille Bible occupies more than eight feet of bookshelf, while the entire audio Bible fits on your phone.

“Apple has developed software which lets me touch my computer screen and it tells me which icon I’m touching, so I can find my way around,” Gene says. “Filling out forms online is tricky, and I need help. I still have enough peripheral vision to move around my home, but it’s the details I can’t see. I can tell there’s a picture on the wall, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s been three years since I’ve seen a picture.”

Gene’s optometrist tells him he will likely hang onto at least some of his peripheral vision, for which he’s grateful. “Depth perception is flawed, but my white cane helps. The trick, in a crowd, is if a child darts out suddenly in front of me.”

Gene with his daughter, Val
Gene enjoys the questions of children who can be uninhibited in their curiosity. One boy wanted to know, “How do you cross the street? Those new electric cars are pretty quiet. You need to be careful!”

Gene’s love for children and youth is obvious. As a pastor and PMU rancher, he spent 21 summers running Beracah Valley Ranch Camp. You can still hear the passion in his voice when he tells about it. “I believe this gave our own kids a vision for ministry and what Christian relationships are all about.”

I asked Gene what he misses the most. “My ability to study,” he said with little hesitation. “I can listen to everything on audio, but you can’t stop and find that last paragraph easily. I used to remember names. Now I realize I’d been tying names to faces. They say you learn to hear better when you lose your sight. That may be true if it happens when you’re young, but my hearing is not keen enough. Often I can’t distinguish between voices. Listening requires a lot of energy and can be exhausting.”

When asked if he’s tempted to feel sorry for himself, Gene admitted to moments when he feels his world pressing in on him and he wonders “what did I do to deserve this?” But those times are few and far between.

“This has not harmed my faith in any way,” he says. “I am genuinely thrilled when I hear of other people receiving healing. Certainly, I question why it doesn’t happen for me, but I always fall back on Paul’s words in II Corinthians 12: ‘Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”’”

Healing is not always sufficient. God’s grace always is.

Next week I’ll share with you what Gene looks forward to most.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Lessons from a Blind Man, Part 1

I thought 2020 might be a good time to interview my favorite blind man and share with you some of his insights. I didn’t know I’d end up with enough for three blog posts or that I’d come away having gained far more than my efforts deserved.

That was in February. Then the pandemic reached us and I’ve been rambling on about it ever since.

Enough. Time to pull Gene’s story off the back burner so you too can benefit from his wisdom.

Gene McKenzie
Gene McKenzie says he wasn’t exactly “blind-sided” when he received the diagnosis of Macular Degeneration in 2006, given that his mother had the same thing and it’s known to run in families. He just wasn’t expecting it quite so soon. While his mother’s was diagnosed at age 85, Gene was only 68. His optometrist didn’t beat around the bush. “You have Macular Degeneration. It’s the kind we cannot treat. You will go blind.”

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 50, affecting approximately 1.4 million Canadians—more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. It’s caused by deterioration of the central portion (the macula) of the retina. The macula controls our ability to read, drive, recognize faces or colors, and see fine detail.

Gene recalls attending a concert a couple of years after his diagnosis. When they came out, it was raining. As they headed home, Gene could not see well enough to drive with confidence. After that, he limited his driving to daytime. In 2015, Gene and his wife Alice were on their way to church one Sunday with Gene at the wheel. While stopped at a traffic light, they watched a cyclist run the red light.

“I told Alice that if I’d been coming through the other way, I’d never have seen him,” Gene says. He decided he’d rather stop driving for good than risk such a disaster, and voluntarily quit.

As a retired pastor and rancher, Gene enjoyed woodworking, turning a lathe, working with a band saw and chisel to produce wooden toys and other gifts. When that hobby became too difficult and dangerous, Gene was forced to surrender it.

“I’ve always loved to read and study,” he says. “For a long time, I could enjoy books on Kindle because I could enlarge the font as much as needed. Eventually, though, I couldn’t read it no matter how big I made it.”

Now legally blind, Gene has learned to appreciate audiobooks. He feels tremendously grateful for the help of the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind.) They send people in pairs from Winnipeg to Gene’s home in Portage, one sighted person to drive and one blind person to teach. Gene has learned how to walk with a white cane, maximize existing technology, and modify his routines. “They’ve been so excellent and encouraging,” Gene says. “CNIB has its own audiobook library, available at no cost.”

One of the best books Gene and Alice have read is Lessons I’ve Learned in the Dark by Jennifer Rothschild. They loaned this one to me and I devoured it in two days. Rothschild went blind in her teens and today is an inspiring author, speaker, and musician. “Some things that God allows to come into our lives are genuinely hard to be thankful for,” she says. “Only an open hand receives the blessings that accompany difficult gifts, and sometimes it’s only in a package wrapped in heartache that we receive the fullness of God’s grace.”

It’s a lesson Gene appears to have learned well. Friends tell him they marvel at how joyful he remains despite his loss. “There are so many promises in the Word of God I can draw on,” Gene says. “Before we were ever formed in our mother’s womb, he knew us. My blindness did not catch God by surprise. I continue to have a ministry with others, and others have been a great encouragement and support to me.”

Next week I’ll tell you what Gene misses most.