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Her health a ‘nose dive’ from death, she persists in following God’s call

RAPID CITY, Mich. (BP)–“God is sovereign,” Ronda Norris said with the conviction of someone who’s learned it firsthand. “He can do whatever he wants.”

Lately, “whatever” has meant moving the Oklahoma native from the routine of full-time pastor’s wife in suburban Dallas to the isolation of pioneer missions work in the upper Midwest.

Norris’ story isn’t extraordinary in that sense.

But sometimes God does the unthinkable, calling ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances.

Last summer, she and her husband, Joe, ventured from Texas to Michigan in a borrowed minivan. A friend removed the back seats and replaced them with a mattress, which Norris lay on while life-sustaining medication fed her feeble body intravenously.

They’d stop every few hours, and Joe would give her morphine for the pain.

She insisted they make the trip.

Joe steered the van.

Her faith drove them.

“If I die on the way,” she told him, “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I’ll die doing what God has called me to do.”
Her doctors acknowledge she has whipped the odds but that she could “nose dive” at any time.

It was her birthday when they told her it was serious, maybe life-threatening.

She had no insurance. Joe was serving in Michigan and coming home every few weeks, while she worked as a nanny for a Dallas cardiologist and helped pay the bills.

The cardiologist got her into Baylor Medical Center, expenses paid.

Five weeks later, a kidney biopsy confirmed the bad news — terminal amyloidosis, no effective treatment, no cure, three months to 18 months to live.

That was more than 30 months ago.

A metabolic disorder affecting organs and tissue, amyloidosis has caused Norris kidney failure and congestive heart failure.

Yet she hasn’t wavered from her calling.

The daughter of the late Dan Tyson, an Oklahoma associational director of missions, Norris and her husband are missionary associates with the North American Mission Board, serving in Rapid City, Mich., about four hours northwest of Detroit.

Joe has served Michigan Baptists in a variety of roles since 1994, after resigning a pastorate in Balch Springs, Texas. He’d go north for a few weeks then return to Texas to be with her, then head back to Michigan.

“After Joe started doing this I felt really left out, but the Lord just never gave him the peace to just go and leave everything [in Texas].”

She knew the trials pastors’ wives experience in pioneer states from the years Joe spent as a pastor in Bowling Green, Ohio. So she began a letter-writing ministry to pastors’ wives in the Northland Baptist Association, where Joe serves as a church planter.

In the months following her diagnosis, Norris improved enough that Joe accepted a call as interim pastor in Charlevoix, Mich., while Ronda stayed in Texas.

Meanwhile, the Norrises were praying about accepting a call to serve as NAMB missionaries in Michigan.

But by January 1999, Norris was hospitalized again, preventing her from going with Joe to Alpharetta, Ga., for interviews with NAMB.

He hesitated about going without her, but she told him, “God has called us to this. Even if the Lord calls me home, I want you to be in the process.”

NAMB interviewed her by telephone while she lay in bed in Texas.

The next few months were rough.

“I was in and out of the hospital. They were telling me I probably wouldn’t make it.”

Even so, they traveled to Georgia for a NAMB commissioning service with Norris in a wheelchair.

A few days later, she was hospitalized again. Her doctors gave her two weeks to live.

“They told her she could stay there and die, or she could go home,” Joe recalled. “She said, ‘The Lord’s called us to Michigan.’

“The doctors told her, ‘Go ahead and go. You’re dying anyway. The trip’s not going to kill you.’ And we did.”

The couple’s three daughters took the news of their mother’s illness hard, Joe said, but family humor and time have helped them cope.

Joe, meanwhile, would find himself overcome by grief, only to be comforted by the words of a song or Scripture.

Within two days, not only had he learned that doctors had given Ronda two weeks to live, but also that his brother was dying as well.

He preached his brother’s funeral soon after.

“The weight on my shoulders just buckled me. I remember I woke up crying, and I heard in my head Larnelle Harris singing the words ‘If it were not for grace … .’

“Those are emotional times — God letting you know he’s there,” he said.

Their house sold last June, and by then Ronda had bested the doctors’ dire forecast by a few weeks.

The Norrises planned to fly to Michigan, but the airline would not allow it because of Norris’ medical condition.

Instead, they made the trip in the minivan — a three-day journey completed in two.

Her prayer, she said, was for the Lord to sustain her long enough to see Joe settled in their new home.

But God’s sustenance has far exceeded her prayer.

Early on, Joe would help his weakened wife to the bathroom while hospice workers stayed close by.

Then came signs of improvement. She gained strength, so much that her mother went home because Norris was tending to household tasks again.

She began walking. And driving.

A year after settling in Michigan, amyloidosis has deteriorated her kidneys and heart, yet her prayer for sustenance continues to be answered.

She is limited to working from home and has continued her encouragement ministry to pastors’ wives. Norris is planning a pastors’ wives retreat for the Northland Baptist Association next spring.

“I praise him every morning when I wake up that I have another day. What can I do for somebody else? How can I encourage? And I set goals to press on, spiritual goals, as well as just to live.”

She carries a “fanny pack” holding medication that is pumped continuously into her heart by I.V.

“I’m not healed,” she said. “My blood tests still show kidney failure, but in his sovereignty [God] is allowing me to live. I just praise him. I want to be faithful to do all that he calls me to do.

“It is just as much a miracle to be sustained as to be healed. Not everyone walks around with an I.V. pump on their waist, so it gives me an opportunity to speak.”

Physicians can’t explain why Ronda has beaten the odds.

In addition to her I.V., she takes morphine twice a day, and diuretics to keep water off her lungs.

“When she was in the hospital, they had used the best diuretics they could to get the water off her lungs, but they couldn’t do it. Of course, God has done it, and we’re not using anything like what they were giving her in the hospital,” Joe said.

“It’s really amazing. People look at it and just shake their head in amazement. Of course, her cardiologist is a good friend and we still hear from her. She is just as amazed.

“It’s been a tough journey, but a good one.”

The couple hosts a Bible study in their neighborhood. Ten adults and three children attended the last meeting, Norris said.

Northland Baptist Association, which includes 37 churches and missions and covers 117,000 square miles, is starting two new churches this year, and Joe is praying for three in 2001. Only six states have populations exceeding Michigan’s unchurched population.

“We are praising God and so thrilled and waiting to see what he will do,” Ronda Norris said.

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  • Jerry Pierce