Thursday, February 5, 1998
Near-death teaches pastor
Faith finds fellowship of suffering

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Steve Sjogren thought he knew about pain.

As founder and senior pastor of the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale, he had devoted his life to visiting the sick, consoling the divorced, encouraging the addict. The gregarious, driven minister built a congregation from 37 to 4,000 and traveled the world with the message that God's love heals all.

Then, on Dec. 10, Pastor Sjogren almost died. A needle inserted into his abdomen during routine surgery punctured his aorta. As his blood pressure tumbled, his liver, kidneys and intestines started shutting down and doctors scrambled to save his life.

When he regained consciousness four surgeries later, he found his legs useless and his boundless energy vanished.

Now the man whose persistence has borne one of the Tristate's most successful churches is coping with pain that has shaken his faith and forced him to ask the most basic of questions: Why?

''When I came to, I was really angry, not at anybody in particular but at the whole situation,'' he said in an interview in his West Chester home, where he can just now receive visitors for more than a few minutes. ''For all the years that I've spoken about life being unfair - that's the way it is, life is painful - this is by far the biggest thing I've ever faced.

''After I figured out what happened I spent the better part of two weeks just weeping every day for hours. I couldn't even talk about what happened.''

His frequent-flier days temporarily suspended, Pastor Sjogren, 42, now lies on a pullout bed in his family room, exhausted by a half-hour of sitting up. In between phone calls and e-mails, he reconsiders the encouragement he used to give so freely. And slowly, as his body heals and his anger dissipates, he is beginning to glimpse some lessons, though reasons still elude him.

''I've learned to have faith in God, which seems simple, but it's really profound, actually. It's one of those lessons we forget,'' he said. ''There is no growth or maturity without suffering, particularly spiritual maturity. I sincerely wish that wasn't necessary, but it seems like it's a universal.''

The Sunday before his surgery Pastor Sjogren had preached at the Vineyard on fairness. The months before had been busy, with two trips to California, jaunts to Canada and Switzerland, and a book and several articles in the works.

''It was almost prophetic,'' he said of his Dec. 7 sermon, recalling what he said. ''Life is incredibly unfair. It always has been and it always will be. Why do bad things happen to good people? Because it's an unfair system that's going on.''

The surgery was supposed to be routine. Pastor Sjogren prefers not to disclose the hospital or any other details, but doctors were concerned about his gall bladder. The needle was inserted into his abdomen so a camera could enter.

Close to death

When his blood pressure started dropping - to the 50 to 60 range - doctors opened his abdomen and saw the bleeding. He lost 25 units of blood, his body temperature fell and his blood lost its clotting ability. His major organs started failing, and as fluid was pumped into him he gained about 60 pounds: ''I looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy,'' he said over pictures of himself in the hospital.

That night his wife Janie took the phone to bed and was awakend by a call telling her to come to the hospital right away. As doctors performed a second, emergency surgery, she contemplated for the first time that he might really die.

''All of a sudden you're going home alone at night,'' she said. ''And you're sleeping alone in bed and you're walking through clothes closets (thinking) that the clothes might never be worn again.''

Over the next few days she was sick herself, unable to eat or sleep. Church members came by to clean the house and cook; others watched the children and everybody prayed.

''He was so close that everyone had to come to grips with he might die, and what does that mean? I think that's when I felt so much alone, knowing he might die,'' she said. ''I realized how much I love him.''

The Sjogrens' 18-year-old daughter Rebekah made frantic calls to friends and eventually reached Doug Hanto, a University Hospital surgeon and Vineyard member. After consultations, Mrs. Sjogren decided to transfer her husband to University, where doctors performed two more surgeries on him. About 10 days after the first surgery, he began to emerge from his unconscious state.

Doctors don't understand exactly why his legs aren't working. They think he will regain full use of them, but it could take up to a year. Friends read Psalms and the Book of Job to him while he was still in the hospital and recovering at Drake Center, and his prayers became frank talks with with God.

''I'd say I've been upset at God since this all began. Not such a why me, Lord, but an, 'I don't need this. This is not a good time for me. Can't you wait till '99 or 2000 to do this?' I feel like I've been very real with God, more real than I've ever been,'' he said.

''I have so much pain in my body, between my abdominal area and my legs, that I can only sleep for two hours at a time. And for probably a month I was only sleeping three hours a night. After a while it just wears you down and I'm thinking, God, what in the heck are you doing?''

The questions make sense to Dr. Hanto, who now knows Pastor Sjogren as both a patient and a spiritual leader. He has seen other patients rage and cry when their bodies are suddenly rendered useless, and Pastor Sjogren's depression and anger made sense to him.

''He never tries to be something he isn't. When he's angry, he's angry. But he always comes back to Christ, and that's always the center,'' Dr. Hanto said. ''As a man, Christ didn't try to present himself as something he wasn't, as I think sometimes pastors do - never make a mistake, never have an evil thought.''

Solace from fellowship

As he recovered, Pastor Sjogren began to review the sermons he used to give on pain and suffering. He received e-mails from disabled people, saying he now understood what they go through. He re-evaluated the pep talks he used to give and even called to apologize to a friend who had had open-heart surgery.

''I would say things like, when I was visiting people in the hospital, 'I feel for you. I'm with you.' There's no language for pain. If you haven't been there, it's kind of foolish to say I'm with you,'' he said. ''I went back and apologized to (the heart patient) and said, 'I had no idea what you were feeling.' There's a fellowship of suffering that I can relate to now.''

Amid the pain, Pastor Sjogren has found solace in friends and strangers. Friends flew in from Seattle and Atlanta simply to pray with him. The Vineyard's Web page was receiving hundreds of hits a day at the height of his illness, as people checked the condition updates posted there.

And perhaps most encouraging, pastors and members of other churches have called and written to wish him well. The Association of Vineyard Churches movement sent Pastor Sjogren here in 1983 to start a church, and his success has spawned both criticism and envy. Other churches have tried to imitate the Vineyard's informality, small groups and commitment to service.

''I always kidded about Cincinnati being second-generation Germans, cold - 'I don't need another friend, I have just enough now' - and that is absolutely not accurate,'' said Pastor Sjogren, who started churches in Norway and Maryland, then drove a school bus here in the local Vineyard's early years.

''I believe there's probably a hundred churches praying for me, and many of them I didn't think they knew I existed, or if they did they didn't like me. Somehow the whole thing, my situation, has become a learning, teaching lesson.''

It has also been a lesson for Vineyard members. Pastor Sjogren spoke to them by video a few weeks ago. He won't be preaching at the church for a while - he is still too weak and the pulpit is not wheelchair-accessible - but he is working on a video series now called, ''Some Things I Learned When I Almost Died.''

Between rests and physical therapy sessions, he sits surrounded by the tools of his former busyness: a laptop computer, a cordless phone, his electronic scheduler and remote controls. He has been calling friends simply to thank them for their friendship, and he has taken greater pleasure in generosity, even giving a motorcycle away. He says he notices and is more readily thankful for small things now, though he is not yet able to be thankful for the ordeal.

''I have to say right now that I don't feel like (it's all been worth it), but I have a hunch that when I get done I'll say, with tears in my eyes, that I wouldn't trade that for anything. I can see the dawn rising on this thing,'' he said. ''I came out of it and one of the first things I told Janie was, in the end all we have is God and friends.''