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For more than 25 years, Gene Koons told people they need to be ready.
Since Nov. 20, Koons has been living and breathing ready at a level he never envisioned when he uttered those words while preaching to his congregation at Corinth Christian Church.
“Oh, yeah. Big time,” he said, using one of his favorite phrases.
Already legally blind, Koons suffered a major heart attack at his home on that fateful Friday. The next day he suffered a stroke that has, for the time being at least, cost him the use of his left arm and leg.
On Dec. 27, just five weeks and two days after being moments from eternity, Koons was back in the pulpit at Corinth, where he has two ministries spanning a total of 15 years.
It was an emotional, tear-filled return that was interrupted by applause several times.
Today, Gene Koons is getting ready by simply living.
“The Bible talks about the ‘refining fire,’” Koons said. “I am getting my priorities back in order.”
A gung-ho speaker despite the onset of blindness over a decade ago – “I can see your red shirt. That’s it,” he tells the interviewer – Koons was knocked down by a heart attack so powerful that he says he has use of only 20 to 30 percent of his heart.
He said it is good that his wife, Sharon, was at home with him.
“Had I been alone, I would be dead,” he said.
After waiting for the Anderson County ambulance service to make the 10-mile trip to the church parsonage, Koons told the EMTs that he preferred being taken to Lexington.
“They told me I would not make it to Lexington, so we went to Frankfort instead,” Koons said.
When the stroke hit the next day, it was as if someone was playing a cruel joke on Koons, who has suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes for over 25 years. A vibrant personality who loves life suddenly lost the use of his left arm and leg.
He was transferred to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, then on to Cardinal Hill the day before Thanksgiving.
Outwardly, the Kansas native and big Jayhawk basketball fan engaged in smack talk with a nurse he said was a fan of his team’s biggest rival, Missouri.
“She told me she was going to hang my Jayhawk in effigy,” he said of the trinket now adorning his desk at the church.
Koons breaks into the hearty laugh that was familiar before Nov. 20.
But during those days at Frankfort Regional Medical Center, UK and Cardinal Hill, the laughs were difficult to come by. Oh, there were times when he and another patient, aptly named Bronson, jokingly plotted their escape, but Koons admits it was not easy to keep his spirits up.
“You spend three weeks at Cardinal Hill, or any hospital, you can get depressed,” Koons said.
He wondered about his future.
“My first thought when it all happened was ‘Am I going to be able to preach again?’” Koons said.
And he admits seeing the worst nightmare happening.
“I thought Corinth would hire someone else,” he said. “I felt they thought I could not preach. I might add, I would not have blamed them.”
It was a feeling that puzzled Koons’ faithful associate minister, Matt Sawyer.
“I don’t know why he would feel like that,” Sawyer said. “It was unfounded. I think it might have come from working at Shechem (a minister’s retreat run by Mt. Eden Christian Church) and hearing stories of people being let go.”
Koons said Sawyer, who has taken over many of the pastoral duties at the church, has been a rock to lean on.
“Matt has been faithful,” Koons said, his voice breaking. “He was at the hospital that first night and went to Cardinal Hill two or three times a week.”
Koons pauses, then smiles.
“One time, Matt chewed me out for my bad attitude.”
To an outside observer, Koons’ attitude might appear to be one of dogged determination. He was back in his pulpit, albeit preaching from a wheelchair, just over a month from his heart attack. His wife pushes him to his office where he works two or three hours a day.
Koons said his goal is to stand in the pulpit by his 55th birthday on March 22.
Yet he admits to experiencing what his congregation has heard countless times.
“I was having a pity party,” Koons said.
Corinth would not allow it to go unchecked.
“Some of the people would go over and have lunch with him at Cardinal Hill,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer’s wife, Paula, organized a campaign for people in the church to write personal messages on snowflakes that were strung throughout his room. Though he was unable to read the messages without help, Koons said, “Whenever I would get depressed, I would look at the snowflakes. People from the church would come see me. They kept me from going under.”
Since Koons returned home, he has experienced his church taking care of him even more. He decided the day after Christmas that he would be in the pulpit the next day, even with no ramp to the stage area.
“That first Sunday, several of the men lifted him up on the stage,” Sawyer said. “By the next Sunday, a ramp had been built.”
It should not have been a surprise. Koons lost his sight while working at a church in Kansas between his two stints at Corinth, yet it was the people he is with now that came through.
“This church never let me down even when I was in Kansas,” he said. “I went blind and several people of the church recorded the entire Bible for me on tape. They got permission and read the entire Bible for me. I still have those tapes.”
Koons said he firmly believes he will continue to minister. “I kept thinking I am a preacher,” he said of his recovery.
He has loved working at Camp Calvary, located near Willisburg, but says that is out for 2010.
“I am not ruling that out (for the future),” he said before breaking into a huge smile.
There is little doubt that Koons has been knocked down.
But he is far from out.
“He has been an inspiration,” Sawyer said. “He didn’t want to beg or go on disability. He wanted to do things himself. He wanted independence. I think that is one of the hardest things for Gene right now. The stroke has forced him to rely on people.”
Koons said it has been a learning experience.
“Oh yeah. Big time,” he said.
“The first thing I learned is don’t wait until the day you die to be ready to die. ... When I thought I was dying, I thought of all the things I needed to do but hadn’t. I hadn’t been praying like I need to. I had not been reading the word of God for me. I had been reading to preach.
“I learned that God is faithful. Not to keep me alive, but he is faithful. Whenever I would get discouraged, he would send someone. He showed faithfulness through those days I kept thinking, ‘I am a preacher.’
“I have learned I have a loving wife who is doing things she never thought she would be asked to do. There are a lot of women that would up and leave.
“I have experienced the love of this congregation. They don’t just do it for me. They would do this for anybody.”
“And there are some things I really don’t want to divulge. They are very personal.”
And Sawyer has watched Gene Koons really inspire people to be ready by simply living what they believe.
“I was talking with Sharon one day and she told me that Gene said, ‘I am not going to sit around and die. I am going to live my life.’ ”
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.