The Rev. Bert Benz, who has preached and counseled people for 25 years, was now on the receiving end of spiritual advice from a parishioner who called to say that if he would just ask in Jesus' name, those teeming white blood cells of his leukemia would subside.
Benz argued gently that he had, indeed, prayed for healing. But "God can also use my life sometimes in the midst of illness," he told his anxious caller, a parishioner at his Faith Baptist Church in Hampstead in Carroll County. "We like to think life is going to be hunky-dory as Christians. Sometimes it isn't."
Since Benz was diagnosed in August with leukemia, people have called with advice on spiritual healing, carrot juice diets, high doses of Vitamin E as well as offers of plain help and concern.
"People have a hard time with their pastors getting sick," he explained.
Benz, who is 47, still appears as hale and muscular as he did in July when he went to his doctor for a routine physical. The doctor told him he was in good shape.
"Then he called the next week and said, 'Your blood work came back abnormal,' " Benz said. "Obviously, I wept," he remembered, mostly from seeing the distress of his wife and two daughters, ages 16 and 11.
His disease, called chronic myelogenous leukemia, multiplies the body's white blood cells toward a point at which they become too numerous to carry out their job of fighting infection. When that happens, a patient typically dies of colds that worsen to pneumonia or of internal bleeding.
His hope lies in finding someone with bone marrow that matches his own so that it can be transplanted into his body. He has been told that his chance of finding a perfect match are one in 20,000. He would stand a 25 percent chance of surviving the transplant operation.
But it's hope enough to go public with an appeal for bone-marrow donations.
Hundreds have already responded by giving blood and having their marrow tested for the elusive perfect match. Working through the Red Cross, Benz has been the rallying point for two blood drives in Westminster, in which 422 people participated. More drives are planned in Bel Air and Salisbury, where he has previously pastored churches, and in Tampa, Fla., his hometown.
The illness has added a new, somewhat circular aspect to his ministry to the people of Faith Baptist Church. "They're grieving, and I'm their pastor, and I'm supposed to respond to their grief," he said. "At the same time, I'm the one they're grieving over."
Without building a sermon around his disease, Benz said, he often alludes to "how valuable life is to me" or "how certain things that used to be important are no longer important."
If he must die soon, Benz wants to live to see the completion of a new church building after a ground-breaking scheduled for this spring. The congregation, which started four years ago, now meets in Hampstead Elementary School.
And he intends to spend more time with his family, despite a job that can place demands on him at any time.
While trying to unclutter his schedule, Benz has found time for a new responsibility that he would ordinarily have believed himself too busy to handle. When the county hospice sent out a notice for a new chaplain, Benz threw it away, thinking he had troubles enough.
But, gradually, he came to believe that a possibly terminally ill pastor might be the right person to minister to terminally ill patients. He called the hospice and said, "maybe I can be of some help, albeit short-term."
Going public with his own need has put Benz into the position of doing for himself what he has felt more comfortable doing for others throughout his career. Not only does he have to ask for bone marrow, but for money -- $50,000 to pay for medical expenses beyond what his health insurance covers. So far, he has raised about $3,000.
"I could raise $50,000 a lot easier for you than I could raise it for myself," he said.
Benz is a robust and vigorous man. But just this week he learned his white cell count was approaching the point where he would have to be careful about exposure to infection.
"I'm really vulnerable, I stand at the door every Sunday and shake hands with 75 people. I hug them. I shake their hands." he said, wondering how he could ever do his work without close human contact. "I'm not the sort of person to retreat from all that."