“Gloryland” by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
I like the haunting beauty of this A Cappella bluegrass song. Bluegrass harmony is itself a lovely thing, but notice also the earthiness of the suffering mentioned in this song and how the theology of heaven provides strength to face death. Was there in previous ages of evangelicalism an underdeveloped understanding of salvation? Sure. Forgiveness of sin and eternal life in heaven were emphasized to the exclusion of the Spirit’s power for true life in this age and the ultimate hope of the new heavens and new earth. But I think we often underestimate how practical this focus on victory over death was for a humanity that simply faced death on a more constant basis.
My grandmother’s line were all Scotch-Irish stock who spent their lives in the mountains and coal mines of West Virginia. All the men were miners. And all died early of black lung. Infant mortality would have been exponentially higher than it is now. I suspect that if we feel any smug superiority to the bluegrass theology of the coal miners, that might also say something about how hard we in the West have tried to isolate ourselves from pain and death.
Recently, the New York Times ran a piece on a famous pastor’s son who is now a vocal ex-vangelical and a rising Tiktok star. Many have commented on the story and it’s not my intention here to weigh in on this tragic situation. God is sovereign and I pray that this man will one day have his eyes truly opened, and not remain in the sad ranks of those who achieved fame by publicly maligning the faith their fathers preached.
But there was one comment of his quoted in the article that I have been chewing on. He says, “How are you going to take your family to Outback [Steakhouse] after church while millions of people are burning alive?”
It’s the sort of “gotcha” question meant to highlight the supposed absurdity of a literal hell. “See? You can’t live consistently with this belief. You are a hypocrite to go enjoy a meal at a restaurant if you really believe in eternal suffering in hell.”
My main response to this comment would be to point out that the Christian is not unusually hypocritical to live this way – pursuing occasional wholesome recreation while millions suffer. The entire world lives this way every day. There is in fact no other way to live, in the actual sense of the word.
The fact is that this world is full of a million previews of a literal hell. Genocide. Starvation. Sexual abuse. Natural Disasters. Political violence. Abortion. Racist violence. Disease. War. Millions are suffering even as I write this and sit on my couch with a good cup of coffee. Millions are dying even as you read this line. Untold depths of anguish are taking place in the seconds it takes to verbalize the unbeliever’s “gotcha” question above.
There may be seasons of our lives where we try to alleviate the suffering of this world through burning ourselves out in a frenetic effort to rescue the suffering. Many experience a season like this in the university years. But if we are not careful, this can be the road to a kind of insanity. The weight of the suffering (and the indifference) can crush our hearts, minds, and bodies and we can end up broken, naked, and pounding the cement outside our house until we are arrested – as happened a few years ago with the founder of an American humanitarian movement that worked with African child soldiers.
We are not made to bear the suffering of the world on our shoulders. Only God can do that. We are made to respond compassionately to the suffering that God has brought into our own sphere of influence. And we are made to live whole lives. To not just respond to suffering, but to eat, to sleep, to laugh, to plant, to nurture, to work, to worship, and to recreate in all of its best forms. Those who neglect these things soon experience the cost of doing so on many levels. As one book puts it, the body keeps the score. As does the soul.
Even unbelievers find themselves living normal lives in the face of incredible contemporary suffering. But how how can they _____ when millions of Uighurs are living in concentration camps? What about the street children of Africa? Those trapped in sex slavery in South Asia? The widespread practice of honor killings and female circumcision in Central Asia? How can they just grab coffee with a friend, go to the gym, walk their dog, call their mom, or sit in that staff meeting in the face of such suffering?
The answer, even for unbelievers, is that the real presence of suffering doesn’t nullify our responsibility to live whole lives. We must somehow find a way to live healthy lives and to respond to the tragedy of human suffering. If we sacrifice wise living for the sake of alleviating others’ suffering, we will soon find that we are only adding to the suffering of this world, as our own lives and families fall apart. The only appropriate response to the ever-present suffering of this world must be a sustainable one. Responding to suffering cannot mean a continual neglect of what it means to be a human truly alive. If this is so for this world, then why would it not be so for the next?
This is not a question unique for Christians who believe in a literal hell. This is something we all must struggle with. The difference is that believers have a powerful source for living lives of sustainable sacrifice. Our God entered into our suffering, sacrificed himself, conquered suffering and death, and now indwells us. He gives us depths of compassion and love for the suffering we wouldn’t naturally have. And he is utterly sovereign, meaning we can trust him with the weight of the suffering we are unable to alleviate. I am thus empowered and freed to respond to human suffering and to take my kids out to eat after church. These things are not opposed to each other.
Life, real life, full of friendship and joy and echoes of Eden – this in the end is the most powerful way to heal this broken world. So, let’s love the suffering. By not neglecting to occasionally eat steak with the kids.
This song by Sarah Sparks uses Shasta’s story from The Horse and His Boy to explore the Christian’s experience of heaven’s silence. I have certainly had seasons where God seems silent – at the very moment when I felt I most needed a clear word. “Where were you, God, when I was alone and desperately needing your presence?”
Waves that beat upon the shore
They brought no peace
Somewhere else I must belong
Somewhere for me
Who was it left me there
A boy scared and alone
No, I don't think you heard me calling
Always thought he must not know
Surely he would never leave me
Wouldn't leave me here alone
You tell me now that I was never on my own
Well pardon me, I don't remember you at all
'Cause with my back against the tomb I called you out
But I don't think I heard your answer,
I don't think I heard a sound
I don't recall you in my anger
Or remember you around
Ouch. A part of me deeply resonates with this complaint. But the answer, in Job-like style, cuts even deeper.
But he answered, Who are you to question me?
Do you command the mountains or calm the raging sea?
For I am the current there to save your life
A man man may find his eye deceiving
A fool holds on to trust his sight
A wise man knows that his own feeling may not with the truth align
Did you think that you had never seen my face?
But every moment you're alive you know my grace
For only death in this whole world is justly deserved
And you say that I never answered
Just because you have not heard
But you don't know yet how to listen
Or to understand my words.
My love, I care for you
I was the comfort you felt in the house of the dead
I drove from you beasts in the night
All of this I have done while you slept
All by my design
Every chapter and every word, I've written every line...
The experience of heaven’s silence is a real and painful one. It is mysterious and worthy of some sober lament. Yet how often have we not heard God because we have not yet truly learned how to listen? I know I have at times demanded a certain kind of narrow communication from God. But why should I limit him in this way? Or how many times have I conflated my feelings of God’s presence with the truth of it?
There is some real wisdom in this song that echoes a biblical theology of suffering and God’s care for his children. Plus, I love the banjo and harmonica, especially how they come in at 3:22. As such, I commend it to your playlists.
Lament and defiance in the same song. For Christians addressing the death of Christ – and our own deaths – this is a good posture. Make sure to listen until the build at 2:52. Powerful stuff.
Go on brothers lay him down
Go on brothers lay him down
Wrap his body with a clean white shroud
Roll that stone leave him in the ground
Go on brothers lay him down
Go on sisters cry for him
Go on sisters cry for him
But wipe your eyes and dry your skin
The crying will be done in three mornings
Go on sisters cry for him
Hold on children wait and see
Hold on children wait and see
The death that’s come is a death too weak
Can’t take my Jesus can’t take my king
So hold on children wait and see
Oh glory glory won’t you come for me
Glory glory won’t you come for me
I know your slumber is a momentary sleep
I feel you rising up from the deep
Oh glory glory you will come for me
One year ago today we found out my six year old daughter had type 1 (childhood) diabetes. We had been at some organizational meetings in Europe in January, and as usual, a serious virus made the rounds among the kids. On the way home a security crisis canceled our flights and we were stuck in a layover city for several days. We were grateful for the unexpected rest, as my kids and wife were having the hardest time recovering from this strange virus, while I was strangely asymptomatic. Since then we’ve heard reports of Covid-19 being present in the country where our meetings were, even as early as January 2020. We can’t help but wonder if that’s what it was, since many of the symptoms line up.
We eventually made it made it back home and everyone slowly got healthy again. Or so we thought. After about a month we started noticing some strange things going on with our daughter. Two months after our trip the symptoms were increasing. She started wetting the bed at night when this had never before been a problem. She seemed to be looking unusually bony and skinny. She was waking up in the night extremely thirsty and and in the day eating and drinking large amounts, but without seeming to be able to quench her hunger or thirst. Her stomach started getting swollen and serious constipation developed. Eventually a rash appeared on her stomach and she started becoming lethargic and falling asleep in the middle of the floor at random times. Her normal state of 110% zest and energy was simply no longer there.
By this point we were several weeks into a strict Covid-19 lockdown. We were trying to treat our daughter’s symptoms, get remote medical advice, and wondering if being cooped up in the house without as much physical activity was partially to blame. But when I tried to have “gym class” at home, she was barely able to participate because of fatigue and discomfort. We were getting seriously worried when a doctor friend of our teammates suggested we check her blood sugar. Even though there was a history of diabetes in my wife’s family, we hadn’t thought to explore in this direction.
The police were mostly allowing civilian vehicles to drive around local neighborhoods, but not on the main city streets. So I was grateful that every local neighborhood in our corner of Central Asia contains several small but quality pharmacies – one of the ways the private sector here has responded to the broken government healthcare system.
It was a sunny late March afternoon when my daughter and I carefully drove to the far end of our neighborhood, making sure there weren’t new roadblocks and hoping that pharmacies would be open. As I recall, this was the first time she had to put on a mask to enter a building. She was really groggy and I remember encouraging her to try really hard not to fall asleep in the car. Deep down I was becoming afraid that falling asleep could be dangerous – though I couldn’t have said why.
We stopped in a local pharmacy and bought a blood testing kit, one of the kinds where you prick a finger and test a drop of blood through a special strip and small digital reader. The pharmacist conducted the test for us on the spot and as soon as the result showed, his brow furrowed. “They can’t show a blood sugar number if it’s above 400,” he said. “Let’s try again. If it’s still just showing ‘HIGH,’ then you’ll have to go to the hospital for a more detailed test.” Sure enough, the second test showed the same result. We would have to go to an ER – and that in the beginnings of the local Covid-19 outbreak.
I called my wife to update her that we might be out for a few more hours and to ask her to pray that the police would let us through the checkpoints. Thankfully, they did. All I had to do was tell them that my daughter was having a medical emergency and that we had to get to the hospital – fast. They would glance in the back seat, see how frail and sick she looked, and quickly wave us through. I was relieved it was this easy.
We arrived at an urgent care type of facility and they ran some blood tests. By this point I was really hoping that we would be able to find some answers, even if it meant something like diabetes. Some kind of mistake was made and the first round of tests didn’t include checking for the blood sugar level. They almost sent us home, but I somehow caught the mistake. As soon as they checked the blood sugar, the tone of the medical staff changed. They communicated that our daughter’s blood glucose level was extremely high and that they would have to transfer us to a private hospital with one of the only local endocrinologists who had experience treating children. While type 2 diabetes is everywhere here (blame the rice, chai, and baklava), type 1 is almost unheard of. Type 2 is usually diet-related and emerges in adults. Type 1 requires a genetic predisposition and emerges in children in response to the body’s immune system attacking a virus – and the body’s own pancreas by mistake. When this happens the part of the pancreas that makes insulin gets mortally wounded, and eventually stops producing insulin altogether.
The next couple hours were a strange mixture of sitting around waiting and medical staff urgently coming in and out. I could tell that it was serious, but the doctor was only willing to say that he thought it was likely diabetes. We were transferred by ambulance to a private hospital and taken up to the third floor. As we approached the doors of the ICU, they rushed my daughter through and I was abruptly informed that I wasn’t allowed to come inside. I pushed back that this wasn’t an option, that I had to be there alongside my six year old daughter who they now poking with various needles – and who was now beginning to shriek in terror. She has always hated shots with a passion. And now she couldn’t even see her dad. While the hospital staff insisted that non-staff are never allowed in the ICU, my daughter was fighting them hard enough and I argued just strong enough to be given temporary access and the assurance that I could stay in a room just outside the ICU door. I decided to take these concessions and to wait to push more later.
I was able to have a few moments comforting my daughter as the nursing stuff buzzed around us and attached various wires and tubes to her frail body. Soon a doctor came in and the staff insisted that it was time for me to leave, but that I could get access to her a little bit later. I was not comfortable with this arrangement at all, but I tried to stay calm, and tried somehow to help my daughter not panic. On the way out I managed to see the paperwork of her blood tests.
Blood glucose level was 786. Normal is 80-180.
I quickly sat down on the small couch in my room, just outside the ICU doors and googled what a 786 blood sugar level meant. What I found froze me in my tracks. Diabetic coma. And other terrifying possibilities. I knew that something very serious was going on, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how close we had gotten to losing our daughter. Sitting by myself in that room a sense of desperation overcame me and I pleaded with God for my daughter’s life. I realized that our hasty goodbye in the ICU could have been the last time we saw one another.
I don’t remember how long it took for a doctor to come and update me on the situation. Much of that time was spent frantically praying and sending out texts for prayer. I was also talking to my wife by phone. She was understandably furious that they had not allowed me to stay by our daughter’s side. I tried to reassure her that I would keep pushing for regular access, but that we didn’t have very many options and that fighting at that point wouldn’t get us more.
Eventually a young doctor came in my room. He told me that my daughter was experiencing something called diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition where the body’s cells have been unable to process the “food” they need due to lack of insulin, so the body has been attacking and consuming itself. This was what accounted for all of the strange symptoms she had been experiencing. She definitely had new onset type 1 diabetes. But she was going to make it. They would work to stabilize her and safely bring her blood sugar levels down. We would need to stay in the hospital for a week or so.
“Don’t consider it an illness. Consider it a gift!” he said with a flourish as he made his way out the door. While thankful for the intent, I clenched my teeth at these parting words. Not the right time, doc, not the right time.
Through the timely intervention of the hospital staff and the prayers of God’s people, everything got easier from that point on. Our daughter stabilized, although it took three days or so for her blood sugar levels to be safely brought down below 300. As the mostly foreign hospital staff realized I could get my daughter calm enough for her shots and urine tests, they began to invite me into the ICU more and more, and eventually just gave me the door code so I could come in whenever I wanted to.
The first 48 hour shift nurse assigned to our daughter was an Indian gal, and one who was connected to our international church. Turns out one of the Filipino doctors at the hospital was a believing member of our church. Other Pakistani fellow members walked from their neighborhood to bring me home-cooked pratha and omelettes. The wife of one of our pastors sent me an Aeropress coffee maker and some ground coffee. Most of our team lived a little too far from the hospital to be able to walk there, but they walked groceries to my wife and other two kids at home, and provided childcare so that my wife could begin to visit the hospital once we acquired a special letter for the checkpoints. One single teammate could make it to the hospital by foot, and he even learned to boil eggs just so that he could fulfill that particular request. To this day my daughter raves about those boiled eggs. As her cells began to be able to absorb nutrients again, she began to eat like a full grown man!
After three nights, our daughter was allowed to move into my room. This was a cause for celebration. We began having dance parties to try to bring her sugar down and experimenting with the random diabetic-friendly food items we could get from nearby stores. Lots of nuts and cheese and cucumbers. Not so much rice and bread, which was mostly what the hospital food consisted of.
It became a strangely joyful time in that bright little hospital room that smelled like Pakistani food and coffee. My daughter seems to remember mostly the sweet parts of our surreal hospital stay and to not recall the many scary parts. I am incredibly grateful for this.
As best we can figure, that virus that hit our family back in January 2020 is likely what caused my daughter’s immune system to misfire and handicap her pancreas. This led to the development of the ketoacidosis. Apparently type 1 diabetes is much more common among those of Northern European and specifically Scandinavian descent. Turns out our DNA has more of that heritage than we knew at the time. We really should have known that this was a possibility for our kids, since my wife’s two younger sisters also have type 1. These sisters have proved to be wonderfully helpful aunts to my daughter since they can identify with her experience so well. The experience that my wife had growing up with her sisters’ diabetes is likely why we were able to so quickly get back to a kind of normalcy – and why we continue to feel so grateful at the kind of diabetes management now available. God should get more glory for insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (we use the Omnipod and Dexcomm G6). These devices, sadly not available in this country, are stunning in how much freedom they give kids with type 1 and their parents. A disease that would have been fatal in 1921 barely slows down my now seven-year-old in 2021. We were able to get set up with these devices during five months of medical leave in the middle of last year.
We look back at what happened a year ago and we thank God and shudder. It was hard. We will be lamenting the presence of this disease in our family for the rest of our lives. Yet we also rejoice at God’s particular kindness to us through this whole experience. From the medical advice that came just in time to catching the blood tests done wrong to the unexpected presence of believers in the hospital, God was very much communicating his care for us. And there are many more details of things like this that I haven’t mentioned because this post is long enough already.
One year ago we discovered our daughter’s type 1 diabetes. It hasn’t been easy. But now, twelve months later, we know more of the kindness and care of our God.
And diabetes is not forever.
“I wonder,” I mused to my wife the other day, “If in heaven the lame walk, and the blind see… do you think perhaps Jesus greets those who had type-1 diabetes with a giant ice cream sundae? ‘Welcome home! Your disease is no more. Here, have all the ice cream you can handle!”
My Iranian refugee friend, *Reza, had come to faith. It had felt like a long road for him, but there was now clear evidence of the new birth in his life. After lots of struggle and discussion about baptism and church membership, he had taken the plunge. My wife and I began dreaming about seeing a group of Middle Eastern refugees in our American city come to faith. Who knew? Maybe this new believer would result in a church plant that strategically focused on this diverse and overlooked community.
Initially, we did have some traction with some of his Middle Eastern contacts. But through his friendships as an employee at Walmart, my friend started befriending and reaching out to a very different community – struggling Kentuckians. He befriended a single mom who had had a very broken past and was in need of a lot of help. Our community group rallied, helping her with practical needs and sharing the gospel with her. We helped her walk away from a false church with cult-like tendencies. It was encouraging to see my friend’s new faith resulting in mercy ministry. But I was a little uneasy with this direction things were taking. My vision was reaching Middle Eastern refugees. Mercy ministry with local Americans was a good thing, but very time-consuming. And it was something there were many churches already doing.
Things got more complicated with this single mom and she ended up moving in with us temporarily while we searched for a safe living situation. She seemed to be close to coming to faith. Then we found out there was romantic interest there as well between her and Reza. Two baby believers with very complicated pasts were now interested in one another. We had only been married a year ourselves and had a newborn. We were in over our heads, but kept trying to plug our friends in to good opportunities for growth with us. So Reza started attending a Perspectives class with us. If you haven’t heard of Perspectiveson the World Christian Movement, it’s a class offered in many places in the West that focuses on global missions and includes a lot of church history. If you want to wake a local church up to God’s heart for the nations and their part in that, hosting a Perspectives class can be a great way to begin. It’s not really designed for brand new believers, but we were hoping to get missions DNA into our Iranian friend from the get-go.
Then we learned about his girlfriend’s brother, *Akin. Out of the blue he had reached out to his estranged sister, asking for help and telling her that he had finally burned all his bridges in the city where he lived. He had been addicted to heroin for three years. I didn’t know very much about drug addiction, but my friends who did told me to be extra careful with heroin users. “They’ll rob their own mothers,” is the sentence that I remember. Reza told me they were going to go pick him up and have him move into his sister’s new place, an apartment we had just been able to find in a sketchy refugee apartment complex we would later live in ourselves.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. “That is a really bad idea. I have been told to be super careful with heroin users, so you should not let him move in with his sister who just escaped a dangerous living situation. Just give me a couple days to work something out with the homeless center that we’re connected with. They should be able to get him a good option that’s also safe. Just whatever you do, don’t go get him tonight.”
He ignored me.
The Perspectives class was just starting when Reza called me. “I’ve got the brother. We’ll be with you in class shortly.”
“What?!” I asked, “You went and got him? Bro, I told you not to!”
“It’s OK, I’ll take responsibility for him. See you soon.” And he hung up. I looked around the room, wondering what to do with the unfolding situation. I decided there was nothing really to be done. Not for the last time I shook my head at the stubbornness of Iranians.
After a short time, they arrived. My short and mustachioed Iranian friend walked into the room with a pale, skeletal American guy. He looked to be about my age, had scruffy facial hair, sunken eyes, and didn’t look completely aware of his surroundings. They came and sat at our table and we did some hushed introductions as the class was now underway. But I was frustrated. Why wouldn’t my friend trust me and listen to me? Why would he complicate our already complicated situation like this when we had so much else that we needed to sort out? Couldn’t he have waited just a couple days and not brought this guy to a missions class? I sighed. I was supposed to spending my time doing relational evangelism with Middle Eastern refugees, not doing emergency ministry triage for these messy Americans. I could see glances being exchanged by different class facilitators as they took stock of the situation also.
The next part of the class was the part where we would pray at our tables for an unreached people group. That night, it was a people group in India and we were instructed to pray in pairs with the person next to us. My assigned partner was Akin. Well, I thought to myself, at least I can pray the gospel as we pray for this people group. Oh, the strange situations I keep finding myself in. I’m prayer partners with an unbelieving heroin addict, praying for a group of unreached Hindus in India!
I can’t say that it was the most faith-filled prayer I’ve ever prayed. Internally I was all over the place. But we made it through the prayer and through the class. Akin, to my surprise, listened intensely to the speaker’s presentation, which contained a lot of gospel. Somewhere in the middle of class, I looked over and noticed how calm he had become. Other facilitators also told me afterward that something had visibly changed about Akin over the course of the class. He borrowed a copy of Ragamuffin Gospel from somewhere, moved in with his sister, and was nursed through a month of detox by my Iranian friend. He started coming to church with us right away and plugged in to our community group of messy young believers and young seminary families. Soon he had an interview with one of our pastors where they dug into the gospel and the changes taking place in Akin’s life.
I caught him in the church sanctuary after the interview and asked him how it went.
“It went well. I’m so encouraged that the pastor has a past of drug addiction too! He pushed me real hard on some things, but I didn’t back down. I’m not going back to heroin. I believe in Jesus now.”
“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”
Akin went on to explain the gospel and his trust in it. And how he had begun to experience dramatic internal changes – starting from when I had prayed with him for that random Indian people group.
“What?! You think that’s when God might have saved you? That first night when we hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet?”
“Hard to say, but something changed during that prayer. Then I kept reading and praying when I was doing detox, and studying the Bible with Reza. Yep! I think God’s made new.”
God had indeed made him new. Whenever the specific act of regeneration had occurred, God had used our strange circumstances – and my Iranian disciple’s ignoring of wise advice – to save Akin. Mysterious and ironic. I did not feel called to work with Kentuckians like Akin, but that wasn’t going to stop God. He was out to save Akin and his sister anyway.
It wasn’t long before we noticed things coming full circle. Akin started counseling a Middle Eastern refugee who was struggling with drug addiction and was a resident at our partner homeless center. I had assumed that investing in this broken American family was something apart from the particular ministry God had called us to. I didn’t realize that God was going to use us Americans to reach a Middle Easterner, who would himself reach some Americans, who would then go on to in turn serve Middle Easterners. It was, for me, a particular lesson in providence.
Akin would go on to get baptized and become a member of our church, to marry a godly woman – a marriage ceremony I had the great joy to officiate – and to eventually become a faithful deacon at that church. These days it’s not uncommon for him to be caught scheming with the other deacons about how to bless others through mercy ministry, playing his trombone for the worship team, or busy on the phone with his Iranian brother-in-law, planning when to play basketball with the nephews. During our last visit together they hosted us for some sublime barbecued pork – a particular kind of mercy ministry for people like us who work in Islamic countries.
Whenever I encounter those struggling with substance addictions, I think of Akin. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him playing trombone with the worship team in a powerful rendition of “Absent from Flesh.” Everything God had saved him from hit me afresh. God doesn’t always instantly heal addictions. But sometimes he does. I’ve got a deacon to prove it.
The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore, does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.
Patrick could speak convincingly of these things. He could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile. He could insist that, in the end, you too would hear the words “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home. Look, your ship is ready.”
Today marks twenty eight years since my dad unexpectedly passed away. Or, as my Central Asian neighbors put it, since he made the final migration and was shortly thereafter entrusted to the dirt – the mountain Melanesian dirt which he loved so much. He and my mom were three and a half years into their first term as missionaries when a morning jog brought on what we were later told was asthma-induced heart failure. I was almost five, and my older brothers were seven and nine.
Looking back, I’m extremely grateful for the dozen or so memories I have of my dad. Going to the little Korean trade store with him and drinking strawberry milk together. Riding on his shoulders as we played basketball with my brothers. Playing crab soccer in the yard of the mission house. Watching him teach in smoky village huts by the light of Coleman kerosene lantern, or pulling over to allow yet another villager to pile into the back of his Toyota pickup. He was a joyful visionary pioneer type, a natural people person and leader – and a great dad. I don’t feel like I was old enough to really know him, but the memories, the stories, and the echoes of his life are precious to me, and have served as a godly legacy in which I’ve sought to walk. A big reason I’m a missionary myself is because of my dad’s example of giving everything for Jesus.
This past week I was sharing with a former Marine and friend here how God had used my dad’s time in the US Marines to draw him to Christ. My dad had grown up in a working-class, unchurched home. His dad was a Philly truck driver and his mom was from a coal mining community in the mountains of West Virginia. He knew very little about Jesus or the gospel, even though he had grown up in the Philadelphia area in the 60’s and 70’s. After high school he joined the Marines and was trained to be a combat photographer, stationed in Yuma, Arizona.
One day while on base, he met some helicopter pilots and they hit it off. As often happened with my dad, he made friends quickly with these men and they were soon joking and laughing together. Later on in the day, their twin-rotor military helicopter took off from the base. A short distance away, one of the rotors somehow came off the helicopter, causing it to crash in the desert. Everyone on board was killed. My dad, being a photographer, was told to go photograph the crash scene – and the bodies of the friends he had just made. For the first time in his life he asked in desperation, “God, where are my friends now? They’re gone, but to where? And are you real?”
These questions drove him to find answers from his chaplain, from a Christian book store, and eventually, from the church my mom was attending. He fell in love with Jesus and fell in love with my mom. It took her quite a bit longer to be convinced, but his dogged persistence eventually charmed her.
As a brand new Christian, there were plenty of bumps along the way. When my mom first told my dad that she was called to be a missionary, he had never heard that term before. He thought she meant a mercenary. His response? “OK! I’ll follow you anywhere in the world you want to go.” Later on he himself would be called to the nations, to a particular Melanesian nation where his extroverted Philly personality would win him countless friends among the tribal highlanders.
Twenty eight years. It’s been a slow grieving realized over time. Late high school and early college were the hardest for me. Yet it has been a grieving also intermingled with gratitude, joy, and longing.
I’ve only ever had one dream in which I was with my dad. It was at a time when secret adultery was exposed among the members of a small group I was newly leading. I was profoundly discouraged and felt way in over my head as our little group of messy new believers reeled from the destruction caused. The night I found out I fell asleep exhausted after hours of damage control. As I slept, I dreamed I was walking with my dad, somewhere green and bright. I felt full of peace and joy just to be in my dad’s presence. He was delighted to be with me as well. At one point I remembered to ask him, “Where have you been all this time?” I don’t recall him answering. Yet it was fine that he didn’t. His smile was enough. I eventually awoke, now profoundly encouraged. However it is that the Holy Spirit works or doesn’t work through dreams, that one couldn’t have come at a better time.
I love our local-language phrase, entrusted to the dirt, because it speaks of death in a way that hints of resurrection. To entrust something or someone can imply an expected return. There’s a little missionary graveyard on a hillside in Melanesia. That’s where my dad was buried, entrusted. That burial service was the first time I heard the hymn Be Thou My Vision, sung by another missionary – also passed away now – the dad of a friend who now serves among our same people group, further up in the mountains. I still can’t hear that song without remembering that day, and the sudden relevance of the line, “Thou my true father and I thy true son.”
Twenty eight years ago my dad was entrusted to that hillside, and to the presence of God. But only for a season. Sooner or later the dirt – and heaven – will give back its trust, better even than it was before.
And then we’ll get to live out that dream, walking together in the new heavens and new earth. Somewhere green and bright.
And who doesn’t struggle to understand his ways at times? I appreciate the humility and the boldness of these lyrics as a struggling believer speaks with God about seeking answers.
Could I steal a word with you
Can I offer you my hand
Though it seems your time is priceless
I can’t help myself but ask
Every term you make is foreign
Every breath a mystery
It's the answers that I’m going for
It’s the answers that I need
How can I hope to ever see to understand
I’m a broken mind in a broken man
How can I hope to understand
Even all the angels don’t know
They’ve never seen every side of You
All eternity can’t hold
The majesty the whole sight of You
Is it me who forms the puzzle
Is it me who sets the trap
Though I’ve tried so hard at knowing
Maybe you never wanted that
I can see my heart is hardened
I can see that flesh is stone
But I will pray my blind eyes open
I will pray my off ears on
Since returning to Central Asia we have been talking about the phrase once said of J.I. Packer, that he lived slowly enough to think deeply about God. What an aim. Connected to this we have also been trying to live slowly enough to see “normal” interactions with locals as opportunities for eternal impact. This might seem like a basic concept, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into a mindset where certain types of relationships are ministry and others are just business. Some are very gifted at turning everyday interactions into spiritual conversations – with gas station attendants, neighbors, restaurant servers, etc. That has never been me. I’ve been prone to mostly dismiss many necessary and brief interactions as not really fertile ground for spiritual conversation. We’re hoping to change this orientation of ours toward relationships. It will require leaving enough margin in our days to be able to stop, slow down, visit, and converse in-depth when God opens that door. But so far we have been very encouraged by the conversations God has given through our initial attempts at this more relational pace. In a city where we have struggled to find our “fishing holes” for evangelistic conversations, this has been doubly encouraging.
One surprising outcome has been a new friendship with our local lawyer. I’ve always had difficult interactions with the various local lawyers that help us foreigners acquire our visas. Their task is an unenviable one, navigating a labyrinthine bureaucracy of forms, numbered windows, and changing policies. We are deeply indebted to their tireless efforts to make sure that we can live here legally. And yet most of the local lawyers I’ve interacted with have seemed self-important suited men, hurried and shady individuals who weren’t always completely honest with us and the government. We have been left stranded at times because of faulty legal advice given – not to mention struggling to adjust to the crazy and unpredictable schedules they keep. “Hello? Mister? Were you sleeping? Good morning. I’m on my way to your house with an officer of the secret police. He needs to see your documents. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
But this time around we were set up to show some basic hospitality to our local lawyer during each step of the process. It’s amazing what a small table and chairs in a courtyard with a little bit of chai can do. It’s as if these basic elements (married to a genuine invitation to sit down) snuck past the lawyer identity of this man and tapped into his deeper Central Asian wiring. We’ve actually had a really good time getting to know one another and working together. He came by the other night to drop off the successfully acquired new visas and once again accepted the offer to take a seat. Eventually the conversation turned to our daughter’s type-1 diabetes because of an emergency travel exception he had acquired for us.
“You know,” I said, “we believe that even this kind of illness and suffering is a gift from God, because he loves us.”
“Wait,” responded the lawyer. “What do you mean? Don’t you think that people suffer because they do wrong?”
“Yes,” that is also a common cause of suffering, according to the Bible. “And yet for those who love God and walk with him faithfully, the suffering in their lives is given for a different reason – so that they would know the love of God more deeply. God will teach us more deeply about his love through this suffering and will do many things through my daughter’s illness.”
“So you really believe your daughter’s disease will result in good?”
“Yes! Do you know about the prophet Joseph?” I asked. The lawyer nodded. “After being sold into slavery (by his brothers no less), he became the prime minister of Egypt. In that role he was able to save the whole Middle East from a terrible famine. God used something terrible to do something very good. Joseph says so himself.”
I opened up my phone to show my friend Genesis 50:20 in parallel English and the local language, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” We then went on to talk about the story of Lazarus, how Jesus had denied a good request – Lazarus’ healing – in order to bring about something better, a resurrection from the dead. I shared with my lawyer friend how this idea is actually at the very heart of Christianity, since the murder of Jesus was meant for evil, but through his death on the cross he made a way for someone like me two thousand years later to have all my sins forgiven.
My lawyer didn’t push back on my claim that Jesus had died on the cross and risen three days later. Instead he listened intently, pulling his face mask up and down as he sipped his chai.
“We trust that God is going to do so many good things through my daughter’s diabetes. We don’t know what they are yet, but we are waiting, like excited children, to see all the good he is going to accomplish.”
I continued in this vein for a little while longer, sharing some more examples, then paused.
As if catching himself, my friend quickly blurted out, “We believe the same thing too.” But it was clear he was thinking deeply about the conversation, perhaps wondering about the suffering in his own life.
In my mind I thought to myself, and here’s one good purpose already, getting to share the gospel with you for the first time – a member of an unengaged people group no less! I had recently learned that despite seeming like a member of my focus people group, our lawyer was actually a member of another minority group, four million strong, with zero confirmed believers among them. (This is one reason these groups remain unreached. They get good at blending in and remain “hidden.”)
The visit wrapped up and we said farewell. It was an encouraging conversation. My wife and daughter lit up when I later told them about it. This kind of deep and practical trust in God’s sovereignty doesn’t lessen the reality of the suffering. We still shudder when we look at pictures from seven months ago, when the undetected diabetic ketoacidosis was wreaking quiet havoc on my daughter’s body, bringing her right up to the brink of a diabetic coma and possibly even death. We caught it just in time. After rushing to the hospital, she and I spent a surreal week there together during the first local Covid-19 lockdown as her body was slowly stabilizing. Seeing the same kind of ambulance the other day brought it all rushing back. Most of the time she’s remarkably strong for a six year old going through something like this. Other days, well, that favorite food she’s no longer allowed to have or the jab of yet another needle is just too much for her heart and she breaks down.
A thousand good things. That is what we strive to trust that God is doing through her illness. Like getting to share the gospel with our lawyer. Like teaching us as a family how to add one more weakness to our growing collection, learning once again to lean on God’s power and not our own. Like pointing our kids to the reality of a new heavens and a new earth, where the ever so practical hope of unbroken bodies awaits us if we will love and trust in Jesus. One way or another, glory.
This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.