A Song On A Death Too Weak

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

“Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” by Poor Bishop Hooper

Diabetes Is Not Forever: One Year Later

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!”

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

A Trombone Instead of Heroin

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 Perspectives on 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.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

Your Hungers Are Rewarded, You Are Going Home

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.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 131

Somewhere Green and Bright

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.

Photo by paul jespers on Unsplash

A Song When We Struggle to Understand God’s Ways

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

“The Whole Sight of You” by Poor Bishop Hooper

So You Really Believe Your Daughter’s Disease Will Result in Good?

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 timea 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.

-John 11:4

Photo by Matt Chesin on Unsplash

His Joy in Suffering Overcame Her Fear

My best friend, *Hama, had come to faith. On a mountain picnic overlooking the city, he had professed to me his love for Jesus, his brokenness over his own sin, and his desire to live and die for Jesus. Several months of Bible study in the book of Matthew, many long discussions, a near-death experience, and a dramatic answer to prayer had led him to this point. Really, it was more like decades of preparation as the Holy Spirit used even events in Hama’s childhood to make him ready for the gospel when he finally had a friend to explain it to him. An elderly ethnic Christian woman in his neighborhood had modeled a heartfelt love and respect. Italian Christians had sheltered him in a church when he was making his way through Europe as a desperate refugee. The Muslim taxi drivers in the UK had begun to unwittingly reveal to him his own hypocrisy in his professed Islamic faith.

It had been a long journey for Hama to be ready to give his life to Jesus. But, like many new believers, Hama immediately began aggressively sharing his faith with his family and friends as if they should be able to see the truth immediately. His passion was admirable. His methods, well, I often had to encourage him to talk about Jesus more and spend less time bashing Mohammad and Islam. He was in what he and his wife *Tara would later call the “attack helicopter” phase. He quickly got into heated arguments with his mother and sisters and he and his pregnant wife were kicked out of the family home. Work as a wedding musician was already slim for Hama and now they were practically homeless, heading into the hottest months of the summer.

Hama had a nephew who invited him to stay with him in his house. It’s not typical for young men to have their own house, but Hama’s nephew had been gifted one by a very powerful patron, the wife of the president. In a previous era this nephew’s father had served as a bodyguard for this powerful woman and had died in the line of duty – at the hand of Islamic extremists, if I remember correctly. Because of his father’s loyalty, Hama’s nephew was taken care of. He later went on to become a famous television personality who regularly got into trouble for taking shots at Islam while on air. He had a house, he was close to Hama, and he was no sympathizer with conservative Islam, so it made sense that Hama and Tara would end up staying with him. He was utterly confused by Hama’s new faith, in spite of our attempts to explain it to him. But it was a good temporary solution until Hama’s family cooled down and accepted his new identity, which they did, several months later.

Tara, however, felt as if her world were collapsing. Her first pregnancy had ended in a traumatic miscarriage. Her new husband had now apostatized. Midway through her second pregnancy, they had been kicked out of their home. She was terrified that God would punish them for Hama’s apostasy by causing the second child to die also. We began to pray specifically that God’s protection for this baby would soften Tara to the faith of her husband. I would still spend the night at their place once a week, often studying English and the Bible late into the night with Hama. Tara was still as respectful a hostess toward me as ever. But every time the Bibles came out, Tara would get agitated and leave the room. Hama insisted that we keep going because he noticed that sometimes she would do chores just close enough to be able to overhear our discussion.

This went on for the next couple months. Hama’s family refused to talk to them. Tara’s pregnancy got more uncomfortable. The summer heat reached its worst stretch. And Hama’s work almost completely dried up. It was 2008 and the financial crisis had brought the local economy to a standstill, leaving precious little money to spend on live wedding musicians like Hama. Tara’s stress and anxiety has reached the boiling point.

One evening she couldn’t take it anymore. After yelling and arguing with Hama about how all this had been his fault, she broke down in tears. Hama tried to comfort her and to help her calm down. In spite of everything, their love for one another was deep and strong, enduring the kind of season that has destroyed many other local marriages. When a little while had passed, Tara asked Hama how, in contrast to her, he could possibly have peace and joy in the midst of such a terrible season.

“It’s Jesus,” Hama had replied. “Jesus has filled me with such joy. Even though this is the hardest time of our lives, it is the best time of my life because I now know Him.”

Tara chewed on Hama’s response. Then she replied that whatever Hama had, she wanted it. From that point on she began sitting in on our Bible study together, listening intently. Hama soon began reading the scriptures to her when she had trouble getting to sleep because of pregnancy pain or fear. Soon she started devouring the Bible on her own, surpassing Hama in her passion for reading. Their suffering had brought Tara to a point of desperation. But it was Hama’s joy in the midst of suffering that had overcome her fear. She had seen that deep peace and joy in the midst of suffering were possible – and the power of that sight overcame her fear of studying the Bible. She was not yet a sister in the faith, but she was well on her way.

*names changed for security

Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash

A Song of Doxology

A few select lyrics:

You made me alive when I was dead in trespasses 
The passion of Christ left my sin in the past tense 
Every good and perfect gift comes from Your hand 
You set me back on course when I run from Your plan
No excuse to refuse to lift my voice 
Because the Gospel is true, there's always reason to rejoice 
And that don't mean that my sorrow is inconspicuous 
But when I grieve, I got a greater joy in the midst of it 
The joy of knowing I will see You face to face 
And it's all to the praise of Your glorious grace

“Doxology” by Beautiful Eulogy

Eternal Glory is Better

I am tempted to become bitter with God over the ongoing trials that he has not removed.

There are certain forms of chronic suffering and weakness that I have brought before his throne for years. And still, no deliverance. Sometimes, the suffering and weakness seems to be getting worse. I have been able to freely give big tragedy to God, accepting his good sovereignty through suffering. But it’s the mid-grade stuff that’s gets me, the embarrassing, annoying, hindering kind of suffering and shame that hovers like a cloud of mosquitoes on a tropical night – especially when that suffering seems to make me unable to do the work that God has called me to do.

If God has called me to a certain kind of life and ministry, then why won’t he remove these weaknesses that keep me from the kind of Spirit-empowered freedom that I know is possible? I’ve learned this question is dangerous enough that it needs an answer. If left unanswered, the belief slowly starts to grow that God is holding out on me. If that belief grows, I begin to try holding out on him, not slackening in my obedience necessarily, but at least holding my heart back from intimacy with him. I feel as if he is hurting me and I don’t understand how that fits with his professed love for me. So I keep myself at a safe distance. That, over time, is deadly.

I’m sure that others are familiar with this dynamic.

The phrase that I have been turning to recently in this struggle is that Eternal Glory is Better. It comes from 2nd Corinthians 4, where Paul is describing the suffering encountered in his ministry. He is honest about the real toll it is taking. Our outer self is wasting away (4:16). Yet Paul doesn’t stop there.

[16] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, (2 Corinthians 4:16–17 ESV)

Paul acknowledges that an inner renewal is taking place simultaneous to the external wasting away. God is working this for good in Paul’s character in the here and now. But then he pivots to focus on the eternal. He claims that the suffering we experience as believers is actually for an additional purpose: to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory.

Why does our eternal weight of glory matter? Well, deep down we are all made for it. We are made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yes, but as we do that we will actually be entering into his glory, taking on his glory, ourselves becoming glorified. We ache for this.

The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is... We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

This is C.S. Lewis, exploring this longing for glory in his sermon, The Weight of Glory. If you’ve managed to never read this piece by Lewis, please take the time to think over this short sermon. Key to our understanding the coming resurrection is that we understand how we are to hope in the revelation of God’s glory – yes, and also hope in the revelation of our own glory (Rom 8:23). When we are resurrected, we will be honored by God and we will ourselves somehow shine with the glory of God, like stars in the heavens (Dan 12:3).

But what about pride and our human desire to steal glory from God? Well, on the day that our glory is revealed we will also have been set finally free from the presence of sin. We will be free then to delight in our own glory and in God’s without any sin whatsoever. It will all be in line with love.

So then, according to 2nd Corinthians 4, my suffering is producing eternal glory for me, more eternal glory than would have been mine otherwise. That is its outcome, its purpose. I desperately want God to remove the trial, but if he doesn’t, then I don’t have to give in to bitterness or shame. Instead, I can rest, knowing that its purpose for me is good. Its purpose is to give me more eternal glory – in all its tantalizing mystery – and that means its purpose is clearly in line with love and a kind father who doesn’t deny the best gifts to his children. Though he does at times deny the lesser in order to give the greater.

Eternal glory is better. Better than the freedom that would come from having my trial taken away now. Better than the absence of suffering. Better than my own visions of free and powerful ministry done for Christ.

Eternal glory is better. It’s a simple line, but I am finding it helpful as I fight for faith in God’s goodness when that weakness emerges again. God is not holding out on me. He is for me, just as he always has been.

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash