MR #37: Unspeakable Pain

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

We cry sometime every night. Will the tears stop?

As many of you know, Jonathan, our affectionate first-born son, died in an accident on the evening of February 12. Jonathan died instantly in the sleeping compartment of his truck when his 18-wheeler rear-ended another truck in slow-moving traffic. His co-driver fell asleep at the wheel. Jonathan died five days short of his thirty-fifth birthday, like a reed cut down by a sickle before its time. We feel unspeakable pain — a void, an emptiness, a vacuum that will continue until we follow him in death. Children are to bury their parents. . . . Oh, if we could have died for him! Why could not the order be reversed?

Jonathan and Nicole married on July 18, 2003, and in this short period of time, had two children, Eli (20 months) and Eva (8 months). Our younger son David commented that Jon was “living the life of his dreams.” All he wanted from God in life was an affectionate wife and healthy children. Phyllis Phillips, Jonathan’s mother-in-law, asked Jonathan what he wanted for his birthday. His reply was “I have everything I want.”

He loved all people equally — whether rich or poor, black or white. While shy and unassuming, he was the consummate encourager. We remember stories of him encouraging the mechanic fixing his truck, an African student struggling to adapt to the USA, and his son while learning to walk and talk. He was a man without guile — loving, caring, ethical, a follower of “good.” He was a wonderful father, husband, brother, and son. The words of the birthday card that we purchased before his death but never sent expresses our sentiment:

Happy birthday, son. You were born to be one of a kind . . . .

Since the day you were born,
We knew you would grow up to be someone special.
Who could have imagined that your love for life and genuine compassion for others
would touch so many lives.

Our son’s accident closed an interstate highway for five hours.
Traffic frozen,
lives on hold,
thoughts racing.

And then, the traffic began to flow again, first slowly, then more quickly, . . . but with a new wisdom. Life is fragile and finite. We are only visitors passing through this world. Wisdom, however, lacks understanding. “Why, oh why, God? What have you allowed Satan to do?”

We have tried to put our thoughts, our struggles, our prayers on paper and thus refocus life without our first-born. During our first years in Africa, when Jon was only one year old, we heard the blasts of machine guns nightly as Idi Amin of Uganda eliminated all dissenters. We talked our way through road blocks and made final trips to nourish the first struggling Christians among the Bakonjo people in Western Uganda. By God’s might and power 9 churches grew up among the Bakonjo of Uganda. When our team was forced to flee to Kenya, our partnering elders contemplated bringing us home. But God settled us among the Kipsigis people of Kenya for the next 13 years, where He worked in His mission through our team to raise up leaders to plant over 250 local churches. We remember our time in Uganda as our time to testing: Would we stay? Would God use us in his missionaries in Africa?

When we retired from Abilene Christian University to launch Mission Alive, we felt that Becky’s declining eye-sight, a disease we earthlings call Retinitis Pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease involving loss of peripheral vision and night blindness), was our “Uganda experience,” like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [us]” (2 Cor. 12:7). We believe that when Satan saw captives set free from addictions and lostness in our new church plantings in Fort Worth, Austin, and Lexington, and developing plans for church planting in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Providence, and other places, he has hit us were it hurts most, the death of our child to discourage and distract.

It is the nature of Satan to hinder the mission of God. He is the great tempter, hostile to God, and working to overthrow divine purposes. He is the great dragon, waiting to devour the young Child at the moment of His birth. God, however, caught Him away to another land (Rev. 13:4; cf. Matthew 2). After his baptism, he sought to turn back the ministry of Christ through temptations before the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). Satan entered the heart of Judas (John 13:2) and through religious leaders instigated and carried out plans to kill Jesus (John 8:44). Jesus shared in our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

To some degree we have entered into the grief of God. We know what it means to lose a son.

Because we know the battle (Eph. 6:12), we will not turn back from the mission of God. We know that Satan’s work is manifest not only in the world but paradoxically also in the church. Christianity in North America has become tainted: Too many Christians have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). Missional renewal and church planting are desperately needed in a generation in which too many churches have accommodated to the rationalism and life styles of popular culture and do not readily reflect the majesty, glory, holiness, and love of God.

We have found this death to be dirty, bloody, foul, an unimaginable separation, soul ripped from body. We have seen churches likewise die because of immorality, anger, jealousy, gossip–the lust of the flesh entering the kingdom of God. We perceive resurrection to be the opposite: glorious, aromatic, clean, unimaginable connection, soul united with its Creator. We have experienced such church renewal through affirmation of spiritual reality, focus on holiness, confession, repentance, turning to and reconnection with God. The badness is eaten up in the goodness. Morality is swallowed into immortality. Resurrection transcends death. Thus we not like those who “grieve . . . without hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

God is at work in the midst of our sadness. Churches of Christ, black and white, were brought together. Jonathan’s co-driver Eric Dickerson, who died a few hours after our son, was in training to become a deacon at the Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville. Jonathan was a member of the Westport Road Church of Christ across the city. Christian leaders from the two churches came to both visitations and memorial services and cried on each others’ shoulders. Nicole amazingly attended Eric’s funeral to give support to his wife Sherri. Black and white, too divided in life, coming together in death! Eric and Jonathan were loving husbands and parents and Christian role models. May they enjoy God’s presence together!

More about the accident can be read at Indiana wreck kills two Louisville friends; both UPS drivers and Semi crash kills driver, passenger.

We are thankful for the thousands of people who have sent us words of comfort through emails, cards, and telephone calls. You are comforting us through unbearable pain.

Please pray for us, Jonathan’s wife Nicole, their children Eli and Eva, and his siblings Rebecca, Deborah, and David.

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