This is the fifth blog in my series:
6 Things Robbing You of a More Meaningful Life.
You can start at the beginning of the series here:
Dan and his wife Mary are two of the biggest adventurers I know.
I have known them and their children for about six years now. In fact, their son Tito was born at the same hospital the day after our son Sawyer was born. I can still remember running into Dan in the cafeteria line at Erlanger Women’s East. It was one of those "Hey, what are you doing here?” kind of moments.
I can even recall my first conversation with Dan. I was shuttling him and a few other men over to the Tennessee River to kayak for our company’s fitness day. As I drove he told stories of his time in Africa and how he was planning to go back with his family to minister to the people there. I was fascinated by him. He was a genuinely nice guy who seemed to live life to its fullest. He was an adventurer, but at the same time seemed so grounded and normal. I have to admit, I envied him for it.
A couple of years later Patience and I decided to have Dan and Mary over for dinner. They were in the thick of raising money for their transition to go to live and serve in the poorest country in the world, and we wanted to support them, not only financially, but by building a relationship we could continue even after they crossed the Atlantic. The dinner was great, but the conversation was even better. Once again I found myself spellbound and amazed at two people so surrendered they would gladly give up everything to follow a calling to a remote people group in a place I had never even heard of before. Being around people like this is contagious. It makes you itch for something more. It makes you want to come alive, and shines a bright light on the trivial parts of your life; leaving a deep desire for a more meaningful existence.
About six months or so after our dinner, Dan returned to my house to talk to our group of friends the night before he and his family would board a plane and make the move to Africa. His Dad and brother drove him over because he didn't even have a car. He explained in the weeks leading up to that evening he and Mary had opened up their house and literally gave everything they had away. All that remained were seven plastic storage containers (the kind you put your Christmas junk up in the attic in) one for each family member. We all sat in our living room and listened in utter amazement at a man leading his family into an story only God could call a person to. We prayed for Dan, and when he walked out the door, let out a collective sigh of unbelief. I guess it’s just not every day you encounter that kind of radical faith.
I wish I could tell you that Dan and Mary were still in Africa serving. I know their hearts are still there, but circumstances changed. A family tragedy occurred while on the field, and it left Mary and Dan to choose whether to continue to serve or go home to get help for one of their children who had been devastated. I can’t imagine having to decide between killing the dream God put in your heart, or risking losing a family member to psychological anguish. In the end, they made the right decision to return home to the United States to seek help and counseling. They left the mission they had left everything for, only to come back seemingly premature.
After a couple of years of counseling, Dan reported they were finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. God was restoring their family and the child, who had been so terribly wounded, but it came with a price; they could never return to Africa. It was a decision they so wisely let their victimized child decide.
Dan’s final mission update letter began with a Bible verse:
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” 1 Peter 4:19
He followed up by saying:
“Dear Friends, We share this verse from 1 Peter, as we identify with the suffering of others who have gone before us. We know that going to Africa was God’s will for us. Now we are working through the consequences of the sin of someone else inflicted on one of our children. We know that God is faithful.”
Dan went on to explain he and Mary were resigning from their mission board. I read the letter and my heart broke for my friends. At the same time I was proud of them. It took a lot of courage to take such a step. I know a lot of people who would have swept it under the rug and continued to serve at the expense of losing the trust and love of their own child.
Shortly after they returned home we had their family over for a cookout. The kids ran around in the back yard as we adults talked of the tough transition of coming back to America. We laughed as they told stories of snakes and spiders in their home in Africa, but there was a sadness in their eyes. The sadness of parents trapped in the consequences of unimaginable circumstances. Yet Dan continued to tell us that God was faithful. Later that night, after everyone had left, I told Patience, “Dan and Mary are modern day Bible characters. I do not know anyone like them.” She agreed with me. I was honored to have people like them eating at my dinner table.
This all leads me to my conversation with Dan in the fall of last year; a conversation that made me sick to my stomach. I had received an email update at work the day before explaining Mary had been diagnosed with cancer. When I caught up to Dan in the parking lot the next day I was doing my best to hold back my emotions. I just didn’t know what to say or do. He told me the situation. His eyes were glazed as he talked, as if a lack of sleep and the whirlwind of his new found normal had numbed his brain. It was not good. Mary’s cancer was aggressive, and it was looking like she was not going to make it much longer. All of this came about so suddenly that I could honestly hardly believe the words he was saying were true. I shook my head in my utter shock and disbelief, and struggled with words to say.
I tell you Dan and Mary’s story because I believe it is one of the most beautiful ones I know. It is the story of a family that gave up everything for a calling, for an adventure God had placed in their hearts, only to have their circumstances turn their world upside down. Yet, even though they are no longer in Africa, and Dan is back to working in the factory while Mary battles with chemo, I get the sense they are on a different kind of adventure. An adventure no one would choose to take on their own volition. They are on a dangerous and uncertain road; a road where they have no idea where it might end up.
That’s the hardest part of writing this blog. I often think of Dan and Mary. I think of our dear friend, Shirley, who spends her days taking care of her elderly mother with dementia. I think of our life-long friends (family is a better word) the Hensley’s, who lost their son to Marfan Syndrome almost two years ago. I think of all the other close family and friends I know who are deeply hurting, from death, divorce, and illness and it makes me pause. I never want to paint a picture of my own life that would make those of you who are in a stormy season feel even more out of reach and disconnected. Instead I want to encourage you, no matter how tough the circumstances you are in, to trust that God is redeeming them; to believe He will make something beautiful out of it all somehow. That’s really the only hope we can cling to in the hard times.
I am glad to report that Mary is fighting, and is standing on rare ground. Fifty percent of the cancer has gone away through intense chemotherapy and a community of prayer. She is not out of the woods yet, but with her case of cancer she is in unprecedented territory. Through it all, Dan has done his best to keep it all together, and in typical fashion, I watch in awe of a man I believe would fill the pages of scripture if the Bible were being written today.
I had another conversation with Dan back in December out at the machine he runs at work. I stopped by to see how Mary was doing, and remind him we were still praying. This particular day Dan seemed more shaken than usual. The dark circles under his eyes made evident the exhaustion he’d been dealing with. I didn’t know it, but at the time, they had just been told by the doctors that it was probably Mary’s last week to live.
“I’ve learned something, Brandon,” he said as he fed boxes into the machine.
“What’s that?” I asked as I leaned in.
“I’ve learned I have absolutely no control.”
I shook my head in agreement, as he paused to collect his thoughts.
“I’ve learned I cannot control this storm I am in. I cannot control where this boat is going. But I know God put me here with Mary and my children, and all I can do is do my best to take care of the people in my boat.”
I was silent.
What Daniel was saying was so profoundly deep, especially considering the situation.
We talked for a few more minutes and I left to return to my desk as my heart tried to absorb the wisdom I had just gleaned.
Dan was not going to be a victim of his circumstances. He had found himself in a storm; a storm so dark and so violent. A storm so out of his control. But the storm was not going to stop him from doing what he could do. He would continue to live life, despite all that was against him. So much was admittedly out of his control, and yet Dan was grappling with what all of what was left... those in his boat.
I still envy Dan and Mary. I envy the kind of people with such unshakable faith. The kind of people who have been dealt the worst of hands, by anybody’s standards, and do not throw in the towel. The kind of people that don’t let their circumstances dictate who they are or how they are going to live life. They are adventurers through and through. I can only hope that when my time comes, and the storm sends my boat adrift into uncharted waters, I can brave it in a way Dan and Mary have.
I believe with all my heart God will heal Mary. I truly do. And if Dan’s boat analogy is true, I imagine it will be like one of those scenes from an adventure movie where the characters are in a raft and get pulled into treacherous waters. They fight and fight against the current, but it is no use. Just before they go over the edge of the waterfall, they brace themselves for the plunge. Then comes the fall to their uncertain demise. But moments later the camera pans over the misty waters at the base of the falls. There is nothing. Then up pops a head, and then another, and then another, as they all make their way to the shore of the raging river. Soaking wet they laugh out loud with elation, and raise their arms in victory. They survived.
I hope to laugh with Dan and Mary soon. I hope they find themselves on the other side of this waterfall at the shore with their arms raised victoriously in the realization of what a fall they just endured. And even though I can’t tell you for certain the outcome, I know that no matter what happens, circumstances will not detour my brave friends from their adventure; wherever their boat may lead them.
PS: Dan and Mary so graciously allowed me to publish this after reading through it all. They're prayer, along with mine, is that it would touch the hearts of those who are hurting through impossible circumstances. If you are reading this and have been blessed by Dan and Mary’s story, please take a minute to leave a comment of encouragement or a prayer for them.
Also, pass along their story to anyone you know who might be in a season of pain right now. Together we are stronger.