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Perspective on Suffering

It’s 2017. The Bucket Ministry is young, scrappy, and manned by less people than your average rowboat. We’re small but doing everything in our limited means to grow our mission field. That effort leads us to east Africa. Kenya, to be specific. Nairobi, Kenya, to be more so.

The first 95% of the trip was uneventful…when compared to the last 5%. As we’re leaving the interior of Kenya, taking a long, winding car ride towards the airport to return to the US, we pass by—what I could only describe then and remember now as—a mile-wide wave of rusted rooftops. It wasn’t just on the horizon; it was the horizon. By its size alone, it commanded our attention and curiosity.

We trade the same baffled look between each other in the car before asking our driver, Ronald, “What are we looking at?”

“Kibera,” he answers stiffly, which was a tone of voice I had only heard one time before: when I asked my wife if I could buy another dog.

As we’re shuttled past this immense settlement and our eyes toss forward to the road ahead, I can’t get the image of it out of my mind. Even as we board the plane, cross an ocean, and plant our feet back on home soil—it lingers in my thoughts.

I am haunted by this place.

Upon returning home, I and the others in the rowboat—paddles in hand—begin committing much of our office and free time to researching Kibera. Never before has our mission field so clearly advanced in one distinct direction. This is where God is calling our ministry.

We return to Kibera in 2018 to demonstrate the filter’s use in a local church (largely as a proof of concept that the people living there would be receptive of our presence). A church leader, who we will discuss later, invited us and arranged all the attendees. Over eighty missionaries and pastors with an established foothold in Kibera hear our message of the potential of this technology in the slum, and we are met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Several organizations approach us to learn how to integrate this filter into their mission.

After the encouraging reception of our first trip to Kibera, we are confident that the filter will work in the slum, but we are still unconvinced that our small ministry can scale this project and meet the physical and spiritual needs of the entire community there. So, to test our capacity, I ask that our board authorize a one-hundred filter trial in Kibera. The board agrees and, soon thereafter, the filters arrive in the care of Ronald to distribute around the slum.

In 2019, we receive the results from the one-hundred filter trial. Eighty-five out of the one-hundred recipients were completely clear of all waterborne diseases and, what’s more, a significant percentage decide to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. With the wind of that good news at my back, I decide to lead a small team into Kibera to perform an eight-hundred-and-sixty-four home distribution. This would be, by far, the largest distribution The Bucket Ministry had ever attempted. At this point, we are committed to the people of Kibera.

Then, 2020—COVID hits. The pandemic completely upsets all of our travel plans. Yet, I’m unwilling to let it decelerate our progress in Kibera, so I continue taking applications for mission trips. Around this time, an organization out of Louisiana emails me to learn more about what we do. After we exchange a few emails, phone and Zoom calls, they ask if they can accompany our team on a trip to Kibera. Elated and always enthused to get more people involved in this project, I agree, and we settle on a departure date of October.

The team from Louisiana looks to be about fourteen to eighteen people strong, so I am expecting to make substantial advances in our position in the project on this trip. Then, thirty days before departure, the US announces restrictions on travel and repatriation on the heels of booming COVID numbers. Assuming the restrictions will be completely, or at least partially, relaxed by 2021, we reschedule to the end of February.

Four days before we are supposed to leave, on February 22, I receive a call from the team leader in Louisiana. Without forenotice, he tells me their entire team has cancelled their tickets and will no longer be joining us in Kibera. Their pastor has contracted COVID, and they are nervous they might be in the incubatory period now and fall sick when they were out of country and without easy access to modern medicine. As we had prepaid for all of our shared living accommodations, we are out a significant amount of money.

Regardless of my feelings about this, the ink is dry on their decision. So, on the 26th, I and three other ministry members (Randy, Toni, and Olivia) leave for Kenya without them. My wife, Sheri, is supposed to be on this trip with us as well, but her passport is late arriving, so she has to stay back.

Our team lands in Nairobi on the 27th, and we are then shuttled to the guest house that we’ll call home for the next couple weeks. After a good night’s sleep, we wake early the next day to discuss our plans for the morning, afternoon, and evening. We decide to attend the morning service of a local church and then spend the rest of the day distributing filters and conducting follow-up visits. As we are in the car on the way to service, our driver tells me that the congregation expects me to preach. “Why not”, I answer jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and tragically underprepared. Nonetheless, I scramble together a quick sermon from Acts, and it goes pretty well.

Afterwards, we are informed that we’re also expected at an KPLA (Kibera Pastor’s Love Association) meeting. This organization is comprised of local pastors who convene regularly to strategize new ways of spreading the Gospel in Kibera. We accept and immediately become aware that this meeting has a rather uncomfortable agenda. The local pastors are disgruntled that they weren’t hired to assist in our initial assessment of the slum (to know how many families lived there, thus giving us the exact number of filters we needed). Thankfully, the Lord moved through me and allowed me to justify their exclusion with a gentle authority. At the end of the meeting, we part on good terms.

The next two days (Monday and Tuesday) are typical ministry work: We accompany the teams conducting assessments and visit with past filter recipients.

After another long day’s work on Wednesday, the team decides to go out for a meal at a local restaurant. Randy hangs back at the guest house because he wants to turn in early. Toni, Olivia, and I make the half mile walk to the restaurant and share a great meal and conversation between each other. Then, on the walk back, I’m hit with a strong feeling of fatigue and general discomfort. Upon returning to the guest house, I go right to bed to try to sleep it off.

I wake up at 2:00 in the morning and am unable to fall back asleep, so I decide to work a little from my laptop. As I roll out of bed, sit in the computer chair, and swivel towards the desk, I notice my laptop isn’t there. Strange, as I distinctly remember setting it down on the desk before we went to dinner. I fumble through the rest of the room for my laptop–becoming more and more anxious each passing minute that the one tether I had to my family back home is now missing–but find nothing. At this point, I’m in a state of panic. In looking around the room with a more critical eye, I begin to notice other things are missing as well: a pair of pants I wore the day before, a pocketknife I was willed by my late grandfather, and the envelope that contained all of our team’s emergency cash for the remainder of the trip.

Then it hit me: I was robbed. In the hour-and-a-half window of time when Toni, Olivia, and I left the guest house, walked to the restaurant, dined, and returned, someone had broken into my room and stolen north of $4,500 of personal and ministry property.

I call on the homeowner to review the security footage (thankfully the house has several cameras in it) and find that three men broke into my room…and no-one else’s. Is someone trying to send me a message? If so, I wish they would’ve left a note with magazine clippings in it, so I can figure out what’s going on.

The next day we file a police report, expecting little to nothing to actually come of it.

After returning from the police station, we begin eating breakfast when, out of the blue, I’m hit with an overwhelming feeling of nausea. Initially, I try to disregard it—thinking it’s the result of poor sleep, anxiety, malaria medication, and maybe a meal from a not-so-sanitary restaurant the night prior. However, not even five minutes after the discomfort hit me, I realize I can’t ignore it any longer. I stand up and make a mad dash to the bathroom and evacuate what feels like ten pounds of food and liquid from my stomach.

Obviously, I decide to hang back for the day’s filter distributions. This is the first time in 35+ trips that I am not actively attending to the mission or the team while overseas. I’m simply laying in my bed and trying to keep enough fluids in my body to remain conscious.

After the team left to continue distributions, I schedule a driver to pick me up and take me to a COVID testing facility. In traffic, the drive takes about an hour, and for the the entire ride I violently vacillate between feeling feverish and freezing, sweating and shivering. I take the test, return to the guest house, and try to fall asleep. Of course, that doesn’t happen.

I hear the team return but decide to remain in my room, and not harangue them about the details of their day, for fear that I might get them sick, too. Turns out, that was a good decision. Around midnight, I receive an email telling me that my COVID test came back positive. Okay, I can handle this. God wanted me in this place, and He will deliver me from this place when the time is right. I just have to remain faithful to Him.

I spend the rest of the night praying for a miraculous recovery, for the team, and for my family’s reception of this news. I’m more nervous for their emotional capacity to handle this than I am for my physical capacity. I just want them to be confident in God’s plans for me and know that, whatever happens, He is in control.

I call them the next day and tell them what’s going on. My wife immediately offers to jump on a plane to stay with me until I can return home. I answer with an emphatic “No!”, explaining that I can’t stomach the possibility of her contracting this and being stuck here, too. On top of that, her passport is still delayed, and she has no idea when it’ll arrive.

After the call with my family, I tell the team about my positive test. I try remaining upbeat and encouraging, as there is still much work left to be done on this trip, but I feel a very penetrating sense of worry start in my stomach. The next day, I contact the ministry’s medical consultant, Dr. Jim Howard, and ask him what the treatment protocol is. At this point, I’m thinking that I could take a few pills, test again, and I’ll be all good to go home. Jim suggests that I start with prednisone and azithromycin, which are available over the counter in Kenya.

While sequestered in isolation, I feel strangely calm. This is no big deal. I don’t feel that bad. I’ll be home in no time. I almost feel in control…

Later in the day the team returns from the field. They’re exhausted and very concerned about leaving me behind the following day. I tell them there’s no way I want anyone else to stay and possibly be stuck here with me. After much protest, they finally agree this decision is for the best and begin to pack their bags.

As they leave the following morning, the owner of the guest house asks me to transfer my things to another house across the street. This home is not ready for people to stay in it (as he had just bought it), but—considering the risk of infection to other occupants of the guest house—I agree and move my things at once.

Then, only minutes after I move my things, I become noticeably worse. I’m feverish, sweating, and there’s a strange tightness in my chest. A pain, even. I feel winded just in standing up. Sensing this illness sinking its claws further into me, I lose some of my block-headed confidence. I’m totally alone. None of the staff are allowed in the house I’m staying in, and I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Day after day, the loneliness compounds. It becomes tasking to fill my day with things to do. I start walking to kill time but, after a few days, I can barely manage to summon enough breath to walk from my bed to the bathroom. In the evenings, Sheri keeps me company with daily phone calls. She keeps asking if she should come, and I repeatedly tell her not to. I don’t want her getting infected and being stuck here, too. I tell her I’m fine. The medicine is working and I’m improving every hour.

But, as my health continues to wane, the weakness and shakiness of my voice betrays how truly sick I am. I eventually tell her that I can barely make it to the bathroom anymore, and I’m practically bed-ridden for 98% of the day. She insists on coming to Kenya, but I remind her that, without her passport, no amount of conviction is going to make that happen.

I call her again two nights later to tell her the pulse oximeter reads my oxygen levels at 81 (the acceptable range in 98-97) and I have a fever of 102. I ask her what I should do. She tells me to go to the hospital immediately. She is rarely urgent in medical matters—being a nurse for over twenty-five years tends to have the effect—so I know it’s important. I text the owner of the home to find out if he can call a driver to take me to the hospital. But, as it is curfew, only ambulances are authorized to pick people up for health issues. I tell him to call me an ambulance and he does.

About thirty minutes later, the ambulance arrives. Two men step out and ask me what the problem is. I tell them I have COVID and they return to the ambulance. About ten minutes later, they step out again clad in makeshift PPE suits: trash bags, masking tape, and painter’s goggles. As I’m short for words (and breath), I just shrug my shoulders and get in the back.

They drive me to a hospital that is, allegedly, the best in the area. It’s Muslim-led but has a great reputation among the local Kenyan people. As we pull into the hospital and are received by a handful of nurses, the drivers are told that, if my condition isn’t too bad, I can’t stay or even be admitted. The drivers assure the nurses that I’m in a bad spot, so they take me to a room in an isolated wing of the hospital with negative air flow. A doctor takes my vitals, reviews the results, looks me in the eyes and says, “You’re good. You go home.” I plead with him to, at the very least, take a chest Xray because my lungs feel almost deflated. He says they don’t have enough time, and I’m quickly shepherded out of the room, into the ambulance, and dropped back off at the guest house.

The minute I get to my bed I collapse on the mattress and fall asleep. A few hours later, I wake up. The sheets, pillowcases, and my clothes are saturated in sweat. My eyes burn from salty beads pouring down my brow and welling in my under eyelid. I’m miserable.

I call Sheri in the morning and learn that her passport arrived, and that she is also making plans to leave the following day to come to Kenya. My daughter, Savannah, is helping her set up the paperwork and make the proper arrangements. This process is very hard to do even if you have weeks or months, let alone a couple days. At this point, I know that I need her by my side, so I give no pushback when she starts detailing her travel plans.

That night, I turn to God again in prayer. I’ve been praying for weeks for a miracle, but I only get sicker and sicker. As my health wanes, so too does my faith in God to redeem my circumstances. I’m here because of Him. Why is He letting this happen to me?

Sheri leaves on Saturday and, after thirty-five hours of air travel, lands in Nairobi, Kenya. I call a driver to take me to the airport to meet her. As he arrives, I realize I won’t be able to make it to the car on my own, so I ask that he support some of my weight. He graciously agrees, and we leave for the airport at once.

Once there, my driver offers to walk to the terminal by himself and escort Sheri back to the car, as it would be incredible laborious for me to do it. I insist on going with him to meet her at the gate, and he reluctantly yields to my persistence. What should be a two-to-three-minute walk, ends up taking twenty-five minutes. Every ten feet, I have to brace myself against my driver’s shoulder and catch my breath. But the walk is more than worth it when I see Sheri. It’s like Christmas day. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and know that it’ll be better because she’s with me now.

We get back to the guest house and she sleeps in a separate bedroom. Again, I awake the next morning drenched in sweat.

In the morning, Sheri insists that we go out and buy a nebulizer. I initially resist—thinking myself in fine enough condition to not need it—but I eventually give in and we take a trip to a medical supply shop in Nairobi. Praise God for Sheri’s better judgement…

Wednesday morning, 4:00 AM. I wake up freezing. A cold film of sweat covers my body. It feels like I slept on a bed of ice chips. I’m shivering violently. I sit up and my clothes hang heavy over my shoulders and around my waist as if I had just stepped out of a pool. Pellets of sweat pour down my face. My mouth smacks of salt. I throw the sheets off and they land with a wet thud on the tile floor. I try to get out of bed, but my legs and arms don’t respond. I collapse back onto the mattress.

What is happening?

I desperately try to summon all the strength from whatever hidden reserve I might have in my body, but I now fail to even lift my head from the pillow. A barbed feeling of panic shoots through my stomach. I try to take a breath to calm myself but find I can barely force enough air into my body to remain conscious. It feels like a lead block is sitting on my chest. My throat is so choked from swelling that whatever air I can draw in whistles into and out of my body. My lungs feel deflated. I try to call out to Sheri in desperation but nothing–except that sharp whistle—comes out.

Is this it? Is this how it ends?

Somehow, I manage to muster the last vague whispers of strength in my arms to push myself off the bed and onto the floor. I land in a kneeling position with one hand clutching a wet ball of the fitted sheet. Sweat seeps from between my fingers. With no hope otherwise, I turn to God. I pray for breath. I pray for calm. I pray for Sheri to wake up. And, failing those things, I pray for deliverance–that I might soon hear that beautiful phrase: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Having squared myself with God and made peace with the reality of my fate, I let out one last brittle, broken cry to Sheri. It sounds hoarse, like gas exploding out of a crushed exhaust pipe. With all my energy and strength spent, I fall backwards onto the tile. It feels warm and strangely comforting.

Just then, as my vision is fading in and out, and the last weak vapors of air leave my lungs, I see a blurred figure throw open the door. It’s Sheri! She rushes over to me and props me back up against the bed and then, in a frenzy, digs through my pack to find the nebulizer medicine. My eyelids slowly sag and all I see is the dim silhouette of her strapping the nebulizer mask to my face and brushing the cold sweat from my brow.

I fade back into consciousness and feel my head cradled against her. My chest begins to loosen. I’m calm now and my breathing has slowed. In this moment, I become intimately aware of one thing: She is how God answered my prayers. She is the miracle I had been praying for. My wife, my angel.

Sheri saved my life.

She calls the driver to come pick us up and take us back to the hospital. This time, when we get there, the doctor responds to my request for an Xray a little differently (courtesy of Sheri). She doesn’t so much ask the doctor to give me an Xray, or even demand it. Rather, she dares her not to…

Out of fear (I’m assuming) she concedes, and I’m ushered into an examination room, by wheelchair, and given a chest Xray. The nurse schedules an appointment with the lung doctor four hours later to review my results. As we wait to meet him, both me and Sheri are greeted by great news. The CDC updated their website to say that the US will grant reentry with a negative COVID result OR a doctor’s note that states, though I’m still testing positive, I’m no longer a threat to spreading COVID (as I had passed the fourteen-day window of infectivity). So, if I could get such a note, I could go home!

After a round of ceremonial high-fives, the doctor enters and says, after reviewing my Xray, I have COVID-pneumonia with moderate crystallization in my lungs. But even that can’t detract from our excitement at the prospect of being able to go home!

Upon returning to the guest house, we immediately start working on securing a doctor’s note. You might remember TBM’s medical consultant from earlier in the story, Dr. Jim. Well, I message him up again (he, undoubtedly, growing tired of my sporadic emails). I explain the situation to him, and he immediately agrees to draft a letter and sign it. My daughter, Savannah, is then tasked with picking it up from him and scanning it over to us. Next, we make plans with our travel agent, Nick, to return home as soon as possible. By the grace of God, he finds last minute tickets. Finally, for the first time in weeks, it looks like this chapter in my life is coming to a close.

Sheri and I return to the COVID testing facility (as it’s still required to have a current test in-hand at the airport, despite having the doctor’s note). I test positive (of course), but, thankfully, Sheri tests negative.

The next day, we receive the scan of the doctor’s note from Savannah, and we are off to the airport!

For the entire ride, I’m filled with elation and encouragement. I’m finally going home with the angel that God sent me. I’m finally going to see my kids. I’m finally going to sleep in my own bed. I’m so excited I can barely sit still!

We arrive and have to go through an exterior check point, and then the first of several rounds of interior check points. Thankfully, we get through both without any hang-ups. They accept my doctor’s note as substitute for a negative test.

As we wait in line for the ticket agent to check our bags, I’m brimming with confidence. I can practically see the Dallas skyline! An airport attendant approaches—no doubt another security check point—and we immediately comply and produce our test results and doctor’s note. Again, we get through without a problem.

Then, after we wait the requisite three hours (or what felt like it) to make it to the gate agent, we run into a hitch. A very slight woman, with a friendly smile, asks us to show our documents and test results. I pull my doctor’s note out and immediately begin explaining the clause in the CDC’s travel policy that allows me to travel without a negative test result. The woman looks at me, tilts her head, and with complete bemusement says, “What?”. I show her the printed-out CDC brief outlining the policy, and she says, “Give me a second.” She disappears for twenty minutes and, in the interim, Sheri and I begin praying.

She returns with a supervisor at her shoulder. “Lufthansa is unaware of such a policy and will not allow you on this plane,” the supervisor tells me coldly. I pull out the CDC brief again and begin frantically reading it back to them, but, at this point, they’re done listening. I ask to speak to someone with greater authority who might already be apprised of this new policy, but, instead, we’re greeted by a security guard who demands that we step outside. “We will be on that plane tonight,” I tell him, losing what little emotional endurance I have left. In response, two more security guards join him and escort us outside.

My breathing again becomes labored, and I have a splitting headache. Once outside, I throw my back against the wall and bury my face in my hands. It’s over. We’re stuck here.

The day manager of Lufthansa meets us outside. He says, “Sir, there is no way you are getting on this plane tonight”, turns his heels, and walks back inside. I look at Sheri and beg her to go home, but she’s insistent that she won’t leave until I can.

So, we book a couple nights at the airport hotel, throw ourselves on the bed in exhaustion, and cry ourselves to sleep. I wake several times throughout the night—thinking I might never make it home, never see my kids again, that I trapped my wife in this place, that I made a terrible decision coming here. Though the airport hotel is a significant improvement to the guest house we have been staying in, we’re still trapped here with no definite time window of when we can return.

During this time, Sheri has me walking several times a day to exercise my lungs and busy my mind. On one of these walks, we decide that she needs to return home as my health no longer warrants her staying with me. On top of that, I’m nervous she’ll get infected, too, if she stays here any longer. I can’t stomach the thought of both of us being trapped here.

After two nights at the airport hotel, we return to the guest house. Several of our board members tell me that the ministry will foot the bill for the hotel since it’s nicer and has better amenities. I decline, citing the already enormous cost of this nearly one-month-long stay.

We decide that Sheri will return on the forthcoming Tuesday. She has to get another COVID test, so we stop by the testing facility, on our way back to the guest house, where I have previously logged five positive COVID tests. We wait there for two hours for what I expect to be another positive test. The entire time I’m encumbered by exhaustion. Sheri had previously scheduled another test at Nairobi West Hospital and, when we left the first testing facility, she instructs the driver to go there next. I beg her to go back to the guest house. I’m tired and the results will be the same. At this point, my confidence is non-existent.

She brushes my pleas aside, and we end up at Nairobi West (after the driver gets lost several times). The testing facility is outside, on a dirt floor, under an overused, weather-beaten tent. We enter a line whose size is rivaled only by a ride at Six Flags on a June day. After getting tested for the second time that day, we make our way back to the guest house. We settle back in our beds under the dark cloud of anticipated disappointment. While I know it’s best that Sheri leaves, it hurts my heart to imagine the following day, when she won’t be with me.

Before we go to bed, I look at my email. The first testing lab sent its results. I know what my result is going to be, so I open Sheri’s first. I have to squint at the tiny screen on my phone to see, but she tests negative. I’m practically jumping for joy, as I’m happy that she’ll be able to return home.

Then Sheri asks me what my result is. She is full of hope. But, as I click on the email to open it, I don’t share in her optimism. Sure enough, there it is: another positive COVID result. While I expected this news, it might be the toughest thing I’ve ever read. I can’t quite remember a night filled with such sadness before. I know this one thing to be true: she wants me to go home with her as bad as I want to go home with her…but it doesn’t look like that’ll happen.

Riddled with worry, I only sleep for a couple hours. I wake up around 4:00 AM. As part of my regular, morning routine, I pray to the Lord and give Him thanks for all the gifts He has given me. I’m not embittered by my present circumstances. His overwhelming grace is enough to sustain me.

The next thing I do is grab my phone, open my email inbox, and expect more bad news. I see two new emails from Nairobi West Hospital. Again, I open Sheri’s first. She has tested negative for the second time. Not that there is any misgiving whether or not she will return home, but this is nice confirmation, nonetheless. Then, I open my results, bracing myself for another round of bad news. As I scan the email with tired, teary eyes, I can almost read “NEGATIVE” as the result. I hurriedly wipe the sleep out of my eyes, and see that it does, indeed, say “NEGATIVE”. In my excitement, I close the email, reopen it, enlarge the text, and sure enough the result is still there: NEGATIVE! I wake Sheri up and we dance around the room and praise God.

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Now, we’re definitely going home. No one is stopping us. But I need a plane ticket for that same evening Sheri is departing. Thankfully, I’m able to get in touch with Nick. I tell him one thing, “Get me home, Mr. Wizard.” He quickly responds back with news that he has secured me the LAST seat on Sheri’s return flight! As we happily begin to pack our bags, we have a new sense of excitement.

The guest house is about forty-five minutes away from the airport. Despite that, we leave five hours early to ensure that we have an extra time to comfortably make our way to the gate. Our driver, Simon, picks us up with an infectiously joyful spirit. After the first fifteen minutes, we realize there is significant traffic. Now, at an hour-and-a-half into our forty-five-minute trip, Simon tells us it might be another two hours until we get there at our current pace. The joyful spirit is sucked out of the car like a vacuum.

Sheri leans over and whispers, “Maybe we should walk.” I’m tempted but, just then, Simon weaves his way through an unmapped part of the city. As I watch the GPS on my phone, our little car legend drifts into a vague, undefined sea of grey…further and further from the airport.

Now two-and-a-half hours in, Simon bobs through an angry crowd of Kenyan protestors. The object of their protest–we don’t know. Gradually, he picks up speed and is returning to the general direction of the airport. All I can think about is how ironic it would be that I miss the one flight that will actually be able to take me back home, after everything I’ve endured. Nearing the three-hour mark, the GPS says that we are twelve minutes from the airport. Simon’s joyful disposition returns, as he sees that we are quickly approaching our destination.

Thirty minutes later, we make it to the airport’s entrance…with a little more grey in our hair.

After we make it through all the initial checkpoints, we arrive at the ticket counter that, before, turned us away. I produce my negative COVID test, as does Sheri, and we check our bags in undisturbed. Now at the gate, we are prepared to board the plane and not think about the previous two weeks. We just want to go to sleep.

Sheri and I are assigned row thirty-five. The plane boards from the back, all the way up to row thirty-six. Then, they call boarding for row thirty-four, all the way to the front. Sheri and I immediately look at each other in disbelief. Are they not going to board row thirty-five? Turns out, we don’t care about the answer. We get on the plane anyways, disguised as one of the other one-hundred-and-twenty rows, and start our journey home.

That’s the story. Or, at least, as much of it as I can bring myself to tell.

I’m sitting now in my home in Tawakoni, Texas. The house is filled with the warmth of my grandson’s laugh and the soft footfalls of him evading my daughter’s chase. My beautiful wife sits next to me playing solitaire on the computer. I’ve never understood her fondness for that game, but I admire the patience it takes to become as good at it as she is. I look out the window and see a group of deer feeding from the corn I put out earlier. A branch breaks and they retreat to the tree line, weaving around the dense thickets with the poise and grace of a warm wind.

I have never known such contentment in my life.

As I sit here and savor these few moments of perfect happiness, my mind drifts to Kenya and the remarkable privilege it was to experience perfect sadness. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about the unexpected ways God answers prayers, but I always counted them as platitudes. Either God meets your needs in the manner your need them met, or He doesn’t. I became even more solidified in this conviction when, after weeks of illness, my prayers for improved health seemingly went unanswered. I thought God had chosen the latter.

Little did I know that His redemption of my circumstances was decades in the making. God answered my prayers thirty-five years ago when, in high school, I was introduced to a girl named Sheri.

I wanted Him to completely relieve me of this illness. Anything less than that, I wouldn’t be able to see His hand in. But my miracle was so much greater and more profound than instant relief. My miracle and redemption had been mounting, gradually, over the better part of my life.

I’m so privileged to have such an intimate experience with death because now, in every passing moment—in my grandson’s laugh, my daughter’s hopeless chase, my wife’s absorption in her card game, and the scurrying deer outside—I see His fingerprints in life.

Written by Griffin Beth