To my young eyes, my father had always been a man of Abrahamic proportions: a passionate believer, ardent of heart, lithe of mind, a compelling evangelist–he had converted his own parents to Christian faith. He never cussed, he never lost his temper, he rarely cried. He was the most upbeat, optimistic person that I, in the narrow circle of my life, had ever encountered. And he had an almost Abrahamic sense of divine destiny that he carried with him. He and my mother had engraved inside of their wedding bands a reference to a text from Ephesians they had claimed for themselves–that their marriage would be “to the praise of God’s glory.”
They had wanted to be missionaries, but health problems had prevented it. Fifteen years later, my father would become a radio evangelist whose messages of faith and hope would be beamed across the globe. Through him, it seemed to my admiring eyes, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
I suppose, then, that it might also have seemed entirely natural to me when the Almighty decided to ask of my father and mother their first-born son. It was the summer of 1959. I was third in the family line, a wide-eyed four year old, and Billy, my oldest brother, was seven. He had all the intelligence, charm, good looks, and promise of his father, and was the undisputed leader of the neighborhood pack. But a simple case of measles had gone bad, traveled to the lining of the brain, and turned into encephalitis. His fever soared, then came convulsions, then a month of coma. When he regained consciousness, he would never be the same. The infection had ravaged his brain and left him with partial paralysis on his right side (he walked with a limp and his right hand hung useless), diminished cognitive capacity, periodic epileptic-type seizures, and tendencies toward hyperactivity that could all too frequently turn into frustrated punching attacks against his younger brothers.
When God demanded that Abraham give up Isaac, the boy was eventually spared the sacrificial knife (though I wonder if Isaac ever fully recovered from the ordeal). With Billy, the knife in God’s hand struck a glancing blow, taking not his whole life, but a large chunk of it. This meant that the rest of the sacrifice would be demanded of our family, as we struggled to grieve our loss and to cope with this strange, unpredictable, and unmanageable child of the same name who had replaced Billy in our family.
For me, the next five turbulent years were critical in sorting out what had happened and what it meant. Why was Billy “stricken?” (That’s always the word my parents used.) What was God’s purpose in it? How were we now to live? What were we to do with our pain and loss? When I revisit those years in my memory, I encounter, from a child’s view, the roots of the questions and assumptions that have followed me all my life. All that I have learned, for good and ill, of God’s destiny, mercy, and call, begins here, with this story.
It wasn’t more than a few months after Billy came out of his coma that my father accepted a call to become the pastor of a large, historic church on the south side of Chicago, in the old Dutch community of Roseland. It was the fall of 1959. Already black folk (we were instructed to call them Negroes) were moving into the suburbs just to the north of Roseland, and the community was more than a little anxious. I remember muttered references among church members to unscrupulous realtors who preyed upon and profited from the fears of homeowners who were on the verge of panic selling. I don’t think that the real panic hit while we lived in Roseland. We left in 1964. By 1966, however, the entire community had changed from Dutch to black, and the church my father had served had relocated itself to South Holland, sixty blocks to the south. The only thing they took with them from the old church building was the bell from the tower.
But while we lived in Roseland, that anxiety still was only a rumble in the distance. This golden age from 1959 to 1964 was in many ways the pinnacle of the American dream,. Both the Second World War and the war in Korea were over. The vets had come home and the baby boom was on. Vietnam had not yet divided our country. America was absorbed with making babies and building houses, living the American dream which seemed as bright and hopeful as it ever had been. And we arrived in Chicago, a handsome and charismatic young pastor with a loving and industrious wife and four young boys, full of life. The congregation had gathered together a big laundry basket full of toys and left it in the parsonage, waiting for us when we moved in–even toy guns, which had been forbidden by my parents. I thought we had come to heaven.
But heaven would have to wait. As time passed after Billy’s illness, scar tissue began to develop in his brain. His behavior problems went from bad to worse. He would stand in a room next to the light switch and flick the lights on and off as rapidly as he could, laughing strangely. He would chew on the edge of the collar of his shirts, mangling their appearance. He would talk out loud in the middle of church services, and all eyes in the sanctuary would turn to the pastor’s wife, silently wondering why she could not control her children. After two years of increasing chaos and disruption, a close family friend took my parents aside. Something had to be done, he said. A cloud was enveloping the family, and he feared that even more damage might be done.
So my parents found a residential school for Billy in Racine, Wisconsin, a few hours drive to the north. They could offer him the specialized schooling that he needed, and the family could get some relief from the strain. Members of the congregation generously chipped in to pay most of the tuition bills, which amounted annually to a figure that rivaled my father’s salary. A wealthy businessman from the church who had grown up in poverty as an orphan led the fund-raising efforts. People loved us, and cared and prayed for us.
Passing through the grades of early elementary school, I was oblivious to much of this at the time. Children have an odd capacity to tune in and out of the radio frequencies on which the adult world communicates. I was vaguely aware of the turmoil, but never really thought that I or our family were suffering. In a strange way, I thought it was normal to have a brother like Billy. It was not unusual that our family life would be disrupted as it was. This was all to be expected, because we were a family that had a divine destiny. Somehow, all this pain would turn out to the praise of God’s glory. Somehow, it would all be redeemed. It was just part of our life, and if it was overwhelming at times, even that was an indication of the magnitude of the divine blessing which was, somehow, to come from this ordeal. None of this was ever spoken explicitly, at least as I can recall. I honestly don’t know how much of this assumption was my own creation, and how much I inherited from my parents. But in any case, as far as I was concerned, this sense of divine destiny was simply assumed, the bedrock spiritual conviction on which our lives were built, the frame in which the picture of our lives made sense and fell into proportion.
As I have grown older, this vision of divine destiny has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Yet already in Roseland, there were counterpoints to my somewhat triumphant young vision, cracks that emerged in my capacity to imagine a world in which every evil is heroically turned into a greater good. One of them forms a vivid memory that marks the close of our time in Roseland and the end of a chapter of my life.
In our later years in Roseland, aft
er Billy was off at the school in Wisconsin, my father would take the rest of us with him on Sunday afternoons when he called on the shut-ins of the church, and we would sing for them. This duty, I must confess, was among the most onerous I remember being imposed upon me during our time in Roseland. We boys hated those Sunday afternoon trips: cooped up in the car, dragged into strange smelling nursing homes, fussed over by old folks, or even worse, made to stand uncomfortably in the rooms of those who could not even speak to us. We would stand idly by while my parents made small talk and my father read Scripture, and then would dutifully sing on cue. The singing was actually the highlight of the visit, both because it usually elicited a warm response from our listeners and because it signaled that our departure would be imminent. After the song, a quick prayer usually closed the visit, and we were free again!
There was one woman in particular whom we visited with considerable regularity and with even less than the usual dim enthusiasm. I do not remember her name. She was very old, and was always curled up in a fetal position when we entered the room. She was barely able to speak, and seemed completely paralyzed. My father would put his ear almost next to her mouth, and struggled to make out her words. This visit would always elicit from us boys the loudest complaints and firmest resistance. We could not interact with this woman, and she could show no signs of appreciation for our efforts. I remember feeling as if I was singing to the wall. I didn’t know if she could even hear or understand what we were doing.
But in the very last week of our time in Roseland, at the ripe age of nine years, I would come to realize how mistaken I had been about our visits to this woman, and would begin to gain insight into the strange way in which our sorrows and our redemption become interwoven. This was, my father had told her, our last visit. My father had accepted a call to serve as professor of preaching at a seminary in Michigan, and so we were saying goodbye. But of course, we would sing for her before we left. Her favorite hymn was always the same–ironically, the hymn that was also the favorite of my brother Billy in our evening family times around the piano. She wanted to hear “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past.
Safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none; hangs my helpless soul on Thee.
Leave, ah leave me not alone; still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed.
All my help from Thee I bring.
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.
As my family sang these words, to my amazement, I saw streams of tears flow down her cheeks, and watched her frail body shake as she sobbed without making a sound. In that moment something was suddenly made clear to me, something deep and important. Those bothersome Sunday afternoon duties meant more than I had imagined. At that moment I began to glimpse a reality that would confront me with greater depth and power as I continued to grow: the subterranean river of our lives flowing far below the polite niceties of normal conversation, beneath the casual and routine order of our lives, flowing between and among us. Looking back now, I see the river of sorrow and loss that joined her to us, and the river of hope and longing that sustained us all in the midst of circumstances so painful that they would be utterly intolerable if they were not at the same time so utterly ordinary and routinized. I see how closely sorrow is mingled with love. I see most of all how even for Abraham of old, his divine destiny consisted not so much in that he was “blessed to be a blessing.” Perhaps that destiny and divine call was rooted instead in his homelessness and in the near loss of his only son. Perhaps it was there that he too discovered and entered the river of sorrow, hope and longing that flows from the Savior’s side, the river that slowly, ever so slowly, nourishes this whole broken world back to life.
The Akedah is the traditional Jewish name for the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.