Scripture: Psalms 31:1–2, 5, 14–15a
Our guest preacher today is Rev. Dr. Bob Johnston.
Church family, I’m grateful to be with you today, to speak with you, to share some of my journey with you. When Matt asked me to preach this week and next, I asked if there was anything in particular that he wanted me to speak on. Of course, Matt being Matt, he told me to preach anything I wanted—but then he said sharing my journey of the past few years might be helpful. My family thought the same, so that is the direction I take this morning.
If you know my wife Holly and me at all, you know three things. First, you know that we are Chad’s parents, and we moved to Lawrence to be close to Chad, Becki and Evie. Second, you know something horrible happened to me, to us, that brought all of this about. And third, you know I am a retired pastor though I didn’t want to be, but I had no choice because of what happened to me.
It was abrupt. We had been navigating the stormy waters of COVID rather well, keeping safe, and then in January of 2021 we capsized. Holly had nothing more than a stomach ache, but COVID attacked my body. I was in the hospital for 73 days, stuck on a ventilator for five weeks, and was considered as good as dead by those who fought for my life.
I can’t tell you much about those days—for the first 40 days or so I was out of it, unable to wake up, remembering nothing but horrible hallucinations and terrible nightmares that were a living hell.
I did wake up, opening my eyes on March 10th 2021, and seeing of all things my granddaughter Evie throwing me kisses. That was the best medicine they could have given me, they let her stay the entire day!
But the devastation in my body was horrible. I had to learn to do everything all over again, and I was dependent on dialysis to survive my destroyed kidneys. Even so, when I did get out of the hospital, I set the goal of returning to my congregation as pastor, and I did for a while. My folks loved me, I had been their pastor for 32 years and they would have put up with anything—but it became abundantly obvious, it was time to retire.
Now, my message this morning is not a blow by blow account of what happened to me. No, what I want to share with you is how I have made sense of all of this. And seeing that nightmarish calamities can happen to any of us—and maybe is happening to you right now, or to someone you love—well, I think there is a word for all of us.
I was asked the question by a medical professional who, although he knew I was still quite ill, was amazed at the sudden turnaround in my condition. He did not consider himself a religious person at all, not a believer of any sort, but knowing I was a pastor, he was curious about how I was making sense of things. He called me a good man, a caring man, a healthy man up until all this happened, a man of faith, and he wanted to know how God could let something like this happen to someone like me.
And so he asked me, “Bob, how do you make sense of it all?”
It was a good question, because I was struggling with that very issue. I still remember the early days after I woke up on March 10th, trying to figure out what had happened to me and where the last two months had gone. I surveyed my body, and I was hooked up to all sorts of tubes and wires. My body was shriveled, I could not stand, my muscles had deserted me. My voice was a whisper, I had a paralyzed vocal cord, and I could not feed myself. I asked over and over what happened, and they said COVID. I was told that as COVID attacked my body my lungs collapsed, my kidneys failed, my heart reacted, my brain became inflamed, and sepsis invaded my system. Every doctor who came to see me said the same thing—I can’t believe you are still alive, everyone else who had severe COVID like you did is dead.
And so I tried to figure it all out and my thoughts turned to God. It’s not that I didn’t think about God before that, but my thoughts were jumbled, confused, I could not focus—and yet I distinctly remember that moment in the quietness of my hospital room when I suddenly said out loud in the darkness, “Father, why am I not speaking to You?”
And after a long silence I said, “I guess that’s not true—my tortured thoughts have always been turned to you, but I don’t know what to say about all of this.” And then I prayed the prayer that I have continued to pray, “Lord, how do I make sense of all this?”
I recalled one of my favorite passages in the Bible, Psalm 31. It has always been one of my favorites, but it has taken on new power in my life since all of this began. It starts like this, Psalm 31:1–2:
“In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
Come quickly to my rescue;
Be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me…”
And then these words, familiar words, the words our Savior prayed from the cross just moments before He closed His eyes in death, Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”—Into your hands Father, I commit all that is me…
And then verse 14, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
Listen to that again: I trust in you, O Lord; You are my God. My times, however much I may have, from my birth to my death, the joyful times and the agonizing times, the times I understand and the times I can’t make sense of anything—all in Your hands, my God. Your hands.
And I trust You.
And trusting God to be honest with me, I began to think through, pray through what had happened to me, happened to my wife, my children, my grandkids, my beloved congregation that I was pastoring at the time.
I started with this—Lord, are you passing judgement on me for something I have done wrong? It very much felt that way. I think of what the Christian writer and artist Joni Eareckson Tada wrote after the accident that made her a quadriplegic for life. She said, “When a broken neck ambushed my life and left me a quadriplegic, I felt as though God had smashed me underfoot like a cigarette.” (Foreword of book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, by Mark Vroegop)
What an image! That’s the way I felt, as though God was suddenly done with me, as though I had sinned one sin too many. Judgement. Punishment for wrongdoing. That’s what Job’s friends said about Job. They said, “Job, all these things that have happened to you, the loss of family and health and about everything else, are because you have sinned.” God is punishing you, you just need to figure out what sin you committed.
Of course it wasn’t true—we know from the very beginning of the book of Job that Job had not brought this on himself by sinning.
Horrible things didn’t happen to Job because he was being punished, and after a lot of prayer and reflection, punishment faded away as the reason why all of this had happened to me as well.
So why did this happen? I entertained the thought that it might be to deliver my church family, First Baptist Church of Rolla Missouri, from me! Thirty-two years is a long time to pastor the same church, maybe it was time for me to go, maybe God was setting my church family free!
And though I truly did spend time in prayer about that, I realized that is not what this was all about.
As I made my way through the mountain of cards, of notes, of things written on Facebook in those days, I was overwhelmed. Every pastor is haunted by feelings that he or she has not done enough, that they have failed in ministry, and yet here were all the messages to me, encouraging, loving, prayerful, often sharing in some way what I had said or done, how God had touched a person’s life through me over those 32 years and beyond, my entire 45 plus years of ministry. I was humbled by it all, and I wept tears of gratitude that my work had not been in vain.
And so I continued trying to make sense of things—if this is not judgement, or God’s way to move me on from the church I was pastoring, what is it? And I want you to know, some actually said to me, “Maybe God is giving you a much needed break.” And I said, looking at my wasted body, “Like this?!”
I remember when my church family sent us on a trip to Rome, Italy where we could see the art and visit pivotal early Christian churches—that was a break! I remember when my church family gave me a Sabbatical and sent us on a trip exploring historic places connected with the founding of our country, to the homes of early presidents and the battlefields of the Civil War. Five weeks of travel, study, reflection on our human choices and faith, weeks to rest, have fun. Time out. A break.
That was fun—but this? No, nothing fun at all. As I said, my memories stop just upon entering the hospital the last week of January 2021, and I have no recollection of anything from the end of January until March 10th when I woke up and saw how I had shriveled to nothingness. I could not believe it, I asked my family over and over what had happened to me, what had destroyed my body like this. And my family told me the story, over and over, but it took weeks to grasp what had happened and what it all meant for the future.
I want you to know this was no time out, no break, an opportunity to kick back and read or study. No, my eyes would not track a line of text, I had difficulty reading my Bible, I would get confused, frightened. I had sharp pains in different parts of my body that I could not explain, I was put through all kinds of tests and rehab—no, I want to say to you, this was not time out, not time of study or rest, just confusion, questions about the future, about what the final outcome would be.
How do you make sense of all of this? In the end I came to this: this is just what happens to us in the midst of a fallen, self-absorbed world that is not all God wants it to be nor all God will one day make it be through His resurrection power!
You see, whether it is the pastor or the person in the pew, none of us are given protection from the evils of this world. I think about Acts 12, when Herod seized Peter and James. We are told that James, the brother of John of Zebedee, one of the first to follow Jesus, is executed by Herod’s sword. One taken, and the other left alive. And in the end, if tradition can be trusted, one by one the apostles fell, their lives taken, the hand of God permitting what took place until old John is left alive and allowed to see the veil of heaven pulled back while exiled on an island for his faith.
That is what I told my friend when he asked that question in the hospital, “Bob, how do you make sense of it all?” I told him that God does not magically protect us from the dangers of the world. Oh, at times He does, I’m sure of it, but I cannot always tell you when or who. You remember what Jesus said in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble—other translations say tribulations, all sorts of difficulties, heartbreaks—and then Jesus said, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I was not magically protected from COVID. Oh, I took many precautions to keep my congregation and my family safe, but I always knew that as a pastor it would be difficult to do. And COVID, that stealth virus where I cannot tell by sight if you have it or not, that Russian Roulette virus with all chambers empty but one, and you never know when you may receive the loaded chamber that gives you the fatal or near fatal dose of the virus—that evil reality of the world struck me, and God chose not to stop it.
Making sense of it all—now I thought about and talked to God about a lot things and I continue to do so, a lot more than I can condense in a single morning—but my thoughts began to focus on how God was taking me through a healing process.
Oh, I didn’t feel it, not at first. As I said, there were many days when I was out of it, when at times I would react and respond, but I have no memory of that.
I remember nothing of my repeatedly trying to get out of bed, or pulling out IV’s, sending blood all over the place, or pulling out my trach, and basically acting crazy. I was even called a holy terror by one nurse, a title my wife laughed at because of my being a pastor—a holy terror. It looked like I would never have my right mind, but then suddenly on March 10th it was like a switch turned on.
I was awake—calm—cooperative. One nurse said it was like I had had a brain transplant. Another nurse said that in the beginning she hated dealing with me, she had to clean up more than one bloody mess from pulling tubes out—but then she saw the change, the crazy power of COVID leaving me, and she said I was a nice man, a good man, and her favorite patient.
It was at that point that I began to be aware of what people were saying, doctors, nurses, family and all, that a miracle had happened, and that I was a miracle.
I agree with part of that—I do believe a miracle took place, even if it has not been as complete as I would like it to be. I think of that miracle in Mark 8 when Jesus spit into the eyes of a blind man, and he experienced a miracle, but it wasn’t complete—the man could see people, but it was only the shadows and shapes, it looked like trees walking. Jesus had to come back and do it all over again, and the man could see. At times I will ask Jesus to come back and finish up my healing, to restore my kidneys and health, and I want you to know, He will, I am confident of that, if not in this lifetime, then in eternity.
But I don’t feel I am a miracle. I didn’t pull off what healing I have by my goodness or my steadfastness as many suggested to me, or because God felt sorry for me or thought I was such a good guy that I deserved to live.
No, the miracle is that God does act, He does work. The doctors said to me over and over, it’s a miracle you are alive. But one doctor put it this way: “My friend, God has poured out grace on you! Yes, that is the truth, God has been graceful to me, and I am grateful for that! My testimony is not that of miracle, but of overwhelming grace!
It is the testimony that God does not leave us or abandon us to walk through the darkest valleys of our lives. Oh, it may seem like it, it may feel like He has turned His face away—when you track Joseph’s story in Genesis 37–50, there were a lot of times when it seems like Joseph had been abandoned. Thrown in a pit by his hateful brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused and tossed into a dungeon, years of being forgotten, trying to make sense of it all—and yet there was this familiar refrain, “And the Lord was with Joseph.” Whether Joseph knew it or not, God was with him, walking through the dark valley of the shadow of death and despair. And when Joseph was no longer 17 years old but 39, things finally made sense. He said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “You meant what you did for evil, but God meant it for good, to bring about the saving of His people.”
It may be a long time before things make sense, but this we can count on as followers of Jesus Christ, God does not abandon us, He does not desert us, and He is there even in the dark times.
A testimony of God’s grace and presence—and a testimony that God does answer prayer. That is the most amazing thing, that so many prayed for me, even some of you, regularly, daily, fervently. I have had folks tell me that they never prayed so hard or so much in all of their lives until this happened. Even after we moved to Lawrence, we found many of you who said you were praying for me, and we have met complete strangers in Topeka, in Kansas City, who said, “So you are the one I have been praying for!”
I thank God that He answers the prayers of His family, friends and strangers alike, and that He hears when we cry out on behalf of another. That is amazing!
And even more amazing, God was answering YOUR prayers even when I COULD NOT pray! It is an odd thing, the way my brain was functioning or malfunctioning, that I didn’t seem to be able to pray. When I did wake up, I had a hard time keeping my thoughts together, and my prayers consisted of just a few words, Father, have mercy.
But while my words were absent or few, those who prayed for me were targeted, fervent, for my lungs to heal, my mind to clear, my strength to return, my kidneys to function. And this is what gives me great joy, that God answers prayers even when we can’t seem to pray them ourselves. You need to know how important that is! He hears the prayers of those who love us, care about us, and even have never met us but God has placed the concern deep in their lives.
You see, God has performed a miracle, but it’s not just one done in my life, it is a miracle performed every time you pray for another!
I am thoroughly convinced that I am here right now by the grace of God and the prayers of people like you!
I think of those words in Psalm 31 again:
“Into your hands I commit my spirit…
I trust in you, O Lord, You are my God…
My times are in your hands.”
My times are in your hands.
That leads me to the final thing I want to say this morning, something you and I have always known but which struck me with particular force as I came so close to dying: None of us know when our final breath will be taken on this earth. Oh yes, there are times we get advance notice. The doctor tells us that there is not much more she can do… that the treatment is failing… that it’s time to say our goodbyes.
But we don’t know, it can be as sudden as it was for me, just a few days warning but nothing to say it was that serious until suddenly it become catastrophic and deadly.
And so because of that I think it is important for each of us to ask the question, will I be ready when that time comes for me?
Earlier in our service we read the first few verses of Luke 13, a jarring passage. In Luke 13 someone out of a group cried out to Jesus, telling him that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and mixed their blood with their religious sacrifices, a great atrocity committed by the hands of an evil, brutal tyrant. The crowd wanted to know why this happened, but Jesus answered, Luke 13:2-3, “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
And then Jesus brought up a natural calamity that had occurred, Luke 13:4, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
You see, we do not know when our last breath will be taken due to the passing of years, the evil of others, a natural calamity, or a sinister disease that takes advantage of our worse tendencies. We may not, in that moment, be able to even utter the words Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The most important thing any of us can do now, while we can, when we can listen, when we have heard something that makes sense, is to honestly and in deep need turn to the Savior and cry His words from the cross—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
“Lord Jesus, I trust you with all my heart, my soul, my mind, my strength, for now and eternity.”
My times are in Your hands! And I praise you.