In the Face of Tragedy
Sometimes, even though we believe in the supremacy of God’s grace, we’d rather have the easier life. If we’re going to have to give up something huge to fully experience His grace, maybe we’re better off without it. Of course, we’d never say that, even to ourselves.
But then when reality hits and we realize we can have a full measure of His grace, or we can keep our staged security, we’re not so quick to choose.
For my guest, Betty, the sacrifice was unthinkable. But in the process, she’s discovered the untold, immeasurable depths of grace. And, though she didn’t choose this path, she’s somehow stronger because of it.
Missionaries in Africa
Betty’s story began when she was 12. That’s when she decided she wanted to be a missionary.
“All I can say is God just moved in my heart. It was not like even a decision that I had to make. From the time that I was baptized into Christ, I had this feeling of gratefulness in my heart for God saving me from my sins. What else could I do for Him, other than give my life to full-time Christian service and help others to experience that same grace?” Betty remembered.
Until college, Betty had never really left North Carolina. At 18, she went to Johnson Bible College. She was desperate to go to another country to share the gospel with people who didn’t know about Jesus. To her surprise, she met and married her husband there, but their path was still leading to missions.
Within two years of their graduation, she and her husband Cecil left for Zambia, Africa. Later, they’d transition to Mozambique, for a total of 23 years on the field. Those years were good and God was present in all of it.
Betty and Cecil worked to train church leaders in Africa. They raised their five kids while they navigated endless surprises and obstacles. They were missionaries before the age of extensive training, so they were largely figuring things out on their own through prayer and trial. And God was using them to accomplish great things.
“When we went there we went to work with an association of churches that were already established.” Betty explained, “There was a lot of confusion in those churches. Of course, Mozambique had gone through years and years of civil war. There had been very few who knew the truth and could teach the truth to these churches. Many of these churches were still making animal sacrifices. A lot of the people still were wearing the cords from the witch doctor, still fearing evil spirits. A whole lot of our time was spent in teaching the truth about God, who he is, what he expects of us as Christians and how Jesus has taken care of that, how Jesus was the once and for all sacrifice, how we don’t have to fear Satan, we don’t have to follow any of those ways of the witch doctor because Jesus is greater than all of those things.”
They were living a life they loved, a life God had called them into, and a life that was bringing God glory. They’d found contentment a continent away, and they were in it together.
But all that changed in one night.
January 20, 2000
Betty’s husband and son, Daniel, had gone to South Africa early in the day to have two vehicles repaired. They were planning to go into a bush area of Mozambique the next morning. The canopies on the trucks had been leaking, and that was going to be problematic since many church leaders would be sleeping in those truck beds at night.
Betty, her daughter Deborah, and their intern, Tim, were playing a late-night round of Monopoly. The guys returned from South Africa, and Daniel came in first. He informed the group that they were back, but that his dad was still listening to a tape in the truck. As Betty and the kids cleared away the game, Cecil came in, drank a Coke, and went on to bed.
Tim went home. Daniel went to his room. Deborah went to her room and listened to music in her earphones.
It seemed like just another ordinary night – one they’d lived in some way a thousand times before. The extra work of living in Africa. Their two kids who were still at home being normal teenagers. Interns spending their evenings with the family.
There was no reason to suspect their life was mere minutes from shattering.
Betty went into her room, put on her nightgown, and began laying down when Daniel ran into the room saying, “Mom, mom, did you hear those gunshots?”
It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots in the distance. But Daniel was insistent that the shots were on their compound and that they needed to wake Cecil. As they woke him, Daniel began blowing the whistle that was supposed to alert their guard to trouble.
But their guard never came, because those gunshots they’d heard earlier had been aimed at him. He lived, but not everyone would be so fortunate that night.
Cecil grabbed a baseball bat as Daniel prayed, “Father help my family, help my family, help my family.”
They began hearing pounding on the doors of the duplex near theirs. They watched Tim the intern escape out the door, leap over a fence, and continue running. They later learned that he climbed into a cashew tree and waited.
At that point, the four thieves with their AK-47s were coming toward Betty’s house. She was immediately concerned about Deborah, whose room was on the other side of the house. Cecil, carrying his baseball bat, left their bedroom to go get his daughter.
On the other side of the house, Deborah had heard the noise and thought her brother was locked out of the house. She ventured out to let him in, only to realize that she was terribly mistaken.
Right as Cecil left to get her, the four men came through the back door and followed him as he rounded the corner. It was dark in the house. Maybe they thought his bat was a gun. Maybe they were intimidated by his stature and presence. Maybe they were just desperate and hopeless.
But for whatever reason, they shot him in the chest.
Grace that Moment
Deborah made her way into the bedroom where Daniel and Betty were waiting. “I had heard the shot,” Betty said, “I had heard Cecil groan. I knew when he didn’t come back for us that he had to be dead.”
And just like that, the life Betty loved would never be the same again. Her husband was gone. Her children had lost their father. And there were still four armed thieves in her house.
Betty remembers the rest in vivid detail, “By then, the thieves came into our bedroom and began demanding money. We gave them everything we had, which wasn’t that much. They must have believed we had more because they kept on and on and on, ‘Give us more. Give us more. Give us more.’ Daniel, who had a better command of all the languages they were speaking – Shangaan, Portuguese, Afrikaans, English, they each seemed to be speaking a different language or maybe trying to find one that they thought we would understand, kept telling them, ‘Take our vehicle. Take our vehicle. Here are the keys. We don’t have any more money.’”
Eventually, they believed him and demanded that he show them the way off the compound. They couldn’t go back the way they’d come in, because they knew they’d shot the guard and villagers would be gathered there. Daniel left the house with them.
He led them to the back of the compound where there was a hole in a hedge. By the overwhelming grace of God, they then released him to return to his family. Betty recognized the sweet grace of God in that moment, “There’s no reason that they should have done that. They had already killed one person, shot another person. They didn’t know they hadn’t killed the other person, and yet were saying to Daniel, ‘Go back to your house.’ I believe, in God’s grace, He totally provided for the protection of Daniel’s life that night, for the protection of my life, for the protection of Deborah’s life. There was really no reason that they didn’t do more harm to us except for the grace of God.”
When Daniel came back into the house, Betty was consoling Deborah, who had found her father’s body. Daniel was crying, too, and asking why the thieves had killed his dad.
Betty’s response revealed the Holy Spirit, already comforting them, “I don’t know Daniel, but I do know that in all things God works together for good for those who love him and are called according to his holy purposes.”
Grace in the Aftermath
The rest of the night and the next few days were a whirlwind of activity and planning as Betty and her children prepared to leave Africa with Cecil’s body. And God’s grace was already covering them, washing over them as each step took them farther away from the normalcy they’d established.
Not coincidentally, Betty had mentally made these plans many times before. They were living in a wild and unpredictable land, and there had been countless situations when Cecil had been delayed in a village or stuck in a training day longer than expected, with no way of communicating his predicament with his worried wife back home. She already had a worst-case-scenario plan that had been sitting in her mind without cause for action for years.
Of course, she never really wanted to have to dust it off, but when called on to move forward, it was like reciting an old memory. God carried them through, just as He would continue to do.
I asked Betty how she managed to move forward amid an unimaginable tragedy.
“That’s a hard question, Carla. Again, I can only credit it to the grace of God and his plan step by step by step. It was like you wake up every morning and you put one foot in front of the other foot and you keep going, just trying that God has it all in his control, which I totally believed from that day forward and those days before that day forward that he did.”
“I think one thing that impressed me so much and I’ll always remember was the day that we returned to Louisville. My oldest son had arranged a 12-passenger van from a Louisville Bible College. When we arrived he said, ‘Mom, I wanted all of us to be together in this van before we leave the airport because I want you to know that what’s happened to our dad will not turn us against God.’ There we were, all five children, their husbands and the few grandchildren I had at that point in that one place with that affirmation from my son, my oldest son, that we will not turn our backs against God, we will not be angry with him. We also believe that he is in control.”
Grace in the Grieving
A nearby, country church offered their parsonage for Betty and her family to stay in while they recovered. That season right after Cecil’s death – while Betty was living in this remote parsonage in the hills, was a season for healing.
It was perfectly orchestrated so that God could continue to be gracious to a family who’d lost a husband and father, yes, but also an entire continent they’d spent more than 20 years loving. It was a time to mourn, a time to listen, a time to rest.
“You know God planned all this too. I have no doubt whatsoever.” Betty declared, “Not only were we there in just total peaceful surroundings, but also he did these things that just brought peace every single day. Every morning I would wake up, go to the big picture window, open the curtains that looked out over the church sort of down at the bottom of the hill, and there was the cross, the steeple, the cross steeple framed against the hills.”
As she looked at the cross against the hills, she’d recite the Scripture, “I will lift up my eyes into the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
And then, she’d open her email. For the first three months after Cecil’s death, her dear friend in Papua New Guinea wrote out sweet prayers for Betty and her family. Betty’s mornings began with those prayers draped over her.
God was so sweet and patient and present with Betty while she spent this season grieving. One morning, she grumbled out loud to herself that she didn’t even have anyone to drink tea with. In Mozambique, she’d been meeting with the other women on her team every day to drink tea and pray for the ministry there.
Here, in this lonely little parsonage, her friends were far away and she was feeling the loss. She crossed her arms and sulked on the couch.
“That taught me again God’s grace in hearing even our complaints,” Betty admitted, “I call that my complaining prayer and God answered it that very afternoon when a lady knocked on my door. I opened the door. There she was with this big basket in her hands.
The woman had read Betty’s story in a local paper. She was moved to do something to help. The gift she brought Betty was a sweet little teapot and all kinds of teas.
Betty thought, “Oh my goodness, God heard the cry of my heart and answered in just the sweetest and gentlest way any father ever could have.”
Grace in the Long-Term
After her season of grief, Betty knew she was going to need to get up and going. Daniel was about to start college and Deborah was in high school and she needed to take care of them. Because she already had a teaching degree, she naturally sought out a position and began teaching at a private school in Louisville.
But after a few years, she realized something important.
At that point, Betty began to think, “Hey, I never asked God, ‘Is this really what you want me to do?’
She enjoyed teaching school but had to admit that she had not really asked God what He wanted her to do next. At the end of her fourth year of teaching, she began to ask God, “You know what, I’m pretty happy here, but if there’s something else you’d rather I be doing, then just let me know.”
These prayers were private. She didn’t tell anyone she was looking to God for direction. But one of her friends started mentioning a notice she’d seen about a global missions organization, Team Expansion, whose home office was in Louisville. They needed a prayer coordinator. Her friend kept pointing it out to Betty.
Betty checked out the job description, and immediately decided she couldn’t do that. But God kept nudging her, and eventually, she agreed to trust Him and leap. Now, she’s the vice president of prayer for an organization who plants churches among unreached people groups. She is proactively changing the Kingdom and training others to join her through prayer.
Betty’s impact on the world did not end the night her husband was killed in Africa. In many ways, it was just beginning.
Now, it’s been 17 years since that fateful night. The church in Mozambique is still thriving. Betty is in a role that grows her faith every day. Her children are committed to the Lord and are teaching their children about His great grace.
And in many ways, Betty is not the same person she was before her husband died. She’s stronger. Braver. And even more joyful.
“I think I am more outspoken. I have a little bit more courage,” Betty reflected. “I don’t even know how to say this, in some ways I have more joy. I’ve always been a happy person and felt the peace and joy of Jesus in my life, but I just feel my joy growing and growing and growing even in these 17 years since Cecil’s death.”
One day while speaking at a convention in Atlanta, Betty was praying about her grief. She had her Bible open and noticed the verse in Nehemiah that said, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” But then she noticed something she hadn’t seen before.
“Just before it says, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’, it says, ‘Do not grieve.’ I had never thought about that before. From that day forth I thought, ‘Okay, there is a time to grieve, but now is the time for grieving to be ended and let the joy of the Lord be my strength.’ He just keeps increasing it.”
Despite – or probably because of – her immense suffering and loss, Betty has a lot to say about grace. When you get her started, she laughs contagiously as she relishes the gifts her Father has given her. She’s not a broken widow, lost and bitter. She’s a thriving, overflowing cup of contentment and eagerness to serve her great God.
She insisted, “God’s grace has been abundant. It has been sufficient and I couldn’t live without it. I think there are big things where I see God’s grace and there are the little tiny things where I see God’s grace. He leads me in his grace every single day even in the smallest of matters. If I told you what some of those smallest of matters are, you’d probably just laugh.”
God’s grace has been greater than her tragedy.
If you want to learn how to learn from even the most difficult experiences in your life we encourage you to explore the resources in Acts of God, a personal or group bible study series from Pastor Bob Russell. Learn more here.
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