A framed decorative place mat from BJU’s Thanksgiving Dinner in 1993 hangs on my wall. The theme of that year’s dinner is announced across the top of the picture: “Unconditional Praise.” Beneath the words is a farm scene, including myriads of animals, a beautiful home, and a full barn. However, the idyllic scene is faded into the background, hardly visible, and Habakkuk 3:17-18 is superimposed over it:
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls––Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
There is another picture in my home that shouts out “unconditional praise.” This one is a framed cross-stitch. It has a number of detailed birds and flowers in a circular pattern, and the words to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” are displayed in the middle. It’s priceless to me, for it was made by my Uncle Michael. I read about unshakable faith and unconditional praise in Habakkuk; I saw what they looked like in living color through Uncle Michael.
My Uncle Michael was a remarkable man. He was a missionary in Zambia, where he served as an airplane mechanic for missionary aviators. He enjoyed that work, but his passion was communicating the gospel to the African people he had grown to love. While on the field, he met another single missionary, a girl who had left her country home in Michigan to serve the Lord alone on the other side of the world —my mother’s sister and my Aunt Margaret. They married and were soon blessed with a sweet blond-haired boy.
Whereas the first half of Michael’s life was characterized by adventure, the last half was dominated by adversity. While serving in Zambia he began to notice a decrease in his physical strength. Tasks he had completed easily for years were becoming laborious. Ultimately, Michael was diagnosed with Myotonic Dystrophy, a muscular disease that progressively renders the muscles of the body useless. Michael’s days as a missionary were over, as was his time as a mechanic. Before long, he was walking with a limp, then with a cane, and finally not at all. Still, he served the Lord as he could, serving as the treasurer of the local CEF fellowship and faithfully attending our church in Pueblo, Colorado. The disease continued to progress. Closing his hands became a challenge. Feeding himself became impossible. Still, he had an indomitable spirit. He would work for months or even a year at a time on a single cross-stitch project. Every pull of the thread sapped his energy. Every turn of the fabric was exhausting. Yet, he persevered, stitch by tedious stitch, filling his home with gorgeous scenes, especially scenes from his beloved Africa. Framed images of elephants, giraffes, lions and other creatures adorned the walls of the home he would rarely leave.
Eventually, even this diversion became impossible. Nominal functions like holding up his head were lost; his head would roll or droop if he wasn’t situated just right. Even blinking requires the work of tiny muscles, so Michael had to have portions of his eyelids cut just to be able to see. Of course, he was entirely dependent on people to care for him and move him from place to place. He would occasionally fall, and I would later hear from my tearful mother that he would cry at times, I image from pain and fear and the sorrow of not being able to take care of himself and his family. Most difficult of all, his son, my cousin and good friend Bob, was diagnosed with the same disease. God has been gracious even in this, but it must have been a hard thing for Uncle Michael to think on.
Yet, even as Uncle Michael’s strength failed and his trials mounted unmercifully, his confidence in his Savior remained steadfast. His faith was stout, and he was joyful! There are two things I especially treasured about him. One was his sense of humor. He loved to laugh, and he had a sharp wit that was never touched by the miserable disease. Laughing when you can’t lift your limbs or head is remarkable in itself. More importantly, however, I remember how he would pray when we were in his home, especially on Thanksgiving. He prayed as the head of his home, leading spiritually though he couldn’t physically. And he prayed beautifully, both in his refined use of “Thee” and “Thou” and “Thy” and in his astounding gratitude. I’ll never forget him sitting in a wheelchair, his hands useless, his head heavy, and his speech altered, praising God: “We thank Thee, Father, for Thou hast been good to us, especially in Thy provision of salvation through Thy Son, the Lord Jesus.”
Perhaps you can imagine the impression that made on me as a young man. I remember “peeking” one year, just to see if one in his condition could really give thanks with sincerity. Indeed, he could, and he did. Habakkuk 3:17-18 was the soundtrack of my Uncle’s life.
Michael is in the presence of the Lord now. He spent his last 20-plus years not traipsing around the jungles of Africa, but confined to his wheel chair. My Aunt Margaret—probably the most selfless person I’ll ever meet—took care of him tirelessly, though she was surely tired. Shortly before his death, he confided to her one of his great anticipations: “When I get to heaven, I’m going to run!” Well, he’s been running for several years now. In a sense, he’s experiencing the sort of deliverance described in Habakkuk 3:19. I rejoiced for him at his death, but I still shed some tears for our family. We had lost—for a time—a dear husband, father, brother, uncle and friend, as well as a godly example and a giant of faith.
What was Uncle Michael’s enduring legacy? “Unconditional Praise.” He offered sincere thanks to the Lord for what he considered to be undeserved blessings, despite his hardships. How can we do any less?
Have a thoughtful, gospel-focused Thanksgiving, filled with unconditional praise!
Note: Dissidens’ similarly-themed Thanksgiving post is excellent.