I used to run with Chris Gennaro and his wife, Michelle. In fact, it was they who got me interested in running long distances. We’d often train together on Mission Bay in San Diego and I ran with them during my first two half marathons. Through running, and learning about their desire to be missionaries in Africa, I grew to love them both. In particular, Chris made a lasting impact on me as a husband, father, friend, and Christian.
Be that as it may, I never would have thought I’d take so long to get over someone’s death. Others have bothered me, but Chris’ death troubled my spirit way down deep, where my innermost thoughts live and where, I suspect, my darkest doubts lie as well. I can tell you this: I had never prayed so hard and with so much faith as I had prayed for Chris. I have never prayed for anything that important since, and probably never will again…not without a heavy dose of faith delivered first from God.
Chris Gennaro, missionary to Lesotho, contracted encephalitis in January 2013 and passed on 16 February of the same year. He and Michelle, along with their six children (two adopted from orphanages in Africa), had moved to Lesotho to work in God’s harvest. He had just started really ministering to the people of Lesotho…his people. I remember that because it was one of my prayers. “God, don’t let him die now. He just got to really know people!”
I don’t know how many people prayed prayers like that, but it was in the hundreds. Try as we may, we couldn’t stop the mighty hand of God from carrying out his will in Chris and Michelle’s lives. Chris Gennaro had become expendable in God’s plan. Like those who are killed for their faith, my dear friend died in the harvest field.
As I read her story and think back to the moment, this is where Michelle and I take separate roads in our grieving process. Her story of course, is far more important. I watched a woman of God struggle with intense emotions, yet she came through on the other end trusting God more. It was no surprise, then, that she went back to Africa as a teacher to missionary kids. She now resides in San Diego and supports Africa Inland Mission (AIM) as the Southwest region mobilizer.
I had to take a different path in my faith due to Chris’ death, which has taught me several things over the years. I’d like to share them with you now.
First, it taught me that the grieving process can take years to get over. I’m not his widow, and I can’t imagine what she goes through. What I do know, as someone who loved Chris, that his death has been very difficult to move on from. Not all the time…but definitely some of the time.
Second, it’s hard to trust God with big prayer requests when he seems to have let you down. I prayed hard while Chris was sick, but as the days went on, it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it. While his family sang hymns on the night of his passing, I was preparing my resentment against God. My faith changed a lot that day. I remember standing up in my office when I learned that he’d passed, walking to my door, and shutting it. That day, I also shut the door on God for a long while. My rebellion was substantial.
I remember, as Chris was dying, that a song got into my head and wouldn’t leave me. It’s by Brian “Head” Welch, of Korn fame. Here are a few lines from the song “Paralyzed:”
Why is my love so cold? No more will I pretend
Gasping for air as you’re slipping through my fingers
Don’t kiss me goodbye, please don’t leave here
The smell of sacrifice, Your disappearing whispers
I cannot grasp how my life inside just withers
Don’t kiss me goodbye, please don’t leave here.
Those words hurt so bad when Chris died.
Third, I learned that God is still God even when I feel like he isn’t. Just because I throw a tantrum doesn’t mean that God comes down from his throne. He is still very much Lord of all even when I don’t want him to be. Sometimes, I feel the weight of that majesty and sometimes I feel the blessing from it, but one thing is constant: it’s always there. He does not rely on me in order to stay the King of the universe. As I struggled in the last five years to understand God and his love, his majesty seemed to grow even more dominant. It was as if I was to feel the constant pressure of his glory until I came around.
Another song comes to mind now as I remember the struggle. It is called “Hands in the Air” by a group called The Waiting. Here is a sample of the lyrics, but really the entire song is simply amazing.
Light from my window sill, make my way to the door
I hang my head and still, I know you’re wanting more
Over the threshold now, I move across the yard
All that my will allows, my every step is hard
Now in the garden I carve out six feet of space
There make my will comply, lie down upon my face
Been toe to toe too long, I’m tired of fighting You
I see You were too strong ’cause I am black and blue
But now I understand a loser’s due to win
How every dying man is sure to rise again
So I raise my left hand one, I raise my right hand two
Under the morning sun, my spirit cries to You
I’ve come to understand that God is so much more powerful than I will ever be and that is good. I’ve also come to understand that I might never comprehend how God wields his power, and that is also good. If I were to know too much, I might decide to try to influence it more than I should.
This has helped me believe in God again as my Lord. It has also allowed me to see my friend Chris as an expendable Christian who burned out giving Glory to God, which is the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN THE WORLD. Anything I leave here on earth when I go must likewise simply exist to give God glory. If it gives me glory, or if my legacy is just mine, then it is worthless.
As the Apostle Paul said in Acts 20:24 –
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
I remember one day, while running with Chris (Michelle had been unable to join us), he began to share some frustrations with me about the missionary planning process. He just wanted to get to Africa as soon as possible! I wish I had that fire…that determination…that said I would burn at both ends for God, so that, even in my death, I might hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Rest well, my friend. Until we meet again…