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FIRST-PERSON: When dying is gain

NEW YORK (BP) — It has been one year to the day since I moved to New York with the desire to fight human trafficking and lead the local church in recapturing a passion for freedom.

The funny thing is three years ago I made it known publicly that I would NEVER 1) visit New York City or 2) raise support. So how did I end up raising support to serve as a Christian abolitionist in NYC?

The quick answer would be that one of my best friends, Davin Henrickson, paved the way for me. Davin was the first person that I met at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003. Soon, we became friends and then roommates. Davin and I consistently challenged each other to grow closer to Christ.

Davin was a renaissance man of sorts. I mean the guy could do anything he put his mind to. For instance, at my 30th birthday party, as we began to grill hamburgers, I realized “we” forgot the spatula. By “we,” I really mean “I.” Regardless, here we are at the park — raw hamburger meat, a grill and people, but NO spatula. I paced around for about 10 minutes and then returned to find Davin holding a spatula. But this was not an ordinary kitchen utensil. No, Davin had built it out of a few twigs and a red bull can; that was Davin!

Also, I remember one evening he and I were talking through a struggle that I was going through and “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman came on the radio. As these words played, Blessed be Your name on the road marked with suffering. Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be Your name, Davin stopped and looked at me and said “this is what it’s about.” He understood that suffering pushes us to depend more and more on the Gospel and he challenged me with those lyrics. That was my friend, “MacGuyver the theologian.”

Following our graduation from seminary, he and I took different directions, but that didn’t keep us from staying in touch. We celebrated the big events in each other’s lives. I came in for his wedding; he came to my ordination while I was serving as a collegiate evangelism director in West Virginia. As Davin began to make his way back home, he told me that he was finally going to Idaho to plant a church. He was finally pursuing his dream and his calling.

However, a week later Davin called and told me he felt a mass in his abdomen during his trip and that he was going to the doctor to have it checked out. The doctor confirmed that it was beta cell lymphoma.

The chemotherapy regimen was launched immediately. Davin’s dream of being a pastor had been put on pause. I just knew that God had led Davin into this season of life so that God could be glorified through his healing. But days turned to weeks and weeks to months, with no marked improvement in his condition.

The treatments began to take their toll on Davin’s body, as he continued to try new treatments at various hospitals. Our conversations began to change. No longer were they light and jovial. Now, we talked about “dying well.”

I’ll never forget one day as we were headed to lunch, Davin looked at me with a face of solemn bewilderment and simply stated, “If God decides to heal me for His glory … I understand that, but what if His plan is for me to die? I don’t understand that.”

I tried to respond with a deep theological answer that would satisfy his question. But I struggled to find the words. All I could do was point to the Cross.

During this time, I found that my position at the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists was being phased out. So without a clear sense of direction, I began traveling, praying and looking for a new vocational ministry position. I was returning from a church planting vision trip when I read this email from Davin’s wife, Lauren:

“We received the results of Davin’s CT scan yesterday, and the cancer has spread throughout his abdomen. Any future treatments (chemo, radiation, etc.) are more likely to cause discomfort than to help, so now our treatment focus is on pain management. We are meeting with some staff from Hosparus (http://www.hosparus.org) tonight, to help Davin decide if he wants to try to remain at home for this time of waiting or if the hospital would be better. The doc said he isn’t in the business of guessing, so we don’t really have a guess as to how soon God will take Davin to be with Him. For now, we wait. It is bittersweet, but we can rejoice that Davin will be free from suffering soon. Praise God for the perfect healing to come! ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ — Philippians 1:21.”

I was speechless. Paralyzed by grief, I sat there trying to gather my thoughts. I was so overcome by shock that I couldn’t move. I tried to pull myself together enough to drive home so that I could make plans to visit Davin in Louisville, Ky.

“The night before I went to visit Davin for the last time, I preached Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength” was no longer a pithy saying from a Christian T-shirt. It was a promise that I needed. Believing this promise, I made my way to Louisville.”

I knew that I needed to challenge one of my best friends to die well and, truth be told, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to face the fact that I was losing my friend.

Actually, I wanted to turn my car around and pretend that this wasn’t happening. But God gave me the courage to walk into the house where I sat with Davin. I grabbed a Bible and began reading Philippians 3:8-11:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

I reminded him that the Gospel not only saves us but also motivates us to live in such a way that we desire to know Him in an intimate way through our sufferings. Looking into his eyes, I told him, “Davin, I don’t know what’s coming around the corner, but I do know that this is when you seek to glorify God like you have never done before.” He agreed.

I stayed with my friend the next 5 days. During this time, I wrestled with God. I realized that I wanted to be in control of my life, but I wasn’t. I was enslaved to my own fear. I discovered I was afraid to die. I was afraid to take risks for God. I now saw that I wasn’t walking by faith, but rather I was drifting from one comfortable job to the next.

Davin was about to die, without ever fulfilling his dream of ministry. How would I respond to that? Realizing that I had an expiration date, I purposed to trust God even if the next step would be uncomfortable.

Despite my fears, God led me to New York. In faith, I sold everything I had and moved without any guarantee of success. As I stepped out, God upheld me. I found a job and God showed me the weak and vulnerable. I now know that God has called me to be a voice for those whose voice is not heard. In my own suffering, God opened my eyes to care for those who are being exploited.

Ultimately, the Gospel sets us free that we may seek the freedom of others. God calls us to walk in faith even though we will face suffering. That was Davin’s journey.

Three days before Davin passed, his family and friends sat in the living room and sang together. Though Davin could barely speak, he sang these words from Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons:”

“And on that day when my strength is failing, the end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, 10 thousand years and then forevermore.”

As I saw my friend in his last moments singing with every ounce of strength he had, I was reminded that each one of us has an expiration date. Christ suffered and died to set us free. This freedom from death, fear and sin drives us to see others set free, both spiritually and physically.

What will you do with the freedom God has given you?
Raleigh Sadler is a North American Mission Board missionary (@raleighsadler; www.raleighsadler.com) and college pastor at Gallery Church in New York City. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Raleigh Sadler