Amidst a medical crisis playing out in Fresno, California now is the time to write about a beautiful and authentic form of transparency. It came out of Riverview, an Evangelical Free Church outside San Diego, California. Joe Russell and his wife Kim wrote a raw blog that dealt with their son’s Stephen’s birth defect and the medical situation that transpired. If only more evangelical churches were this open to having raw discussions about pain and suffering; how much healthier would evangelical Christianity be?
“This has not been an easy road. Stephen’s scars have served as a daily reminder of what we have all been through, but they are also a reminder of God’s grace. God has held us all through this past month. I am so thankful for a heavenly father who is bigger than us all and can see us through anything.”
The Russells May 17, 2012
“We found our peace in God. We have been hugely supported by family and friends and have covered by prayer literally throughout the world. We started this blog so the people we love could be updated on our life and would know how to pray for our son. It has become so much more. To receive notes and cards that this little guy is an inspiration brings tears to this mamas eyes. God has given us sweet glimpses of how he is using our sons life for his kingdom. We never would have thought we could make it through something like this but God is bigger than our greatest fears and if you put your trust in Him he gives you the grace and strength to make it through.”
The Russells May 17, 2012
“Please continue to pray for the surgery and recovery. The hardest part to deal with is the fact that it doesn’t matter how well he is doing now. We were told his condition before surgery is not an accurate predictor of how he will do during or after the procedure. That was tough to hear because we want to grasp at any hope we can. The thought of loosing him is unbearable. It kills us knowing we have to hand him over soon to an unknown outcome. I know God is in control of all things but that doesn’t guarantee us the answer we so desperately pray for. I am not saying this being we feel hopeless or pessimistic but to share with you the reality we are living with. So please continue to get on your knees before our heavenly father and ask that he protect Stephen. Pray that he will remain stable, be able to fully breathe on his own, begin eating and get to be held by his mommy and daddy. And pray for that future surgery…that it would result in the best case scenario and that Stephen will get to live a full life.”
The Russells April 19, 2012
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18 NIV
Riverview Evangelical Free’s Joe Russell
The Wondering Eagle writes frequently about the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). Last year when I was working through Steve Highfill’s EFCA West District I stumbled upon something that I found deeply encouraging that I wanted to highlight and feature. While I have written about scandals and spiritual abuse there are many parts of the EFCA that I want to promote and draw attention. I want to do this because there are parts of the EFCA that are healthy and good. I wanted to one day write about this topic of Riverview’s Russell’s family journey with pain and suffering. In the context of life I believe now is the time to tackle this subject. With my Mom in St. Agnes Hospital here in Fresno, California and so much uncertainty I just feel like now is the time to go into this topic. Joe and his wife Kin wrote a heart wrenching blog during their son’s Stephen’s ordeal with a congenital heart defect is deeply touching. This is a raw story of pain and suffering and beautiful transparency that I wish would be more common in evangelical Christianity. How healthy would the church be if this were the norm, and the not the exception.
Riverview Church in Bonsall, California
Bonsall is a community in San Diego county. It is to the east of Camp Pendleton and Oceanside, California. Bonsall as a town was formerly named as Osgood, in honor of Joseph Osgood who was the Chief Engineer for the California Southern Railroad. Eventually the California Southern was absorbed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1906. After a naming competition in 1890 Bonsall was named after a minister in the community. While I am not as familiar with this community I believe it would be safe to say that with the USMC base nearby, that you would find a lot of military in the community.
I tried to do some research on the history of Riverview Church. Its origins, its first pastor and more but I hit a wall. But I did find a few interesting things which I found while researching the internet. Its current pastor Mel Svendsen came to Riverview in 2010. Mel obtained his masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity Seminary. He previously served at the People’s Church in Toronto, Canada and at Calvary Evangelical Free Church in Essex Falls, New Jersey. I have studied and worked through the Eastern District to look at the growth of Neo-Calvinism/Reformed theology. You can read more about the Eastern District in “Analysis of the Eastern District of the Evangelical Free Church of America.” Prior to coming to Riverview Svendsen worked as the Senior Pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Lake Zurich, Illinois. Harvest Bible Chapel in Lake Zurich planted in September 22, 2002. You can watch Mel preach here. It should be noted that James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel had its own set of problems and spiritual abuse issues which you can read at The Elephant’s Debt. Now in regard to Mel Svendsen you can read more about him in the following San Diego Union-Tribune article called “Riverview Church pastor knows meaning of family.” From my research in studying the website it appears as if this church has about 800 people involved. This church is also involved in helping immigrants and in building homes in Mexico. That is refreshing to read about, especially in the current climate.
Who is Joe Russell?
Joe Russell is the Pastor of Young Families and Junior High at Riverview. Joe grew up in a Christian home in Crestline, California. Since his biography makes no mention of high school I think it safe to assume that he was home schooled. If I am wrong then please correct me Joe. He graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a minor in Bible and a double major in International Business and Marketing. Cal Poly Pomona is a great and difficult school. I had family that attended Claremont McKenna and I heard about how demanding Cal Poly Pomona is as a university. In building a timeline I am going to guess that Joe graduated from college in the 1999 to 2000 timeframe. Upon graduation Joe went and worked with the youth at Evangelical Free in Fullerton in 2000 and stayed there for eight years. He met and eventually married his wife Kim in 2004. Joe went on staff at Riverview in 2008. He and his wife have four children. While researching Joe I did find this article that he wrote about forgiveness. But aside from that it appears that he doesn’t have much of a presence on social media.
A Young Family’s Medical Crisis in April 2012
Joe and Kim Russell were excited to be parents again and bring their fourth child, Stephen, into the world. On one of the most difficult days of their lives on December 20, 2011 the Russells learned that there was a problem. It was learned that their son had a congenital heart defect. Congenital heart defects are a common birth defect and the leading cause of death in infants in the United States today. Stephen had a single ventricle defect which is quite rare. According to what I have read 5 out of every 100,000 live births deal with this problem. You can read more about single ventricle defects here, here, here and here. From what I read surgery was the only way to save the life of their son, and there remained many risks in this situation.
A few days after Stephen was born he was taken into what would be the first of a couple of surgeries. The results were not guaranteed and as you can imagine the Russells were deeply afraid of what would happen. The first surgery took place on April 26, 2012. The surgeries were required so that Stephen could live. During this painful ordeal the Russell family sat down and composed a blog. The blog is called Our Special Heart. They wrote about their ordeal, their feelings, the trauma and so much more. They wrote a blog that was authentic in dealing with their fears and even later on their hopes. It is beautiful and so amazing to see something written from the heart. Plus it also showed their bravery as well in what they decided to do. There is a lot of stigma in evangelicalism when it comes to the topic of pain and suffering. Many evangelicals get nervous, or frightened to raise or discuss the topic. Plus with the resurgence of Calvinism in the form of Neo-Calvinism pain and suffering is actually made worse due to a warped view of sovereignty which is nothing more than determinism. In an open letter tomorrow to Joe Russell, I want to reflect more upon this topic and the blog that the Russells have written. There are two posts I want to introduce you to which I read on their blog that I believe deserve to be singled out and commended. Afterward I encourage you to read the blog and spend some time going through it.
A Year Ago Today
One of the rawest and touching posts at the Russell’s blog is called “A Year Ago Today” It was published on April 26, 2013. Here is the introduction to the post. I would challenge you to go to the website and read it in its entirety. For those going through pain and suffering this type of raw emotion is so healing to hear.
A year ago today Joe and I woke up and didn’t say a word. Before we left our room at 5:51 in the morning I typed the shortest post ever on this blog “I have no words…please pray”. We hardly slept the night before and wanted to be in Stephen’s room extra early.
A year ago today we held Stephen as close as possible. Joe and I took our turns with him in our arms. We held him, kissed him and spent time just looking at him trying to soak up every detail from his fingers to his toes.
A year ago today doctors and anesthesiologist came by our little room and explained to us the surgical procedures and all of the potential risks associated with it. Though we had heard them before, the reality of them sunk in as we signed paper after paper.
A year ago today we got the call from the OR…it was time. We quietly followed behind our son as the nurses wheeled him through halls and down elevators.
A year ago today Joe and I had kiss our baby goodbye not knowing if he would return.
A year ago today we handed over our child. We had to put our confidence in the surgeon and his team and our hope and trust in God.
A year ago today I had to wait. I cried and prayed for hours. I prayed for every person in that operating room and that God’s spirit would fill it completely. I cried at the thought of Stephen lying there still and unaware of what was going on. I prayed that God would guide the hands of the surgeon and that He would work through him to help our son. I cried at the thought of what was being done to him and prayed for angels to surround him. I prayed and cried until I fell asleep in Joe’s arms and then I prayed and cried some more. I prayed that we wouldn’t get a call too early…that nothing would go wrong. I cried at the thought of losing Stephen and prayed to God for his life.
You can read the rest of the post in the link up above, but I highly recommend it and looking at the pictures.
A Heartfelt Ramble
Then the following was written at the Russell’s blog on July 13, 2013. This post is called “A Heartfelt Ramble.” This is a raw and beautiful pushback of what you hear today in some churches. Especially in an age when people are sharing material from people like John Piper that teaches that cancer is a gift from God. This following post was one of my favorites at the Russell’s blog. While I deeply enjoyed this post there is one aspect of it that bothered me that I intend to tackle in an open letter to Joe Russell tomorrow.
I have done a lot thinking since we found out about Stephen’s condition. As a Christian I struggled with idea that God created my son with only half a heart. I understood that we live in a fallen world and that pain and death exist because of sin but still I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge when reading Psalm 139. How could God, the God of love and compassion, knit my son together imperfectly. He designed the heart. He knows exactly how it should be and yet he “knit” it in such a way that it wouldn’t be compatible with life…how can that be? It goes on to say…
I am sure you can see where I struggled with this passage. I never believed that God designed Stephen with half a heart, I knew He allowed it, but he didn’t choose this for Stephen or for us as his parents. Yet other believers in hopes of comforting us said things like “God choose you” or “God gave this to you because he knew you could handle it”. I mean thank you for thinking so highly of us…but really? I have thought about those words for over a year and finally had the “aha” moment a few months back when I realized…no He didn’t! God didn’t look down upon Joe and I and will for this to happen. He didn’t begin to knit Stephen together and think “maybe I’ll give him half a heart for my glory and heck Joe and Kim are strong enough to take it” Rather Stephen’s heart is a result of a fallen world. I had many conversations with Joe and my brothers about God’s design, sin, the fall and all of the consequences that have resulted. If you only knew how much I have pondered the moment sin entered the world. I have questioned what it was like and how did it all start to unravel. How did our genes begin to alter, or tornados begin to exist. What made the lion all the sudden want to eat the lamb and spiders…why spiders?
All of these crazy thoughts stemmed from me wanting to know that my God didn’t choose this for my son. I am okay with him allowing for nature to take its course but it never sat well with me think that he chose this for us or anyone for that matter. That didn’t line up with who I knew God to be.
So funny that I stumbled upon this article tonight. It very much so reflects some of my thoughts and beliefs on this subject and closely resembles a conversation I had with my older brother…read it Mark…you will smile.
Are Birth Defects Really Part of God’s Plan?
I too find comfort that one day Stephen’s heart, and all of our imperfections, will be made perfect. I hold tight to the promises of God and while pain and suffering suck…really really suck…I know that through our pain we are drawn closer to him.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” James 1:2-4
While I don’t find joy in Stephen’s condition, I find joy in God’s promise. I find joy that through my suffering and trials I am being made complete. I don’t believe that God chose this for Stephen but I do believe He will use it for His glory and make us stronger and more complete in Him because of it. And lastly our sufferings are never in vein when we look to the cross. Christ himself humbled himself and suffered on our behalf. It is his suffering and death that gives us true hope. Hope in what is to come. We will all suffer, face trails of many kinds and know more pain on this earth than we sometimes think we can bare. We suffer because of sin and sin alone. When sin entered the world nature was effected and death became reality. What amazes me is God’s love for us. That no matter how many times we blow him off, choose idols, money and people over him, he never gave up on us. He sent His son to pay the ultimate price that we may receive what we don’t deserve. Is that amazing grace or what!
I know this post is a bit of a ramble. I read the article and just had to write. This may not be articulate or very well thought out but I felt the need to share anyway. While I have wrestled through many thoughts, emotions and feelings I am always amazed at God’s love and provision. He has seen use through every step of the way and given me peace through raging storms. Reflecting on my own journey I often wonder how one gets through these hard times without God. I have met so many others who suffer without the hope that we have in Christ and it breaks my heart. I don’t know where this post might find some of you…but he won’t give up on you…never. He didn’t will for you to go through this pain or for your child to, but he will see you through it. He loves you more than you could ever know and He sent His only son to die that you may have eternal life in Him. There is hope in suffering…you just have to accept it. Your life won’t be perfect but it will have purpose.
That’s it for the day guys. Please know I love you and thanks for your prayers for my Mom. A good chunk of this post was composed in the hospital during down times the past couple of days.