An Open Letter to Joe Russell (Pastor of Young Families and Junior High at Riverview Evangelical Free outside San Diego)

An open letter to Joe Russell and his family thanking him for the raw blog that he and his wife wrote. I’ve reflected on it while my Mom’s medical crisis plays out in a hospital in Fresno, California. There is much that I respect in what Joe and his wife Kim wrote. But there is also one point I wanted to tenderly make that I think needs to be clarified.

“Dave, I understand this is a stressful and difficult time. Sometimes the uncertainty is the worst. You are a good man. Stay faithful, friend.”

Message from a friend of mine.

“The darkest hours are just before dawn.”

English Proverb

Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.

Job 11:17-18 NIV

My Dad speaking to my Mom from a couple of months ago.

Joe-

Hello, let me explain myself to you. My name is David Bonner and I live in the Washington, D.C. area. For the time being that is my home. I started writing a blog that was born out of psychological pain. You see I had a co-worker try and get me involved in the final church plant of C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries before the denomination erupted into scandal in 2011. In trying to get me involved in 2012 Andrew White then gave birth to a false accusation that took aim at my name, reputation, and ability to earn income. When I saw how an Air Force Captain and graduate of the United States Air Force Academy can abuse his power I learned why rape and sexual assault is a serious problem in the military. I had no plans nor desire to start a blog. All I wanted was peace and to hear a sincere “I’m sorry Dave…” One of the reasons why Christianity is so sick in the United States is because Christians don’t say I’m sorry. I am wrong, will you please forgive me. This blog also writes about atheism and secular humanism because many of these problems need to be looked in that context also Joe. This blog is focused on Eric Simmons, Jordan Kauflin’s and Jon Smith’s Redeemer Arlington which is located in the Washington, D.C.area. I started to write about the EFCA because of my background in the EFCA and I realized no one else is writing about it. In the process of studying Steve Highfill’s EFCA West and analyzing the growth of Neo-Calvinism/Reformed theology I studied Riverview’s web page which as you know is in the San Diego County area. As I was going through the staff and the website I came upon your name. I then discovered your blog that dealt with the battle you and your family had with your son’s congenital heart defect. I found it to be very raw and moving and put it aside as one of the many topics in EFCA West to write about. While this blog will have its share of scandal to write about in the EFCA, I am also firmly committed to writing about the positive and affirming the positive.

My Mom who has had a medical crisis since December 22, 2016 was back in the hospital and dealing with sepsis, low grade lymphoma, vasculitis, and the effects of a stroke. I decided to fly back to Fresno to help my Mom and family. This has been the fourth time I have traveled across the country to help her out. It started with spending a week out her for Christmas and being in the hospital helping out during most of that time. Then I assisted for 3 days in late January, several days in early March, and now I am back for the fourth time. I am writing this letter to you Joe from either the cafeteria at St. Agnes Medical Center, the hospital library, or lounge number 4712. The doctor who is treating my Mom told me on Saturday afternoon that she is not going to recover. Despite that my hope to God is that we can have another 5 to 10 years. I want to have a few more Christmases and Thanksgivings. I know people have to die eventually but I don’t want to lose my Mom either next week or next month. I just want to have some more time with her. I have called the hospital my home as I have spent so much time here. Joe I can’t tell you what it is like to sit next to my Mom and watch her cry out in pain. I can’t tell you what its like when she is having delerium and have her call out my name and not recognize me. I have been bitten in trying to feed her. I also had some of my eyebrows pulled out. And then the following day there is no delerium and I am baffled. Then my Mom recognizes me, tells me she loves me and kisses my hand. Then the following day its completely different. Joe right before I write this section I listened to my Mom scream in pain as they changed her bandages to her open wounds. I saw the look on my Dad’s face as things play out at St. Agnes CICU.  I can’t tell you how disturbing it is to listen to this Joe. Words have no description when it comes to listening to something so difficult. My family and I are exhausted as we deal with this day in and day out. It has been hard to sleep and process all this. Plus against all this like I said I am hoping that all will work out. I know what the doctor is saying but I am hoping we can spend some more time together before I have to tell my Mom goodbye.

Joe I have been reading your family’s blog about Stephen before writing this post and the other one that is accompanying this open letter to you.  I want to say thank you for your family being open and transparent and sharing the dark side of life. Reading about your anxieties, your worst fears and the unknown are refreshing. Life isn’t pretty. Life can be hard and sitting here inside a hospital is just proof of that unpleasant fact. I really found your blog to be unique and it is something that I wish would be the norm and not the exception. Too often many evangelicals have this “rah rah” approach where God is always good. I wrote about this in the context of an Evangelical Free church in Wichita, Kansas. You can read that in “The Issue of Pain and Suffering, and “God Sightings” in Hilltop Urban Church; an Evangelical Free in Wichita, Kansas.” What is a person who is dealing with prolonged suffering supposed to do under such circumstances? What is difficult about such cultures Joe is that in some cases they can also force people to be dishonest in the end. Plus the other factor is that many parts of evangelicalism is struggling with prosperity theology. You can read about this issue in “The Prosperity Gospel: Reflection on a NY Times Op Ed Called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” And when a person is confronted with pain and suffering those around you can go cold on you as the topic is too uncomfortable for them. The reality Joe is that we are all going to suffer. Each and every person is going to suffer, there is no way around it. The challenge is how to approach it and deal with it. Here at The Wondering Eagle I wrote a post about how different people have dealt with the issue of pain and suffering. You can read that in “Thoughts on Pain and Suffering: Differing Perspectives from Scott Hamilton, Ben Petrick, and Derek and David Carr.” I think many people can take some comfort if they know that their suffering can be used. The challenge is that each person is different. For some  people things work out, and for others they do not. While that is ongoing Joe there is another problem in modern evangelicalism. You can have people like teach a warped view of God’s sovereignty that is nothing but determinism. For example let me put it like this…when John Piper teaches that God ordains cancer and that it is a gift, then did Matt Chandler sin and rebel against the Lord in seeking treatment for his brain tumor? If Matt Chandler truly believed the Lord is sovereign then he should have submitted to the brain tumor and let it take its course. Again I reject Neo-Calvinism for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that is makes the problem of pain and suffer much worse. Plus I would also say that John Piper and Matt Chandler can teach a faith that has more in common with Sunni Islam then traditional Christianity. After all Calvinism can very much be the Islamization of Christianity. These are the discussions people aren’t having today Joe, and yet they need to be had. 

Joe it took a lot of courage for you and your wife to be so open about what happened in your family. I can’t imagine the tears you shed. I can’t imagine the anxiety that went on day by day. In my own family situation we are dealing with that anxiety day by day. Just today my Mom went down to get a CT scan. My Mom is unresponsive and had another stroke. My sister called me fearing this is going to be the end. But then in a few hours my Mom’s vitals improved. This has been a roller coaster ride and emotionally exhausting. But getting back to your blog one other encouraging aspect is that as I read about the comforting and healing community you had which carried you. They helped sustain you and your family; and let you lean upon them during the uncertainty that existed. Christianity shines the most when its a faith system about love. You and your wife Kim have seen that and that is most encouraging. For that I am thankful for the love and support you were shown. For all the food that people delivered, the hugs you received, and  the endless support that is beautiful. That is community I believe God intended it to be. You learn a lot about people and community by how they react in a crisis. My experience with evangelicalism has been jaded and I have seen some things that have been deeply unpleasant. But when you do find that community then you find something that can sustain, nurture and lift you up.

The other thing that came upon me as I read your blog is that I imagined you have felt the prayers of those who supported you. I have to tell you Joe, I honestly struggle with prayer. I am so fearful of prosperity gospel that I spend most of my time praying for others and never for myself. Now in this medical crisis I spend time at the chapel in the hospital praying for my Mom. But as things change in a day by day context what is a person to do? I believe many people who talk about God is good do so when all is well. Or they say it when after going through a rough patch and come out okay on the other end. But what about when things don’t work out. For example what about the parent dealing with cancer in their child and the cancer doesn’t respond to treatment? Is God still good in those circumstances? These are questions that I think deserve honest discussions and debate. That is part of the reason why I love Philip Yancey so much. I don’t recommend authors any more. I am done with the celebrity scene. But I do recommend Philip Yancey because he tackles these issues and does it in a difficult way. The best faith that I think can exist is when you dive into the dark unknown and say “I don’t know” in the end. In those situations the “I don’t know” can result in learning to live in the tension. This is where I am at. This is hard for many evangelicals and its the reason why the movement in itself can be hard to people like me. Forgive me for saying this but when the shit hits the fan many don’t want to hear bad news. I think this is especially true when evangelical services are segregated between young and old. I also think this happens when the evangelical church makes youth an idol and focuses so much on it that the rest of the church can be neglected. Please understand I am not saying there should not be youth programs. What I am saying is that too many churches focus on that and neglect other areas. In my Mom’s medical crisis I can’t stand to give the cliché that God is good when my world has gone to hell in a short amount of time. And I am not trying to be difficult but I would rather be honest. Honesty is crucial in such discussions, and I got that sense in reading your blog. The uncertainties and unknown’s were handled beautifully. So I just want to commend you and thank you for your honesty. In this spiritual journey as I have written about the EFCA there are some people who I have interacted with and met that I don’t think should be pastors. Then I have met a number of people who are loving, kind, and pour of their heart to the congregation. Your blog stands out in that regard and I think Riverview is incredibly fortunate to have you Joe.

While I appreciate what you and Kim did in your blog there is one issue that I feel compelled to raise. And I am trying to do this in a tender manner. In the blog one of the sentiments that came from it is that suffering can drive a person to closeness with God. In some ways I can see that, as I think it would describe your own family’s situation. But I also have to say that is not always true. Its different as it goes by a case by case basis. There is one person I would direct you to consider and contemplate. That person is Valerie Tarico who is one of the leading atheist bloggers who writes for Patheos. She helps former Christians de-convert and walk away from Christianity. Valerie was a Christian at one point, and as I recall she attended and graduated from Wheaton. However, it was the problem of pain and suffering that helped her push back from Christianity. The final straw came when she worked in a Children’s Hospital in Seattle, Washington. There she saw young children dealing with terminal cancer or going through difficult treatment. She struggled with it and read C.S. Lewis’s The Problem with Pain. That said it still was an issue. In watching the suffering, and young children dying of cancer; as I recall she pushed back from God and said that she was tired of making excuses for God. She was done in that regard. You can read more about it in her blog post here, and an interview with Valerie at the Internet Monk a few years ago. The standard cliché that some evangelicals will give is that people like Valerie were never a Christian to begin with. I think that is bad and that it creates a lot of problems. There are two posts in which I have looked at that topic. The first one is “Why Evangelical Christians will be Unable to Reach Atheists with the Gospel.” And the second one is called ““If they leave the Christian faith they never were a Christian to begin with…”A Pushback Against that Line of Thought as Inspired by a Recent Godless in Dixie Post.” Christians need to have difficult discussions on these topics and they need to happen outside the bubble that many evangelical Christians function. I just want to challenge you and Kim to think about this situation from another perspective. Because your blog is gold and beautiful and I personally think you and your wife have so much potential.

As I wind this letter down I want to ask if you and Riverview could do something. In your blog you talk about the community that lifted up your family in prayer. My family is in the midst of a medical crisis and we are going through hell. In this day by day experience we just do not know what will happen. The nurse told me last night that this situation could go either way. This morning as I was getting ready my sister called me frantic. Mom was unresponsive and the thought was that today would be her last day. So I rushed to the hospital and despite hearing that Mom had a stroke her vitals stabilized again. So we are left to the emotional roller coaster that continues. My prayer each night in the chapel of this hospital Joe is that my Mom have another 5 to 10 years. I just want to spend a few more Christmases and Thanksgivings. Then if she dies I can be at more peace knowing that I can cherish those memories which are made. My Mom’s name is Romona Bonner. And if you and those who prayed for your family could pray for my Mom, we would be touched. Many are praying for her now. Thanks Joe.

I hope you find this encouraging and helpful. I hope you can get some honest feedback that can help your ministry. I am toward the edge of the entire evangelical scene but I am still somewhat a part of it. Please take care of yourself and give your son Stephen a hug. Thanks Joe, please take care.

Very Respectfully,

David Bonner

One thought on “An Open Letter to Joe Russell (Pastor of Young Families and Junior High at Riverview Evangelical Free outside San Diego)

  1. Pingback: First Free Wichita Wants to Introduce you to the EFCA; Plus The Wondering Eagle’s Long Term Goals and Agenda with the EFCA | Wondering Eagle

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