When you arrive at a crossroad in your crisis, cry out to God.
by KENNETH S. COLEY
IF YOU HAD NOT KNOWN Bill was sick with a serious disease, you probably would not have realized the preacher that morning was suffering with a cancer that would slowly take his life. He had shared with me earlier in the week that he felt “normal” one week a month, corresponding with the fourth week of each month during which he had no chemo treatments. He had scheduled me to preach that morning in December 2017, but he called and asked that I step aside and allow him to return to his pulpit. God had inspired him with a message, and he felt up to preaching for the first time in recent weeks.
Bill remarked in that conversation, without complaint or rancor, “Most days following chemo treatments, I have enough energy to get out of bed and walk to the family room where I collapse into my overstuffed recliner. And there I sit all day until bedtime. But this week I feel like I can preach. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” I responded. “It will be great to have you back.”
No one knew, not even Bill, that this would be his last message.
Dr. Bill Bowyer stood straight and tall, shoulders square, and spoke with a strong voice to the congregation of Wake Cross Roads Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, as if nothing was holding him back, just like almost every Sunday for two decades. “You might think it odd,” he began, “that I have selected for my text during this Christmas season Jonah 2, in which we read Jonah’s prayer while inside a large fish.” And so he opened what I thought at the time to be the best message I ever heard my friend preach. There was no letting up or backing down in this preacher.
While I listened, drawn into the reluctant prophet’s predicament, the Holy Spirit jolted me with an idea — this needs to be communicated beyond the walls of this congregation and community. The truth from this passage must be broadcast to a larger audience. Perhaps we have a book or seminar series before us.
GOD ANSWERS HIS CHILDREN’S CRIES OF DISTRESS
As the seasoned pastor laid out his outline, I was struck by the significance of what the Lord has for believers in Jonah 2. Bill was always a precise craftsman, and that morning was no exception, despite the debilitating disease ravaging his body. He provided this road map for his message:
“The general point I want to make is that God answers His children when they cry to Him in distress. I think the text gives us some specific pointers to how and why God answers us when we call on Him in distress. First, God answers us in spite of our guilt. Second, God answers us in spite of His judgment. Third, God answers us and delivers us from impossible circumstances. Fourth, God answers us in the nick of time. Fifth, God answers us in stages, not all of which are comfortable. Sixth, God answers us in order to win our undivided loyalty and thanks. Finally, God answers us in our guilty distress to help us become merciful like He is.”
There was a dark cloud in the backdrop of Bill’s sermon that morning. I see it more clearly now as I reread his manuscript. His identification with Jonah’s crisis reflected a foreboding awareness of his own difficult days ahead.
“Don’t disregard the partial works of God. If He chooses to save and to heal by stages, He has His good purposes, and we ought to be grateful for any improvement in our condition. A fish’s belly is better than weeds at the bottom of the sea, even if it is not yet Palestine. God answers us in stages, not all of which are comfortable.”
But less than 10 minutes into his message, the outline for an upcoming devotional series was implanted in my heart. Bill and his lovely wife, Deana, had invited Kathy and me to lunch that day, and over lunch I jotted down a working title and draft outline on a napkin at the restaurant. I explained to Bill how the Holy Spirit inspired me as he preached that morning, and I pitched the possibility of the two of us collaborating on a book.
On the napkin, I scribbled a working title: Praying at the Crossroads: Learning from the Prayers of Old Testament Leaders. I also included some potential leaders to be considered in addition to Jonah. Nehemiah — he faced the daunting task of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. King Hezekiah — the Assyrians had steamrolled the region and were now knocking on the front gate of Jerusalem. Solomon, Joshua, Deborah, and Moses all made the list. Each stood at a crossroads of crisis, and each recorded an inspiring prayer. Bill and I agreed that these prayers could serve as powerful models for God’s people to consider today. Why crossroads, beyond the intentional play on words in the name of our church? Because each of us, no matter our ministry or station in life, faces crucial intersections in our faith journeys. It is at these moments, like Jonah in the belly of the fish, we cry out to God for His protection and guidance.
We parted that day with a shared commitment to develop the project you see described in the sidebar on this page. I prayed that the project would provide my friend with a tangible task to focus on in light of the grueling surgery and recovery ahead. Unfortunately, the cancer would claim his life in early spring, even before he finished his edits on his chapter.
Bill Bowyer stayed faithful to his call to preach the Word. Because of this, he will be remembered in his home congregation and in international church plants around the globe for generations to come. May we all finish well, just as Bill courageously did.
KENNETH S. COLEY, Ed. D., is senior professor of Christian Education at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he leads the Doctor of Education Program. Ken also serves part time as teaching pastor at Richland Creek Community Church. He and his wife, Kathy, have been married 43 years. In addition to his ministries, he enjoys kayaking and running. This article is written in appreciation for Bill Bowyer, who finished well.