A hero of our faith:  Robert Allen Reed
A hero of our faith: Robert Allen Reed

A hero of our faith: Robert Allen Reed

This post is a personal story from Renita Reed-Thomson, and gives a bit of history of her life leading to the path of getting started with Discipling Marketplace Leaders:

On Wednesday, March 20, it will be fourteen years since the death of my first husband, Robert Allen Reed.  If you are new to this blog, he died very suddenly when we lived in Ghana; our daughter Hannah was 16 and our son Noah had just turned 15.  By next year, 2025, he will have been gone from my children’s lives more than he was present.  While we still talk of him very frequently, his voice and memories fade from our memories unless we are intentional to watch videos, read his writings, or look at pictures.

During this Lenten season, we consider the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and we imagine where we would have been on that day.  Would we have been like Peter?  Like the naked young man who ran away from the soldiers?  What type of sacrificial love do we live out today?  How do we carry our cross?

As always, when the anniversary of Bob’s death approaches, I find my mind reliving that week, appreciating his life, it’s impact on me, my children, and many others.  And this past week I also considered how he was willing to give his life for his faith.  In this blog, I want to share a bit about him in this regard, as I think it’s also an important story to tell.  Please forgive me for the length of this post.  I write it in part for myself and for my children, but I understand that it may be too long for all to read.

Bob did not grow up in a Christian home.  He grew up in Lansing MI, in what many would describe as a “blue-collar” household.  He was the third of four children, and his father died in a house fire when he was three.  His mother later married his uncle (Bob’s father’s brother) and two more children came from that marriage.  That marriage later ended in divorce when Bob was a teen, and his mother married again to the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life.  These circumstances, and the lack of a reliable father figure during his formative years, had a deep impact on Bob.   

But he was a curious guy and he deeply appreciated curiosity.  [In fact, he often said that curiosity was one of the “missing fruits of the spirit.”  He believed too many people simply accepted things and didn’t ask the deeper, important questions of life.]  He didn’t let life’s problems get in the way of trying to figure things out.

It was this curiosity that led him to Christ, but that journey took him through drugs, then other religions, eventually leading him to an encounter with God.  Once he gave his life to Christ, everything changed.  He went to Moody Bible Institute to learn more about God and Scripture, began cooking food in a soup kitchen for the homeless, and sought a way to contribute to the flourishing of others.  He found his giftedness in counseling – he was curious about people and what made them tick.  He had a direct, no-nonsense approach to understanding what drives behavior and a deep desire for people to be curious about that as well.  He desired for people to look in the mirror and understand what they saw there – not simply point to others for the reason for our behavior but to take a deep look inside.  What frustrated him the most is when people refused to take time to be curious about themselves and grow in understanding and wisdom for how God had made them.  While he could be impatient in that, he is also the counselor who sat with one young woman three times a week for more than a year before she spoke a word.  He was willing to simply be present with her until she found the ability to speak.  

As a Christian who grew up in a Christian household, I didn’t wrestle with my faith.  Christianity was a deep part of my culture, especially as my father was a pastor.  Faith was not to be questioned.  It simply was.  Marrying Bob introduced me to someone of authentic and questioning faith – someone who made a decision as an adult, without having it modeled to him growing up.  He made a decision to believe in something unseen.  And that is the essence of faith – it is making a decision to believe in something that is not grounded in facts.  Bob had to choose, sometimes daily, to have faith.  It was not unusual for him to wake up in a sweat, wondering if he was wrong.  He was also afraid of death because he hadn’t been raised with regular reminder of the comfort of heaven.  So his faith was real and raw.  To me, it was incredible to watch and learn from him.  [Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying my family’s faith was not real.  It was and is.  But the assurance was imbedded in the culture from the time we could talk.  My bedtime prayer growing up was: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Now, ignoring the fact that we were being reminded of the fact that we could die each night (!), we were also stating each night that we would/could be with Jesus.  That is the comfort that Bob missed, and it is an anxiety that I don’t know.]

Bob helped me to break the “faith of my fathers” and discover Christ for myself at the age of 27.  Then in 1997, we felt called to move, with a four- and two-year-old, into the inner city, on a street with three drug houses and a house of prostitution.  My goal was community development – social work.  His goal?  For one African American child to grow up around a white person who didn’t view him/her with prejudice.  

He then lost his job at Calvin University in 2001 because we felt led to send our children to the local failing, closing public school, where they would be the only white children.  After sixteen years of serving at this Christian college, he lost his job for following a call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  He not only lost a good salary, retirement benefits, health benefits, and his work community; he also had to deal with Christians and family members telling him he was not a good parent, and that he was sacrificing his children for ministry.  He set up a counseling ministry in the neighborhood, earning one-third of what he had been making, and serving many who could not pay.  And after doing that for a few years, he began to bring up Africa.  

He had brought it up before leaving Calvin, but when he went to visit Africa in 2000, he came back and told me that he was afraid he wasn’t strong enough to live there.  But that didn’t stop him.  He brought it up again in 2004 and at that time, I was ready to listen.  We went for a visit, and then in 2005, sold all we had and moved to post-war Liberia.  He was 51 when we moved there and again our income was cut to one third of the previous one-third.  We moved to a home with no running water or electricity, where ex-combatants were breaking into our home or other homes in the village where we lived every night.  We were up from 2-5 am nightly while we listened to rogues breaking in, and Bob felt so burdened for the safety of our family.  The days were not much easier as Bob was frequently arrested by the police who were looking for their “blessing,” (as they had not been paid for some time and were hoping for a payoff).  But Bob learned to sit all day at the police station and chit-chat with the police until they gave up hope of a bribe and let him go.  

I can’t fully describe everything he went through in Liberia – it would take a book to tell the story (and actually he chronicled most of it in our blog Reeds in Liberia) – in brief, from having to change shirts four times a day because of sweating so much, to spending each evening digging out chiggers or mango worms from children and dogs, to loving the kids in the neighborhood, to counseling and setting up the countries first social work program, it was a wild ride.  

And then it was time for us to turn over the ministries we had set up to nationals.  And we asked God to direct us for where to go.  Unfortunately, Bob was not offered the positions that he was hoping for.  I was receiving offers but he was not.  While he loved and supported me, and was proud of me, that hurt him deeply.  Just as like every person, he so wanted to be used and liked and loved.  (He always said that he wanted to be invited to the party and then not go – he was a strong introvert with a tough exterior, but he wanted to be wanted.)  He had struggled with his own self-esteem for most of his life, especially regarding his weight.  Many times he was judged because of being overweight – he was often written off or disregarded because of it.  And how he struggled to lose weight!  Having been overweight since childhood, his weight was not one of complacency or lack of care.  He tried and tried and tried and tried and tried.  Man, did he try.  

And so at the age of 54, having left Liberia and unsure of what would come next, he was lost.  And that brought about depression.  Due to (lengthy) circumstances, he ended up being offered a part-time position to do conflict resolution and justice work in West Africa.  The move to Ghana was difficult for him and he struggled for the first six months that we were there.  The depression continued and it was difficult for him to be motivated.  But two weeks before he died, I saw the old Bob emerge.  And the day before he died, was the first time that I had seen him with his energy renewed, having just returned from a valuable trip to Nigeria.  

He, like all of us, needed to be needed, to be used, to contribute.  He got that gift during the ten days he spent in Nigeria and he had came back invigorated.  What a gift that I saw that right before he died!  The day before he died, he and I had a conversation about our future, something that didn’t happen when he was depressed.  I’m so thankful for that!

And then he work up on Saturday morning, didn’t feel well, and died that afternoon.  We were told it was a pulmonary embolism.  That was proved wrong in the autopsy, where it was found that every organ was full of infection.  Yet he was fine on Friday and had no fever on Saturday.  

I’ve puzzled over this for fourteen years, talking to doctors, pathologists, nurses, and many others.  I believe I finally have a plausible idea of what happened.  Unfortunately, it involves me. 

Bob had struggled on and off with staph infections while living in Ghana.  He kept self-diagnosing, self-prescribing antibiotics, and then often not completing the cycle of antibiotics.  He and I made an agreement (in February) that he would not do that again.  The night before he died, he made pizza for the family and then I cut his hair.  In cutting his hair, I noticed that there were three or four sores on his head that looked like staph.  I pointed it out to him, and he said, “This is my year for illness!”  

I believe, in hindsight, that I might have nicked one of those sores when cutting his hair, causing the staph infection to go into his bloodstream.  When staph enters the bloodstream, it can cause sepsis, and has a high mortality rate.  I’m told that if someone’s immunity is low, there is the possibility that staph will not manifest with a fever, as the body isn’t strong enough to have that fight.  I don’t know why his body was not strong enough to develop a fever.  I don’t know what was going on with his immune system. But I now believe that he died due to a staph infection that went septic.  Unfortunately, the hospital had no working machines nor doctors who were able to pick upon anything that was going on.  Even the labs that came back after his death showed no problems…which means they weren’t real results.  We will never know for sure, of course, but that is my best guess.  There has been no other explanation offered that makes as much sense as this theory.

In the end, Bob gave his life to serve God and His church.  He knew the risk.  WE knew the risk.  He didn’t let his fear stop him.  And given that he had to actually choose to believe over and again, and given his fear of death, I marvel all the more.  

This year, I am the same age as Bob was when he died – 55 years old.  As a widow at 41 years old, I didn’t know what it was like for him as a 55-year-old man.  Today, I better understand his tiredness.  I better understand his desire to do work that has meaning – to be affirmed in that work. 

I’m proud of him.  His children are proud of him.  He is a hero of the faith.  And while he died too soon, and his life was nowhere near perfect, I know that I know that I know that His Father in heaven was proud of him.

Bob picked up his cross to follow Jesus.  He was a disciple and he discipled others.  Jesus called him and was faithful to be with him until the end.  

On Bob’s mug were the words, “Pay Attention.”  I often think of that and how indicative it was of his character.  May we continue to pay attention to the one who brought us, to the one who invites us, to the one who equips us, and to the one who is working in us, faithful to complete the good work.

I leave you with the words of his first blog post to Reeds in the Wind, which capture the essence of what I have shared about him:

If you are at all like me, you wonder about the nature of things. You are not so smug as to think you have it all figured out, nor have you uncovered all the rocks under which truth dwells. Even if you are, like I am, deeply devoted to to a particular faith or philosophical orientation, you may acknowledge, as I do, that your devotion is regularly tested by your perceptions of reality.

This blog is an experiment in devotion-testing. My particular faith explicitly, implicitly and logically guides me to a certain way of doing and being, that I spend my time and my life consistently with the implications of my faith.

This blog is a testimony, for better or worse, of the kinds of things that happen when a family continues to say, “Let’s take what we say we believe to the next level of action.” To testify is to bear witness; affirm as fact or truth; to declare, profess, or acknowledge openly. Our goal is to share our lives as openly and honestly as we can.

And so, this blog hopefully will be evidence. Evidence not only that humans can be increasingly successful at living true to the logical implications of their beliefs, but evidence of something more. Hopefully, if we pay attention–all of us who wonder– will see evidence that something greater than our faithfulness or even “logical consistency” is here. Hopefully, if we pay attention, we will see evidence that something greater than our work, or ourselves, or even what we smugly call truth is here.

As I say, it’s an experiment.

In the book of the Hebrew prophet Malachi, we are told that God is angry. God’s people are not taking Him seriously. They are not being logically consistent with the implications of their stated beliefs. They give meagerly to His works. They do not push themselves beyond their levels of comfort. Their spiritual leaders are corrupted by greed. They do not understand the spiritual discipline of sacrifice. So God, understanding that unbelief is at the heart of their hypocrisy, tells them something remarkable. He makes a deal. He says, “Put me to the test. Live it like you say you believe it,” He says, “and see if I don’t show up.” God apparently loves a good experiment.

I believe in God, and I believe He works like this. When we show up, He shows up. Hence this blog. Let’s see if the Reeds are just whistling in the wind, or if they are whistling in the Wind.

Let’s see if He shows up.

He showed up.  

Bob was also a very good writer.  

I miss him.