Thursday, August 09, 2012

Hunter Norwood

And the end of the first chapter of The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey writes about his father-in-law:

Hunter Norwood lived a rich, full life of eighty years.  He sailed to South America as a missionary in 1942, built a house in the jungle by hand, founded a church and Bible Institute, and later returned to the United States to direct a missions organisation.  Along the way he and his wife raised six daughters, one of whom I married.

Hunter was a Bible teacher par excellence.  Even after retirement he sought out ways to teach the Bible.  He taught extension courses of Moody Bible Institute.  He drove forty-five minutes each Sunday to teach the Bible to a Presbyterian church class. When his health began failing, he would sit in front of the class in a wheelchair, speaking into a microphone in a bare whisper.  A few years ago I hired him to help with some revisions of The Student Bible because I knew no one I could better trust with Biblical research. 

Eventually, due to cancer and a nerve-degenerating disease, the time came when Hunter Norwood could no longer teach the Bible.  He still studied it faithfully each day and prayed through a list of all the people he had ministered to over the years.  He believed whole heatedly in the Victorious Christian Life and named Romans as his favourite book, his guidebook on relating to God.  As illness progressed, however, he began questioning the Victorious Christian Life.  Little wonder, in view of his condition. He had a catheter installed.  He lost control of his bowels.  His gums shrivelled so that he could hardly keep his dentures in, and visitors kept asking him to repeat what he had said.  His hands trembled, and he often dropped things.  It is hard to maintain a spirit of joy and victory when your body rebels against you, when you must call for help to drink a glass of water or blow your nose. 

During the last two years of his life. Hunter's world shrank to the size of a single bedroom, then to the size of a hospital bed that he rarely left. There, up until the day he could no longer he a pen, he recorded his journal of wrestling with God.  I am holding that journal, a spiral-bound notebook, in my hands as I write.  Starting from the back, I find lists of the people he prayed for faithfully, seventeen pages of lists: his extended family (there is my own name beside my wife's), the Indians in South America, the students in his many Bible classes, the missionaries he used to lead, his church, widows, his neighbours.  Stains - coffee, food, tears - mark the pages.
If I flip the notebook and start from the other side, I find Hunter Norwood's journal of relating to God.  It goes on for nineteen pages, and I can watch the progression of his disease in the handwriting that deteriorates on each page. Mostly, he quotes a Bible verse or briefly comments on it.  A few times he writes about his physical condition: sore back, legs not working, losing strength, dehydrated.  The last entry, barely legible, is marked August 7, almost exactly one year before he died.  Throughout that final year, he could not write.  What strikes me about the journal is this: of the hundreds of entries, I can find only nine referring to verses in the New Testament. 

Those of us who knew Hunter Norwood well know that the last few years of his life were by far the hardest.  Opponents of his faith had stoned him in Columbia.  He fought alligators, boa constrictors, and piranhas in South America,   He brought up six daughters in two different cultures.  But none of these compared to the difficulties of lying in bed all day, his body defying his every command, waiting to die.  Toward the end, it took all his effort to accomplish the simple acts of swallowing and breathing.  

Hunter went through a crisis of faith in those last few years, which he talked about openly.  Answers that used to satisfy him no long did.  He lost spiritual confidence, not in God but in himself.  As he grew anxious, impatient, and fearful, he wept bitter tears over his own inability to maintain composure. In the face of death, he longed to "finish well," a phrase he kept using. Yet again and again he disappointed himself.  He feared disappointing God,  

The wavering yet rock-solid faith Hunter found in the Old Testament sustained him when nothing else could.  Even at his most doubt-filled moments, he took comfort in the fact that some of God's favourites had battled the very same demons. He learned that the arms of the Lord are long, and wrap around those He loves, not just in prosperous and happy times but especially in times of travail. I am glad that in those dark days that Hunter Norwood had the Old Testament to fall back on.
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