Grace in times of trouble: Missionaries stay faithful through tragedy

Communications Staff — March 16, 2009

Can I still trust a God who lets the worst tragedy happen?

For most Christians, that question has to be answered only in theory. But for three graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, it recently became terrifyingly real.

Todd Borger, Greg Bruckert and Ron McLain were all serving as missionaries with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board when their children died suddenly within the last year. Through the tragedies, however, they—along with their wives Timberley Borger, Shelly Bruckert and Renee McLain—committed to remain faithful in their service to Christ.

The Borgers were serving as missionaries in the Pacific Rim, where Todd, a 2002 doctor of philosophy graduate, taught Old Testament and Bible at a Baptist seminary. On the field their children Samuel, 11, and Anna, 9, worked with them to penetrate the Muslim culture with the Gospel.

But in May 2008 the unthinkable happened. Anna and her mother were riding bicycles when they accidentally became separated. Anna then approached a bridge over a creek, but she missed the bridge and plummeted 30 feet into a ravine and died on impact.

“All of the memories I have of Anna are fond memories,” said Todd Borger, who serves currently as Pacific Rim visiting professor of missions at Southern. “They’re all good memories. There were a lot of gracious things in what God did in her death.

“But what has sustained me in this is the knowledge that Anna had a deep, deep relationship with Christ. And there’s no doubt in my mind about where she is and who she is with. It would be very difficult if I didn’t have that certainty.”

Although Borger told his wife before having children that he did not want his children to be baptized at an early age, Anna shattered his plans. She believed the Gospel at age 5 and began witnessing to others in early elementary school.

An email Anna sent the day before her death made evident her continuing zeal for evangelism. She asked a former teacher to pray that she “would be able to show God’s love in its various forms” to a group of local girls who befriended her.

In addition to her love for Christ, Anna demonstrated unusual intellectual gifts. She began reading at age three and devoured hundred of books before her death. By age seven, she read most of the Bible and the entire Chronicles of Narnia series several times. She was also the family expert on Greek mythology and had started
memorizing important speeches by Shakespeare.

The Borgers are still deciding whether to return to the mission field, but whatever their decision they will use their lives to share the Gospel with urgency and sincerity.

“I think I do what I do better now because I want to do it well,” Borger said. “I want to make it worth something. I think before (the accident) I didn’t have that sense of urgency to what I did.”

The Bruckerts felt similar emotions after their son Jonathan was killed in a car accident in July at age 22.

Twenty-three year veterans of the mission field, including 22 in the Pacific Rim, the Bruckerts have devoted their lives to training ministers and teaching agricultural techniques to local farmers as a platform to share the Gospel. Greg graduated from Southern with a master of divinity degree in 1981 and a master of arts in Christian education in 1985.

On the day of the accident Jonathan was headed home from Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky., to Louisville where the family was on stateside assignment. Jonathan was scheduled to graduate from the university in December 2008. But five miles outside Campbellsville, on a notoriously dangerous highway, another vehicle crossed the centerline and stuck Jonathan’s car, killing him instantly.

Greg Bruckert said that while he experienced great pain when his older brother died in late 2007, “it’s nothing compared to this, nothing. … If you’ve known anyone who’s ever lost a child, you know a little of what I’m saying.”

In the midst of their grief, the Bruckerts were comforted by Jonathan’s obvious love for Christ. The year before his death, he decided to become a missionary in the same country where his parents serve. He also began to acquire a longing for holiness.

In a book that rested beside Jonathan’s bed, his parents found a note written in his hand: “Holiness is not something uncool, but it is wild, courageous and above average.”

“Since all that happened, I’ve just felt a real unction to preach on holiness,” Greg Bruckert said, “because the greatest need in the United States in the church is holiness. Our churches are being so influenced by moral relativism.”

During the months following Jonathan’s accident, Greg and Shelly struggled with whether to return to the mission field. Finally, at the urging of his wife and two daughters, Greg decided to return.

“Our family has always done missions,” he said. “We don’t want this horrible thing to just rob us. If we’ve had Jon taken away, we don’t want that to have to be taken away too.”

Ron and Renee McLain likewise felt a burden to continue their mission work after their daughter, Rebecca Pruitt, was brutally murdered in November in Laurel, Miss. Ron McLain serves in Bruxelles, Belgium, as the IMB’s team leader and strategy coordinator for church planting in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Pruitt, 29, let two people into her home when they told her they needed to use the phone. She even fed them lunch before they beat her into unconsciousness, bound her with duct tape, stabbed her in the back 18 times and set her on fire with gasoline. The two suspects told police they stole $30 in cash, Pruitt’s cell phone, purse and her vehicle, which they later abandoned.

Ron McLain, a 1998 doctor of philosophy graduate, said God’s grace has been apparent despite horrendous pain.

“As we search for clarity and comprehension, God searches for trust,” he said. “Nevertheless, grace is the final word. When God begins to stretch us to redefine our definition of fairness, He enlarges our faith with the ultimate goal of increasing our capacity to trust and follow Him. His grace, like water, will always flow to the lowest parts. The light has been dimmed, but we continue in the light we have presently.”

As an elementary school teacher, Pruitt dedicated herself to caring for underprivileged children, whom she believed could succeed in life if they learned to read. She taught second and third grades during her time in the Laurel school district.

McLain said he and Renee can continue living for Christ because they want to show others He is worthy of their trust regardless of the circumstances—a sentiment shared by the Borgers and the Bruckerts.

“We continue to acknowledge that God is worthy of our trust during our confusion and pain,” McLain said. “And with that kind of faith demonstrated in the midst of what we don’t understand, there are people watching how we handle this tragedy and looking to see if Jesus really does make a difference.

“After all, this is the Gospel that we have been sharing for years in previous pastorates and even now on the mission field. In other words, they want to know if we really live and believe what we teach and preach.”

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