Planting Well

Producing the Dispatches from the Front series has been a joyful journey of learning-and then sharing what I've learned with others. During the filming of "Every Tribe" (the 9th episode in the series), I learned much about planting well--sowing the good seed of the Gospel among unreached people groups; seeing what Word-centered, indigenously-driven missions looks like; and then seeing those flourishing church plants multiply in depth and grow a missionary vision of their own. I also learned how to plant rice; but despite the best efforts of my enthusiastic teachers, I don't seem to have a future as a rice farmer!

Check out the trailer below. I'm eager to share the story next month with the release of "Every Tribe"!

Bold Lines: Wounds of Differences


"I can appeal to God, that I have no design in the least to maintain a Party, or to keep up any Schismatical Faction, my Heart rises up against the Thoughts of it, I hate dividing Principles and Practices, and for whatever others are, I am for Peace and Healing, and if my Blood would be sufficient Balsam, I would gladly part with the last Drop of it, for closing up of the bleeding Wounds of Differences that are among true Christians; Peace is such a precious Jewel, that I would give anything for it but Truth:  Those who are hot and bitter in their Contendings for or against little Things, and zealous in keeping up Names of Division and maintaining Parties, are of a Spirit which I understand not, let not my Soul come into their Secret."

Matthew Henry, quoted in An Account of the Life and Death of Mr. Matthew Henry, Minister of the Gospel at Hackney: The Bible in Pater Noster Row. London, 1716,


Bold Lines is a regular feature at JOURNEY, where I share quotes from some of my Gospel heroes, as well as other lines that catch my attention.



Distant Music

Red fields. William Henry Keesee straddles a row of tobacco he's planting near Callands, Virginia in the 1940s. His wife, Gillie, lends a hand with the planting.

Red fields. William Henry Keesee straddles a row of tobacco he's planting near Callands, Virginia in the 1940s. His wife, Gillie, lends a hand with the planting.

My grandfather, William Henry Keesee, was born in the dawn of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House and the Wright Brothers were just getting off the ground. This week marks his long-ago birthday, and each year is a time for me to remember.

Among my grandfather’s earliest memories was teaching himself to play his grandfather’s old fiddle—an instrument that first made music around the campfires of the Confederate Army. He was still playing the treasured fiddle when I was growing up. My grandfather also clearly recalled coming to faith in Christ when he was ten years old at a “brush arbor” meeting near his home in southern Virginia. William Keesee grew up without a father and without property; so as a young man, he worked as a sharecropper to provide for his family. Although he had only two years of formal education, he possessed skilled hands, an inventive mind, a life-long love of reading and history, and held the equivalent of a graduate degree in hard work. He was poor, but his legacy was rich.

My love of history was one of his many gifts to me, gathered when I was a boy walking through red clay fields with him, collecting arrowheads and talking—our favorite conversations were always in the past tense! He has long since been laid to rest in the shadow of those fields. Sometimes though, late at night as I work through a family album or an aging sheath of letters, I can almost hear the distant music from his old fiddle. It’s the end of a short winter day, firewood crackles by the hearth, supper is over, and lights glow from the windows and across the years, as I listen to the fading strains of music. It’s a good song—one I must sing to my children . . . and to their children.


Bold Lines: By His Scars


It is remarkable that His scars were the only thing Jesus showed His disciples after His resurrection. By His scars they knew Him in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus even when they failed to recognize His form and face and speech. By His scars He convinced the ten disciples of His identity and His resurrection life. By His scars Thomas was convicted of his unbelief a week later and cried, "My Lord and my God." His scarred hands and side are the token and seal of our peace with God and an irresistible call to service and sacrifice.

Samuel Zwemer, The Glory of the Cross


Bold Lines is a regular feature at JOURNEY, where I share quotes from some of my Gospel heroes, as well as other lines that catch my attention.



Had a Miserable Day

Lately I’ve been reading the journals of both George Whitefield and William Carey. A well-written biography can capture the whole sweep of a life in a couple hundred pages, but such books are of necessity presenting an “edited” life. Take William Carey, for example. If you summarize his 40-year pioneering ministry of preaching, translating, teaching, and travel into a few pages, Carey may seem like Elijah in a fiery chariot—caught up from one spiritual height to another. But that’s not really an accurate picture, as Carey’s journal reveals. Sure, Carey was a gifted, fruitful, missionary trailblazer, but he was also a man who wrote the following entries in his journal:

Had a miserable day, sorely harassed from without, and very cold and dead in my soul. I could bear all outward trials if I had but more of the spirit of God” (February 2, 1795).

I sometimes walk in my garden and try to pray to God, and if I pray at all, it is in the solitude of a walk; I thought my soul a little drawn out today, but soon gross darkness returned; spoke a word or two to a Mohammedan upon the things of God, but I feel as bad as they” (March 6, 1795).

This is not an effort to discredit Carey or diminish his service. It is, in fact, an effort to magnify Carey’s Savior, for our God takes and redeems weak sinners who are just dust, really, or, as Paul put it, “jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” It is immensely encouraging to know that even in our weaknesses and through all the unknowns ahead, Christ our Refuge is in us and with us and for us!

She Being Dead Yet Speaketh

With Cheryl (left) and a colleague in June 2010

With Cheryl (left) and a colleague in June 2010

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the massacre of the Nuristan Eye Camp team in northeastern Afghanistan. It was the deadliest attack on aid workers in Afghanistan in recent history. Among the ten who were killed was a dear friend, Cheryl Beckett. Cheryl was a brave, gifted, prayerful woman full of “love and good works”; and even in the midst of many years of hard ministry in a war zone, she kept her good sense of humor. By her life and by her death, Cheryl put Calvary Love on display for the Afghan people. As a tribute to her, here are my journal entries from 2010 reflecting later on Cheryl’s death and that of the other brave men and women of the Nuristan team.


Ashtabula, Ohio

Bright leaves are hanging on for dear life as an autumn wind tugs at them and tousles the green outfield. A faded scoreboard stares blankly, waiting for another baseball season. Soon it will be capped with snow and fringed with icicles, but for now the sun is absolutely brilliant and it feels like the last day of summer.

Arrived in Ashtabula a bit early and am waiting at this deserted baseball diamond. I have my choice of bleacher seats as I wait for Chris and Joe, pastors over in nearby Madison, where I’ll preach tonight. They’re delayed a bit, so it gives me time for coffee and a breather after two days on the road.

Ashtabula is the site of the infamous train wreck which claimed the life of the great hymn writer Philip Bliss. I’m too close in my travels not to see it, so that’s why I am here. Both Chris and Joe, besides pastoring, are themselves hymn writers and composers—five-talent men who are ever busy about their Master’s business. They’ve agreed to show me the site of the 1876 train disaster. I want to see it, for Bliss has been a blessing to me for as long as I’ve known how to sing.

I remember when I was no more than five or six. I got up very early one morning. I remember the dew-wet grass on my shoes. I remember Daddy leading the way up a hill. I remember the forms of others there growing clearer in the fleeting darkness. And then, I remember voices as deep as the first line. “Low in the grave He lay . . . waiting the coming day.” Then there was a little pause, like the disciples lingering at Jesus’ tomb, staring at the death of all their dreams. Then with voices that from the first word seemed to rise along with Christ, we sang, “Up from the grave He arose! . . . Hallelujah! Christ arose!” We picked up from that hymn to Bliss’s Easter portrait of the “Man of Sorrows.”

Lifted up was He to die;
It is finished was His cry;
Now in Heaven exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Saviour! *

I’ll never forget that first Easter sunrise service and its opening praises, and I can never get away from that pause between the grave and glory. It is the place of unanswered questions, and I’ve had a lot of those lately. I got a call from Afghanistan early one morning in August and learned that my friend Cheryl Beckett had been killed, along with nine other aid workers. They were ambushed by Islamic militants. I can’t allow myself to even think about how she died. She was a beautiful soul who never failed to lift my spirits with her joy in Christ. Our time together in June was precious—although at the time, I didn’t know just how precious. I don’t expect a good answer to why at thirty-two years of age she should be taken. She brought so much strength to the team, and she put Calvary Love on display for the Afghan people to see. There are already so few there, so few willing to go there. It still hurts to write about her.


Madison, Ohio

Staying a couple of miles from Lake Erie. The house is quiet, and sleep beckons, but this has been a day to remember. Took a walk with Chris and Joe up from the ball field to the old trestle, where long ago Bliss and his wife lost their lives, along with nearly a hundred others. We walked through autumn splendor. Leaves, which screened the westering sun, looked like stained glass set in a cathedral of trees that scattered colorful confetti in our way. As we walked, Joe told us about Bliss, who was one of the most popular and influential musicians of his time. Bliss coined the term “Gospel song,” and his partnership with D. L. Moody and fellow hymn writer Ira Sankey spread his ministry to both sides of the Atlantic. Just before Christmas 1876, D. L. Moody was preaching in Chicago to thousands daily. At that time Bliss was engaged in evangelistic meetings in the Midwest, but Moody asked him to come to Chicago and help. Bliss returned home to Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with his family, and then he and Lucy left their young sons in the care of Bliss’s mother and sister and set out for Chicago. The evening of December 29, the train pushed through northeastern Ohio in a blizzard. As it crossed the Ashtabula River, the trestle cracked and gave way, plunging all the passenger cars seventy feet down into the river. Kerosene stoves inside the wooden rail cars spread fire rapidly through the crash. Philip and Lucy died along with 92 others, their remains completely consumed by the fire. Bliss was 38 years old.

We stood near that rebuilt trestle. The river mirrored nothing but a peaceful afternoon. The sound of a passing train was the only reminder of the carnage that once lay here. So we sang Bliss’s tunes, It is Well with my Soul and Hallelujah! What a Saviour.

Joe told me that Bliss had sent his luggage to Chicago ahead of them, and his suitcases arrived before the news of his death. A friend opened the luggage and found the lines of a new hymn Bliss was working on.

I know not what awaits me,
God kindly veils my eyes,
And o’er each step of my onward way,
He makes new scenes to rise;
And ev’ry joy He sends me comes,
A sweet and glad surprise,
So on I go, not knowing,
I would not if I might;
I’d rather walk in the dark with God,
Than go alone in the light;
I’d rather walk by faith with Him,
Than go alone by sight. **

So on I go not knowing . . . I’d rather walk in the dark with God—I was stunned. I immediately thought of Cheryl Beckett’s last letter to us this summer. She included this poem.

Cheryl Beckett

Cheryl Beckett

I see your hands,
not white and manicured
but scarred and scratched and competent,
reach out
not always to remove the weight I carry
but to shift its balance, ease it,
make it bearable.
Lord, if this is where you want me,
I’m content.
No, not quite true. I wish it were.
All I can say, in honesty is this.
If this is where I’m meant to be
I’ll stay. And try.
Just let me feel your hands. ***

He being dead, she being dead, “yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4). Bliss and Beckett, they’re both reminding me that Christ has not promised answers to all our sorrows. All He has ever really promised is His Presence—and that is enough.

* Philip P. Bliss, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” (pub. 1875, Public Domain).

** Mary G. Brainard, arr. by Philip P. Bliss, “He Knows”, (pub. 1876, Public Domain).

** Eddie Askew, “I See Your Hands.” Many Voices, One Voice, (The Leprosy Mission International, 1985) 39.

Bold Lines: Every Promise


Every promise of Scripture is a writing of God, which may be pleaded before Him with this reasonable request, 'Do as Thou hast said.' The Heavenly Father will not break His Word to His own child.

 Charles Spurgeon


Bold Lines is a weekly feature at JOURNEY, where I share quotes from some of my Gospel heroes, as well as other lines that catch my attention.



The Angel of Baghdad

On the plains of Ur, southern Iraq, the day before the incident in Baghdad.

In the fall of 2011, I had completed the filming of Father, Give Me Bread in Ethiopia and South Sudan. I was scheduled to travel on to Afghanistan to meet with a co-worker; however, I had a week of down-time in between. So, wanting to take advantage of being “in the neighborhood,” a friend and I went to southern Iraq on a scouting mission. I recall what Samuel Zwemer said of his Gospel work in the same region a century earlier, “From the outset, the mission policy seemed to be expansion rather than concentration.”* Mine, too. And the only way to test the door for Gospel work there was to go to Baghdad. After several promising days in Baghdad, Babylon, and Ur, things suddenly changed while at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. Here are my journal entries from that day:

Somewhere in Baghdad, east of the Tigris

This morning we were stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint southeast of Baghdad. After some questioning, we were taken to a second checkpoint, where our passports were confiscated, and we were detained for a time. Afterwards, we were escorted by Iraqi forces to an Iraqi Army post, where Jason and I were photographed and questioned at length. No explanation has been offered as to why we were being held. The Iraqi officer in charge reported that we were to be sent to the brigade headquarters to see General Abdul Azeeri. So we were separated from our interpreter and taken under armed guard to an Iraqi base called Alrusafa. I’m now in the office of the deputy commander, and between questions I’m using this time to write. The Iraqi colonel is sitting behind a desk of polished walnut with neat stacks that an aide keeps tidied up for the great man. His shoulders are weighed down by the gold-crested epaulets of power, and a big pistol holster circles his considerable girth. The commander’s jutting jaw and penchant for thumping the desk as he talks to us reminds me of an old Mussolini newsreel. Not sure when we’re getting out of here, or even why we’re being held, or if we will miss our flight tomorrow. Still have my Blackberry, though. When the sun was setting a couple of hours ago and the last azan was sounding from mosques all over Baghdad, I sent a quick message to Debbie to send out our own “call to prayer.” I’m confident, though, that ours will have results.


Angels come in many forms. Last night mine came in the form of a Skoal-spitting army colonel from Alabama.


Blackhawks are humming overhead, as the sun brightens the sky east of the Tigris. These past twenty-four hours have been unforgettable—a reminder that our King commands generals and spies and also guides the steps of his children. Angels come in many forms. Last night mine came in the form of a Skoal-spitting army colonel from Alabama. After nearly ten hours in the custody of the Iraqi Army, suddenly Colonel Cole with the 82nd Airborne arrived and sought to take custody of us. It seems that a few hours earlier we had been spotted by his Kurdish interpreter, who had reported to him that he thought he saw some Americans with Iraqi troops.

After some back and forth, Jason and I were able to go with Cole, but we were not allowed to leave the Iraqi base. As it turned out, we ended up at the U.S. Army’s last outpost east of the Tigris River. Although the details are classified, what the colonel could tell me was that Iranian-backed groups were looking for American targets to kill or kidnap, especially before the upcoming United States troop withdrawal. Elements in the Iraqi Army were providing these groups with intelligence, and it looks as if we were in their sights.

The Army Rangers then went to work on a plan to move us to the airport. So at 2:30 a.m. we strapped on vests and helmets and set out in a convoy of 3 MRAPS, crossed the Tigris River, and went on to the airbase here at Camp Victory. Have just been briefed by several Air Force undercover agents who have laid out a plan for maneuvering Jason and me past the checkpoints outside and inside the Baghdad airport. We set out soon for this last round of cat-and-mouse—and hopefully our flight back to Abu Dhabi!

It seems my idea of a tour company office in Baghdad may be a little premature, but there must be other ways to position Christians here for the sake of the Gospel. All these businessmen I flew in with four days ago are still here—risking their resources and even their lives in order to make money. Why can’t Christians risk at least as much for the gospel?

Daniel in his time risked everything in this land to spread the fame of his God. He kept company with lions and angels and proclaimed the King of kings. Lord, send another Daniel here. Call more Abrahams and Sarahs to leave the things that will turn to dust anyway to make your glory and your Gospel known.*

Lt. Colonel Cole is short, powerful, and every inch a soldier. For him, “duty, honor, country” is not just a motto—it’s his compass. He served 3 tours in Iraq, and last week I was honored to attend his retirement ceremony held at Army Central Command. I have since learned more of the backstory of that fateful night, and it has become even clearer that Col. Cole’s intervention was decisive and likely saved my life. I salute his courage as well as his dedication and skill through 25 years of service in the cause of freedom. I’ll always be grateful to the “Angel of Baghdad” and for this special friendship forged in the company of warriors.

*Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine, The Golden Milestone: Reminiscences of Pioneer Days Fifty Years Ago in Arabia (Fleming H. Revell Co.: New York, NY, 1938), p. 108.

**Tim Keesee, Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014), pp. 231-233.