The Trail of Tears

For years I’ve made at least one phone call whenever I don’t know what to do. Sometimes, other calls will follow. But without hesitation, the first call I make is to my mentor and friend, Hershael York. The day we learned Carson had leukemia was terrible in every way. Though our emotions brought us low with despair, there was little time to linger in our valley. In addition to the anxieties we carried, we had to pack a bag, travel to another state, and begin a journey that would span nearly three years. I knew my young family would look to me for strength, yet I had none. That’s when I made the call. Parts of that conversation will always remain private, but I’ve asked my friend to share his perspective about our conversation on that dark day.

Guest Contributor: Hershael York

I thought it odd that he would call early on a Sunday afternoon, so soon after church. Preachers don’t call then. They recuperate. A preacher must be “on” from the moment he arrives at the church until he leaves. His attentions are heightened, his thoughts focused, his emotions intense. After greeting, listening, leading, and preaching he’s left feeling like Jesus when an anonymous woman touched the hem of his garment: virtue has gone out of him. 

But that was precisely the moment on July 10, 2011, the caller id on my cell phone informed me Adam Dooley was calling. I thought he might be calling because of our time together the previous Thursday evening. I don’t think I had laughed so much and so hard for a long time, and I’m almost certain that the last time I had laughed like that had also been with Adam. Because we lived in different parts of the country, we didn’t get to be together much, but every time we did our time was characterized by a lot of laughs, usually at Adam’s expense.

He had been my student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I can remember the moment I noticed him in my preaching class. He soon distinguished himself as a guy who was very serious about preaching but, thankfully, not too serious about himself. I liked that combination, and he began stopping by my office, peppering me with questions about pastoral ministry and sermon preparation. When he decided to do a PhD in preaching, he asked me to be his supervisor and to oversee his dissertation. 

The more we were together, the more he became a son in the ministry to me. Our relationship grew rich and deep. He would have me preach for him in every church he pastored, seeking advice about how to grow and lead them. He wouldn’t get serious about Heather, the woman who would become his wife until Tanya and I got to know her and gave him our blessing—which we did the very first night we met her. When I judged that he was dragging his feet at asking her to marry him, one day when he was in my office, I picked up the phone and called her myself and asked her if she would say yes if he proposed. When she giggled and answered affirmatively, I handed him the phone. Within a few months, I did their premarital counseling and then performed the ceremony, happily pronouncing them husband and wife.

When Adam went with me on a mission trip to Brazil, a country I know well and whose language I speak because of my past as a missionary kid, I taught him some Portuguese phrases. I just didn’t teach him correct Portuguese. Every time Adam thought he was saying “thank you” to someone, he was instead innocently making a statement of (how shall I put this?) gastrointestinal confession. It took him three days to figure out that Brazilians weren’t merely laughing at his funny Gringo accent.

Amid all the practical jokes I played on him, Adam had grown into a first-rate preacher and scholar. His dissertation was innovative and brilliant. He was in demand as a conference speaker and had been called to pastor a large, historic church. I was proud of how he had grown and I would sometimes invite him to teach a summer modular class in preaching or pastoral ministry at Southern Seminary, his beloved alma mater. 

That’s what brought him back to Kentucky that week, allowing Tanya and me to take him out to dinner on Thursday night. Over a casual meal shared between dear friends whose lives had been so happily intertwined by a gracious providence, we laughed so hard that I kept losing my breath and wiping tears from my eyes. Folks around us must have been irritated to see three adults acting like kids getting tickled in church and unable to stop laughing. 

Three days later, my phone rang soon after church and I had no idea that it meant I would bear witness to one of the most challenging, gut-wrenching, grace-filled journeys I have ever seen anyone walk. Adam told me of what had just transpired that morning, of Carson’s dire diagnosis, of their imminent departure to Memphis and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. He and I both wept bitter tears as we prayed together about a dreadfully uncertain future. 

A professor-mentor feels a special joy at seeing someone he has trained do well, and Adam has been a source of that pleasure in many ways. While I am proud of his personal accomplishments as a preacher, pastor, and author, none of those delight me like watching him walk the long, hard road of suffering. I never saw him waver in his unshakeable commitment to Christ and to the bedrock belief that God is completely in control, even when nothing makes sense and life hurts. His stalwart shepherding of his family during those days, even when they were under attacks I can only interpret as satanic, challenged, and inspired me. 

During those years, Adam and Heather set a watch over Carson like Rizpah on the rock of Gibeah, beating back the forces of cancer and death through their vigilant prayers and unyielding care of their precious son. I saw them grow in faith and intimacy with a God who knows what it is to watch a Son suffer. I saw the Lord knit their hearts to His and to one another with a strength that could not have come through any other way. 

In time the laughter came back. These days the tears we wipe from our eyes are once again because we are laughing so hard. I love those tears. But they are richer and more precious because we shed the other kind together, too.

Do you find these lessons helpful? Want to read more insights from Adam Dooley? Preorder your copy of Hope When Life Unravels today by clicking here.

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