Stealth Bomber: A Tribute to Neb
- October 19, 2017
- Jared Odenbeck
Note: The name of the subject of this piece has been changed to keep from compromising his identity, as he is a missionary in the Middle East.
When I first met Neb, he was Mr. Neb to me – a 9th grade Old Testament teacher at Charlotte Christian School who raved about the Nephilim (just read Genesis 6:1-4…crazy, I know). Now, he is just Neb. An ally. A confidant. A road sign pointing to Refuge. A friend.
In the first weeks of our relationship, we immediately bonded, though rather superficially, over our common adoration for the Green Bay Packers and infatuation with Aaron Rodgers. However, Neb all but wrote me off, as I aimed to impress girls and earn a laugh from my classmates rather than soak in his teaching on 1 Kings. And yet, the LORD exercised patience in both of us for each other. He was beginning a good work in us, and he meant to bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
My freshman year came and went. So too the remaining three years of high school. I never thought much of Neb, aside from the fact that something about him distinguished him from other teachers. His disdain for shallow, cursory, and overly structured and controlled classroom environments meant that he often taught from his head and that everything, yes EVERYTHING, was open for discussion. At some point towards the latter end of my high school years, he exchanged the comfortable confines of Charlotte Christian for the spiritual war zone of Ethiopia.
Neb’s full-time missionary work in Ethiopia meant that we spoke irregularly during my college years. After I graduated at the end of 2016, we spoke with increasing frequency, seemingly “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). We truly “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Sometime in February of 2017, we began to meet weekly. At the time, I found myself sidelined for over two months with a groin injury after I signed my first professional contract with Charlotte Independence. Fortunately, I enjoyed the company of a man who survived cancer, a 40-foot fall, and a host of surgeries.
We often sat in his classroom and slouched and put our feet up on the desks and talked theology and lamented and read Scripture together and prayed and encouraged each other and wept and prayed some more. When spring arrived, we strolled through forests, drenched in sunlight that filtered through the budding foliage. I listened to him recite lines from Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the gentle rustle of leaves overhead. “For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 216).
We shared secrets of unknown pasts. In keeping with Scripture, we disclosed our most hidden iniquities (James 5:16). As I left each meeting, I would open my car door and gently shut it. I would exhale deeply. I would sit in silence. I would try to commit what he had said to memory. I would listen to what the LORD taught me in those moments. Often, joy burst from cisterns deep within me. I could not contain it. I picked up the phone and called friends, repeating all that I had just learned so that they too might be encouraged and receive the sweetness of the Word of God – “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103) – as I had.
Yet, my gratitude and thankfulness for Neb stems from one thing. Neb helped me transform into a man ready to die. Die to myself. Die to the world. Die to comforts and the all-too-easy south Charlotte, suburban, country club, high-end retail lifestyle. Most of all, though, ready to die for the Gospel.
At the start of one of our meetings, something seemed off about him. A numbness emitted from him. “I saw this movie recently, and it messed me up,” he said. I watched Silence with the theater completely to myself one night around 10:00. I cried. I yelled at the screen. I simply could not bear it. In these moments, I began to see the Great Commission in a full, unhindered, and unfiltered light. I learned that there is a cost to following Jesus. I learned that everyone, not just missionaries and those in full-time ministry, must “proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
As a full-time missionary, Neb taught, or rather, showed me, what it meant to share in Christ’s sufferings (2 Timothy 2:3, 2 Corinthians 1:5). He undertook the hard graft of leaving the ease of the west for the rocky and dusty soil of Egypt, Ethiopia, and now Jordan. Neb demonstrates what it means to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). In his life, everything is on the table. There is no other way to do Christianity, because any other way is something other than Christianity.
I leave you to contemplate the fitting, chilling, and joyful words of Alexander MacLaren from his commentary “Expositions of Holy Scripture.”
“Now there is another consideration very necessary to be remembered, and that is that this possession of God involves, and is possible only by, a deliberate act of renunciation. You must have no part or inheritance amongst the sons of earth if God is to be your inheritance. Or, to put it into plain words, there must be a giving up of the material and the created if there is to be a possession of the divine and the heavenly. There cannot be two supreme, any more than there can be two pole-stars, one in the north and the other in the south, to both of which a man can be steering.
If you are to have God as your supreme good, you must empty your heart of earth and worldly things, or your possession of Him will be all words, and imagination, and hypocrisy.
And what is this renunciation? There must be, first of all, a fixed, deliberate, intelligent conviction lying at the foundation of my life that God is best, and that He and He only is my true delight and desire. Then there must be built upon that intelligent conviction that God is best, the deliberate turning away of the heart from these material treasures. Then there must be the willingness to abandon the outward possession of them, if they come in between us and Him. Just as travellers in old days, that went out looking for treasures in the western hemisphere, were glad to empty their ships of their less precious cargo in order to load them with gold, you must get rid of the trifles, and fling these away if ever they so take up your heart that God has no room there. Or rather, perhaps, if the love of God in any real measure, howsoever imperfectly, once gets into a man’s soul, it will work there to expel and edge out the love and regard for earthly things. But between the two there is warfare so internecine and endless that they cannot co-exist: and here, to-day, it is as true as ever it was that if you want to have God for your portion and your inheritance you must be content to have no inheritance amongst your brethren, nor part amongst the sons of earth.
Men and women! are you ready for that renunciation? Are you prepared to say, ‘I know that the sweetness of Thy presence is the truest sweetness that I can taste; and lo! I give up all besides and my own self’?
And remember, that nothing less than these is Christianity-the conviction that the world is second and not first; that God is best, love is best, truth is best, knowledge of Him is best, likeness to Him is best, the willingness to surrender all if it come in contest with His supreme sweetness. He that turns his back upon earth by reason of the drawing power of the glory that excelleth, is a Christian.”
Thank you, Neb. Thank you, LORD.