This weekend, my extended family will spend time together reflecting on the anniversary of my brother’s death and his incredible life. In light of this milestone, I’m sharing the story of God’s great love magnified in the life of Dr. Travis Johnson. This is a blog I wrote shortly after Travis departed this life for heaven.
This is the most heartfelt blog I might ever write.
I’m not sure how to start. I’m thinking about who is reading this.
- To the person who is gripped in fear and often acts or reacts based on fear- this is for you
- To the person who is mad at God because of deep loss- this is for you
- To the person who is still prioritizing what are your educational goals for your child- this is for you
- To the person who has a broken relationship with someone you wish you could have loved- this is for you
Dr. Travis Johnson, my brother and lifelong best friend, died after a brutal seven year fight with cancer. If you do not have time to read this blog, at least watch the three minute speech his 15-year- old daughter gave at his memorial service (1 hour and 46 minute mark). I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole service (you will be inspired by an amazing life; you will have your hope in Jesus renewed in the middle of a broken world; and you will get a glimpse of the DNA of Charleston Bilingual Academy as you get to see a completely raw view of me and my family).
Travis spent his life listening out for the broken and then running to them to provide healing (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). Along with Amy, his wife, Travis moved his family including a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 3-month-old to the Ugandan-Congolese border in 2010, where amongst many things he ran a clinic that served children with sickle cell anemia and AIDS. Their family would love these families and deeply mourn the brokenness, such as when their 4-year-old’
s best friend and soccer teammate died of sickle cell anemia.
Three months after they arrived to Uganda, Travis had developed a good friendship with Shem. One day Shem told Travis that they will be great missionaries. And Trav asked why he would say that? To which Shem replied, “Because you suffer with us.” That week Travis’ family took Aiden, their 6-month-old baby, to the church asking for urgent prayer as Aiden had contracted Malaria. Shem was powerfully touched by how the Johnsons not only served and befriended the sick and hurting
, but also shared their pain. They lived their lives and cried their tears.
Whether it was bracing for an insurgence from the Lord’s Resistance Army crossing the Congo border, or malaria, or a hemorrhagic fever, they were constantly facing brokeness. The latter led them back to the states for Travis to be checked, which led to a colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 37. After surgery, he was told he had two months to live and began chemotherapy. Over the next seven years he would undergo six major surgeries, 62 rounds of chemotherapy, 18 rounds of immunotherapy, over 20 sessions of radiation, multiple biopsies, countless scans, and every nutritional boost possible. By the way, If you ask someone who has had that version of chemo, they rarely get past six sessions before giving up.
There was never a day in the seven years where Travis was cancer free. He and his family valiantly fought. He would be in a fetal position fighting the chemo, and somehow find energy to work and play with his kids when they arrived home from school. During this time he started a Masters in public health program in rural Western North Carolina through the top MPH program in the country- Gillings at UNC- Chapel Hill. He ran in half marathons and he cycled 100 miles in the Apple festival bike race.
But the real story is this: as he was undone by nausea, crippled with tumors on his sciatic nerve, blinded by tumors in his brain, and suffocated with pneumonia and cancer throughout his lungs, he gave constant thanks, and talked more and more and more about the unending love of Jesus. He gave his fear to Jesus and had zero bitterness. Romans 5 says that the door to knowing the overflow of Jesus’ love comes through suffering. As we persevere, our character is carved, and as our character is carved we find a resolute hope, and as we hope against hope, it is there that the Holy Spirit overflows the eternal love of God into our hearts.
I wish you could have seen Travis in those last weeks. He had lost all of his muscles. His hands would shake, he would fall, and yet he crawled up the stairs in his house to write love notes to each of his children on their door frames. He got in a car to ride to Charleston to take his children to the beach one last time and talk with his two brothers and parents. Cuddled on a couch, he told me that whether he lives or dies, He wants Jesus to be glorified. He told my brother that he would not want any other life, that this is exactly the way it was supposed to be and he has no regrets. He would spend hours meditating on the deep love of Jesus. The very Jesus who has the power to miraculously heal Travis and yet chose not to. On February 13th (one day before his 44th birthday), he died with his two hands opened to the heavens- undoubtedly in the middle of a conversation that he is continuing.
If Jesus had miraculously healed Travis, then Travis would still be alive. Yet, Travis would still be surrounded by the brokenness that broke his heart. The world is still full of broken families, unforgettable wounds from abuse, people trapped in addictions, trafficking, wars, terminally-ill patients, children who have lost their dad, sickle cell, AIDS…
Jesus did even a greater miracle. My brother’s life gives a supernatural gift to all of us- the broken. His gift is this: there is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that brings a peace that is greater than the greatest suffering. A relationship where we find the Galactic Creator intimately crying with us, restoring us, convincing us with an eternal hope that allows us to survive the suffering while also comforting the broken around us.
That real experience of the Holy Spirit pouring out the eternal love of Jesus into Travis’ heart while his body was being ravaged is the greatest medicine he could ever give to the broken he served throughout his life. That’s the greater miracle. It’s the medicine that the Ugandan family needs as they grieve the loss of their 4-year-old. It’s the medicine the adult needs who can’t forget the horrible abuse that happened when he was a child. It’s the medicine the soldier needs who will never get his legs back. It’s the medicine a broken marriage needs. It’s the medicine a 15-year-old girl needs who just lost her dad.
Travis looked straight into the face of insurmountable fear. He was losing his body, his eye sight, his ability to walk, his ability to eat, his job, his hobbies, his vacations, his home, his children, the love of his life- Amy… and what did he do? As he wept, prayed, cried out over seven years, he simultaneously experienced a perfect love that drives out all fear.
Travis’ life and death shows us that Jesus is absolutely real, and this life is a vapor. Travis’ life and death invites us to a personal relationship with Jesus who brings the greater healing. The healing we long for. One of the songs that Travis chose for his memorial service (dedicated to his 13-year-old son) is “multiplied” by Need2Breathe. These lyrics give you a glimpse into Travis’ understanding of Jesus’ love (the very Jesus who chose not to heal him in this world):
Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wildfires singing Your name
God of mercy sweet love of mine
I have surrendered to Your design
May this offering stretch across the skies
And these Hallelujahs be multiplied
I pray Travis’ offering is multiplied to each of you who are reading this blog. May his life lead you to the healing you need. May his life, lead you to lead your children the way he did- preparing them for everything life will bring.
I leave you with this- a letter Travis wrote to be read at his memorial service:
We wait patiently for our Lord. Always Expectant. Always seeing His goodness. Always thankful. He is coming to make all things new. Until then we take courage to love each other and bet our life that Jesus is here with us. He knows each of our names! Yshua, Savior, our Deliverer. The Spirit comforts us and the great cosmic story continues to be written with love by the Father who is called love. There is so much more to this creation that we cannot see now. We move forward for His name’s sake, the joy of this life here and great expectation of what’s next.. I am so thankful for the season I have had with each of you and the joy you brought me. My love to each to you.
With all my heart,
I pray for this greater miracle in each of us, where we can open our hands to Jesus, allowing Him to be our Peace, Sweet Love, and Great Joy now and forever.
Here are a bunch of links to various things:
Celebration of Life on youtube
Chas’s sermon on grief, the Sunday after Travis passed on
Humorous radio program about Travis (mostly true)