SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (BP) -- Mary Harper's* eyes well with tears as she plucks rocks from the garden of her family's home near Springfield, Mo.
The 42-year-old slowly makes her way down a row marked "Spinach," using her left hand to toss dozens of stones into a trailer made from the bed of an old pickup. Her right arm hangs at her side, emaciated, its fingers slightly contorted -- the first victim of a disease that will likely take her life.
Photo by Joann Bradberry/IMB
Three to five years, she said. That's the average doctors give most people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
She fights back tears as she recalls the moment that she and her husband, John*, broke the news to their daughters and turned their family's world upside down.
"Mom, I don't want you to die," Mary remembers her older daughter, Lindsey*, now 15, crying in her arms. Her younger daughter, Jessica*, now 13, also was in tears. John wondered how he'd raise two girls without his best friend.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. More than a year ago, the Harpers were living half a world away, sharing Jesus in a spiritually dark corner of Central Asia. They'd spent the past seven years there serving as Southern Baptist representatives. It was an epic journey the small-town couple never imagined they'd take; especially for John, a self-described "hillbilly" whose happy place is either perched in a deer stand or waist deep in a river holding a fishing rod.
Called to missions at 15, John said he surrendered to just about every missions field on the planet, "bawling his eyes out" whenever a missionary spoke in church. He met Mary after high school and they started dating, until John's calling almost ended their relationship.
"God told me to go, and you can either come with me or not," he remembers telling Mary one night. "And then I turned around to walk away because it didn't seem like she was responding."
Irritated but otherwise unfazed by John's pig-headed ultimatum, Mary grabbed his arm, spun him around and revealed something she'd never told anyone -- at 16, God also had spoken to her about missions. Listening to a missionary from China preach in church one Sunday morning, Mary clearly felt the Lord asking if she would be willing to go overseas one day. She was.
"I gave her a little bitty, thin gold ring with a little grain of sand in there for a diamond," John said. "I was poor. I ate all my money." He proposed at Lambert's restaurant in Sikeston, Mo., home of the famous "throwed rolls." (Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like; waiters literally throw hot yeast rolls at customers.) It wasn't the most romantic gesture, but Mary was too down-to-earth to care about such things -- she simply wanted to obey God and follow wherever He led her husband-to-be.
John was prepared to go just about anywhere, except to work with Muslims. He'd heard missionaries speaking about Muslim work and could "summarize all of their testimonies like this: We served for 30 years in such-and-such country, we were about to retire, and the day before we got on the plane somebody finally gave their heart to Christ." Incredulous, he added, "Dude, I'm not working 30 years to see one person come to faith." Read More