A Death, a Body, and the Living Word



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Adam Park 


Jonathan Glover, circa 1948.
A foundational member of the Assemblies of God community died this Saturday. I knew him. From the United States to Sierra Leone, in fact, lots of people knew him. And for them that did, we knew that to be acquainted with Jonathan Glover was also to be acquainted with Someone else.

At just over 5-foot tall with shoes on, and 130-pounds soaking wet, the Someone else that Jonathan embodied was not easy to identify upon first glance. Unlikely vessel, perhaps. But then again, I hear, He was the least of these. What was clear, however, was that the Word inside Jonathan was bigger than he was. It overflowed incessantly. Everywhere. To anyone. He couldn't keep It in, nor did he try. Moments when Jonathan would become the Word were readily visible. His body would pulse with excitement. His short spine would stretch to hold him higher. He would spring up on the balls of his feet, lest Satan catch him on his heels. The volume and cadence of his voice would alter, rising and falling, quickening and pacing, punctuating and pausing. He would pronounce "God" differently, as though it was spelled with a "w" after the "G." A learned melody and sing-song style. The Word had an accent. Weberian charisma. The Word had charm. Jonathan had mastered a craft. Jonathan had been mastered by a craft. To watch Jonathan manifest the Word was like watching a bird in an updraft, effortlessly gliding, animated, held aloft, driven by an invisible thing.



Jonathan Glover's forebears. Circa 1908.
For Jonathan, to make the imperceptible perceptible was to work. Word was deed. Born in a paltry Colorado homestead in 1927, from hardy Anglo-stock came Johnny. And in the thorns and thistles, by the sweat of their brow he and his toiled for bread in a country depressed. When Jonathan felt called to minister, he chose the place that demanded the most labor of him. Crossing the Atlantic in 1962 on the steamship "African Planet," Jonathan slowly made his way to Koindu in the deepest recesses of Sierra Leone. For 23 years Jonathan ministered--hammering, chopping, digging, lifting, sawing, sweating, bleeding, and saving. Hand-mixed concrete, hand-dug wells, hand-cut logs. Jonathan MacGyver-ed his way through over a dozen hand-made buildings, structures, and wells. The Word was act, product, output. The invisible was quite visible. The Word was his calloused hands, the dirt under his fingernails.

Jonathan and Gwen, circa 1990.
As such, however, the Word was subject to the body that housed It. Retiring in the hometown national headquarters of his beloved Assemblies of God, Jonathan tinkered, toiled, and witnessed well into his twilight years. Idle hands, he never had. Idle speech, he rarely spoke. But his productive, youthful pace slowed. Jonathan's efficacy as a maker of things and a speaker of words markedly declined. Impeded by chronic neurodegenerative disease, the Word did not overflow as It once did. When Jonathan's wife of over 50 years died in 2010 it was clear that a part of Jonathan died too. In those increasingly frequent cognitive gaffes, Gwen had been Jonathan's source for names, dates, words, and verses. Helpmeets both, it was a biblically oriented symbiosis. In the cruelest of ironies--in the death of his wife and the demise of his own mind--the Word that Jonathan knew by memory left him along with his memory. Wordless.

It was strange to see Jonathan's vessel emptied. Without the Word, he was not he. Jonathan wandered aimlessly. He spat, he pinched, he hit. Nurses fed him, changed him, cleaned him. He did not know me, and I'm not sure I knew him. Minus whatever sundry neural pathways that register selfhood to selves, in the last months, I'm not sure he even knew himself. But such are bodies.

Thinking about Jonathan's life and death, the work of Candy Brown, Matt Sutton, John Modern, and Susan Harding kept coming to mind. Words. Media. The ability of things to get under the skin. The evangelical presumption that things can get under the skin. The Living Word in the world is a cornucopia of possibility and potentiality, just as much constructed as it is constructing. Jonathan took comfort in the process of the Word. As a proud representative of a thing beyond him, the horizon of Jonathan's selfhood is less bounded.

The Word is released and created in memory and oral history. The Word is a reality beckoned through cognition and speech. Forever entombed in binary code and the digitized ether of a blog. Resurrected through Google or an archival search. Summoned at a thought. Present in a recollection. Apotheosized through public prayer.

As a datum, it seems, the Word is as omnipresent as the media used to mediate it. Text, speech, radio, silicon, neuron, and Jonathan. As a datum, the Word is both strikingly mundane and eternally complex, existing outside of us because of us. Structuring structure.

But as a friend, the Word ate slow. So slow. The Word had a sweet tooth and ticklish knees. The Word once tried to put chocolate sauce, still in his pantry from 1994, on my ice cream ... in 2007. The Word watched Andy Griffith reruns every day during lunch. Perhaps you didn't know.

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