“God could always use a big, shiny hammer, but every once in a while, He’ll need an old rusty saw. God’s favorite way to display His Glory is to display it through what the world considers weak.” – Joey Herbert
God has ordained this world of brokenness in order to magnify the victories of grace he offers in his Son. For those who believe, he promises that all the trials and challenges of this world will “result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:7).
But the difficulty ordained for some seems disproportionately hard, and this inequality can be disheartening.
But there is an alternative to losing heart. Jesus calls us to strengthen heart: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). The world claims that seeing is believing. This mentality bases faith on the human capacity to understand. The result of such a foolish foundation is eventual disillusionment. But Jesus says the opposite of the world: Believe in me and see! This is the path of glory. If we will trust and squint, God begins to shine.
But perhaps God shines most convincingly not through our own faith but through the faith of others. Perhaps it is the believing brother who helps us see the reality of God the brightest. After all, image bearers aren’t made for beholding themselves but for being beheld by others.
And perhaps the persevering sufferer, weak and feeble as he may be, is actually the best of all at demonstrating the splendor of sovereign goodness to others. It doesn’t take glorious light to reflect off polished silver, any pin light can do that. But it takes something intense to make a rusty saw glow. And when it does, though you notice the saw, you mainly marvel at the brilliance of the light.
For these reasons, Joey Herbert’s life especially demonstrates the glory of God, and I thank God for letting me see the glow.
When I first met Joey in the fall of 2002, he was nineteen and already deaf, frail, raspy, hunchbacked, and in need of a walker. I soon learned about neurofibromatosis and the trajectory of physical decline that the disease had brought to Joey. I learned that his deafness was relatively new, the result of recent fights with tumors in his head. But I also learned he was funny. He not only was an endless source of harmless sarcasm and crafted jokes but also a perfect blend of brutal self-disclosure, self-embarrassment, and self-laughter.
I’ll never forget the Sunday at church when he returned from an eight minute trip to the bathroom in the middle of the sermon. He sat down next to me, picked up his magnetic writing tablet, and diligently penned, “I just used the ladies room on accident.” When I looked at him, he was both blushing and grinning. That was one of the funniest sitting-in-church moments of my life. I was the college pastor, not supposed to be cutting up, but I had to put my head down in quasi-reverence to hide my tears of laughter. Now, as I reflect, I not only laugh at the situation but also Joey’s characteristic voluntary self-disclosure that stemmed partly from a need for cleansing confession but mainly from a desire to share a laugh.
Joey had a healthy distinction between things that are serious and things that are not. His sense of humor would be too raw for some, but it should not be confused with flippance. He treated relationships with upmost gravity. He was especially hyper-sensitive about offending a friend, and especially concerned with honoring God.
Given his innate sarcasm, I sometimes wonder whether he might have been a flippant person, or even a cynic, if God hadn’t refined him through his trials. But the question is irrelevant because God did. As a result, Joey was given a great gift. He wasn’t allowed to live a life of comfort that might have prevented him from thinking about eternal things. Joey himself understood this value. In his memoir “Ascending Phoenix” he writes, “The strongest Christians are the ones that can keep their eyes on God in the midst of adversity, disregarding the negatives of their sufferings to consider what God is trying to teach them and how he is trying to strengthen them as Christians.” In the “midst of adversity,” Joey knew that God was teaching and strengthening him.
It is not that Joey made a huge display of himself. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Joey would never have characterized himself or his faith in grandiose terms. His mentality was simply to embrace trust in God as that which is basic.
From this foundation, his life had many expressions of genuine faith. He was unassuming and gracious. He wrestled with right and wrong, with understanding God and his ways, and with his own sin. He cared about the state of others’ souls and sought avenues to be a witness. His wit, though raw, was basically responsible. Further, his persistent sense of humor was a wonderful indicator that he battled the forces of depression well. He was frequently frustrated with circumstances and regularly prone to communication misunderstandings, but he did not succumb to deep seated anger. In other words, Joey was certainly not perfect, but he was just as certainly not bitter.
And all of these character traits shine through his memoirs. Before releasing you, the reader, to his stories, a brief word is in order to explain their origin and their appearance here.
After being Joey’s college pastor for five or six years and watching Joey’s condition gradually worsen, which included degenerate eye sight and increasing raspiness, I realized that his opportunity to communicate with others was slipping away. I had previously heard him share his testimony in church, regularly dialogued with him, and exchanged many emails with him, so I knew all about Joey’s creative mind, special insight, and diligent thought processes. I also understood that the internet was an important outlet for him. It was a place where significant communication could occur and where logistics were less inhibiting than in other social settings.
It would still take Joey a long time to peck out even a brief message as he jockeyed between reading a computer screen and a qwerty board. He was not a proficient typer. But at home, on his computer, he was on his time. He could read other’s thoughts in detail and express himself with thoughtfulness. So at some point–and I honestly don’t remember which one of us it was–we came up with the idea of him blogging.
I started pressing Joey to write his memories and to share whatever he had learned from them, and he responded. He started a blog and posted several of his stories. The plan was for him to continue to type his memoirs and to send each one to me via e-mail for proofreading and feedback. Well, he began producing at a rate that I could barely keep up with as a seminary student with a family. For several months, he was avidly writing.
But somewhere in the process, the energy from both of us began to fade. Though Joey felt like he had covered a well-rounded review of his memories, we never got them all posted. I honestly don’t even remember how many memoirs made it online, but I feel that the stopping of the project was largely my fault. I gave out faster than he did, and though he never said it, I wonder if I discouraged him by my slow pace of response. Whatever the cause, somewhere along the way, Joey took down his blog. Then before we knew it, he had gone completely blind, and I was moving to West Virginia for a new ministry.
But I knew that I had a treasure in my hands, so it was very important to me to save all of his stories. Thankfully, they made it through a couple of computer transfers and operating system upgrades.
For the last couple years of his life, Joey was confined to a nursing home, and communication with him was reduced to finger writing on his palm. His grandmother spent almost every day with him, and his family members would visit. But I had moved three hours away. Though my family continued to pray for Joey every day, our interaction with him was only a few messages and visits.
Then Christmas day 2013 came, and I received a phone call that Joey had unexpectedly died that afternoon from complications with pneumonia. My friend of over a decade was finally with Jesus.
In dealing with the initial shock and grief, I immediately thought about his memoirs. I realized that I had something in my possession that must be shared, not only for his family but also for others who could be encouraged by his life of faith.
I told his grandmother and sister that I would share the handful of stories that I had with them. I guess I forgot how many he had written because I was shocked to find exactly thirty memoirs saved on my computer. Thirty memories for his thirty years.
So I set about reading them on the night that he died. As I read, I was reminded about how diligent he was. Considering the challenges that he faced to produce even one story, the quality of thought and excellence of grammar amazed me. Most of his stories did not require a single punctuation correction, and they all have a fantastic message about life. In my reviewing of them, I sought only to correct obvious grammar mistakes and to smooth out occasional sentences. But over ninety-nine percent of his memoirs, as they appear here, are as he sent them to me.
As I marvel at God’s work throughout Joey’s life and in his writing of these memoirs, I am so thankful to have been a beholder of the image of God in Joey. I am also thankful that Joey has been released from his life of difficulty to realize the goal of his faith.
Joey was baptized on the Sunday before Christmas in 1997. In his memoir entitled “Answering God’s Call,” he labeled that event “the best Christmas gift ever.” But Joey has now received an even better Christmas gift, because on Christmas day in 2013, he was given new sight and new hearing. On that day, he looked into the face of Jesus and heard the words, “Well done.”
When God shows surpassing power through extreme weakness, at least two things happen to human hearts. First, the tendency to aggressively question the Maker is softened by the realization that God is doing good things in the bad things. Second, the sinful compulsion to ignore God is lost in the glorification of his sovereign goodness. Wonderings get lost in wonder, and wanderers get lost in worship.
I pray that Joey’s stories and insights will do these two things for you.
Isaiah 57:15 “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”