My Friend, My Hero, Who Walked Through the Valley of Death: A Thanksgiving Day Story

Brian Kelso is my friend. He is now my hero.

Brian is senior minister of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in the western part of Broward County, Florida. Brian planted the church while the two of us were seminary students in South Florida back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. We used to enjoy leaving Dr. Reymond’s class, usually with jaw-dropping awe that somehow turned to laughing and doing theological reflection while eating tons of the best home-made tortillas I have ever eaten. That Mexican joint was eventually busted by the Broward County health department. I guess they missed out on what Brian and I experienced. Or maybe what they discovered that shut them down was what we devoured that made the chips so good. Our friendship was never shut down though. It has stayed steady over the passing years as each of us planted churches, went to common meetings, served together in various ways in the Church, shared dreams and evaluated each other’s calls, and grew older if not wiser. It seems that, like many friends who live a long way from each other, we were always moving together for a short season and then moving back apart for what seemed like longer seasons, but always like the natural ebb and flow of the sea. It was always good to hear his voice because Brian and I enjoyed teasing each other, making fun of ourselves, and then segueing into a more serious talk that was grounded in our common zeal for the theology that Dr. Reymond taught us. And I always thought about him with a smile when the Lord brought him to mind. Recently, I had been absorbed, meaningfully and purposefully, with the ministry here at Reformed Seminary. My preaching and teaching had taken me from Munich to Montreal, from Monterrey, Mexico to Manchester, New Hampshire, and from Columbia, South Carolina to Cape Town, South Africa. I had talked to Brian last Christmastime when I was to preach in South Florida. We talked a bit after that, maybe in the spring, and then “the tide went out again.” I returned my focus to family and ministry here, in Charlotte, and Brian returned to ministry there in Broward Country, Florida, in his ministry with Mission to North America and to his leadership in several other ministries. One of those ministries is and has been, on the broken island called Haiti. My friend’s heart could never get over the devastated people of Haiti. The headlines on the New York Times, even yesterday, reveal that this nation continues to be a festering human tragedy crying out for God, just miles away from the wealthiest nation on earth, with churches on every corner, too often ignoring God. All of this has obviously bothered Brian in a most visceral way, for he has been giving, without hyperbole, “life and limb” to bring the love of Jesus Christ to the people of Haiti. I knew he was doing that. What I didn’t know was that in conducting ministry, he contracted malaria. What I didn’t know was that as he was suddenly attacked by this aggressive, but cryptic disease, he drove himself to a hospital, with piercing pain to his head, and his organs weakening with every passing minute. Brian checked himself in, and then as Brian tells it, “I didn’t remember anything for two weeks. It was just black.” Brian fell into a malaria-induced coma that took him quite literally to the edge of death. What I didn’t know was that as Brian Kelso felt the dark night of the soul in a way that surpasses our common usage of that phrase, where he knew “the valley of the shadow of death,” as he preaches now in a new understanding of David’s famous Psalm, his body also battled the necessarily dangerous drugs that were being given to him to cure him. In that battle against disease that determined to kill him and the force of drugs that were intended to heal him, blood was cut off from his extremities. Brian Kelso’s right foot had to be amputated, along with toes on his left foot. Some doctors apparently felt that an amputation of both legs would be necessary to save my friend’s life. God’s providential care and intervention through an angel, a physician in Brian’s congregation (as I gathered), helped saved his legs.

I am sure that Brian Kelso doesn’t want to be a hero. When he reads this he will probably laugh and then tell me that I am crazy. I know that. I know that Brian just wants to be what he is: a pastor, a shepherd of souls, a preacher of God’s covenant of grace in Jesus Christ, an ambassador of His kingdom to those who need to hear; like needy people in South Florida, like needy Haitians in desperation, and like needy people here all over America who need heroes, like me.

Brian, I am honored to be your friend. I am honest when I call you my hero. So Barbara, tell him to just be quiet and have a bowl of tortillas for me, his old seminary buddy, and let me have my hero of the faith on this Thanksgiving day. That is what you are to me, Brian, and to my family. That is what you are to the Body of Christ. This is the work of the Lord. I am not thankful for what happened to you. I am thankful to God for what happened through you. The jaw-dropping theology of Dr. Reymond’s classes has become your biography.

God bless you and your family, my friend, and your beloved flock, here and in places were you have sacrificed to show us all that not even spiritual and physical disease can withstand the advancing Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of love, where heroes live.

Note: I urge you to watch Brian’s message, “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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