When I was a young pastor, a wise man cautioned me about not doing any marriage counseling with just one person. He told me, “Marriage issues are like the Pentagon. Every story has five sides.”
Stepping out of the convolutions of a distressed marriage, I think about the difference in perspective between heaven and earth. This is nicely captured by contrasting the books of Samuel and Kings with the two Chronicles.
The first four books are man’s report of all the accomplishments that matter from man’s point of view. Then in Chronicles, God shares what He thinks is important about each administration from heaven’s point of view.
Jehoshaphat scored a meager nine verses in II Kings 22. This Mercy king did not get a whole lot of press in the natural. By contrast, heaven found much more of significance to relate about his life in II Chronicles chapters 17-21.
Today I find myself pondering the difference in values between heaven and earth because my father went home today. I try to envision the King introducing him to the angels, celebrating the value of his life in terms of the Kingdom of Heaven. Of the myriad stories, which ones would God use to illustrate the essence of the man?
I can only wonder.
However, the perspective man brings to the table has some value also. God did, after all, enscripturate the books of Samuel and Kings for us to ponder, even though He claimed the last word.
Hence here are a few thoughts about Dad and how he lived the 85 years Father allotted him on this earth. While few of you ever met him, it behooves me as the eldest son to celebrate his life from my limited perspective, to enrich yours.
1) Dad was linear
He encapsulates for me Eugene Peterson’s elegant phrase, “A long obedience in the same direction.”
Dad was a pioneer church planter in the Amazon jungles of Brazil. He began work there in 1954, learned Portuguese, built an outboard motor boat and began to explore the island communities from his base in Icoaraci.
After the first furlough, he established his method. Visit any home where there was a man present. Offer to read the gospel of Mark to him. Return as often as there was interest. Walk away from the disinterested. Pour the most time and effort into the most interested men in order to leave a leader in charge of the congregation when he left for the next furlough.
He was really big on the other guy having some skin in the game.
It was simple. Labor intensive. Slow. Effective.
For 59 years he worked his strategy, leading people to the Lord, maturing the disciples, training leaders and then moving on to a new location to do it all over again.
For all that, he knew when his time was up. Although he had frequently talked of dying with his boots on in Brazil, he knew it was time to end that chapter. On May 31st he returned to his daughter’s in Washington. Yesterday he sent some final instructions to his kids. Last night he died in his sleep after a short illness.
2) Dad could change
Ironically, God selected a somewhat rigid man to become part of the cutting edge of a vast change God wanted to execute in the Body of Christ.
After his second furlough, he came back and found that the three churches he had planted were not in good shape. That sent him searching for a better way and he found it in the writings of Roland Allen. In this Anglican missionary to China from a generation before, Dad found a kindred spirit.
His books, “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Indigenous Church” and “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” became Dad’s textbooks as he reinvented missionary methods in the ’60s and ’70s.
When Dad went to the field, he first used what we now call “colonial missions” strategy. It was not a conscious choice. It was simply what everyone was using for the last 300 years.
When it failed, he discovered the concept of indigenous church and embraced it.
As it turns out, missions agencies of all stripes were wrestling with the collapse of their tried and trusted paradigm in the 1960s. The world over, there were slow grinding changes accompanied by vehement polemic as Western Christianity came to grips with the new reality on the mission field.
Dad found himself unexpectedly on the cutting edge of missiological change, the champion of a new theology. It was a position he neither sought nor appreciated. Predictably, he dodged the spot light, put his head down and went back to work, proving the validity of his ideas through church planting, not rhetoric.
In retrospect, Dad was on the cusp of a monumental historic change of season. He dealt with his failed church plants with consummate wisdom by failing forward and was far ahead of the pack at the time.
Today, colonial missions strategies are largely a thing of scorn. Students in seminary are presented the indigenous model as the only one. Most of you reading this will not have a clue what the brouhaha was about in the 1960s.
But Dad was there. He lived it. He chose rightly and today is lionized by his mission for having planted more churches in that part of Brazil than all the rest of the missionaries put together.
The highly linear man flexed once, when it really mattered.
And oh! What a difference it made.
3) Dad was a builder
Lest you envision a monkish theologian, let me hasten to assure you that Dad’s array of tools was vast, and he was replete with Yankee ingenuity. Dad knew how to build or repair almost anything, and if he did not know how, he could learn. Problem solving was as natural as breathing.
He designed and built each of his houses and no two were alike. He ordered plans for his boats and built finely crafted plywood beauties in the jungle. He built piers, dug wells and designed his own lightening rod system. He repaired his own Evenrudes and Jeeps, treated snake bites and malaria, while teaching me algebra and the art of life.
When the resin for the fiberglass covering for his boats went off too fast, he figured out that it was the heat and humidity, so he did the fiberglass work between 12:00 and 4:00 a.m. to beat the problem.
Dad was a radio operator during WW II. When I decided I wanted to use one of the Arc 5 receivers he had in the barrel, he said I would need a power supply. Despite being out of the field for 12 years, he sat down and designed a power supply from memory (for me to build) stipulating the specs for each component as though he had a book open before him.
Merck’s Manual was a household staple. I remember him reading up on how to do a tracheotomy with a kitchen knife, without anesthesia when I had an allergic reaction to aspirin and my eyes and throat were swelling shut.
In the end, he didn’t have to, but that was Dad. Something needed to be done, he grabbed the best available resource and just did it.
There was nothing of the entitlement spirit or poverty spirit in my father.
4) Dad was uncompromising
Most people have a set of values by which they intend to live their lives. Most people, however, don’t actually live up to their own values. Whether the gap is large or small, it tends to be there, and over time, becomes visible.
Some bend just a tad under the pressure of “reality.” Others are lured away from their beliefs by the sweetness of some legitimacy crutch.
I saw neither in Dad. Whether you liked his theology, social perspective and personal culture or you didn’t, there was a staggering consistency in his life.
Understand me well. Dad hated conflict and avoided it as much as possible. Church politics — whether on the level of the denomination, the mission or a local church — caused him significant angst and he would opt out of any meeting possible that even hinted of politics, entitlement or personality clashes.
But if conflict came to him, he would not budge.
He was not for sale. The bribes of money, power, prestige or even friendship were wasted on him. It is not that he could resist the temptation. There was no temptation. Those things mattered not a whit to him when put up against his convictions.
And he could not be intimidated. No cultural threat or theological club put a scratch on his beliefs or his plans to walk out those beliefs.
He believed what he believed and the world would just have to work around it.
5) Dad was a spiritual father
Some things are better caught than taught. Dad never developed a Bible Institute or any other formalized program for his men. They came and sat with him for hours, listening to his mind and his heart and they left.
The leaving was often abrupt. Huge layoffs and hirings were the norm in the complex, uneven economics of the Amazon basin. It was common for a headhunter to show up in town, saturate the community with news of a hiring spurt in another city. At 3:00 in the afternoon, all the unemployed men who were willing would jump in the back of an open bed truck and leave for another city 200 miles away with hope and a knapsack.
If they got a job there, they would find a place to live and eventually bring their wife and kids. Then, in a new community, with no church, no support, no supervision, they would have family devotions, living their life, until someone asked what made them different.
The questioner would be invited to family devotions. In time, the family devotions turned into a Bible study that eventually became another church.
You see, fathers produce sons. There is no sausage factory that can take people and build into them the spirit of sonship. But if you have a father’s heart, and you father the men while you are teaching them, sonship happens.
And when you are a son, in a new area, with no game plan, no resources and no support, the most natural thing in the world to do is simply to do what your spiritual father did.
So they did.
And it grew churches that produced laymen with a spirit of sonship, who went off and established more churches. Accidentally. Without commissioning or fanfare.
It happened repeatedly because Dad had a father’s heart and father produces sons who reproduce after their own kind.
6) Dad was loved
He announced to his church last November that I would be coming to help them move back to the States in May. Word spread like wildfire throughout the cities, towns and to the jungle shacks. A few wrote. Multitudes called. Shocking numbers came to personally thank Dad and Mom for their ministries.
They came in ones and twos and by chartered bus. They came announced and just dropping in. People traveled by foot, car, boat and plane to express what my parents had meant to them.
The local churches put on entire events to honor their lives. Tee shirts were printed and sold with one of Dad’s favorite slogans. Poems and speeches were written and delivered one on one or in group settings.
Eighty year olds who met them in the 1950s and who had walked with them for more than half a century came. Couples whom Dad had married decades ago came, as did their children and grandchildren.
People brought their baptism certificates from years ago to celebrate their deep intimate moments.
Meals were cooked, songs sung, prayers prayed and a bazillion pictures taken.
Dad and Mom established firm ending dates for the endless good-byes so they could lean into their final punch lists of things to do as they wound down six decades of ministry, and still the people came — some sheepishly knowing they were out of order, others boldly because boundaries mean nothing when love runs deep and good-byes are to be said.
In the end, they left.
And Dad was right.
That season was over.
So that is my view of Dad. One of many. Should you hear a dozen perspectives about Dad, you would find great diversity in how he was seen, as well as some common threads observed by all.
But at the end of the day, I still wonder what the King said when He was bragging on Dad to the angels.
Copyright June 2013 by Arthur Burk
From the Hub