1. Move the ball. Always.
We lived in Quatipuru from 1964 to 1969. It was a small farming/fishing town of less than 2,000 people, 20 miles up the eponymous river from the Atlantic coast. There was a dirt road connecting it to the metropolis of Belem, six hours away.
Dad was working on a church plant in Quatipuru, as well as one 20 miles up the river, another 20 miles down the river and one about 15 miles inland, in a nearby farming community, Agua Boa.
Life was pretty generic for me. Bible studies. Home schooling. Tag. Sibling rivalry. Piano lessons. Building bird cages. Heavy rains bringing flying termites. Bamboo that grew a quarter inch an hour at times. My dog, Alexander the Blacksmith.
Then things got weird. Unbeknownst to us, Castro recalled Che Guevara from Africa and sent him underground to a small community near us before launching his fatal foray into Bolivia. His mother moved to Belem to be a liaison for him.
Suddenly there were rumors in the town that Dad’s boat was faster than a speeding bullet and he was going out to the ocean to get radioactive sand to ship back to the US to make atomic bombs.
We smiled in amusement.
Then Interpol came and it wasn’t quite so amusing.
Our home was kept under surveillance. Dad’s boat was stopped and searched. Dad’s Jeep was stopped and searched. Our mail courier was stopped and our mail was taken and never returned (including my eighth grade finals which I had to redo a few weeks later. Grrr.) I was even followed when I went to the city square to fly a kite with my buddies. We all thought that was hilarious.
The fishermen reported to Dad that there was a submarine off the coast for a few weeks. They had never seen one before. A helicopter landed in the middle of town once for some hand off of info that was apparently time sensitive. People were terrified and fascinated. There were reports of miscarriages.
In the end, there was no radioactive sand. There were no atomic bombs. Dad was not in cahoots with Che or Castro or anyone else. And today there is a big, fat file taking up space, gathering dust at Interpol’s headquarters, somewhere.
Through it all, Dad remained on task. He did all his regular trips to the outlying communities. In spite of rampant rumors that Interpol was going to kidnap him and do whatever, he never changed his schedule, never adopted any evasive techniques and never embraced a defensive posture.
He did not punch pause in the game of life just because there was a very real threat in his face.
He was there to plant churches, so he kept on doing what he had been sent to do. Move the ball in bad times as well as good times.
This was a highly dramatic story, but I saw the same consistency throughout his life. Regardless of the political changes, the economic vagaries, mission politics, seasonal epidemics, food shortages, equipment failure, seasons of fame or infamy, turmoil in the family, or any other event, he always knew where the first down marker was, and he tried to move the ball.
Nothing was an excuse for not executing the simple disciplines of his strategy, day in and day out, with a full heart or a bleeding one.
He moved the ball. And scored the runs. And won the games. And the championships.
Because of his formidable focus on the main thing. Moving the ball.
2. Let history be your judge.
The Interpol incident was fairly typical of the false accusations that came his way. Whether it was the local witch doctor stirring up suspicion or the other missionaries fussing about his theology, there seemed to be a fairly constant, low grade assault on his reputation for the first 50 years of his ministry.
To be fair, Dad was neither a diplomat nor a wall flower, so he probably contributed something to the polarizing nature of his lifestyle and his views. My point is not whether he was right or wrong. It is simply that when it came to personal attacks, he did not have the time of day to defend himself.
While he did not enjoy being a pariah, he decided to let things sort themselves out. He would move the ball now and see where the dust settles over the long run.
In the end, he has been highly vindicated in many areas and proven wrong a few, with a hung jury in others — none of which is the point.
The point is that he showed great wisdom in not taking time from moving the ball to defend his reputation. He felt that if he was wrong, the time spent in defending his reputation was a waste of time. And if he was right, the time spent in defending his reputation was doubly a waste of time.
He let history be his judge, because he had churches to build and could not be bothered with trivia like assaults on his reputation.
3. Problems aren’t solved in meetings.
Dad worked in the context of a 300 year old stream of the faith that was quite ideologically driven, and quite schismatic. On the average, this denomination splits every 40 years, just to keep in practice.
So at any given time there were war drums being beaten by some impassioned champion of theological purity or methodological orthodoxy. I have watched endless issues come and go, with people choosing sides and pouring forth verbiage as only a Teacher organization can.
After the champions had stated their cause and proclaimed the extreme importance of their issue, and the lines were drawn in the sand, the next phase was meetings. And more meetings. And bigger meetings. Sometimes for years.
I watched Dad repeatedly take a stand, announce it to his family at the dinner table, then walk away from the topic and go back to moving the ball. On one occasion the powers that be demanded that Dad show up at a meeting in the U.S., but for the most part, he avoided debating meetings like the plague.
And what he taught me is that right is determined on the playing field. If it is true, it should work, and the truth of an idea can be seen in the fruit that it bears.
So while the wise men of the day were writing profound papers, citing the implications of the aorist tense of Greek verbs in rightly dividing one specific Word of Truth, Dad was putting his ideology to the test as seed in the ground.
In the end, I saw that large harvests or catastrophic crop failures (he had both) were more convincing than parsing Greek verbs to a room full of angry people who have already made up their minds.
4. Don’t count your losses.
Dad ran a numbers game. During year one in a new neighborhood, he would visit about 50% of the homes and introduce himself and the gospel of Mark. He came back to those who were interested. He usually had at least 500 people willing to accept a second visit.
Year two, he was working with around 50 people.
By year three, enough truth was on the table that people were being forced to make choices. His following dropped sometimes as low as a dozen people.
By year four, the dozen were multiplying and the multiplication never stopped.
Nor did the subtraction.
It never ceased to amaze him who would suddenly walk away from the church after a year or a decade of radical commitment. It hurt. We would hear about it at dinner time.
He never let the number of people who rejected him at the beginning — or at any point in his life — become a factor in his strategy. He did not dwell on them because on any given day, there were more people who were open to what he had to share than he had hours to minister to.
His eyes were clearly focused on the ten at hand who were hungry and engaged, not the ten dozen who had left.
5. Make room for beauty.
Missions in the jungles of a third world country is not for aesthetes. Functionality trumped elegance. Primitive was more common than refined.
I particularly remember the house at Quatipuru. Dad bought an existing small mud and wattle house. Then he added a three room wood and corrugated iron addition to the back of it that was architecturally utterly alien to the whole county.
Add to that two barn-type buildings attached at right angles to each other at the back of the house for storage, the well, the bathroom, the carpenter shop for building Dad’s next boat and laundry facilities, and you don’t have elegance incarnated.
However, Dad had a deep appreciation for beauty, so in the midst of a world of pragmatic choices, he had to have some beauty.
I remember when he bought a piano. It came without a piano bench. So Dad, the son and grandson of carpenters, built one. And oh, what a piano bench!
It was elegant. Nicer than the piano. Nicer than anything else I had seen Dad build. I marveled at the amount of time and effort he invested in something as peripheral to our lifestyle as a piano bench.
Did I mention it was elegant?
Years later I understood the bigger picture. He could sacrifice having beauty as a hallmark of his life, but he refused to deny his love of beauty. So over the years, his home and office and boat showed the imprint of a rugged realist who accepted the cultural limitations, the economic limitations and the demands on his time.
But nestled within a sometimes pragmatic and sometimes downright ugly environment there was almost always a small corner of beauty, because his soul needed it, and he was quite OK with needing a bit of beauty along the way.
6. Love your hobbies carefully.
Dad comes from a long line of conscientious objectors. He turned 18 when WW II was in full swing and so was the draft. Grandma crafted a plan to keep him out of the war. He would learn to be a radio operator and sign up for the merchant marines and thereby qualify for an exemption.
During his last year of high school, he missed much of the fun, because she kept his nose to the grindstone until he got his third class, second class and finally the invaluable first class FCC radio telephone and radio telegraph licenses.
He applied for a job though he had no experience, was snapped up instantly due to the acute shortage of workers, and left to sea on a merchant ship, as a third class radio operator as soon as he turned 18.
He learned to love the sea and to love electronics.
After the war, he turned to ham radio as well. He taught Mom to use Morse code so she could get a ham radio license and the two did some of their courtship over the air waves.
When I was born, Dad was working as the chief engineer (during the late night shift) of a radio station in the small town where he attended graduate school.
When he went to Brazil, he could not transmit any longer, because he was a foreigner, but he kept up with all manner of electronic gear for about 15 years until it became evident that having techie stuff visible was raising questions in the minds of the wrong people.
He quietly divested himself of much of the equipment he had accumulated over the years and laid aside that hobby, with no fuss or fanfare.
From the beginning of his time in Brazil, he ran a launch ministry. God had called him to the subsistence farmers and fishermen along the banks of the Amazon. He loved building his boats and being on the water in all kinds of weather.
Eventually, because of his extraordinary success, the mission deemed him too important to invest his life in the low density river work, so they had him move to the city of Vila dos Cabanos to work with an expanding population of more educated people.
He obeyed, finding new homes for his boats, the motors and the inventory of spare parts. The sailor was now an involuntary landlubber.
I watched Dad love those two aspects of his life deeply, draw great life from them while he had them and lay them down when he had to, without becoming destabilized. He did not allow two huge pleasure generators in his life to become central to the core of who he was.
7. Sausage factories don’t work.
Dad was a church planter. It is a field with very simple metrics that are precisely measurable. The quarterly reports to the field superintendent had to list activities — number of Bible studies, number of people in them — and the end goal was a number of self-sustaining and self-propagating churches.
Measurable. Verifiable. Sustained change in the neighborhood.
And measurable things tend to attract the efficiency experts who have systems and processes to do more, faster, in a simpler way, with less expenditure of effort, and a higher output per unit of time.
And Dad refused to buy in.
I remember one particular field conference where efficient methodology was taught by an expert. Dad went through all of the exercises, aced his project, and came home unscathed, unchanged and utterly unrepentant of his inefficient ways.
People are individuals. Their journeys are unique. Their pathway to maturity must therefore be unique.
Therefore he defiantly stayed with the massively labor intensive process of teaching individuals and very small groups, so that everything he taught could be customized to their lives. Oh, he wrote commentaries for his guys and used a few other scalable tools, but mostly it was face time, phone time and (lately) e-mails.
I know of no Christian leader who invests as high a percentage of his ministry time in face time with individuals and small groups as Dad did.
He knew it was labor intensive. He knew there were schools and programs and sausage factories galore. He also knew he got really good results from 1,000 hours invested in one person over the course of five years.
It produced a leader who knew the stuff, and knew how to live the stuff in the gritty, real- time environment from which he came.
Relentless successes made Dad pretty stubborn about being highly “inefficient” with his one on one face and heart time with his men.
8. Success is dangerous.
By the time I was old enough to think in terms of life beyond the moment, Dad told me repeatedly that most people stop doing what made them successful when they became successful.
And he illustrated it with people we knew. Dad was pretty careful about protecting people’s reputation and he kept a hundred thousand secrets, at least. But he had no grace for people who succeeded and allowed it to devour them.
So dinner times were punctuated from time to time with stories of political leaders, religious leaders and businessmen who lost focus when they became successful and began to either protect their success, or milk it, instead of continuing to do the things that made them successful.
I walked very closely to Dad from ’64 to ’73 as he began to groom me for missions. We talked theology and methodology. He coached me in the nuances of growing leaders slowly and thoroughly.
I was not on the field for about 35 years, but when I started going back regularly to check on them six years ago, I watched and listened and knew that the Über successful missionary was utterly unchanged by the plaque on the wall calling him the “Pastor of the Year” for the entire denomination, worldwide.
Success has devoured many. It didn’t put the slightest scratch on Dad. He was prepared for it when it came, and triumphed over it!
9. Measure the skin in the game.
Last time I was there, I sat in on a visit from a young man who had known Dad for years. He drove up ebullient, came in, visited for a while, sharing about his life and celebrating all Dad had done in the community.
It was obvious that Dad was not reciprocating emotionally to the fervor the other guy brought. When he left, Dad commented with disdain on the gap between the guy’s words and his work ethic. He was not doing the stuff. His daily disciplines were nonexistent.
Cheerleaders made zero impact on Dad. Promises were not even heard. Plans and strategies were broadly dismissed. But he never failed to notice the people who had skin in the game.
He knew who got up at 3:00 in the morning to go to work, and still came to the 7:00 p.m. Bible study. He noticed whose Bible got dirty and worn because of use. He valued the individuals who bucked the system of corruption and coercion even though it cost them their jobs.
And given a choice between a well educated, intelligent individual with high enthusiasm, and a barely literate farmer who would show up for personal discipleship on schedule in the middle of spring planting and of harvest time, Dad always went with the guys who had skin in the game.
10. Never take a knee.
In the NFL, it is common for obscenely paid quarterbacks to not finish the game. If the team with the ball has a winning score, they will commonly run out the clock by taking 25 seconds in the huddle, then hiking the ball to the quarterback who drops a knee to the ground to stop the play.
After all, why play hard at the end of the game, when it is already won and you might get hurt on a meaningless play?
Well, Dad did not go to the school of taking a knee.
The mission had mandatory retirement at 70. He appealed and they changed company policy to allow him to stay on for a little while longer. They failed to define “a little while.” He retired at almost 86.
When he had his first heart attack (and did not know it was such) he was preaching on a Sunday night. It had been a full, long day as he had preached multiple times at two congregations. He felt himself getting lightheaded and slid to the floor to keep from falling on the concrete and hurting himself.
When he was clear headed again, he called for a chair and finished his sermon from the chair, before humoring the worried congregation by going to the hospital.
He came back from Brazil on May 31st. He quickly came down with a cold which hung on. On Sunday the 23rd he was better, though very weak, but wanted to preach, so he went to his son-in-law’s church plant in Everett and spoke at the morning service about his time on the field.
He made it all the way through the sermon, although it was hard for him to breathe.
He went directly from the church to a walk-in clinic, then to the hospital where they admitted him with pneumonia.
The doctors were horrified that he had less than 25% heart function due to the previous several heart attacks plus another one sometime that previous week. Mom smiled and assured them it had been this way for years.
The whistle blew and the game was over at 2:00 a.m. Wednesday, with Mom by his side.
He didn’t need to play that last down.
The score was already ridiculously lopsided in his favor.
You can get hurt preaching when you are sick.
He did it because that is who he is. He was true to himself to the end.
He played the whole game.
You simply don’t move the ball when you take a knee.
Will that last sermon change anyone, anywhere? Who knows? The only thing for absolute certain is that not preaching it would guarantee that no one was changed.
So, he played the last down.
* * *
And Dad, as I sit here in a hotel room, wrecking yet another box of Kleenex, I want you to know that around the world there are thousands of people who you never met, who know you rather well.
There are even some people with skin in the game who are beginning to resemble you a lot, even though they never sat at your feet.
Because they have.
Someday I will probably listen to that last sermon. I just can’t go there yet.
Tonight I think I will just savor the piano bench and the atomic bomb that never was.
That’s as far as I can go today.
Thanks Dad, for not caving to the culture.
And for being you.
All the way to the end of the game.
Copyright June 2013 by Arthur Burk
From room 428, in Washington State