Each year at Morling College I teach a subject called the History of Christian Mission. Since I’m a storyteller and not an historian, I tell my students this course is church history minus the boring bits.
They like that introduction.
So they hear all about Adoniram Judson strung up by his feet in a Burmese prison cell, and Lillias Trotter and her Bible-reading drum circle in a native cafe in the Casbah, and David Livingstone slashing his way through the Okavango.
They get stories of morphine-addicted CT Studd going bonkers in the Congo, St Boniface chopping down the Tree of Thor, and Francis Xavier and his Samurai warrior sidekick, Anjirō, traveling to Japan.
We cover the Haystack Prayer Movement, the Student Volunteer Movement, and the Church Growth Movement.
They look at the Nestorians, the Hibernians, and the Moravians.
It’s all very exciting actually.
Well, the way I tell it, it is.
And then I heard recently that an old colleague of mine had died.
Rev Mike Dennis was full of years and wisdom, a fellow minister in the same family of churches as me. He was old enough to be my father, but he treated me like a brother.
Mike was superb preacher and a remarkable leader. He was humble and godly. And he was funny. And the guy had style. Later in life he lost an eye to a tumor and began wearing an eye patch. I thought he looked dashing.
When he was farewelled there were some tears, but there was also a lot of gratitude for the joy he had spread around our churches. Someone paid tribute to his amazing legacy in the lives of the thousands he ministered to and with, and the many young pastors that he mentored over the years.
I was one of them.
I wanted to share a tribute to Mike Dennis on Facebook a few weeks ago, so I did an Internet search for a photo. I couldn’t find one. There was hardly anything online about him. It seems dear old Mike Dennis passed quietly from the face of this earth, leaving his wife Meg and their kids to remember him, but most of the world none the wiser.
There’s no page in the History of Christian Mission curriculum dedicated to his memory.
I’m not sure why some people’s stories get told and retold and become part of our shared history and why some others’ are completely forgotten. Plenty of the men and women whose stories I tell to my students weren’t as kind or as effective as Mike.
But his death has made me think about my life.
When I think about the things I want to do before I die, being in the history books isn’t one of them. We can’t measure the value of our lives based on whether we end up being remembered for posterity. Most people aren’t remembered that long (even people today we think of as being famous).
The Talmud says that to live life well every man (and presumably, woman) must do three things: have a child, write a book and plant a tree. But books fall out of print (believe me) and trees get felled. And once our children’s children are gone the memory of us is extinguished.
We might as well let go of any illusions of grandeur, and abandon our secretly harbored dreams of ‘success’, and try to figure out why we’re here and then do that thing we were intended to do as God’s creatures on this earth.
So what do I want to do before I die? How will measure the value of the life I’m living?
I believe we are here to help finish the labors of God. As Martin Buber asks, if man was meant to live by bread, why didn’t God just create a tree that sprouted loaves of bread for us? Instead, God created wheat and invites us to join him as bread makers. To take wheat and plant it, tend it, water it, feed it, harvest it, grind it, kneed it, bake it, and turn it into bread.
God wants us to be partners with him in creation, to complete his labors for the good of the world.
And secondly, we are here to be companions. We are here to break bread with one another (the word companion comes from cum panis – “with bread”). We are here to see that everyone has enough, no one has too much, and that we achieve this goal with maximal freedom and minimal coercion. There are many names for such sharing – Jesus called it the Kingdom of God – and while the goal is too vast to be achieved in our lives, it is still our task to create foretastes of it on this planet.
We were created to fashion living glimpses of what life together is meant to be to counteract the otherwise immobilizing realities of tyrants, starving children, death camps, and nuclear warheads.
So, before I die I want to be a bread maker and a bread breaker.
You won’t read about Mike Dennis in the history books. I can’t even find a photo to show you. But he was one of God’s loyal co-laborers, a man who made space at his table for others. He knew his purpose and he completed it quietly and devotedly.
I hope they can say that about me when I’m gone.
The featured image is from the Savannah Before I Die project, photographed by Trevor Coe. For more information on Before I Die see http://candychang.com/work/before-i-die-in-nola/