Things to do before I die

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/  

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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8 thoughts on “Things to do before I die

  1. Having lost my Father, Grandfather and Father-in-law in the past 18 months, I join you in your reflections. There are no pages in the history books for them, just a legacy of love and relationships. But that is ok. Let us contInue to make and break bread, right here where God has us for his Glory.

    1. Grace and peace to you, brother.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting and humbling story about someone who has shown how to live the Christian life. Mike Dennis has imitated in very real way how Jesus wants us to get alongside people by breaking bread with our fellow human beings without expecting anything in return. He offered hope and God’s Grace which is free for everyone. A glimpse of God,s kingdom. Very inspiring a simple message without religious dogma. You article has also made me think about what do I want to do before I die by becoming a bread maker and a bread breaker.

  3. Indeed, we retell our histories and the stories of those who went before us over the breaking of bread! To remind ourselves of what is important and what is temporal.
    As Wendell Berry says in relation to the preservation of topsoil on hillsides,”More important than a degree in Soil Science, is a grandfather/mother to say ‘Don’t do that!'”
    It’s telling that every enduring culture in history made it a central habit to tell and re-tell the stories of their ancestors.
    Thanks Mike … and Vale Mike Dennis.

    1. You always write such smart stuff on my blogs. But we’re gonna have to cure you of your Wendell Berry addiction. 😉

      1. haha – Thanks Mike, but I’m pretty sure most of my thoughts are appropriated from elsewhere.
        Curing me of Wendell Berry will take some doing!

  4. Mike was a mentor of mine as well. He left me with much to think about in the pastoral life and especially in a post-Christendom world. I will never forget the grace and warmth he showed me by inviting me into his wisdom and his home.
    Some legacies are written not in the annals of history, but in the hearts of the people who shape it thereafter. Many great men will have been shaped by the humble unnoticed men who come before. The house is no greater than its foundation, to use a biblical metaphor, and I know many pastors who will have the stamp of Mike Dennis in their stories. It’s a bit blurry, but I do have a picture of Mike and I at my induction at Bowral Baptist. Bitter-sweet memories indeed.

    Thanks for sharing the thoughts Mike. I’m going to go and collect a few of my own.

  5. Thanks, Mike,
    Great thoughts about Mike Dennis – and nice to be reminded. He was a gentle thoughtful soul; and I’d forgotten him until now. But I think to be forgotten or to be remembered by name is neither here nor there. To have passed on some aspect of life of love, of wisdom, of help – whether anonymously or with a statue of thanks (as J H Goble is remembered in Footscray) – is a genuine achievement. And it may be all the better if we have no awareness of it ourselves.

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