I once heard Chris Hall say that it won’t be many years until he’s able to talk with the people who wrote the old books he was reading. It was a funny statement. We all laughed. I’ve thought a lot about that statement; it has changed the way I think about those who have passed.

Oh, I can’t wait to playfully call Brother Lawrence the “Lord of All Pots and Pans” and invite him to wash some dishes with me. Teresa of Avila? We’re going to laugh about how her erotic words about God freaked everyone out. Saint Francis and I? Oh, we’re doing some hiking for sure. I think of the saints who have passed as my friends, a community of sorts. In my mind I have collected a handful of people, both living and passed, as my team, my teachers.

If it’s true that we humans learn primarily by imitating others, then I am keen on selecting people of substance to imitate. I would like to share with you what I have learned from a few of these people who have recently passed. Two you may know. One you won’t.


I wasn’t really close to Brennan, and although my interactions were few, they all seemed to be providential in one way or another. I considered him a friend and I think he cared for me as well.

Sadly, toward the end of his life Brennan was unable to see and a stroke had left him hardly able to speak or move. One day I was with one of Brennan’s friends. I was taking him back to the airport and sitting in a parking lot while we exchanged some final words when his phone rang. It just so happened to be Brennan’s caregiver. Again, unusual and fortuitous. I took this as an opportunity to say my goodbyes and express my gratitude to Brennan that day.

While Brennan’s friendship, speaking, and writing has extremely influenced not only my personal but professional life, what I learned during that two-minute, mostly silent phone conversation where all I heard were a few jumbled words turned out to be one of the most impactful experiences I’ve ever had.

As I drove away from the airport, tears streamed down my face. I could hardly imagine what life was like for him. I ached. I suffered for him and the state he was in. There the most dynamic speaker and brilliantly articulate man I had ever met sat almost completely alone, deprived of all his faculties, waiting for the end.

I heard from God that day in such a way that has only happened a few times before. I saw another side to Brennan’s situation. I began to understand his groans and what was potentially happening. My tears turned to gratitude.

Brennan often offered this potentially disturbing prayer:

“May all your expectations be frustrated, may all your plans be thwarted, may all your desires be withered into nothingness, that you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God who is the Father, Son and Spirit.”

A certain powerlessness had found him. His body had been reduced to that of a child, unable to care for himself. What had come to my friend was a refining process like few else in life. In his helplessness he was learning to let others care for him in ways he had never done. He was learning to be vulnerable. In these final days of his life, quite simply, Brennan was learning to dance in the love of God.

What I took away from this experience is completely transforming the way I view life, suffering, and the seemingly ever-present challenges of life. Impediments to having my own way, woundings to my ego, and comfort may potentially be wonderful opportunities for my soul.

Certainly, I’d rather pass on many of these opportunities and some injuries leave scars that never heal. But, locked in the disappointments, chaos, and general messiness of life are potential invitations for deeper life with God, a crucible of sorts, shaping and transforming us into the people God intends for us to become.

Isn’t that so much like God? Ever seeking to redeem. Fully committed to creating new life. Beauty from ashes.

I’m reminded of the old adage; sWe have these sorts of choices in life, whether in traffic, the long drive-through line, frustrations at work, or a spouse in critical condition.

Admittedly Brennan really spoke and wrote on one topic, God’s love. And, in this parting lesson, I’m learning how God’s love goes far beyond experiences and warm feelings. But it is out of a love so deep, and intimate, that I’m invited to submit and surrender to the wisdom of providence. And there in the wake of my yielding, opportunities for new disciplines are revealed in the midst of everyday ordinary life.


I didn’t know Dallas well. I probably knew more about him than I actually knew him. When I first encountered Dallas it was a season in my life when I looked suspiciously upon anyone with a Bible and a microphone. Dallas won me over with his tears. I’m not entirely sure I had ever heard a heady, educated, well-read speaker talk without an air of arrogance, using quotes and insights as a way to stay distant or unimpressive. To watch a man who was clearly not trying to put on a show, rather mild-mannered, with an almost monotone voice, choke up, took me so off-guard that I had to listen. And, so as a twenty-year-old nighttime janitor, I listened to tapes of him teaching over and over again.

On the day of his passing, I took a little time to reflect and offer prayers for his family. But as I returned to the pressing task that was before me, I found I couldn’t focus, and quickly concluded that I needed to take the day off to reflect. I figured a paddle in my kayak on a still lake would suffice. The lake was a good place for grief. Winter’s fury was softly turning away, marking spring’s triumphant return. The day was beautiful and calm.

I ached for his family, Jane, Becky, John, Bill, and Larisa. I ached for my dad and the Renovaré community whom he so deeply influenced. I ached for myself and the loss of future conversations I longed to have. However, surprisingly I was overcome with grief for the loss to the world. I became angry. “God no! Why? We need him! There are so few deep thoughtful leaders in our society and they’re dying! No one is taking their place! Not Dallas. Not now.”

Suddenly, just off the shore a clearly visible wind funnel took shape. And with it an assortment of leaves and scattered debris sprung high in the sky. In disbelief and awe, I watched as this mini-tornado headed toward the lake. I don’t think it was dangerous, just really bizarre and a little exciting too as it produced waves rocking my kayak about. Suddenly the funnel stopped, its echo calmly rippled across the lake.

A thought soon occurred to me. I could have sat in this spot for hundreds of years and never seen something so amazing, so unusual and special. And there it was. What a gift to have been in this time and space in human history to witness the life and work of Dallas. Again, my anger turned to gratitude.

I went to Dallas’ funeral. It was special. Throughout the last two years I’ve been part of a number of conversations with people about Dallas’ life and work. It’s good for us to share thoughts and stories; it’s often how we grieve. I quickly noticed a pattern. Clearly Dallas’ professional work will carry on and influence the Church and world of philosophy for many, many years to come. And, while people often commented on this fact, it’s never the focus.

What seems most significant to people about his life is who he was and how he treated others. Even people who hardly knew him, who took a class or heard him speak, always comment on his character. Here lies the second lesson I learned—what we loved about Dallas was born out of his life with God. Not a lot of people in the history of the world will have the mind and insight Dallas had. But that life available to us all. The Kingdom is here and now. The Spirit of Jesus at work in Dallas’ life is at work in ours.

And isn’t that the temptation with all those who have passed—to admire, to hold them at a distance as some sort of super-human? I very much want to honor others and the lives they lead, and while some gifts are truly exceptional and unique, what matters most is a person whose life bears witness to the conforming and transforming power of God at work.

I sometimes wonder if we do ourselves and others a disservice by idolizing those who have gone before us. None of the great followers of Jesus would put up with the way we treat them. They would want us to tear them down, metaphorically, from the stained glass. They would want us to follow the example of life—to follow after Jesus. We too can have a life with God.


I met my future father-in-law 25 years ago. I was 16, my girlfriend, now wife, cautiously asked her dad if could smoke in the house. With a fixed stare and posturing stance he abruptly replied, “You burn a hole in my couch, I’ll #$@&%*!kill you.” His rule had been established. I was intimidated and decided not to smoke.

In those days he was a rough fellow: mean, macho, hard working. He had spent some time in prison, religiously beat up his body playing softball, and peppered nearly every statement with a colorful metaphor. Dave went to A.A. meetings multiple times per day as if his life depended on it. And the wisdom he gathered from sitting around twelve-step tables poured out of him.

I spent a lot of time with Dave in my late teenage years. We fished and worked together, and he grew to think of me as the son he never had, although, I didn’t know this until the very end.

There’s much to say about Dave and his life. He was a hard worker, thinking very little of putting in twelve-hour days, six days a week in a120 degree welding shop. He was also brilliant. With just a GED, he taught himself advanced trigonometry and understood manufacturing blueprints in a way that baffled the architects.

Through the years I watched him soften, slowly transforming into an almost unrecognizable person; kind and gentle, full of lived out compassion for others.

Dave had a certain gratitude in life that I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed. And, at least from my perspective, he didn’t necessarily have much to be grateful for. Multiple times I watched him either walk away from, or lose, every possession he owned. This never seemed to bother him much.

Dave was the kind of person who, whenever he saw a car broken down on the road, would stop to help. While temporarily living in a homeless shelter, he would freely give the few resources he had to someone in greater need. He was well known in many circles as a person of great generosity and kindness.

Toward the end of his life, he was unable to work, living with chronic pain. I remember when he applied for food stamps and was awarded $10.68 a month. I was upset. He wasn’t. “Nate, if I save that up, that’s like $120.00 a year. That’s a lot of groceries.” Truth be told, he would use that $120 to buy food to cook for every struggling person who would walk through his door.

In my mind, Dave’s crowning achievement was found in the way in which he loved others—accepting people, looking beyond the external. Finding humanity in those living on the margins of society. His was a life of service, hidden service. He would refute these words, stating it was easy, that he enjoyed helping others. And isn’t that the way it should be—that we live so engulfed in the Kingdom where the virtuous life is the easy life?

In the end, story after story came out about the way he had loved so many. In the hospital, person after person called and said that David Buckner was the best friend they ever had. Dave left a legacy of relationships.

I learned much from my father-in-law, and honestly the loss is really too tender for me to give his life the right words. But, I like how he was never in a hurry. I like how he seemed most at home in nature, easily finding the beauty of God in a Kansas landscape. I like his examples of gratitude and hidden service, for in it I learn of the goodness and beauty of God. Beauty, just like suffering and heartache, can be teachers, opportunities to dig deeper into the heart of God.

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Text First Published April 2015