Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Take Care, Bud

Early morning telephone calls, at least in my experience, are rarely conveyors of good news. I was on the receiving end of such a call yesterday and it was no exception to the rule. I was jarred from semi-consciousness by the ringing of the telephone and immediately wondered who might be calling at such an hour. I thought it might be the person with whom I had a 9 AM appointment , letting me know that something came up that would preclude our meeting. If only it had been so minor.

On the other end of the line was my friend, Dave, with whom I have infrequent contact. He explained in a somber tone that his reason for calling so early was to reach me before I read my email. In the few moments between the conclusion of that sentence and the beginning of his next, I tried both to grip myself for whatever news he was about to share with me and to predict what it was. I failed on both counts. Dave proceeded to tell me that a mutual friend who has been
teaching history at a Christian school in Belize, Central America for two years had been brutally beaten to death while housesitting for a friend, a minister, who himself had been seriously beaten earlier this month. It's believed that this was a retaliatory measure by a native man in a relationship with one of the minister's daughters - a relationship of which the father disapproved. From what I've gathered from Belizean news sources, police are speculating that our friend Pete's murder is connected to the prior incident and that he may have been a victim of mistaken identity.

Pete's body was discovered in the backyard of the home beneath pieces of lumber. He was attacked from behind with a machete. There are no words to adequately capture the shock I experienced. It was nightmarish to think of someone I knew so well being the victim of such violence and contempt. It's almost unimaginable to think that Pete died so tragically.

Pete, Dave, a few other guys and I used to get together for breakfast on a biweekly basis almost 15 years ago to share what was going on in our lives, discuss theology and apologetics, and pray with and for each other. A local IHOP was our meeting place. A woman named Betty was our waitress. Over pancakes, crepes, scrambled eggs, and sausage we confided in each other about our temptations, dreams, joys, and sorrows. Oh, how I looked forward to those gatherings and hated when they ended. It was so good to have the company of brothers who shared a desire to know Christ better and who were committed to helping each other be more faithful to Him. At the time, Pete was working for the public works department of a local village doing janitorial work. From time to time he toyed with the thought of going back to school but he was filled with uncertainty and doubt about his ability to succeed. It was obvious to those of us who knew him that he was a keen thinker with a passion for learning so we encouraged him to pursue that aspiration.

Eventually, Pete did leave and completed a master's degree at Bemidji State University. At times he was shaken in his faith as he encountered historical scholarship built on the foundation of anti-Christian presuppositions. To his credit, however, this led him to increased study and prayer. He would frequently write to let me know about his interactions with fellow students (most of whom were younger than he) and professors. We exchanged many emails about matters such as the historical reliability of the New Testament texts, the sovereignty of God, election, epistemology, and an assortment of apologetic issues. The personal value of his correspondence, much of which I had saved and most of which he signed off with "Take care, bud," spiked with yesterday's news.

Pete returned to Illinois in search of a job in which he could utilize his education -- preferably in a historical museum somewhere. While he searched, he worked as a customer service representative for a nationally known paint company headquartered in the area. During this time he, Dave, and some other guys consistently met on Saturday mornings for extended prayer for one another, their friends and families, and the body of Christ stateside and abroad. Born out of the realization that prayer is a means of waging spiritual warfare, this weekly meeting came to be known as "Fight Club."

A few weeks ago Pete had sent me and some other guys a draft of an email he had composed to one of his former students who was struggling with doubts about the existence of God. Pete was asking for input concerning any revisions we thought would improve it. I couldn't identify any. It was thorough, well-researched, and compassionate. His care for the young man to whom he was writing was evident as was the fact that he took his questions and concerns seriously. Pete wrote as one who knew well the mental and emotional duress that accompanies doubt. It was a joy to see his earnest, skillful attempt to feed another hungry soul with the fruit yielded from his own languishing for truth. In response to a letter I had sent commending him for his letter to his former student, Pete wrote back and told me that he had accepted a position as an adjunct world history professor at a local university. The school at which he regularly taught is closed during the summer months so he began teaching a summer class at the university earlier this month. A transcript from one of Belize's local news programs quotes the school's vice president:

Peter was a gifted teacher. The students were having so much fun in his class. Whenever I’d say, "Peter how is class going?" he would say, "This is so much fun." He just radiated excitement, he just loved to teach and the students were responding to that.
Pete regularly read this blog. To the best of my recollection, he never left a comment but he frequently told me how much he appreciated it, especially the links that introduced him to new sites. Whenever I checked site traffic by location and saw an ISP in Belize, I was pretty confident it was Pete. From now on, if ever I see a visit from Belize, I'll be certain that it's not. It was satisfying to know that by means of the blog I was pointing Pete to resources that were helpful to his growth.

In his email to me, Pete related the following insight that I share in hope that it might encourage and inspire someone:

I had this weird thing happen in the last 6 months where I gave into the realization that I am a good teacher, an academic and an intellectual. I was thinking of myself as the janitor and truck driver for a long time and the reality is I am not those things. I have been really pouring into apologetics like Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, Darell Bock, and reading that big book by [Craig] Blomberg on the gospels. Crazy thing is I am understanding what previously I had so much difficulty understanding. God is pretty interesting like that. Things come when you need them. He has told me not to fear these apologetics and big questions,but to dive in and explore.
By saying that he wasn't a janitor or a truck driver, Pete wasn't disparaging either or taking a stance of superiority. There wasn't an air of snootiness about him. He knew what it was to work hard and he had the utmost of respect and admiration for those who made their living so doing. Pete took the truth of every person being the image of God seriously and I never knew him to be one to shy away from associating with someone on account of his or her socio-economic status, race, or educational level. I think what he was getting at was that he had, by the grace of God, become what he once thought he could never be. Not only that, he also learned the invaluable lesson that to acknowledge what one is good at needn't be an expression of sinful pride but can be an honest and grateful assessment of the gifts God has entrusted to be used in His faithful service.
Pete's testimony reminded me of James Sire's book, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling, in which he relates his own desire to become an intellectual and the obstacles (both internal and external) to his achieving that goal. As to what an intellectual is in general and a Christian intellectual in particular, Sire offers the following definitions, neither of which necessitates formal education:

An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.

A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God (27-28).
Farewell, for now, to a dearly loved Christian intellectual.

UPDATE - 7/19/07: A local Illinois newspaper has a writeup about Pete that includes reflections on his life from his dad.


Rock Slatestone said...

Dear Keith,

I will keep you and Pete's loved ones in prayer.


Derek Morrow said...

Hello Keith,
My name is Derek Morrow and I knew Peter. We had become fast friends Over the last year. I hope by sending this I can shed some light on what happened. You do have most of the story but some of the facts are off a bit. Let me start with the fact of mistaken ID. Not true at all Pete and I had a talk last weekend to the fact that Roger had come to the house and talk at legth with him. I spent time talking with him and calming him down, ministering to him as Pete does best. Roger also knew that Joe was in the U.S. and Peter was house sitting. So this negates that.
What I do want to tell you is how Peter spent his last day with us, because I was one of the last persons to see him alive. I meet him at our church that morning for service. Peter is always at the back greeting others as they come in. When I do offering he collects it as I pray over it. After service he ask what I had planned for lunch, but I had to run to the office and make a call to my wife who was in the U.S. with her family. I told him I could meet him in an hour or so but he said he had to go eat. Well after my unsuccessful call I went to have some tea at a local new coffee house to read and work on my book. I then had the urge to contact Pete to ask him to meet me. As I was sending the text he walks in. Wow how good is God. He sat and had some coffee and a muffin as we talked for the next Hour. Just about 3:30 I told him I need to try and call my wife again so I needed to go. I took him with me to the School so I could call. He worked on him e-mail as I talked with my wife. About 30mins later I was dropping him off at the coffee shop again saying good bye little did I know for the last time. He went off on his Bike back to his house where he dropped of his bike and returned to Tea kettle in Joe Yeager's Car. I had plans with him to day for coffee again and conversation. I would venture to say that in a way I was his Fight Club in Belize. I would never put myself on the level that you are but we did have some great talks from which we both came out with more knowledge about God. He was a kind and Gentle man The PreK up to the High School Loved him his nickname was I think Big Bear. I would have called him Gentle Ben. Had I felt any dange that this would have happened I would have been with him or he with me. Know that I don't understand why this has happened but He was Loved and cannot be replaced. I have the daunting task of preparing the service for him here and helping the Embassy collect his things and all the difficult things his family would have to do if here. I am by no means complaining. It is an Honor to do this small thing for his Family. He was more then a brother to me so I would do it because I know he would for me. My heart goes out to his Family but I want all to know from his many friends here he was Loved and he gave his all and died serving God this Country and the world. I Had to ID his body at the Post Mortuem. As bad as it look he had peace on his face. I send this with Love and with a heavy heart

Sacchiel said...

It's a comfort knowing Jesus was not taken by surprise, but awaited him.

John said...

May God's Spirit carry you, Peter's friends and family during this time of grief.

KP said...

Thanks to all of you for your expressions of sympathy and comfort.

Derek, I'm especially grateful for your filling in some missing pieces in the story. Thanks for being such a friend to Pete. I attended his funeral yesterday and was overwhelmed by the depth of his impact on so many people from such diverse backgrounds. I'd appreciate your emailing me as Pete's family would like to get in touch with you but doesn't have an email address for you. Thanks.

Stephen said...

keith, i'm so sorry to hear about your lose. thanks for reminding us to treasure our friends while we can. God bless you and thank you for this tribute.