Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Death of a Friend and Confidant

Bruce Nelson

Early this past Sunday morning as I was reviewing my sermon for later that morning, the call came in from one of Bruce's best friends: Bruce's body had been found in a creek near Detroit Lake in central Oregon.  That began what has been a very, very sad week for me.

Bruce had been camping alone, as he always did. It was the highlight of his summer...going away alone for a week or two to one of his most favorite spots: a sort of hidden camping spot tucked away off the main path.  How many years he had been going there, I have no idea.  But it was always alone.  He told me in one of our last conversations that he had climbed Mt. Hood over 40 times.  And all but one or two of those times had been alone--an incredibly stupid thing to do.  He had almost died there, coming close to falling in a crevasse...only his ice pick saved his life.  No amount of arguing or cajoling could talk him out of it.  He would hike & camp alone. He had recently been terminated from his job and was stressed and depressed and he needed the relaxation and rejuvenation that this week brought. 

Bruce had more schooling and had had more jobs then most people have in two or three lifetimes.  A graduate of Moody in Chicago and Trinity in Deerfield, he had completed his doctoral work in Greek, but never finished his dissertation.  He had planted a church while living in the Cabrini Green high rises in Chicago.  He had a passion for the poor and downtrodden.  He had later served as youth minister & pastor for a church here in Portland.  He completed a Masters in Ed Psych and for the past fifteen years or so had taught special education in the public schools around Portland. 

His wife, Linda, has said several times over the past three days, "People either loved Bruce or hated him."  I corrected her. There was a third category...those who hated him and loved him all at the same time.  (Hated is not really the right word, but I was in that third category).  He was both maddening and irritating and lovable all at the same time.  He had wanted me to hire him on church staff and we could not do it.  He was too abrasive. He spoke his mind too boldly, too plainly.  He was not wrong in what he said...but he was often wrong in how he said it. 

But mostly I considered him a friend.  We had had some superficial interactions for the first six years I knew him.  After I found out his background I recruited him to lead our Benevolence Ministry Team at the church.  I didn't always agree with his decisions, but he was always clear eyed and fair. 

But two years ago in May, Bruce came into my office.  He had two concerns.  My sermons were shallow.  There was no meat there (this coming from a man with a doctorate in Greek...come on...what did he expect?).  Additionally, the Bible studies based on the sermons which I was preparing for our small groups were equally shallow.   He had been preparing supplemental (read "meaty") Bible studies to go with the studies for his group and was willing to do the same for all the groups. 

I was put out.  I was hurt.  "What do you mean shallow?" I thought.  But I DID take it to heart.  I decided, "You want deep, I can show you deep."  I set out a plan to really deepen my preparation.  I went to a Morris Procter workshop on using my Libronix software to a great capacity.  (I HIGHLY recommend both, the software and the workshops). 

And I believe my preaching was improved because of it. (Never mind that a few months later a group of people came and complained to the elders that my sermons were too deep and lecture-like.  I think I eventually found a better balance.) 

But after several months, Bruce and I began to meet regularly.  Sometimes once a week...other times we would go a month without meeting. But he did (at least) two things  for me.  He let me talk freely.  He was someone who understood ministry.  He was someone who had been burned by ministry & who wanted me to be more successful at it than he felt he was.  I was able to share things with him that I have been able to share with no one else.  He validated my feelings, even if he challenged my interpretation of events or logic.

But he also challenged and deepened me.  He would come with a book or a verse or even a word in the Greek and give me "an assignment."  And then, next time, we would talk about it.  I needed that.  It was both good for my mental health, but it was also good for my mind.  Maybe it is snobbery, and if so, so be it.  But I get tired of always having to dumb things down.  Shoot to the least common denominator.   If I hadn't thought about the ramifications of something or had missed an important point in a theological term...he would (like some crotchety old professor) send me back the books (or usually back to my Libronix).

The medical examiner said that Bruce was trying to cross a log that lay across the stream in slick leather moccasin-like slippers.  He slipped and hit his head on the log. He fell, unconscious, face forward into the creek.  The water, which is snow melt, was barely above freezing and he died of the knock on the head, lack of oxygen from his face laying in the water, and hypothermia.  His body probably laid there in the stream 8-10 hours before some other campers found him.

I will help lead his memorial service on Thursday.  I grieve for his wife.  I grieve for his friends.  But I also grieve for me. He was someone with whom I could (and did) share freely, knowing that he was committed to total confidentiality, someone who was intellectually stimulating and challenged me to think deeper and harder and longer than I was.  And someone who was both fun and maddening at the same time.

Without the hope of the resurrection, we of all people would be most miserable.  I will miss him. 

I already do. 


Jim said...

Thanks for the memories of Bruce. He will indeed be missed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Cal. I too already miss him very much.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cal,

Thanks for your thoughts concerning Bruce. I just heard of his death and was comforted by the knowledge that he was walking with the Lord prior to his home-going.

I've known Bruce since grade school. We both became Christians in high school and participated in a campus ministry together. I lost touch with him after his time as a youth pastor in Portland.

I've passed your article on to others who knew Bruce and they too were appreciative and encouraged by your words, even while being saddened at the news of his passing.


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