I had just left military service when I started attending Hannibal-LaGrange College (now university). I was somewhat older than the other students, but not so old that I didn’t fit in. The college assigned John Burns to be my advisor.
This professor had served as a missionary, translated the Bible into other languages, authored papers and co-written commentaries. In our first meeting, he asked me to tell him about my dreams and calling. With the elocutionary zeal of a new evangelist, I launched into my desire to be a famous preacher and speak to large masses of people. I could see his forehead wrinkle as I shared what God had laid on my heart.
Looking back on that meeting, I feel so embarrassed by the things I said and the way I said them. Real ministry is not about becoming famous or speaking to the masses but denying yourself, taking up your cross and learning to take on His life one day at a time. But I was young and had just surrendered to the ministry. What did I know?
Burns didn’t argue or give me a lecture. He simply looked at me and said, “You’ll never make it.”
That day, the line was drawn, and he became my nemesis. To obtain my degree, I would have to pass through the gauntlet of his Greek classes. For the next two years, as I sat under his teaching, he would pick on me to answer question after question. And I wasn’t about to let him win.
“I’ll show him,” I vowed. I studied for his classes as for no other. I spent hours with my notebook, translating tenses and parsing verbs. I wrote out everything I could discover about those words. I used commentaries, lexicons and extra-biblical resources. Every day, I walked into his class ultra-prepared. Burns pushed me to places beyond the levels other students ever tried to reach.
One day, I stayed in bed and missed his morning class. As I lay there, I heard a knock on my dorm room door. I opened it, and there stood Burns, bigger than life.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I skipped your class today,” I told him.
He looked back at me. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right,” he said. He turned around and walked off.
Burns pushed me to excel academically, but he cared just as much for me as a person—the trademark of a true mentor. I began to realize the method behind his madness. The man was a master at motivating his students, especially one like me who had fire in his bones, but lacked the common sense to know what to do with it. Within the first few minutes of our initial meeting, he knew how to push my buttons to make me the best I could be.
I was near graduation when he called me into his office. I sat there a much different man than I was when I started my journey. He reached behind his desk and handed me a box that contained some of his books. He said some kind words and encouraged me to keep on the narrow path as I went out on my own.
I’ve used those books ever since that day. To me, they’re more than books. They represent a man who had the wisdom to mold others according to their calling.
Burns has since gone home to be with the Lord. I never got to thank him or let him know what an impact he made on my life. I was wondering how I could honor a friend and mentor who made such a difference in my life when the Lord showed me, “Pass it on.”
And so I’ve begun a season of doing just that. I travel with hundreds of young missionaries and see myself in many of them. I’ve started dismantling my library and passing on the books that have guided my life. Next summer, I’ll reach 40 years of ministry. The Bible calls that a generation, and I want to invest my life into the next one.
I’m reminded of the way Elijah passed on his mantle to Elisha: “So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with 12 yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the 12th pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him” (1 Kings 19:19).
Not long ago, I gave Burns’ books to a young man who has a love for God’s Word and feels called to be a pastor. The best way I can pay it backward—and forward—is to pass on my mantle of ministry to the next generation.