On this last day of 2009 I want to begin writing about the twelve individuals who have most shaped me into the person I am today. Of course God is the ultimate shaper of our lives, and I give him all the glory for whatever good he has accomplished in me and through me. But God works through circumstances, through our personal decisions, through his own sovereign activity in us, and through people.
I do not idolize these individuals, but I do respect them highly. Six—possibly seven—have died, and most of the twelve influenced/inspired/impacted me primarily in the earlier years of my life—up to my mid-forties. (One lesson to all of us from this latter point is to be eager to spend time with youth and young adults. They are sometimes highly influenced by experiences with and around us.)
I am writing this piece partly to honor these persons, but even more to encourage you and me to live our lives in such a way that we will have a lasting impact for good on others. With some of these I have spent a great amount of personal time, while with others I have had only brief encounters. But all of them, at significant times in my life, were used greatly by God, whether or not they ever realized this. Three are relatives, four have been my teachers, two are scholars (as well as teachers of others), one was a missionary-scholar, and two are current pastors of mine (one of whom was a longtime missionary).
My sketches will need to be brief, but I could write much more about each one, with numerous incidents and specifics. I could easily have compiled a “top twenty” or “top thirty” list. So many others, in addition to these, have helped make me who I am. Thank you sincerely—all of you, whether listed here or not—for who you are and how you have lived. It has been your person, passion and character, as well as your deeds, that God has used to inspire and shape me.
1. Arthur Rakestraw. My father. Quite rough around the edges. Strong convictions. John Wayne type. Left the last of his foster homes at age 14 and rode the rails out west until age 30. Loved the outdoors/natural world (“I love every blade of grass,” he told me on his deathbed), classical music, and God. Very honest and sincere. Came to Christ at age 50, after praying: “God, if only I had a simple faith.” A gruesome news account in the newspaper shocked him most into seeing his and this world’s need for God. Taught me by example to work hard (landscaping, tree work) from the age of nine or ten. The biggest single influence in my coming to Christ at age 19, by encouraging me to read the New Testament after I refused to read any of his “heretical” literature.
2. Brian Miller. My high school math teacher, and the reason why math was my favorite subject in high school. A Franciscan priest, he had very high standards and expected his students to work hard. When I was doing poorly in trigonometry, I worked long and hard for about three weeks to get up to speed. He noted my rather dramatic improvement and mentioned it to the class as an example for others. This academic experience impacted me greatly, and all of my life I have seen how the human will, through a period of concentrated, expectant hard work and practice, can master what seems impossible.
3. Ruth Dearing. My first Bible teacher in an academic setting. When I arrived as a new Christian at Prairie Bible College in Alberta, Canada, at the age of nineteen, I began my studies in Ruth Dearing’s Bible 101. She took the whole year, three days a week, to cover Genesis to Song of Solomon. She was not an innovative teacher (lectured to a room of 300 students) but was consistent, devout, a careful student of the Word, and very tough in her grading standards. It was this last factor in particular that God used to prompt me to return for my second year at Prairie (and thus to get to know the woman who would one day be my wife). After rigorous high school classes, followed by two years of pre-medical studies, I was turned off by the easy courses at Prairie. But because Ruth Dearing would be teaching another course the next year, I returned to Prairie. My four years as a student there became the most formational in my Christian life.
4. Judy Rakestraw. Formerly Judy Engevik. My beloved wife since 1967. More than any person I have ever met, Judy has been the single most influential person in my life. She is the most unselfish and consistently godly person I have known. A farm girl, the second oldest of eight children, she is a hard worker, very bright and a true Christ-follower. Still a relatively “young” (four-and-a-half years) Christian when we married, I basically learned how to live the Christian life daily by being around Judy. I wasn’t conscious of “observing” or “imitating” Judy, but as day after day, year after year, went by, I learned from Judy patience and kindness above all. Gratitude, contentment, adaptability, and sincere love for people are further qualities of this five-foot, red-headed, gently powerful woman.
5. L.E. Maxwell. Founder, President and long-time teacher at Prairie Bible College, Three Hills, Alberta, Canada. I sat under his teaching and regular Sunday preaching for four years as a student at Prairie, and after several years away for more education I served five years on the Prairie faculty, teaching Bible and preaching. Maxwell’s main contribution to my life and ministry, even though I barely knew him personally, was his animated, passionate, scripturally-based, piercing preaching and teaching. It was not simply that he was always robust and interesting in his delivery (both in the pulpit and the classroom), but more that his content was powerfully illustrated and applied. He was a master of the memorable quotation and the contemporary illustration—often from those he knew on the mission field—and drove home relentlessly his teachings on “death to self,” the “crucified life,” and the needs of a lost world. The sermons and lessons of L.E. Maxwell brought conviction to me, but also remarkable role-modeling for a lifetime of preaching.
6. Francis Steele. Missionary-Scholar. First-rate specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies. Highly respected among scholars in his field. Moved from academic to missionary service with the (formerly named) North Africa Mission. I came to know Dr. Steele while a student at Prairie, where he visited from time to time as a representative of the mission. He impressed me greatly with his calm, compassionate and informative presentation of the need in one of the toughest mission fields in the world. He did not plead, but urged students to consider service with NAM. His major impact on me came out of his blending of missionary zeal and high-level Semitic studies. I saw not only the great need in North Africa but also that mission and academics need not, and should not, conflict. All my life I have been struck by God’s high call to mission for every Christ-follower, and to keep the ends of the earth and the ends of my street continually in focus. One final point: When Dr. Steele was little, a relative accidentally gave him lye for medicine. This permanently damaged his vocal cords, but as a result he learned to speak Arabic perfectly, able to make the precise guttural sounds that are so difficult for Westerners to learn.
(In the next posting I will discuss the remaining six individuals.)