Yesterday I learned that a man had died.
He was L. John Buyse, and he is in heaven now, in a beautiful place, face to face with his Jesus. Next week I am teaching on Philippians 1:12-30, and the theme of the lesson is: "To live is Christ and to die is gain," (vs. 21). Up until today, I've been thinking about "To live is Christ," and the brokenness that demands, that we be broken for others the way He was broken for us. But today I see the sunshine and the glorious autumn leaves and the clear blue sky, and I think, "To die is gain," and I think of L. John and I know that it is true.
He was such a significant part of my formative years. My family belonged to First Baptist Church of Anoka, Minnesota. Mr. Buyse was the song leader there. He was always the song leader, since before I was born until some time after Shawn and I had moved to New York. In my heart and in my mind, he is the prototype, the epitome, the pattern that all song leaders should follow.
As a small child, I did not realize that he was singing when he led the songs. I think I even asked my parents once, "Why doesn't Mr. Buyse sing when he is leading the songs?" He was utterly unselfconscious. Nobody had to remind him, "You are not the focus of the attention; it is about getting the congregation to sing to the Lord." He just simply focused the congregation on singing to the Lord, never imagining that there was another way to do it. His voice was loud and strong, and when he sang, it sounded almost exactly the way it sounded when he spoke. He was never sharp or flat, and he was definitely a leader. He had no need to tell people he was a leader, he just led, and people followed him, in the music and in other areas of life.
Pastors came and went, but Mr. Buyse was always there. "Stand with me and sing hymn number..." I can still hear him saying it. Sometimes on a Sunday evening he would have a hymn sing and let the people in the congregation call out the number of the hymns they would like to sing. Those were glorious evenings. We knew the songs and we sang them because we loved them, and we loved the Lord, and we loved each other. We knew who would ask for which hymn, and we were happy when they did.
Mr. Buyse led the choir, too. He was good at it. Somehow he was always prepared, knew his music, and he cued us when our parts came in. I did not realize that this was a rare thing. I thought it was just the way every church choir director would do it. I'm not sure who organized the music in our folders, but it was always there, always right. The things you take for granted when you are a kid... the things you don't realize must happen behind the scenes. We rushed out of Sunday School, down to the choir area where our robes were hung by size--short on the left and long on the right, or maybe the other way around--and we put them on, turquoise blue with a gold edge on the collar piece (we turned those collars over to pure gold for the Christmas cantatas). We warmed up and then filed up the back stairs and into the choir loft where we opened the service with a hymn of gathering in four part harmony.
It was such a beautiful church: solid, quality, big windows all around and stained glass in the back of the sanctuary. There was a little library at the end of that back hall, where I could check out books and read biographies of missionaries to foreign lands and stories of God's faithfulness to persecuted Christians around the world. There was a special, holy-looking little room set apart for the preparation of communion. And the nursery. I remember spending many an hour in the nursery, rocking the church babies and giving them their bottles.
Mr. Buyse and his wife, Marge, were responsible, I think, for the beauty of the church. I think they had a major hand in designing and building it. Mrs. Buyse's father had been the pastor of the church in former years, before his retirement, so she knew all about what a pastor needs in a church facility.
But it wasn't just the building. It was the people. That was a church that functioned like a church. There was a love that went beyond affection that spread among and between those church members. People accepted each other in spite of their imperfections, put up with each other kindly when they didn't really like each other all the time, validated each other's strengths when they didn't share them (and that is unusual, let me tell you). There was forgiveness at First Baptist. It was a forgiveness that demanded repentance, not a, "It doesn't matter how you live, we love you anyway," but a, "We love you and we will welcome you back with open arms and help you in your struggle." There is a fine line of difference there, and it can make people who want their sins validated feel angry, but I think it is the right way to be.
There were the Buyses and the Looks (Mrs. Buyse's original family). There were Wesps, Wicklunds, Hamiltons, Shepherds, Knutsons, Tices, Swansons, Starbucks, Hanks, and who could forget the Christophersons? And then extended families branched off from all of them. Oh, and the Askrens. Pastor Askren was the pastor during what was possibly the golden age of First Baptist. A number of his kids married into the church and stayed around. When I was little, I thought things through and told my mom, "If it had been Mrs. Askren in the garden of Eden instead of Eve, we'd all be in better shape at this point."
It was really, really a church that felt like family. So many of the women taught Sunday school and VBS and worked with the youth group, in the end you felt like you had about seven different moms. We had Easter breakfasts and Harvest dinners and various potlucks in between, and everything went smoothly and the kitchen was beautiful, and there were plenty of sturdy tables and chairs, and we kids would get hopped up on red juice and go running and sliding on the long expanses of waxed tile floor, marking it up so somebody would have to come along and polish it after we were done. All the dads looked like my dad, just under 6 feet tall with a dark suit and a bald spot. More than once I came up behind the wrong guy and grasped his hand. And then there was laughter, because it was a loving place.
Pastors came and went, but Mr. Buyse was always there, leading, organizing, smiling, laughing, singing (and quietly underwriting, but we really weren't supposed to know about that). He was tall and distinguished, and Marge was tall, distinguished and elegant. Even though the main chunk of my conscious history with them was during the 70's, I never saw either of them wear anything that wasn't classic and in perfect taste. Which is really saying something, when you consider the 70's. I had no idea that they were wealthy until much later in life, because they just weren't about that. They dressed beautifully, but not flamboyantly. Everything was restrained and simply right. (It wasn't until I had moved away and then come back for a visit that I realized I felt shabby next to them in my J.C. Penney basics, accessorized with WalMart.)
Marge was my teacher. I don't clearly remember when she taught us. She taught VBS and youth group, and all manner of things, usually in the fireside room, which was a beautiful room with soft carpet and a fireplace and huge picture windows overlooking the woods. I took all this for granted. The Buyses were always tuned in to opportunities to teach. There was one point where they decided the kids my age (they had a son a year older) needed some more teaching. I don't remember if it was Sunday nights, or what, but John and Marge set up a class together and taught us about the Bible and creationism and timelines (I can't remember everything, but it was very interesting). This was in a partitioned off part of the fellowship hall downstairs, and thinking back, trying to remember, I can't imagine what they were doing without L. John upstairs.
Since those days, I have been a part of many Bible studies, first as an attendee and more recently as a teacher myself. Even before I was allowed to teach, things would come out of my mouth, things about God, His character, His grace, the beauty of His law. In discussion, these things would just come out, and people would look at me and say, "How do you know that??" And I sincerely think that much of it was planted there by Marge Buyse, sometimes in a formal teaching session, sometimes in a less formal discussion. She really poured herself into us, and I have been meaning to write her a letter and thank her, for years. But somehow I never seem to have her address, or the words to adequately express my thanks (or maybe the wisdom to know how to edit the many words that clog up inside me wanting to pour out), and I just get overwhelmed and go make dinner instead or something silly like that.
The end of L. John Buyse's mortal life is, as Shawn says, "the signal of the passing of an era." I am profoundly sad, not for John, as he stands in glory, but for us, as we have lost a man who truly loved the Lord, and led strong for the kingdom. In these days of flashing lights and smoke, pounding drums and ramped up electronics, how I long to hear John's clear voice finish a hymn and launch into a gut-wrenchingly authentic chorus of, "He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead and He is Lord. Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord."
May God bless the next generation and raise up those who respect and honor those who have gone before us in the faith. We are losing them now. And it is indeed a loss.