I got word today that my youth pastor — the one who has my same middle name, who baptized me, who was the first to inspire me with the power of a good sermon, who allowed me to drive his red convertible to my junior prom, who encouraged me to ask out the new girl in youth group who eventually became my step-sister, who first introduced me to Christian music (Prism), who prophetically told my father: “Kevin’s biggest problem in life is that he won’t be able to say ‘no'” (a truth that has characterized me to this day), who got me my first job in a church (working the printing press), who joked about seeing Jesus at the end of his life only to find out his name is pronounced “Jesús” [hay-soos], and who directly challenged me in my struggles and attitude growing up in a broken home — passed away yesterday. This is my tribute to Rex Brown.
Tributes are for the living, not for the dead. We pay tribute because we have been beneficiaries of someone’s life, love, work, or influence. We pay tribute, because we feel indebted. This is true for me, when I think of Rex.
All of us have “sliding door” moments and people in our lives, those circumstances and relationships that, if the stars had aligned differently, one’s life would be radically altered from the current path. Rex Brown was that “sliding door” for me, as I know he was for many.
Right as my struggles with a broken home were beginning to dampen my spirit, and my insecurities and loneliness were depressing any sense of hope I may have had in my life, Rex, and the youth group at First Christian Church provided for me a family experience, a truly meaningful connection with care and love that I did not have growing up. I am confident that my path in life would look much different had he not spoken into my life about God’s love, personal responsibility, the joy of being good, and the fun that can be had, even with stuffy-Christian-churchy folk. (We had a co-pastor at our church named Dick Osness, a beloved man. Rex thought it funny to say, “You better Dick Osness before he dicks you.”)
Rex was also a prankster. (He used to carry his daughter around when she was just a baby, ask an unsuspecting person if they would like to hold her, and then act as if he was dropping the baby right in front of the person just shy of their reach, and swing her between his legs upside-down. I remember our senior pastor, after being victimized by this prank, clutched his chest as if he was having a heart attack.)
Rex was irreverent and inappropriate. (I heard him say on more than one occasion that he “liked his coffee like he liked his women; hot and black.”)
Rex was witty. (He introduced a sermon on “faithfulness” by saying, “Your dog is old, and he’s ugly, but boy is he faithful. Your car is old, and it’s ugly, but boy is it faithful. Your mother-in-law…”)
And Rex was a fantastic story teller and communicator. As mentioned above, I learned the power of a good sermon by sitting under Rex’s teaching, and watching him, the congregation, and the dynamics that exist between speaker and audience.
Unfortunately, our time spent together was very short. Rex left the church, right after my senior year which means I only spent only about 2-3 years under his leadership. Yet that was enough. Enough time to set the foundation in my soul for healing, in my mind for my faith, and in my life for my career path. It reminds me, yet again, how powerful one’s life can be in such a short period of time. And so I think of Rex fondly, with gratitude, with a true sense of personal and spiritual indebtedness.
How serendipitous and astounding it is, that today, of all days, I ran into a “kid” who was in my youth group 8 years ago. We hugged, and shared briefly life’s developments. His life has been full of complex dysfunctions, and challenges, the kind from which I wish I could save all children. And, in our 3-4 minute conversation, he told me how much my influence had shaped his life, and in many ways saved it. I remembered our camps that we took together, the “man conversations” that we had, and the love that I attempted to convey in my relationship with him. I was moved by how he remembered our time together, how he said “thank you,” and how he feels a, shall I say, strangely familiar sense of appreciation, like, the kind of appreciation I feel for Rex at this moment.
That happened today. The day after my youth pastor passes away.
And so I mention that story here, because that “kid” in my youth group is also a beneficiary of Rex’s life, work, and ministry. Someone that Rex never met, and never would have known.
And so it continues.
There’s a saying in youth ministry, that you do a lot of “seed planting,” that it takes years to see how and when those seeds will sprout, and what kind of growth and fruit will come. I often thought this saying meant that you have to just remind yourself that you’re doing good work, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, even when you feel like you’re making zero difference in a person’s life. I now also see that saying as a way of describing the ongoing legacy of ministry, the dominos, how ministry is by nature “fruitful and multiplying,” of how one soul touches another, touching another, of seeds begetting more seeds. Today was an example of that.
Today, therefore, was my serendipitous tribute.