In the Company of Great Men

By Scott Keith

Strasbourg Cathedral

Well, I’m back. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Portland, two weeks in Strasbourg France, and several days in the Yosemite Valley. Many aspects of this “time-off” are worthy of noting, but the most noteworthy is the fact that I was lucky enough to spend time in the company of great men. I often ponder the importance of spending time with men who are smarter and wiser than I am. I also feel that it is something that is devalued in our contemporary ideology. As I perceive the contemporary view concerning “learning from one’s elders,” what I hear is that those who are older are rarely better, mostly out of touch, and almost always in need of updated information. Yet I’m not sure this is the case.

Consider the case of Albert Matye. Albert was my great uncle, the brother of my grandfather, Walter. Albert died in 2009 at the age of 94. He was, in my estimation, a great man. Albert was not what many would have considered even a good man in his formative years. He was an alcoholic, and by his accounts a cad. He cleaned up in his fifties and it was from that point forward that I knew him as my Uncle Al. He lived in Moro Bay California, and we would make trips to his home every summer when I was a boy. I remember sitting at his feet listening to him talk, watching him work in his garden, and in his wood shop. As I grew older some of these times drifted away. I didn’t think I had much to learn from Uncle Al anymore. When I was in my late twenties, I moved our family to Northern Nevada, and it just happened that where we lived was now no more than 10 miles from Uncle Al’s new house in Minden. I would see him every holiday and birthday. He was the great grandpa that my kids never had, and he was the grandpa I hadn’t had in some 20 years. I learned not only about politics, religion, philosophy, and history from Uncle Al, I learned about life. His words and perspectives were not those of a scholar, they were those of a man who had lived hard and learned how to be a good man the hard way. I can’t imagine what a different man I would be today if I had continued to despise his counsel rather than embrace his wisdom.

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The most wonderful part of this past trip for me was the time I was blessed to spend with Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and Dr. James A. Nestingen, when we were all together at Dr. Nestingen’s home in Oregon. Dr. Rosenbladt was my mentor through my undergraduate years at Concordia University Irvine, and Dr. Nestingen was my doctoral thesis supervisor. But much more than that, these men are my friends, and I am lucky to have them. They are, in my estimation, great men.

From Dr. Rosenbladt I learned all things theological, philosophical, and at times, even political. But more than that, I learned that a man is gracious and kind, strong through his forgiveness not his muscles, and always puts his children first. In short, I learned much of what it means to be a good man and a good father. This is not to say or imply that I always live up to those lessons, but rather that because I have been in the company of this great man, I know where to look for love and forgiveness when I fail. He is my friend and a great man.

What I have learned from Dr. Nestingen is literally inestimable. He was not as much my theological teacher as he was my refiner. He took my sharp edges (and they were sharp!) and softened them with grace, graciousness, and the forgiveness won for us in Christ. He refined my understanding of the true importance of properly distinguishing the law from the gospel. He helped me understand that there is truly no power stronger than that of the preached gospel of Christ! He mentored me concerning marriage and what it means to be a kind a caring husband (this mentorship and more I still need). He is my friend and a great man.

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Spending time on the porch smoking and drinking with these two men learning from their conversations with one another was more than I am worthy of. We drank wonderful Akvavit, ate a blessed meal prepared by Carolyn Nestingen, and smoked tasty tobacco from beautiful pipes. Together we discussed my work and their influence on me. We reminisced in our mutual friendship and love for one another. And I listened closely as they discussed theology, theological movements and influences, personalities, mutual friendships and acquaintances, politics, the idea of friendship, and the freedom of the gospel. I learned from them, again, what true male friendship really looks like. I learned again about the company of great men.

Men need to learn from other men. Many of you may remember from my previous blog posts that I am a fan of the Robert Bly work, Iron John. Bly has much to say regarding the relationships that are necessary between men. I picked it up again today and ran across this passage which I underlined: “In ordinary life, a mentor can guide a young man through various disciplines, helping to bring him out of boyhood into manhood; and that in turn is associated not with body building, but with the building of an emotional body capable of containing more than one sort of ecstasy. We know, moreover, that such initiation does not take place at any one moment or only once.” (Bly, 233)

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These men are not great because they are any better or any worse than other sinners in this world. They are not. I think I know them well enough to say that they, like you and I, are the worst of sinners. They sin in thought, word, and deed! The blood of the Lamb redeems them, and that is what makes them great. What makes them great to me is that they were willing to share with me who they are in Christ. Not just once, but time and time again. Not at any one moment, but at every moment they had and have to spare. All men need to be in the company of great men. I hope you have some great men in your life. If you don’t, find some. If others around you don’t, consider trying to be a great man to them.

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