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As many of us are aware, it is twenty years ago right now that the first brilliant installment of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was released. In that first film, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” there is a scene in the Elf kingdom of Lothlorien not long after the Gray Wizard Gandalf had been killed by a Balrog in the mines of Moria. The Elves sing a lament for Gandalf but when one of the characters asks the Elf Legolas to translate the song, he says he cannot. “For me the grief is still too near.”
As the year 2021 ends this week, I am closing out the year with a tribute to my professor, mentor, and dear friend Wally Bratt. Wally died on Easter this past April, and although I delivered a graveside meditation in April at a private family service and a full length funeral sermon at his public memorial service in June, I have not written elsewhere about him. For me the grief was still too near. In some ways it still is but before this year is out, I wanted to put some things down in writing. As I acknowledged at both of the services for Wally, I do this in full recognition that he would have only discomfiture and even personal embarrassment over all this. Even so, here goes.
In September of 1982 I entered Calvin College as a freshman, taking a few placement tests as part of the course registration process. As I proceeded through the registration line, I was handed a card that said, “You did really well on your German placement test. You are encouraged to take German 218.” Here is an instance where God’s providence operated not through knowledge but ignorance, not through a wise decision but a foolish one. What the note card was conveying was that I had tested out of my foreign language requirement. What my eager-to-do-the-right-thing 18-year-old mind understood was that I was required to take German 218 and so I dutifully registered for the course. Had I understood the message correctly, I would have skipped taking German at Calvin. And I would never have met Wallace Bratt.
German 218 turned out to be my very first college class at 9am on a Monday morning with Prof. W. Bratt the instructor in this entry level German literature course. We read a Nazi-era novel titled Jugend Ohne Gott and a classic Northern German novel titled Der Schimmelreiter. Somehow as the semester unfolded, Prof. Bratt and I formed a bond. He soon encouraged me to act in a German language play he was directing for my first January Interim course and then I took yet another German course in Spring Semester.
When in March of my freshman year I felt a call to the ministry, Prof. Bratt was one of the first people I told. Immediately he encouraged me to become a German major because this would expose me to the wider world and to Christians who think differently than believers inside the American socio-cultural-religious bubble. It would make me a better pastor and preacher, he said. Within a year I traveled with him to Germany for the five-week German Interim Abroad and eventually I lived and worked in Germany for a summer at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in Wuppertal.
(Wally Bratt and I, West Berlin 1984 as Wally translated a poem painted onto the Berlin Wall)
Through it all, Wally and I became ever closer and by the time I started my first year at Calvin Theological Seminary, Wally and I maintained a weekly lunch on Wednesdays—he even put me on the calendar on his office door to make sure we never missed a lunch. Those conversations and hundreds more besides cemented what had now become a friendship. A few short years later I became Wally and Marianne’s pastor at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids. In that context across twelve years Wally helped me navigate choppy pastoral waters at times even as he was a constant source of encouragement in regard to my preaching ministry. At times I was not sure who was pastoring whom!
If you are lucky—that is to say, providentially blessed—a Wally Bratt crosses your path at some point. There is finally no way to describe the myriad ways Wally shaped me as a person, as a Christian, as a theologian, and most certainly as a pastor. He was right about how a German major expanded my horizons and made me more world-aware than I ever would have been otherwise. Even as a fish cannot describe the water in which it swims as its natural habitat, so I cannot describe how Wally contributed to my life: it is so pervasive as to be to me what water is to a fish. It’s where I live. It’s who I am.
One thing that became abundantly clear after he died suddenly in April is that there are hundreds if not thousands of Calvin students who can tell similar stories about how Wally’s investment in them changed their lives for the better. As my wife and I reflected on all of this last Spring, my wife said, “How does someone become like that? How does someone become so alive to other people?” We did not come up with an answer but that is because it surely is a charism of the Holy Spirit and is, just so, mysterious in its own way.
The last two years of the pandemic have dished up huge batches of loss for all of us and for people around the globe. But as 2021 closes, one of the losses I feel most keenly—if not the most keenly—is my friend Wally. The pandemic meant we had to suspend our regular breakfasts for just over a year leading up to Wally’s death. Having not seen him in person for so long only magnified my grief earlier this year.
It is trite and dangerously close to over-sentimentality to say “But he lives on in me.” But he does. His influence and what it wrought in me is the water in which I swim every day. I think of Wally often and miss him every time I do. But with genuine fervor I can also at those same moments be grateful to God that my registration misunderstanding in 1982 changed my life. God works that way sometimes. Thankfully.