READ : Mark 4:26-28
God’s greatest miracles have always happened in the dark, the darkness of a sealed and guarded tomb on Easter morning, for example, or the darkness of physical or mental sickness, or the darkness of tragedy and loss.
This program is a tribute to the life and witness of David A. Brownson who struggled with severe mental illness. Yet his faith never died, and came to grow and shine ever more brightly.
A little over a year ago I did a special series of programs focusing on specific Christian virtues, culminating in the three great virtues of faith, hope and love. Each program featured a conversation with a Christian believer who, in my opinion, exemplified in some way the quality or virtue that was the theme for that particular day. When I came to the virtue of hope, I knew I wanted to ask David Brownson to join me on the program to talk about the meaning of Christian hope.
Dave Brownson was a long-time friend and supporter of Words of Hope. When I say “supporter,” I mean it in the most important and literal sense. He held us up daily with his prayers, and he called regularly with words of praise and encouragement. His dad, Dr. Bill Brownson, was Words of Hope’s president and broadcast minister for 22 years, and Dave himself worked in our office and studio for a time.
But what really made David Brownson an example of Christian hope was his growth in grace through the course of a difficult and painful life. For all of his adult life, Dave struggled with severe mental illness. Yet his faith never died, and indeed, eventually came to grow and shine ever more brightly. He was a great lover of people, and a wonderful cheerleader and encourager of others’ accomplishments. He was much used by the Lord in ministry to those who like him suffered from mental or emotional illnesses. He was thankful for his life despite the losses and disappointments he endured, and he was filled with hope for the future.
When I think about Dave Brownson’s life and faith, I’m reminded of a story Jesus once told. It’s one of his lesser-known and more obscure parables, but its message is a powerful one. It’s found in Mark chapter 4, verses 26-28, the “Parable of the Growing Seed,” as it’s sometimes called:
The kingdom of God (said Jesus) is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.
What Jesus is really talking about here is the kingdom of God, and specifically, how the kingdom grows in the world. Or to put it differently: How does Christian mission advance? How do churches grow? How do people become believers? How do Christians make progress in the Jesus-life and become more Christ-like followers of him, grow in faith, hope and love?
The answer, suggests Jesus in this parable, is that it happens mysteriously, often secretly. The farmer plants the seed the seed of faith, the seed of the Word and then it sprouts and grows night and day “he does not know how.” The earth, Jesus says, produces of itself. What he really means is that God gives the growth, not us. And God does so no matter what the outward circumstances or conditions. In fact, sometimes the greatest growth takes place in the most unpromising conditions.
God’s greatest miracles have always happened in the dark, the darkness of a sealed and guarded tomb on Easter morning, for example, or the darkness of physical or mental sickness, or the darkness of tragedy and loss. Out of the darkness of David Brownson’s suffering grew a life of faith in the grace and love of God and a clear and powerful witness to the light of hope that is grounded in the Lord Jesus Christ.
One winter evening recently Dave Brownson had supper with his folks whom he loved so deeply and then went to a basketball game with his dad. At halftime, he said he was feeling tired and that he thought he’d go home early. He left the stadium and suffered a massive heart attack, dying instantly. He did go home that evening, to a deeper, richer and far more wonderful home than any of us have at present.
As I sat at Dave’s funeral a few days later, I was deeply moved by the testimonies to his hope and his faith and his love by his family members. I especially found great hope in the witness of his father Bill. I want to share with you now the words our dear friend and colleague Dr. Bill Brownson spoke at his son Dave’s funeral. They are a fitting tribute to Dave’s life and witness, and even more, to the goodness and grace of his, and our, Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:
I’m thinking now of two great joys about David’s life and two great sorrows. The first sorrow was in a junior high experience that David had when two bullies after school beat him up. He couldn’t imagine why. He asked them. They said, “It’s because your brother is a mental and we hate him.” David was crushed. He came home screaming, beat his head on the pillow, full of anguish said, “I can’t believe in any God that would let that happen to my brother.”
He went through a difficult period of groping, distancing himself from the family and the faith until two weeks before he was to go away to college. He went to a Bible conference with us and someone gave him a tape about Christianity and the eastern religions. And he realized that the things that he’d been dabbling in had been taking him away from his family and his loved ones. He wanted to come back home, and here was the great joy he became a believer in Christ. And his life was changed, and he went to the University of Michigan as a follower of Jesus.
The second great sorrow came five years later when his brother Billy died. David went into a psychotic collapse soon after that. Therapy revealed that he somehow had felt responsible for Billy’s affliction all those years. In their childhood scuffle (he was five and a half and Billy was seven) David feared that his pushing him off the bed and Billy bumping his head was what caused the awful losses of encephalitis. And he sort of buried that inside, and it all erupted when David learned about his brother’s death. And there was a long period, maybe a dozen years, one hospitalization after another, sieges of incredible suffering and inner torment. We got to the place where we would have been happy if Dave could have one day free from that inner misery.
Then began, about 1990, the second great joy. A long, slow road to recovery and becoming involved in the group of others like himself who had gone through mental illness that’s now called “Dynamics in Living.” David discovered a wonderful outlet for his ministry there. He longed to be able to minister. He longed to be able to serve, and this began to be a way.
As time went on in a most unpredictable, unimaginable way all of this suffering, all of this brokenness, all of these losses and disappointments, instead of making him bitter and causing him to withdraw made him this marvelous person who reached out to others with such love and encouragement. He was so deeply grateful for everything done for him. He cherished relationships and became a Jesus-like person and I ask myself, as Jon [his brother] did, how that could happen. Well, it happened in part by friends like you who are here. It happened in part by family who loved him and supported him. But that doesn’t go the whole way.
It happened because out of his brokenness when he felt so condemned and haunted by fears that he would be destroyed, when afresh the wonderful good news of the gospel dawned that he was greatly loved, that Jesus died for him, that nothing would ever separate him from God’s love. As that sank into his heart and blossomed forth in his life, he became the beautiful person that you folks here know him to be. So we say thanks to God, thank you, Jesus, for making him the person he was. And thank you, each one here, for the way your presence expresses what Dave meant to you. All glory to God, to the Lamb that was slain, for the person Dave became. Amen.