Ode to John Bunting

It’s Yom Kippur — the final Day of Atonement in the autumn Feast of Tabernacles.

My heart is warmed, yet saddened today as I reflect on the not-too-distant past when I would be either traveling to or from my annual visit to Louisville for that blessed ‘Reunion’ at this time of year.

Of course my thoughts immediately drift to my recently departed friend and brother John Bunting who first invited me to that blessed event, hosted by he and his wife Linda, along with Wade and Harriet Wearren, after a ‘chance’ meeting with him in 2005.

But that was not our first meeting.

I recall facing John across the volleyball court at Hixton back in the late 70’s. Loud and boisterous are the dim impressions that remain of John from that encounter, but then, it was a volleyball game. Somehow I failed to make any impression on him, as he had no memory of that event.

Sharon and I had shown up unannounced and unregistered for ‘Norman Week’ at Dan Stone’s invitation. “Oh, just come”, he said. Bill Volkman was not impressed, but he seemed to come around as the week progressed. In fact, by week’s end he was inviting us to stay at his motel in Glen Ellyn on our two-day trip home and visit the Union Life offices — an honour I had sought not. I can’t begin to tell you how dismayed I was to discover that that glorious life-line of a magazine, which meant so much to me at the time, after having assumed that such glorious truth must issue forth from a glass tower somewhere in Chicago, was actually produced in a corner of the basement of the motel annex! Okay, I was a shallow, idealistic youth, not much acquainted yet with how the world actually works, but it took me some time to get over that.

We spent our first night at Hixton on the floor in the laundry room. Then Bill Mortham took pity on us and put us up in his motorhome. I can no longer recall where Bill and his displaced Doberman slept. But as Abraham discovered long ago, it helps to travel with a beautiful young wife. (No, I didn’t pretend she was my sister.)

Anyway, that was a different John back then — Dr. John Bunting. He was a part of what we came to think of as the ‘Country Club’ segment of Union Life. We were more at the ‘Hippy’ end of the spectrum, with the likes of Fred and Jan Pruitt. We were also over a decade younger than that crowd, just ‘kids’ in our mid- twenties — a gap which made a bigger difference at that age. But Norman had a way of bringing us all together in our mutual quest to fully experience that liberating secret and Bill Volkman, bless his heart, provided the venue.

However, that was not the John Bunting I met in Glen Ellyn in 2005. In that blessed convergence I met John 2.0 — the post-Africa John — gentle John — after God had done a mighty work in his heart. It was like the difference between Jacob before Peniel and after. At that time he was in servant mode, just driving Dan around the country on his ‘farewell tour’. Dan had invited Sharon and I to Kentucky on March Break to visit him as he wanted to “see Sharon again before he died”. (I had been with Dan at many weekend retreats on my own over the years, but Sharon could not take the travel time off from her teaching position during the school year.)

Unfortunately, Dan’s mind was slipping in and out of gear by that time and we learned just before our departure that he had also arranged for John to drive him to Glen Ellyn that week to pay his respects to Bill Volkman. So instead of spending March Break in the relative warmth of Kentucky, we decided to rendezvous with him in freezing Glen Ellyn. The up side of that plan was that we would get to see Bill and Marge Volkman and Jan Ord, who we hadn’t been with in several years, as well.

We stayed with the ever-gracious Jan, and the following morning John and Dan came over for what turned out to be a life-altering visit in Jan’s cozy living room. My first impression of John 2.0 was what a gentleman he was. I don’t know what I was expecting, but his graciousness and humility took me by surprise. For some reason John seemed to take a liking to me as well and invited me to Ed Lassiter’s men’s retreat the following June in California. Well, I happened to like California and having recently ‘retired’, I asked the Lord about it. His reply was, “You got anything better going on?”

Sadly, that was the last time Sharon and I saw Dan.

However, just a few months later, I had a front row seat to the ‘John & Eddie Show’, as I got swept up in preparations for Ed’s retreat. That was worth the trip to California in itself. There, further blessings abounded, as I got to know Fred Pruitt, David Heisler, Skip Smith and others. But the best was yet to come.

One fine morning that September I donned my helmet and set out on a ‘bucket list’ adventure — a motorcycle ride down the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee. But instead of heading back up the parkway for the return run as originally planned, I turned west and headed across the blue grass state of Kentucky for the annual Louisville Love-in, hosted by the Buntings and Wearrens. Failing to factor in the 35mph speed limit on the 550 miles of the Blue Ridge, I managed to arrive a day late for the reunion, but was enveloped by such love and warmth on my arrival that I returned every year for another six years, culminating in that  glorious ‘final’ gathering in 2011. Through those years, I met too many precious souls, brothers and sisters all, to begin to mention by name. But I have John (and Linda, Wade and Harriet) to thank for all those who have so deeply enriched my life — whose dear faces I still see clearly as I sit here and reminisce.

There were a few smaller men’s gatherings (run by women) in the years following that, for which our precious Dee Dee Winter inexplicably started showing up (oh yes, to help out) but each year, right from the beginning, John always called me personally, in his smooth, persuasive southern drawl, to make sure I was coming. How could I resist? It was ‘doctor’s orders’. Well, it didn’t take much persuading.

One of my favourite memories from the early years was a personal tour of Louisville with John and Ed in John’s big ol’ pickup truck — visiting their childhood homes, schools and stomping grounds. They never let up on each other the whole time. And the annual hanging of the lights in the tent (under Ed’s ‘supervision’) was always a chaotic and hilarious procedure — no matter how many times we did it.

I think one of the things that impressed me most about John, apart from his good-naturedness, was the fact that, in spite of having much to impart, he never had a ‘lust to preach’. He was content to hang back and let others do the talking. In fact, he encouraged others to do the talking — including me. Being somewhat of a recluse, I am much more comfortable writing than speaking. But he gently pushed me on several occasions to share my heart with the group, and each time I came away edified myself. So I thank him for that as well.

John, perhaps above all, was an encourager. I always felt elevated and encouraged in his presence. He always made me feel special — and that is a special trait in itself.

Call me sentimental, but on my answering machine I have a message from John that has been there since my last visit to the Bunting home almost three years ago. It was in response to a note that I had left him before my departure after I realized he had driven Paul A-W to the airport in Columbus rather than the Louisville airport, as I had assumed, and would not be returning until mid-afternoon. That was John — no errand too long, no favour too big. So, in a strange turn of events, I found myself in an empty house with only my thoughts and no one to share them with, so decided to get a head start on the long journey home. Thus I was forced to say my final farewell to John in a note, left beside his big ol’ chair in the corner by the window. I pensively packed the car, said a blessing over that already-blessed home that Norman used to claim “had been torn up for Jesus”, and quietly slipped out the drive for the last time.

I was out when John called a few days later, but his message, in that beautiful, warm southern drawl, was so filled with love, appreciation and encouragement that I have not been able to bring myself to delete it. And I suppose that in itself is testament to the power of the love of God expressed through a man called John.

John had many fine attributes — his kindness, his generosity, his sense of humour. Despite many doubts that assailed him, as they do us all, and a bit of seasonal depression that we both shared over the long, dark winter months, he was essentially good natured. But above all, I will remember him as an encourager. He made me want to be all that I had been called to be. What a fine calling!

John shared with me more than once the almost daily struggle he had with doubt over the ongoing consequences of his call to Africa and the giving up of his practice to go. Of course that was just the ‘accuser of the brethren’ trying to eat his lunch. As Fred Pruitt was fond of saying, “He’s got nothing else to do.”

I know that courageous act cost John and Linda a lot. But had John not laid so costly a sacrifice at the feet of the Saviour, he may have never become John 2.0 — and our rendezvous in Glen Ellyn would probably never have taken place. Through his ‘poverty’ I — and many others — have become rich. That’s a pretty high calling, and I am greatly indebted.

I miss you deeply buddy, but am so grateful to have had you in my life — and for that ‘chance’ meeting in Glen Ellyn all those years ago. How blessed I am and what a difference it has made.Thank you, John. Thank you, Jesus — for sending to me the Holy Spirit in John form.