February 26, 2019

The Man with the Heart of Gold

“He was like a brother to me.” 

Those were the words I heard from a man the other day, reflecting on the life of Burt Powell, who had gone to heaven earlier that day. I’ve heard more than one man say, “He is like a father to me.” And of Elaine, Burt’s wife, “She’s like a second mom to me.” 

How can you measure the impact of the life of a man so well-lived? Often it’s in the number of people he impacted. Burt Powell chose to influence others one life at a time, often in a jail or prison.

I first met Burt over 30 years ago, when he came on staff at our church. My first impressions of Burt were his infectious smile, his distinct handshake, his unbridled enthusiasm for serving Jesus, and his unquenchable love for people. Burt often talked about the time, as an adult, he invited Jesus into his life. It changed him forever.

Here are four memories I have of Burt.

  1. Jail Ministry. You could not talk to Burt more than a few minutes without finding what his passion in life was: to serve the incarcerated. One of Burt’s favorite phrases was, “I’m going to jail.” Or, “I just got out of jail.” Then he would smile. There was not a person in jail or prison that Burt did not love or extend grace to. Burt would have spent every single day at a prison or jail if he could have. He retired from jail ministry only when his health no longer permitted him to go. 
  2. Kind-hearted and compassionate. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who had more compassion for people than Burt. He didn’t just say it; he lived it. Every. Single. Day. Burt would “give the shirt off his back” if he felt someone needed it. Literally. If someone recently released from jail or prison had no place to say, Burt and Elaine would take him in. Sometimes I questioned their judgment. They did it anyway. (I wish I were so compassionate that people questioned my judgment.) If someone needed money, Burt would give it to him. But most importantly, Burt just wanted to point everyone he met to Jesus, so they could experience His love, grace, and transformational power.
  3. Burt and Elaine. It’s hard to say the word “Burt” without adding the words, “…and Elaine.” Burt and Elaine. We used to joke that Sesame Street had Bert and Ernie, and we had Burt and Elaine. Elaine was quietly there, by Burt’s side, loving people and serving Jesus.
  4. WWBD? More than once, when I was struggling to show compassion to someone, or to give someone the benefit of the doubt a second, or third, or tenth time, I would ask myself, “WWBD?” What would Burt do? 

Burt, you were like a father to many. Like a brother to some. To me, you were a role model. A life well-lived with an unquenchable love for Jesus and people. 

I can only imagine what you are experiencing right now, but I’m guessing you’ve already heard the words you so longed to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Whatever it takes (because Burt taught me what that phrase truly means),