John Ellsworth Mack
1912 - 2003
A few years ago I overheard a telling comment about my father. We were at a family reunion and apparently Dad had just made some playfully outrageous remark—the kind that people had come to expect from him—and then wondered away, no doubt pleased with himself and whatever effect he may have had on his listeners. Predictably, there was an effect: giggles, feigned shock, and then: “Can you believe he’s a reverend?”
John Mack was a bit of a ham-actor and the role he played was always pretty much the same. He was the bad-boy. Not the really really bad boy—more like the “sorta bad boy.” The naughty rascal who knew the rules but liked to break them just to remind you he could. When I was a kid, for example, he would lay in wait in the kitchen while I built myself an elaborate sandwich. Then, as soon as I was done, he would snatch a bite out of its center just to enjoy watching me get angry. He had a prankish, mischievous sense of humor. It was the image of himself he most delighted in.
Most of his stunts were pretty tame—but some were good enough to brag about: Like the time, as a young bible college student, he caught wind of a swimming party being planned for some of the church girls and decided to help out by stocking the pool with fish from Echo park lake. Dad loved to watch you—watch him—cross the line.
I doubt that he ever seriously raised the eyebrows of anybody worth worrying about; but if someone was inclined to give such behavior a concerned second thought, it might be because they detected a certain edge to his humor. In fact, sometimes he could be feisty or unruly without any desire to make you laugh. Truth told, people frequently judged him to be “less-then-cooperative.” Some found him to be downright stubborn and willful; an inveterate contrarian. And perhaps they were right: my father was simply unable to do what he was told—he had, as they say, “a problem with authority.”
“Can you believe he’s a reverend?”
To ask the question is to acknowledge that John Mack seemed in every way a paradox. Indeed, he was a most irreverent reverend. He defied the expectations of those who confuse piety with timidity and cowardice, and, consciously or not, repudiated the notion that allegiance to the moral law of the universe could be gauged by one’s willingness to solemnly obey the rules of “polite society.”
But, make no mistake, he was every bit the reverend. Upon graduating from Bible College in 1931 he began a ministry that would occupy his energies for the remaining 72 years of his life. He studied the bible daily, read voraciously on all matters of Christian spirituality, and wrote voluminously—of doctrine, of his evangelistic experiences, of church history, and of his faith and his hope. My father’s commitment was the central obsession of his life. I have no doubt that, in one way or another, it informed his every waking moment.
How, then, do we explain how such apparently contradictory impulses lived comfortably beside each other within a single heart—how one man could be animated by both a divine calling and a prankster’s instinct for rebellion?
I suppose we might try to explain it by his childhood: As the “baby” in a busy family of seven, it’s not difficult to imagine that he learned quite early that being precocious was an effective way to milk the adoration of doting older sisters. Nor is it difficult to imagine that the attentions of four older siblings and two loving but rather authoritarian parents felt like tyranny; in such a home, I'm sure he figured out that if he was going to develop an identity of his own he would need to learn the art of resistance. And of course, what loving and devoted son who eagerly attends Bible College with his mother could fail to model his own spiritual life after her example?
But these explanations are, I think, more accurate than true. They may offer crude hints at the psychological forces that shaped his personality—but they say nothing of the public and moral purposes that those forces were made to serve. To better understand how personality and purpose came together in my father’s life, I would rather turn to what I know is a fairly odd choice of allegory: Hogan’s Heroes.
In 1965, CBS television began airing a comedy about a band of Allied POWs in a German prison camp during World War II. They were led by a rakish and irreverent colonel named Hogan. But these prisoners were hardly prisoners at all; rather, they operated an active espionage unit within enemy territory. They traveled at will through an elaborate network of tunnels beneath the barracks, conducting raids behind enemy lines, gathering intelligence and sabotaging German military assets. But on a deeper level, what made Hogan truly subversive was his humor. Hogan and his men mocked the guards who were stupid enough to believe they really held the heroes captive. Hogan played to the Nazi ego; and by making a farce of their authority, he penetrated the evil and illegitimate regime they represented to reveal it’s buffoonish core. We, the audience, knew what the Nazi’s did not: that Hogan was already essentially free, but chose to live in a prisoner’s world in order to fight for the freedom of others. And the real weapons of that struggle were the mischievous antics and irreverence by which he stripped dignity from the most satanic state in history.
My father saw every episode of Hogan’s Heroes—several times. I know because during the summer months, when he and I were on break from school and the program was in daytime syndication, I watched it with him. He laughed at the same scenes over and over again. We never talked about it, but I suspect he saw the show as a metaphor for both the cosmic struggle he was a part of and, more importantly, his own unique approach to fighting it. I believe he saw himself as a free man who lived in a world governed by pretenders—illegitimate authorities he was permitted, even obligated to resist. He was a kind of Hogan. Indeed, he was more Hogan than the pitiable actor who played him on television.
Struggle was simply what my father did. It was both his personality and the imperative of his cause. Of course, it was also pure instinct, a habit honed over ninety-one years of practice. Sometimes—especially late in life—he would struggle against nothing more evil than his loving family as they attempted to care for him. Ask him once too often to take his pills and, likely as not, he’d flick them on the floor. Try to coax him into eating when he didn’t want to and he might just hide the food in his nightstand drawer. Unreasonable, perhaps, like the aging prize-fighter who wakes mid-sleep swinging at shadows. But even here, I believe, there was something unmistakably noble: the struggle against dependency is the fight for freedom, the hope of life.
More typically, though, his struggle was for something far larger than himself, the hope and freedom of others. Dad waged that struggle every day of his adult life: As missionaries to Alaska during the depression, he and my mother braved unforgiving weather and economic privation to make a home for Eskimo orphans; during the Forties and early Fifties, he worked for little or no pay as he traveled with a succession of evangelists, editing their publications and sometimes ghostwriting their sermons; and then, for the remaining twenty-five years of his professional life, he was a teacher at Christian schools and a vice principle of one. In none of those roles did he seek limelight or praise. He was utterly indifferent to material reward. I don't think he ever saw himself as a general—at most, perhaps, a colonel. But through the course of that struggle he managed to touch many lives. Many of those good people are here today.
John Mack was a deep believer in the doctrine of grace; he did not believe that individual women and men could rightly take credit for good works divinely enabled. And so, he would be a little uncomfortable with my words now. So be it. I am here today to honor my father. In so doing, however, I can do no more than point out the ways he brought honor to himself.
I think that what distinguishes the truly noble man is the depth of his commitment to a life-affirming cause he feels as something larger than himself. In this sanctuary that cause is called by many names. The name I prefer is LOVE. All who knew my father intimately, knew that his was a large and earnestly throbbing heart. He loved to the point of pain. And because he did, it was not uncommon for us to regard it as a heart that was perhaps a little too tender. A weak and delicate organ that required watchful care and protection.
But that heart beat for ninety-one years! Its weakness was its strength. My father had the moral imagination to know that love was not a private condition but a bridge to others--that striving within that compels us to reach beyond ourselves to embrace and lift up our fellows. Its exquisite tenderness was the measure of his commitment.
It was also the motive force of his struggle. And if he was recalcitrant at times, or willful, or mischievously subversive, it was because he did not know how to compromise with love—or believe that he should. And so he never did.
To the end, he lived tenaciously, loved totally, and struggled magnificently.