sacred mentors

Phil Barrineau offered this reflection to the spring newcomers’s class at St. Andrew’s. I wanted to share it beyond that class since it speaks so beautifully of how we encounter mentors and companions in church. Enjoy…and thanks to Phil!

Scientist with Weathered Hands, by the Rev. Phil Barrineau

Someone has observed that while some people make the village their world, others make the world their village. Dr. Glen Burton spent his entire professional life doing the latter. Armed with a doctorate in Agronomy from Rutgers University, Dr. Burton found himself in the small South Georgia town where the University of Georgia had built the Coastal Plain Experiment Station. Thanks largely to Dr. Burton’s contribution, it would become one of the most prominent turf grass laboratories and research facilities in the country, a distinction it still holds today.

But Glen Burton’s story is more profound still.   This soft-spoken scientist devoted his career to the development of millet and other grains that would grow successfully in Third World countries. He did this not so much because he wanted the distinction he would later achieve, but because he had taken seriously the mandate of Jesus to feed a hungry world. Dr. Burton had read the story of the impetuous disciple Peter, of course, whom Jesus told three times “if you love me, feed my sheep.”   “Less talk, more action,” is what the words meant, and I believe that Glen Burton got it. Children in desperately impoverished countries eat a little better today because of the work that this American agronomist did. Hungry stomachs may know one fewer hunger pang today because Dr. Burton figured out what God had called him to do with his hands and his talents. And he simply did it, demonstrating as clearly as it needs to be demonstrated the difference between being a believer and a follower.

He stood tall as a hero during my youth and stands tall still today. He watched me grow up in the Methodist Church. Well into his nineties, as long as his health permitted, he was in his regular pew on Sunday mornings, third row from the front, piano side. He also was at work in his laboratory still for a few hours each week. He napped in the middle of the day on a cot they provide for him, but he worked still. For Glen Burton, worship and work were inseparable. Neither was optional for him, as long as his physical body allowed.

There were many nice surprises along the way; one of them significantly affected me personally.   In my junior year of high school, finally old enough to join the adult choir at church, it was Dr. Burton who met me in the choir loft that Wednesday night and said, “Son, which part to you sing?”

“Tenor, I think,” I told him.

“That’s good,” he said. “Do you know how to read music?”

“No sir, not one lick,” I told him.

He said, “then come sit next to me.”

And so my scientist hero took me under his wing and taught he how to read the tenor line in a piece of music. Still today, I can see his leathery and callused finger, hardened and browned from years of digging in the dirt, tracing the line on my music that I would learn to read for myself. And he sang his high clear tenor. And he rarely missed a note. I quickly became impressed that he could pick up a piece of music for the first time and sight-read his part flawlessly, a talent that not many have. And so my mentor was not only willing and gracious, but was good. I caught on right away that I was studying with the best.   To whatever extent I can read music today – and it never reached his level of competency – I credit to that experience in the Methodist Church choir loft those two or so years. I learned more from Glen Burton, the Professor of Agronomy, than I would learn in a double handful of music courses in college and seminary. And I am profoundly grateful.

The world IS a village. And the village is small. And the village is connected. In addition to the millet and grain that was Dr. Burton’s passion and calling, there were many side-discoveries that connect all of us to him. We walk today on grass that Glen Burton discovered and perfected along the way. And we watch baseball players on TV play ball on Dr. Burton’s grass in many stadiums around the country. Your lawn may be covered by TiftBermuda. And if you’ve ever hit a golf ball and walked a course in the southeast, chances are good that you have walked on Dr. Burton’s grass – TiftGreen, or one of several other breeds of turf grass he discovered as serendipity in the process of doing his “real” work. The village is small indeed.

Some distinguish themselves by the depth of their thought and wisdom, but I expect that far more – and I long to be one of these – distinguish themselves by the work of their hands. I can still see Glen Burton’s hands, following tenor notes across a page of next Sunday’s anthem. And I wonder. I wonder what it would be like to be distinguished not by hands that have been kept clean and uncontaminated from the dirtiness of the world, but by hands weathered and dirtied by the work of the world to which we are, all of us, called.



About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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One Response to sacred mentors

  1. Tony Bengel says:

    A wonderful story wonderfully told. Please convey my thanks and regards to Phil.

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