“I have some questions about the Bible and I was wondering if you would meet with me for breakfast and give me your thoughts about it?” The man who asked that question was Eli Keeran and it seemed utterly ridiculous to me he would ask such a thing. Eli was a board member of the church I had grown up in and had recently started re-attending. He had been a missionary in South America for a time many years ago and had led Bible clubs at the local High School. For him to want me to help him with HIS questions about the Bible didn’t compute, and yet I wanted to know more about the Bible, and he WAS offering to pay for breakfast; yes seemed the obvious answer. Little did I realize that would be the beginning of a relationship that would become more important to me than any other relationship I had outside of my wife and family. Eli influenced my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian in such a dramatic way that he will forever be part of the fabric of my life.
Eli Keeran was much older than me, in fact nearly 40 years older. He and his wife Billie had been missionaries for a short time in Brazil early in their marriage until they decided to settle down and have a family in our little town. He settled into the position of Math teacher at Cottage Grove High School for many years, and in fact was a teacher when I attended the High School ten years earlier, but had recently retired. He had led the school Bible club in a generation when that was permitted, had been on the board of our church for many years and attended several non-denominational Bible studies around town. Eli was representative of a rare breed of Christian man whose life was based on living out his faith in every way he knew how. He would visit elderly shut-ins and do menial chores for them on weekends. There was one elderly woman who lived in a house behind our church that he would regularly help. He would do anything she needed done but she never once thanked him for his help but that didn’t matter, Eli still visited her at least once a week for many years. He would be the guy behind the scenes providing groceries for poor families, leaving the bag on their front porch early in the morning before anyone had risen for the day so they would not know who had been the angel of mercy. This was the man from whom I would learn over the next 15 years.
It seemed to be an awkward fit for him to take on the task of discipling me, and yet it was HIS idea. We started to meet together for breakfast every week at a local diner and at first just talked about his “questions”. As I said I really didn’t understand at first why he would want to know what I thought about the Bible, he obviously knew a lot more about it than I did. Eventually I came to realize that it was his way of discipling me. But instead of me knowing he was teaching me, Eli made it seem like I was the expert! He didn’t need his ego to be padded with my deference, he simply wanted me to grow in my faith. One day he asked me to “help” him with his scripture memory, giving me some cards with the verse he was memorizing that I was to read while he recited the scripture to me. Eventually I realized he didn’t me to help him, he had memorized the scripture years before, it was just his way of getting me interested in memorizing scripture. Over the weeks we started talking about the basics of the Christian faith and the charade of his needing my opinion on the scriptures fell away, but he never assumed a superior attitude.. He always treated me as an equal, something I have always appreciated.
As the years passed our relationship became very close, becoming much more than simply a discipleship meeting. He was a friend, a confidant (although there were some topics we never ventured), eventually becoming like another father to me. He paid for breakfast every time, even when I tried to pay I would later find my money in my car, or in my mailbox or some such place until I gave up. He would always have the same thing; oatmeal and toast with a cup of plain hot water (he didn’t want to become “addicted” to anything, even caffeine) to drink. He was one of the most disciplined men I’ve ever met, but he would never trumpet that discipline, he just was.
Eli’s quiet mentorship slowly transformed my understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus. When we would meet he would ask questions, rarely making declarative statements. Without question he was leading me in a certain direction but it was such that I would find the answers myself and so take direct ownership. But he also helped in many other ways. As I grew in my faith I was given opportunities to lead a Bible study. Eli volunteered to attend the study as a way to support my attempt at leadership. He never questioned my leadership but simply encouraged me every step of the way. When we would meet for our weekly breakfast he would ask me what I thought about how things were going and would respond to my questions but was never critical.
Eli later became close to my family, becoming another grandfather to our children, especially after my father died from cancer. He built a chicken coop for my wife, helped my son Andrew with his Math homework, and taught my other children building skills when he would work on projects for us. Often he would show up at the house after hearing my wife voice a desire or a frustration over a particular issue with our house ready to help in any way he could. His desire to serve in any way possible became an example for me that I’ve attempted to emulate all of my life. For me he was the example of what Jesus’s command to love one another meant.
We moved to The Dalles, Oregon in the fall of 1997 so our weekly meetings stopped but Eli and I stayed in close contact until his death in 2003. I still think of him often, many times regretting that I no longer have his wisdom to continue to guide me when things get difficult. But I thank the Lord often that I had the privilege to know and be mentored by such a wonderful servant of the Lord.